It is an exciting thing to be a Christian--constantly renewed, restored, revitalized. It is exciting to see the power of the gospel in our world--to participate in missions, to share in God's global search for those whose hearts can be set on the things of God. From a human vantage point, it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
When we come to Acts 12:24, we have a third summary statement, we are ½ way through the book. Here is a decisive turning point. Witness has been borne in Jerusalem--Pentecost, 3000 Jews, 5000 disciples, even priest obeying the gospel, then dispersion due to persecution scatters the followers to Judea and Samaria. We thrill to read of the conversion of Samaritans, the eunuch from Africa, and Cornelius. But the world is still waiting. The gospel has gone to the Jews, to Samaritans, to an Ethiopian Gentile who was a Jewish proselyte, and to the Gentile god-fearer Cornelius. But in truth, the expansion beyond those with Jewish roots has been limited. We are on the cutting edge of a new initiative.
It is the vision of the church in Antioch that breaks the logjam. With the guidance of God, the missionary team is prepared, commissioned, and sent forth. To Cyprus, Paphos, Perga in Pamphylia, and to Pisidian Antioch. It is in Perga of Pamphylia that we have recorded the first full summary of one of Paul's sermons. This is essential to understanding how the gospel can advance in our society and world.
In Pisidian Antioch, more Gentile god-fearers are present, but the address is still essentially Jewish. There is a different model for the purely Gentile audience which we will see next Sunday evening from Acts 14 and 17; here the atmosphere, the location, the audience, is Jewish. It is the sabbath, in the synagogue, the lesson is the law and the prophets.
Notice the audience: In 13:16, Paul addresses Israel, Gentiles who worship God. In 13:26, Israel, God-fearers. Up to this time, converts were all pretty much alike. It is after this sermon, the rejection of the gospel in Pisidian Antioch, that Paul and his companions turn in earnest to the Gentiles, to the pagans. The gospel is not only for Jews, not only for religious people, it is time to preach to more than the religious, the god-fearers, the proselytes to Judaism-- the gospel can go with power to the pagan Gentile world.
These are relevant verses in our nation at beginning of the 21st century--relevant verses in our world if we are to take the gospel to the whole world. Frankly, up to this point, the church has been like the Christians in the early chapters of Acts, going primarily to religious people, to those not requiring very much change, converts who already know the basics of Scripture. We have typically converted those who have studied the Bible, God-fearers, religious people.
Now our world is less and less Christian. In New Zealand during a mission trip we often heard, "I'm not religious." Our goal must be to take the gospel to our community, our nation, the entire world. Our goal must include the gospel to pagans, to genuine Gentiles, to the unchurched as well as to the churched. Why? At least two-thirds of our nation is radically unchurched. Many have been away from church so long--for two or three generations--that the basics of Christianity have been forgotten and lost.
How will we reach these? Will we go to the synagogues, to the neighborhood churches, as Paul did? We do not do this, we do not go to other churches, to other believing situations. Yet Paul continued to do that. The early Restoration pioneers did that. There is necessity of encounter in a broader field. I fear that the church of Jesus Christ has confined itself in jail of own making, way-laying the way, chaining ourselves. No locks imprison us. The lock is on our minds, in our understanding of the challenge, in exploring the methods we will need to take the gospel to our community and world in vibrant way.
It is time to dream a new dream. We must come face to face with the truth that we are not doing too well with the God-fearers, let along with the pagans in our world. We are not getting the job done. We are in danger of being navel-gazers, self-centered, a selfish worshiping society. What happens in our church buildings is only a small part of our service in cause of Christ. We must return to our central focus, make it real in our lives, more than slogans, mottoes, mission statements, and banners on our walls.
We have talked so much about family and love that we have forgotten the army metaphor in Scripture, the necessity of militant conflict and conquest. We must get back to influencing our neighborhoods, communities, and world for Jesus. We must rescue the gospel from its invisibility, and make it a leaven that penetrates and changes--first us, then others. We must rethink what we do when we assemble, and why. What are our motives? We have at times been so concerned about being scriptural in the forms of worship that we have lost our concern about being scriptural in the purpose of worship. Are we here today for the right reasons, will we accomplish what God intends his assembled people to accomplish? A scriptural assembly renews our sense of mission and our passion to fulfill the mission. When we go forth, "We cannot but speak." We will press the battle.
This attitude will focus the fact that we are too busy to be drawn into church issues and problems. We are too busy to fuss and fight. This understanding of the gospel to the Gentiles as representative of our challenge today will rescue the church from its pettiness and littleness, and get us back on track about the glorious gospel which is God's power to salvation.
We go forth, bringing abundant life, channeling blessings, bringing rest to the weary, bringing grace, mercy and peace to a world starving for comfort, consolation and encouragement. Most of all, in Christ, we bring escape from sin and its guilt. How can we encourage people to take us, our Lord, and the gospel seriously? The credibility of Christianity is at stake. Half-hearted religions scattered up and down our avenues will not make it with the Gentiles in our nation. The reason for the credibility crisis is simple: Christians aren't much different from anybody else, nor do many seem to want to be. What incentive is there to investigate a faith that has lost its reputation for making a difference? If the modern brand of Christianity is not producing changed lives, what do we have to offer those who are not Christians? People must see the difference Jesus makes in our homes, schools, business, and relationships. Primitive Christianity exploded on the scene of paganism in first century because of the contrast it provided. Christianity brought meaning, purpose, forgiveness. Nothing less will return our nation to the power of the Christ.
Nor should we confuse community acceptance with credibility. When everybody loves us, we may have ceased to function as the counter culture we are designed to be. The early church impacted its culture. This text is a challenge to consider how we can reach out and impact our culture, change our world, alter our community. We are going to a pagan society, religion is generally unwelcome, truth is denied, genuine followers of Jesus shine brighter than ever. We have opportunity to show the surpassing power and greatness of the gospel, 2 Cor. 4:5-7.
We must get out of our assemblies, into the streets. Unless one ventures into our assemblies or is recipient of our benevolence, in most places the world never knows we exist. Our light is under the bushel, or in our buildings. We are having little impact on morals and values. Our limited media exposure generally comes across as preachy at worst or churchy at best.
Think with me about a well known text in John 4, Jesus' prayer for laborers for the harvest. Over thirty years ago, Elton Trueblood wrote, "The church is intended as a concrete answer to the prayer that laborers be sent forth into the harvest. The company of Jesus is not people streaming to a shrine, it is not people making up an audience for a speaker, it is laborers engaged in the harvesting task of reaching their perplexed and seeking brethren with something so vital that, if it is received, it will change lives." Lives are changed from defeat to victory. Perplexity and lostness win the victory of certainty and confidence. Resurrection victory overcomes death. The powerless are empowered. Losers become winners.
I want us now to study this sermon, and I would like for us insomuch as possible to hear this sermon. In briefer outline form, I want you to know this sermon. It has three points--or maybe one point with an introduction and conclusion. The introduction is Old Testament history (vv. 6-25); the focus is the gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus (vv. 26-37), and the conclusion is a choice between life and death (38-41).
I. Introduction--Old Testament history, 16-25.
This brief statement extends history from the patriarchs (fathers) to the Davidic monarchy, and forward right up to the coming of Jesus. The activity of God is emphasized. Everything is pointing to Jesus.
II. Body--the death and resurrection of Jesus, 26-37.
The Jesus account is in the same style as the Israel history in the introduction. Two great events are at center stage, for they are the demonstration that God is fulfilling Scripture. Although the people and Jewish rulers did not recognize Jesus, that itself was fulfillment of prophecy. All that occurred was carrying to a fulfillment conclusion the plan of God. They condemned, executed, crucified, and buried in a tomb. But...
But God raised him from the dead, and it was seen by those who are now witnessing. Paul says "they." Then, we tell you good news, for this is promise fulfilled.
The proof is in three Old Testament quotations: Ps. 2:7; Isa. 55:3; Psalm 16:10. These are familiar to us as we study Acts, for we have heard this before.
III. Conclusion--choosing life or death, 38-41
When history and Scripture come together, when the foretold is fulfilled, one must choose a meaning. The choice is clear--the promise or the prophets. This is Galatian soil. Here is a stark reminder that some will seek to hold onto the Old Testament law. In remembering their soon to come use in the Galatian letter, the words here are the more striking--death on tree, sin, faith, justification, law, grace. The solemn warning is that to reject is death.
We know as the text continues that the results are mixed, 42-52. Those who respond in belief are described as appointed to eternal life. The appointment is no more than the assigning of a classification. These are enrolled (in the description of Bruce). Those who believe in Jesus and receive eternal life ascribe the credit to God. Some reject, and they continue to act on their own behalf rather than letting God act on their behalf in Christ. The response of faith, as always, issued forth in participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We don't read that here, but it is certain--throughout Acts and in the church letters.
Of what are you reminded? Perhaps of the way in which this simple gospel message parallels the gospel as Paul declares it in 1 Cor. 15:3-6. These events are according to Scripture. Or perhaps your mind goes back to Peter's Pentecost proclamation. What is spoken for them is spoken for us. We too must hear this message, and we too must choose either life or death.
So our text continues. In Acts 13:47, we read about the light for the Gentiles, the challenge to bring salvation to ends of earth. I am reminded of Paul's description of his call in Acts 26:16ff for this is also our call: (1) to be a servant, (2) to be a witness of what you have seen and what I will show. God promise is "I will rescue you." God's commission is "I am sending you to them." God's purpose is (1) to open their eyes, (2) to turn them from darkness to light, (3) to turn them from the power to Satan to God, (4) so they may receive forgiveness of sins.
Paul's response is, "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision."
I pray we will respond in obedience. I pray you will respond to this God. If you have never begun the Christian walk, respond in faith to be immersed for forgiveness of sins. If you are just beginning, cultivate a different lifestyle from the world so others can note the difference. If you have been a Christian a long time, throw off the stagnation, and go forth with a song in your heart, and the message of the precious gospel on your lips, so that all might hear, to the uttermost parts of the earth. Ours is a big challenge, but we serve a big God. He will enable us, empower us, strengthen us, and uphold us. Why not resolve, rededicate, renew, to live for that great God as we stand and sing.
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