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WOULD YOU FIT IN AT ANTIOCH?
by Philip Owen

          The Word of God is masterful at exposing our misconceptions about many things, particularly our tendency to view ourselves in a more positive light than reality warrants. I encountered just such a passage recently. Are you fervent for the things of the Lord? Are you anxious to hear the preaching of the Word? Do you delight under the ministry of an expositor? Let’s consider how we measure up against the people described in the thirteenth chapter of Acts.

            Having put out to sea on his first missionary journey, “Paul and his companions . . . arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying, ‘Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.’ Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, ‘Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen’” (Acts 13:13a, 14b-16). Then Paul launched into his sermon.

            Stop there. F. F. Bruce observes that prescribed passages from the Pentateuch and the Prophets were read each sabbath in the synagogue. The readings might well have been extensive since a sermon was preached only if an acceptable speaker was available. Prayers would have been prayed as well. Following those extensive rituals, Paul rose to speak and preached what might have been a lengthy sermon (for we read in Acts 20 that on another occasion he “prolonged his message until midnight” so that “a young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill” fell asleep and toppled out of the window [see vv. 7-12]).

            Almost certainly, then, this service was not like a typical modern one with fifteen minutes of “preaching” and half-an-hour of entertainment called “worship music.” It is quite possible that the audience in the synagogue at Antioch had sat through several hours of reading and preaching. That certainly should have satisfied their sense of religious duty for another week. But wait. They had not come in order to fulfill some religious obligation—or if they had, Paul’s preaching had changed their attitude. We know this because we read that “As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God” (vv. 42, 43).

            Begging? Following Paul and Barnabas out the door of the synagogue and down the street in order to receive more exhortation? So how do we measure up? Do we experience any “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6b) to any degree like the Antiochans? “Well,” we protest, “we don’t have anyone with Paul’s credentials and abilities speaking to us. If we did, we’d be begging him to preach longer, too!” Now wait just a minute. Paul was no silver-tongued orator. Listen to the complaints of the Corinthians: “His [i.e., Paul’s] letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible” (II Cor. 10:10b). Even if the Corinthians were prejudiced, it doesn’t sound like Paul was the most gifted speaker in the world. So we are left to conclude that Paul’s auditors in Antioch were hungry for the Word of God, not interested merely in being entertained by a gifted speaker.

            So how do we measure up? Do we secretly feel smugly self-righteous for enduring a lengthy sermon? Do we believe that sitting through a message is a positive token of our spirituality? Or do we ever wish we could hear more? Is there a longing for the Word of truth? Do we have a hunger to hear and to heed what God has to say to us? Given a choice, do we prefer listening to the preached Word of God above only anything less pleasant than a root canal? As those who have been redeemed from sin and hell, as those who have received eternal life, as those who have an infinite inheritance awaiting them, as those who are loved beyond measure by God and His Son, we should relish the Word of God and long to receive its truths. Does the spirit of the Antiochans put us to shame, or could we fit well in their company?

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