The Jews first - Acts 13:13-48
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A man once asked his brother to mind his cat while he went away on holidays. The cat-owner was very nervous. He had never left his cat in the care of anyone and wanted assurances that his brother would take very good care of his prized pet. When he got back from his holidays he telephoned his brother to arrange the pickup of the beloved cat. But when the brother answered the phone, he simply said "the cat is dead" and put the phone down. Well the cat loving brother was devastated, and spent days grieving the loss of his beloved pet. Finally he worked up the courage to ring his brother back. As brothers can often do, they exchanged some harsh words. "That was an awful way to tell me my cat had died" said the cat-lover. "Well how exactly should I have broken the news to you?Ē replied the brother. ď I knew you would be devastated no matter what I said and that you'd probably blame me for the cat's death." "Well, you could have broken the news to me gradually. When I asked about the cat you could have said, 'she's playing on the roof'; then you could've rung me again later to say she'd fallen off the roof and broken her leg. Then you could've phoned me the next day to say she passed away during the night. But no, you had to be blunt and cruel." Well the brothers continued talking, moving on from the cat to the holiday to the family. ďSo how's mum doing?" asked the cat-lover. "Well itís funny you should ask, said the brother. She's playing on the roof."
Words can be very powerful and that is something we have seen in our sermon series so far in Acts as we have looked at several of the sermons that Luke records there for us. And weíve seen that it is the word of the gospel, the good news about Jesus, which changes lives. And the way Luke records these sermons is actually very significant. Now way back in chapter 1, Jesus told his disciples that they were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. And as we read on in Acts we find that many of those gospel milestones are accompanied by a sermon proclaiming the gospel to the hearers in that particular place. So weíve seen Peterís sermons in Acts 2 and 3 to people in Jerusalem. Weíve seen Peterís sermon to Cornelius, a non Jewish convert to Judaism further north in the country. And at every point of significance Luke records for us a sermon explaining the gospel. So when we get to Acts 13 we reach another milestone. For Acts 13 is the first recorded sermon of Paul, and here we find Paul turning from the Jews to the Gentiles as he takes the gospel mission to the ends of the earth. In fact it will be Paul who drives the gospel mission forward from Judea throughout the rest of the known world, to the ends of the earth as Jesus puts it, in fact all the way to Rome. And Acts 13 is the turning point where we find the gospel going to all the world.
Now over these next few weeks weíre going to be looking at the three evangelistic sermons of Paul that Luke records for us. And what is interesting about them is that all three are spoken to very different audiences. Acts 13 is spoken primarily to Jews, people who knew the Bible story very well. Acts 14 is spoken to pagans who worshipped other gods. And Acts 17 is spoken to the intelligentsia of the ancient world, the cream of the cream in Athens, the Oxford and Harvard professors of today. But in each situation Paul does the same basic things. He talks about the content of the gospel in Jesus. He defends the credibility of the gospel with good arguments. And he gives the challenge of the gospel to respond. Now admittedly the sermons are sermon notes. We donít have everything Paul said, but itís interesting that he uses the same basic structure in all three. And the reason is both very simple and very challenging. For Paul was convinced of the unchanging nature of the gospel about Jesus. He was convinced it was suitable for every person to hear. Whatever their religious or cultural or social background, the gospel about Jesus was for them. They needed to hear it. But the way Paul would speak it would change given his audience. And as we present the gospel in our world to different people, then we too must be utterly convinced of the unchanging nature of the good news. The good news is good news in every generation and to every person, regardless of religion, creed or social background. But also we must be committed to explaining it carefully and intelligently to different people in different ways. Its an unchanging gospel for a changing world.
So letís turn to Acts 13 and see what Paulís message is to these religious hearers who knew their Bibles well. What message did Paul have for them. And as we look together at Paulís sermon weíll see that there are some very significant things for us to learn. And Paulís focus is on the grace of God as he highlights three things:
1) Godís Grace: Prepared in the OT (Vv 13-22)
2) Godís Grace: Provided in Jesus (Vv 23-37)
3) Godís Grace: Proclaimed in the Gospel (Vv 38-52)
1) Godís Grace: Prepared in the OT (Vv 13-22)
So first then, he talks about Godís grace prepared in the Old Testament. So letís read from verse 13: ďFrom Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem. From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, "Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak." Now Paul is on his first major missionary journey. And heís spending the time in the Eastern Mediterranean. Heís already stopped off in Cyprus, and he moves from Paphos, the port in northern Cyprus, to Southern Turkey, where he eventually makes his way to a place called Pisidian Antioch. And notice what he does. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and heís invited to give a word of encouragement. As Paul was a rabbi, he was perhaps recognised by the particular clothes he was wearing, and heís asked to give the sermon. Now that might seems strange to us. As a clergyman on holiday visiting a strange church Iíve not yet been invited to preach, and if I was on the spur of the moment, then I would be worried, and so should everyone else. Then again I donít usually wear my dog collar on holiday! But notice too that itís to the synagogue Paul goes first. This was to be his common practice on his missionary journeys because heíd have a point of contact with Jews and common ground from which to explain the gospel. So how does he begin his sermon?
Well letís read on from verse 16: ďStanding up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: "Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! The God of the people of Israel chose our fathers; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt, with mighty power he led them out of that country, he endured their conduct for about forty years in the desert, he overthrew seven nations in Canaan and gave their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years. "After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. After removing Saul, he made David their king. He testified concerning him: 'I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.íĒ Can you see what he does? He gives the church a Bible overview. He goes through the main highlights of the OT history of the people of God in about five minutes. So he begins with the call of Abraham, the escape from Egypt, the wandering in the desert, the conquest of the land of Canaan, the judges and then kings Saul and David. But why does he do it? Why does he tell these people a story they knew very well already? Well he does it to highlight two points about God.
One is the God is the God of grace. So notice how Paul highlights again and again Godís loving gracious initiative. God graciously chooses the people in verse 17, and he prospers their time in Egypt so they become a mighty nation. He leads them out of Egypt in verse 17 and then in verse 18 he overthrows the people of Canaan to give them a land. Then in verse 20 he gives them judges to rule over them and then a king like David who is a wise and godly king. So God does all this for his people. He gives and gives and gives. And itís not as if the people deserve it. So in verse 18, Paul says that God endured their conduct. The people were totally unfaithful to God when they were wandering around the desert. God is a God of grace who has kingly acted to help and nurture a stubborn people who consistently sinned against him. Thatís grace. And it may surprise us to hear that this is the God of the OT. A God of grace. Because usually we are told, and maybe we even think that the God of the OT is a God of wrath and judgement and the God of the NT is a God of love. But actually is totally untrue. No, the God of the OT is the same as the God of the NT. He is a God of wonderful grace and mercy as well as judgement. So you will find just as much judgement in the NT, often on the lips of Jesus. And you will find just as much grace in the OT as you will in the NT. Itís just that in the NT, we see both side fulfilled in Jesus, as Paul will explain. So really reading the Bible is like eating a stick of rock. So if you go on holiday to Bridlington or Scarborough, youíll perhaps bring back a stick a rock. And as you gnaw your way through the concrete like delicacy, youíll find Scarborough written all the through. Well written all the way through the Bible is the word grace. Godís mercy and kindness to his stubborn people. And wherever you bite into the Bible, a God who acts graciously. Now that might take you by surprise to discover that. But let no-one deceive you that the God of the OT is a different God. No heís a God of grace.
But Paul is also showing us that God is the God of history. Because throughout his whistle stop tour of the OT, Paul makes it absolutely clear that it is God who is in control all the way through. Notice how many times Paul uses the word he for God, or the word God. God is the subject of every verb. God chooses, God prospers, God overthrows the nations, God gives the land and the judges and the kings. Do you see the point? God is the Lord of history, even to the point of exercising control over foreign nations. Heís not some tribal deity, the god of the Jews only. No this is the Lord of history bringing about his plans for the world and the universe.
Now itís worth us pausing to ask ourselves whether this God that Paul speaks of is our God. Do we truly believe that the God of the Bible is the God of grace and the one who sovereignly controls history? That this God is bringing about his purposes for the world and the universe? Because if you forget this basic truth, the quite frankly we may as well give up. Because if weíre honest, we will confess to find this world a scary and uncertain place. It certainly seems as things are going from bad to worse. And in this country, our Christian heritage is slowly being eroded bit by bit, or at least that is who it seems. And perhaps in our own lives, there are great uncertainties and huge problems. It feels as if we at sea, with no anchor, no land in sight, and the engine is flooded. But itís not true. For the God of the Bible is gracious and sovereign. He is on control. And he will always act graciously to uphold his people. So when the reformer Martin Luther was facing some of the toughest times of his life with a best friendís martyrdom, personal depression and incredible pressures on him and his family to tow the line with the rest of the church, and with great political instability in Germany at the time, what did he do? He wrote a hymn which summed up where his confidence is. ďA safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon; heíll help us clear from all the ill that has now overtaken.Ē And he ends the hymn with these words: ďAnd though they take our life, goods, honour, children, wife, yet is their profit small; these things shall vanish all, the city of God remaineth.Ē Luther knew in the turmoil of life that the God of the Bible was trustworthy and true. The God of grace and the God of history. And thatís what Paul explained to his hearers that Sabbath day in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. The thing was though that Paul had a lot more to say. For the OT was the preparation for what was to come. And leads us to see the next stage in Paulís sermon.
2) Godís Grace: Provided in Jesus (Vv 23-37)
And that is Godís grace provided in Jesus. Because his point in this OT overview is not just to teach us a history lesson, but to show us that history is heading in a certain direction. And that is towards Jesus. So letís read from verse 23: ďFrom this man's descendants God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised. Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. As John was completing his work, he said: ĎWho do you think I am? I am not that one. No, but he is coming after me, whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.íĒ So in his overview Paul got to David and from David we come to his descendant, Jesus, the Son of David, the Saviour. In other words all the grace of God shown in the OT was pointing us forward to the most gracious act of God in the history of the universe- the saving of Godís people through his Son Jesus. And the implication is that these hearers of Paulís should understand because Jesusí coming has been promised in the OT and John the Baptist was sent by God to tell Israel about Jesus and prepare them for his coming! So he can say in verse 26: ďBrothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent.Ē This message about Jesus is for now and itís for us.
So how does he present this message of Godís grace provided in Jesus. Well he does what he does in all his sermons, expect in slightly different ways. He explains the content of the message and the credibility of the message. So notice what the content of the message about Jesus is, in verses 27-31: ďThe people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had travelled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.Ē Well the content of the message about Jesus are the facts of his death and resurrection. Now no doubt Paul went into more detail on the day, but here he says that Jesus was innocently condemned to death by Pontius Pilate, that he was executed and that he was buried in a tomb. We know from his letters that Paul would explain the reason for the cross, that all human beings are rightly condemned before God for this rebellion against him. And so Jesus came to die for us in our place. In fact heíll outline the results of the cross in his final section of his sermon. Then God raised him from the dead and he was seen by witnesses. Those are the facts of the case, so to speak. And itís worth noting how interested Luke and Paul are in history. Paul sets the story in the history of the first century. People saw Jesus, they heard him preach, they witnessed his death, some saw him after he had risen. He mixed with historically proven characters like Pontius Pilate and the High priests and rulers. The point is that the content of the Christian message is a historically reliable and solid message. These are not myths and legends we are talking about. These are facts that any first century Jew living in Jerusalem at the time could have rubbished had they been lies. And Paul simply outlines the facts of the message about Jesus. The Saviour Jesus, sent by God, really did walk on this earth. Itís a fact of history.
And then Paul goes on to talk of the credibility of the message. And for this audience, his tactic is not clever arguments like he will use in Athens in Acts 17, but the proof of the Jewish Bible, the OT, which his hearers knew only too well. Heís already spent the first half of his sermon showing how the OT was preparation for the coming of Jesus. He was the end of a long line of events where God had graciously acted, preparing his people for the coming of the Saviour. And now he has come. So notice how many times Paul talks about fulfilment, both in the coming of Jesus and the way the people responded to him. Verse 23, Paul says that God brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus as he had promised. Verse 27, the people fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Verse 32: ďWe tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.Ē And then he goes on to show by use of three OT quotations that Jesus is the promised Saviour. Can you see what he is doing? He is showing in ways which his hearers will clearly understand that this Jesus is the Saviour. He is the one to whom the whole OT was pointing. He is Godís full and final act of grace, a Saviour for people like you and me. And wonderfully it is a message that bears up under scrutiny and has great credibility. And that is why Paul can cross great chunks of the known world urgently proclaiming this message. Because he passionately believes that it is a message that every person needs to hear and respond to. And itís a message that he believes is defendable in any and every situation. In short Paul has absolute confidence that this message about Jesus is true and relevant for everyone at all time in all places.
Now I wonder how you and I compare in our understanding of the Christian message? Do we have Paulís conviction that in the Christian gospel, Godís grace is provided in Jesus, that it is relevant and essential for every person, whatever their religious beliefs, their cultural background, their social standing? Because that is the claim the NT makes on every page. And if we like Paul are NT Christians, then we will embrace his confidence. We will be convinced of not just the historical content of the message but its credibility too.
But all too often our courage fails us and perhaps deep down we are not totally convinced. So listen to this story about an actor called William Charles Macready. He was a famous actor in the nineteenth century, and he was got into a conversation with a preacher. ďI wish you could explain something to me, asked the preacher.Ē ďWell, what is it? I donít know that I can explain anything to a preacher,Ē replied Macready. Well the preacher said: ďWhat is the reason for the difference between you and me? You are appearing before crowds night after night with fiction, and the crowds come wherever you go. I am preaching the essential and unchangeable truth, and I am not getting any crowd at all.Ē Macreadyís answer was this: ďThatís quite simple. I can tell you the difference between us. I present my fiction as though it were truth; you present your truth as though it were fiction.Ē I wonder sometimes if many of us need to repent of a lack of conviction that the gospel message about Jesus is the truth and it does changes lives. And when we proclaim it to people, we are in danger of presenting as a lifestyle choice, a take it or leave it subject, not the message of life and death that it is. Of course, conviction in and of itself wonít guarantee a big crowd. But the fact is we can be confident like Paul in this message. Because of its historical content and its credibility. Itís Godís message about Godís Saviour. His grace provided in Jesus.
3) Godís Grace: Proclaimed in the Gospel (Vv 38-52)
But Paul isnít quite finished yet. For he has one final part of his sermon to go and that is Godís grace, proclaimed in the gospel. In other words, he doesnít just spell out the content and the credibility of the message like some intellectual debate which can be ignored. No he finishes by showing his hearers that this is something to be acted on. He gives them a challenge. And that comes in verse 38: ďTherefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: ĎLook, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.íĒ Paul explains that this message about Jesus is extremely important. Itís about forgiveness of sins. The coming of Jesus means that the fundamental problem between us and God can now be fixed. That breach in relationship which deserves Godís wrath upon us can be fixed. For Jesus has died in our place bearing the punishment we deserve. So we can be forgiven, or justified as Paul puts it in verse 39. We can be declared right with God. And nothing else can do that. No amount of good works, no following the right codes or laws, nothing can spare us apart from the cross of Christ. And that is why this message is extremely important. And what is the challenge. The challenge is not to ignore the message. Paul says in verse 40 that his hearers must take care that they donít make the same mistake as their forefathers. For their forefathers ignored the warnings of God. They didnít receive Godís grace. And now the challenge is to respond.
So what is the response of the hearers? Well there were two. Some received Godís grace in Jesus. Verse 42: ďAs Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.Ē Some wanted to hear this message again and came to trust Christ for themselves. And they gathered the next week to hear the message about Jesus again. Thatís the right response. Itís the response God seeks, that we humble ourselves and accept this message about Jesus. So Luke can say in verse 48 that the Gentiles who trusted the message about Jesus were glad and honoured the word of the Lord.Ē
But notice the other response. And that is rejecting Godís grace. So verse 45: ďWhen the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: "We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: "'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.íĒ So some reject the word. And in fact weíre told in verse 50 that it leads to violence against Paul and Barnabas. And sadly whenever Godís word is preached the hearers will be divided. Some will receive Godís grace and others will reject it. And in our proclamation of the message, that is what we should expect. We should expect some to accept it, and others to reject it. So donít be surprised if in the conversations you have about Jesus at work or at home, that you meet with rejection. Because as Jesus is rejected, so his servants who carry the message are rejected. Itís part and parcel of holding out the grace of God to a needy world. We will meet with rejection. But notice how God uses such rejection here to further his kingdom. For Paul will now turn more specifically to the Gentiles, the non Jews. Whilst he will always have a passion for his own people to hear about Jesus, from this point on, he will be known as the apostle to the Gentiles. He will carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. For Godís message can never be hindered. The word of the Lord will spread and people will be saved. Take confidence in that. Do you notice what happens in verse 49? Despite the rejection, the word of the Lord spreads in that region.
But I want to finish by asking each of us how we respond to this grace presented in Jesus. Because you might not know it, but coming to church each week is actually a very dangerous pastime. Because as you and I are confronted with the message about Jesus our hearts are either softened or hardened. Either we will humble ourselves before the word, or we will reject it. So which will it be? For some here, you may need to accept Jesus for the first time. To submit to him as the gracious saviour given to you by God. But for many of us, we need to think again how we respond to tonightís message. Do we have this understanding of the message that Paul preaches, a message of a gracious sovereign Lord who is king over history? A God who in his grace gives us a truthful and credible message, a message to be confidently and faithfully proclaimed? Or do we lack confidence in that message, perhaps a little weary and cynical of Godís grace. Because like those Jews in Antioch who thought they knew their Bibles, as they sat Sabbath after Sabbath hearing the word of God, we too sit here week by week hearing the Word of God spoken. And we too must take care we donít harden our hearts. As Godís people we too need to listen and obey. And like the Gentile hearers we must be glad and honour the word. Because that is the right response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
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