God’s way of conquest is not what we would have thought up. One of His central plays is provoking people to jealousy through His extravagant blessings. Sometimes this provocation turns angry and violent, but ultimately, the plan is for the ends of the earth to be saved.
The Text: “And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming…” (Acts 13:44-14:7).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
The following sabbath, Paul preached again in Antioch of Pisidia, and almost the whole city came to hear (Acts 13:44). Filled with envy at Paul’s influence, the Jews began contradicting and blaspheming the gospel (Acts 13:45). When Paul quoted Isaiah 49, prophesying that the gospel would go to the Gentiles if the Jews rejected it, the Gentiles rejoiced and many were converted (Acts 13:46-48). So the Word of the Lord multiplied, and the Jews stirred up persecution from prominent folks (Acts 13:49-50). While the apostles testified against the Jews in this, all the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:51-52).
Coming to Iconium, multitudes gather in the synagogue, and once more, some Jews and Greeks believe, but the unbelieving Jews stir up controversy and plots against Paul and Barnabas, dividing the city (Acts 14:1-4). This took place over many days, but when a plot was uncovered to murder them, they fled to Lystra and Derbe, and continued preaching there (Acts 14:5-7).
PROVOKED TO ENVY
In both episodes, the gospel goes first to the Jews gathered in their synagogues and while some believe, the majority is filled with envy and stirs up controversy, trouble, and violence (Acts 13:43-45, 50, 14:2, 5). It was envy that caused the Jewish rulers to hand Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified (Mt. 27:18, Mk. 15:10), and envy had already been driving the persecution of the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 5:17). Moses prophesied this: “I will provoke you to jealousy by them that are no people, and by a foolish nation I will anger you” (Dt. 32:21), and Paul quotes that verse in Romans 10:19 to explain God’s plan to save the world: “Have they [the Jews] stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy [envy]. Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fullness?” (Rom. 11:11-12) So provoking envy (particularly from the Jews) has always been part of the plan of salvation. This is also why there have been many in the Reformed tradition who prayed and worked for the conversion of the Jews. While some consider the salvation of the Jews to be merely a trickle over history, Paul seems to have something far bigger in mind (Rom. 11:15).
WHAT IS ISRAEL/JUDAISM TODAY?
As it happens, there’s a lot in the news about Israel right now and many Christians believe that these are signs of the end times. Some Christians believe that God has continued His covenant with the Jews, and through a misunderstanding of a prophecy in Daniel, believe that when the Jews rebuild the temple and reestablish sacrifices, Jesus will return. But Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, the seed of David, and true Israel, true Jews are those who trust in Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:3). Any return to blood sacrifices is blasphemy, and there is nothing uniquely holy about the land of Israel anymore, since Jesus has claimed the whole world for His people and given us His Spirit.
Nevertheless, to the extent that a nation/people continue to study the Old Testament (with veils over their hearts, 2 Cor. 3:14-15), you have a people with greater light, more obligation to believe in Jesus Christ, and often both the blessings and curses that come with that light and rejection of it. If you want a category for this, we can call it the covenant with Hagar (Gal. 4:24-25). This is why Jewish people have often been highly functioning people in society, for good and for ill, and why they have been so often hated. The modern nation-state of Israel has no unique role in the Kingdom of God, other than as a relatively similar worldview and prime candidates for conversion and the opportunity for gospel ministry in the Middle East. Otherwise, Christians should apply biblical principles of justice and prudence to their conflicts.
In both of these episodes, the envy of the Jews stirs up trouble and controversy, and the gospel goes forth and many believe (Acts 13:49, 14:3, 7). This is God’s way. Notice that this includes even stirring up otherwise noble and devout leaders (Acts 13:50). This should give us compassion for folks who get stirred up by baseless accusations and attacks: not all our enemies understand what is driving them. God has been patient with us; we must patiently bear with weaknesses and misunderstandings, even from those we think really ought to know better.
The word for envy is sometimes translated “zeal,” and zeal can be good or bad. It was “zeal” that filled Jesus when He cleansed the temple (Jn. 2:17), and Paul labored for the Corinthians with a godly zeal or jealousy (2 Cor. 11:2). Christians should be zealous for the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:31/14:1ff), repentance (2 Cor. 7:7-11, Rev. 3:19), and for good works (Gal. 4:18, Tit. 2:14). But zeal has a way of becoming intensely self-righteous, while claiming a moral high ground: Paul’s zeal led him to persecute the church (Phil. 3:6) and so zeal/envy is often also accompanied by strife, wrath, and violence (Js. 3:14-4:2, Gal. 5:20, 1 Cor. 3:3).
So how can we know the difference between ungodly zeal/envy and godly zeal? How do you respond to the blessing of God on others? How do you respond to the success, excellence, and material blessing of others? Are you critical? Do you resent it? Or does it drive you to seek excellence? God’s blessing creates competing cycles of imitative envy or imitative excellence. Paul preached the gospel to provoke the emulation of the Jews (Rom. 11:14), and godly zeal seeks to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10 ESV). Our goal should be such excellence in our work, such honesty, such blessing on our homes and nations, that many see our good works and glorify our Father in Heaven, especially unbelieving Jews (Mt. 5:16).
And we need to be fully prepared that as we do this, many will be provoked to wrath, but the central sign that this is the work of God will be a dominant tone of joy: “And the disciples were filled with joy, and with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 13:52).