Paul’s use of scripture in Acts 13 is a complicated issue, but it gives us insight into the way the early Christians used the Hebrew Bible. I want to focus on the description of David in verse 22. Paul combines several verses to describe David. This combination is significant since Isaiah 44:28 is clearly messianic. 1 Clement 8:1 uses the same texts together; it is unclear whether Clement is using them because he knows Acts 13, or that these texts were drawn together as messianic texts prior to Paul. This is possible, since there is reasonable warrant for the texts to be interpreted together in the rabbinic method of exegesis. To my knowledge, there is no evidence outside of Christian sources for this collation of texts.
- Psalm 89:20– “I have found David…” In this verse David is described as the servant of the Lord who has been anointed with “sacred oil” by the Lord himself. In this Psalm, David is described as the one who is sustained by the Lord’s mighty arm verse 21), the one who will call out to God as father (verse 26), and the one who is appointed as the Lord’s firstborn (verse 27).
- 1 Samuel 13:14-“…a man after God’s own heart.” This description of David occurs in the context of Saul’s failure as king. Samuel states that the Lord as already sought out the man after his own heart; his kingdom will endure in contrast to Saul’s kingdom.
- Isaiah 44:28– “…who will do all I want him to do.” The servant of the Lord in Isaiah 44 is Cyrus the Great, the man who allowed the Jews to return to Judea after the exile. This text calls him a shepherd and the Lord’s anointed.
- Possibly 1 Sam 16:1, David as the son of Jesse.
By blending these three texts together, Paul is setting up his declaration that Jesus as the Messiah ultimate fulfills the messianic prophecy of the Hebrew Bible. he is the one who is in fact the son of God, anointed not with sacred oil, but with the Holy Spirit in power, and will be the ultimate fulfillment of the suffering servant anticipated by Is 53.
The Lord “raises up” David, Paul uses the word in verse 30 for the resurrection of Jesus. Just as The Lord raised David up to be the king, so too Jesus was raised up from the dead to be the ultimate king.
The reason Paul includes the preaching of John may be that there were disciples of John the Baptist in Asia Minor. We will return to this idea in Acts 19, but for now we can simply observe that there were disciples of John who did not follow Jesus. The reasons are unclear, but perhaps they simply left Judea for their homes in Asia Minor before Jesus began his ministry, and were therefore unaware of the ministry of Jesus. Paul’s point here is that John was not the messiah himself, but rather a witness to the coming Messiah. The words of this sermon reflect a knowledge of John’s words as recording in Luke 3 as well.
This weaving of texts to make a point is common in the Second Temple Period and shows that Paul’s way of thinking about scripture is not all that different than other contemporary Jewish scholars. In fact, the reason Paul gained a hearing in the Synagogue is that he read the same texts from the Hebrew Bible and offered a fresh perspective. Whether the Jewish audience agreed with Paul or not, they would have been impressed with his exegesis.
This is a good place to stop and think about applying the book of Acts once again. Few pastors would think of weaving texts together they way Paul does here. In fact, most Seminary exegesis professors would probably fail a student that tried to get away with this sort of thing. Yet here the method is in Scripture, modeled for us by the Apostle Paul. What are we to make of this?
Let me make a simple suggestion – Paul used the method of communication which was best for a Synagogue sermon. When he speaks on Mars Hill, his communication style is different, so scripture is cited although much of the theology of the Hebrew Bible is present. There is a certain pragmatism here, Paul uses his training in order to effectively communicate in the synagogue, the marketplace, or Mars Hill. Yet in each context, the message of Jesus is clear. The method of communication is adaptable, the message is not.