One thing that continues to strike me as we wrap up our current sermon series in Acts (12:19b-13:12 here and 13:13-52 here) is the almost continual theme of Jewish division and rejection which hangs over from Luke's gospel. We saw this topic raise it's head again recently.
First, there's Paul's encounter with the false prophet, Bar-Jesus,
Acts 13:6 They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus,
Paul's indictment of Bar-Jesus is abrasive, to say the least…
9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand.
All very dramatic. But there's even more going on here. Just have a little read of what was written hundreds of years before:
Micah 3:5-8 This is what the LORD says: “As for the prophets who lead my people astray, if one feeds them, they proclaim 'peace'; if he does not, they prepare to wage war against him. 6 Therefore night will come over you, without visions, and darkness, without divination. The sun will set for the prophets, and the day will go dark for them. 7 The seers will be ashamed and the diviners disgraced. They will all cover their faces because there is no answer from God.” 8 But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin.
In the context of Micah it's an indictment against not just a limited number of false prophets but the general leadership of the people. Consider who it is addressed to,
Micah 3:1 And I said: Hear, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Is it not for you to know justice?
Which means, of course, that Paul chooses his language deliberately when addressing Bar-Jesus/Elymas. At that moment the false prophet stands for the whole of the leadership of Israel – rejected because they themselves have rejected YHWH.
We see much the same thing later in chapter 13 of Acts. Paul and Barnabus have left Cyprus for the mainland of Asia Minor and stand in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch. Having explained to them the significance of their history and the promises of the Old Testament that point to Jesus, they then issue this chilling warning:
40 Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:
41 “'Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.'”
The citation is from Habakkuk, chapter 1.
Habakkuk 1:5 “Look at the nations and watch– and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6 I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwelling places not their own.
God will use Gentiles to punish and crystalise His rejection by the Jews. The stunning reversal, of course, in Acts is that the Gentiles will astound the Jews not by sweeping in as the Babylonians did, but by accepting the Jewish Messiah that the Jews themselves refuse to follow. That, of course, is the main point of Paul going to the Jews first. As they explain:
Acts 13:46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.
It's a difficult thing to get our heads around but it's there in plain sight – Acts continues the theology of rejection that Luke began in his gospel. The Jews reject Jesus and He, in turn, rejects them. This rejection is only amplified in its starkness by the amazing news that the Gentiles now respond to the Christ. And aren' t we thankful, in many ways, for that last fact! That is not to say, of course, that all Jews reject or should be rejected by us (and there are more than enough reasons in the opening paragraphs of Romans 10 to reject such anti-semitism) but simply to observe the powerful dynamic that courses through the New Testament.