After Stephen’s martyrdom a severe persecution broke out against the Church in Jerusalem. At this time King Herod had the Apostle James executed by the sword and the Apostle Peter thrown in prison. Peter was placed under heavy guard by four squadrons of Roman soldiers. Each squadron would take a three hour watch during the night. With the assistance of an angel, Peter made a spectacular jail break. The angel removed Peter’s chains and opened the iron gates allowing him to pass by all the guards without their notice. The next morning “no small commotion” broke out among the guards and Herod discovered Peter’s escape and had the guards tried and executed for their apparent neglect of duties (Acts 12:19). Later, Luke tells us that Herod was himself struck down by an angel and “eaten by worms” because he did not offer honor to God when a crowd ascribed divinity to him. The Jewish historian Josephus recounts the same story, telling us that Herod developed severe stomach pains for five days before he passed away (Ant. 19.346-50). Death by worms was often seen as the proper fate of tyrants.
We can see a series of reversals in Luke’s account. King Herod began by seeking to harm the Church (Acts 12:1) but then ends up being eaten by worms (12:23). We begin with Herod beheading the Apostle James (12:2) and imprisoning Peter (12:4) but end with Peter’s escape, Herod’s death and the growth and prosperity of the Church (12:24). The Jewish authorities were ‘stiff-necked’ and did not observe the law even though it was ‘transmitted by angels’ (Acts 7:53). Now angels assist the leaders of the Church. A young man named Saul guarded the cloaks of those stoning Stephen (7:58), but now he appears in the narrative as a prophet and teacher in the Church (13:1). This same man will soon be known as the Apostle Paul (13:9).
The whole narrative of Acts now shifts from a ministry centered on Jerusalem and the Jewish people, to the Church centered in Antioch and the Gentile mission. Peter’s vision and ministry to Cornelius (Acts 10), the mission to certain Gentiles in Antioch (11:20) had already opened the door to this ministry but now the full missionary effort of the Church breaks forth under the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
Luke tells us that there were certain prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch. As they were worshiping and fasting, the Holy Spirit said to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). In the original Greek, the command, “set apart for me” is very emphatic and the verb “to which I have called them” emphasizes past completed action. All Christians are called to bear witness through their daily lives, but the Holy Spirit was giving Barnabas and Saul a more specific missionary calling. It is interesting to note the two parts of this calling. We can see the implied interior prompting of the Spirit in the hearts of Barnabas and Saul, but also the validation of this calling by the Church. This was not the first moment of their calling, for the Holy Spirit had already called them. This was an inspired recognition of their calling by the Church. Luke tells us that the leaders “laid hands on them and sent them off” (13:3).
In the next section, Luke recounts Paul’s first missionary journey to Cyprus and Galatia, with Barnabas (Acts 13:4-14:23). They took along Barnabas’ cousin John Mark as well. Paul’s first missionary journey began by travelling to the port city of Selucia sixteen miles from Antioch and then sixty miles by sea to the island of Cyprus.
When we think of Paul’s missionary journeys we should not think of him bouncing from place to place leaving newly catechized Christians behind in each city. He seems to have moved slowly, staying for extended periods if possible, and not moving on until he had left a firm foundation. Paul usually only moved on when circumstances forced him to do so. He also seems to have targeted major cities, especially the capitols of Roman colonies. As general strategy he went first to the “the synagogues of the Jews” (Acts 13:5) and then, if rejected, to the Gentiles.
Salamis was the old capitol of the Island of Cyprus in the Greek period but the Romans had moved the capitol to Paphos. In this city Barnabas and Paul are resisted by a false prophet and magician named Bar-Jesus who tried to prevent them from preaching to the Proconsul Sergius Paulus. Paul rebukes the magician with a Spirit-inspired curse, calling him Bar-Satan and telling him “you will be blind” for a time. Like Saul at his conversion the magician is blind for a time and needs to be “led by the hand.” Seeing this, the Proconsul is ‘astonished’ and is led to believe (Acts 13:12).
When they prepared to set sail for Perga, their assistant John Mark , “left them and returned to Jerusalem” (13: 13). The expression “left them” could be translated “deserted them” (cf. Acts 15:38). While Paul was opposed to working with John Mark after this incident, we know that their relationship was later restored (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:10; and 2 Timothy 4:11). This same Mark is traditionally thought to be the author of the Gospel of Mark.
Upon their arrival in Perga, Paul and Barnabas continue on an arduous journey over the Tarsus Mountains to Psidian Antioch. As was their pattern they begin preaching in the synagogue and “many Jews and devout converts to Judaism” followed them (13:43).
The next Sabbath “almost the whole city gathered together to hear the word of God” (13:44). This incited jealousy from some of the Jews and a persecution broke out which “drove them out of their district.” Paul and Barnabas “shook off the dust from their feet against them, and went to Iconium” (13:52).
Iconium is the easternmost city in Phrygia, and some ninety miles south east of Antioch.
Paul and Barnabas begin their ministry in Psidian Antioch by preaching in the synagogue with great success and then as usual they are persecuted. Nonetheless “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly” (14:3). Eventually they learned of a plot to stone them so they fled to Lystra and Derbe (14:6).
At Lystria Paul healed a man lame from birth and the locals suppose that he and Barnabas were the Gods Zeus and Hermes (14:12). Paul and Barnabas “scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (14:18). Later some Jews from Psidian Antioch and Iconium arrived and again stir up the crowd. Paul was stoned and left for dead (14:19). When he recovered, Paul and Barnabas left for Derbe. The cities of Iconium and Lystra were on the paved main Roman road but to reach Derbe one had to travel an unpaved road about 60 miles.
At Derbe they conduct a successful mission making many disciples and then they returned briefly to Antioch and Iconium appointing elders for them in every church. Passing through Pamphylia, they now preached in Perga, before traveling to Attalia; and finally they sailed to back to Antioch in Syria (14:24-28) and gave a full report of their success.
St. Paul’s missionary journeys became the model for the Church’s missionary efforts around the world.
Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.
© Scott McKellar published in the Catholic Key newspaper April 20, 2012.