As we jump back into the story of what Jesus is doing in our time by looking at the books of Acts, we see that His salvation goes forward from the religious to the irreligious because He is the Savior of both.
Acts (The NIV Application Commentary), Ajith Fernando
We’re back in the book of Acts today. Those of you who have only started engaging with Citylight since we started recording services and putting them online may wonder why we’re talking about this passage today; others of you may struggle to remember back to the time when we were meeting in person and preaching through the book of Acts. Acts is the story of what Jesus continued to do after He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven by sending His Holy Spirit upon His church to empower them to proclaim to the end of the earth what they saw in His life, death, and resurrection. It’s the story of how the risen Jesus built His church from what was 120 people of the same ethnicity and culture at the beginning, to what is already tens of thousands by the time of the passage at which we are looking today, and from it we learn our place in the story.
Now, what does all that have to do with a coronavirus pandemic or a stay-at-home order? Not much in a sense, and that’s part of why we’re preaching on it. The particulars of our situation matter of course, and that’s why we spent the last 9 weeks more directly addressing it. But our ordinary pattern at Citylight has always been preaching through books of the Bible because we trust that there are things God wants to say to us that we never would have guessed if we had picked the passage every week. God does answer many of our questions in Scripture, but He also wants to get us asking different questions. Scripture addresses people facing pandemics, but it does so in part by transcending pandemics and helping us place whatever the particulars of our present moment are in the context of a bigger story of which we are all a part. The book of Acts in particular is that story, the story of what Jesus is doing in our world between His ascension into heaven and His return to earth to restore all things, the time period in which we still live.
In the early chapters of Acts, Jesus sent out His disciples to preach the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to other religious people. Today the world is still filled with “religious types” as we often call them. On the other hand, there were many people in the world back then and in our world today who weren’t raised under the religion of the Bible, and as the book of Acts goes on, the Christians begin speaking to them too. Today we’re going to see the interaction of one Christian leader in particular, Paul, with both groups: First with the Jews, those religious people who lived under God’s law, and then with the Gentiles, a catch-all word for non-Jews who lived outside of God’s law. One of the questions you may not have woke up asking this morning, but that God puts to you today through this passage is: How is salvation possible for both religious and irreligious types? Different as those people groups are, we’re going to see that Jesus is Savior both of those under the law, the religious types, and those outside the law, the irreligious types.
Of those under the law
Our passage today begins with Paul and his companions coming to the city of Antioch, in Pisidia. Pisidian Antioch was a leading city of the region; if you want to tell people about Jesus you have to go where people live. So as was Paul’s custom, he went to the Synagogue and as was the custom of the Synagogue, when there was a visiting priest, he was invited to give what verse 15 calls a word of encouragement. In response, he gives a basic history of God’s dealings with His people, showing how it all points to God sending a Savior, who he identifies as Jesus in verse 23. How do we know Jesus is really the Savior? Paul gives a number of evidences from Scripture, but he comes to his biggest evidence in verse 30: God raised him from the dead. He even says in verse 31 that Jesus appeared to witnesses; you can go ask them. This isn’t a mere fable. God had promised His people a king who would reign forever and bring salvation to the people. The resurrection proves that Jesus is that Savior-King.
Here’s why that matters: Verses 38-40. Because He is the promised Savior, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to all who hear. Furthermore, by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which they could not be freed by the law of Moses. That’s salvation: Forgiveness of sins and freedom, found in Christ. Now maybe you don’t feel like you need such a salvation, a forgiveness of sins, but people under the law do. So let’s talk about the law, what Paul calls in verse 39 “the law of Moses,” the law summarized in the Ten Commandments you already heard earlier in the recording. To be an Israelite meant you were born under this law: From the moment you could hear and talk, you were taught this law, it informed what was “normal” in your community, it was expanded actually to 613 commandments contained in Scripture, and not only did you grow up hearing: This is what you must do, but like any law, attached to the commandments there was both promise and threat. There was a promise, Leviticus 18:5 – “The one who does them shall live by them.” Do them, and you’ll live forever with God. There was a threat, Deuteronomy 27:26 – “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Don’t do them, and you’re cursed; you’ll die under God’s judgment. Simple enough, right?
Simple enough, except everyone broke those commandments. In fact, if you really understand what God meant when He gave those commandments, you’ll quickly realize you and I break these commandments too. So for example when Jesus talks about the command not to murder, He says if you’ve even been angry with someone, you’ve committed murder. I remember this guy talking trash on me at a basketball game once and enjoying thinking in my head about me throwing the basketball right in this guy’s face. Jesus says I’m guilty of murder. Or take coveting, which is envying or resenting what God has given another. Ever seen someone else succeed and grieve it or seen someone else fail and celebrate it? You see how naturally that comes? The better you get to know the law, the more it seems to keep commanding you to do things that are the opposite of what you want to do. In fact, sometimes you want to do it more when you’re told not to. You know if you want to get a kid to read, the best way to do it is to tell them there’s certain books they aren’t allowed to read. Then they’ll read those books.
What the law reveals, then, is the sinful nature of our hearts. It shows we don’t want what God wants, but it can’t make us want what God wants. It’s like an X-ray machine, exposing the disease, but providing no cure. The law even looks at the X-ray and gives the prognosis: Cursed be you who have not abided by all things written in the book of the law and do them. It pronounces the penalty for sin. The things from which no one can be free by the law are both the power and the penalty of sin.
But God, while we were under the power and penalty of sin, didn’t send us another law. If all God did was give us new commandments or a second chance to obey the old ones, we’d just break them again. God didn’t send us a new law; He sent us a Savior, and Jesus is that Savior. He abided by all things written in the book of the law and did them, and yet on the cross, He suffered the curse of the law, the curse for our disobedience, and rose again to break it, having paid the penalty for sin in full, having broken its power by triumphing over it, so that everyone who believes in Him could be free, free from all the things from which the law of Moses could not free us, free from the penalty and power of sin. That’s what’s there for everyone who believes in Jesus. Believe in Him today and you will receive forgiveness of your all your sins, past present, and future, and glorious freedom: The freedom that in spite of your sin, you are no longer under God’s curse, but have been declared righteous in His sight, and the freedom not to do whatever you want, but to want whatever God wants you to do.
I better explain that real quick and then we’ll move on. Being set free from the law of Moses doesn’t mean we’re set free from God’s commandments. It means we’re set free from sin, so that we’d be free to live the way we were created to live, in obedience to what God wants, summarized in the law. If your doctor tells you, “Stop eating so much sugar, start eating some vegetables, or you’re going to die young,” that’s a kind of law. There’s a command, there’s a prohibition, and there’s a curse. Now you can look at your doctor and say, “That’s not fair. I should be free to eat what I want,” but the problem isn’t with your doctor; she’s just telling you how your body works. The problem is that your appetites don’t match the way your body was created to function. That’s what sin does in the spiritual realm. It makes you want the opposite of what God wants, which is actually the way you were created to live. Real freedom, then, wouldn’t be the doctor telling you, “Eat whatever you want; it’ll be fine.” That would be a lie. Real freedom would be the doctor giving you an appetite for vegetables. Now doctors can’t do that unfortunately. Moses couldn’t do that either in the case of God’s law, but Jesus Christ can. Through Him, everyone who believes in Him is forgiven of their disobedience, so even though you’ve eaten junk and will sometimes run back to it you won’t die, and you’re given a new appetite, an appetite for God rather than self, the freedom the law of Moses couldn’t provide, the freedom to live the way God created you to live. The law can never bring you that. Religion, morality, “trying harder,” “taking your faith more seriously” can never bring you that. Only Jesus can. Jesus is Savior of those under the law, and Jesus is Savior of those outside the law.
Of those outside the law
We’ve talked a lot about religious types, but there are plenty of irreligious types in the world too. Maybe you’re one of them. Well, it turns out Jesus is Savior to people like you too. While verse 43 tells us many Jews and converts to Judaism, those under the law, did follow Paul and Barnabas, we read in verse 45 that many Jews began to contradict what was spoken by Paul and insulted him. So Paul and Barnabas respond boldly in verse 46: They were sent to those under the law first, but now that they’ve rejected the message, they are turning aside to the Gentiles, those who didn’t grow up under the law of Moses. In fact, Paul says in the next verse that this was God’s purpose for them from the beginning, so that His salvation might reach the end of the earth.
Now here’s an audience of people who weren’t under the law of Moses and who didn’t hold the Jewish Scriptures to be God’s Word. And this is how many people today, especially in a place like Philadelphia, would identify themselves, including some of you watching today: You don’t feel bound to God’s commandments in Scripture; perhaps you’d even say each person should be free to determine for themselves what is right and wrong. Surely, then, the message of salvation is irrelevant, right?
But look at how the Gentiles in this passage respond. Verse 48: They began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed. What? Why? Because even if you live outside the law of Moses, you need a Savior. Even if it’s not God’s law, you live under some other law that still can’t set you free. For all the talk today about how everyone has to determine for themselves what is right and wrong, we still have laws, don’t we? Many of them are very good, but here’s a few examples: You shall not be racist, sexist, ableist, ageist. You shall not use hate speech; hate has no home here. You shall not pollute; you shall recycle. You shall not eat GMO foods; you shall only eat organic. You shall not support certain politicians; you shall support a certain political party. Whoever does these things will be praised, whoever fails in even one of them will be cursed on social media. Again, some of those are very good, but my point is simply that even the most irreligious people can’t help but live by some law, and we all still fall short of it! It’s why we still have to bolster our own sense of righteousness by looking down on others, just like the religious people.
And the same Savior offered to the religious people is offered to the irreligious, and I offer Him to you today. Whether you’re religious or irreligious or somewhere in between, you need salvation, and Jesus is Savior. Through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and everyone who believes in Him is free from the things from which no law could free you. Believe in Him today. God’s plan from the beginning is this salvation would reach the end of the earth, and so when the Gentiles hear this, even they rejoice and glorify that message. But, we can’t leave it there. Not all the Gentiles believed. Verse 48 continues: “and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
As good as this news is, the sin within us is so powerful that if God gave us a million chances to believe it we’d say no every time. The ultimate reason any of the Gentiles believed, the ultimate reason they felt their need of salvation and trusted Jesus the Savior, is because they were already appointed to eternal life by God. That verb there, “appointed,” is in what grammarians call the passive voice, meaning the subject is passive in it. Nobody appoints themselves to eternal life. But even among the Gentiles, among every tribe, tongue, and nation, God has appointed a people for eternal life, and He will not fail to bring them to faith in this Savior, that His salvation may reach to the end of the earth. Which means, by the way, that if you believe in this Savior today, it can only be because you were appointed to eternal life first.
I understand that may create some philosophical questions for you, and those questions matter, so please follow up and ask them; I’d love to talk with you about them. But I just want to briefly point out two things in closing: First, Acts 13:48, like all of Scripture, is God’s Word, and He’s the one who says as many as were appointed to eternal life believed, so if that raises philosophical questions for you, that’s fine, but try to approach those questions more in the spirit of, “How can I understand what God is saying here?” rather than “Does God really appoint people to eternal life before they believe? That can’t be.” Second, note the response of those who were appointed to eternal life: Joy. That’s where our passage ends in verse 52: And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
That doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain or fear anymore, it doesn’t mean you don’t have questions or doubts, but it means that alongside the sadness and fear, the questions and doubts, there is a joy that sustains you. You’ve been saved. There is no condemnation for you. You’ve been set free from the curse of the law. You were appointed to eternal life. If you lack joy today, it can only be because in some measure you’ve lost sight of that. If you spend more of your time thinking about all the things you don’t have or aren’t doing than you do thinking of all that Jesus is and all He did for you, you will crush your joy. Remember the counsel of the great Pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “For every one look you take at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” May you be filled with joy in Him today, and may that joy spread through us to the end of the earth, that all those appointed to eternal life, religious or irreligious, may believe and rejoice with us in our great Savior.