Although there may be a few people who really enjoy conflict and division, most of us do not. We like peace and will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. It’s always difficult when you need to talk to someone about a problem and you know that he probably will not welcome your insights. Most of us put off that kind of encounter as long as we possibly can.
Maybe that’s one reason that most of us are afraid to tell others about Jesus Christ. We know that the other person may not respond favorably, and we’d rather not create conflict. And we know that Satan will oppose the one who tells others about Christ. Who wants to engage in combat with the prince of darkness?
It was in the context of our confessing Christ before others that Jesus said,
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household (Matt. 10:34-36).
If we take a stand for Jesus Christ, we will encounter opposition, sometimes even from our own families. While we should always be sensitive and gracious to each person, and be careful not to be personally offensive, there is an inherently divisive quality about the very message we proclaim. The gospel is good news, but it is good news that divides.
We see this in our text. Everywhere that Paul and Barnabas went, they caused division. In 13:42-52, we see the reaction to Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch: Some believed and followed Paul and Barnabas; others rejected their message and created such strong opposition that they drove the evangelists out of the region. The same thing happened at the next town, Iconium (14:1-7): A great multitude believed and sided with the apostles; but others stirred up strong opposition, so that eventually the apostles had to flee for their lives. The gospel is good news that divides.
Why would we want to proclaim a message that is inherently divisive? There are a number of reasons. We know that the gospel is the truth, and that those who do not respond to it in faith will face God’s eternal judgment, but those who believe will be eternally saved. But these are not the main reasons that we should proclaim the gospel. The main reason that we should proclaim the gospel is that God is glorified through it when He saves sinners. Our text shows this when it says, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (13:48).
Since God is glorified in the salvation of His elect, He wants us boldly to proclaim the gospel, even though it divides people.
The glory of God is to be our supreme aim in everything: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Thus,
God created us in His image to reflect His glory. The fall of the human race into sin blocked God’s glory from shining through us. Sinful people do not glorify God. But what man lost in the first creation, God recovered in the new creation of the new man (Eph. 4:24; 2 Cor. 5:17). Thus our salvation, which God purposed before time began, results in the praise of the glory of His grace (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). The main reason we should desire to see people get saved is not so that they will be happy, but so that God will be glorified through their lives. To grasp this, we must understand two truths:
This truth is taught often and plainly throughout the Bible, and yet many Christians try to dodge it. Jesus spoke plainly about the elect (Matt. 24:22, 24, 31; Luke 18:7). Paul began his sermon at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch by referring to God’s choice of the fathers of the nation Israel (13:17). Later in Acts, Paul was in Corinth and was afraid. The Lord appeared to him in a vision and told him to go on speaking, promising His protection. Then He added, “for I have many people in this city” (18:10). Paul had not yet seen these people get saved. But they were God’s elect. He knew who they were and wanted Paul to keep preaching, so that they would be saved.
We see God’s election in our text at the end of verse 48, “and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Ray Stedman (Acts 13-20, The Growth of the Body [Vision House], p. 33) says,
Now do not turn this around. The verse does not say, “And as many as believed were ordained to eternal life.” Paul began this message by showing them that God is active, trying to reach out to men; it is not men who are trying to find God. When men believe, they are simply responding to the activity of God, who is already reaching out to them.
Stedman’s warning, not to turn this around, is important, because many do turn it around. They assert that the reason God elects people is that He knows in advance that they will believe, and so He ordains them to eternal life!
But Scripture is abundantly clear that election is unconditional on God’s part. It is based on His sovereign choice, totally apart from anything that He foresees us doing. As Paul so plainly states it in Romans 9:11-12, speaking about Jacob and Esau, “for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice [election] would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger.’” He goes on to mention God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart, and then concludes, “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (9:16). Our choice to believe the gospel is not why God elected us. His electing us is why we chose to believe the gospel.
You may be thinking, “Why bring up such a controversial matter, especially in a sermon about the gospel?” A main reason is that our text brings it up! Why does Luke do that? I believe that he does it because it is important to believe in the doctrine of election if you are going to engage in the work of evangelism, as we all should. If you go out thinking that salvation depends on man’s decision, you have no guarantee that anyone will decide to trust in Christ. In fact, you have the Bible’s guarantee that none will trust in Christ, because it plainly states that none seek after God of their own free will (Rom. 3:11). None come to Jesus unless the Father draws them (John 6:44). Satan has blinded their minds (2 Cor. 4:4) and holds them captive to do his will (2 Tim. 2:26). And, the people you are trying to convince to trust in Christ are dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1). So, lots of luck trying to evangelize them!
But, if God has an elect people whom He chose for salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4); if He has ordained that they will be saved by the proclamation of the gospel (Rom. 1:16); if He has the power to raise them from the dead and impart repentance and saving faith to them (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25); then, you can share the gospel with the confident faith that He will use the foolishness of the message preached to save some (1 Cor. 1:21). As Spurgeon put it (The Soul Winner [Eerdmans], p. 165; I have updated his English),
O preacher, if you are about to stand up to see what you can do, it will be your wisdom to sit down speedily. But if you stand up to prove what your almighty Lord and Master can do through you, then infinite possibilities lie around you!
We see this in the Gentiles’ response to the gospel: they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord” (13:48). Luke repeats the theme of joy in verse 52. Sinners who have been saved by God’s grace are filled with the joy of salvation. They extol Him for His goodness and love. His praises are continually in their mouths, as they sing, “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together” (Ps. 34:3). “Exalted be the God of my salvation” (Ps. 18:46). Paul exults in God’s salvation in Ephesians 1:3-6,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
God’s glory is the beauty of His perfect attributes, and that glory shines supremely at the cross, where His perfect love and justice meet. Thus as we glory in His salvation, we will be filled with joy and want others to know and glorify Him. God’s glory should be our supreme motive in sharing the gospel.
Many draw an erroneous conclusion. They say, “If God elected some to salvation, then they’re going to get saved no matter what. So why should we have to share the gospel with them?” The answer is, Because God ordained that the means by which His elect get saved is the preaching of the gospel. In 2 Timothy 2:10, Paul says, “For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen [the elect], so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory.” Paul suffered all of the beatings, imprisonments, hardships, and abuse that he went through so that God’s elect would obtain salvation. The message that we proclaim is the gospel.
Luke repeatedly emphasizes this. He refers twice to “the word of God” (13:44, 46); twice to “the word of the Lord” (13:48, 49); and, once to “the word of His grace” (14:3). In other words, the gospel did not originate with religiously clever men thinking up how we can be reconciled with God. All of the world’s religions that originate with man (or from Satan) involve a system of human works that supposedly will bring us into harmony with God. Whether Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or whatever, all these systems have one thing in common: they bring glory to man because salvation is by human works or merit.
But the gospel is altogether different. It wipes out all ground for our boasting. It takes away every human work, and attributes salvation to God alone, who chose us before the foundation of the world, before we ever did any good work, including choosing Him. This is why the doctrine of election is crucial, because it alone humbles human pride. John Calvin often made this application, both in his Institutes, and in other places. In a sermon on 1 Timothy 2:3-5, “The Salvation of All Men,” (The Mystery of Godliness and Other Sermons [Soli Deo Gloria], p.103; I updated the English) he says,
Thus we see how profitable this doctrine of election is to us: it serves to humble us, knowing that our salvation hangs not upon our deserts, neither upon the virtue which God might have found in us: but upon the election that was made before we were born, before we could do either good or evil.
No man would invent the doctrine of election, because it yanks the rug out from under human pride. We cannot glory even in our faith, which is also the gift of God. Joel Beeke writes, “The very act of faith by which we receive Christ is an act of utter renunciation of all our own works and righteousness as a condition or ground of salvation.” He then cites Horatius Bonar, who remarks, “Faith is not work, nor merit, nor effort; but the cessation from all these, and the acceptance in place of them of what another has done—done completely, and forever” (Justification by Faith Alone, ed. by Don Kistler [Soli Deo Gloria], pp. 65-66). Thus the gospel comes to us as the word of God, not the invention of man.
Luke refers to it as “the grace of God” (13:43), and as “the word of His grace” (14:3). It is obvious that Paul’s message was different than anything these people had ever heard before. They were begging that these things might be spoken to them again (13:42) because the grace of God in offering forgiveness of sins and justification by faith, rather than by the Law (13:38-39) was like water to their thirsty souls.
I find that there are many who have gone to religious services all their lives, and yet they have never heard of God’s grace that is offered to them in Jesus Christ. I once talked with a man who had been a lifelong Lutheran. He was in his early forties; he had been a deacon in a Lutheran Church. But he thought that the way to be right with God was by going to church and trying to be a better person. I told him, “That is exactly what Martin Luther thought before he got saved!” I explained to him that trying to keep God’s Law would only condemn him, because no one can keep it perfectly, and God requires perfect righteousness.
What Luther discovered after much agony of soul was that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to guilty sinners by faith, apart from any works or human merit. I asked him, “Have you ever heard this before?” He said, “No.” I asked him, “Would you like to put your trust in Jesus as the one who bore your sins and who fulfilled the Law in your behalf?” He prayed to receive Christ.
The Bible plainly declares that even the best of us have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Even those who strive to be righteous are filled with pride. They think that they can commend themselves to the holy God, which pulls Him down and elevates them. When we come to the cross of Christ as guilty sinners and simply receive what the Son of God did on our behalf, He saves us by His grace, and He gets all the glory.
You would think that everyone would welcome such good news. But the fact is, many hate it. Thus,
Ray Stedman (ibid., pp. 40-41) rightly observes,
One of the marks of true evangelism is always that those who are being affected by it are divided. They are either for it or against it. No neutrality is possible when the gospel is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit.
That is the picture we get here. In Pisidian Antioch, some eagerly responded to Paul’s message, but others vigorously opposed it. The opposition finally marshaled enough support to drive them out of that region. The same thing happened in Iconium: “The multitude of the city was divided” (14:4). God worked through their preaching so that a great multitude believed (14:1). But others not only opposed, but also rallied others to oppose (14:2).
Why do people oppose the wonderful news that God offers forgiveness of sins and justification apart from any human merit? The root reason is always pride. The gospel robs people of any ground for boasting. Another reason was jealousy (13:45). They wanted everyone to stay in their system of works, because they gained status by having everyone think how religious they were. When people repudiated their system of works and turned to the grace of God, it threatened their pride. Note that it was primarily the religious crowd that opposed Paul’s message (13:45, 50; 14:2, 4, 5). Isn’t it ironic that these religious Jews, who normally would keep themselves separate from the pagan Gentiles, would join together with them in order to fight against the gospel!
Note also that those who reject the gospel are responsible for their sin of unbelief. They judged themselves unworthy of eternal life (13:46). There is a sense, of course, in which no one is worthy of eternal life. Paul is not here contradicting the message he just proclaimed, that we are justified apart from our works. What he means is, “You have condemned yourselves by repudiating the gospel and blaspheming God Himself, who is the author of the gospel. By condemning Jesus, you condemn yourselves. Your own rejection proves that you are not the heirs of eternal life.”
The Bible teaches that while no one can come to Christ apart from God’s grace, everyone who goes to hell is responsible for his own unbelief and disobedience to God. No one will be able to blame God for not electing him to salvation. Rather, he will be condemned by his own stubborn unwillingness to believe and obey Jesus Christ (John 3:36; 2 Thess. 1:8; 2:10-12). Just as we err if we deny God’s unconditional election to salvation, we also err if we deny that sinners are responsible for their own condemnation.
When the Jews rejected the gospel, Paul and Barnabas didn’t quit and go home. Rather, they turned to the Gentiles, in obedience to God (“commanded,” 13:47). God intended that the Jews and their Messiah should be a light for the Gentiles, that they should bring salvation to the ends of the earth. So even though their lives were threatened, Paul and Barnabas continued boldly preaching the gospel (14:7). There is a difference between boldness and stupidity. When it looked like they were about to be stoned, Paul and Barnabas fled to some other cities. But the point is, they didn’t let opposition or even the threat of death stop them from proclaiming Jesus as the light of the world.
This is not just the task of the apostles or of those in “full time” Christian work. Luke tells us that “the word of the Lord was being spread through the whole region” (13:49). Paul and Barnabas could not have done this by themselves. The only way it happened was that those who had received God’s grace in Christ went around telling others. Evangelism is the responsibility of everyone who has tasted of God’s grace. Our task is not done until the ends of the earth have heard the good news.
It seems to me that we are in danger in our day of taking the offense out of the gospel. We’ve made it a safe, palatable message that would offend no one. “If you’re unhappy in life, try Jesus. He will make you happy. You don’t have to worry about your sin—no repentance required. Just believe and live as you’ve always lived!” That is not the gospel. Augustine pointed out, “If you believe what you like in the gospel and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”
The gospel confronts every sinner with his sin. It confronts the religious sinner with his pride. It confronts the immoral sinner with his immorality. It confronts the greedy sinner with his love of money. It convicts every sinner of his guilt before the holy God. Then it offers to every sinner the free grace of God, who sacrificed His own Son as the just substitute for sinners. It shows that no sinner can save himself, but that God will save everyone who casts himself on Jesus alone. If we are saved, it is because God chose to save us, and all the glory goes to Him. If we are lost, it is because of our stubborn pride and disobedience. That message is divisive because it confronts human pride and glorifies God alone. It is the only message that we are to proclaim.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation