Tonight we continue our studies in the Acts of the Apostles and our subject is The Good News. We are to be looking at Acts 13.13-43.
We will be studying the very first recorded sermon of the apostle Paul; and my headings are first, THE CONTEXT, secondly, THE GOOD NEWS ITSELF, thirdly, PAUL’S EXPLANATION, fourthly, THE CHOICE.
First, THE CONTEXT
If you are visiting, let me say this. We are studying, on these summer Sunday evenings, the Acts of the Apostles; and we have reached chapter 13 and Barnabas and Saul’s first evangelistic mission. Under the prompting of the Holy Spirit they are travelling in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and preaching the Good News or the Gospel (to use the Old English word). Their first port of call was Cyprus. But then chapter 13 verse 13 says:
From Paphos [in Cyprus], Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John [Mark] left them to return to Jerusalem.
We don’t know why John Mark left them, but Saul [or, as he is now called, Paul] seems not to have been best pleased. In Acts 15.38 we are told that Paul and Barnabas later split up over taking Mark back into their team. But later still Paul was on good terms with Mark. So all’s well that ends well. However, don’t think that mission and evangelism will be all sweetness and light. For one thing, reading between the lines, it looks as though Paul and Barnabas were not temperamentally similar. Barnabas was a gentle encourager and the sort that could see good in everyone. Paul was fundamentally goal orientated. Of course, he was pastoral as well. But Paul had the great gift of seeing that pastoral concerns – hurts, hang ups and human failings - are only truly met when God’s will is put first.
Paul was able to be tough with people when necessary as we saw earlier in chapter 13 and his handling of the mediumistic Elymas, the adviser to the Governor of Cyprus. The trouble with Barnabas-types, for all their gifts of listening and encouragement, is that they can go soft when conflict is needed. We read in the epistle to the Galatians – these people now being visited - that on one occasion, when the Gospel itself was fundamentally under threat, I quote, “even Barnabas was led astray” (Gal 2.13).
This happens today with some sensitive, orthodox believers going soft on fundamentals when they need to be robust in maintaining the truth, when all around is error or immorality. As with Barnabas this often happens when dealing with those close to them – on that one occasion with Barnabas it was Peter at fault.
But we don’t know why John Mark left the missionary team. What we do know, however, is this. One, God puts people in teams such that you have Paul and Barnabas. For both types are necessary. But, two, in the end it is the types like Paul who are the senior leaders. So in verse 13 you no longer read, as we would have expected, “From, Paphos Barnabas and Saul sailed to Perga”, but “From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga.” From now on Paul is in the lead. Well, that is the context of our verses for tonight. That brings us …
… secondly, to THE GOOD NEWS ITSELF
Look at verses 14-15:
14From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. 15After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, "Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak.
Paul and his friends were now in Pisidian Antioch, the Roman capital for that part of the world. And they went to the Jewish synagogue for Saturday worship. What went on there was not totally different to what goes on today in a Christian church. Christian services have evolved from synagogue worship. The first churches were really Christian synagogues, but distinguished by their teaching and beliefs about Jesus as the Messiah, Saviour and divine Lord. So Paul knew what was expected when it came to the sermon, called here in verse 18 “a message of encouragement”. The word “encouragement” can be translated as “challenge”. It implies both negative correction as well as positive encouragement.
But when Paul got up, what precisely was he trying to teach? What were the core truths he was trying to communicate in this his first recorded sermon? You have got the answer there in verses 38-39:
38"Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses."
The first truth, then, is about the forgiveness of sins. Paul in Pisidian Antioch is preaching to Jews and theistic non-Jews – called in verse 43, “devout converts to Judaism”. With them he could assume a number of things that he couldn’t assume when preaching to idolatrous or agnostic non-Jews. For the good news presupposes (and so teaching is needed when not presupposed) that there is an almighty God who is the creator of heaven and earth and judge of all.
By contrast, therefore, in Athens, as you learn in Acts 17, Paul had to teach about the creator and that there will be an ultimate judgment for sin. But he knew he needn’t teach this at Pisidian Antioch to Jews and theistic non-Jews. However, Paul knew that by itself it was not enough just to be a theist – a believer in God. He knew that the majority of thoughtful people have some such belief in a supreme being. While not being scientifically demonstrable, the majority follow common sense and judge that it is more probable that mind gave rise to matter than vice versa (matter giving rise to mind). So there is some kind of a God, many believe, who brought into being (or created) this material universe and then humankind.
But the big and vital question then is, “What is the character of this supreme being? What is he like?” To answer that you need not just general inferences from observing the natural created world as a given. You also need God’s special revelation that you have only in the Bible and through prophets and apostles. And the Bible is clear about God’s character.
God is all loving. And because he is all loving, he is all just. For justice is love in the public realm. It is not loving to allow what is unfair or destructive of people. That is why there is going to be a final judgment one day – a fearful reality, a day of God’s wrath against all sin. But God’s love has provided for the forgiveness of sins before then. That is the Good News Paul was preaching at Pisidian Antioch.
I wonder if there is someone here tonight who doesn’t find the idea of “the forgiveness of sins” not only not “Good News” but not even interesting? If so, let me say this. The message of sins forgiven appeals in direct proportion to the amount of guilt you feel before God. That is why the Good News requires a pre-evangelistic dose of God’s law and telling people that there is going to be a judgment day; and so, for their own sake, they ought to feel guilty. It is a bit like speed cameras. First you need to know about speed cameras and speed restrictions and the penalties for being caught on camera. So when you learn you have been caught speeding, you don’t need to be told again about cameras. That is not Good News. The Good News is when the police tell you that if you are willing to go to “a driver improvement course”, no punishment will be imposed or points lost.
And note one other thing. If what the Bible says about sin and disregarding God is true, the assumption that you can sin and assume God’s blessing is the utmost folly. It is like regularly driving through speed cameras way over the speed limit, and assuming all will always be well. That is why the Western world ought to be worried about the current global economic crisis, unless there is major spiritual and intellectual repentance (or rethinking). For there is now an institutional denial of sin and an institutional disregard for God’s law. Let me elaborate.
While lip service is now paid to greed as being sinful, lust is being endorsed by governments, like Britain, that are promoting a sexual free-for-all. But the sociologists argue that capitalist economies only work well when there is a certain moral framework. They need an ethic of delayed gratification of desire, hard work and a concern for the good of the wider community such as you have in Biblical Christianity. It is obvious that a nation that through corrupt education and hostile governmental action loses its marriage culture to a sexual free for all, loses at a societal level two vital things. First, it loses the value of, and, secondly, the ability to make, binding promises and keep them, as in lifelong marriage. But both are essential for good business. How urgent we tell others God’s truth. For the forgiveness of sins is Good News in many areas of life, both individual and social. Don’t, therefore, apologize or be secretive about the Christian faith, in your office, school, hospital, shop, factory or wherever.
The first truth, then, is about the forgiveness of sins.
The second, of course, is the truth about the source of that forgiveness. Verse 38 tells us this forgiveness is “through Jesus”. And he is the exclusive one through whom it comes. Forgiveness doesn’t come from Moses or Mohammed or Marx. It is Jesus, the divine Son of God, alone who can forgive sins and bring you back to God. In that he is unique.
Then, thirdly, and essentially, the good news is about the method of receiving this forgiveness through Christ. What is that? The answer is there in verse 39:
Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.
That doesn’t mean the law of Moses justifies you for some sins and Jesus for the rest. No! It means the principle of the law “do this and try to be good” just doesn’t work. It is incomplete at best. For we are never good enough to pay the price of sin. So the method of receiving Christ’s forgiveness is “faith” in him. And who can exercise that faith? Answer (verse 39) it is “everyone who believes”. So you may have been seriously compromised in you business dealings through greed. Or you may be sexually compromised, heterosexually or homosexually through uncontrolled desires. Or you may be a serial omitter of doing the good you could have done. The sins of omission are problems for all of us, as is “original sin” – that natural tendency to go our own way and not God’s way. But the Good News is that,
“through him everyone who believes is justified from everything.”
And it is a free and full forgiveness. It is free because you are forgiven through faith in what Christ has done and not because of any good things done by you – past, present or future. And it is full forgiveness. The law of Moses, and the way of religions in general, does not affect the human conscience (Heb 9.9). This forgiveness does, as the Bible teaches in Hebrews 10.22. And the law of Moses did not allow the average person a full relationship with God himself. Only the High Priest was allowed that and for just one day a year when he entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Christ’s forgiveness, however, restores everyone who is forgiven and justified to a full relationship and peace with God (Romans 5.1).
But why believe all this? That brings us to …
… thirdly, PAUL’S EXPLANATION
This particular Jewish audience needed to know how Jesus fitted in to what they already believed. So Paul explains that Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament history and the Old Testament promises. In verses 17-22 he outlines OId Testament history from the founding fathers to king David. Then in verse 23, referring to David, he says:
"From this man's descendants God has brought to Israel the Saviour Jesus, as he promised.
So Jesus is the one the Jews have been looking for, the Messiah. Then Paul tells them about the supreme significance of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. Look at verse 29-33:
29When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30But God raised him from the dead, 31and for many days he was seen by those who had travelled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people. 32We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers 33he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.
The word “tree” in verse 29 is very significant. Not only Paul here, but Peter in Acts 5.30 (before the Sanhedrin) and in Acts 10.23 (with Cornelius) – Peter also used the word “tree” for the word “cross”. Paul explains it in Galatians 3.13 where he says:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."
And Peter writes in 1 Peter 2.24:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.
This explains how God can be both just and forgiving without, as it were, condoning sin. We should have been on the Cross (the place of a curse) but Christ took our place and the curse we deserve. It is as simple, and as profound, as that.
So the standards of the Old Testament moral law remain. But now forgiven and empowered by the Holy Spirit we can start, with some effect, as Peter says, “to die to sins and live to righteousness”.
But why believe any of this as true? It is a nice “world-view”, you say.
But why should this be believed as fact.
The answer is in verses 30-31:
30God raised him [Jesus] from the dead, 31and for many days he was seen by those who had travelled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.
This was a real bodily resurrection with an empty tomb, for verse 37 says:
the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.
Although Luke doesn’t here mention an “empty tomb”, that is obviously what he is talking about.
And that is why you are to believe in Jesus, because of objective historical facts.
So the judge, who recently ruled against a Christian man dismissed from his job for his Christian beliefs and who said that man’s beliefs were “necessarily subjective”, was totally wrong.
Christian faith is in a person who was actually killed but whose body did not see decay for “God raised him from the dead” and who was subsequently seen alive by a good number of people.
Well, that is the Good News Paul was preaching and encouraging people to believe. It consisted of facts that focused on the person and work of Jesus – supremely on two things - his death, “according to the Scriptures” and his Resurrection, “according to the Scriptures”. And these are objective facts.
So finally and …
Fourthly, THE CHOICE
This is how Paul ended his sermon in Pisidian Antioch (verses 40-41):
40Take 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.'
Paul is quoting the prophet Habakkuk. God, through the prophet, is warning the people that without repentance for their sinful injustices, he will use the Babylonian enemy to bring judgment in the here and now.
What would Paul say tonight, if he were here?
Probably he would say the same thing now as then: “Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you, [if you reject Jesus Christ].”
Trouble can come now. If people go their own way and ignore God, they should not surprised by negative things happening. But certainly there will be a final day of God’s wrath and judgment. So how are you going to leave this building tonight?
Are you going to leave as one who says, “Yes,” to Jesus as Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead and realising all that that means in terms of the forgiveness of sins and “living for righteousness”. Or are you going to leave as one saying, “No!” I hope all will say “Yes”, like those (verse 43) “many Jews and devout converts to Judaisim [who] followed Paul and Barnabas.”
For that is the way not only of obedience to God our maker, but a matter of common sense.