Acts 13 – Paul and the Interpretation of Scripture

Paul WritingPaul’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.


16 thoughts on “Acts 13 – Paul and the Interpretation of Scripture

  1. This idea of Paul’s changing preaching styles depending on his audience is interesting and it brought up a certain passage in my mind. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NASB), Paul states,

    “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.”

    In a long and wordy passage, Paul touches on the idea that we’ve spoken of frequently in class. The apostles, like Jesus, did not seek to abolish the Law. However, there is this state of freedom and unity in this New Covenant. Because of this freedom, Paul has the ability to have the law of Christ, but not be under the Law, and he uses this ability not to gorge himself on bacon, but to reach all people, Jew or Greek, law or none. Without the freedom of the New Covenant, this method would not even be possible. Using different preaching styles depending on his audience is a small branch of this larger idea.


  2. Paul is finding a way to speak to the people in a way that the people will understand. I agree that the Paul adapted to the culture in order to present the gospel. Paul, as Sydney described, sought to adapt to whatever culture he was in that he might be able to communicate the gospel. It is extremely important to note that as you said, “The method of communication is adaptable, the message is not.” We cannot become so focused on adapting to the audience that we neglect the message. Paul explained to the Corinthians this concept “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). Paul did adjust to his audience however his focus remained the same. In the passage in 13 the central character is Jesus. Paul uses the Old Testament in order to explain the significance of Jesus. However in chapter 17 Paul uses an alter that he saw in Athens in order to explain who Jesus is. Paul did not condone the alters in Athens and I do not think he condones their methods of exegeses but instead uses them as an opportunity to teach.


  3. The way Paul was able to adapt to his audience in different circumstances could partially have been due to how well he had been taught growing up. He was very educated and knew how to tailor his message to the crowd he was addressing. He not only had a deep understanding of Jewish law, but he was familiar with Roman ways, as he was a Roman citizen. When he was young, he lived in Tarsus, which was an important center of trade (Illustrated Life of Paul, 5). Because this was a trade route, there would have been many different kinds of people coming in and out of the city. Living in this atmosphere could also have given Paul an understanding of how to communicate with many different types of people at a young age. As he grew up, it seemed that Paul encountered many situations and circumstances that helped prepare him for a life of mission work.


  4. Paul was a man who was willing to be used by the Lord, and was able to use much of his learning of the Law and Scripture to benefit those he wrote to and taught. God’s plan certainly included his early days of training as a Jew, and it seems to me in this passage that this is part of the reason God allowed him to begin his ministry through zealous pursuit of the Law. At this point in history, as we have discussed in class, there really was no push to abolish the traditional values of the Jewish beliefs, or even to be away from the Law itself. However, there were still many who did not agree with the Christians, and the only true authoritative sources were (at the time) eye witnesses, and God’s Word.

    This being the case, I think Paul is pulling in God’s Word to make a very strong point about who exactly Jesus was as the Messiah – and why this matters to the Jews. I agree with the thought that there were disciples of John who also did not follow Jesus, and this gave Paul more authority in their realm as well, as Scripture was still foundational to them. Paul’s Jewish training is one that allowed him to understand and weave these passages, though I would suggest that his training was so much more intensive and life changing that no ordinary seminary or college student could simply do the same.

    Perhaps this is exactly what is implied when P. Long states “The method of communication is adaptable, the message is not.” Paul was wisely following what he knew of the culture to assist in making his words credible, but he was also outspoken for the Messiah. Brings to my mind Luke 19:40, where Jesus is reprimanding those who wanted to silence those crying “Hosanna”: “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” – the method is adaptable, the message is not.


  5. “…here the method is in Scripture, modeled for us by the Apostle Paul. What are we to make of this?”

    Adultery and murder are modeled for us in Scripture too, by King David, “a man after God’s own heart.”…. What are we to make of this? Well, the Law tells us not to commit adultery or murder, so we know that David was wrong to do these things, in spite of having written about half the Psalms.

    Luke recorded the text of Paul’s famous sermon on Mars Hill – and it doesn’t contain the name of Jesus. No it doesn’t. You can seek to justify and excuse and explain away the obvious, and argue about “what Paul really meant”, etc.etc. but you would be adding words to Paul’s sermon that Paul didn’t say, according to Luke’s record.

    Paul’s ministry at Mars Hill was a complete and utter failure, as far as we can tell from Luke’s record in Acts, and this is the only record we have. Paul himself never ever mentioned his ministry in Athens. There is no record of any conversions – just that a few people “became followers of PAUL and believed” something – we don’t know what they believed for sure, neither Paul nor Luke ever tell us. Paul himself seems to admit indirectly that his time in Athens was a failure, at the beginning of his first Letter to the Corinthians. I hope no one would look at my imperfect life and ministry and blindly assume that everything I said and did was good and right and a “ministry method” that should be imitated. We need to try to imitate Jesus.


  6. God had a great plan for Paul’s life. He was able to reach many people who did not yet believe in Jesus. I believe that Paul was very effective in his ministry because he was able to adapt to whatever culture he was in at the time. Since he was raised as a Jew, he had a lot of knowledge about scripture and the Law. The way that Paul presented his message to the audience was tailored specifically to them so that they could better understand. The message was the same, but the way he communicated that message would change depending on the audience. In Acts 13, Paul talked about Jesus and he used a lot of Old Testament scriptures to explain the significance of who Jesus was. As Christians we are to bring the gospel to those who do not yet know it. If we are able to adapt the way we communicate the gospel to unbelievers without distorting the message, then we can become very effective in winning souls for Christ and building up the kingdom of God.


  7. I agree with Mary when she said, “Paul is finding a way to speak to the people in a way that the people will understand.” I think that the only significance in the fact that Paul spoke differently at these times was to better relate with people. It is the same as if a youth pastor was speaking in the actual service, they would speak differently. Paul reached many different people because of his availability to relate to them and communicate in a way they would understand. Sydney brought up the passage in 1 Corinthians where Paul said that he became all things to all people. This story in Acts 13 is just an example of that.


  8. I agree with all you ladies, in the fact that Paul was finding a way to relate and get the message across to whomever he is speaking to at the time. In the same way, going off of what Professor Long said in his post, I think that in a church when pastors are preaching, they are looking at the crowd of people as those who can related to or already have somewhat of an understanding of the message being presented. So they keep the scripture they use very precise. Yet, although some people may still keep the scripture separate and concise with what it actually says when outside of a church setting, I think that Paul had a gift of reaching people because he knew how to speak and deliver God’s message. I think that one reason some believers may have a hard time “mixing and matching” scripture is because of Revelation 22:18-19
    “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.”
    Now although some may say that this only means Revelations, many scholars will argue that these verses apply to the whole scripture because it is all God breathed. This is why I believe many believers are so strict on not “mixing and matching”. I do not think, however, that we as believers can not fit different passages or verses together that still get the word of God across to those listening. All scripture is orchestrated by God, so as long as we are not blaspheming or making things up, God is still able to work through his word.


  9. First of all I would definitely agree with the first statement that Sydney said. She stated that “This idea of Paul’s changing preaching styles depending on his audience is interesting” (Brown 2015). I think that is interesting and unique. I think if a person is going to be a speaker, and have to get a message or point across to someone, then they have to know who they are talking too. I would not go share the gospel with a twenty year old the same way I would a seventy year old because they most likely have a totally different lifestyle. I personally think that it is great that Paul adapted his message so that the audience could understand him. To be an effective speaker you must be able to relate to your audience which is what Paul is trying to do. Because he is trying to relate to them, it is his method that he changes and not his message. Mark 16:15 says, “And Jesus said to them, “Go into all of the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”” When I read that scripture I grasp that our job is to preach and share the gospel period. No matter what method we may need to use.


  10. Paul is skilled at meeting the needs or style of the audience he was addressing. He is skilled much the way that Jesus was at taking texts from the Old Testament and shedding new light on their meaning. Both Jesus and Paul illuminate the truth behind prophecies and promises found in Scripture and who Jesus was the answer to those areas. He fulfilled that which confused the people.

    It seems relevant that Paul would be able to effectively share the Word of God because the book of Acts continually tells us that he was filled with the Holy Spirit–who is the very person who teaches and guides our knowledge and understanding of the Scripture (Acts 13:4, 9, 52). Paul was bold in the things he said and was always seeking to glorify God, which is why his ministry was so successful! I do find it interesting to see how Paul weaves the texts together, especially having been in a preaching class where that is advised against, however for Paul it helps his point to be clear! And not only that, but it helps his listeners comprehend, understand, and apply the words he is saying!


  11. With Paul being raised and taught under Gamaliel, one of the most respected rabbis in Israel during the first century. Paul was also at the top of his class and a quick study. I think that gave him the skills needed to be able to mix and match the scriptures of the Jewish law. From what I take away from this is that it’s like painting on a massive canvas and putting together the whole story. I think that when you step away from looking closely at the painting that it shows the whole picture of who Christ is and will be. In my opinion it is ok to do this because it gives Paul the chance to paint that word painting and show them who they have been waiting for. Addition with there being over 300 verses that described who Christ is and that he is the only one who fulfilled them all. I would think that this mixing and matching would make explaining how these verses relate back to Christ.


  12. I really appreciate that Paul was not afraid to change, even with the knowledge in mind that some people would be upset and not okay with his decision. Sometimes our ideas and visions that God gives us, does not always match up with what the world tells us is acceptable. At this point, we have a choice to be liked by the world or liked by God and trust that his plan is greater. Paul takes a step of faith and teaches in a new way. He does this based on his audience and their need. Paul knew they needed the traditional teaching style but presented it to them in a new way. At Mars Hill, he teaches it in a different style. He teaches based on his understanding of who they are and their needs. Overall the message is consistent, Jesus is the messiah and how Paul tells and presents the truth is different the message is not.
    Today this applies directly to us as we go out and teach to various people and groups in our life. For me personally, I have seen this in the different groups I teach with students. If I am teaching 5th and 6th grade I am lighter on the language I use, and I focus on the bigger picture, what is happening in the passage. Compared to the high school students, there I go deeper in meanings and detail, asking them what they observed, rather than telling them. The observation and interpretation of the passage are the same, but the application and presentation are a bit different depending on who I teach. Another example is my testimony, there are many pieces to it, and when I tell different groups I emphasize different parts. The overall message is Jesus died on the cross, paying the price for my sin, and gave me a new purpose and direction, this does not change no matter how I tell the story.


  13. I believe Paul does a wonderful job of communicating God’s truth to his audiences. Paul knows his audience well enough to weave what they know and are aware of to a point of making connections they themselves could not see before. In this case, Paul uses truths found in the Psalms, book of Isaiah, and Samuel where the story of David is. By weaving these three texts together Paul saves himself a lot of time and energy and makes it plain in simple. He is not taking away or distorting Scripture rather is simplifying the overall counsel of Scripture.

    The blending of multiple exegetical passages should confuse the audience and even us, but it transfers a principalizing bridge to the audience.
    In verse 22, Paul quickly makes the distinction that Saul had obeyed whenever it would benefit him and David who would do whatever God’s heart desired. By these three texts he speaks of what God looks for in people. Throughout history God has always wanted someone to be “Raised up” in such a way that they will follow God no matter what He wills. Concerning this, Polhill states,

    “The parallelism may not be accidental, for in a real sense David and the promises to him foreshadow the promise fulfilled in Christ. David was a special expression of God’s mercy, a man who fulfilled all God’s will for him, a man after God’s own heart (Polhill, pp.300-301).

    Why John is mentioned I believe is because it was easy for those who heard and listened to John the Baptist to get the idea that he was the Messiah and John makes it clear he is not the Messiah, in fact he is much greater than he himself (John 1:19-28). In fact, John was the “last” eschatological messenger of the Old Testament that would point to the Messiah, he is the voice crying out in the wilderness that would prepare a way for the Lord (Isaiah 40:3, John 1:27, Polhill, p.301). However, it is possible that Paul’s listeners in Pisidian Antioch had heard of John the Baptist and made a connection that John’s role is important in understanding the way to the Messiah i.e. repentance of sins and turning to God (Polhill, 301). In a likewise manner, we (Christians) should boldly witness and “prepare the way for the Lord”.

    All in all, Paul uses Scripture at times in depending on the audience to communicate biblical truth in a way easily enough to understand. At times, yes, they are not exegetically correct, and any bible scholar would may not approve of such a communicated hermeneutic. What remains is God speaks to people in different ways and stays true to His Word. Perhaps the audience needed to hear it said like that and not what they had always heard in adherence to the Psalm or Cyrus the Great. There is a lot of parallelism in the Scriptures that are prophetic in the way that they still speak to us today and not always in its proper exposition. Paul himself said, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). To see God’s Word as the letter of the Law void of the Spirit is to miss out on the big picture and underlying truth of the Scriptures.


  14. It seems to me that this method of Scriptural interpretation is Paul’s way of best communicating with the audience in the given context. I can think of his use of contemporary philosophy at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31), as well as his comment in his self-proclaimed philosophy of becoming all things to all people that some might be saved (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). What I see here is that Paul is willing to work around the “rules” so to speak to make sure that he is communicating in such a way as to make the gospel as clear as possible to those present.
    With that said, I think that there is still some Messianic value to the passages used. For instance, Psalm 89 deals a lot with the idea of “David” and “Davidic” themes, which often point to a Messiah. The psalmist declares that David’s descendants will live forever (Psalm 89:37), which is also a foreshadowing of Christ coming and reigning. Although Paul may be stretching our use of exegesis, he is at least pulling from a passage that could have some Messianic prophecy or leanings.
    His use of Isaiah is the most puzzling, though I think that Paul references it in a topical way (the idea that God is ultimately in control, and that Jesus submitted to God’s control [also seen in Philippians 2:6]). No…Cyrus was not God, nor was he related in any way to what Paul was saying. But rather that Jesus was in submission to the will of God in the same way Cyrus was (or a similar way maybe) and that the Jews in the audience should listen and understand that Jesus was God and willing to submit to the will of the Father to suffer on our behalf.

    Personally, I would not recommend Paul’s method here as a constant way of reading Scripture, because it could lead to some very wrong interpretations very easily. However, Paul does a favor to the audience by using familiar passages to create a picture of who Jesus actually was and why it should matter to them. In all honesty, I wish I had a better understanding of OT prophetic writings and the Psalms to give a better response, but that is what I see from the readings and context of each passage.


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