Jealousy versus truth

It would be nice if we always recognized the truth when we heard it.

It would be even better if we acted on it, to make things right.

But often, that’s not how it goes. Imagine a spouse, friend, or co-worker telling you something you don’t want to hear. Part of you may recognize that there’s some truth in what they’re saying. But you’re too busy being angry to listen.

Some form of jealousy may be lurking under the anger. There’s something about the other person being right that not only makes us wrong, but makes us feel small or inadequate. We want to be in their shoes, not ours. And that makes us want to resist, fight, or do whatever we can to feel bigger.

Even if the truth that we’re resisting is the gospel itself.

As we saw in the previous post, Paul’s sermon in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch seemed to go well at first. He told the story of God’s faithfulness in sending Jesus as the promised Messiah. Like the prophets of old, he warned his audience not to ignore his message of repentance and salvation. And when he had finished, people asked him to come back the following week so they could hear more.

So far, so good. But when Paul and Barnabas returned, things quickly went south:

The next sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul. (Acts 13:44-45, NRSV)

“Almost the whole city” showed up to hear Paul and Barnabas. That may, of course, be a bit of rhetorical exaggeration on Luke’s part. But the point is that a large crowd came — and most of them were Gentiles. The Jews saw the crowd and were “filled with jealousy.” Why?

Luke doesn’t say. The word translated as “jealousy” allows different readings; literally, it means “zeal,” which can be positive or negative, depending on what one is zealous for.

Commentators therefore imagine somewhat different scenarios. The synagogue already had Gentile converts in their midst (both the uncircumcised “God-fearers” and the circumcised “proselytes”). If the Jews had been trying to extend their influence into the Gentile community, they may have been jealous of Paul’s ability to attract such a large Gentile audience so quickly.

Alternatively — and I suspect more likely — the “jealousy” Luke describes is a form of ethnic prejudice, as in, What are they doing in our synagogue? A few converts here and there is one thing. They can be cleansed and assimilated. But a whole flood of unclean Gentiles all at once? That’s something else.

Picture the pre-Damascus zeal of Saul of Tarsus, and I think you have the size of it.

Jealous, offended, the Jews go on the attack, trying to argue Paul down. Luke describes them as “blaspheming.” That doesn’t necessarily mean blaspheming directly against God (in the synagogue, no less!). But without realizing what they were doing, they were slandering the character of the Lord’s Spirit-filled apostle. 

At some point, Paul and Barnabas refuse to continue the argument. Their rebuke stings: “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).

This is not a tit-for-tat game of “You reject us, we reject you.” There is an element of mourning here: Do you realize what you’re doing? God wants to give you eternal life. Why are you spurning his offer? And Paul, as he goes from place to place, will repeat the pattern of preaching to the Jews first. But sadly, the other side of the pattern will also repeat: when the Jews reject the gospel, Paul will turn to the Gentiles instead. 

Not that turning to the Gentiles is an apostolic consolation prize. Paul and Barnabas take Isaiah 49:6 to themselves: “I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47). Isaiah’s text is about God’s Suffering Servant. The Servant was embodied in the person of Jesus, and Jesus in turn commissioned his followers to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). 

Paul and Barnabas know this is their vocation. But for Paul, as we know from his letters, it’s a painful one. He never loses sight of his own Jewish heritage. He never gives up hope that his fellow Jews will come to the truth. But his experience of rejection in Pisidian Antioch will be repeated again and again.

Jealousy, or some form of zealous emotion, can get in the way of our being able to listen to the truth.

Do we ever fall into that trap?