Like Jesus (Luke 4:22) and Peter (Acts 2:40-41), there is a great deal of interest in Paul’s message. The apostles are invited back for a second Sabbath to continue this discussion. Luke mentions those who were most attracted to Paul’s message were the “devout converts,” or people who were ethically Gentile, but are at some advanced level in their conversion to Judaism as a religion. If Paul’s message was understood as acceptance of the God of the Hebrew Bible, the ethical and moral standards of the Law, and an ultimate salvation through Jesus apart from the sacrifices of Judaism, then perhaps many of the Gentiles were eager to accept Paul’s message.
On the next Sabbath “the whole city” gathers to hear Paul, sparking jealousy. Luke is likely using some hyperbole here, he means all the adult males who would be part of the Synagogue have turned out to hear Paul, although it is possible that many of the gentile converts brought other gentiles to hear them preach.
The Jews begin to argue against Paul (ἀντέλεγον, is an inceptive imperfect, focusing on the beginning of the action). The verb has the sense of contradicting an argument or reaching. In Titus 1:9 one of the functions of an elder is to “contradict” false teaching. In 3 Macc 2:28 the verb is used for anyone who opposes the poll tax imposed by the Selucids; if anyone “speaks against” this new law, they are to be executed! They make this argument against Paul not through rational debate, but by “speaking abusively” (βλασφημοῦντες) against Paul. The verb has the sense of slander, “to speak in a disrespectful way that demeans, denigrates, maligns” (BDAG). In an honor-shame culture, this kind of an attack is intended to cast doubt on speaker by pointing out their personal flaws.
Paul “answers boldly” this slander of his Gospel. The word had to go to the Jews first, reflecting Paul’s mission statement in Romans 1:16-17. This does not mean that Paul did Jewish ministry only up to this point and now he will do exclusively gentile ministry; in terms of salvation history it is true the gospel went to the Jews exclusively (Acts 2-8), and not it is going into socially and culturally Gentile people. But Paul’s ministry will always be to the Jew first and then to the Gentile, in order to win his own people first before turning to the gentiles.
Paul then quotes Isaiah 49:6 for his mission statement: he is the light to the Gentiles. This looks back to his own calling and commission from the Lord, but also to the same messianic texts he cited in the synagogue a week earlier. He is the one that fulfills the messianic role of light to the Gentiles in the present time.
Many believe and join Paul, but there was enough angry rejection that the Jews persecuted Paul and Barnabas, thus they “shake the dust of their heels” in protest and continued their journey. This “shaking of the dust” is symbolic of a rejected negotiation, or a pronouncement of judgment. Paul is saying that these Jews have rejected his teaching, and he is turning from them to go where he will have an audience, the Gentiles. This is not unlike what Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 10, that they were condemn any city that rejected their teachings.
To what extent is this a “rejection of the Jews” (as it is sometimes described)? Paul continues to target Jewish audiences in the Synagogue and he will continue to argue persuasively from the Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah. But this is the first of three times Paul says he is now “turning to the Gentiles” What does this rejection mean in the overall plot of the book of Acts?