In Acts 13 when Paul and Barnabas respond to a request from Sergius Paulus to hear the message they are bringing Elymas, a Jewish Magi stands in their way. Elymas is struck with blindness and Sergius Paulus is impressed.
Paul and Barnabas travel to Pisidian Antioch, possibly because of a connection between that city and Sergius Paulus and preach in the Synagogue there. They went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and were invited to speak and the book of Acts records an account of the sermon as well as the response. The following Sabbath the synagogue is packed out by all kinds of people from the city to hear Paul and Barnabas but this time there is a backlash and the reason Luke gives for the backlash is envy.
Envy and the Reflected-Self
Let’s talk a bit about envy. Let’s imagine a new preacher comes to the neighborhood and starts drawing crowds whereas I’ve been laboring in this small church for years. This new preacher is attracting not only people I’ve been unable to attract but is also winning influence among people who have been faithful and loyal to my ministry. How would I feel? What kinds of things might I do in response to this?
Why would I feel this way? Why do I like what I judge to be success or popularity? I have to admit that this is all about me. I have a self down deep inside and I use the world around me to try see my self. If the church is large I construct a favorable picture of myself. If the church isn’t doing well I see myself in this judgment and I may not like what I see so I will do some things to try to re-align the world so that I can once again see myself in a better light. None of this is hard to understand.
Theism and Circumstantial Evidence
If I’m a theist (which I am) I’m probably also looking for God’s favor in the circumstance. At a deep level one of the narratives I believe in is that God’s will is reflected in the world around me and God’s favor is sometimes reflected in things going well. We have a lot of language from the Bible like this and a lot of tradition that supports the notion. In fact Luke seems to intimate it here in the text.
This is often rightly seen to be a rather self-serving mental game that Christians can play. When circumstances go well we say “God is blessing this”. When circumstances go poorly we say “the devil is persecuting us, this must be really important to have the devil work so hard to thwart our efforts”. Again, it isn’t hard to see that either way we choose to interpret the circumstance we can do so in a self-serving way that creates a narrative where I see my self through the circumstance in a favorable light. Again, the ego is served.
On one level we can see this story as simple envy playing itself out. The synagogue leaders have influence in the town and they use it to get Paul and Barnabas removed. In the end, however, the “damage” is done (according to the synagogue leadership) and a group of people persuaded by what Paul and Barnabas had to say persists and even begins to spread in the region enjoying the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
I want to be fair in my judgment on the synagogue leaders in the town and also note that their motives may not be purely envy but also a desire to “protect their flock”. Paul will in subsequent letters in the New Testament have some pretty strong language against others who are trying to influence people in churches in ways that Paul does not agree with. I don’t know that we can assign purely negative motive to the synagogue leadership.
The Holy Spirit Lets it Play Out
I would like us, however, to see in this story that something as important and dramatic, from the perspective of Luke and the New Testament is challenged and threatened by something so obviously common and something not in any way alien to our experience within the church. We all understand envy and none of us would say that the gospel has somehow banished it from our midst.
I’d also like us to note what did not happen in the story, there was no miraculous intervention. This to me is very interesting. Elymas not too long before gets struck blind by the Holy Spirit for trying to thwart Paul and Barnabas from presenting the gospel to Sergius Paulus. In my sermon on that incident I played out some of the nuance of this strange, punitive miracle. What interests me here is that there is no such intervention in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. The leaders are not struck blind, the conspiracy achieves the end it desired, Paul and Barnabas are expelled and they re-enact the Jewish liturgy of wiping the dust from their feet as a declaration that according to Paul and Barnabas the synagogue leadership is aligning themselves against the work of Yhwh and his son Jesus.
The Old Testament has a number of stories of God exacting judgment upon a rebellious group of people. These stories were no doubt behind the suggestion of Jesus’ disciples when a Samaritan town refused to extend Jesus and his disciples hospitality. Jesus is grumpy at their suggestion and tells them to move along. Here there is no miracle, no overt divine intervention, just silence and in a sense loss (Paul and Barnabas are indeed expelled from the town.)
On one hand we can say that miracles are just what we know them to be, highly unusual instances that are what we define them to be, the exception rather than the rule. What we have here is a story of the rule and the rule is the mundane, petty, common dynamics of human ego and conflict.
Jesus and Circumstantial Evidence
The text then takes a strange turn and starts to focus on the mission to the Gentiles. The language of the Elymas story of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” will be repeated here. Remember how Luke notes that Elymas was a Jew? Earlier in the chapter the Holy Spirit strikes Elymas blind. Now later God takes no action to protect Paul and Barnabas nor to harm those who are resisting them to bring the gospel to Gentiles (like Sergius Paulus) but in the end in fact the results are greater still. There is no miraculous intervention to the Jewish resistance to Paul and Barnabas but the Gentile response is that they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit, hallmarks of conversion for Luke.
Whenever we find ourselves doing the circumstantial inference game of try thing read God’s mind we must always remember Jesus. The crowds that follow Jesus are testimony to his uniqueness and importance in the eyes of the people but in the gospels the crowds are almost always portrayed as fickle and not discerning. Something that we know and experience regularly. The judgment of circumstantial observation also fails to yield direct revelation of Jesus’ standing before Yhwh because he was hung on a tree which as every good Jew knew was a sign of him being cursed. Paul of course picks up on this in his letters. Judgments based on circumstantial evidence must be held loosely.
Attachment and Idolatry
Why could Gentiles invest in the new worldview Paul and Barnabas were presenting? Why were they spared the experience of envy that the synagogue leaders were subject to?
This can go in two directions.
1. They didn’t have the investment in the old system. Circumcision it seems was clearly (and understandably) a barrier to God-fearing, synagogue attending men in the 1st century diaspora. Christianity it would seem would have an obvious attraction to this group. So is the lesson here to not keep things at arms length? Kind of a Buddhist or Stoic detachment strategy?
2. Watch the investment of ego in the things around us, even (or especially) religious things. If the Stoic or Buddhist strategy is “don’t let your heart attach” the Hebrew idolatry avoiding tradition is “don’t let your self find its image in the things around you.”
The response of people at the synagogue after the first Sabbath of Paul and Barnabas’ presentation was a very sound one. The people hadn’t heard enough to believe, but they wanted more information. They needed time to check it out. The envy impulse of the leadership forced the issue, injected a lot of ego into the situation and raised the heat level. The Holy Spirit did not intervene in the situation like he did with Elymas, but the Holy Spirit it seems continued to work behind the scenes even through the conflict to bring the Gentiles to faith, which again according to Paul was his plan long before Jesus came onto the scene.