A People for Himself

What should the church, the body and bride of Christ, look like? How should it be distinguishable from the world around her? The question is not new, as Acts 15 indicates.

Live by faith in the God who chose you. You are saved by God’s grace through faith. The issue was, do you live by faith? The church at Antioch, from which Paul and Barnabas had been sent on their missionary journey, was composed both of Jewish believers in Jesus the Messiah, and of Gentiles, former pagans who had come to trust in him. Visitors from Jerusalem, perhaps concerned that the church was looking less and less like the Pharisaic community, a portion of the church at Jerusalem, from which they came. They insisted that the Gentile believers had to receive the sign of circumcision and, by implication, keep the details of the ceremonial dietary laws. The issue would continue to disturb the church through the first half-century or more of its existence, as Galatians indicates. Behind this issue was the important question: is anything necessary for your justification beyond the work of Christ? On that hangs the whole issue of the sufficiency of the work of Christ. Is it Christ’s work plus my works of penance, Christ’s work plus my efforts, Christ’s work plus my decision? Or is salvation totally dependent on the grace of God? The issue focuses on the work of Christ, on the justification of sinners. That individual has strong implications for the church, and the question of dietary laws has an impact on the gospel, which is why Paul had to rebuke Peter, Galatians 2:11–21.

“Evangelism must lead with the gospel, not with a call to cultural conformity or moral reformation. Repentance is not adopting the evangelist’s clothing style, speech patterns, or taste in music. It is seeing the horror one’s sin and receiving the forgiving grace of Christ, embracing the Savior in faith for washing from sin’s guilt and liberation from its tyrannical control.”

Dennis E. Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, p. 136
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Through Hardships into the Kingdom

Suppose that in visiting a major city you stray away from the touristy areas into a questionable neighborhood, and are mugged. You might say, “I’m never going back there again.” But Paul, not having been mugged for his wallet or phone, but rather stoned and left for dead because of the gospel he preached, goes back to visit Lystra and the other cities where he had preached (Acts 14:21–28).

Endure hardship boldly. Do not be surprised by suffering.

“Can churches preoccupied with preparing a menu palatable to self-absorbed baby boomers afford to tell seekers the hard truth that Paul and Barnabas laid on the young Christians in Asia Minor, ‘It is through many afflictions that we must enter God’s kingdom” (Acts 14:22)?”

Dennis E. Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, p. 214

Hardships happened to Paul (Acts 13:50; 14:5–6, 19–20) and you can expect them as well. The assurance of some TV evangelists that God is providing you with a wonderful life right now is simply not true. You are united to Christ by faith. Union with Christ involves suffering with him as well as sharing in future glory, Romans 8:17ff; Philippians 1:29–30. They are the result of being united with Christ in a world that is still suffering under the curse of sin and the effects of the fall. Included in those sufferings are not only the big things might think of—Paul’s being driven out of cities, stoned, left for dead—but also all the friction and frustration that comes from living as one who belongs to Christ but is still in this sin-cursed world. Cancer strikes. Friends abandon or betray. Work relationships turn ugly and difficult. All of these are part of the hardships through which believers go. The Psalmist in Psalm 74 is grieving the unthinkable: God has allowed his temple to be destroyed and his people taken captive. Yes, non-Christians suffer some of the same things. But you suffer them as one who belongs to the risen, ascended Savior. Be prepared for these hardships. They do not mean that God has abandoned you. They do not mean that your faith has crumbled.

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Turn to the Living God

What is idolatry? And who is the living God to whom Paul urges the people of Lystra (and you) to turn?

A local myth described a visit to the area near Lystra by the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes disguised as humans. That may have contributed to the readiness of the citizens to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas when they healed a lame man as they preached in that city (Acts 14:1–20).

Turn from worthless things. The gods of Lystra were myths, gods created in human form. Paul and Barnabas, having preached in Iconium and having found that the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, was a divisive as Jesus had said it would be (Matthew 10:34–39), moved on to Lystra. As they were preaching, the healing of a lame man triggered a startling reaction from the local population, as they attempted to offer sacrifices to them, thinking they were gods. The local gods were the product of mankind’s imaginations, gods in human form with all the foibles, petty jealousies, and sins which characterize man. Isaiah 44 mocks the making and worshiping of images that represent a false deity. Paul makes a similar point in 1 Corinthians 10:19–21. A temple to Zeus stood just outside the gate of the city, and the legend kept the inhabitants alert to the possibility of a visit by the gods. The miracle of healing the lame man triggered an attempt to sacrifice to the two apostolic missionaries. Paul and Barnabas were barely able to restrain them.

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God’s Message of Salvation

You may remember when speeches played an important part in elections. They seem to have been replaced by carefully scripted sound bites. The good news of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ spread through special kinds of speeches: sermons. Acts 13:13–52 contains the first sermon of Paul summarized by Luke (though the apostle had done much teaching and preaching before this). It resembles the sermon of Peter in Acts 2 and that of Stephen in Acts 7. Paul has traveled to the mainland of Asia Minor and now preaches in a synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. The message, starting in Acts 13:16, has three parts, each introduced by a vocative, verses 16, 26, 38.

Listen to what God has done. The message is for both Jews and Gentiles. This sermon introduces and encapsulates Paul’s preaching. Although the setting is a synagogue, the congregation includes both proselytes and God-fearers and well as Jews. Appreciate the layers involved: Paul is preaching to a particular congregation, Luke summarizes the message in detail for Theophilus and other initial readers—a catechetical purpose, and the Holy Spirit includes it in Scripture for you. As the good news is rejected by the Old Testament covenant people, the Gentiles receive it with joy. Acts 1:8 is bering fulfilled.

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Set Apart for the Holy Spirit

The church of Jesus Christ faces an increasingly consistent neo-pagan culture. What are we to do? Acts 13:1–12 pictures the church in a major city of the pagan world empire. What is she doing as the Holy Spirit prepares to conquer the darkness with the light of the good news of the Lord Jesus? She is worshiping. In that context the Holy Spirit sets aside for himself those who will begin the spread of the good news throughout the world.

Depend on the calling of the Holy Spirit, for he equips, you, the church with gifts. This Spirit fills and equips all believers, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. The church at Antioch had been formed by Christian refugees from Jerusalem, who had spoken the good news to those they encountered, evangelizing not only fellow Jews, but Gentiles as well. Barnabas, later joined by Saul, had built up and strengthened the church there. From this great city of the empire, from a church consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, the third step of the Lord’s commission of Acts 1:8 was about to begin to be carried out.

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