Sunday 29 September 2013

Coming home (Acts 14:21-28) - MP3 recording

Preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 29 September 2013.

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Saturday 28 September 2013

Coming home (Acts 14:21-28)

What did it mean for Paul and Barnabas to complete their mission and to finish the work that God had called them to?

1. They followed up on new Christians

They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch.
Acts 14:21

Paul and Barnabas go back the exact same way they came - through Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, which were the three cities they had just come from, where they had preached the gospel, and also where they had just been kicked out of for preaching the gospel. They intentionally made it their mission to go back to these three cities to follow up on the new believers who had just put their trust in the gospel.

Or, as it says, in verse 22, they returned, “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.” What does it mean to do follow-up? It means strengthening the disciples - teaching new Christians to grow in the knowledge of and obedience to God’s word. (Hence, the word “disciples” or “students” of God’s word.)

But also, it means reminding Christians to remain faithful to Jesus in the face of temptation and hardship.

“We must go through many hardships (the ESV has ‘tribulations’) to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.
Acts 14:22

It means being a new Christian was difficult if you were lived in Lystra, Iconium or Antioch, where Paul was almost killed, if you remember. But suffering is part of the Christian life. After all, we follow Jesus who suffered rejection and persecution before entering into his glory.

Paul and Barnabas loved these Christians enough to teach them the importance of suffering for the gospel. “We must go through many hardships.” He does not say, “We might go through some inconveniences as Christians.” He says to them and to us: We must face rejection and tribulation for bearing the name of Christ.

This is follow-up for new Christians. As we see here in Acts, it means two things: Strengthening them through the scriptures and reminding them the reality of opposition. Paul and Barnabas saw it as their responsibility not simply to preach the gospel and then leave. They had just “won a large number of disciples” in Derbe. That would have been a great way to end the mission - on a high! No, they did not do that. Instead, what did they do? They went back to each and every place they had preached the gospel; back to each and every city where there was a response of faith in order to follow up on the new believers. This was part of their mission - not simply to preach the gospel - but to strengthen these new disciples through the gospel.
Additionally, they appointed elders in each of these cities and churches.

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
Acts 14:23

These elders were leaders of the church, who had responsibility over the church, who had authority over the church. Elders in the bible are elsewhere called overseers or pastors. The three job titles are interchangeable: elders, overseers and pastors. They mean the same thing. You only need to turn a few pages to Chapter 20, where Paul speaks to the elders of the church of Ephesus (Acts 20:17) whom he calls overseers and pastors in verse 28. The same connections are made elsewhere in the New Testament: in 1 Timothy 3:1 and Titus 1:5 where the qualifications of overseers and elders are one and the same; and in 1 Peter 5:1-2 where Peter appeals to elders to pastor the flock, serving as overseers. The elder is the overseer, is the pastor. The word elder denotes seniority and authority; the overseer has responsibility and purview, the pastor’s role is to take charge and lead the flock. Together, these are descriptions of leaders who have been entrusted with the care of God’s church.

Now it is amazing how Paul and Barnabas appoint elders in these churches because remember: all of them were new Christians. All of them were new believers. And yet, what Paul and Barnabas did was so important. They did not take it upon themselves to become the senior pastors of these churches. They did not import leaders in from their home church in Antioch. No, what they did was appoint elders from each church and within each church to become leaders and pastors and elders. Paul says the same thing to Titus, “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” (Titus 1:5)

And that is because they knew from Day One that what they were doing in preaching the gospel was planting new churches. They knew this day would come. You see, their job as missionaries was not simply to call individuals to faith in Jesus Christ, it was to gather men and women together as God’s church.

The end of mission is not more mission. The point of doing ministry is not to create even more ministry, as if the cycle goes on and on and on. No, Acts dares to say to us there is a point to ministry. There is an end to mission. That end is the church. The point of bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth is so that men and women are brought into the kingdom of God. We see that in the church.

In the appointment of leaders, what we see is the headship of Christ. Verse 23 again, “Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” The appointment of leaders is a reflection of Christ’s headship over the church.

Yes, the church is a community. Yes, the church is a family. But the church is also the body of Christ of whom he is the head. And again and again, the bible contends that our submission to Christ is seen in our submission to our leaders. If one of the reasons why you have problems being part of a church is because you have problems submitting to your leaders here in the Chinese Church, the bible says quite frankly to us: You have a problem submitting to Jesus.

Again, this ties back to what the bible means by follow-up. It doesn’t use that term, of course. Paul and Barnabas are simply completing the mission they had set out to do. But what we tend to do by way of following up new Christians is somewhat strange when you look at what Paul and Barnabas did. What we mean by follow up is more like checking up. “Hey, have you been doing your quiet time?” “Are you going to church?” We do follow-up one to one, over coffee, through Skype and email, as friends and acquaintances. That is, follow-up tends to be done outside the church, independent of the church.

Follow up, according to the bible means three things: obedience, faithfulness and submission. Obedience to God’s word. Faithfulness in the face of trials and temptation. Submission to your leaders in your church. Paul and Barnabas ended their mission by following up on the new converts - on these new churches - and calling them remain faithful in the gospel.

2. They kept on preaching the gospel

After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.
Acts 14:24

The second thing they did is rather a short point and it comes from this one verse: They kept telling people about Jesus. They go to this place called Perga. Again if you turn the page back to Acts 13:13, Paul and Barnabas arrive in Perga. It was the first place they got off the boat; their first stop on the mainland.

And what verse 24 tells us is that they went out of their way to make one last stop in Perga just so that they could preach the word. They were on their way home and one of them said, “Hey, we didn’t get a chance to tell people about Jesus at Perga, we were in such a rush. Let’s go back and do it properly.”

You see that it really is the case because after Perga, they go down to Attalia, which is another port city, in order to catch their boat. It’s like saying, “Our flight leaves from Heathrow tomorrow but we are going to make one last stop in Stansted airport.” Both Perga and Attalia are port cities and the reason Paul and Barnabas go all the way to Perga was not to catch a boat. It was to preach the gospel!

My point is simply this: These guys knew the one thing they were there to do - preach. I know of some guys who can do everything but if you asked them what was the one thing they are there to do, you get a blank. That’s not Paul and Barnabas. Their one mission was to preach about Jesus. They were in Antioch to preach about Jesus. They were sent to Iconium to preach about Jesus. What was their job as missionaries in Derbe? To preach about Jesus. Why did they go back to Perga? To preach about Jesus.

And here at the end of their mission what was the one thing on their minds as they thought to themselves, “What haven’t we done yet? What else do we need to do to complete this thing that God has called us to do?” Preach the gospel.

3. They came home

But finally, what did it mean for Paul and Barnabas to finish their mission. The last thing we see is this: They came home.

From Attalia, they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
Acts 14:26-28

The job was done. It was time to come home. Look at how “home” is described in verse 26 - it was where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. Turn back to Acts Chapter 13. “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers.” The first name we get is Barnabas, the last name on the list of leaders is Paul’s. This was their home church. Barnabas was senior pastor of the church. Paul was resident theologian of the church. Together they planted this church.

But in the verse next verse, in Acts 13, verse 2, the Holy Spirit says to them, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Some people use this verse to say the Holy Spirit needs to give a special confirmation before we can appoint new pastors in the church. We need to pray and wait for God to confirm that this choice is the right choice. Actually, it’s the opposite. This is not talking about appointment of new leaders. God is telling the church to send away their most senior pastors. The Holy Spirit says to the church: You have to let these guys go. Send Paul and Barnabas off as missionaries - your two most senior, most beloved pastors - send them away from your church to preach about Jesus in places who have never heard about him before. And they did.

Here in Acts 14 we see the conclusion to that episode. Paul and Barnabas come home. They tell them all that God had done through them and especially “how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” This is a pretty amazing verse, let me tell you why. You need to remember that Antioch was Gentile church, that is, non-Jewish. These guys were converted out of pagan backgrounds. In fact, Christians were first called Christians in Antioch, if you remember, back in Acts 11:26.

And now, God says, “I’m opening up a door to the Gentile world.” Who does he send? Two Jewish men. Paul and Barnabas. Out of all the people he could have chosen, out of all the leaders in this entirely Gentile church in Antioch, he chooses the only two Jewish fellas. How amazing is that? More importantly, why? Why does God send two Jewish men to open the door to the Gentile world?

So that when these two Jewish men come back to this Gentile church and tell them everything that has happened, they will get the message: God opened this door. God did this. This is God’s mission.

Do you see? God knows what he is doing in mission. He is sending out his word about his Son. He uses you and me. He sends out people to be missionaries. But every step of the way, God is doing his work of bringing all glory to Jesus.

And here at the end of Acts 14, we are reminded of the end of God’s mission: God’s church. Verse 28: And they stayed there a long time with the disciples. Paul and Barnabas were part of a church. In the mission field, these two were appointing leaders to care for the new believers but now back home, Paul and Barnabas were being cared for in their home church. This was the place where, verse 26 tells us, they were committed to the grace of God.

Missionaries are not guys who can’t stay put, who need to be “out there”. No, the best missionaries are those who know where they are going and where is home. Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel and planted churches. They entrusted these churches into the care of elders, they returned to the welcome and support of their own church family. They weren’t restless wanderers. Paul and Barnabas were rooted in Christ, they were established in his word, they were part of a local church, his body. In other words, they had a place to call home.

Conclusions: The end of missions

What did it mean for Paul and Barnabas to complete their mission and to finish the work that God had given them? We see three things:

Firstly, we see the end or goal of missions. The end of missions is not more missions. There will come a time when there will be no more missions; when the Lamb will be enthroned and all who follow him will fall down in worship before that throne (Revelation 7). That reality is seen today in the church, the gathering of God’s people under the headship of Jesus Christ as Lord. The goal of missions is seen in the local church.

Secondly, we see what it means to do missions. It is to preach the gospel. Jesus says in Act 1:8 you will be my witness - in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria - and to the ends of the earth. Missions is the act of proclaiming Christ to the nations. Until Jesus returns, that is what our mission is, here as the Chinese church, here as believers in Cambridge, to preach the cross of Jesus Christ.

Finally, we see God at work in missions. He has opened the door to the Gentiles. He sends out his missionaries and he brings them home. He uses two Jews, sends them out to the Gentile world and brings them back to a Gentile church. Missions is God’s idea and mission is done God’s way. What he calls us to do is to obey, to stand firm and to speak out for Jesus so that at the end of the day all glory goes to him.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Keep calm and carry on (Acts 14:1-20)

1 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.
Acts 14:1

This was the routine: whenever Paul and Barnabas went to a new place, the first thing they did was talk to the Jews. Verse 1 says, they went “as usual” into the Jewish synagogue. It’s like when Chinese people look for Chinatown. The first thing we do when we move to a new place is look for Chinese food. We look for a Chinese school to send our kids. Some of us look for a Chinese Church. Maybe that is why you are here today: Today is Mid-Autumn Festival and you know there are going to be lots of Chinese people here at the Chinese Church, which is true!

For Paul and Barnabas, the first thing they did, when they arrived at a new place was to look for their heng tai and tell them about Jesus. “They went as usual to the synagogue,” and, it says there in verse 1 that “they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” Lots of people said, “I want to follow Jesus.” Amazing! Lots of Jews believed and became Christians.

But notice, lots of Greeks also believed. That is because Iconium was Greek city, not Chinese, I mean, Jewish. Even though Paul and Barnabas began with their heng tai - their brothers - their job was to tell the gospel to everyone. Their job was to go to places where no one knows Jesus and talk to the non-Christians, to talk to the non-Jews, to talk to the non-Chinese in that city, and tell them, “You need to trust in Jesus as your Saviour and Lord.”

Well, that is what they did. As a result, lots of people became Christians. As a result, lots of people began to oppose the Christians in that city.

2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3 So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.
Acts 14:2-3

They didn’t give up on that city even though their heng tai, it says there in verse 2, the Jews were poisoning the minds of their friends. Instead, they kept on talking about Jesus. And God enabled Paul and Barnabas to do miraculous signs and wonders as a confirmation of their message of grace, saying, “Hey, you need to listen to what these two guys are saying.”

Even with persecution, Paul and Barnabas did not give up. Why? Because they weren’t surprised they were being persecuted. Because God was with them, causing miracles to happen. Because it’s possible that verse 2 is not talking about persecution against Paul and Barnabas but persecution against Christians - the “brothers” in verse 2 could refer to the new Christians who had just said, “I want to follow Jesus,” - and Paul and Barnabas were concerned for their brothers who were new believers facing rejection from friends because of their faith.

Why did they spend “a considerable time” in that city? Because they could see the gospel working on that city. Wherever the gospel is preached you get both positive and negative reactions to the gospel. Wherever the gospel is preached clearly, you get repentance and rejection. Both are responses to the gospel.

That is, what the gospel does is divide us.

4 The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them.
Acts 14:4-5

I know that some will say, “This is the problem with religion. It leads to conflict.” It is sad when something like this happens. Lines are drawn. People pick sides. But I want you to see that this division was not simply two people disagreeing with one another - two political parties debating with one another, for instance - but that this division resulted in one side persecuting the other. Verse 2: The Jews stirred up the Gentiles against the brothers. Verse 5: The Gentiles and Jews plotted to stone the apostles. In response, what did Paul and Barnabas do? Just one thing: They kept preaching the gospel.

This week I read of a preacher in Scotland who was arrested for talking about Jesus openly on the streets. A crowd gathered around him. Some shouted abuse at him. He kept on preaching. The police were called in. They warned him that he was too loud and pointed to his microphone. It wasn’t a microphone but an MP3 recorder. He kept on preaching. Finally he was arrested.

Verse 5 tells us that both the Gentiles and Jews (so it wasn’t just one culture), together with their leaders plotted to harm the apostles. But...

6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7 where they continued to preach the gospel.
Acts 14:6-7

They kept on going. They went on to the next city and continued preaching the gospel.

Same difference

Now, it’s in Lystra where things start to get interesting because on the one hand, Paul and Barnabas do the exact same thing they did in the previous town: they preach the gospel, they perform miracles. In a sense, what we see in Lystra is just an expansion of what we saw in Iconium. There are miracles: a healing of the lame man. There is the gospel: Paul preaches to the crowd. In both places, there is a plan afoot to stone Paul and here in Iconium they succeed in carrying out their plan before he gets a chance to escape.

But on the other hand, there are big differences, the biggest one being that Paul is evangelising a non-Jewish crowd. In verse 11, we see that they speak the local language of Lycaonian, meaning this was a rural town with its own culture separate from the rest of the Roman world. Only in verse 19 do we see Jewish people coming over from the neighbouring towns of Antioch and Iconium (the place Paul just came from) to cause trouble. Lystra was, as far as we can tell, 100% Gentile.

This becomes a source of confusion. It is frustrating for Paul who says one thing and gets misunderstood as another thing. You are speaking into a culture that is so different from yours and trying to relate a different language, people and worldview. That is the challenge faced by an missionary, of course. How do you communicate the gospel to a culture so different from your own? And yet the main lesson we learn is not that of cross-cultural communication but idolatry.

You see, the temptation is to change the message to suit the culture; to adapt the gospel to the culture; when actually what we are meant to do with the gospel is expose the idols of the culture. You might be from a religious background or you might call yourself a free-thinker; you might be Asian or maybe you grew up here in the UK; whoever you are and wherever you’ve come from, the gospel says to every single one of us, “You are idol worshippers.” Every single one of us have hearts that bow down to something that gives us our true fulfilment, joy and identity; to something other than God. And the bible says, “That’s your idol.” In that sense, an idol can be something good. It could be your career, your marriage, your kids. It can be your university education. An idol is anything and anyone you are looking to for ultimate joy, happiness and fulfilment, anything, that is, other than God.

Such that when we finally see the real thing, when we encounter God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, when we hear the gospel clearly explained, our first reaction might not be to acknowledge God as God but instead to fall down and worship idols That is what happens here in Lystra.

8 In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
Acts 14:8-10

Paul is preaching and he sees a man who can’t walk, he sees (verse 9) that he has faith to be healed, and so, Paul heals him. “Stand up on your feet,” Paul says. The guy stands up immediately, this guy who been crippled all his life, gets up and walks. Now remember, what is the reason for such miracles in the bible? Verse 3 tells us: God enabled Paul to do miracles like this to confirm “the message of his grace.” To get us to pay attention not to what we have seen in the miracle itself but to what we have heard in the gospel.

Instead, the crowds see the miracle but they ignore the message. That’s very dangerous. They see what they want to see: evidence of their own gods. They see the real thing but they respond by worshipping a false god.

11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
Acts 14:11-13

The crowds shout out in their local language. They call in the local priest in order to sacrifice to their local gods. You could make an argument here for contextualisation. “This is a good thing,” you might say, “At least they acknowledge a higher being.” They have no problems with God becoming a man, so you could, perhaps, talk about the incarnation of Jesus Christ. They even understand the concept of sacrifice - the offering of bulls and goats at the temple - and you might use that as the basis of explaining the cross.

But no, Paul and Barnabas saw this reaction in the crowd and to them, this was bad. “They tore their clothes,” verse 14, as a sign of blasphemy. What the crowd was doing was an offense to the one true God.

14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”
Acts 14:14-17

Now it is possible that Paul and Barnabas didn’t realise what was going on until it was too late. Back in verse 11, the crowd speak to one another in the Lycaonian language, meaning perhaps that Paul didn’t know what they said, or perhaps, the crowd didn’t understand what Paul was saying in his preaching about Jesus. So, it wasn’t until Paul and Barnabas saw the bulls. It wasn’t until Paul and Barnabas saw the priest carrying the wreaths and sharpening his swords that it finally clicked in their minds, “Whoa, this is bad! They weren’t listening to a word I was saying about Jesus!”

But more importantly, Paul responds by preaching to the crowd in a way that they could understand. He says three things. Firstly, Paul says: It’s not about us. “Men,” (verse 15), “we too are only men.” Secondly, Paul says: It’s about God. Verse 15: He is the “living God who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them.” But thirdly: Turn away from your idols and face the true God. This is the main point of his message: To turn away from these “worthless things” as Paul calls them to face the true and living God.

Again, Paul is does three things. He establishes what they do have in common, what their differences are and what the gospel does. “We are just men,” the King James Version adds, “with the same passions”. Or, a Christian can rightly say to a non-Christian, “I am a sinner and my sin equally deserves God’s judgement.” But secondly, there is a difference; it’s not a difference between you and me, that’s not what I’m talking about; it is the difference between my God and your god. The bible tells us there is one God; one maker of the universe. He is not be confused with the pagan gods of Zeus and Hermes. He is not to be confused with Allah and Krishna. Only God is God alone.

But thirdly, the gospel calls us to face this God. You can turn away from idols and see the real thing in Jesus Christ. Back in verse 4, I said that one thing the gospel does is that it divides and maybe when you heard that, you thought, “What a horrible thing.” The solution to that, we think, is to get rid of religion. Get rid of all the God talk. But here in Lystra where there are no Jews, we see the result of that: a whole city which can’t tell the difference between God and man. A whole city which doesn’t care whether it is God or Allah or Buddha or Zeus. A city gripped in idolatry: the worship of whatever and whoever it wants.

“In the past,” Paul says in verse 16, God let all the nations go their own way. Before, you might have lived your life your own way, doing whatever you wanted, not worrying about the consequences. But now the gospel says it’s time to grow up and turn away from worthless things. By that Paul is talking about the worship of false gods like Zeus and Hermes, but he is also talking about the gods of our hearts. An idol is anything that we look to for our ultimate joy and meaning. It can be our job, our degree, our achievements. These are not necessarily bad things. After all, Paul goes on to say, “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” But these things are not themselves God. Be careful of turning your search for happiness into God; your strive for success into God.

The problem with worshipping an idol is that ends up disappointing you or destroying you. Benefits you think you gain from worshipping an idol never last. You might say, “It’s harmless. Let the crowd sacrifice a couple of bulls in the name of their pagan god.” Well, this same crowd ends up trying to kill Paul, the same guy they tried to worship as their god.

19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20 But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
Acts 14:19-20

The crowd try to kill Paul (and probably almost succeeded). But he gets up; goes back to the city. I’m not sure if this was something miraculous. It could be, considering Paul recounts this episode in 2 Corinthians Chapter 11, alongside the five times he was lashed, three times beaten with rods and three times shipwrecked. This is a guy who has been physically beaten again and again because of his job as a missionary, because he kept talking about Jesus. Frankly, my question is, “Why get up again?” He just moves on to the next town and preaches the gospel all over again.

I think this passage shows us three things: Why Paul gets up; why he goes on; and why he keeps going on. The three reasons are hope, repentance and grace.

Why does Paul keep getting up? Because his hope is in the God who raises the dead. Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is trusting in God who is in control. Paul preaches the gospel in hope that God will save through the hearing of this message. God knows whom he will call. God is the only one who can change hearts. That’s God’s job. Paul’s responsibility is preach faithfully, clearly, boldly.

Why does Paul keep going on? Because he understands repentance. People need to turn away from idols and face the true and living God, and the fact is, this takes time, patience and persistence, to expose those idols and destroy those idols. The people of Lystra heard the gospel yet fell down to worship their idols. He calls them worthless things. Money, success, sex, career, Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Worthless things not because they have no value but because we look these things to get something only God can provide. An identity. Approval. Love. Salvation.

Finally, why does Paul keep on keeping on? What I mean is, why risk his life so recklessly like this? They just tried to kill him, at least, take a holiday, Paul! No, for Paul, mission is a 100% full on commitment.

Why does Paul keep going full steam ahead? Grace. The answer is grace. God enabled them to perform miracles, it says in verse 4, to confirm his message of grace. God continues to provide us with food, with happiness, with life - verse 17 - as a testimony to his grace. Grace means goodness that God gives us - food, happiness, Jesus - that we do not deserve.

Why does Paul risk everything for the gospel? Because everything he has comes to him by God’s grace. He has nothing to lose and everything for him to gain.

I was talking to a brother recently who is facing a stressful situation at work. I wonder how many of you feel the same way about your job: You’re dreading going into the office tomorrow. This brother was struggling with expectations to perform. I said, “I would be lying to you if I said things will get easier. Jesus did not save us to give us a way out of our stressful situations. He saved us so that in the midst of our troubles - which are painful and stressful - we will still be able to rejoice in him. We know he already loves us because of the cross.”

I will close with these words from Paul - they’re taken from 2 Corinthians 4 - these words which tell us why he keeps getting up, going on and keeping on in Jesus. And as I read these words, I want you to ask yourself honestly, “What better reason do I have for getting up tomorrow morning?”

1 Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God….

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

2 Corinthians 4:1-2,7-10

Monday 16 September 2013

The God Review (Acts 13:32-52) - MP3 recording

Preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 16 September 2013.

Download MP3 View transcript

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. 

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