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"One Message, Tow Responses"

MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 12, 2010 FROM ACTS 13:13 -52

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Read: Acts 13:13-52

 

            This week, we continue to follow Luke’s account of Paul’s first missionary journey in Acts 13:13-52.  Normally, we break these passages into smaller sections, but this doesn’t work well with this text, that Luke writes as one independent unit.  Luke tells us that Paul, Barnabas and John Mark sailed from Paphos to Perga in Pamphylia.  At some point, John Mark leaves them to go back to Jerusalem.  We aren’t told why he leaves, but we know from chapter 15 that Paul sees this as desertion.  We don’t know how long Paul and Barnabas spent in Perga.  As we will see, evidently Paul became ill there and that’s why they went to a much higher elevation further into a region of Asia Minor called Galatia, specifically a city called Antioch but not the same Antioch we saw last week—there were 16 Antiochs in the Roman world.[1]  This was called Pisidian Antioch in Galatia.  Paul reveals the reason for his first visit to Galatia in Galatians 4:13.  13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first,” Luke says nothing about that here, but we know that Paul went to Galatia; not so much because it was on his agenda, but because God used his affliction to direct him there.  It’s in this city of Pisidian Antioch that all of the events of this section occurred. 

          Paul, as was his custom went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and perhaps because of the way he dressed, he was recognized as a rabbi.  After sections of the Law and the Prophets were read aloud, the ruler of the synagogue, “…sent a message to them, saying “brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.”  So Paul is invited to speak.  The group gathered in the synagogue that day was a mixture of Jews, Gentiles who had been converted to Judaism and God-fearers—those Gentiles who believed in the God of Abraham, but had not been circumcised.  In other words, all these people would have had a good knowledge of the Old Testament.  Paul either quotes or alludes to the Old Testament many times in his message, which is very different than when he spoke to the idolatrous pagans in places like Athens who were not familiar with the Old Testament.

          I see two major divisions in this text.  First, we read Paul’s understanding of Scripture.  And second, the varied response to the gospel. In the first several verses, Paul, like Stephen in Acts chapter seven, traces some crucial events in Biblical history.  He wants these people to understand the Bible in a way that would cause them to see that Jesus Christ absolutely must be their promised Savior and Messiah.  This is Paul’s understanding of Scripture.  Before we see the way he understands the Bible, we must first see how he does NOT understand the Bible. The reason I first want to look at this negatively is to help you see if your understanding of Scripture is closer to Paul’s, or this other, all too common one I will illustrate. Paul DOESN’T want these people to understand the Bible this way.  “Well, God started his people with Abraham.  When he was wandering around on the back side of Midian, Abraham had an encounter with God.  Eventually, after the patriarchs came and went, the Jews ended up in Egypt where they were enslaved for 400 years.  Just when it looked like the Jews would always be slaves, Moses came onto the scene.  He was a dynamic leader and with God’s help, he liberated God’s people from Pharaoh’s tyranny.

          They ended up wandering through the wilderness for 40 years because of their disobedience, before they finally entered Canaan, where, with God’s help, Joshua led them to conquer all of Palestine. After Joshua, they were governed by judges for 300 years or so but that plan didn’t work out so they asked for a king.  They elected Saul their first king because he was tall and handsome.  That plan failed as well because he and his son ended up getting killed by the Philistines, so Samuel anointed David king of Israel.  He was a great king, wrote Psalms, was a mighty warrior and was a man after God’s own heart.  Most of the kings after him weren’t as good and they led the people astray. Eventually, God had to punish them by taking them off the land they had conquered.  It was never the same after that and as a result, the Jews began to really look hard for the Messiah because they were tired of living under tyranny and because God hadn’t spoken for 400 years.  So, about 1000 years after David, Jesus is born with John the Baptist going before him. Jesus came and died so our sins could be forgiven because as the entire Bible teaches—we are sinners.  So Jesus came and died for our sins for our forgiveness so that when we sin, we don’t have to be punished like the Old Testament Jews did.

          That may sound alright to some, but that is in fact not at all the way Paul understands the Bible.  Tragically, that’s the way many people who call themselves Christians understand the message of the Bible.  To them, the Bible is a booked filled with laws and poems and stories that God uses to teach moral lessons so that we can know how to live and please God.  These stories often revolve around certain heroes of the faith who are extra faithful to God.  There is no real order to these stories except they tend to be in chronological order.  To them, there is no strong sense of progression—no sense of building toward a glorious crescendo.  It’s not a symphony where everything is carefully written to move toward some desired end with all the parts somehow serving that end.  To them, the Bible is more like a medley of different, individual songs that we enjoy hearing, but which bear little relation to one another.   The message of the Bible is like a shotgun blast—with disparate messages firing off in all directions. 

God is there, but mostly behind the scenes and much of the time he his rather troubled, even frustrated as he watches his people again and again spoil his plans, disobeying him in spite of all the rules he has given them.  He punishes them repeatedly, but they just don’t seem to learn.  So, to decisively fix this problem, he decides to send in Jesus, who forgives people of their sins so that he won’t have to punish them and get angry with them like he did for the 2000 years from Abraham to Jesus.  That’s the message I was taught from the Bible when I was growing up in mainline Protestantism and since then, by many evangelical Bible teachers.

That is not the message Luke presents at all.  Adjith Fernando says, “Luke is intent to present the Jesus-event not as just another event in God’s special saving history, but as THE event in that history.”[2]  In Paul’s message, GOD is the main player who is working out a very carefully ordered, pre-ordained plan as he progressively moves toward the climax of salvation history—the event that all the previous leaders and events pointed to in some way—the event that fulfills and makes sense of and brings together all the other events in Biblical history--the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In truth, the message of Scripture—as Paul will exemplify in his preaching, is like a single rocket that is fired and which progresses upward and upward until it reaches its glorious conclusion and fulfillment in Jesus Christ.  Listen to the God-centeredness and the sense of definite progression and key fulfillment as I read some of Paul’s key phrases.  God…chose our fathers.” God, “with uplifted arm led them out of [Egypt].  God “put up with them in the wilderness.”  God “destroyed the seven nations in the land of Canaan” and then “he gave them their land as an inheritance.”  God…gave them judges.”  God gave them [king] Saul… and… God removed him.”  God… raised up David to be their king” and from “this man’s offspring God …brought Israel a Savior Jesus as he promised.  When the rulers completely missed the message of the Bible predicting him, “they carried out all that was written about him…” as Pilate executed this innocent man. 

After that “God raised him from the dead”… [v.32] “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us by raising Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” 34 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “ ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ 35 Therefore he says also in another psalm, “ ‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ 36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.  Do you see how radically different that understanding of the Bible’s message is to the one I gave earlier and which many church people have? 

The message of the gospel is the natural and inevitable outflow of the rest of Scripture.  It is the glorious and long-awaited fulfillment of what has been promised.  In verse 32 Paul says, “And we bring you this good news that what God promised to the Fathers, this he has fulfilled to us his children…”  This is why Jesus can say to the Pharisees in John 5:39, “39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,”   The Bible is all about Jesus.  If Jesus Christ doesn’t come to this earth as the God-man, live a perfect life, die a sin-atoning death, rise from the dead and ascend into heaven as Lord of all for the salvation of sinners, the rest of the Bible before it makes no sense.  It would be like a version of the Handel’s Hallelujah chorus that progresses to that final, climactic “hallelujah,” but instead, finishes off with the clanging sound of a cow bell.  There is no connection between the two.  That final hallelujah is what the entire piece has been pointing toward and it must be sung in order for the message of the song to be complete and find fulfillment.

Paul labors the resurrection of Christ for a few reasons.  First, because it shows that he fulfilled the promise of David that his dynasty would be an everlasting dynasty.  Second, he wants these people, all of whom carried such a high regard for King David, to get some perspective on David’s Son, by pointing out that the miracle of incorruptibility did not belong to David, but to Jesus.  Verse 36, “36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.” David, like all sinful people rotted in the grave, but Jesus was no sinner and was more than a man and was not subject to corruption that comes to sinners.

A third reason he stresses the resurrection is in the opening verses of Romans.  You will hear echoes of this text in our Acts 13 text.  Paul says, 1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,”  The resurrection of Jesus did not MAKE Jesus the Son of God—he was always the Son of God.  But it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ that REVEALED that he and he alone was the Son of God.  His resurrection declared to the universe and any sinner who would see it that Jesus Christ was indeed the Son of God—God in the flesh.

Having prepared his congregation in the synagogue by helping them see the larger message of the Bible, Paul next brings the implication of that to these people, beginning with verse 38, “38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” Paul tells these people in Galatia what this event that fulfilled the Scriptures means to them…and to us.  There are many ways in which we can conceive of ourselves.  We can see ourselves as a man or a woman—depending on what God has made us.  We can see ourselves as Americans, as butchers, bakers, candle-stick makers or whatever profession we engage in.  We can see ourselves as parents or brothers or sisters or tall or short or big or skinny—a thousand ways in which to classify ourselves.  But when we stand before God at the judgment, one and only one identity will be relevant.  Every other identity we claimed in life will mean nothing at that moment.  As we stand before a holy judge, we will be criminals with criminal records that stretch for miles, deserving eternal condemnation in the torment of hell.  The reason is because God commands that all our thoughts, all our words, all our deeds, all our attitudes and all our desires perfectly conform to God’s will.  And just one of those offenses in any area will condemn us and in that moment before God—all our sins will be revealed before this holy Judge.

All the “good” things we did in life—the charitable, the noble, the sacrificial will not deliver us from judgment for two reasons.  First, none of our good deeds were good enough because in order to be acceptable to God, our motives in all those things must be as pure as God’s and they are not.  So, instead of being seen in our favor, our “good” works will also stand against us as testimony to our unfitness for heaven.  But second, even if they were done from a completely pure heart, they can in no way cancel out the countless sins that still condemn us as “Guilty” as they testify against us before a holy Judge.  The fact that we went to church or were baptized or served on committees will mean nothing to us in that moment of judgment.  The fact that we were considered to be very a nice and good person by most people is utterly irrelevant at that point, because those people will not be judging us—their opinion of us couldn’t be more meaningless.  A holy God condemns nice guys to hell every day—every minute, as one by one these nice guys discover to their horror that on the most important question of life—“Am I acceptable to God?”  They got it all wrong.  They were in fact so deceived—so blind, that they didn’t realize that when they died, these nice guys in fact died as rebels shaking their fist in God’s face.  Nice is not the standard—perfection is and not one of us here can meet that standard.

In order to get to heaven as sinners who have irretrievably shattered God’s law, we have one and only one hope.  That is—that God will forgive us and somehow make us acceptable to him.  The trouble is—God will never forgive a sin based on anything we do or say.  He is a perfectly just judge and “…He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished…” No one—when they hear their condemnation, no matter how articulate or grief-stricken or humanly compelling  when they stand before him will be able to talk or cry their way out of God’s just judgment or do anything to escape his eternal punishment.  Their sin MUST be punished.  But Paul says in verse 38 that, “through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed [justified] from everything from which you could not be freed by the Law of Moses.  That means that our sins can be forgiven through Jesus—not held against us.  Jesus can cause us to meet the perfect standard of the law and actually be righteous before God in spite of a lifetime of sin.  He not only pardons our sin—that’s not good enough, but he actually calls us righteous—like God himself and all that happens somehow through Jesus. 

That is the message of the Bible.  That is the message the Old Testament builds toward.  The Law and the Prophets point to Jesus.  And Jesus accomplished both forgiveness and justification for the sinner at the cross and how he did that can be summarized in one word—substitution.  We are sinners who stand condemned before a holy Judge, guilty of eternal crimes and of living in rebellion to the King of the Universe.  Jesus came as the completely innocent man—no guilt, no rebellion, but instead full conformity to God’s Law.  Our criminal record is scandalous before a holy God.  Jesus has nothing on his record except the perfectly good things he did for God.  Our record is a sea of red spiritual ink because of the incalculable debt we owe to God for our sin that we can in no way pay. Christ’s record is filled with nothing but merit and holiness.  He has an infinitely positive spiritual balance sheet with God.  As the only innocent man in world history, he in no way deserved to die; and as guilty sinners, we absolutely deserve to die and go to hell forever if it weren’t for this substitution.

Here’s what God did at the cross out of his love for us.  First, though he had no sin, Jesus willingly took our sins upon himself, making him guilty of our sin before the Father.  Paul says it this way in Second Corinthians 5:21, 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  You get that?  I was full to the brim with sin while he was completely without sin.  God poured all my sin onto him, covering him with my sin and guilt.  Then, God punished him for my sin—as my Substitute, he took the punishment I deserved, so that it would be possible for a sinner like me to live in this world with my sins having already been punished.  His death--his blood in that way washed my sins away.  They washed from me to him and he was punished by his Father with the wrath that I deserved.  Forgiven!  But this substitution has another aspect to it.  As we read, Paul says this substitution of Christ for me on the cross enables me to become “the righteousness of God.”  That means he doesn’t just substitute himself as payment for my sin as my sin is placed on him.  He also substitutes his righteousness—for my unrighteousness as his perfect righteousness is placed on me.  It’s a double substitution!  That is—God places my sin that I have spent my life committing onto the sinless, righteous Jesus, but God also places the righteousness of Christ that he lived out perfectly for 30+ years and he places that onto my record.  He not only wipes out my criminal record, he replaces it with the perfectly meritorious record of Jesus.  God can do that because he makes it possible for me to be united with Christ—Christ is actually one with me and therefore his righteousness can be mine.
          This is what Paul says when he says in verse 38, “through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”  Jesus forgives us and he frees us from the Law of Moses.  That word translated “freed” is one of Paul’s favorite words, dikaios which means to legally declare righteous or justified.  So, because of what Jesus did on the cross, it’s possible to be completely forgiven of all my sin because God placed it on him.  It’s also possible to be declared completely and perfectly righteous with Christ’s righteousness because God placed it on me.  Do you see why now it is the height of foolishness to believe that could get to heaven on the basis of your good works or your niceness or your performance in this life?  That would make the entire message of the Bible incoherent because you CANNOT be good enough for God.  That’s why he in his love, provided a Substitute for you who would take your sin upon himself and give you his righteousness for yourself.  That is the climactic message of all of sacred Scripture.  It’s in that act of love and grace that God most fully reveals his character, as we heard last week in Sunday school, the greatness of the glory of his grace.  If a person could get to heaven on the basis of what they do for God, then the message of the Bible is totally unnecessary and more to the point, it was unnecessary for Jesus to be punished for our sin.  If that were truth, that means both he and the Father are fools because the Son took upon himself the furious wrath of his Father…for no reason.  You must know that if you do not believe the gospel, you are implying that the God of the Bible is a fool, guilty of the greatest crime in all history—punishing an innocent man—his Son for no reason.
          The message of the whole Bible comes down to this implication for sinners—You need this and there is only one way you can get it and in verse 39 Paul says that this salvation is given “by him [God to] everyone who believes.”  Here’s how you get this—you believe.  That is, you actively trust in Christ.  You willingly place all your faith NOT in what you can do for Jesus, but you place your trust in Jesus Christ and his substitutionary work for you.  If you have saving faith, then your life will change as you live in response to all that God is for you in Jesus Christ.  If there is anyone here that has not done this—placed your trust in Christ alone for your salvation, Paul issues a solemn warning to you.  In verse 40 he says, “Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:  “Look, you scoffers, be astonished and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells you.”  He quotes the prophet Habakkuk when he warned his people who refused to believe that God would take a sinful country, Babylon and use it to punish his people.  That was an astonishing revelation to them and many scoffed at it.  Paul is saying, this news of the gospel is likewise ridiculous to many, but if you do not believe that this substitution of Christ is THE work of God for the salvation of sinners, you will eternally perish.
          The second and much shorter section of this text contains the varied spiritual responses to the gospel message.  Luke records two opposing responses to the message.  Most of the Jews hated it—it made salvation open to the Gentiles and that made them jealous; as did the fact that Paul’s message got a much more enthusiastic response than what they were teaching.  The Gentiles and even a few Jews “begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath” and they filled the place the next week.  By this time, nearly all the Jews opposed Paul and reviled him.  The Gentiles by contrast heard this and “they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”  As you listen to this, if you have already placed your trust in Christ, does this message cause you to rejoice and glorify the word of the Lord?  If it doesn’t, something is dreadfully wrong with you because this message is the best news you have ever heard or ever will hear in this life or the next. 
            If you are here and have not placed your trust in Christ, accepting him as your Savior and the Lord of your life, how does this news strike you?  Do you see it as ridiculous—if so, Paul has a warning of God’s wrath for you.  Do you strongly oppose it as most of the Jews did?  Those who opposed it 2000 years ago died in their sins and are this minute just getting a start on their time in eternal torment.  Those who believed, though they died 2000 years ago, they live eternally with Christ and are experiencing pleasures forever more.  How do you respond to this message?  When the Jews opposed Paul, Luke says that Paul and Barnabas “shook off the dust from their feet against them.”  That’s a powerful symbol because it communicates that those who reject the message are spiritually defiled—dirty, so wicked that you don’t want any of their defilement clinging even to your feet.  Do you want to be in that place?
           You may have other opportunities to trust in Christ later on, but it could be that if you reject it this time, you will be left forever in the defilement of your sin.  Come to Christ!  Trust in him and his finished work.  Accept by faith that on the cross, he purchased your forgiveness by dying the death that you deserved to die as your Substitute.  Accept by faith that on the cross, Jesus Christ enabled you to be counted righteous and acceptable to a holy God with his substituted righteousness.  This is the glorious climax of the entire Bible—God and his redemptive mission fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Don’t miss this.  May God give us the grace to understand the Bible’s big message and respond to it in faith—rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord.


[1] Boxk, Acts, p.450.

[2] Fernando, Adjith, NIV Application Commentary, Acts, electronic version.

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