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Lesson 26: Salvation for All Who Believe (Acts 10:34-48)

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Since life is short and uncertain and eternity is forever, the most important question anyone can answer is, “How can I be saved?” How can I know for certain that I am right with God? Sadly, even among professing Christians there are different answers to that crucial question. Many think that if a person is sincere, it really doesn’t matter what he believes. But you can sincerely believe that you are swallowing medicine that will make you well, but if it really is poison, your sincerity does not matter. It does matter greatly what you believe!

Another common belief is that to be saved, we must be good people. If we try to do our best, if we don’t hurt anyone, if we help others, then we will get into heaven. Often faith in Christ is combined with good works. If we believe in Jesus and do the best we can, the combination will get us into heaven.

As most of you know, the Bible teaches clearly that we are saved by grace (God’s undeserved favor) through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from our own goodness or good works (Eph. 2:8-9). But sometimes even those who know and believe that truth personally do not live it in terms of its practical application. For example, we may think that God can save someone who is a notorious sinner, but surely that person must first clean up his life a bit. But to say that is to deny God’s free grace.

Peter and the other apostles knew that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by our good works or efforts. But practically speaking, up till now they also believed that to be right with God, a pagan Gentile had to become a Jew in the sense of obeying the Jewish laws regarding circumcision and ceremonial issues. The thought of a Gentile getting saved without coming through the door of Judaism was foreign to them. But as we’ve seen, God has been breaking down Peter’s Jewish prejudices on this matter. Now they are all swept away in an instant, as the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house clearly get saved and receive the Holy Spirit in the same manner as the Jews had on the Day of Pentecost.

This was a radical turning point in God’s economy of salvation. For almost 2,000 years since Abraham, salvation had been from the Jews (John 4:22) and through the Jews. A Gentile had to become a Jewish proselyte in order to know and worship God in the way that God ordained. God had promised Abraham that through his descendants, all the nations would be blessed (Gen. 12:3). But up till now, the blessing of salvation was pretty much bottled up with the Jews. But now a radical shift takes place. The door of salvation swings wide open to the Gentiles, and it does not require them first to become Jews. It surprised Peter’s Jewish traveling companions (10:45), and although Peter had come to understand it intellectually (10:34), it probably startled him, too. The wonderful truth is:

Everyone who believes in Christ receives God’s salvation.

Peter’s sermon and its surprising result teach us five lessons:

1. Salvation is not based on national identity nor is it based on good works.

Peter begins his sermon by saying, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him” (10:34-35). The first part of that statement is easy to understand; the second part may cause some trouble.

By the first part, Peter means that God does not show favor to anyone based on the person’s nationality. That was not always the case. That God was not partial was taught in the Old Testament (Deut. 10:17), but it was in a decidedly Jewish context. Moses had just pointed out (Deut. 10:15) how God had chosen the Jews above all other peoples. In that context, he used God’s impartiality to exhort Israel not to accept bribes, to show equal justice to everyone, and even to treat aliens with love by meeting their basic needs. But the Old Testament clearly shows God’s favoritism for the Jews above other nations during the 2,000 years from Abraham to Christ. So you can see how difficult it would be for any Jew to shift his thinking on this matter.

But now God was doing a new thing. Through his vision of the sheet being let down from heaven and the subsequent events, Peter has come to this radical conclusion, that God is not partial to anyone on the basis of nationality. Now God could bring Gentiles directly into a relationship with Him apart from their becoming Jews. This insight would change the history of the world.

The application for us is that people from every racial and national background are on equal footing when it comes to receiving the gospel. They don’t have to become “Americanized” to become Christians. They can keep cultural traditions that do not violate Scripture. They can sing songs that fit with their culture, even if they don’t sound like American hymns. They can dress in their native styles, as long as they are modest. American missionaries need to be careful not to imply that to become a Christian is to become an American. God forbid!

The second part of Peter’s statement is more difficult to understand. At first glance, it seems to contradict the first part, that God does not show partiality. It sounds like God is partial to those who fear Him and do what is right. And it seems to imply that God accepts people based on good character and good works, which goes against salvation by grace through faith apart from works.

We need to interpret it in the context of this chapter. Cornelius was a God-fearing man who did many good deeds (10:2, 22). In his introduction, Peter seems to be courteously acknowledging this, much as an evangelist might find something in his audience to compliment as a way of building a bridge to them. But we need to understand that although Cornelius was a good man, his goodness had not saved him. Peter came to explain the way of salvation to him because he still needed to be saved (11:14). He still needed to receive forgiveness for his sins (10:43). The whole point of the narrative is to show how this man came to salvation.

As I have said in earlier messages, whenever a man is seeking after God, it is because God is working to draw that man to Himself (Rom. 3:10; John 6:44, 65). Cornelius has not yet come across the line of salvation, but his fear of God and his good deeds show that God is drawing him toward that point. Before Peter’s sermon is over, he crosses the line and gets saved.

God works differently with different people. He saves some right out of the cesspool of sin. They are wallowing in it, not seeking after God, when He dramatically enters their lives and rescues them. At that moment, they turn from their sins to follow Christ. But with others, like Cornelius, God puts the hunger in their hearts to know Him. They begin to seek Him and they try to please Him with their lives. But they’re still sinners and they do not get saved until they hear the gospel and believe in Jesus Christ.

Here’s the lesson to be learned from Cornelius: If you want to know God and have your sins forgiven, you’re more likely to succeed through reading the Bible and going to a Bible-preaching church than by going to the local bar. In other words, God uses certain means to save people. If a person keeps on in his sinful ways, he is not using the means that God has given to reveal His salvation. By reading God’s Word and by listening to the preaching of the Word, the seeking soul will be rewarded as Cornelius was, by obtaining eternal life. But in every case, salvation is not by nationality or by any righteousness of our own. It is by God’s grace.

2. Salvation centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Luke probably gives us just a synopsis of Peter’s sermon. Many commentators point out that it follows the pattern of Mark’s gospel, beginning with John’s baptism, telling of Jesus’ ministry of doing good and healing, both in Galilee and Jerusalem. He briefly mentions the crucifixion, but camps more on the resurrection and the witnesses who had been chosen beforehand by God to tell of these things. He emphasizes that the risen Lord had commanded them solemnly to testify that He has been appointed by God to be the Judge of the living and the dead. He concludes by saying that all the prophets bear witness that through His name, everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.

Note several details from Peter’s sermon. First, God took the initiative in sending the gospel. He sent the word to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (10:36). Men may come up with various ways to approach or appease God, but they all fall short. Only God could initiate the way of peace by sending His Son to this earth as the One who would bear our sins. The fact that Christ preached peace implies that there is hostility and alienation between sinful men and the holy God. Many people are oblivious to such hostility. They do not understand God’s absolute holiness and His hatred of all sin. While they admit that they aren’t perfect, they see themselves as basically good. They compare themselves with criminals and other evil people, and conclude that God will let them into heaven someday because they are not like these overtly wicked people.

But the Bible plainly declares that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). If we have broken only one of God’s holy commandments, we are guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10). Those who think that they are righteous enough to enter God’s holy presence are guilty of pride of the worst sort. Thus there is hostility between them and God, even if they do not realize it. Jesus Christ is God’s only means of peace.

Also, notice that Peter states plainly that Jesus is Lord of all, meaning, not only Lord of the Jews, but also of Gentiles. This emphasizes both Jesus’ deity, since the Lord is God, and His absolute authority. This ties into the end of his sermon, where he states that God has appointed the risen Lord Jesus to be the Judge of the living and the dead. Everyone who has ever lived will stand trial before the Lord Jesus, who will judge every thought and intent of the heart.

Further, Peter emphasizes how God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him (10:38). Christ (or Messiah) means anointed one. In His humanity, Jesus showed us how we as humans should live, in dependence upon God, doing good to others, and overcoming Satan’s oppression. This also shows the cosmic battle that rages between God and Satan. To preach the gospel is to engage in combat with this evil enemy.

Jesus’ death on the cross (Peter uses the word “tree” to bring up the nuance of the curse) was God’s means of making peace between Himself and sinners. Jesus paid the debt that we deserve. God took our sin and laid it on Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb, who had no sin of His own (Isa. 53). Because He is God, His death has infinite value; because He is man, His death is the perfect substitute for the sins of humans.

But had Jesus died and remained in the grave, His death would not have sufficed. God raised Him up on the third day and substantiated His resurrection by making Him visible to certain chosen witnesses (10:40-41). Peter mentions that they ate and drank with Him to underscore the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and to show that it was not merely a spiritual resurrection, but physical. This risen Lord Jesus is the One whom God appointed to be the Judge of everyone who has ever lived. Peter concludes with the good news, that all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.

Peter’s sermon offers several applications for us. First, people need to understand the basic facts about the life and ministry of Jesus before they can make an intelligent decision to repent and believe in Him. If they have never read the Gospels, they may need to start there to gain enough information to respond to Christ.

Second, we need to stay focused on the person and work of Christ when we talk to people about spiritual things. It’s easy to get distracted and talk about evolution or predestination or some moral or social issue. Keep bringing the conversation back to who Jesus is and what He did on the cross. Jesus is the issue!

Third, we have not adequately proclaimed the gospel if we leave out the lordship of Jesus and the solemn fact of the coming judgment. Peter lets his audience know that Jesus is Lord whether they acknowledge Him as such or not, and that He is the coming Judge of everyone. Unless people realize that they have been in rebellion against the rightful Lord of the universe and that they will stand before Him as guilty someday, they have no reason to repent and flee to the cross for forgiveness. If we skim over the bad news in an attempt not to offend someone, they might “try” Jesus to see if He makes them happier. But if He “doesn’t work,” they will turn to something else. They won’t have what it takes to endure hardship or persecution.

3. Salvation spreads to others through the faithful proclamation of God’s appointed witnesses.

Peter repeatedly emphasizes this point. He says, “We are witnesses of all the things He did” (10:39). He repeats that they were witnesses of His resurrection, chosen beforehand by God (10:41). He adds that Jesus ordered them to preach to the people and testify about Jesus as the coming Judge (10:42). And, he adds how all the prophets bear witness of Jesus as the One we must believe in to receive forgiveness of sins (10:43).

The point for us is that if God has saved us from our sins, then He has appointed us as witnesses to others of the salvation that is available through Jesus Christ. God’s method is not to proclaim the gospel through the angels or to shout it from heaven. His method is to use His people to tell others.

4. Salvation comes to everyone who believes in the name of Jesus.

The name of Jesus refers to all that He is and all that He did. Even though Cornelius was a good man, he still needed to hear about Jesus Christ and to put his trust in Him. As Peter proclaimed in 4:12, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” This means that there is no salvation for good Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no salvation for good Americans who live in a supposedly “Christian” nation, apart from personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no salvation for good Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses as long as they continue to believe in a false Jesus rather than the person of the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in the Bible. But there is salvation for everyone who believes in Him.

Believing in the name of Jesus does not refer to a general, vague sort of belief. Rather, it is specific and personal. To believe in Jesus means that I believe He is the Lord who gave Himself on the cross for my sins. I believe the promise of God, that whoever believes on Him receives eternal life as God’s gift, not based on any human merit, but only on God’s free grace. To believe in Jesus means that I no longer rely on anything in myself to commend myself to God. Rather, I trust only in what Jesus did on the cross as my hope for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

Thus Peter’s sermon teaches us that salvation is not based on national identity or good works. It centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. It spreads to others through the faithful proclamation of God’s witnesses. It comes to everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Finally,

5. Salvation results in obvious evidence in those who receive it.

Peter didn’t even get to finish his sermon before everyone responded! In fact, in recounting it, he says, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them” (11:15). He was just warming up when God intervened and everyone got saved! I can only touch on them, but note these four evident results:

  • They received the Holy Spirit.

Since Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in the believer at the moment of salvation (Rom. 8:9; Gal. 3:2). This is not something that we feel experientially, but rather a fact that God’s Word declares. As a believer learns to walk in the Spirit, over time the deeds of the flesh will diminish and the fruit of the Spirit will increase (Gal. 5:16-23), thus making the Spirit’s presence evident.

  • They spoke in unlearned foreign languages.

This text does not teach that speaking in tongues is the normal experience of those who get saved and receive the Holy Spirit. This was a unique situation. God gave this miraculous sign to the Gentiles so that the Jewish Christians would realize that they were on equal footing (11:15, 17). As I’ve said before, this gift was not ecstatic utterances, but rather speaking in translatable foreign languages that the speaker had not studied. This fact alone shows that most tongues-speaking today is not the New Testament gift.

  • They were baptized in water.

Water baptism is the outward profession of what God has done spiritually, and thus it follows salvation. Peter did not baptize these people himself, but let those Jews who had traveled with him do it to involve them in what had happened. Everyone who has believed in Christ as Savior and Lord should obey Him by being baptized in water.

  • They desired to know more and to grow in their faith.

They asked Peter to stay on for a few days, and the implication is that he did stay on to instruct them in their new faith. Everyone who is truly saved will desire to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18). Like newborn babes, we will long for the milk of the Word, that by it we may grow in respect to salvation, if we have tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Pet. 2:2-3).

Conclusion

Dr. A. C. Gaebelein, a Bible teacher who lived early in the 20th century, was holding evangelistic meetings at a YMCA. As you know, the Y used to be distinctly Christian in focus. One day the director of the Y showed Gaebelein a card that he was in the habit of handing out. It read, “I promise faithfully henceforth to lead a religious and Christian life.” There was a place to sign one’s name. The man said, “How do you like that? Isn’t that a pretty good way of putting it?”

Dr. Gaebelein replied, “How on earth can a dead man live any kind of a life? What is the use of putting a card like that into the hands of a dead sinner and having him sign it and say, ‘I promise faithfully henceforth to lead a religious and Christian life’? You cannot live a life for God until you receive a life from God.” (Told by H. A. Ironside, In the Heavenlies [Loizeaux Brothers], p. 102.)

Salvation does not come to anyone through his or her efforts to live the Christian life. Even good, religious people need the forgiveness that Jesus offers. He will be either your Judge or your Savior. He offers salvation to everyone who will believe in Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is verse 35 not teaching that good works merit God’s favor?
  2. What are some illustrations you can use to show people that salvation is not by human effort or good works?
  3. Why must people hear and understand the bad news before they can truly receive the good news? Should we attempt to impress it on them or should we leave it to the Holy Spirit?
  4. Some say that speaking in tongues is the sign of receiving the Holy Spirit. How would you refute this biblically?

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

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 27: How God Changes Our Thinking (Acts 11:1-18)

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I have a book on creative thinking that is titled, A Whack on the Side of the Head (by Roger von Oech [Warner Books]). We all get into mental ruts and often need a whack on the side of the head to jar us into new and better ways of thinking. Also, we all bring a lot of wrong-thinking baggage with us into the Christian life. If we are to grow into being more like Jesus, every once in a while God has to take a 2x4 and gently whack us on the side of the head to help us change our thinking.

We’ve seen how the Lord whacked Peter in preparation for his going to the house of the Gentile centurion, Cornelius. No Jew would think of going into a Gentile home, much less eating with Gentiles, for fear of contracting ceremonial defilement. The Lord Jesus had clearly told the apostles to go into all the world to preach the gospel to every creature. But in their centuries-old Jewish way of thinking, the disciples thought that Jesus meant for them to go and preach to Jews who were scattered all over the world. But the thought of preaching the gospel to pagan Gentiles and of those Gentiles coming to salvation without first becoming religious Jews was simply unthinkable.

But now the unthinkable has happened for Peter. He wisely had taken six Jewish believers with him to Cornelius’ house, who witnessed what God was doing. They all saw the Holy Spirit fall upon the Gentiles in just the same way as He had fallen upon the believing Jews on the Day of Pentecost. But now Peter goes back to Jerusalem and the Jewish believers there call him on the carpet because he “went to uncircumcised men and ate with them” (11:3).

A lot of pastors just skip over these verses, since they repeat the story of chapter 10. But whenever Scripture repeats something, we need to take notice. There is an important lesson here that we might be prone to miss. Our text shows how God changed the thinking of these Christians on a matter that was essential for the spread of the gospel. If the Gentiles had been required to adopt Jewish rituals and ceremonies to be saved, the gospel would not have spread around the Gentile world as it did, and it would be a different “gospel.” The Holy Spirit inspired Luke to include this story twice so that the Jewish believers especially would see that salvation is not a matter of adopting Jewish rituals, but rather of God saving people of every race through faith in Christ alone.

But these Jewish Christians needed to change their thinking. The story shows how God began that process, and how He works to change our thinking:

To accomplish His sovereign purpose in salvation, God has to change the wrong thinking of His people.

First we need to understand God’s sovereign purpose:

1. God’s sovereign purpose includes the salvation of some from every nation for His glory.

God prophesied His purpose to Abraham in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 12:3, where He told him, “And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Later God told him, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). That seed of Abraham was not just the Jewish race, but specifically Jesus Christ, God’s promised Redeemer. In the last book of the Bible, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fall down before the Lamb and sing, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and they will reign upon the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). Thus God’s purpose is to glorify Himself through the salvation of His elect from every nation through the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ.

That purpose in its beginning stage is acknowledged in 11:18, where the Jewish believers say, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” The Greek word for “Gentiles” is ethne, often translated “nations.” While the Jewish Christians did not yet grasp the full ramifications of what God was doing, the apostle Paul would later expound on it in Ephesians 2 & 3. He calls it “the mystery of Christ,” and acknowledges that it was not made known in previous generations. But now it has “been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit, to be specific, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:5-6). While for 2,000 years the nation of Israel had been God’s chosen people, now all the nations are on equal standing before God through the cross of Jesus Christ. Everyone who comes in faith and repentance to Christ becomes a part of God’s kingdom of priests, made up of Jew and Gentile in the body. This concept was nothing short of revolutionary!

I could spend the rest of the message elaborating on what I am about to tell you, but I will limit myself to three brief implications that you can chew on more on your own:

1) Concerning God’s purpose, it is fundamental to understand that salvation is God’s program and God’s doing, but He uses us in the process.

A major theme in this story is that God took the initiative in the salvation of the Gentiles. It’s all through the story: God gave the vision to Peter of the sheet being lowered from heaven with the unclean animals and the command to eat. Peter wasn’t trying to come up with some new theology. God, not Peter, originated this process. Further, God sent His angel to Cornelius with instructions as to how to get in contact with Peter. He orchestrated the arrival of the Gentile messengers from Cornelius with Peter’s vision, and specifically told Peter to go with them without any misgivings. He sovereignly saved the Gentiles and sent the Holy Spirit upon them even before Peter finished his sermon. As verse 18 states, He granted to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life. No one can work up or will repentance by his own free choice. God must grant it as His gift to sinners who do not deserve it. Thus salvation comes totally from the Lord.

At the same time, He uses us fallible humans to further the gospel. The angel did not preach the gospel to Cornelius, but rather told him that Peter would speak words by which he would be saved (11:14). We see this same emphasis in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, where Paul makes it clear that salvation is due to God’s choosing and God’s working, and yet He is pleased to use the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. This point is important because some wrongly conclude that if salvation depends on God’s sovereignty, then we don’t have to do anything. That is simply unbiblical! God sovereignly takes the initiative and He sovereignly grants repentance to those whom He chose before the foundation of the world. But He does it through His people obediently preaching the gospel.

2) If you are not in some way involved in getting the gospel to the nations, you’re not involved in God’s purpose.

World missions is not just an optional program in the church for some to be involved in. Missions is what God is doing! Not all are called to go, but every believer should be interested and concerned enough to educate himself or herself about the task. Out of that interest, we all can and should be praying for missions. We all should be giving to missions. If world missions is at the heart of God’s purpose, then apathy about missions is inexcusable!

3) The local church should be as racially diverse as the local population.

If God’s purpose is to save some from every nation (ethnic group), and we have many diverse nations (ethnic groups) in our city, then we are not fulfilling God’s purpose if our church is not reaching some from every group. As a church, we should be thinking of ways that we can reach across cultural barriers and see people from different racial and cultural backgrounds coming to faith in Jesus Christ.

As I said, I could spend the whole message on this point, but hopefully I’ve said enough for you to get a glimpse of God’s purpose. Maybe also you have begun to see how your thinking needs to change. But I need to say more on that:

2. We all bring wrong thinking into the Christian life.

By nature, we all are ethnocentric. We all bring wrong theological views into our Christian experience. Spurgeon (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:164) said that we’re all by nature born Arminians, so that at first we think that we came to the Lord ourselves. Only later we learn from God’s Word that He first sought us. Part of the process of sanctification is God’s transforming our minds (Rom. 12:2) as we begin to assimilate the truths of His Word. Here are three ways that Peter’s critics in Jerusalem were thinking wrongly:

1) Wrong thinking: human traditions are more important than salvation.

Peter had seen this remarkable response, as a whole house full of Gentiles had believed in Christ and were saved. But rather than rejoicing over what God had done, these saints were grumbling about the matter of Peter’s eating with Gentiles! The Old Testament did not forbid Jews from having social contact with Gentiles, although it did specify what sorts of foods they could eat. But these Jewish Christians were more concerned about Peter violating kosher laws than they were happy about the Gentiles getting saved!

But before we try to remove the mote in their eye, let’s deal with the beam in our own eye! We often do the same thing. We elevate certain traditions or ways of doing things above the salvation of lost souls. We are all for seeing young people getting saved, but they had better make sure that they not delay in looking and acting like those who have been in the church for 50 years!

When Marla was a young believer, she went to a church of hippies that met in a park. (She was the only non-hippie in the church, of course!) They met in a park because a youth pastor had seen a large number of young people from the counter-culture come to faith in Christ, but the church he served did not want that sort of young person coming to that church. After all, they might wrongly influence our clean-cut (but spiritually dead) youth! Sadly, he went to several churches in the area, asking if he could bring these young people into these churches, but he was refused. Finally, he took them and started meeting in the park.

If any of your cultural baggage (and I’m including your spiritual culture) is getting in the way of your enthusiastic commitment to reaching people from different cultures with the gospel, drop your baggage! Our main focus should be the salvation of lost people to the glory of God. If you see someone come into church who is not “your kind of person” and you don’t go out of your way to make that person feel welcome, your heart is in the wrong place! In the early 1970’s, I was able to visit Peninsula Bible Church where Ray Stedman was pastor. You would see little old grandmas sitting next to long-haired hippies worshiping together. That’s how the local church should be!

2) Wrong thinking: the church should consist of “my kind” of people.

We all are prone to think that the church is for folks just like us, but not for those who are much different than we are. There is even a principle espoused by the Church Growth movement, “the homogeneous unit” principle. It states that people are attracted to churches that have “their kind of people,” and advocates that we should be targeting a certain segment of the society. So you have churches that state that their target is to reach the Baby Boomers, or the Generation Xers. They aim their whole church service to make these kinds of people feel comfortable.

I believe that this approach undermines God’s purpose for the church (see Eph. 3:4-11). God is most glorified when a local church is made up of culturally and racially diverse people who would never get together apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ. I think it’s biblically wrong to have a contemporary service for the younger generation and a traditional service for the older folks. We all need to learn from one another and learn to get along with one another. The church is God’s adopted family, made up of children from every conceivable background, to His glory.

3) Wrong thinking: God has to do things my way.

These Jewish Christians probably would have said that it’s okay for God to save the Gentiles, but first they need to become Jews. But for God to save them just as they are? That doesn’t fit with my way of thinking! He has to do it my way!

Church members are notorious for saying, “We’ve never done it that way before!” For example, there are many in evangelical churches who think that if you don’t give an altar call, you haven’t preached the gospel. Yet neither John Wesley nor George Whitefield nor Charles Spurgeon gave altar calls, and they were some of the most effective evangelists in the history of the church. It was Charles Finney who popularized the idea, based on some bad theology. But because it is the dominant method in our day, people think that we have to do it that way. The test of any method or any way of thinking must be God’s Word, properly interpreted and applied.

Sometimes God surprises us as He surprised Peter by saving people even before we finish our sermon and give an invitation! And the people He saves aren’t the kind of folks we would think He would save! We need to allow God’s Word to confront our wrong thinking so that we can grow in Christ and be more usable in His purpose.

3. God changes our wrong thinking so that we can be His instruments in His work.

If Peter had stuck to his protest, “By no means, Lord,” God couldn’t have used him to preach to Cornelius’ household. If we want God to use us in His great purpose of being glorified through the salvation of the nations, we must let Him change us. How does He do it? In many ways, but here are six from our text:

1) God changes us as we seek to walk with Him.

It was while Peter was praying that the Lord gave him this life-changing vision. If Peter had skipped his prayer time, he might have missed what God wanted to do through him. God will not change your thinking if you rarely spend time alone with Him.

2) God changes us by jarring us through uncomfortable circumstances.

Peter didn’t start out his prayer time thinking that he needed to come up with a creative new ministry idea. Rather, God sovereignly intervened with His ideas and His agenda! And God’s agenda shocked Peter, as seen by his startled reply, “By no means, Lord!” It was the Lord’s whack on the side of Peter’s head!

The Lord often has to whack us to get us to change. If we’re comfortable, we don’t feel any need to change. But if we’re suddenly hit with a new situation that’s outside our comfort zone, we realize that our old ways of thinking won’t do. We have to listen to the Lord and trust Him to do something we can’t do in our own strength.

3) God changes us by repeating the lesson until it sinks in.

The Lord had to repeat the vision three times for Peter. He repeats this story twice for every reader of Scripture, so that we get the point. And, the process of God’s changing their thinking was not finished with Peter’s explanation here. A party of Jews who professed to be Christians insisted that a person had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses to be saved. The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) had to work through this important issue, and Paul wrote Galatians to refute this serious error. Even Peter later fell into this wrong thinking, as Paul mentions in Galatians 2:11-15. But God often has to whack us again and again until the truth sinks in. In my own life, I’ve looked back on some issues and thought, “Why didn’t I see it sooner?”

4) God changes us by appealing to our thinking with His Word of truth.

Peter wins over his critics by relating in orderly fashion his experiences of how God worked. He could have asserted his apostolic authority: “I’m an apostle and you all need to submit to what I did.” But he would not have convinced the thinking of those who needed to change. Lasting change has to take place in the mind, and we must be convinced that the new way of thinking is in line with Scripture. So he shared the process that God took him through to change his thinking.

But if Peter’s experiences had contradicted Scripture, then they would not have been from the Lord. Granted, he had to take a new look at Scripture (such as the Abrahamic Covenant), because he thought that he understood it before. The Old Testament has much to say about the Gentiles sharing in God’s salvation, but Peter had missed it. Here, as far as what is recorded, he does not go into a biblical defense. But he does square his experience of the Gentiles receiving the Spirit with what the Lord had said about that subject (11:16). No doubt Peter became even more clear as he later read and interacted with Paul’s epistles. But change comes as our thinking changes through God’s Word.

5) God changes us by getting us to see that He is sovereign and we are not.

There is a basic lesson that we all need to learn, although we’re all slow to learn it. Repeat it after me: “I am not the Lord of the church; Jesus is!” This is not my church; it’s His church. He is in charge and He can do as He pleases, and He doesn’t even need to consult with me! If we’re not careful, we can end up standing in God’s way (11:17).

6) God changes us so that He can use us in greater ways to fulfill His sovereign purpose in saving the lost.

These things happened about seven years after the Day of Pentecost, and the gospel was still bottled up pretty much among the Jews! Philip had seen the Samaritans get saved and the Ethiopian eunuch. But the apostles were pretty much still in Jerusalem ministering to the Jews. God had to jar Peter and use some persecution (11:19) to get the message flowing to the Gentiles.

But, sadly, the Jerusalem church never really caught on. Their Jewish identity was so dominant that they did not launch a mission to the Gentiles, even after Peter’s experience. Maybe they figured that the Cornelius experience was an interesting one-time event, but they didn’t take it beyond there. In time, the significance of the Jerusalem church waned. The rest of Acts is mostly taken up with the Gentile mission through the church at Antioch and the missionary journeys of Paul. The lesson for us is that if we do not respond to the opportunities that God gives us, He will set us aside and use others.

Conclusion

The reason that the Trout family is in our church is that I received a phone call from a man in Phoenix working with the Southwest CBA. He said that he had a man in Flagstaff who wanted to reach out to the Spanish speaking community here, but he couldn’t find a church that would share that vision. I asked him how much financial support we had to commit to. He said, “None. They just need a church to be behind their vision and to provide a place where they can meet.” I said, “Send him here!” I knew that if we shut the door to reaching out to this segment of our city, the Lord would not bless this church.

God’s purpose is to be glorified as His people reach out to those from every people group with the good news of His saving grace. If your thinking is not in line with God’s purpose, I pray that He will use this message to whack you on the side of the head!

Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss: Missions is not a program in the church; it is the program of the church.
  2. Why is a mono-cultural church (“Baby Boomers,” etc.) not biblical? Why should the church be multi-cultural/racial?
  3. What are some American church traditions that may hinder our outreach to this culture?
  4. Is there any wrong thinking that we as a church (or you as an individual) need to change to conform to God’s Word?

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

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Predestination

Lesson 28: The Church God Blesses (Acts 11:19-30)

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We live in a day when many evangelical churches seek to build their attendance through gimmicks and entertainment. Years ago, when this trend toward church growth was beginning to take hold, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones told a group at Westminster Chapel in London, where he was pastor, that he knew a way to insure that every seat would be filled the following Sunday. To understand this story, you need to know that Dr. Lloyd-Jones was a very proper Welshman who always wore a suit. In his biography, there is a picture of him at the beach with his little daughter, and he is wearing a suit as he sits on the sand! I think he was born wearing a suit!

Anyway, the people in his church said, “Tell us, tell us,” and “Let’s do it!” “It’s very simple,” he said. “Put a notice in the Saturday edition of The [London] Times that I shall appear in the pulpit the next day wearing a bathing suit!” After a shocked silence on the part of the group, Dr. Lloyd-Jones went on to talk about the biblical basis for proper worship, as opposed to the approach of using entertainment to entice people to attend church (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Iain Murray [Banner of Truth], 2:112).

Pastors today flock to seminars that tell them how to market the church in today’s world. They learn how to make the church user-friendly for outsiders. They are taught how to shorten the sermon and make it non-threatening to the unchurched, while using drama and multi-media to get the message across. And, the methods “work”! Some of the largest evangelical churches in America use these methods and teach them to thousands of pastors who see dramatic results.

In our text, we see an example of impressive church growth. From a small group of persecuted refugees, the church in Antioch saw large numbers of people come to Christ. In fact, three times Luke underscores the large numbers (11:21, 24, 26). But the reason this church experienced such remarkable growth was not that the leaders employed the latest church growth principles. They didn’t study the demographics of Antioch and come up with a strategy to market the church to the masses. Rather, the reason for the growth was simple: “The hand of the Lord was with them” (11:21). This was a church that God was blessing. That should be our aim, that the hand of the Lord would be with us.

To be a church that God blesses, we should learn from the church of Antioch.

Employing the principles that this church followed will not necessarily result in numerical growth, since God does not always grant numerical growth along with His blessing. And, we would be mistaken to conclude that God is blessing every growing church, since as I’ve said, churches can grow by using marketing techniques. But we would certainly hinder God’s blessing if we knowingly violated the principles embodied in this church. If we want the hand of the Lord to be with us, then we would do well to study and follow the example of this church at Antioch. There are seven principles I want to point out:

1. God blesses a church where every member is a minister.

The founding and prospering of the church at Antioch was arguably one of the most significant events in the history of Western civilization. It led to the distinctiveness of the Christian church apart from the Jewish synagogue, in that it blended together in one body both Jews and Gentiles. It was here that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. From Antioch, the church launched the first mission to Europe. You and I conceivably would not be Christians today had it not been for God’s blessing on this church.

One remarkable feature of this church was how it started. It was not founded by apostles or pastors or trained missionaries. Rather, some unnamed men who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen came to Antioch and began talking, not just to the Jews, but to the Greeks (Gentiles), telling the good news about the Lord Jesus (11:20). The Greek word for “speak” (11:19, 20) is the word for normal conversation. The implication is that these men didn’t preach as orators in the marketplace. Rather, in their everyday contacts, they told others about Jesus Christ. There is reason to believe that Luke himself was a native of Antioch. Perhaps as a doctor, he was treating a man who told him about Jesus Christ, leading to his conversion.

But surely Luke either knew or easily could have found out the names of these evangelists. He mentions where they were from. Yet they remain unnamed, I believe, for a reason. If they had been named, we would hold them up as missionary heroes, and view them as men a notch above the average church member. We would think that what they did was something that we could never do. But their remaining unnamed tells us that they were common men who had met the Lord Jesus and who wanted others to know Him, too. We all can do what they did.

Note also that even when Barnabas and Saul later rose to positions of leadership through their teaching ministry, this church did not depend on them in order to function and grow. They could send both of them off on a relief mission to Jerusalem, which would have taken at least a couple of months, and keep operating. Later, when the Holy Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul for the first missionary journey, the church could send off these two key leaders and keep right on rolling. This was because this church knew the principle of the body, that God has gifted every member and each one is expected to exercise his or her gift in ministry.

If the spreading of the gospel or the functioning of the church depends on the labors of full-time missionaries or pastors, ministry will be severely limited. But if every person who has trusted in Christ as Savior and Lord feels the obligation of serving Him and of telling others the good news about Him, the gospel will spread and the church will be built up. Every Christian should sense his or her responsibility to serve Christ and bear witness of Him.

2. God blesses a church where the gospel is proclaimed as the power of God to save sinners.

To understand our text, you need to know something about Antioch. It was located 300 miles north of Jerusalem and was the third largest city in the Roman empire, behind Rome and Alexandria, having more than 500,000 residents. It was a center for commerce and a crossroads for travel and trade between Europe and the Orient. This made the city a melting pot of various races, including the Romans, the local Syrians, Jews, and others.

The city was proverbial for sexual immorality. Five miles outside of town was the grove of Daphne, where worshipers of Artemis and Apollo pursued their religion of pleasure with temple prostitutes. The Roman satirist Juvenal criticized the moral pollution of Rome by saying that the sewage of the Orontes (a river flowing through Antioch) had for too long been discharged into the Tiber (flowing through Rome). He “meant that Antioch was so corrupt that it was impacting Rome, more than 1,300 miles away” (Stanley Toussaint, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 2:383).

It is significant that when God picked a city that would become the center for missionary endeavor, He picked a cosmopolitan, morally corrupt city like Antioch. In this secular, pagan environment, common Christians began telling the simple gospel message that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, that whoever believes in Him receives eternal life and forgiveness as God’s free gift. The same gospel that is the power of God for salvation to the Jews proved to be the power of God for salvation to these pagan Gentiles as well.

The end of verse 20 literally reads, “telling [or preaching] the good news [of] the Lord Jesus.” But in telling the good news, they didn’t dodge the hard matters of sin and repentance, since we read that a large number who believed turned to the Lord. This means that these former pagans gave up their idols, their sexual immorality, their lying, and their corrupt business practices when they put their trust in Jesus as Lord. When Barnabas came, he witnessed the grace of God (11:23). You can’t see God’s grace, but you can see the effects of it in a person’s life. He could see that God had changed these people. Faith in the good news about Jesus as Savior cannot be divorced from repentance from sin.

One remarkable proof that the gospel is from God is that wherever it goes, it has the same powerful effect. The message does not need to be changed when it is taken to a tribe of primitive headhunters. It does not need to be intellectualized when it is taken to a sophisticated university crowd. Whatever their culture or background, people are all sinners who need to know how to be reconciled to God before they face Him in judgment. If we will tell the simple gospel message to the people we come into contact with, God will bless us with conversions.

3. God blesses a church where His grace, not legalism, permeates the body.

Not only I, but also many commentators, sense that there was a note of concern behind the Jerusalem church’s sending Barnabas to Antioch. Word had gotten back to Jerusalem, “Have you heard what’s going on in Antioch?” “No, what?” “A bunch of laymen are sharing Christ with the pagans, and they’re all meeting together, Jews and Gentiles, as one church!” Alarms went off! Red lights started flashing! It was one thing when the God-fearing Gentile, Cornelius, had become a Christian through the preaching of the leading apostle, Peter. That stretched the limit. But when raw pagans from a notoriously immoral place like Antioch started coming into the church through the witness of a bunch of laymen, it was time for the mother church to check things out! So they sent Barnabas. Some of the circumcision crowd might have said, “Make sure that Barnabas gets that Antioch situation under control!”

Note what Barnabas saw and how he responded: He saw the grace of God and he rejoiced (11:23). If the apostles had sent a legalistic member of the circumcision party, he might have seen something else and had a very different response. He would have seen Jews and Gentiles eating together (Gal. 2:12), not keeping the ceremonial laws. Instead of rejoicing, he would have been horrified.

But Barnabas was a man who lived by God’s grace, and so he saw the grace of God and rejoiced. No doubt he also saw a lot of imperfection in these new converts. New believers do not drop all of their pagan baggage the day they get saved. A church made up of people from such different backgrounds as those in Antioch was bound to have some irritations and conflicts. But rather than focusing on the imperfections and problems, Barnabas focused on God’s grace in saving these people. Instead of slapping a bunch of Jewish rules on them, he rejoiced at what God was doing, and then began to encourage them to remain true to the Lord.

What do you see when you see a new convert? Let me describe him: He’s 20 years-old, he wears a baseball cap on backwards, a T-shirt, and jeans to church. He has a tattoo and an earring. But here he is in church, lifting his hands in praise to God as he sings of God’s salvation. Do you see a young man who doesn’t look like what you think a Christian young person should look like, and grumble in your heart? Or, do you see the grace of God who has saved that young man, and rejoice?

Howard Hendricks tells of the time he brought his neighbors, whom he was trying to reach with the gospel, to the Dallas Seminary Founder’s Banquet. The Founder’s Banquet is a major fund-raising event. The seminary wants their supporters to come and see the kind of quality young leaders that Dallas is producing. When Hendricks got there with his neighbors, he discovered that his table was front and center. When they dimmed the lights, the spotlight on the stage shined right over their table. His neighbor’s cigarette smoke curled up through the light for everyone in the hotel ballroom to see. Hendricks says that he could almost hear some dear old supporter in the back grumbling, “That’s how liberalism gets started in the seminary!”

God’s grace teaches us to accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God (Rom. 15:7). We need to treat others as God has graciously treated us.

4. God blesses a church where grace is the motivation to remain true to the Lord.

God’s grace also teaches us to deny worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age (Titus 2:12). Barnabas could see that these new believers needed to grow in their faith. Every pastor knows that it’s one thing to make a profession of faith, but it’s another thing to persevere and grow in holiness when temptations and trials hit, as surely they will. God’s grace in Christ is what motivates us to live holy lives (Gal. 2:20).

Genuine conversion is a matter of the heart. Thus Barnabas, true to his name (“Son of Encouragement”) began to encourage these new Christians with purpose of heart to remain true to the Lord (lit., 11:23). Steadfastness in the Christian life is not an accident, but a matter of resolute purpose. I can hear Barnabas preaching to these new believers, “Because God has been gracious in saving us, we must resolve in our hearts to follow Him and cling to Him no matter what kinds of hardships we encounter. We must purpose to deny ourselves and follow the Lord Jesus. Abide in Him! He is the all-sufficient One who can meet your every need. He has done the greatest thing by loving you and giving Himself for you on the cross. He will not abandon or forsake you, even if He calls you to go through persecution or even martyrdom. Let His grace motivate you to resolve in your heart to follow Him and walk with Him no matter what!”

Thus the church that God blesses is made up of members who see themselves as ministers of Christ. They proclaim the gospel as the power of God to save sinners from every kind of background. Grace, not legalism, permeates this church, and grace is the motivation to go on in holiness with the Lord.

5. God blesses a church where godly leaders set the example of holiness and faith.

Luke states that Barnabas “was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (11:24). I hope to explore Barnabas’ character more next week, so I will be brief here. But note that he was a man of integrity. He practiced what he preached. Those who knew him well said, “He is a good man.” The reason he was a good man was that he was full of the Holy Spirit and full of faith in the living God.

Barnabas’ heart was to seek the glory of God through the building up of His church, not to seek a name for himself. At some point, he began to realize that the work in Antioch was more than he could handle. Maybe he realized that he did not have all the gifts that were needed to see this church prosper. So he left Antioch and traveled the 100 miles to Tarsus to search for Saul. Barnabas was not threatened to bring this gifted man back to Antioch to share in the work with him. Eventually, he took a back seat to Paul’s leadership in their missionary endeavors.

God will not bless a church in the true sense of the word if the leaders are not setting a godly example. I say, “in the true sense” because I know of many large, seemingly thriving churches where it has come out that the pastor was not living a holy life. So we need to be careful not to mistake a large church with God’s true blessing. I hope you pray for all of our pastoral staff here, that we will walk in holiness with the Lord Jesus every day.

6. God blesses a church where godly leaders are devoted to teaching God’s Word.

Barnabas and Saul met with the church for an entire year and taught considerable numbers (11:26). Then we read, “and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” Probably this was a nickname that the pagans in town gave them. It meant, “Christ-men.” It’s only used in the Bible three times: here; in Acts 26:28, where Agrippa chides Paul for trying to make him a Christian; and, in 1 Peter 4:16, where Peter urges his readers not to be ashamed if they suffer as Christians.

F. F. Bruce imagines a group of two or three of the unofficial missionaries in the streets of Antioch, with a small group gathered around them, listening to the gospel. Someone watching asks another bystander, “Who are these people?” The other answers, “O, these are the people who are always talking about Christos, the Christ-people, the Christians” (The Book of Acts [Eerdmans], p. 241). The nickname stuck, just as Jesus people or Jesus freaks was the description that came out of the Jesus movement in the 1970’s. While it may have been meant as a term of derision, it really was a supreme compliment for the pagans to notice that these men were “Christ-men.”

It is implied that the reason people could identify these men as Christians was that they lived in accordance with Barnabas’ and Saul’s teaching of God’s Word. The point of all Bible teaching should be to change the way we think, our attitudes, the way we talk, and the way we act, beginning at home and extending into the world. Others should recognize that we are like Jesus Christ because we obey His Word. Finally,

7. God blesses a church where the members are devoted to spontaneous, generous giving.

The apostles and prophets were the foundation of the New Testament church (Eph. 2:20). Once the foundation was laid and the canon of Scripture was complete, those gifts passed off the scene. The function of a prophet was to edify, exhort, and console from God’s Word (1 Cor. 14:3), and also to receive direct revelation from God to impart His message to the church. A group of prophets came to Antioch, and one of them, Agabus, predicted a coming famine. The church’s response was spontaneously to give toward the relief of the believers living in Judea, and to send the gift with Barnabas and Saul. Luke shows that they didn’t just come up with this great idea; they actually did it (11:30), without any pressure or organizing from the leaders.

God will bless a church that sees a brother or sister in need and quietly, spontaneously, without pressure, gives to meet that need. The famine easily could have hit Antioch as well as Judea. The church members in Antioch could have said, “We need to look out for our own needs; let the Jewish brethren take care of themselves.” But they trusted God and gave to meet the needs of others. God will pour out His blessing on a generous church.

Conclusion

So Antioch is set before us as an example. It was a church founded by simple believers who knew that God has called every Christian to serve Him. They proclaimed the gospel as the power of God for salvation to every one who believes. They operated by God’s grace, not by legalism. They saw grace as the motivation to go on with the Lord. Their leaders set the example and taught them from God’s Word. They were generous givers, trusting God to meet their needs. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.

I covet that for our church! I want to be a part of a church, like Antioch, where growth clearly comes from the Lord and where, also like Antioch, we become a center for worldwide impact for Jesus Christ. Then the glory won’t go to church growth principles or to any man, but to the Lord of the church, who strongly supports those whose hearts are completely His (2 Chron. 16:9).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why (biblically) is evangelism every member’s responsibility? What implications does this have for our church?
  2. To what extent should church leaders exercise control over various ministries in the church? Support with Scripture.
  3. What is the difference between grace and licentiousness? When do we accept an immature Christian and when do we confront?
  4. What is our responsibility in terms of giving to help the poor? How far abroad do we apply this?

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

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Evangelism, Finance, Grace, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 29: How to Become a Good Person (Acts 11:23-24)

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Perhaps you saw the title of this message, “How to Become a Good Person,” and thought, “I’m not even sure that I want to become a ‘good’ person!” The word “good” is used so often and widely that it almost becomes a meaningless description. I heard recently that the mother of a convicted killer said that her son was “a good boy.” He didn’t really mean any wrong when he shot that other man and took his money!

Most people in the world would say, “The way to get into heaven is to be a good person.” Again, the definition of “good” in the minds of those who say this is so vague and broad that almost everyone qualifies. If you’ve ever done a good deed for someone, even if it was to earn your Boy Scout badge, you’re in!

But the Bible teaches that no amount of human goodness can qualify a person for heaven, because God is absolutely good and He cannot and will not allow even a single sin into His perfect heaven. Thus the apostle Paul builds his argument that “there is none who does good, there is not even one” (Rom. 3:12), because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). As Jesus replied to the rich young ruler, who called Him good, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Jesus knew that the young man was using the word in the relative human sense, not in the absolute sense of referring to God. Since none are good enough for heaven, we need a perfect Savior to bridge the chasm between us and God.

In light of this, when the Bible calls a man “a good man,” we should sit up and take notice. Although it is speaking relatively, not perfectly, here is a man whose life we should study and learn from. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke says that Barnabas “was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24). The description starts on the surface and works inward. He was a good man—how so? He was full of the Holy Spirit. How so? By being a man of faith.

By studying Barnabas’ life, we will look at what a good person is, namely, a person who loves God and others (the two great commandments). Then we will look at how a person becomes good in that sense, namely, by walking by faith in the Holy Spirit. Finally, to be honest in our look at Barnabas, we must note that even a man whom the Bible calls good is not perfect. Even good people have their weaknesses and failures.

To be a good person, you must love God and others through a walk of faith in the Holy Spirit.

1. To be a good person, you must love God and others.

The whole Bible is summed up in the two commands, that you should love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and, that you should love your neighbor as yourself (Mark. 12:29-31). There is no command in the Bible to love yourself. Rather, the Bible assumes that we all love ourselves quite well. If we would just love others as much as we do love ourselves, we would fulfill God’s holy law. A study of Barnabas’ life shows that, while far from perfect (as we all are), the bent of his life was to love God and others.

A. A good person loves God.

Barnabas was a religious man. By birth he was a Levite (Acts 4:36), who was obligated to serve at the Jewish temple. But his religion did not, because it could not, reconcile him to God. At some point (we don’t know when), perhaps on the Day of Pentecost, Barnabas recognized that he was a sinner and that Jesus is the Anointed Savior that God sent to bear our sins. Barnabas put his trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and was born again.

We cannot even begin to love God until we are reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ. We must begin by realizing that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Any love that we show toward God is a response to His great love for us in sending His Son to die for our sins. But once we have received God’s gift of eternal life in Christ, we show love to God in two main ways: heartfelt devotion, and willing obedience.

1) Heartfelt devotion.

In Acts 13:2, we see Barnabas, along with the other church leaders in Antioch, “ministering to the Lord and fasting.” That unusual phrase, “ministering to the Lord,” has always captured my attention. Most of us minister for the Lord, but how many of us know what it means to minister to the Lord? The Greek word translated “ministering” is almost always used of discharging one’s service in public ministry. It was used of the service of the priests at the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 1:23). But here Luke applies it to the leaders of the church who are serving in the newness of the Spirit, not in the oldness of the law. Their fasting would seem to point to a special occasion where they were seeking God’s direction as they waited upon Him in prayerful devotion. Spending time in heartfelt devotion to God is one way that we show love for Him.

2) Willing obedience.

Stemming out of our devotion to God should be obedience to Him. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). We see this instant and unquestioning obedience in Barnabas. When the apostles in Jerusalem needed someone to go to Antioch, they sent Barnabas (Acts 11:22). The text assumes that he went without any question. Then, when the leaders in Antioch were ministering to the Lord and fasting, and the Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2), the two men obeyed by going out on the first missionary trip. It was no small commitment to make!

All human goodness must begin in this God-ward direction. We receive God’s love through faith in Christ; we return God’s love by devotion and obedience from the heart. Any other motive for our good deeds is ultimately self-serving, not God-glorifying.

B. A good person loves others.

This is the second greatest commandment. Biblical love is not just warm feelings toward someone. Rather, it is a self-sacrificing commitment to seek the highest good of the one loved. The highest good for every person is that he or she be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and be growing in holiness and in conformity to Christ. Barnabas’ love for people is seen in four ways:

1) A loving person accepts imperfect believers, while encouraging them to go on with the Lord.

We saw this last week, so I will only touch on it briefly. Barnabas was a nickname that meant “son of encouragement,” and he was true to form when he saw the new Gentile believers in Antioch. Although he was a Jewish priest, raised with the Jewish strictness about separation from Gentiles, Barnabas could see God’s saving grace at work in Antioch. So rather than grumble about the Jews and Gentiles eating together, he rejoiced and then encouraged them all with purpose of heart to remain true to the Lord (11:23). The explanation given for why he rejoiced and encouraged these new believers, rather than treating them in the expected Jewish fashion, was that he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith (11:24).

Barnabas had already shown this loving acceptance toward Saul when Saul returned to Jerusalem as a relatively new believer. The Christians there were afraid of Saul, thinking that he was just faking his Christian faith to get on the inside, where he would continue his murderous ways. But Barnabas talked to Saul and became convinced that his testimony was genuine. He risked his reputation (and even his life) by taking Saul to the apostles and convincing them to accept him as a brother in Christ (9:26-27). No doubt Saul was still pretty rough around the edges, but Barnabas accepted him and by accepting him, encouraged him in the Lord.

Biblical love sometimes must confront and correct, or it is not real love. But the foundation for any correction must be our love and acceptance, which the person feels.

2) A loving person desires to see others using their gifts to the glory of God, even if it means being eclipsed in his own ministry.

It is significant that when the work in Antioch grew to be more than Barnabas could handle, he did not turn back to Jerusalem for help. Instead, he went looking for Saul and brought him back to Antioch. Eventually, Saul eclipsed Barnabas in their work together, but Barnabas didn’t mind. His focus was not on making a name for himself, but rather on seeing God glorified and His work furthered through young men like Saul using their gifts.

I just finished reading The Life of William Farel (by Frances Bevan [Bible Truth Publishers]), where (p. 367) I was reminded of a scene similar to that of Barnabas bringing Saul into service, and eventually being eclipsed by Saul. Farel was a courageous Reformer and evangelist for many years before John Calvin was even converted. He had suffered much to bring the gospel to Geneva. One evening in July, 1536, a young man rushed into Farel’s quarters and told him that Calvin was in town for one night only, on his way to Strasburg. Farel had read Calvin’s Institutes, which had just been published, and he knew that Calvin was the man to help him with the work in Geneva.

He immediately went to the inn where Calvin was staying. He found a pale, thin, and frail 27-year-old man, who also was shy, timid, and reserved. But Farel implored Calvin to stay in Geneva. He told Farel that his calling was to be a reclusive scholar, not a teacher or pastor in the public eye. Farel continued imploring, and Calvin continued to come up with reasons why he was not the man that Farel was looking for. Finally, with fire in his eyes, Farel warned Calvin about what happened to Jonah and then thundered, “May God curse your rest, and curse your studies, if for their sake you flee from the work He would have you do!”

Calvin trembled, sat speechless, and finally concluded that God’s hand reached down from heaven and laid hold of him to keep him in Geneva. Except for one period when he was banished from town, Calvin spent his remaining 28 years as a pastor in Geneva. Today almost every Christian has heard of Calvin, but few know about William Farel, who pioneered the work in Geneva.

Barnabas had a bent toward grabbing hold of men who were rejected by others and bringing them into a place of usefulness in God’s kingdom. He not only did this with Saul. Later, when his cousin, John Mark, deserted Barnabas and Saul on the first missionary journey, Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance. Paul insisted that a man who deserted them should not go with them again, but Barnabas with equal vehemence insisted that he should go. Both men dug in their heels, and it led to a split between them. I think that both men were wrong in some ways, and both were right in other ways. Barnabas was right in that his stubborn love for Mark resulted in his later being used to write the second Gospel. Later Paul himself requested Mark’s coming to him in prison in Rome, adding, “He is useful to me for service” (2 Tim. 4:11). Biblical love delights to see others serving the Lord.

3) A loving person is generous with his time and money to meet the needs of the suffering.

When we first meet Barnabas, he is selling his property to lay the proceeds at the apostles’ feet to meet the needs of the early church in Jerusalem (4:36-37). Years later, the apostle Paul referred to Barnabas as one, like him, who labored with his own hands to support himself in the ministry of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:6). Perhaps if he had kept his land, he could have used the income to support his ministry. But Barnabas’ generosity toward those in need took precedence over his thinking about his own future. Later, when the famine threatened not only Judea, but also Antioch, the church in Antioch gave to help the needy saints in Judea. Although the text does not say, I’m sure that Barnabas contributed to that gift, and he gave his time to deliver it to Jerusalem. The church could trust him with the money, because he was a generous man, free from greed and obedient to God.

The Bible is clear that love is much more than saying, “I love you.” Love means opening our hearts to those in need by sharing with them the abundance that God has given us (1 John 3:17). When we cling to our money and work hard to get even more, we’re being selfish. The more we love God and others, the more we will trust God by giving to further His work. The most needy people in the world are those who are perishing without Christ. God calls us to love them by giving to missionaries so that they may hear the good news about Jesus Christ. That leads to the fourth mark of Barnabas’ love for people:

4) A loving person devotes himself to reaching the lost for Christ.

God used Barnabas in Antioch to reach considerable numbers for Christ (11:21, 24). Then, with Paul, he went out on the first missionary journey, and they saw many more come into God’s kingdom. Even after the rift with Paul, Barnabas did not get mad and quit serving the Lord. He took Mark and continued reaching out to the lost with the gospel. The most loving thing you or I can do for a lost person is to tell him about the grace of God in Christ so that he may be saved. Not all are called to work at it full time. But it should be always in our thoughts as we have contact with lost people. We always should be praying for opportunities to tell others about the Savior. Not to have a heart for the lost is not to love them.

So a glance at Barnabas’ life shows us a man who loved God and others. I believe that that is the essence of a good man. But how did he get that way? Was it just his natural inclination? No.

2. The source of any human goodness is to walk by faith in the Holy Spirit.

Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” This was the source of his being a good man. We see the same connection in Galatians 5:16 & 22. There Paul exhorts us to walk by the Spirit so that we do not carry out the desire of the flesh. One of the fruits that the Holy Spirit produces in the believer is “goodness.”

We walk by the Spirit by faith. A walk is a step by step process in which you commit your weight to your legs and trust them to sustain you. A walk in the Spirit is a step by step dependence on the indwelling Spirit of God. You rely upon Him in every situation for power to overcome temptations that stem from the world, the flesh, or the devil. You yield control of your life to Him, rather than being self-willed. As that walk becomes a daily habit, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are gradually formed in your life. Your good deeds, then, are not something that you do for God, but rather, something that God does through you.

Early in my Christian walk, I was taught that the filling of the Holy Spirit is an all or nothing proposition. Either you are totally filled or you are not filled at all. But I now think that to be filled with the Spirit is an ever-expanding process that is never completely finished in this life. I yield all of myself of which I’m aware to all of God that I know. As I grow in faith and knowledge, I learn of more areas in my life that need to come under the Spirit’s control. I also learn more of God, which leads me to trust Him more. As He controls more and more of my life, His goodness shines through me more and more. Thus to be full of the Holy Spirit and of faith is the key to being a truly good person.

It would be nice to stop here, on a positive note. But to do so would not give you the full picture of Barnabas. The Bible lets us see its heroes warts and all. But this helps us to see that there is hope, even for someone like me, since God is pleased to use imperfect people.

3. Even good people who walk in dependence on the Spirit have their weaknesses and failures.

Even though Barnabas was the champion of God’s grace in Antioch, as seen in his rejoicing in the salvation and acceptance of the Gentiles, he later fell into sin in this very matter. We read of it in Galatians 2:11-13, where Paul tells of what happened once when Peter had come to Antioch. Before certain men from the circumcision party in Jerusalem came to town, Peter ate with the Gentiles, contrary to Jewish custom. But when these legalists came, Peter feared them and held himself aloof. As a result, the rest of the Jewish Christians joined him in hypocrisy, “with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy.” Since this error involved the very truth of the gospel (2:14), Paul publicly confronted Peter and those who had followed his bad example.

The phrase, “even Barnabas,” shows how out-of-character this behavior was for this godly man. It also shows us that we all, even those who are spiritually mature, have our weaknesses and are prone to failure. Usually, our greatest strengths are also the source of our greatest weaknesses. Barnabas’ acceptance of people in spite of their faults led him in this instance to accept their sin, when it needed to be confronted. He compromised essential truth about the gospel because he didn’t want to offend these men from the mother church. So even good men are not perfect men. And yet, God’s cause will triumph and He is glorified by using imperfect people to accomplish His sovereign plan.

Conclusion

Other than from reading and studying the Bible, I have found more help in my Christian walk through reading the biographies of great Christians than from any other source. If you have never read the stories of John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, Hudson Taylor, George Muller, and the many other saints who have gone before us, you are impoverished as a Christian!

Thankfully, the Bible is not just a book of doctrines and moral principles, but also a book of biographies. While we might wish to know more detail about some of the characters in the Bible, we are given these stories so that we will consider “the result of their conduct” [or, the outcome of their lives] and “imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). While we all have differing gifts and personalities, we all can learn from the heroes in the Bible. By applying the lessons of their lives to ourselves, we will grow in godliness.

So having considered Barnabas, I ask, can it be said of you, as it is said of Barnabas, that you are a good man or woman, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith? Is your love for God vital and growing? Is your love for people becoming more tender and compassionate? Do you seek to help others grow in their faith? Do you ask God to use you to reach the lost for Christ? Are you aware daily of your need to depend on the Holy Spirit to produce His fruit of goodness in your life? When you do stumble, do you turn from it and go on with the Lord? That is how you can become a truly good person before God.

Discussion Questions

  1. How much should love for God be a feeling, and how much is obedience in spite of our feelings?
  2. In loving others as God does, how can we know when to overlook faults and when to confront them?
  3. How bold should we be in talking to others about Christ? Should the risk of offending them keep us from saying anything?
  4. What is the relationship between the Spirit’s power and our power? (See Phil. 2:12-13.) Are we to be passive or active?

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

Related Topics: Faith, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Lesson 30: The Unstoppable Gospel (Acts 12:1-25)

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“Have you heard the news? Herod beheaded James!”

“No way! Not James! He was one of the inner circle with Jesus! Peter, James, and John. I thought for sure that God would protect James!”

“But that’s not all. The latest polls show that Herod’s approval rating went up after he killed James. So now he also has Peter in custody. Word has it that tomorrow, after the feast is over, he is going to execute him! There’s a prayer meeting tonight at Mary’s house.”

“I’ll see you there.”

There are times when evil seems to be winning the day. Wicked men get away with murder and their popularity goes up, not down. The righteous suffer terribly. Their loved ones are bereaved. It’s easy at such times to wonder, “Where is God in all of this? Why did He allow this to happen? How can any good come out of such awful wickedness?”

James and John had been close. They had worked together in their father’s fishing business. They had spent three years in close contact with Jesus. They had hopes and dreams of how God would use them in spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. But now, James was suddenly gone. John was left wondering, “Why?”

At the beginning of Acts 12, we have James dead, Peter in prison, and the tyrant Herod basking in his popularity and power. At the end of the chapter, we have Peter free, Herod eaten by worms and dead, and the Word of God growing and multiplying. Luke is showing us that the gospel is unstoppable. If you oppose the gospel, you may temporarily win, but you will finally lose and lose big. If you stand for the gospel, you may temporarily lose, but you will finally win and win big.

Since God is almighty, no force can stop the spread of His gospel according to His purpose.

I want to share four lessons that will help us when it seems that the bad guys are winning and the good guys are losing:

1. Although God is almighty, He does not prevent the untimely deaths of some of His choicest servants (12:1-4).

There is a marked contrast between the love of the racially mixed church in Antioch for the famine-afflicted Jewish church in Judea (11:27-30) and the hatred of Herod and the Jews in Jerusalem for the church there (12:1-3). Luke notes that Herod’s mistreatment of the church happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), and that the Jews were pleased. When someone’s religion allows him to be pleased with the death of a righteous man, his religion is worse than useless.

The Herod of Acts 12 was Agrippa I. He was born in 10 B.C., the grandson of Herod the Great, who slaughtered the infants in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. “Grandpa” Herod assassinated his son, Agrippa’s father, when Agrippa was only three. He went to Rome with his mother and grew up on close terms with the imperial family. He was a playboy and had to flee Rome to escape from his creditors. He spent some time in prison, but the emperor Caligula released Herod and assigned him as king of the northernmost provinces of Palestine. Later he was given all of the territory that had formerly belonged to his grandfather, which he ruled until his death in A.D. 44. The apostle Paul would later stand trial before his son, Agrippa II.

Herod was a quintessential politician who when in Rome lived like the Romans and when in Palestine knew how to court the Jews. He observed the Jewish feasts and sacrifices. He used his influence to keep Caligula from erecting a statue of himself as god in the Jewish temple. He helped the Jews of Alexandria receive more humane treatment. He moved the seat of government from Caesarea to Jerusalem, and had begun reconstruction of the city’s northern wall. He knew that to keep Rome happy, he had to keep the Jews happy. He viewed the Jewish Christians as disruptive. He didn’t want this upstart sect to disturb the peace that he had worked so hard to establish (the above gleaned from Richard Longenecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 9:407-408). So he arrested a number of the Christians and had James beheaded. When he saw the favorable response among the Jews, he planned to repeat the process on Peter.

So we see mingled together the wickedness of an evil tyrant and the sovereignty of God who allowed this tyrant to operate on a leash. We would be greatly in error if we thought that somehow God could not prevent Herod from his evil deeds. As David says:

Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!” He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them (Psalm 2:1-4).

No wicked act, not even the slaughter of the righteous, takes place apart from the sovereign will of God. God did not lose control when Herod Antipas got drunk and gave the head of John the Baptist on a platter to the sensuous Salome. Even the terrible deeds of the Antichrist in the end times are under God’s control: He will remove him when it is His time, but before then many godly people will suffer and die (Rev. 6:9-11). There are three practical lessons that we should draw from this:

  • Those who teach that it is always God’s will to deliver us from sickness, tragedy, and death are false teachers.

The so-called “Word of Faith” teachers say that deliverance from any trial is ours if we simply claim it by faith. They brazenly state that God must obey us when we speak a word of faith! If you are not healed, then obviously the problem is your lack of faith. I cannot understand why these arrogant charlatans get such a large following. None of them are able to avoid disease and death!

  • God does not love us less when He allows tragedy into our lives.

He loved James and John just as much as He loved Peter. But He allowed James to die and John to mourn the loss of his brother, but He delivered Peter. And He offered no explanation! Perhaps He was teaching the church that no man is indispensable to His cause. The death of James did not hinder the spread of the gospel. Perhaps He was teaching them to trust Him when they did not understand what He is doing. But whatever the lessons, John and the rest of James’ family would have been greatly mistaken to conclude that somehow God did not love them as much as He loved Peter. As someone has observed, we must always interpret our circumstances by God’s love, not God’s love by our circumstances.

  • As difficult as it is, we need to view death from God’s eternal perspective, not from our temporal perspective.

It seems remarkable that the death of this great man, James, is passed over in a brief sentence. Stephen, the first martyr, got a long chapter on his death, and he wasn’t even one of the apostles! James, one of the inner circle and the first apostle to die, doesn’t even get a decent obituary! It doesn’t seem right!

But the seeming wrongfulness of it stems from our temporal perspective. James was welcomed into heaven by Jesus with the victor’s crown and the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the eternal joy of your Master!” He went instantly from this life of pain, sorrow, and trials into the place of eternal joy. John, of course, had to remain for another 50 years on earth, and I’m sure that he missed his brother often. But as soon as John passed over into glory, he realized how short even his relatively long life was in light of eternity. He knew that all of his suffering and grief was worth the eternal joy of being with Christ.

So the death of James at the hand of Herod teaches us that although God is almighty, He does not prevent the untimely deaths of some of His choicest servants.

2. Since God is almighty, He can easily deliver His servants from humanly impossible situations if it is His will (12:5-19).

No prison can shut God out or keep His servants in if He wills to free them. God easily could have spared James, if it had been His will. It was no big deal to God to get Peter out of the most secure prison that Herod could devise. Maybe Herod had heard from the Jewish leaders how Peter and John had mysteriously escaped from custody a few years before (Acts 5:17-20). He wanted to make sure that it did not happen this time, so he assigned four squads of four soldiers each to guard him around the clock. Two soldiers were chained by the wrist to each of Peter’s two arms. Two more stood guard at the door of Peter’s cell. Then there were two more guards, plus an iron gate that led into the city (12:10). But to get Peter out of there, the Lord didn’t need to send a squad of angels. Just one easily did the job!

He appeared at night, when it would have been pitch black. Whether from the countenance of the angel or a light from heaven, suddenly the cell lit up. But the guards did not wake up, even when the chains fell from Peter’s wrists. Even though he would be executed the next day, Peter was so sound asleep that the angel had to strike his side to rouse him. With David, Peter could say, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for You alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:8).

The angel said, “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.” Peter groggily responded. Then the angel said, “Wrap your coat around you and follow me.” As they walked out of the prison, Peter thought that he was just having a pleasant dream! When they got to the final locked door, it was like walking out of Wal-Mart—the door swung open automatically! Peter didn’t fully realize what had happened until the angel suddenly left him standing in the street. But the whole operation was a piece of cake for God, even though it was humanly impossible. Three applications:

  • God is most glorified when we are most helpless and totally dependent on Him.

If Peter had engineered his own escape, he would have been praised for his ingenuity and daring exploits. But what could he say about his part in this escape? He wasn’t even thinking about escaping—he was sleeping! Can you imagine him boasting, “Yeah, I had to gird myself and put on my own sandals and coat. The angel didn’t fly me out! I had to walk out of there on my own two legs.” Peter had nothing in himself that he could boast about! His testimony was, “The Lord led me out of prison” (12:17).

Peter’s deliverance is a picture of how God saves sinners. Probably Charles Wesley had this scene in mind when he wrote the verse of his great hymn, “And Can It Be?”:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth and followed Thee.

Before God saves us, we are like Peter, sleeping in the darkness, insensitive to our sin, and not able to see the light of the glory of the gospel of Christ. Our sins chained us so that we could not escape, even if we had wanted to. We were under God’s sentence of death. While we were in this desperate and helpless condition, God broke in with the light of His glory, woke us out of our spiritual slumber, and caused our chains to fall off so that we could willingly and joyfully follow Him out of this prison of death. Since our salvation was totally from the Lord in His great mercy, He gets all the glory. We can only praise Him because He saved us. We had nothing to do with it.

  • God often waits until the eleventh hour to deliver us so that we will be motivated to pray.

The text does not say whether the church was praying for James, but I assume that they were. There is no hint that they were somehow at fault for his death because of their lack of prayer. But the camera zooms in on the church at the eleventh hour with Peter. It was the very night before Herod was planning to execute him that we see the church gathered in this all-night prayer meeting, praying fervently (12:5). Fervently is an athletic term that pictures an athlete straining every muscle as he puts everything into a race. Luke 22:44 uses the same word to describe Jesus’ fervent prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.

There is nothing like an eleventh hour crisis to get us praying as we should be praying the rest of the time! If we only could see it, we’re always on the brink of disaster and death, because our adversary, the devil, is prowling about as a roaring lion, seeking to devour us. So at all times we should be a praying people! But the Lord often delays the answers to our problems or crises so that we will recognize how much we really do need Him.

  • God is not limited by the prayers of His people, but He works through our prayers to teach us to depend totally on Him.

I say that God is not limited by our prayers because clearly, although the church was praying, they were not praying in faith. If they had been expecting God to work, they wouldn’t have been so surprised when He answered! They would have been jubilant, as Rhoda was when she recognized Peter’s voice on the other side of the door. But they would not have said, “You’re out of your mind! It couldn’t be Peter. It must be his angel!”

Prayer is a mystery. Why do we need to pray when God already knows our needs? A major part of the answer is, so that we will recognize that we are totally dependent on Him. And yet, He can work even if my prayers fall short in their form or in their faith. Sure, I should believe in Him with a strong faith. But even if my faith is weak, He is able to do far more than I can ask or even think (Eph. 3:20). His answers do not depend on any merit in my prayers, but only on His sovereign grace and mercy.

We’ve seen that although God is almighty, He does not prevent the untimely deaths of some of His choicest servants. And, since God is almighty, He can easily deliver us from humanly impossible situations.

3. Since God is almighty, He can easily remove the most powerful and proud human leaders when it is His time to do so (12:20-23).

The angel struck Peter and he woke up so that he could be delivered. The angel also struck Herod, but he was eaten with worms and died. After Peter’s escape, Herod mounted an intense manhunt, but he could not find him. Peter told the gathering at Mary’s house to report these things to James (the half-brother of Jesus) and the brethren, who may have been hiding out elsewhere. He was not directed this time to go and stand in the temple and preach (as in 5:20), and so he wisely used common sense and went into hiding. Perhaps he went to Antioch at this time (Gal. 2:11-13). Meanwhile, Herod assumed that the guards had taken a bribe, so he had them all executed. After these embarrassing events, he needed a vacation, so he went to his beach quarters at Caesarea.

Due to some falling out, he was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, to the north, and had cut off their food supply. They gained an audience through Blastus, his chief of staff. On the appointed day, Herod took the rostrum and began delivering a speech. Josephus, the Jewish historian, gives an interesting parallel account of this event (Antiquities of the Jews [19:8:2]). He says that Herod put on a garment made entirely of silver. When the sun’s rays hit it, it was so resplendent that the people were awestruck. Either being carried away or perhaps to flatter him, they cried out that he was a god. When he did not rebuke them, he immediately got a severe and violent pain in his belly. After five days of awful suffering, he died at age 54.

Herod knew enough about God that he should have seen God’s hand in Peter’s deliverance and realized that he was fighting against God. He should have remembered the story of King Nebuchadnezzar, whom God humbled for his pride (Daniel 4). But instead, Herod foolishly accepted the adulation of these people that were under his power. Since he did not give God the glory, God used a lowly tapeworm to bring down this humanly powerful and proud man. Note two lessons:

  • To seek glory for ourselves is to declare war against God.

God will not give His glory to another (Isa. 42:8; 46:11). If we seek to exalt ourselves, the Lord will surely humble us. We must all beware of the temptation of pride, of taking credit for ourselves when it is God alone in His mercy who deserves the praise.

  • To declare war against God is to commit eternal suicide, because God always wins.

Herod’s glory was short-lived, and his misery is eternal. Even the Antichrist and the false prophet will only enjoy three and a half years of glory before God casts them into the lake of fire, where Satan himself will end up. All who never submitted to God will be thrown into that cauldron, to be tormented day and night forever and ever (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 15).

4. Since God is almighty, His gospel cannot be stopped by any opposition (12:24-25).

Luke closes this section by telling how the word of God continued to grow and be multiplied, and then mentions the return of Saul, Barnabas, and John Mark to Antioch. This sets the stage for the expansion of the gospel among the Gentiles that comprises the rest of Acts. Herod and the Jews opposed God’s Savior and came under His judgment. The apostles and early church suffered much, and many died violent deaths, but the word of God continued to grow and be multiplied. God rewarded them abundantly and eternally in heaven.

Conclusion

So the bottom line is, whether the Almighty God delivers us from persecution or whether we die for our faith, we must commit ourselves wholly to the furtherance of His gospel.

John Paton was born in Scotland in 1824. As a young Christian, he labored as a city missionary in the slums of Glasgow. But he felt God’s call to take the gospel to the fierce cannibals of the New Hebrides islands in the South Pacific. John Williams and James Harris made the first attempt to take the gospel there in 1839. They were clubbed to death and eaten within a few minutes of their landing. Paton and his new wife landed there on November 5, 1858. On February 12, 1859, she gave birth to a son, but on March 3rd, she died from complications after childbirth. On March 20th, the baby died. Of course Paton struggled with his grief and loneliness. Just before his wife died, she expressed her wish that her mother could be there with her. Then she added,

“You must not think that I regret coming here, and leaving my mother. If I had the same thing to do over again, I would do it with far more pleasure, yes, with all my heart. Oh, no! I do not regret leaving home and friends, though at the time I felt it keenly.

Her dying words were, “Not lost, only gone before to be for ever with the Lord.” Paton lived into his seventies, devoting himself to the cause of the gospel among these cannibals, experiencing many divine deliverances. At the end of his life he exclaimed, “Oh that I had my life to begin again! I would consecrate it anew to Jesus in seeking the conversion of the remaining Cannibals on the New Hebrides” (John G. Paton Autobiography [Banner of Truth], pp. 84-85, 496).

Whatever the cost, may we all commit ourselves to the cause of the unstoppable gospel of Jesus Christ!

Discussion Questions

  1. Is “why” a legitimate question to ask when tragedy strikes? Why/why not?
  2. How can we pray in faith for deliverance if we do not know God’s will in advance?
  3. A critic taunts, “How can a loving God allow so much evil and suffering in this world?” Your answer?
  4. It would seem realistically that the world’s major religions have stopped the penetration of the gospel into much of the world for centuries. How, then, is the gospel unstoppable?

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

Related Topics: Character of God, Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation), Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 31: The Main Business of the Church (Acts 13:1-3)

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Some years ago, an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Market Myopia” talked about how some people didn’t understand what business they were in. For example, the railroad people didn’t understand that they were in the transportation business. Had they realized it, they would have invested in the airplane. The telegraph people thought that they were in the telegraph business. They failed to realize that they were in the communications business. In 1886 or so, they could have bought all of the telephone patents for about $40,000. But they didn’t know what business they were in.

What is the main business of the church? Some would say that it is to care of its members. The church is here to visit the sick and pray with them, to take care of people at important transitions in life, such as marriage, childbirth, and death. It’s here to provide guidance and comfort for people at important times. No doubt, these are all functions of the church. But I would argue that these functions are not the main business of the church, and if we start acting as if they were, we will miss our main business.

We are always in danger of slipping into a maintenance mentality in the church, where we focus on maintaining our religious club and preserving its sacred traditions, and we forget about the lost. Erwin McManus, a pastor in Los Angeles, said, “We somehow think that the Church is here for us; we forget that we are the Church, and we’re here for the world.”

John Piper, a Minneapolis pastor, says, “The book of Acts is a constant indictment of mere maintenance Christianity. It’s a constant goad and encouragement and stimulation to fan the flame of Advent—‘The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost.’” (www.desiringgod.org, Sermon on Acts 13:1-12, 12/8/91). As Piper elsewhere articulates (e.g., chapter 1 of Desiring God [Multnomah Books]), the main goal of evangelism and missions is not just to reach the lost, but to glorify God. The glory of God is the supreme goal of history. He saves sinners “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (Eph. 1:6, 12). Thus,

The main business of the church is to obey the Holy Spirit in promoting God’s glory among the nations by sending out workers called by God to preach the gospel.

The scene in Acts shifts back to the church in Antioch, where some men who had been scattered by the persecution in Jerusalem had the audacity to speak the gospel to Gentiles (11:19). The hand of the Lord was with them, and many got saved. At the end of chapter 12, Luke reports that Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, where they had taken the gift for those affected by the famine. They brought back John Mark with them. This sets the stage for a major shift in the focus of Acts. From now on, it is the Acts of the Apostle Paul. It is the story of the missionary thrust of the church in Antioch, resulting in the planting of many churches in the Gentile world. Just as the founding of the church in Antioch was a radical turn, with Jews and Gentiles getting saved and joining together on the basis of the cross, so Acts 13 is another turning point. The gospel goes out into Gentile territory, as the church in Antioch responds to its rightful business. Note three things:

1. The Holy Spirit is sovereign over the church.

G. Campbell Morgan notes that the central feature of these verses is “the declared activity of the Spirit of God” (The Acts of the Apostles [Revell], p. 305). The Holy Spirit speaks, and He does not give suggestions, but orders: “Set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). He tells these leaders what to do, and when they obeyed, Luke notes that Barnabas and Saul were “sent out by the Holy Spirit” (13:4).

A. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in initiating the work of missions.

The idea of world missions originates with God, not with men. These leaders weren’t brainstorming on how to pep up their church program when one of them said, “I know what we should do! Let’s send out some missionaries!” Rather, the Holy Spirit broke in and told them what to do.

How did the Spirit speak to them? Was it an audible voice? It could have been, or it could have been one of the prophets speaking out a revelation that God had just given him. But I’m inclined to think that rather, these leaders were spending time in prayer and fasting because they sensed the need for God’s direction for the work. No doubt they were burdened with the thought that many had never heard of Jesus Christ and His salvation. As they spent time in prayer and praise, one of the men said, “I sense that the Lord wants Barnabas and Saul to be set aside for the work that He has called them to.” The rest of the men strongly affirmed that impression, and so they saw it as the Holy Spirit speaking to them. But the point is, the cause of world missions originates with God. We can only obey His directive.

B. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in calling workers.

This occasion was not the first time that Barnabas and Saul knew anything about God’s calling them to be missionaries. Barnabas had already responded in obedience by leaving Jerusalem for Antioch. When the Lord sent Ananias to open Saul’s eyes just after his conversion, He told Ananias that Saul “is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (9:15). No doubt, Ananias relayed those words to Saul. Later, Paul tells how when he first returned to Jerusalem after his conversion, he was praying in the Temple when he fell into a trance. The Lord told him to get out of Jerusalem, saying, “I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (22:21). So Paul knew about God’s calling him to be a missionary to the Gentiles many years before this commission in Acts 13.

I have heard some missions advocates say that we all are called to be missionaries; it’s just a matter of whether or not we are obedient. I would agree that missions should weigh heavily on the heart of every Christian, since it is at the heart of the main business of the church. Thus it is on God’s heart. As John Piper puts it, “There are only three possibilities in life: to be a goer, a sender, or disobedient” (Mission Frontiers [Jan.-Feb., 1998], p. 8).

But I would disagree that every Christian is called to leave his or her native country and take the gospel to those in other cultures. That takes a special calling from God and requires spiritual gifts that not all believers possess. I also believe that a man should not go into pastoral ministry unless he senses God’s call to do so. Otherwise, he will grow discouraged and quit when the battle gets intense. By a call, I do not mean a hearing a voice from heaven. Spurgeon defined a call as an intense and all-absorbing desire (mentioned by Rick Gamache, in a sermon by John Piper, “Exultation on Education,” on Acts 13:1-5, www.desiringgod.org). In my case, it was a strong sense that I could not be satisfied doing anything else with my life. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I have always felt when someone has come to me and told me that he has been called to be a preacher, that my main business is to put every conceivable obstacle that I can think of in his way” (Preaching and Preachers [Zondervan], p. 108). In other words, he wanted to make sure that the young man was sure that his calling was from God, not from some emotional experience or idealistic view of the ministry. So a calling from God is essential.

Thus the Spirit is sovereign in initiating missions; and, He is sovereign in calling workers.

C. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in directing His work.

The Spirit had a distinct work in mind for Barnabas and Saul to do (13:2), namely, “to bear [His] name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (9:15). Before these men left Antioch, they had another session of fasting and prayer (13:3). Presumably, they were seeking the Lord’s direction for where He wanted them to begin. This is further implied in verse 4, “being sent out by the Holy Spirit [not by the church], they … sailed to Cyprus.” Thus from start to finish, the Spirit is sovereign over the church and the work that He calls us to do in taking the gospel to all peoples.

2. To be obedient to the sovereign Spirit, godly church leaders must take time to worship God and seek His will.

It’s easy to get so busy in serving the Lord that you fail to take the time to meet with the Lord in worship and prayer. I think that behind all of the talk about burnout in our day is this basic failure, to block out adequate time to draw near to the Lord and seek His will for His work. With the great numbers in the church at Antioch (11:21, 24, 26), many of them from pagan backgrounds, undoubtedly there were many needs crying for attention. But if church leaders spend all of their time responding to needs and not enough time seeking the Lord, they will miss His direction for the work. Note several necessary qualities for church leaders:

A. Church leaders must be godly men.

We’ve already studied Barnabas, who is described as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (11:24). The remaining chapters of Acts, as well as his many epistles, reveal the godly character of the apostle Paul. While we do not know anything more of the other three men listed here, they must have been godly men to have worked side by side with these two men. They had to step into the huge void left when the Lord called Barnabas and Saul to leave Antioch.

In First Timothy 3 and Titus 1, Paul gives the necessary qualifications for church leaders. Almost all of the qualities relate to godly character, none to leadership skill or personal charisma. Also, although God gifts women and calls them to serve in many capacities in the church, the role of elder and the task of preaching and teaching God’s Word to the church at large is limited to men (1 Tim. 2:11-15; 3:1-7). On the mission field, women have done some admirable and courageous work, often going where men could not go. But if they follow biblical truth, those women missionaries will aim at establishing godly men over the churches that they see God raise up.

B. Church leaders must lead the church to know God through teaching His Word of truth.

These leaders are described here by their gifts as prophets and teachers. Although there is much difference of opinion about the description and function of New Testament prophets, it would seem that their main role was to proclaim to the church direct revelation that they received from God. Sometimes it would be to predict a future event (11:27-28; 21:10-11). At other times, it would be a word of edification, exhortation, or consolation (1 Cor. 14:3). Paul states that the church was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Thus there is a sense in which these gifts ceased once the foundation was laid. There is debate about whether there is another sense of prophecy that is valid for today (see Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today [Crossway Books]). But whatever we say about that, these men knew God and knew how to discern His voice so that they could communicate His truth to His church.

Teachers explain and apply God’s Word of truth to His church. In our day, we are privileged to be able to take advantage of gifted Bible teachers in a way that was not possible in earlier generations, namely, through the radio, tapes, the internet, and Bible conferences around the country. On the other hand, there seem to be fewer pastors who are willing to put in the hard work necessary to do an adequate job of teaching the Word week in and week out on the local church level. Many pastors buy into the view that sermons should be short, inspirational pep talks filled with moving stories, rather than an exposition of what Scripture teaches. But the solid teaching of God’s Word is one of the most important tasks for church leaders.

C. Church leaders should be plural, not singular.

Five leaders are mentioned from this church in Antioch. They may have ministered in different meeting places, since a large church such as this may not all have met in the same place. But when the word “elder” is used with reference to a local church, it is always in the plural, “elders of the church” (11:30; 14:23; 20:17).

These five leaders were a diverse bunch. We’ve already met Barnabas and Saul, who were both from strict Jewish backgrounds. Simeon had the nickname of Niger, which means “black.” He was probably dark-skinned. Some think that he is the Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross, but that cannot be proved. Lucius was from Cyrene in North Africa, and probably was one of the original evangelists who helped found the church in Antioch (11:20). Manaen, which is a Greek form of the Hebrew name Menahem (meaning “comfort”), was brought up with Herod the tetrarch (Antipas, who executed John the Baptist). It is interesting that these two men, raised in the same setting, would go in such opposite directions. Manaen had to turn his back on wealth and a possible position of power to follow Christ.

These five different men learned to wait upon the Lord together and work together in leading the church. When the Lord sent out these first missionaries, He did not send out one, but two. While team ministry is sometimes difficult (as we will see with Barnabas and Paul), it is God’s way. Even the strongest of leaders (like Paul) need other men who are strong enough to confront them at times and to help them to see other points of view. God designed the church to be a body, not a single member. The leaders should complement one another and learn to work through differences in a spirit of humility.

D. Church leaders must take the time to worship God and seek His direction for His church.

They were ministering to the Lord and fasting. All ministry should be first and foremost to the Lord. The Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me” (13:2). The Greek word translated “set apart” means to devote something to a special purpose. These men were to be devoted to the Lord first, then to the work to which He called them. Jesus told the woman at the well that the Father seeks worshipers who worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). It was while these men took the time to worship that the Lord gave them this history-changing directive.

Fasting is somewhat neglected in the modern church, but it should not be. In the Bible, it is often connected with a need to seek God’s direction or to get an answer in prayer on important matters. I have never gone on a long fast, but I have seen God use times of fasting in my life. It can be as short as skipping a single meal and devoting the time to prayer and seeking God through His Word. The hunger pangs remind you of your purpose!

E. Church leaders must be obedient to the direction God gives, even if it’s difficult.

These leaders sought the Lord and He answered them, but they might not have liked what they heard at first. Barnabas and Saul were two of the most gifted men in that church, and God sent them out on this missionary journey. They would have left a gaping hole in the ministry there! The other leaders would have been burdened with more work. But they obeyed and trusted God to make up the difference.

It’s interesting that these men were sent out and there isn’t a word about what is usually foremost in our minds: how will they be supported? Whether the church got behind their ongoing support or gave a one-time gift to cover their living expenses or whether they assumed that they would work to support themselves, we don’t know. But the impressive thing is, without a word of protest, the church obeyed the Spirit’s directive and released these gifted men for ministry outside of Antioch.

Thus the Holy Spirit is sovereign over the church. To be obedient to the sovereign Spirit, godly church leaders must take time to worship God and seek His direction.

3. The purpose of the sovereign Spirit is to glorify God among the nations by sending out workers who preach the gospel.

A. God’s ultimate goal is His glory.

Habakkuk 2:14 states, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” In Psalm 46:10, God says, “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” John Piper rewords the first answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever” (Desiring God, pp. 33, 42, italics his). He states, “This is why God has done all things, from creation to consummation, for the preservation and display of his glory” (p. 45). Thus salvation is not God’s ultimate goal, but rather a means to His goal of glorifying Himself.

B. God will be glorified on earth when the gospel is preached among the nations.

In Revelation 5:9-10, John hears the heavenly chorus singing, “Worthy are You to take the book, and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” When the church preaches the gospel to all the nations, God will use it to save His elect to the glory of His name. Thus as Piper again puts it, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. The glory of God is the ultimate goal of the church—because it’s the ultimate goal of God…. Missions exists because worship doesn’t” (Mission Frontiers, p. 13).

Conclusion

Some years ago, Stan Mooneyham wrote (“World Vision,” July, 1980),

The other day when I was reading about a certain church, I came upon the fact that it “seats 900.” That’s a common enough way of describing size. The Houston Astrodome seats 50,000; the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, 91,000. But, I wondered, is seating power the way a church should be measured? Wouldn’t sending power be more relevant? I’d like to know if that church sends 900. Or even 90.

Perhaps we’ve gotten in the habit of lumping churchgoing with spectator sports, where it is the coming and not the going that is important. That may help to explain why we attach such importance to glossy, fast-paced church services in which even ushers are expected to perform with the choreographed precision of the Rockettes.

The entertainment industry knows all about slickness and image, and if we are trying only to fill seats, that’s probably the route. But it seems to me that the church might better be trying to empty its seats. The church is, or ought to be, a sending agency. A recruiting office, as nearly as I can tell, doesn’t talk about the number of recruits it can hold, but the number it has sent. Come to think of it, I have never seen a very big or a very plush recruiting office. They don’t have to be, because the action is somewhere else.

Let’s keep our main business in focus: To obey the Holy Spirit in promoting God’s glory among the nations by sending out workers called by God to preach the gospel. As Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38).

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with John Piper: Either you’re a goer, a sender, or disobedient? Why must missions be the focus of all?
  2. How can a person know if he or she is called to going to another culture as a missionary?
  3. Should missionaries be supported by many churches or primarily by one church? What are the pros and cons?
  4. What are some ways that those who do not go as missionaries can be involved in the cause?

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

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Evangelism, Glory, Missions, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)

Lesson 32: Into the Battle (Acts 13:4-12)

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Whenever I do premarital counseling with couples, I always talk about expectations. It underlies the whole process, because if a couple has unrealistic expectations about any aspect of marriage, they are sure to be disappointed when it does not work out as they had hoped. While a certain amount of infatuation is inevitable, the closer to reality that a couple is in their expectations before marriage, the less potential for severe problems later.

The same is true spiritually. Many people enter the Christian life with false expectations. They were told that trusting Jesus as their Savior would solve many, if not most, of their problems. They heard that the Christian life is an abundant life, full of joy and peace. What they didn’t hear is that it also is a life of mortal combat with the enemy of our souls, who is not only powerful, but also incredibly crafty. And, the combat intensifies when a person engages in some sort of ministry.

In our text, Barnabas and Saul head off on the first missionary journey. They had been sent out with the blessing of the church in Antioch; Luke expressly states that they were sent out by the Holy Spirit. No doubt there was a certain sense of adventure and excitement about the mission. It may be that this sense of adventure was part of the reason that John Mark signed on to accompany the two leaders. But they weren’t very far into the mission when they encountered a battle with the spiritual forces of wickedness. From this encounter, we learn that …

When we share the gospel, we engage the enemy of souls in spiritual combat, so we must be prepared for spiritual battle.

When we go out to do the Lord’s work, we should expect and be prepared for satanic opposition. Leading someone to Christ involves more than giving a sales pitch or using logical arguments. We are engaging in battle with Satan himself, who wants to keep the person in his kingdom of darkness. So the Holy Spirit sent Barnabas and Saul directly into this spiritual conflict. It reminds us of the early ministry of Jesus, where the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (see Luke 4:1, 2).

Before we jump to the spiritual lessons that are here, we need to understand Luke’s reason for including this incident here.

Introduction: Luke’s reason for including this incident.

We have begun a new section in Acts (13:1 ff.) that shifts the focus to the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Here and in the next two chapters, we will see Paul and Barnabas leading this Roman proconsul to Christ. They go on to preach to the Jews at Pisidian Antioch, who reject the gospel, prompting the apostles to turn to the Gentiles. Then they preach directly to the Gentiles at Iconium and Lystra. On their return, they appoint elders at the churches in the cities where they have preached. They then return to Antioch and report what God had done with them, and especially “how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27). This sets the stage for the Jerusalem Council (15:1-29), which approved this matter of the Gentiles becoming Christians without first becoming Jews. Then Paul and Barnabas split over the matter of taking Mark along on the second journey. Luke is establishing two important facts by narrating these events:

1) Luke is establishing the validity of direct witness to the Gentiles.

Although Peter had witnessed to Cornelius and the Gentiles in his home, the Jerusalem church never seemed to pick up on this as a precedent for further outreach to the Gentiles. It was left to the church at Antioch to see this direct approach bring many Gentiles to the faith without coming through the door of Judaism. When Barnabas and Saul begin their mission, they start by witnessing to the Jews in the synagogues of Cyprus. This was always Paul’s approach, to take the gospel to the Jew first, and then to the Gentiles (Rom. 1:16). Perhaps he did this because of his intense desire to see his own people saved (Rom. 9:1-5). He may have been following Jesus’ approach, of first taking the good news to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and only later mandating that the message go out to all the nations (Matt. 10:5-6; 28:19). Also, the Jewish synagogues would be a place where God-fearing Gentiles may be found, who already had a foundation, but just needed to hear about Jesus Christ.

But Luke quickly passes over the early ministry in the synagogues of Cyprus and focuses on this incident where the Gentile proconsul (the governor appointed by the Roman senate) gets saved. Ironically, he is almost prevented from believing by a Jewish false prophet. As a Jew, Elymas should have been helping this proconsul to know the one true God, preparing him to look for the Messiah. Then Paul’s ministry would have completed the process. But actually it was in spite of this Jew that the proconsul got saved. His conversion seems to be a turning point in Paul’s whole ministry (Richard Longenecker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 9:420-421). Even his name changes from the Jewish Saul to the Gentile Paul (the same name as his first recorded convert), and the Gentile name is used from here on.

Thus Luke is showing that because the Jews rejected the gospel and even opposed it, Paul was legitimate in preaching directly to the Gentiles. This is further underscored by the fact that God was pleased to save the Gentiles apart from their becoming Jews.

2) Luke is establishing the credibility of Paul as an apostle.

Since Paul was not one of the twelve, critics (especially Jewish critics) attacked his apostolic credentials. If he were discredited as a legitimate apostle, then his entire ministry to the Gentiles would be discredited as well. This would undermine the message of salvation by grace through faith apart from any works, such as the Jewish rite of circumcision. So it was important to establish Paul’s credibility as a true apostle.

Luke does this in several ways in these chapters. First, Paul was clearly called and sent out by the Holy Spirit, with the full backing of the church in Antioch (13:1-4).

Second, Paul performed the signs of an apostle, namely the ability to do miracles (see 2 Cor. 12:12). Striking Elymas blind was Paul’s first recorded miracle, and it was done in conflict with a Jew over preaching the gospel to a Gentile (Stanley Toussaint, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 2:388).

Third, we will see in the material to follow that Paul’s preaching was identical to Peter’s. Also, there are striking parallels between the ministry of Peter and that of Paul. Just as Peter confronted Simon the sorcerer, so here Paul confronts Elymas the sorcerer. Just as Peter’s success caused Jewish jealousy (5:17), so Paul’s success caused Jewish jealousy (13:45). Just as Peter healed a man lame from birth (3:1-11), so does Paul (14:8-18). Just as Peter’s shadow falling on people healed them (5:15-16), so handkerchiefs and aprons carried from Paul healed people (19:11-12).

Fourth, Luke establishes Paul’s apostolic credentials by signaling the shift from “Barnabas and Saul” to “Paul and Barnabas.” In 13:7, it is Barnabas and Saul. In 13:9, the name change is given, from Saul to Paul. In 13:13, it is “Paul and his companions” who put out to sea, and from then on, with just a few exceptions that can be explained in context, it is Paul and Barnabas (13:42).

Fifth, although it is more subtle, the defection of Mark, Paul and Barnabas’ split over taking him on the second journey, and Mark’s subsequent mission with Barnabas, establish the credibility of Paul as an apostle. Why Mark left is never stated, and so we must be a bit tentative here. There probably were multiple factors. But it is not difficult to surmise that a main factor may have been Mark’s disagreement over the strategy of Paul’s direct approach to the Gentiles. After the proconsul’s conversion, the team moved on to Perga, but did not preach there. It can be plausibly argued that they discussed the new approach of going directly to the Gentiles, and that Mark’s disagreement led to his departure. He may have been worried about how this approach would be received back in Jerusalem. This would explain Paul’s later strong opposition to taking Mark along on the second journey (15:37-39). Paul was not just opposed for personal reasons, but for doctrinal reasons (Long­enecker, p. 421). The record of Acts stands with Paul, who along with Silas was “commended by the brethren,” whereas no such commendation is given for Barnabas and Mark (15:39-40).

So Luke’s purpose is to establish both the validity of direct witness to the Gentiles and the credibility of Paul as an apostle. What spiritual lessons can we learn from our text?

1. When we share the gospel, we engage the enemy of souls in spiritual combat.

This is the second of four encounters with and victory over demonic powers in Acts (8:9-23; 16:16-18; 19:13-17). Luke also mentions Satan two other times in Acts (5:3; 26:18). Satan (= adversary) or the devil (= accuser) is an angelic being who rebelled against God and took with him many (perhaps one-third, Rev. 12:3-4) of the angels, who are now called demons. Satan and the demons are an unseen spiritual army that is at war against God and the holy angels. They can inhabit human hearts (5:3; Luke 8:26-39; and others). As believers, we are to put on the full armor of God so that we can stand against these evil forces (Eph. 6:10-20). Jesus taught that Satan is active in snatching away the seed of the gospel when it is sown, so that it does not take root in hearts (Luke 8:11-12). So here he uses Elymas, one of his sons (13:10), to try to keep Sergius Paulus from believing in Christ.

Note three tactics of the devil:

A. The devil holds people in spiritual blindness.

Paul calls him “the god of this world” and says that he “has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). We do not know why God allows Satan this amazing power of holding people in spiritual darkness and snatching away the seed of the gospel when it is sown. We do know that Satan’s power does not absolve people of their own responsibility for their spiritual blindness. Paul makes it clear that unbelievers will be judged because they did not love and believe in the truth, but rather took pleasure in wickedness (2 Thess. 2:10-12).

Since Satan holds people in spiritual blindness and tries to prevent them from being saved, we know that anyone or anything that keeps a person from receiving Christ is from the devil. A young woman is seriously considering the claims of Christ, when along comes a nice unbelieving young man who steals her heart (they’re always nice!). She falls in love with him and never solidifies her commitment to Jesus Christ. No matter how nice that young man may be, he is an instrument of the devil!

A young man has heard the gospel and perhaps has even professed faith in Christ. But along comes the job opportunity of a lifetime. He will make a pile of money and he can do what he has always dreamed of doing. The only catch is, the job will require him to set aside his commitment to Christ and it will compromise his Christian testimony. That job is from the devil!

B. The devil uses deceit, fraud, and opposition to righteousness to carry out his evil designs.

Paul confronts Elymas as being full of deceit and fraud, an enemy of all righteousness. He makes crooked the straight ways of the Lord (13:10). “Deceit” is used of a snare to catch an animal, or of bait to trick a fish (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Scribners], p. 120). Fraud has the nuance of recklessness (Abbott-Smith, p. 396), or the loosening of all ethical restraints (Bauernfeind, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [Eerdmans], 6:973). Elymas had posed as Bar-Jesus, which means in Aramaic, “son of Jeshua,” or son of salvation. He may not have taken the title with reference to Jesus Christ, but he was posing as one who could point people to the way of salvation. But he was a deceiver. By diverting people from the true righteousness that is found only in Jesus Christ, he was an enemy of all righteousness.

Satan uses deceit to undermine the necessity of the cross of Jesus Christ. In our day, there is a resurgence of “spirituality,” but it is a spirituality devoid of the substitutionary death of Jesus on behalf of sinners. It is a spirituality where each person makes up “truth” according to his own likes and dislikes. It even “works.” An article in the May, 2001 Reader’s Digest gives evidence that faith contributes to physical healing. But it doesn’t matter what your faith is in. For example, Hindus in India who pray regularly have 70 percent less heart disease than those lacking such faith. This is satanic deception, causing people who read it to think that it doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you believe in something. That road leads straight to hell!

C. The devil uses selfish motivation to keep people in spiritual deception.

Elymas had a position of influence, and probably financial profit, with the proconsul. He quickly realized that if Sergius Paulus accepted the gospel, he was out of a job and his access to this important and powerful man was over. So out of selfish reasons, he sought to turn the proconsul from the faith.

Most people who oppose the gospel do so out of selfish reasons. Often the person realizes that if the gospel is true, then he must repent of his sin, and he doesn’t want to repent because he enjoys his sin. He knows that if he becomes a Christian, he will have to give up his shady business practices, and it will cost him a bundle. Since he likes the things he can do and buy with his money, he rejects the gospel. Often those who argue militantly for evolution are not doing so out of purely intellectual reasons. If God is the creator, they know that they’re in big trouble because of their sins; so they use whatever arguments they can, however ridiculous (and some of them are simply ludicrous!), to defend evolution. Whatever the surface objections to the gospel, the root reason is always that the person wants to be his own god.

Thus when we share the gospel, we engage the enemy of souls in spiritual combat. Because of this, we need to be ready:

2. We must be prepared to do spiritual battle.

We could launch off at this point to Ephesians 6, but that would lead to a whole series of messages! Instead, I will point out five aspects of spiritual battle from our text:

A. To do spiritual battle, be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Luke states that Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit before he launched into his denunciation of Elymas (13:9). This refers to a special empowering of the Spirit for the task of confronting this deceiver and for the power to strike him temporarily blind. To be filled with the Spirit means to be under the Spirit’s control. It means that we are not acting in self-will. Since we all are so prone to act in self-will, we need to be very careful, especially before confronting someone, to check our hearts. Our motives should be concern for the glory of God, the truth of the gospel, and for the souls of those who are lost. Any motives for our own glory, to prove that we are right, or to tear down someone else so that we will look good, are not from the Holy Spirit.

B. To do spiritual battle, confront false prophets or spiritual error when you sense the Spirit’s prompting.

Not everyone who holds wrong doctrine is a false prophet. A false prophet is one who deliberately deceives other. Not all errors need strong confrontation. Some errors are more serious than others. Sometimes, a person in error just needs gentle guidance and time in order to come to the knowledge of the truth. But any error that keeps a person from believing in Jesus Christ for salvation is a serious error that needs correction.

The level of confrontation is a judgment call. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul instructs us to admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help (lit., “hold on to”) the weak, and be patient with all men. To obey this, we must have discernment as to whether a person is being unruly, fainthearted, or weak. Jesus reserved His most severe confrontation for spiritual leaders who professed to know the truth, but were actually hindering others from the truth (Matthew 23). If we see someone using false teaching to keep others from salvation, we are not being loving to remain silent. By the way, I would understand the prerogative of striking someone blind to be limited to the apostles! But the obligation to confront serious error falls on every believer when the occasion arises.

C. To do spiritual battle, reach out to those who show an interest in the things of God.

This is one reason Paul and Barnabas started in the synagogues. At least the people there showed enough interest in the things of God to be there. Luke describes the proconsul as “a man of intelligence.” Every other time that word is used in the New Testament, it refers to those who are shut out from the gospel because they thought themselves to be wise (Matt. 11:25; Luke 10:21; 1 Cor. 1:19). But here Luke seems to mean that Sergius Paulus was thinking carefully about spiritual matters, and that this was why he summoned Barnabas and Saul. Since no one seeks for God on their own (Rom. 3:11), whenever a person shows an interest in spiritual things, we can assume that God is doing something in that person’s heart, and we should be quick to talk about the gospel.

D. To do spiritual battle, present the teaching of God’s Word on the gospel clearly.

“The faith” (13:8) and “the teaching of the Lord” (13:12) both refer to Paul and Barnabas’ presenting the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. When Luke says that the proconsul was amazed at the teaching of the Lord, he may be including his amazement at the miracle of striking Elymas blind. But also he was amazed because God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” had now shone into his heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). When his eyes were opened to the simplicity of “the straight way of the Lord,” he was amazed at the grace of God and the love of Christ in going to the cross. The gospel is our great weapon that God uses to save all who believe. We must wield it accurately and clearly.

E. When you do spiritual battle, do not mistake opposition or apathy to the message as failure on your part.

We don’t know what kind of response Paul and Barnabas received in the synagogues as they worked their way across the island, since Luke does not say. Probably they encountered others who opposed them. Apparently there was not a widespread acceptance of the message, or Luke would have noted it. But throughout Acts we see that some vigorously oppose the gospel, others are apathetic, and others believe unto salvation. But whatever the response, our job is to present the message as clearly and convincingly as we can and leave the results to the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Gary Larson has a Far Side cartoon picturing two deer. One has a giant target on his chest. The other deer says, “Bummer of a birthmark, Ernie!” You might be thinking, “If I’m going to get into a battle with Satan by presenting the gospel, I’m not sure that I want to do it! It’s like putting a target on me for Satan to aim at!”

Of course, that is precisely the response that Satan wants you to have! He does not want the gospel to go out, because he knows that God will use it to open people’s eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ (26:18). But your only real option is to go into battle, armed with the gospel of truth. With Paul at the end of his life, you will be able to say, “The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (2 Tim. 4:18).

Discussion Questions

  1. Should Christians fear the devil? If so, to what extent?
  2. How can we discern Satan’s deceptive tactics?
  3. How can we know if we’re filled with the Spirit or just acting in impulsive selfishness?
  4. To what extent should we use persuasion in presenting the gospel? Can it be over-used?

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

Related Topics: Evangelism, Satanology, Spiritual Life

Lesson 33: The God Who Keeps His Promise (Acts 13:13-41)

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In October, 1940, Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt promised, “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” In October, 1964, candidate Lyndon Johnson promised, “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves” (both quotes in No Matter How Thin You Slice It, It’s Still Baloney [Quill], ed. by Jean Arbeiter, p. 85). We’re so used to politicians not keeping their campaign promises that those outrageous quotes hardly bother us.

But it does bother us greatly when someone we love and trust fails to keep an important promise. “I promise to love you in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, and to keep myself ever and only for you, till death do us part.” When those kinds of promises are broken, it leaves a trail of grief and pain. If I were leaving on a long trip and I entrusted to you a rare family treasure, which you promised to keep safe for my return, I’d be a bit stunned to return and find that you had sold it at a yard sale (even if it was for missions!). We’re hurt when people fail to keep important promises.

If you’re going to entrust your soul for eternity to God, it is important to know that He keeps His promises. Most of us have had the experience of being disappointed with God. We trusted Him for something that we thought He had promised, but it did not work out as we had hoped. Whenever that happens, it is we, not God, who were mistaken. We somehow failed to understand or properly apply His promises. But on the matter of our eternal destiny, it is crucial that we properly understand and apply God’s promise of salvation. To be mistaken here would be eternally fatal!

The apostle Paul’s first and longest recorded sermon deals with the theme of God’s promise of salvation: “From the offspring of this man [David], according to promise, God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus” (13:23). “To us the word of this salvation is sent out” (13:26). “And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children [or, to us, their children] in that He raised up Jesus, as it also is written …” (13:32-33). The sermon falls into three parts, each beginning with Paul’s direct address to the congregation: The promise given (13:16-25); the promise kept (13:26-37); and, your response (13:38-41). We have here only a synopsis of what undoubtedly was a much longer message. His main idea is:

God’s promise to send a Savior and His fulfillment of that promise in sending Jesus demands a response.

The sermon was delivered at the synagogue in what is called Pisidian Antioch, in modern Turkey. It was about 100 miles inland, at 3,600 feet elevation. To get there, Paul and Barnabas had to go through some dangerous mountain passes, infested with robbers. Some think that the danger was one factor in Mark’s deserting the team and returning to Jerusalem. Since Paul was a disciple of the renowned rabbi, Gamaliel, the synagogue officials gave him the opportunity to bring the sermon. They had to be surprised at what he said!

1. The promise given: By His grace, God promised His chosen people to send a Savior (13:16-25).

Paul begins by addressing both the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles in the congregation. He starts with facts that every Jew would have known and agreed with: God chose the patriarchs; He delivered their descendants from Egypt; He gave them the land of Canaan; and, He chose David as their king (13:17-22). In all of this rehearsal of Israel’s history, Paul’s very words are almost taken directly from the Old Testament (F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts [Eerdmans], p. 272). Up through verse 22, every head in the synagogue was nodding in agreement with Paul.

Then Paul skips the rest of Israel’s history and jumps from David to David’s descendant, Jesus, proclaiming Him to be the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Savior (13:23). Perhaps observing a ripple of shock sweep through the room, Paul quickly goes back to John the Baptist, the forerunner of whom Malachi prophesied. Since John was highly regarded in most Jewish circles, Paul shows that John did not regard himself as Messiah, but rather affirmed that he was not worthy to untie the sandals of the one coming after him. Paul weaves three themes into this brief sketch of history:

A. God is sovereignly moving all of history according to His purpose to fulfill His promise of salvation.

Paul’s sermon centers on God and His sovereignty over all of history, especially the history of salvation. God began the process by choosing Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was not their choice of God, but God’s choice of them, that is significant. Then, God made the people great during their stay in Egypt. God led them out of Egypt with an uplifted arm (emphasizing God’s power). God put up with them in the wilderness for 40 years. There is a textual variant of one Greek letter that changes the meaning to, “God carried them in His arms as a nurse in the wilderness.” It is difficult to determine which reading is original, but both were true: God put up with Israel’s sin and He bore them gently in His strong and loving arms in spite of their sin.

Continuing, Paul mentions that God destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan (Deut. 7:1). Israel didn’t conquer the land by her own strength. God distributed their land as an inheritance. The 450 years refers to the 400 years of captivity in Egypt, the 40 years in the wilderness, and ten years of conquering most of Canaan. Then God gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. In response to their request to be like the other nations, God gave them Saul as king. This is the only biblical reference to the length of Saul’s kingship, agreeing with the Jewish writer Josephus. The Old Testament text is obviously corrupt when it reports on the chronology (1 Sam. 13:1). It was God who removed Saul and God who raised up David. It was God who brought to Israel from David’s offspring, according to His promise, a Savior in the person of Jesus.

Paul continues the same theme throughout the rest of the sermon. In verse 26, it is clearly God who sent out the word of this salvation. In verse 27, the wicked rulers in Jerusalem, who did not recognize Jesus or the words of the prophets, nonetheless fulfilled those very words of God by condemning Jesus. The point is that even wicked men who are bent on carrying out their own will actually fulfilled God’s sovereign will. History is God’s story, and no one can do anything to thwart His plan. Verse 29 makes the same point: Jesus’ death, their taking Him from the cross and laying Him in a tomb all simply fulfilled all that was written concerning Him. The specific events of the crucifixion and burial, such as the soldiers gambling for His robe, their offering Him gall to drink, and His being buried in a rich man’s tomb, all fulfilled specific prophecies. Paul continues with God’s sovereign working: God raised Him from the dead (13:30). God has fulfilled this promise (13:33). He hammers the theme home: God is in control of history.

All of this should give us great comfort, especially when things in our world seem to be running out of control. Nothing thwarts God’s sovereign purpose in history! He promised to send the Savior, and He did it in spite of the many failings of His people and the strong opposition of His enemies. That leads to the second theme that Paul weaves through his sermon:

B. God’s grace permeates His working in history.

God’s grace is seen in His sovereign choice of the patriarchs. Why did He choose Abraham? Scripture is clear that it was not because Abraham first decided to choose God. No, Abraham was a pagan idolater, living in a pagan nation, when God in sovereign grace revealed Himself to Abraham and called him to move to Canaan (Josh. 24:2-3). There was nothing of merit in Abraham to make him the recipient of such grace. The same is true of Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons, the twelve patriarchs of the nation. As Paul makes clear in Romans 9, God’s choice of Jacob and His rejection of Esau had nothing to do with anything in either man. Rather, it was “so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls” (Rom. 9:11). If grace is contingent on anything in us, including our choice of God, it is no longer grace (Rom. 11:6).

God’s grace is further illustrated in the exodus and the time in the wilderness. Israel didn’t even want to be delivered from Egypt, and more than once after they were delivered, they wanted to go back. But God graciously brought them into the land and destroyed the nations that were living there. In spite of the wickedness of His people, God graciously gave them judges and then sent His word through Samuel the prophet. While they were wrong to ask for a king, God graciously both granted their request and chastened them by giving them Saul. Then He graciously raised up David. Although over the course of his life, David was a man after God’s heart, we all know of his terrible failure in murdering Uriah and committing adultery with his wife, Bathsheba. But in spite of these failures, God graciously sent the Savior through the offspring of this man, according to His gracious promise. This extended emphasis on grace is why Luke sums up Paul and Barnabas’ exhortation to those who responded in faith, that they should “continue in the grace of God” (13:43).

If you think that your standing before God is because of anything in you—your choice of God, your basic goodness, your religious practices—you do not understand the gospel of God’s grace. God’s sovereign grace means that we are saved in spite of, not because of, anything in ourselves. God initiated the process with His promise, He moved all history to accomplish it, and He brings it to individuals who are rebels deserving of His judgment. It is all from His grace, to the praise of the glory of His grace!

C. God is moving all of history to culminate in Jesus the Savior.

This should be obvious by all that I’ve said so far. Paul is showing that Jesus Christ is the goal and culmination of history. God purposed to sum up all things in heaven and earth in Christ (Eph. 1:11). “All things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything” (Col. 1:16b-18). Paul sums this up in his great doxology in Romans 11:36: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

Anyone or anything that diminishes the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ is not from God. All of the Old Testament was written to point forward to Jesus Christ. He fulfilled hundreds of prophecies, some of which Paul cites in the next section of his sermon. All of the New Testament centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. As the Book of Revelation makes clear, God is moving history toward the grand climax of Christ’s defeat of Satan and His eternal reign.

Thus Paul’s first point is that God graciously promised His chosen people to send a Savior, and that Jesus, the son of David, is that promised Savior. He elaborates on the fulfillment of God’s promise in Jesus in his second point:

2. The promise kept: God’s salvation comes to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (13:26-37).

Paul here anticipates and answers two questions that he knew his audience would be thinking. The first is, If Jesus is God’s Savior and Messiah, why did the Jewish leaders reject Him? Second, When the Jewish leaders rejected and killed Jesus, did they somehow thwart or nullify God’s purpose?

In answer to the first question, Paul shows that the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus because they did not recognize Him when He came (13:27). They were looking for a political Messiah who would deliver them from Rome’s domination. Surely, he would be a great soldier or statesman. He would be trained in the rabbinic schools. He would come from a prominent family and have prestige and influence in society. Jesus had none of these and so they did not recognize Him.

The reason they didn’t recognize Him is that they did not hear the voices of the prophets who spoke to them every Sabbath as God’s Word was read aloud (13:27). They heard the words and they even memorized great portions of Scripture. But they did not understand it. As Jesus charged, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). Or, as Jesus quoted Isaiah with reference to the people, “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes, otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them” (Matt. 13:14-15).

In answer to the second question, Paul shows that the Jews’ rejection and killing of Jesus did not in any way thwart God’s plan, but rather fulfilled it in exact accordance with Scripture. Here he echoes both Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:23), and the prayer of the early church (Acts 4:27-28), which show that the crucifixion of Jesus only fulfilled what God’s hand and God’s purpose predestined to occur. This is not to absolve the wicked men who killed Him of their responsibility. But it is to exalt God, who is able to use the most wicked deeds of the most wicked men to accomplish His sovereign purpose, and yet hold them guilty for all the terrible things that they do.

Paul also emphasizes that God overruled their wicked killing of Jesus by raising Him from the dead. As with all apostolic witness in Acts, the resurrection of Jesus is central. Paul mentions the many witnesses who saw the risen Jesus over many days (13:31). In 13:33, the word “raised up” probably refers not only to the resurrection, but also to Jesus’ exaltation on high. The quote from Psalm 2, “You are My Son; today I have begotten You,” predicts the enthronement of God’s Messiah over all His enemies. Some take the word “today” to speak of the “day” of God’s eternal decree, when Christ was declared to be the Son of God and begotten (John Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord [Moody Press], p. 41). Since the decree is eternal, Christ’s Sonship is eternal. Others, such as John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Acts, pp. 535-536), think that “today” refers to the resurrection, when Christ was exalted by His eternal identity as God’s Son being most clearly manifested. Support for this view is Romans 1:4, which states that He was “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul (13:34-37) further underscores Jesus’ resurrection by quoting two Old Testament prophecies. First he cites Isaiah 55:3, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.” The “you” is plural, pointing to God’s people, but the holy and sure promises were mediated to them through David’s promised descendant, the Messiah. A dead Messiah could not fulfill the promised blessing to David, to have one of his descendants sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:16). Only a perpetually living Messiah could do that. Then, as Peter did at Pentecost, Paul cites Psalm 16:10, showing that it could not have applied to David, who died and did undergo decay, but rather applied to David’s descendant, the Messiah.

Thus Paul’s argument so far is that God had given His promise to send a Savior to His chosen people, Israel. He had kept that promise by sending Jesus, the son of David, in fulfillment of the prophecies given hundreds of years before. The fact that the Jewish leaders rejected and killed Jesus did not thwart, but actually fulfilled, God’s promises. God raised Jesus from the dead, also in accordance with several prophecies. Then comes the bottom line:

3. Your response: Will you believe in Jesus and be saved or will you scoff at God’s promise and be judged (13:38-41)?

Again Paul addresses them as brethren, meaning, “fellow Jews.” First, he proclaims two great promises to them (13:38-39); then, he ends with a solemn warning from the prophet Habakkuk (13:40-41).

A. The two promises: God offers forgiveness of sins and justification to everyone who believes in Jesus (13:38-39).

Both promises are “through Him.” Paul’s audience was trying to gain God’s acceptance through keeping of the Law of Moses. But Paul boldly states what he develops at length in his epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans, that right standing with God can never come through the law. The law brings condemnation to all, because all have sinned and violated God’s holy law. If anyone had tried to keep it, it was Paul (Phil. 3:4-6), but it had not brought him into right standing before God.

Then Paul uses twice the word that became the center of his gospel, “justified” (I don’t understand why the NASB translates it “freed”). It refers to more than our sins being taken away through forgiveness. It refers to God declaring us righteous in His sight through the merits of Jesus Christ. We stand before Him just as if we had never sinned, because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us through faith. What a wonderful promise, that our standing before God can change instantly from guilty sinner to justified saint at the moment we put our trust in Jesus as the one who paid our penalty on the cross!

B. The solemn warning: Be careful not to scoff at God’s promise, because scoffers will incur God’s judgment (13:40-41).

Paul quotes Habakkuk 1:5, which warned Judah of the impending judgment that God would bring on them through the Babylonians because of their unrepentant hearts. The implication is, just as God surely carried out that judgment, so He will bring destruction on you if you scoff at His gracious promise of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

We live in a day that scoffs at the thought of God’s judgment. Even many who profess to know Christ say, “My God is a God of love, not a God of judgment.” But what matters is not how you speculate God to be, but rather, how He has in fact revealed Himself in His Word. Some who claim to be evangelical theologians argue that hell will not be eternal punishment. Rather, they say that God will annihilate the wicked after they have served an appropriate sentence. While appealing to the flesh, that view contradicts the very words of Jesus, who quoted Isaiah, that hell will be a place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (see Mark 9:42-48). Just as eternal life is forever, so eternal punishment is forever (Matt. 25:46).

The God who keeps His promises is also the God who carries through with His warnings! Paul’s sermon gives abundant evidence that God faithfully kept His gracious promise to send Jesus as the Savior of all who will believe in Him. The word of this salvation is sent to you (13:26). Through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you (13:38). Through Him everyone who believes is justified in God’s sight (13:39). But also, all who scoff at Him or ignore Him “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9). Remember, Paul was speaking here to a religious audience. Everyone present believed in God. But they needed personally to put their trust in His promise of salvation through Jesus Christ so that the words of His warning did not come upon them.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why must God’s election be the cause, not the result, of our faith in Christ?
  2. Why is it important to affirm that God is sovereign even over evil?
  3. Why must a person believe in the deity of Jesus Christ in order to be saved?
  4. What lessons can we learn about witnessing from Paul’s presentation of the gospel here?

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

Related Topics: Christology, Grace, Prophecy/Revelation, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 34: Good News That Divides (Acts 13:42-14:7)

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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,

1. The glory of God in saving His elect should be our primary motive in proclaiming the gospel.

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:

A. God has an elect people.

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!

B. God is glorified when the elect are saved.

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.

2. To see God’s elect get saved, we must proclaim the gospel to them.

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.

A. The gospel is God’s message, not man’s.

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.

B. The gospel is a message of grace to undeserving sinners.

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,

3. When we proclaim the gospel rightly, we should expect division.

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.

4. Whatever the response, we all must proclaim the gospel boldly until the ends of the earth have heard of God’s salvation.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the gospel necessarily offensive? What part is offensive?
  2. Why is it important to affirm the doctrine of election? Why not just skip it, since it’s so controversial?
  3. Why is the doctrine of election important as a foundation for the work of evangelism?
  4. Can a person get saved without hearing the gospel? Defend your answer from Scripture.

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

Related Topics: Evangelism, Glory, Predestination, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 35: Marks of a Faithful Servant (Acts 14:8-28)

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I don’t know whether Jesus will speak English when I stand before Him someday, or whether He will give me the ability to understand Hebrew or Aramaic, or whatever language is spoken in heaven. But if He is speaking English, I will be watching His lips and hoping that I see them forming a “W.” I want to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matt. 25:21). It would be absolutely tragic to hear, “I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23)!

The apostle Paul wrote, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:1-2, New KJV). We who know Christ should view ourselves as His servants and our aim should be to be faithful in that role. Our text shows the faithfulness of Paul and Barnabas in some great victories and in some difficult trials as they complete the first missionary journey. Their experiences are recorded so that we can follow their example:

We should learn from and imitate Paul and Barnabas as faithful servants of Christ, no matter what the cost.

The faithfulness of the apostles is contrasted with the fickleness of this pagan crowd. God used Paul to heal a man who had been lame from birth, and the crowd was ready to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas as gods. Shortly after, some Jews from Anti­och and Iconium who hated Paul’s message easily persuaded the same crowd to stone Paul as an imposter. They dragged the unconscious apostle out of the city and threw him on the trash heap as dead. Some think that Paul actually died, but Luke’s words indicate that he was not dead, but supposed to be dead (14:19). Some think that Paul may have had his out-of-body experience of being caught up into the third heaven at this time (2 Cor. 12:1-7), but the chronology doesn’t fit.

But even though Paul was not dead, he was seriously wounded. He later reminds the Galatians (these very churches) that he bore on his body the brand-marks of Jesus (Gal. 6:17), probably referring to scars that he suffered from this harrowing incident. God miraculously raised him up and gave him the strength to begin the 60-mile journey to Derbe the next day. Through it all, Paul kept on faithfully serving the Lord Jesus and preaching the gospel. We could probably come up with a dozen or more marks of faithfulness, but I will limit myself to seven:

1. A faithful servant points people to the living God, not to himself.

Lystra was a small town about 20 miles south-southwest of Iconium. Since there was no synagogue, Paul probably preached the gospel in the open marketplace. During one of his messages, he noticed a lame man, and the Lord gave Paul the insight that this man had the faith to be healed. Sometimes in the Bible, God healed people apart from any faith on their part. At other times, He healed in response to their faith. So Paul loudly commanded this man who was lame from birth to stand upright. When he leaped to his feet and began to walk, the crowd was amazed.

They began to speak in their native Lycaonian language (which neither Paul nor Barnabas understood), excitedly telling one another, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” They called Barnabas, who was older than Paul and the more quiet, stately man, “Zeus” (Jupiter); and they called Paul “Hermes” (Mercury), who was the orator god.

They were basing their identification on a legend that the Roman poet Ovid wrote about. According to Ovid’s story, Zeus and Hermes had once visited a valley near Lystra. They went from door to door, but no one invited them in. Finally they came to a cottage where a poor couple took them in, fed them, and gave them a bed for the night, not knowing that they were gods. Because of their kind hospitality, the two gods turned this poor couple’s cottage into a golden-roofed temple, but they destroyed the selfish people who had refused to take them in (see James Boice, Acts [Zondervan], p. 255). The people of Lystra didn’t want to make the same mistake again! So they ran to the local temple of Zeus, told the priest what had happened, and he quickly brought oxen to sacrifice to these two powerful visitors.

At some point, someone, perhaps Timothy, who was one of the converts from Lystra, told Paul and Barnabas what was happening. The apostles were horrified! They tore their robes as they ran into the midst of the crowd and with great difficulty restrained them. Luke reports the gist of what either Paul or Barnabas shouted out to the crowd (14:15-17). It would seem that they did not get to finish the sermon, since it does not give the gospel. The impression I get is that Paul was moving toward the gospel, but he got interrupted as the crowd noisily and, probably, angrily dispersed. They had been hoping that this was the rare experience of the centuries that would put their city on the map forever. People would flock from miles around to the place where the gods came down to earth as men. Think of what it would do for the local economy! So when these mysterious visitors insisted that they were mere mortals, not gods, the people were really bummed out!

Paul began by telling them that Barnabas and he were men of the same nature as they had. He preached the gospel to them so that they would turn from the worship of vain idols to the living God who made heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them. When he spoke to the Jews, Paul could argue from Scripture, since they already believed it. But with these uneducated pagans, he began with creation, appealing to their sense that a living God, the Creator, stood behind all that they saw in the world.

In verse 16, Paul anticipates an objection from his audience: “We have served what you call ‘vain idols’ for centuries, and life has not been so bad. Why should we now turn from them to this God that you call ‘the living God’?” Paul explains that in the generations gone by, God permitted the nations to go their own ways. In His patience, God did not destroy them in their sin. Although God did not give them His written revelation, as He did with the Jews, yet He did not leave Himself without a witness. He did good towards them, giving them rain and fruitful seasons, satisfying their hearts with food and gladness.

Paul’s line of reasoning here is similar (although simpler and more abbreviated) to his comments in Romans 1:18-32 and his sermon to the Athenians (Acts 18:22-31). Through creation, every person should know that there is an almighty Creator and we are accountable to Him. Men invent myths, like the ancient Greek mythology and the modern myth of evolution, to dodge their accountability to the Creator. As he puts it in Romans 1:18, they “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

The testimony of creation is sufficient to condemn people for their rebellion against God, but it is not sufficient to save them. To be saved, people need to hear the gospel, which tells of God’s provision of a Savior, Jesus Christ, who offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who will put their trust in Him. If he had been allowed to continue, I believe that Paul would have urged his audience to repent of their idolatry and would have told them of the Savior who died and rose from the dead (see Acts 18:30-31), but he got cut off when they angrily dispersed.

His words in verse 16 raise the thorny questions: “Will God judge the heathen who have never heard the gospel? Why did God let all of these nations go for centuries without hearing the gospel?” Without digressing for too long, consider the following. First, God does not owe mercy to any nation or human being. We all have rebelled against God’s rightful rule and we all deserve His judgment. He is perfectly just in letting the nations go their own ways without giving them the revelation of the gospel, since they all have suppressed in unrighteousness the truth of creation.

Second, God in His inscrutable wisdom knows how people would have responded if they had had the revelation that others have had, and He will judge each person according to His wise justice. In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus reproached the cities where He had performed miracles, but they did not repent. He tells them that it will be more tolerable for places like Tyre, Sidon, and even wicked Sodom in the day of judgment than for them, because if they had seen His miracles, those people would have repented. The mind-boggling thing is that these cities did not receive this revelation, and they perished in their sins. But God knows how they would have responded if they had received such revelation, and He will judge them accordingly!

When I am sharing the gospel and people raise this objection, I try to bring it back to this bottom line: “You now have heard about God’s sending Jesus Christ as the Savior who gave Himself on the cross as the sacrifice for sinners. How are you going to respond? If you do not repent of your sins and trust in Christ, God will judge you according to the light that He has shown you!”

To come back to the point, Paul and Barnabas could have heard that these people were about to offer sacrifices to them and thought, “Well, it’s about time that we got some respect. What will a little mistake like that hurt for a while? Maybe we can use it later to tell them about Christ, since they will then respect us.” If that temptation flitted through their minds, they immediately cut it off. As faithful servants, their spontaneous response was to point people away from themselves and toward the living God, to whom we all must one day give an account.

2. A faithful servant courageously keeps on proclaiming the gospel in spite of persecution.

Paul and Barnabas had been forced to flee from Antioch and Iconium. But when they came into the region of Lycaonia, they continued to preach the gospel (14:7). Even after getting stoned, Paul didn’t give up. I would have thought that a short vacation would have been in order about then! But he got up, walked to the next city, and preached the gospel there (14:21). On the way back through Perga, where for some reason (perhaps the controversy over Mark’s departure, 13:13) they had not been able to preach on the outward journey, they spoke the word when they went back through there (14:25). Their persistence in preaching the gospel in spite of intense opposition was nothing short of amazing!

Most of us have never known any persecution that compares to what Paul and Barnabas went through. But you will catch criticism if you attempt to serve the Lord. How you respond will be a test of whether you are a faithful servant of Christ or not. If you’re prone to get hurt and quit, you need to learn the lesson of courageous persistence from these two servants of the Lord.

3. A faithful servant strengthens and encourages other disciples, especially regarding the role of trials in the Christian life.

The journey out to Derbe was more evangelistic in nature; the journey back through the same cities was more pastoral in focus. Probably the apostles knew that if they preached openly again in these cities where they recently had been driven out, they would be killed and their missionary labors would come to an end. Besides, they now had groups of converts in each city, and these new believers could carry on the work of evangelizing their own cities if they got grounded in the faith. So Paul and Barnabas concentrated on “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’” (14:22).

One of Satan’s most effective tools that he uses to cripple new believers is to send trials. That’s why Peter warns (1 Pet. 5:8-10),

Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

The fact that Jesus Christ is King does not mean that His people will be free from severe trials. Sometimes He permits the enemy to afflict us to teach us to put on the full armor of God and stand firm. Through trials we learn to trust God more fully and not lean on the arm of the flesh. Trials strip us of worldly attitudes that have attached themselves to us like barnacles to the hull of a ship. But whatever the lesson, no disciple of Christ will be exempt from trials. It is important for you to learn to submit to God’s mighty hand in them, and then He can use you to strengthen and encourage newer believers, so that they will continue in the faith in the face of trials.

4. A faithful servant helps churches to be organized under godly leadership.

On the return journey, Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting” (14:23). As the body of Christ, the church is a living organism. It is the very life of Christ flowing through the members of His body that gives vitality and direction to the church. All of the members, but especially the leaders, need to walk in daily reality with the living Lord, abiding in Him. If we don’t, the church can turn into a dead organization rather than a living organism.

But at the same time, we need to remember that every organism is highly organized; if it’s not, it won’t survive for very long. Churches need adequate organization so that the life is preserved. The apostles were traveling evangelists who established new churches through their preaching. Elders were long-term residents who were responsible to give oversight to the local churches.

Three terms are used somewhat interchangeably to describe these leaders. “Elder” looks at the spiritual maturity of the man. Their maturity will be in relation to a particular local church. These elders that Paul and Barnabas appointed were fairly new in their Christian experience, but they were the most spiritually mature men in those churches. Usually there is a correlation between physical age and spiritual maturity. Elders should normally be old enough to have the wisdom that comes from years of living.

“Overseer” looks at the work itself. Elders are to have oversight of the flock, to make sure that people are growing in godliness and that the church is doctrinally sound. The third term, “pastor,” looks at the job from the analogy of a shepherd. Some of the elders should devote themselves to the ministry of the Word, and to that end Paul directs that they be financially supported (1 Tim. 5:17-18).

The word “appointed” (Acts 14:23) in Greek meant “to approve by a show of hands in a congregational meeting” (Simon Kistemaker, Acts [Baker], p. 525). Although Paul and Barnabas appointed these men, and that only after fasting and prayer, and no doubt based on the spiritual qualifications that Paul later enumerated (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), they probably did so in conjunction with the participation of the local members.

We seek to follow the biblical guidelines in the selection of elders. We screen men to make sure that they are in line with the biblical qualifications. We also invite congregational input, so that if anyone knows a reason why a man should not be an elder, they can bring that to our attention. The congregation ratifies the elders each year at our annual meeting. One of the biggest mistakes that churches make is to put men into leadership who are not spiritually qualified, mature men of God.

5. A faithful servant is accountable to those who sent him into ministry.

Paul and Barnabas sailed back to Antioch, gathered the church that had sent them out, and reported all the things that God had done with them (14:26-27). It must have been thrilling to hear their stories, as they told how God opened a door of faith to the Gentiles! No doubt the church in Antioch had been praying during the year or more that these men had been gone. They didn’t have email or probably even snail mail to let them know the progress of the work as it unfolded. But eventually the men reported back and the church rejoiced to hear what God had done.

Faithful servants welcome accountability, because they know that ultimately they will answer to the Lord who knows everything that they have done. Besides, it is great to know that a sending church is praying for you and your work. The church has a responsibility to pray for and support missionaries, and the missionaries have a responsibility to the church to let them know what God is doing through them in the work. I hope that you come out whenever we have missionaries giving reports of their work (usually on Sunday nights). In that way, your interest in missions will grow, and you will have a part in extending God’s kingdom worldwide.

6. A faithful servant gives the glory to God for what He does through him.

This is somewhat similar to my first point, that a faithful servant points people to the living God, not to himself. But that was especially with reference to unbelievers. This point is in the context of Paul and Barnabas’ reporting to the church. They did not report on all the things that they had done, and how they had the brilliant insight of taking the message to the Gentiles. Rather, they reported on “all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (14:27).

Faithful servants make sure that all the credit goes to the Lord. If He does not work, there will be no fruit. In some places Paul and Barnabas did not see as much response as in other places. But whatever the response, they were depending on the Lord, and when He worked mightily, they gave Him the glory. It was only by His grace (14:26) that they had gone out, and it was by His grace that they had accomplished anything.

7. A faithful servant knows when to recharge his spiritual batteries.

I trust that I’m not reading too much into the text here, but Luke notes that Paul and Barnabas “spent a long time with the disciples” (14:28). It was probably a year to a year and a half before Paul left on the second journey, although this included the visit to Jerusalem for the council. We can be sure that they were actively serving at the home church during this time, but I think they were also getting recharged for the next term of service. After a time of worshiping and fellowshipping together with their old friends in Antioch, they were ready to go back into the battle again.

You can’t give out more than you take in or you will run dry. I need time off each week and every year to recharge. I need adequate time to read and think and pray, or I begin to feel drained. Each of us is wired differently, but you need to know yourself and watch yourself so that you don’t burn out. Schedule time each week and each year for renewal in body and soul.

Conclusion

Andrew Murray, the well-known devotional writer, had a brother who labored all his life in an African country with no visible fruit. He did not see any converts. But shortly after his death, revival broke out there and many were converted. He had broken the hard ground by his years of labor, but others saw the visible fruit. Being faithful, not necessarily being outwardly successful, is the important thing.

Paul and Barnabas are given to us as examples of faithful servants. May we imitate them so that someday we will hear our Savior welcome us into heaven with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Discussion Questions

  1. Paul often urged others to follow his example (1 Cor. 11:1). Does this contradict the principle of pointing people to God, not to himself? If not, is there a danger here?
  2. Why didn’t God spare Paul from being stoned (Barnabas didn’t get stoned)? What does this teach us about God’s protection as we serve Him?
  3. What is the difference between true and false humility? Is it wrong for the Lord’s servant to say “thank you” when someone tells him how his ministry has helped him?
  4. What are some warning signs of burnout? In light of the many needs in the world, is it wrong to take time off from ministry?

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

Related Topics: Discipleship

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