The Jewish population in Pisidian Antioch was rather large. Many of the long standing families there had been transplanted to this location under the Selucids during that span of time between the two portions of Scripture we call the Old and New Testaments. Traveling to this location was treacherous. It was situated 100 miles north of the Taurus Mountains along a barren route often flooded by swollen mountain streams and plagued by bandits the Romans hadn’t gotten under control yet. But living there did have its privileges. Since Pisidian Antioch was the leading “colony city” of the Galatian province it was exempt from imperial taxes and allowed local autonomy. While not the most accessible city, Paul felt it was important enough to travel there in Acts 13:13-52 to proclaim the Gospel. When Paul and Barnabas arrived in this important city their first order of business was to establish a connection with the Jewish community at the synagogue.
Synagogues at this time were more than just a house of worship. They were the hub of Jewish life. Not only were they a place of spiritual connection, they were the center of religious education, social gatherings, judicial decisions, and acted as a “civic center” for young and old alike. The hierarchy within the synagogue always included a “ruling elder”, but it wasn’t uncommon for anyone who had held this position to retain it and sometimes it was bestowed upon a man as an honor which explains why it can occur in Scripture in the plural form. The ruling elder was responsible for worship, appointing lay members to lead in prayer and read the Scripture lessons from the scrolls. He would also invite guests to deliver the homily on the day’s passages if he felt they were suitable and up for the task. It appears in that in Acts 13:15 Paul has met the criteria as he is asked to speak after the Law and Prophets have been read. While the homilies were always geared toward individual style, the order of worship did not stray too far from a set pattern.
There were six parts to the order of worship within the synagogue: 1) the recitation of the Shema (based on Dt. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41); 2) prayers; 3) the Torah reading (which was divided into portions and read by several laypersons); 4) a reading from the Prophets; 5) a homily on the day’s readings which was optional, depending on the availability of a suitable speaker, and 6) the priestly blessing (based on Num. 6:22-26), or in the absence of a priest, a benediction pronounced by the ruler of the synagogue. Based on this protocol and the time of year Paul is traveling some scholars have speculated on what passages Paul addresses in his homily at Pisidian Antioch. But while they have made several plausible and educated guesses we really don’t know. What we do know is that Paul makes an impassioned plea using the Law and the Prophets to present the Gospel and prove Jesus was the promised Messiah. There is an interesting outcome. On the following Sabbath when Paul is scheduled to speak again, the God-fearing Greek audience practically out numbers the curious Jewish audience. They have understood the previous week’s message and want to hear more but the Jewish contingent is not convinced so the Pisidian Antioch mission ends on a mixed note.
In the early days of American history the church at the center of town often acted in a similar fashion to that the synagogue. It was a place of worship, doubled as a school and housed town meetings when needed. Even our “Order of Worship” still echoes some of the elements of the synagogue service. But the church is far from being the hub of the community and while the synagogue remains an important element in Jewish life, there is still a similar struggle for influence between pop culture and faith. One quick search on the internet and you will find hundreds of websites that discuss the question, “What does it mean to be a Jew?” It is easy to see why when you look at the course of American history and the different world view influences that have been brought into today’s culture. However, the opportunity to share the Gospel Truth remains the same and Jesus commanded us to do so (Mt. 28:19-20). So, how will you and your congregation engage your community in order do so. Paul always went to “the Jew first, and then to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16; Acts 13:15) by starting out in the synagogue and it gave him a platform in Psidian Antioch to have an effect on a number of people. How will you reach them (Is. 52:7; Rom. 10:14-15)?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre