Before I get on to part three of “The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me?”, I want to make a few clarifying comments (not for the first time) about the “salvation” of some Gentiles at Antioch in Pisidia in Acts 13:44-48. I made the point in part two that Gentiles are not told in Acts that they must believe that Jesus died for their sins in order to be saved, and that what they come to believe in Antioch is that God has “brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he had promised” (13:23), whom God made king by raising him from the dead. I will try to set out as clearly as I can the stages of Paul’s argument and what happens when the Gentiles get involved. What he says, and what he doesn’t say. As modern readers we find it very difficult not to import our own theological predilections and priorities into the text.
Paul’s sermon in the synagogue is addressed to Jews and to Gentile converts to Judaism (13:16, 26, 43). It is a sermon addressed to Israel about Israel. Gentiles are not mentioned, except perhaps by implication in the quotation from Psalm 2 in Acts 13:33.
Paul briefly tells the story of Israel from the patriarchs to David, and then claims that from David’s offspring “God has brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he had promised” (13:17-23). When we hear the word “Saviour”, we instinctively think of the cross, but I would suggest that, as elsewhere in the New Testament, the salvation of Israel is a future event: Jesus is the one who will save a remnant of Israel when the day of God’s judgment comes (cf. Acts 3:19-21).
The “word (logos) of this salvation”—that is, of the salvation of Israel—has been sent to Paul and his companions and to the Jews and converts listening to him (13:26).
Paul does not explain in so many words what this “salvation” consists of, but in light of the reference to David, his Jewish audience would undoubtedly have been thinking of Israel’s oppressed national status, the precarious condition of diaspora Jews, and the ancient hope that Israel’s king would come to rule the nations.
The people and rulers of Jerusalem failed to recognize in Jesus God’s messiah and arranged to have him executed. But God raised him from the dead, which is the substance of the “good news” that Paul now brings to diaspora Judaism. Paul has made no claims so far about the saving or atoning function of Jesus’ death. His “gospel”, in fulfilment of the promise made to the fathers, is that by his resurrection Jesus was made God’s Son, Israel’s king, and judge and ruler of the nations (13:27-37).
Now Paul draws out the implications of this argument for his audience in the synagogue. Through this man “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (13:38). There may be a reference to the atoning value of Jesus’ death in “through this man”, but there is no overt connection between Jesus’ death and forgiveness elsewhere in Acts. Rather Jews will be forgiven if they repent and believe that God has made Jesus Israel’s Lord and saviour (2:38; 5:31; 8:22; 10:43). Jesus was made Lord because he was obedient unto death, and his death may be seen as a sacrifice for Israel’s sins, but the preaching to Israel in Acts consistently puts the emphasis on the obedience-exaltation narrative.
For these Jews and converts to Judaism to be forgiven means that they will be “freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (13:39). Again, clearly, this argument is not directly applicable to Gentiles. What Paul has in mind is indicated by the quotation of Habakkuk 1:5 in 13:41:
Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.
These words are directed at unfaithful, unrighteous Israel. They warn that God is about to bring a foreign power to punish his people, which will be a day of terror and destruction, when the righteous will live by their faith (cf. Hab. 2:4). Salvation means escaping the coming wrath of God against his people. Individuals must believe, repent, be forgiven, and receive the Holy Spirit, but only in the context of this narrative.
Now what about the Gentiles?
When Paul and Barnabas turn up the next week, the Jews are upset by the attention that they are getting from pagans, and repudiate Paul. Since they have rejected the “word of God”—that God was saving his people by making Jesus king—and have judged themselves unworthy of the corporate life of the people of God following judgment, Paul and Barnabas turn to the Gentiles so that salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (13:44-47).
When the Gentiles hear this, they rejoice and glorify the “word of the Lord”, and those who ware appointed to share in the corporate life of the people of God following judgment, the life of the age to come, believe what the Jews have not believed, namely that God is saving his people by making Jesus king of Israel and judge and ruler of the nations (13:48). In this way the believing Gentiles become part of a saved people.
So I repeat my point: salvation in the New Testament is a political matter that has radical implications, first for Jews, then for Gentiles. Jesus dies as part of Israel’s story; he is raised from the dead as part of Israel’s story; and as Israel’s new king, he will come to judge and rule over the nations. What we see at the end of this incident and at the end of the account of Cornelius’ conversion in chapter 10 is what happens when the Gentiles believe this new story about Israel. If we reduce this all down to “Jesus died for my sins”, we are bound to lose sight of the political narrative and its implications for understanding the place of the people of God in the world.