Sunday 15 September 2013

The God Review (Acts 13:32-52)

You are planning movie night out with your friends but you can’t decide which movie to watch. What do you do? You settle the dispute with Rotten Tomatoes and choose the one that has the highest rating. Or you’re deciding where to go for dinner. There’s an app for that, too: TripAdvisor lists the best restaurants in Cambridge complete with reviews, rankings and most importantly, the ability to filter by price!

Whether it is a new book, a cheap hotel or the latest iPhone; whether it is a university course, a new career or a church community - our first instinct is not to look at that place, person or thing for ourselves. No, we read the reviews, we check up the ratings, we Google for fan reactions to form that first impression.

Why? Because if millions of Facebook friends say it’s good, it must be good! Because it’s a way of filtering out the noise - of saving time - and focusing our attention on those top few choices to decide on. If we are honest, it is because we need to know what others think before opening our mouths to say what we think. And if we aren’t careful, those tiny decisions we make every day based on what everyone else is doing, based on what everyone else says we should do, might just lead to big decisions being made the exact same way: without weighing the evidence for ourselves.

Today’s passage is about reactions and reviews of the gospel - how they are to be expected, how they can both positive and negative, but most importantly, how the gospel shapes our expectations and not the other way around.

All the promises of God

Paul begins with the gospel in verse 32: “We tell you the good news,” he says. And he summarises the gospel like this: “What God has promised our fathers, he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising us Jesus.” Everything that God promised in the bible - to Abraham, to Moses and to David. Everything, including the promise of the land, the promise of his blessing, the promise of the kingdom. Everything - including salvation, eternal life and final judgement - is fulfilled for us in Jesus.

What is the gospel? It is a lens that focuses everything God is doing on Jesus Christ. Or put it another way: The gospel is God’s review of Jesus Christ. Paul gives us three bible references - or three reviews - from God’s word about Jesus.

33 As it is written in the second Psalm: ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’

34 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’

35 So it is also stated elsewhere: ‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’
Acts 13:33-35

These three reviews were written down hundreds of years before Jesus lived and died. Yet here are three Old Testament text talking about Jesus in pretty specific terms, describing what God was doing when he raised Jesus from the dead. Notice that in verse 33, “He has fulfilled for us… by raising up Jesus,” verse 34, “God raised him from the dead,” and verse 37, “But the one whom God raised from the dead.”

Furthermore, Paul connects this event of Jesus’ resurrection with the description of how his body did not see decay. He keeps repeating the phrase “never to decay” in verses 34, 35 and 37 (the ESV uses the word “corruption”). Paul is describing what would naturally happen to a dead body. The cells break down. Bacteria starts eating away at the flesh. It is like one of the cheap packets of expiring meat you get from the discounted section of the supermarket. It looks pale. There’s a thin layer of slime. The moment you open the packet and you are hit with that awful smell - bleagh!

So it is a rather strange thing for Paul to say about Jesus - that God did not allow Jesus’ body to see decay - but it is an important point he is making about the resurrection. He is saying that the resurrection is final. It is irreversible. It is one thing for a doctor to heal a patient of a disease, even a serious disease like cancer. It is quite another for a doctor to say to his patient, “You are never going to fall sick ever again!” The resurrection of Jesus Christ, which involves God raising Jesus from the dead, does not simply mean that God brought Jesus back from the dead (Zombie Jesus!); no, it means that God raised Jesus never to die again. It is a reversal of the processes of death. Unlike King David who died in verse 36, “he fell asleep; he was buried… and his body decayed,” God did not allow Jesus to see decay.

The bible teaches that death is not one-off. (We tend to think of death as something that happens at the end of life: You live, live, live, live, live…. and one day, you die!) Rather, death is a reality we live with every day and the evidence of that is decay - the process of death is seen in aging, in pain, in sickness. Decay means we live with these symptoms of death every day. Every time we go to the dentist; every time you girls put on your makeup, every time you guys go to the gym, you are attempting to reverse that decay, that process of death. But all you are doing is treating are the symptoms, not the disease.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s solution to death that is more radical than a sticky plaster and a Get Well card. Through the cross, Jesus defeated death. He destroyed death. Those three bible references are there, Paul says, to explain three outcomes of the resurrection - three important statements God is making about Jesus when he raised Jesus from the dead.

God’s approval rating

Firstly, the resurrection means Jesus is God’s chosen King. That is the significance of Psalm 2, which Paul quotes in verse 33, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” (which sounds a bit like what Darth Vader said at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, “I am your Fathheeerr!”). But for readers of the bible, this ought to be a familiar statement; because, if you remember, it is what God said again and again at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased,” and at his Transfiguration, “This is my Son, whom I love… Listen to him!” Psalm 2 is a statement of God’s approval on his Son and is sometimes called a coronation psalm because it is used at the coronation of a new king.

When God says, “You are my Son,” he is speaking to the King of Israel, saying: I have chosen you as my king. Hence, that strange second half of the verse, which reads, “Today, I have become your Father.” These were words spoken at the coronation of a new king of Israel. On this day, God has poured out his approval on the king. Notice how Paul connects these words with the resurrection, as if to say: Jesus was crowned through the cross. His death, his burial and his resurrection were necessarily for Jesus to be recognised a God’s chosen king.

Secondly, Jesus is fulfilment of all of God’s promises in the bible. And this is the second bible reference in verse 34, “I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David” (quoting Isaiah 55, verse 3). There is a connection between every single promised made by God in the bible with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Notice how verse 34 begins, “The fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay is stated in these words.”

Again, Paul is pulling together the strands of every promise made by God, every covenant  found in the bible - made to Abraham, Moses and finally, to David - and pointing us to the fulfilment of every single one of those promises in Jesus Christ. That is a bold statement! These includes the promises that had to do with God’s blessing; promises that had to do with the Promised Land or heaven; promises that had to do with eternal life, joy and forgiveness. What is Paul saying? I think he is saying this: Death prevents us from these blessings. The one thing that prevents us from receiving a single one of these promises is death.

35 So it is also stated elsewhere: ‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’

36 “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed. 37 But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.
Acts 13:35-36

David did not receive these promises, neither did his fathers did not receive any of these promises. Why? Because all of them died, all of them were buried and all of their bodies decayed. But Jesus was raised from the dead. Notice, it does not say that Jesus did not die, it does. What it says is: God raised Jesus from the dead. That is really important because it tells us what is unique about Jesus is not that he didn’t die but that he died a unique death. Jesus died for our sins. “Therefore,” Paul begins in verse 38:

38 Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from the law of Moses.
Acts 13:38-39

Recall how verse 32 began: We tell you the good news! All the promises of God are fulfilled for us in Jesus! Now look at how the sermon ends - with death and forgiveness of sins. It ends with a word of warning verse 40: Be careful not to reject this offer of salvation.

40 Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you:
41 ‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish,
for I am going to do something in your days
that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’
Acts 13:40-41

The sermon ends with a warning not to reject Jesus. If all of God’s promises come to us through one person, namely Jesus, then it stands to reason that none of these promises make sense outside of Jesus. That is not to say that only Christians receive blessings from God, only Christians enjoy good marriages, only Christians make good parents - not at all. It is a testament to God’s common grace that we can think of non-Christians who make better husbands, wives, sons and daughters than many of us here in the Chinese Church. The world would be a pretty horrible place if only Christians did good, obeyed the law and loved their neighbours.

But my point is this: Remember that Paul is speaking a roomful of pious Jews, telling them, “Be careful that you do not reject Jesus.” “Take care,” Paul says, “that what the prophets have said does not happen to you.” He describes these “scoffers” - these critics, if you like - as those who reject something that is standing right in front of them. Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish.” They hear of something clearly yet cannot bring themselves to believe it. “That you would never believe even if someone told you.”

Here is a response that is conditioned; a response that is learned over time. These scoffers have learned to reject the gospel over a prolonged period of time; over prolonged exposure to the bible. It’s not talking about first impressions: You hear of something so fantastical, so unbelievable, that you go, “That’s just nonsense!” It’s not that. Rather, here are individuals who see this with their own eyes, who hear it with their own ears, and yet because of their years and years of rejection, can’t bring themselves to accept truth that is standing right in front of them. “Look,” he says to them, “wonder and perish.”

In other words, it is describing what will happen at God’s judgement (which is the context of Habakkuk Chapter 1) whereby Jesus returns to judge the world, when everyone can see him for themselves - you won’t need someone else to explain to you who he is or why he has come - and yet… and yet, even then, men and women will refuse to acknowledge him as Lord. What is the reason for that? The reason is that they have learned to reject Jesus right here in their gatherings. Their have innoculate themselves with gospel. That is, they hear just enough about Jesus in order to reject him, just enough about God in order to deny him; just enough about Christ in order excuse themselves before him; just enough about their Saviour to scoff at him.

But friends, that, too, is a response to the gospel. I want you to notice that it is a response the bible fully expects and warns us of. Paul does not assume for one moment that just because he is speaking to a group of people who know their bibles that they know Jesus Christ as Lord. Rather he says to them, “You guys need to repent.”

First impressions

42 As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. 43 When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.
Acts 13:42-43

So, first impressions of Paul’s sermon are surprisingly positive! “Good sermon, Pastor! Your message really spoke to me.” So impressed were the leaders that they invited Paul for a repeat performance. “You must preach again at next week’s Mid-Autumn Festival.” In fact, as soon as the congregration was dismissed, a crowd was gathered around the two missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, bombarding them with questions about Jesus. They went down to Weatherspoons, had coffee and talked some more about the gospel. This was an impressive response. This is an encouraging response. Considering that Paul and Barnabas are on a mission, this was a successful response: Lots of people staying back after the service, asking the speaker questions about Jesus. Wow!

And yet, it doesn’t end there. When it says at the end of verse 43 that Paul and Barnabas “talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God,” I don’t think it means that this large group of enquirers had suddenly been converted by the gospel. I think it means that Paul and Barnabas were hesitant about the response they got. In effect, what they said was, “You’re in the right direction guys, but you need to keep going all the way till you reach Jesus. Continue in the grace of God.”

The reason I say that is because of the reaction of this same crowd of people just one week later, this reaction which had turned to rejection and scorn. This same group of enquirers, so keen to find out more about the gospel, so keen to invite their friends over to hear Paul and Barnabas speak at their church, had now become enemies of the gospel.

Appointed for eternal life

44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying.

46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
Acts 13:44-47

Why this sudden change in response? Did something happen to them during the course of the week? Did some of them go, “Hmm, after thinking about what Paul said at church last Sunday, I’ve decided that I don’t agree with his final point.” No, it wasn’t anything that changed at home but something that happened in church. This same group of God-fearing Jews turned up at church one week later to find the whole city of Cambridge gathering at their front entrance. And the problem was, this crowd wasn’t Chinese, I mean, Jewish. The problem was, this crowd was made up of Gentiles. This was a big crowd, yes, but it was the wrong crowd.

The regulars turned up at their church meeting hall, saw “the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” What was their reaction? Jealousy. Now that is very interesting. Their reaction to the crowds was not the inconvenience of having to fit everyone into the hall that morning - Haiya! So Mah Fan having to sit at the back of the hall! It was jealousy.

That is, they saw something in the crowd they did not see in themselves: A hunger for God’s word. Verse 44: The whole city “gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” Wasn’t it their custom in the synagogue read God’s word out loud every week? And yet what Paul did when he spoke from the Scriptures - when he preached about Jesus - was something entirely different. He connected the dots. He pulled together the strands of Scripture and he pointed in one single direction: Jesus. All of God’s promises are fulfilled for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The sad thing is: They should have got it. Of all people who should have understood this, it ought to have been these men. It is not as if Paul left anything out in last week’s sermon. He says, in fact, in verse 46, “We had to speak the word of God to you first.” They were fellow Israelites. They had the Scriptures which pointed to Jesus. And Paul says, “We owed it to you to tell you first about Jesus!”

Yet at the same time, Paul says quite clearly to them in verse 39, “Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could be justified from by the law of Moses. You cannot earn your way to salvation, not even by obeying Moses. You need Jesus. They didn’t get it. Instead, verse 48 tells us, it was the Gentiles who were appointed to eternal life.

48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
Acts 13:48

Compare the two reactions in verses 46 and 48. In verse 46: The religious men reject God’s word and do not consider themselves worthy of eternal life. In verse 48: The Gentile outsiders who honour the word; who are appointed to eternal life.

When the bible talks about eternal life, it’s not describing quantity but quality. Eternal life does not mean life that goes on and on, forever, amen. The phrase literally translates “life in the age to come.” (zoen aionion) I would rephrase it as life under the Lordship of Christ. The gospel is not saying to us, “Do you want to live forever?” Rather, “Are you willing to place your life under the lordship of Jesus Christ?” Putting it that way, I suspect, many of those religious men would say, “I not having any of that.”

The resurrection, the life in the age to come and the kingdom of God were all teachings from the bible that were not new to the synagogue. As long as these were vague concepts in the bible, the members were happy to hold on to these principles. But what Paul did was tie each one of these truths to Jesus. Eternal life means Jesus rules over your life. The kingdom of God means Jesus is King. The resurrection means Jesus is Judge of the living and the dead.

These were the same group of leaders who were impressed with Paul’s preaching. These were many of the same members of their community who stayed back after church to ply him with questions about Jesus. What were they doing now? Verse 45: Talking abusively against Paul. Verse 50: The were inciting hatred towards the gospel.

49 The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50 But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51 So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
Acts 13:49-52

These guys wanted Paul and Barnabas out! Out of their synagogue. Out of their city. Notice the reason why. Verse 49, “The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.” The reason was the gospel. People were hearing about Jesus all round the country.

Remember that Paul and Barnabas were just two guys backpacking round the country, telling anyone they met about Jesus. Paul gives one talk at the local synagogue and the next week, the whole city turns up. It does not make sense! What happened? God’s word happened. When the gospel is preached, the gospel draws people to itself. The response to the gospel is a result of the gospel.

What we see here in Acts 13 are the different responses to the gospel. Some are positive - like the Gentiles coming to faith. Some are negative - the Jews kicking Paul and Barnabas out of town. But both are genuine. Both the positive and the negative responses are honest, genuine responses to Jesus. Remember the parable of the four soils - the farmer scatters the seed and some fall on the path and birds ate it up, some fall on rocky places without much soil, some fall among thorns and some fall on good soil producing a crop. It is the same seed, the same gospel. Four completely different reactions.

The measure of the gospel

This teaches us how dangerous it is to measure ministry success through response. How many people come to your church? How many new converts did you make last year? You can’t do that. For one thing, because you’re fooling yourself - think of the amazing response Paul got after his first sermon at Antioch - that didn’t last long, did it? For another, we’ve conveniently neglected the negative responses - Paul and Barnabas were persecuted and reviled by their own people. What are you going to do? Have response cards that ask how much people hated your sermon last week?

The measure of the gospel is actually pretty simple: Did we preach it? Not: Did we get the music right or did we cater enough food or will our friends turn up again next year? But: Did we open the bible and point to Jesus as God’s solution to sin? The response to the gospel is the response to the gospel. We focus on preaching of the gospel and let God take care of the response. Look again at verse 48: All those who were appointed to eternal life believed. It is not your job to completely transform a person’s life from the inside out such that he or she confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and turns away from sin. You can’t even do that yourself. But what you can do is preach Jesus.

Some of us are bit rusty when it comes to the gospel. We haven’t done it before. We think it’s someone else’s job. Think about this: How was it that Paul preached one week and the next, the whole city hears about it? People got talking about Jesus. The first thing you need to do is to start talking about what you do know about Jesus. When someone asks you what you did on the weekend, don’t leave out the fact that you went to church. You don’t need to give them the whole outline of the sermon, but if they ask you what you did in church, tell them: You read the bible and we were reminded of the resurrection. All I’m saying is: Be honest. Don’t be shy. And make a start.

But for those of us who are involved in the work of the gospel, it is hard not to get discouraged by negative responses. It is scary to think that people might oppose us violently because they don’t like hearing about Jesus. We want to be faithful. We know that only God can change hearts. And yet we want to know how to deal with friction when it arises; how to handle rejection, especially from those we care about. If that’s you, have a look at the last couple of verses in the chapter.

Salvation to the ends of the earth

51 So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
Acts 13:51-52

The shaking of dust off their feet was a sign of warning and judgement on the people of Antioch. Jesus actually prescribes this symbolic action in Matthew Chapter 10, saying, “It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” So, it’s pretty serious. It’s not OK for people to persecute missionaries and react in a hostile manner towards the gospel. Yet at the same time, Paul and Barnabas did not retaliate. Even their warning was symbolic, notice that, of God’s final judgement. The warning meant there was still time to turn back to Jesus.

And neither did it mean that Paul and Barnabas gave up on that city. Later on in Chapter 14, they make it a point to come back to Antioch to encourage the new Christians and to appoint new leaders. Verse 52 reminds us of this. “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” God had appointed those who would hear the gospel and respond to the gospel and God filled these disciples with joy and the Holy Spirit. God knows what he is doing. Paul and Barnabas began with a synagogue full of Jewish men, they ended up planting a church full of Gentiles. They reasoned and talked all week with guys who knew their Old Testament but ended up converting a whole bunch of people who were biblically illiterate.

How did Paul and Barnabas react? When the synagogue rulers started bad-mouthing them they didn’t go, “Oh no, we’ve wasted all this time evangelising them.” When the whole city turns up to hear Paul preach on the Sabbath, he didn’t say, “What are these guys doing here?” Instead look at their reaction in verse 47:

For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’
Acts 13:47

What they said, in effect was: God knows what he is doing. Your rejection, as Jews, we warned you about that last week, didn’t we? And your reception, as Gentiles, was Jesus’ mission plan all along. Now let us tell you what this gospel is all about.

And those who were appointed for eternal life believed. In season and out of season, these two guys just preached the gospel trusting in God to bring in the fruit. 

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