After leaving Antioch, Paul and Barnabas travel 85-90 miles southeast to Iconium. Like Psidian Antioch, Iconium was a large Roman city with a Jewish population. It is possible that Iconium was a Roman colony; it was given the privilege of calling itself Claudiconium just before Paul’s visit, and may have been awarded colony status at that time (Keener 2:2110 suggests the honor was not granted until the time of Hadrian). In Acts 14:1 Luke reports that among those who believed were “Hellenes,” perhaps an indication that these are not Roman citizens but rather the native Greek population.
Paul and Barnabas go “as usual” to the synagogue to preach. Luke intends this episode to be parallel to Antioch. Paul did the same sorts of things in whatever town he visits; first seeking out the synagogue he teaches from the Hebrew Bible that Jesus is the Christ. At some point he separates from the synagogue and begins to develop the converts into leaders who can take over that ministry when he leaves.
Luke reports a “great number” of Jews and Gentiles believe, but they are influenced by the Jews who “refused to believe.” These Jews are described as disobedient; the Greek word ἀπειθέω is always used for disobedience toward God in the New Testament (Rom 11:30; Deut 1:26). They are not sinful or evil people, but there is more going on here than “they were unpersuaded.” They have rejected Paul’s message and they incite the Gentiles in Iconium against Paul. This is the same word (ἐπεγείρω) Luke used in 13:50 when the Jews in Antioch stirred up trouble for Paul.
In addition, they “poisoned the minds” of the Gentiles against Paul and his message (ἐκάκωσαν τὰς ψυχὰς τῶν ἐθνῶν). The verb κακόω has the sense of making someone angry or embittered; here it is used idiomatically to indicate that Paul’s rivals are putting ideas into the heads of the Gentiles in order to make them change their positive view of Paul. It is perhaps significant that this verb is used in LXX Is 53:7 to describe the suffering of the messianic servant.
Both Jews and Gentiles plot to kill Paul because of the controversy, and he is forced to flee the city. We are not given the details, but it appears that opposition to Paul went to the authorities of Iconium. To mistreat is a fairly rare Greek word which Luke used in 18:32 to describe the treatment of Jesus. The verb ὑβρίζω has the idea of scoffing, insulting, etc., but is often associated with other words which indicate an escalation of abuse from “scoffing” to physical torment and death. In Matt 22:6 the verb describes the treatment of the king’s servants, some of whom were killed. In 1 Thess 2:2 Paul used the verb to describe his own treatment in Philippi, which included flogging and imprisonment in stocks.
Paul and Barnabas find out about the plot and leave Iconium for Lystra. This is not necessarily to be understood as an act of cowardice. Paul is willing to be beaten and die for his message (as he will in Lystra in this same chapter).
In the context of Acts, this is really the first time Paul has preached his message to Gentiles in a public forum. In Antioch the reaction was anger and he was forced to leave. In Iconium Paul’s message is also soundly rejected by some, but others accepted it and a church is founded in the city. What is significant is the violent response to his message. What is it about Paul’s message that evokes this level of violence from the Jews in the Synagogue? While it is possible a resurrected messiah is enough to provoke committed Jews into a strong, even violent response, perhaps there is more to Paul’s preaching in the region.