Sunday 1 September 2013

We the people (Acts 13:13-31)

The people of God

Pisidian Antioch, which corresponds to modern-day Isparta in Turkey, was located 600 kilometers from Jerusalem. Yet on the Sabbath, Paul was able to meet with other fellow Jews who had gathered in this city of Antioch to pray, to worship God and to hear the words of the Torah read out loud (the Law and the Prophets in verse 15). And they did this in a place called the synagogue.

The synagogue was a meeting place for the people of God. It was not the temple. No, that was in Jerusalem. Rather, the synagogue was a place where Jews could meet as Jews; where they could observe the Sabbath; where they could be reminded of their history as God’s people; where their traditions, culture and way of life could be preserved. Unlike the temple, it was not a place to offer up sacrifices. Yet here in Antioch of Pisidia, so far away from home, the synagogue was home away from home.

On this Sabbath day, Paul and his friends, having travelled from Cyprus, then up to Perga in Pamphylia and now arriving in Antioch in Pisidia, walk into the local synagogue, it says, at the end of verse 12, "and sat down". The Old Testament Scriptures are opened and read. Then one of the leaders sends word to Paul and his friends in verse 15 - notice, how he addresses them as “brothers” - that is, the synagogue ruler recognises these men as fellow Jews; as kinsmen.

“Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak.”
Acts 13:15

What we have next is Paul’s sermon to the people of God on what it means to be the people of God. And what Paul is going to say is: It’s more than just keeping the traditions of the Sabbath. It’s more than keeping the traditions of your fathers alive.

In that sense, what Paul says to them is relevant for us today. It is possible for us to think of the Chinese Church the way these godly Jewish men thought of their local synagogue: as a home away from home; as a place to send your kids to Sunday School. Friends, this is not a community centre. This a gathering of God’s people around God’s revelation of himself - his word of salvation through Jesus Christ. And the question that Paul would ask each one of us is: Have you heard this word of salvation?

Three things we see from today’s passage:

1. How God chose his people
2. How God chose his king
3. How God chose us

1. How God chose his people

16 Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! 17 The God of the people of Israel chose our fathers; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; 18 for about forty years he endured their conduct in the desert; 19 and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years.
Acts 13:16-20

Paul does not begin with Genesis Chapter 1: the creation of world. He doesn’t even begin with God’s promise to Abraham. I find that peculiar considering how Paul is giving us an overview of the bible yet he does not start from the beginning of the bible. He starts with the origins of the people of God. Instead of creation, Paul begins with election.

You will find that that is a theme running through his sermon: What it means to be the people of God. He refers to God as "the God of the people" (verse 17), summarising what God has done for "the people" - he made "the people" prosper (verse 17), he gave land to "the people" (verse 19), "the people" ask God for a king (verse 21).

So, instead of Genesis, Paul begins with the book of Exodus, summarising the history of the people of God in the next 450 years. Why? Because Paul is speaking to God's people on what it means to experience God's choosing - or elective - love. It means reflecting on God's goodness, not ours. It means he was gracious to us, not that we have been deserving of his grace. Paul was asked to speak "a word of encouragement" to the people. He did that by speaking clearly of who God is and what has done.

Here in Acts 13, Paul gives us five statements; five truths about God's relationship with his chosen people: 1. God chose us; 2. God blessed us; 3. God rescued us; 4. God raised us; and 5. God gave us an inheritance.

Firstly, God chose us. More specifically, verse 17 says, he chose our “fathers”. This is referring to twelve founding fathers of Israel who became the twelve tribes. Paul is describing is God’s electing love. He chose to love us. Before we did anything to deserve that love, God already chose to set his love towards us.

Secondly, Paul says: God blessed us. “He made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt.” If you remember anything about Exodus, you will recall that their “stay” there in Egypt was as slaves! It was a time of great suffering. And yet, in spite of all this, God made them prosper as people: He caused their numbers to grow and multiply. Pharaoh tried to kill them off. The Egyptians turned the nation into slaves. Yet in spite of all this, what began as twelve sons, as twelve families, turned into the people of God - over half a million individuals. God did this.

Thirdly, God rescued us. “With mighty power he led them out of that country.” The ten plagues. The killing of the firstborn. The crossing of the Red Sea. God did not leave his people as slaves in Egypt. He led them out. That’s what the word Exodus means: a way out. God led them out of slavery; out of death. He did this with great power and he did this to save his people.

But it didn’t end there, because fourthly, God raised us. Verse 18, “For forty years, he endured their conduct in the desert.” For forty years, God was with them travelling through the desert. He gave them the law. He gave them the priests and the tabernacle. He was with them in the pillar of cloud and fire. Yet for forty years, the people of God continually tested God by grumbling against him. Many wished they were back in Egypt as slaves. Paul says, God endured their conduct, meaning he was patient with them. The expression isn’t entirely negative. You can see from your footnotes in your bible that it can also mean that God cared for them; because it is an expression of what parent does for his children. A dad or mum continues to love their children even when that love is acknowledged. That’s what God did for forty years. 

Finally, God gave them an inheritance. Verse 19, “He overthrew seven nations in Canaan and gave their land to his people as their inheritance.” This was, of course, the Promised Land, Israel. But it was more than just a familiar place to call home. The promised land was God's legacy to his people. It was an inheritance. An inheritance is something a father leaves behind for his children and the Promised Land was proof that they belonged in God’s family. They were sons and daughters of God.

And Paul seems to be saying to his fellow Jews: As you meet together to remember what it means to be a people, remember what God has done for you. He chose you. He blessed you. He saved you. He bore with you. He gave you an inheritance, and in essence, he gave you an identity. You are his children and remember this: He is your God.

I think Paul would say to us here in the Chinese Church, especially to those of us who are searching for an identity, especially to those of us who are concerned about losing our identity, to remember who God is and what God has done. The main lesson in Sunday School is not what it means to be a good Christian but what it means to know a good God. The main purpose of our gathering each week is not to remind each other what we need to do but to remind each other what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

2. How God chose his king

In the same way that God chose his people, Paul tells us that God chose one king to be his chosen king.

20 “After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22 After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’
Acts 13:20-22

David was God’s chosen King. He was not like Saul son of Kish, whom God removed from the throne. God himself testifies concerning David, “I have found David… a man after my own heart.” Neither was David like one of the judges before the time of Samuel the prophet, who would rule over God’s people for a season and then be replaced. No, David’s kingdom was an everlasting kingdom. It was a dynasty. God promised David that one of his sons would always rule over Israel as king. Or another word that the bible commonly uses to describe such a king is the word “Christ” - a word which means God’s chosen king.

Paul says, this chosen king who would come from one of David’s descendants, was the Saviour Jesus.

23 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. 25 As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
Acts 13:23-25

Remember that back in verse 21, it was the people of God who asked for a king. But what the people were looking for in a king was not necessarily what God was looking for a king. The people were looking for stability, power and influence. They were looking for someone like Saul.

What God was looking for in a king was obedience. “He will do everything I want him to do,” was God's assessment of David, the man after his own heart. God was looking for a king he could entrust with his kingdom to. A king who would rule on God’s behalf.

The truth is: We don’t want a king like this. When John says, “There is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie,” a way of saying, “I am nothing compared to this guy,” a part of us hears that and thinks, “You can’t be serious.” We don’t want someone ruling over us. We don't want to invest kings with too much power. We want to be able to depose of our kings - to ignore them or if need be, to replace them.

When the people asked God for a king back in verse 21, what they meant was: We want someone else to be king instead of you, God. We don’t want God ruling over us, we want someone like us - a man. Their request for a king was a rejection of God as king. And yet, God gave into their request. He gave them Saul. He gave them David. But ultimately, God gave Jesus.

But God did this, fully knowing that Jesus would be rejected as their king. In a sense, this is what authenticates Jesus as the Messiah: it is his rejection. Look at what Paul says next.

26 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 27 The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognise Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.
Acts 13:26-27

Verse 27 is such an important verse to take in slowly. God’s people in God’s land (Jerusalem) under the leadership of God’s rulers - what did they do? They rejected Jesus. But in doing so, “in condemning him,” Paul says, “they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.”

How would this have sounded to the guys at the synagogue in Antioch? These expatriates in Antioch were pious Jews gathering faithfully each week at the synagogue thinking, “If only I were back in Jerusalem. If only were back at the temple. If only I were back with my people.” Paul says the very people of God who should have recognised Jesus - killed Jesus.

Holding on to your traditions does not make you one of God’s people. Coming to church does not make you the people of God. Having a well-known pastor does not make you the people of God. Because you can have your traditions, your leaders and liturgy and still reject Jesus as God’s king. In fact, what Paul seems to be saying is this: You can use your traditions, your leaders and your liturgy as the very basis of your rejection of Jesus as God’s king.

28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead.
Acts 13:28-30

That phrase, “They asked Pilate to have him executed,” is the exact same phrase back in verse 21, when the people of God “asked” God for a king. The Greek word aiteo can mean to beg or even, to demand. Meaning, this was their true heart’s desire: To kill Jesus. And yet, even as they did this, Paul says in verse 29, they were carrying out “all that was written about him.” What is it saying? It was God’s plan all along for Jesus to go to the cross. God knew their hearts. God sent Jesus as the true king, but also to be the rejected king. The way that Jesus ascended to his throne was by dying on the cross. “But God raised him from the dead,” verse 30 says. This was not a reversal of God’s plan. It was the fulfilment of God’s plan all along. Peter says to the crowd in Acts Chapter 2, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” In other words, the crucifixion was necessary in order for there to be a resurrection.

The resurrection was God’s confirmation upon Jesus that he was God's chosen King. “But God raised him from the dead.” Despite the rejection of the people. Despite the crucifixion. God chose to exalt his Son and to raise him from the dead.

If you are not here today and you are not a Christian, let me just say that this is what the bible means when it talks about the proof of the resurrection. It’s not simply saying: Here is proof there is life after death. Not at all. Rather, the bible is saying, this is proof that I am accepted by God. When Jesus died, the bible says, I died. And when Jesus was raised, the bible says, I was raised with him. Romans 4:25 says, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised for our justification.” God raised Jesus as proof that our entire record of sin has been wiped clean. We stand before him completely justified, accepted as sons and daughters of God.

3. How God chooses us

But finally, Paul tells us how God chooses us today.

31 And for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.
Acts 13:31

Back in verse 26, Paul says, “It is to us this message of salvation has been sent.” Paul is saying that the mark of God’s electing and saving love for us today is the gospel. It is this message of salvation that comes through Jesus Christ.

This month, we are working our way through Paul’s first missionary journey, and what we have here in Acts 13 an evangelistic sermon that Paul gave to a gathering of Israelites and God-fearing Gentiles. He is speaking to people who know their bibles, who meet every week to hear the bible taught, who got up early this morning to do their devotionals as they did faithfully every day. And he says to them: Have you responded to this message of salvation in Jesus Christ?

Now on one hand, he says to them, “You guys… it is to you guys that this message of salvation has been sent. You are brothers; you are fellow children of Abraham.” He quotes them Old Testament scripture. He assumes that they know their bibles, that they have read their bibles.

But on the other hand, Paul does not for one moment, assume that a single one of them in that room is a Christian. Why? Because they aren’t. Their traditions, their piety and their culture - though godly, though biblical - do not define them as God’s people. Only Jesus does. And Paul loves them enough to tell them: You need to hear this gospel and you need to respond to this gospel in order to receive forgiveness. The only assurance you have that you are in the kingdom of God is the gospel.

I once met a newcomer and asked him if he was a Christian. He said to me, “My grandfather was a Christian but now my family follows another religion. So, I guess you could say that I am half-Christian.”

For those of you who laughed at that answer, I wonder what your response would be if I asked you, “What makes you a Christian?” Or answer me this: “Why should God accept you?” Chances are, based on the many responses I have heard in the past, from personal testimonies, at baptisms, at membership interviews, many answer by saying something along the lines of, “Because I had this or that experience from God.” Or to be fair, most of your might say, “Because I believe in Jesus Christ.” And yet an answer like that is still, somewhat, self-centred. To say, “I believe,” is still to emphasise something that we have done.

If you know the gospel, the only answer you can give for why you are accepted by God is Jesus. “Why should God accept me?” Because Jesus died on the cross for my sins. Because Jesus took my punishment on my behalf. Because God raised Jesus from death and he has raised me to sit with him in the heavenly places, even right now, the bible tells me. Why am I a Christian? Because of Jesus. The gospel puts Jesus at the centre of God's plan for the universe.

Paul says, “It is to us that this message of salvation has come.” And what he is doing is putting the message about Jesus - the message of the gospel - at the very centre of what it means to be a community of God’s people. The word of God gives birth to the people of God, not the other way around. That is why, in verse 31, Paul stresses the importance of these witnesses to Jesus  - referring to the apostles - who now speak this gospel to “the people.” It is through the gospel that God’s people are brought into the kingdom from death to life, from darkness into light.

Next week, we will look at the response to the gospel. Some respond with interest, others with faith and repentance, still others with rejection and persecution. But those are responses to the gospel, not to be confused with the preaching of the gospel. Here, Paul tells us that a distinctive mark of the people of God is the preaching of his word of salvation. The mark of the true church of God is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is not our tradition. It is not our piety. It is not our goodness nor our conduct. It is the message of salvation the God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. He has saved us. He has loved us. And he has given us Jesus on the cross as a sin-offering and raised Jesus from the dead to be Saviour and Lord.

The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend,
The agonies of Calvary.
You, the Perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son,
Drank the bitter cup reserved for me.

Your blood has washed away my sin,
Jesus, thank You.
The Father's wrath completely satisfied,
Jesus, thank You.
Once Your enemy, now seated at Your table,
Jesus, thank You.

“Thank You, Jesus” by Sovereign Grace Music

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