Why did the Gentiles come to the Jewish synagogue to hear Paul and Barnabas preach? In our day, people are overwhelmed with information. We have radio, television, newspapers, magazines. People did not have any of this in that day. So when somebody came through from another city, the person was a source of precious information and people naturally thronged about him. The missionaries were proclaiming something new. So there must have been the same kind of curiosity for their message as there was among the Athenians when Paul and his companions arrived there later.
Yet this is not what the text itself says. It does not suggest that the interest of the people was in the novelty of these men.
Nor was it in their eloquence or their dramatic presentation of the Gospel. Today some religious figures get attention by saying outlandish things. The media sometimes pick up on that, and for a short time at least religious news is in vogue. Everybody pays attention, but it is only because what is being said is bizarre. If these same people had been saying anything sensible, no one would have paid any attention.
Paul and Barnabas did not have anything novel to say, nor did they make some new or striking presentation. According to the text, the curiosity of the people of Antioch was provoked by “the Word of God.” That is said four times in this short section.
Verse 44: “On the next Sabbath, almost the whole city gathered to hear the Word of the Lord.” You might say, “Well, they gathered to hear the word of Paul.” Or, “They gathered to hear the word of Barnabas.”
Perhaps so, but it doesn’t say that. It says, “They gathered to hear the Word of the Lord.” That is what these men had preached earlier. It is what they had come to preach, and it is what they preached again. It was the Word of the Lord that stimulated the interest of these people.
Verse 46: “Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly saying, ‘We had to speak the Word of God to you first.’” Paul and Barnabas were conscious of the fact that this is what they had come to deliver.
Verse 48: “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the Word of the Lord.” Not the word of Paul, not the word of Barnabas, but the Word of the Lord.
Then again a fourth time, in verse 49: “The Word of the Lord spread through the whole region.” That is both remarkable and important. What stimulated the interest of the people was the Word of the Lord as the Holy Spirit blessed it.
When I think about this, I cannot help but reflect negatively on what passes for preaching in our day. Much is directed to what we call “felt needs,” including the “need” for entertainment. It is designed to stimulate interest by using the world’s methods and devices. It succeeds, at least in the world’s way. It draws crowds. Paul and Barnabas did not use any of these devices. I am aware that there are times when the Gospel seems to fall on deaf ears. Sometimes it is possible to do the right thing and not see visible results. There have been people who have preached the Word of God faithfully for long periods of time and, so far as we can tell, there has been minimal response. Yet that is no excuse for abandoning one’s true commission. The commission is to take the Word of God into all the world.
Paul and Barnabas did this. Sometimes when they took the Gospel to a new city they were well received and a church was established. At other times, the Word they preached was rejected. But whether it was received or rejected, they persisted in their God-appointed task. Usually people found their curiosity stimulated and were drawn to the preaching.
So this was the first new reality associated with the preaching of the Gospel in Antioch: there was interest on the part of the Gentiles as God blessed the preaching of the Word. There had not been anything quite like this earlier. We have had an account of the preaching of the Word of God in Jerusalem, which the Holy Spirit blessed. Many Jews responded. We have been told of Philip witnessing to the Ethiopian along the desert road. We saw how the church was established in Antioch of Syria and how there was a mixture of races in the leadership and how the teaching there went forward. We saw the missionary trip to Cyprus. All that time, there was preaching and response, but there had not been anything quite like this. Here, for the first time, there was an overwhelming response to the Gospel among Gentiles.