When the missionary team was expelled from Pisidian Antioch by the civil rulers there, they traveled to Iconium and entered the local synagogue. An interesting point, at least to me, is that Luke doesn’t mention either Barnabas or Paul by name while they preached in Iconium. Luke refers to them always in the plural using the pronouns they or them, and once calls them apostles. In fact, if one reads only Luke’s record of the Iconium evangelistic effort without knowing what occurred before or afterward, the team would be anonymous.
Once they began speaking the word of God in the synagogue, a large portion of the congregation believed. I don’t think what most commentaries claim occurred in this city is correct. If one considers the natural flow of the text, it seems plain that Luke is speaking only of the Jews and gentiles in the synagogue and not of the whole city’s populace. Most people, even in a small town where I live, wouldn’t care one way or another about what might occur in a local religious establishment. If the group became divided over something that was preached and a schism developed, why should anyone, who has nothing to do with that organization give a second look? I think this is what we are supposed to see in Luke’s record of the synagogue in Iconium.
Notice in Acts 14:1 that, after Barnabas and Paul spoke in the synagogue, a great number or portion of the existing congregation believed. Let’s suppose the congregation tallied 90 adult male members. This would be a large congregation at that time. If there were 60 Jewish males and 30 gentile males, how many could be considered a large number or, as the KJV puts it, a multitude? I would think 40% would be the most Luke could have in mind. If the percentage was evenly distributed, this would mean there were 24 Jews and 12 gentiles who believed, and this would be a large amount of people, considering we are working with 90 people in this example. This would be, roughly, the base that Barnabas and Paul worked with, and the church grew from it.
Next, Luke tells us that the Jews who were unwilling to be persuaded by the word of God stirred up the (remaining) gentiles and embittered them against the brethren (Acts 14:2), that is, those who believed the witness of Barnabas and Paul (cp. Acts 1:16; 9:30). Seeing this persecution levied against those who accepted Jesus as their Savior, the apostles dug in their heels and remained there for quite some time (Acts 14:3). Luke isn’t explicit one way or another, but it appears that this whole controversy continued in the synagogue, because it isn’t until verse-4 that a schism occurs. But all the while, the Lord backed up the word of God with signs and wonders done by both Barnabas and Paul (cp. Hebrews 2:4).
At first one might believe that the whole city was divided in Acts 14:4 with one group going with the Jewish rulers of the synagogue and the other with Barnabas and Paul. But notice that Luke identifies the gentiles as the multitude (KJV) or people (modern translations) of the city. The Greek word plethos (G4128) is the same here in verse-4 as the multitude (KJV) or large number (modern translations) who believed Barnabas and Paul in verse-1. Luke is still referring to this same congregation—all of whom lived in the city of Iconium. Some sided with the Jewish rulers and some with Barnabas and Paul. This is the context of the text. Otherwise, if the civil magistrates were intended, the rulers in verse-5 would only have had to expel the apostles from the city, as the civil leadership in Pisidian Antioch had done. But this is not what occurred in Iconium. The Jewish leaders didn’t have the backing of the gentile magistrates in this city. Luke intends for us to understand that a schism occurred in the synagogue with part leaving with Barnabas and Paul.
It wasn’t until sometime later that the apostolic team had to leave. Luke tells us in this short passage that Barnabas and Paul were doing the same things in this gentile city that Peter and John and the other apostles had done in Jerusalem (Acts 2:43; 4:29; 5:12). It took the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem several years to gather enough popular support to begin killing believers. Although, just as in Jerusalem, the believers, including Barnabas and Paul, were persecuted in Iconium, it would have taken at least several months for the synagogue rulers to get enough support within their company to begin killing the apostles, or perhaps it was the rulers themselves who had to be convinced by their people.
As it was, Luke tells us that Barnabas and Paul were informed (Acts 14:6) of the intent of the Jews and gentiles of the congregation, together with the rulers (of the synagogue), to seize the apostolic team and stone them (Acts 14:5). How were they informed? Most likely, one of the Jews or gentiles who sided with the synagogue rulers became disenchanted with how things were developing, so he or she told the apostles. We don’t know who informed them; it may even have been one of the synagogue rulers who was outvoted but couldn’t standby and permit murder. Even if this one didn’t become a believer, it reminds us that it is a grave matter to approve of murder, and even those who may oppose what Barnabas and Paul were doing wouldn’t necessarily be a party to this terrible act.
The missionary team left the young church in the hands of the Lord before blood was shed. Once such a terrible line is crossed, it is often difficult to stop. It was wiser to defuse the volatile situation and permit the stormy tempers to subside. Therefore, the apostles left to preach the word of the Grace of God elsewhere (Acts 14:7).