In Luke’s account of the first missionary journey we have already seen Paul supersede Barnabas in leadership, and then find that Paul and Barnabas break their partnership over the issue of John Mark. There is also a third thing. It is not mentioned here, except that Luke may be alluding to it in saying that although the missionaries went to Pamphylia and might have been expected to carry on a ministry there, they actually left the coast and passed inland to Antioch in Pisidia (not Antioch of Syria from which they started out). Antioch was in the mountains at an altitude of about 3,600 feet. Since Paul mentions in the letter to the Galatians that he had a bodily affliction at this time, some scholars have supposed that Paul caught a disease, perhaps malaria, while living in Pamphylia’s lower coastal plains and that he and his party pressed on into the healthier mountain climate because of it.
I do not know if this was the case, but if Paul did get malaria, this might be related to his particularly strong reaction to Mark’s desertion. Mark wanted to evangelize Pamphylia and, when Paul left Pamphylia for Galatia, Mark regarded this as abandoning the work. Paul, for his part, would have thought Mark unsympathetic and unsupportive of him in his illness.
The point I am trying to make is that, regardless of the specifics of these far-off events, clearly even these great apostles had disagreements.
If these men had trouble in their work, we should not be too shocked if we have trouble too. We sometimes talk as if everything in the Christian’s life should go smoothly, that nothing bad should enter. We expect total and unmitigated blessings. But Jesus did not promise us smooth sailing as His disciples. He promised suffering.
A person might say, “Well, yes. But I do not see a reason for these things. What was the purpose of Paul getting sick, if he did get sick? Or of John Mark leaving?” I do not know the answer to those questions, but God does. And just because we do not know the answer to why things fail to go smoothly in our lives does not mean that there is no answer or that God is not blessing us in spite of what seem to be discouragements. These men had trouble. But in spite of their trouble, they preached the Gospel, people believed, and churches were established.
When Paul got to Antioch he went into the synagogue with Barnabas. The synagogues of the diaspora were an open door for these early Gospel preachers, most of whom were Jews. They were places of regular worship and were open to strangers, God-fearing Gentiles as well as Jews. It was the custom on a normal Sabbath to have two readings of the Scriptures: one from the law, the other from the prophets. After that people could give extemporaneous expositions.
This opportunity had been given to Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth. The leaders had been reading from Isaiah at the time. So Jesus stood up, found the proper reading, and then expounded it. He said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). This order of service was followed nearly everywhere. So Paul and the other missionaries developed a pattern of going into the synagogues, waiting, and then when they were asked to speak, using the opportunity to preach about Jesus.
Paul did this in the synagogue of Antioch, and the sermon that resulted was a great one. It is the first synagogue sermon by Paul that Luke records. In some ways, it is like the sermon Stephen preached before the Sanhedrin prior to his martyrdom. Stephen gave a long recital of God’s acts on behalf of the Jewish people, a review of Jewish history. Paul’s sermon does that too. In other respects, however, Paul’s sermon is like that of Peter at Pentecost. Peter quoted texts from the Old Testament and then explained how they had been fulfilled: Joel 2:28-32, Psalm 16:8-11, and Psalm 110:1. Paul’s sermon also does that. Still, this sermon is distinctly Pauline. In fact, when we read it, we find that its themes are those developed by Paul later in his letters. The sermon may indicate that this was a time when the distinct doctrines of the next section of the New Testament, the letters, were beginning to crystalize in Paul’s mind.