Luke’s account of Paul’s visit to Pisidian Antioch contains his only record of a sermon delivered by Paul in a synagogue (Acts 13:16-41). Although only a summary rather than a transcript of what Paul said on the occasion, it indicates how he presented the gospel to an audience of Jews and God-fearing Gentiles familiar with the Old Testament. In it, Paul surveyed God’s acts on behalf of Israel from Abraham to David (verses 16-22), argued that Jesus was the promised Saviour, his death and resurrection fulfilling Old Testament prophecies (verses 23-37), and closed with an altar call (verses 38-41).
After addressing the congregation as “men of Israel and you who fear God” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV), Paul surveyed God’s acts on behalf of Israel from Abraham to David. The particular acts of God that he noted were:
– He chose their “fathers” (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
– He exalted them in Egypt.
– He brought them out of Egypt.
– He put up with them in the wilderness.
– He gave them the land of Canaan.
– He gave them judges.
– He gave them Saul and then David when they asked for a king.
Paul concluded this part of his sermon by observing that God had described David as “a man after my heart, who will do all my will (a reference to 1 Samuel 13:14, in which Samuel told Saul, “The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart”).
From David, Paul jumped to the descendant of David whom God had raised up, as He’d promised (see, for example, Isaiah 11:1-16), to be the Saviour of Israel–Jesus. Paul said these things about Jesus:
– John the Baptist prepared the way for him by preaching the baptism of repentance and announced his coming.
– The people of Jerusalem and their rulers didn’t recognize him and asked Pilate to execute him.
– God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by his followers.
Paul then showed that God’s raising of Jesus from the dead fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, elaborating on why Psalms 16:10, “[Y]ou will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption,” referred to Jesus rather than to David. (Peter also referred to and elaborated on Psalm 16:10 on the Day of Pentecost [Acts 2:25-31].)
Paul closed his sermon by applying what he’d said about Jesus to his hearers, offering them forgiveness and justification through faith in Jesus and warning them against rejecting the offer:
38 Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: 39 And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. 40 Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets; 41 Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you.
Verse 39 contains ideas that are typical of Paul’s letters–belief, justification (declaration of not guilty), and the inability to be justified by the law of Moses–and shows that Paul already held what he would later call “my gospel” (Romans 16:25) and defend vigorously in person and pen. According to it, forgiveness of sin and justification cannot be obtained through observing the law of Moses (or any human effort) but can be obtained only through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul warned his audience that those who rejected this gospel would meet the same fate as those who scoffed at Habakkuk’s warning (Paul quoted Habakkuk 1:5 in his warning) of the impending invasion and destruction of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians.
The result of Paul’s “altar call” was that the people asked him to speak again the next Sabbath. When he did, some believed and were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:42, 48, 52).