Sometimes, a new idea seems relatively easy to assimilate. It simply adds to what you already know without asking you to change anything.
But it’s not always so simple. Some ideas tug at the loose threads of an entire tapestry of assumptions and prejudices, threatening to unravel what we thought we knew. When cherished beliefs are at risk, we may rationalize away or reject what we hear.
And when our most cherished beliefs are on the line, we may even respond with verbal abuse and violence.
A bright light can illuminate an entire room. But where there are obstacles, it makes the shadows deeper.
As we’ve seen previously, Paul and Barnabas’ initial reception by the Jews in Pisidian Antioch seemed positive. The synagogue officials invited them to speak to the people, and Paul proclaimed Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. Afterward, they were urged to return the following week to say more.
I imagine that the Gentile proselytes and God-fearers in the assembly were particularly active that coming week, inviting their friends and neighbors to come hear Paul — so much so that the following Sabbath, the synagogue was overrun with Gentiles.
That triggered an angry, defensive reaction from the Jews. Despite their openness to the idea that their Messiah had come in Jesus, they were unwilling to embrace Gentiles as having a place in God’s plan of salvation. Paul and Barnabas didn’t back down; they insisted that they had been commanded to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Acts 13:47, NRSV). Eventually, they were driven out of the city.
They left Pisidian Antioch, therefore, and traveled east to Iconium. There, the pattern repeated. They preached in the synagogue, and a large number of Jews and Greeks believed. But not everybody. The Jews who didn’t receive the message made trouble for the new believers (Acts 14:1-2).
Paul and Barnabas stuck around to keep preaching the gospel, and presumably, to support the fledgling believers who were being pressured because of their newfound faith. God even strengthened the apostles’ testimony by empowering them to do miraculous works.
But again, darkness fights back against the light. The signs and wonders performed by the two apostles only deepened the divide. As in Pisidian Antioch, a mixed group of Jews, Gentiles, and city officials conspired against Paul and Barnabas. This time, however, they wanted to do more than just drive them away; they wanted to stone them. Paul and Barnabas got wind of the plot, and fled to the city of Lystra, in the region of Lycoania.
But the trouble wasn’t over yet.
There would be another conflict in Lystra, fueled in part by the enemies Paul and Barnabas had made in the previous two cities. Iconium was not that far from Lystra, but Pisidian Antioch was significantly farther; Luke seems to be saying that some Jews came all that way just to make sure Paul suffered for his heretical insolence. And suffer he did. This time, the crowd succeeded in stoning him (Acts 14:19; cf. also 2 Cor 11:25), and he was left for dead.
Spoiler alert: he survived.
It would be nice to think that sharing the message of salvation would make only friends and not enemies. But that’s not how it works. Some will embrace the gospel as good news and welcome it. Others, however, will fight against it. Darkness hates light (cf. John 3:19-20).
Let me end, however, with a personal challenge. It’s easy to dismiss or even demonize those who persecuted Jesus and his followers as clueless, narrow-minded, or evil — all the things we’d like to think that we are not. But rarely are things so simple.
Truth be told, none of us are done being transformed into the likeness of Jesus (2 Cor 3:18). That means that even if we’ve believed the message, there are parts of ourselves that we have yet to give over entirely to God. When followed to its fullest implications, sooner or later, the gospel is apt to provoke resistance and defensiveness.
Even in believers.
So let’s take a self-reflexive cue from Paul’s enemies and ask ourselves: have we allowed the light of the gospel to penetrate to every darkened corner of our minds and hearts?