My commentary on a reading from Acts today shows us something of the theology of the early believers. Paul’s teaching in Acts shows what Torah has to do with Messiah. Torah is the promise and anticipation. Yeshua is the new revelation that, we can see in retrospect, does all that Torah promised and more.
I thought you, dear readers, might enjoy some comments on a passage that show how Messianic Jewish insight informs our reading of the New Testament.
ACTS 13:13-41 Paul and Barnabas in the Pisidian Antioch synagogue (13-15), Paul’s message (16-41).
“13 Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, 14 but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.”
16 So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. 17 The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. 18 And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. 19 And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. 21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. 22 And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ 23 Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’
26 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. 27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. 28 And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,
“‘You are my Son,
today I have begotten you.’
34 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’
35 Therefore he says also in another psalm,
“‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’
36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. 38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:
41 “‘Look, you scoffers,
be astounded and perish;
for I am doing a work in your days,
a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’””
(Acts 13:13–41 ESV)
This Antioch was a smaller city in Asia Minor (as opposed to the great Antioch in Syria, home of the second congregation of the Yeshua movement).
In his message, Paul says that who Yeshua is and what he does proceeds from the meaning of Israel’s past. His lineage is Davidic. His trial and execution fit the theme in the prophets of the innocent sufferer. His resurrection is evidence of his royalty.
Meanwhile, Luke Timothy Johnson observes that Luke, who is, of course, writing all this with an agenda, is paralleling Paul with Yeshua in some ways. Paul was affirmed in Antioch, faced demonic powers in Paphos, speaks in the synagogue in Pisidia, and will be rejected by his countrymen. Paul is continuing Yeshua’s work with some of the same results.
If we analyze Paul’s sermon we see its similarity to the one by Peter in chapter 2 and Stephen in chapter 7. Yet Paul’s discourse has a pointed message for Gentiles. It is not by birth or conversion to Judaism (via circumcision) that one is reconciled to God. Peter’s message in chapter 2 and Stephen’s in chapter 7 were focused on a Jewish audience. Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is reflected here.
Though Acts depicts Paul as a traditional Jew (see especially Acts 21:21), he does not agree that the usual Jewish method of incorporating Gentiles into God’s kingdom is right or appropriate. Something has happened in Yeshua and the days are different. The messianic age has dawned and God is drawing Gentiles as Gentiles to himself.
Paul repudiates the idea that the law of Moses is intended to free Gentiles from alienation to God (vs. 39). No, says Paul, Torah itself shows that something more than Torah was needed. To demonstrate this he quotes Habakkuk 1:5. The prophet Habakkuk, of course, had Torah. But God told him to look for something more, to await a special revelation.
In Habakkuk’s day this referred to the events surrounding the Babylonian exile and release from it. Paul uses this theme rightly to say God’s way is to bring new revelation from time to time. The events surrounding Yeshua’s resurrection, ascension, and his appearances to many from the right hand of God are that something new. The Son of David has come. Paul invites Gentiles to be part of the broader kingdom of Israel by believing and adhering to Messiah.