A Door of Faith (Acts 14: 26-28)

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 “From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed.27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” (Acts 14: 26-28)

There’s a level of excitement here that is boyish. It’s almost naive – the absolute opposite of jaded and cynical. Those last two adjectives mean something like “I’ve seen it all before. Nothing surprises me or shakes me from my equilibrium.” Some people live like that their whole adult lives.

But this group of Jesus-believers was in a different category.

Think about the other side – think about the things that might have made them jaded and cynical. They had been insulted, slandered, gossiped about. They had been put down and put out and beaten within an inch of their lives. Humanly speaking, things had gone horribly wrong. Later, Paul was to write a commentary on his experiences. He wrote this: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9).

But why? Why, after all that terrible stuff happened, did they stay so upbeat?

I have two answers. One is the story of what was going on inside them. The other is the Big Story of what God was doing with them.

And through them.

And, of course, the two stories are really one. It’s all part of the same thing. What was going on inside them was the story of walking with Jesus, knowing Him, loving Him and letting His words dwell in them richly; it was the story of Pentecost, imbibing His Spirit and speaking and acting in His strength and presence. Oh, the sheer hilarity of seeing someone healed or forgiven, and the whole world tilting on its axis with the joy of it!. Luke 10:17 records the return from another mission trip: “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” 

The name. “In your name.” That phrase tells of intimacy and relationship.

TemitOpe Ibrahim said: “Intimacy with GOD is most exhilarating, most amazing, most exciting and most rewarding of all.”

And all this was going on inside them. It was entirely, satisfyingly,  personal. The apostle John described it as an experience: “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. ” (1 John 1: 1-2).

Us! We have seen and known God ourselves!

But there was something else. It was seeing what God was doing in the world and being part of it. God had “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” and they were seeing outsiders flooding into relationship with Israel’s God. It was thrilling and brand new. It was something astonishing and it was happening in front of them. Paul understood it through the prophet Habakkuk 1:5:  I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.”  They could barely believe it themselves and they couldn’t contain the excitement of seeing God in action.

Do you recall that moment when Elizabeth met Mary? These two pregnant women who had experienced God in powerful action in the most intimate, personal way, meet, and, as Luke records: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”  (Luke 1: 41) The door of faith had been opened, you see.  Both Elizabeth and Mary had experienced God just like John did, or the young believers in the passage above. And, they had also experienced that sense that this completely personal experience was part of God’s moving in the world in redemptive power.

It was like that Narnia moment, hearing the words: “Aslan is on the move!”

And the baby kicked ! Israelmore Ayivor said, “When you are happy for other people’s dreams, your dreams start jumping up with joy. Elizabeth was happy with Mary and her dream baby was jumping in her womb crazily for joy!”

When that “door of faith” opens, then you are invited into a larger place. It’s what a friend of mine calls “the possibility arena.” God is moving -and anything is possible!  Paul referred to the “door of faith” in a wonderful passage in Romans 5:2 to which I constantly return: “We have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we  boast in the hope of the glory of God. ” 

The door has been opened and we have gained access, and the baby of promise is kicking within us in sheer pleasure at what God is about to do. It’s all about us and it’s all about Him simultaneously . As John Piper put it, memorably: “God Is Most Glorified in Us When We Are Most Satisfied in Him.”

 

 

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“We must go through…” (Acts 14: 19-28)

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It’s a powerful truth: we must go through… One of the most well-known passages in the Bible is Psalm 23 which contains the line, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil.” The thing is that sometimes we inhabit that valley rather than walking through it. You have to be careful that your place of trial doesn’t become your place of residence.

We must go through.

And, as Jesus said, quite explicitly, “In this world you will have trouble…” (John 16:33) There’s always going to be a measure of tribulation.

And this is the testimony of the very first Christian missionaries. They persisted under pressure, but sometimes that pressure got very bad indeed. Here’s the text:

“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.”

Did you notice the courage implicit in the throwaway phrase “He went back into the city”? After being beaten and stoned and left for dead, he goes back into the place where the danger was at its worst!

We must go through.

But why? Why would you push through when the level of pressure grew so intolerably high? Luke gives us some very clear reasons in the next verses:

21 They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch,22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. 

This is Luke’s rationale. They went through all this barrage because it was worth it! It was worth it because of the fruit that came out of their obedience. They “won a large number of disciples.” Note that verb “won.” It suggests a hard-fought contest or battle in which they fought through to victory.

And it wasn’t just a one-off affair, dropping the seed in the ground and then running for their lives. They were prepared to go back as often as was necessary,  returning, strengthening and encouraging those who had become believers.

And a principle is stated, though you might not like to hear it!

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.”

I guess I read this as “We must be prepared for anything that comes our way.” It certainly defeats the notion that once you come to the Lord that your life will now be one of unbroken blessing and good times.  But when Paul himself came to faith, there was a prophetic word over him: “This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings, and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for My name.”(Acts 9:16)

Not so encouraging is it? And the concept is repeated throughout the New Testament. Paul even goes to the extent of saying: “We also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5: 3-5)

It’s very important to see exactly what Paul is saying and what he’s not saying. He’s not saying that pain and suffering is good. He is no masochist. Neither is he saying that pain and suffering is just something you have to take on the chin, that you just have to grin and bear it! No, there’s no masochism here and no stoicism either.

So how can we “exult in our tribulations”? We exult in them – the verb means a fist-pump of boasting!- because of what they produce. You can take all the stuff that comes at you because you know that God can work everything together for good for those who are part of the Jesus-story. It’s going to work out. It’s even going to work out in my own character. The things that the devil meant for harm, God can turn around and use for good. God uses every circumstance to produce a good result. Eugene Peterson puts it this way:

“We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling short-changed. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!”

And so Paul and Barnabas simply carried on with the programme. Here’s how LUke described it:

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. 24 After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, 25 and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia.

26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed.27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.” (Acts 14: 19 -28)

You can be sure that when they returned to Antioch they were not licking their wounds, or moaning about past hurts, but readying their gear and resting their bodies ready for the next adventure.

And that, I believe, is how we are called to live.

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“Faith to be healed…” (Acts 14: 8-20)

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Here’s an ancient inscription -almost from Paul’s day -with Lystra clearly marked on the fourth line down. It’s a powerful reminder that these were real people living real lives in real places. But there was something remarkable when Paul spoke at Lystra. Paul noticed a readiness to receive that Luke called “faith to be healed.” What a challenging thought! Do you think that there are times and places and people where that is the case?

Here’s the text:

“In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. 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.

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.

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.” 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

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: 8-20)

Paul and Barnabas have proclaimed the gospel in Cyprus (Acts 13:4-12), Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-50), and Iconium (Acts 14:1-7).

In each of these cities they began synagogues, encountering both receptivity and resistance among Jews and “God-fearing” Gentiles. In Lystra, there is no mention of a synagogue, so we may deduce that for the first time, Paul and Barnabas encounter a crowd of total outsiders: Gentiles who have no knowledge of Israel’s God.

The story of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra begins much like the story of Peter and John at the Jerusalem temple in Acts 3. Like Peter and John, Paul and Barnabas encounter a man lame from birth (3:2; 14:8). Like Peter, Paul “looks intently” (3:4; 14:9) at the lame man and commands him to stand up (3:6; 14:10). In both stories, the lame man not only stands but “leaps up” (allomai) and begins to walk (3:8; 14:10).

At this point, however, the stories diverge. In Acts 3, the people are filled with wonder and amazement, which provides Peter an opening to proclaim that this healing has happened through faith in the name of Jesus the Messiah. In Acts 14, a chaotic scene erupts among the Gentile crowds as they interpret what has happened from their own context. They begin to shout in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” They decide that Barnabas is Zeus,  (as senior), and Paul is Hermes, (as messenger). It’s all a bit messy and even the local priest of Zeus gets in on the action, bringing oxen and garlands in order to offer sacrifice.

Worse still, Paul and Barnabas don’t quite grasp what’s going on – not speaking the language- and when they do they try to dispel the misunderstanding. And as he does so, Paul speaks in words that they can understand of the one true God and urges them to “turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.”

It affords a glimpse of the challenges faced by the first missionaries proclaiming the gospel in a multi-cultural world. The words and deeds of Jesus’ disciples could easily be misunderstood by people with a wholly different set of presuppositions. “Signs and wonders” on their own are ambiguous and always in need of interpretation.

Acts draws a stark contrast between the authentic leadership of apostles and missionaries commissioned by the church and the dubious undertakings of other prophets, magicians, and wonder-workers who pop up throughout Acts. Jesus’ disciples are not motivated by personal gain of wealth, power, or status. Indeed, they put themselves at great risk and endure persecution for the sake of the gospel. They know that they cannot control or manipulate the gift of the Holy Spirit, but trust the Spirit to work through them as God sees fit. Their ministries do not draw attention to themselves, but point to the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near in Jesus Christ.

Comparisons are often drawn between the pluralistic world of the first century and that of our own day. How will the gospel be heard amidst so many competing voices and worldviews? While there is no simple answer to that question, the story of Acts does lift up the vital importance of authentic missional leadership. Today as always, the Spirit calls leaders to be servants and not masters, to abandon self-centered agendas and delusions of grandeur, and to engage humbly and creatively in this great adventure of translating and proclaiming the gospel in a world of stunning diversity.

And we are called to watch and wait – to be sensitive to the timing of God and to be alert for those seasons when someone has “faith to be healed.”

Watch. Pray. Act.

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Sat-Navs and Shenanigans (John 14: 1-9)

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Val had to go for an emergency appointment to the hospital at Limerick. It was set at 10am so we set out in good time for the seventy km journey. We weren’t sure of the way once we got in the city, so I put it on the Sat Nav. I put Hospital, Limerick and it clicked happily and said, brusquely, “Turn right.” I was going to do that anyway, just to put my shoes on, but I didn’t mind being bossed about a little.

Well, we set off and got to the city limits in fine time.  I was a little surprised when instead of following the huge H sign that had appeared on the city signage, I was directed off on some kind of bypass. But I obediently did what I was told. And drove…

And drove.

Thirty minutes later we were well out of town. There was a forlorn, grey, haunted look about the fields and about my face too.  Val said absolutely nothing. The appointment was now due and I glared with stubborn desperation at the Sat Nav which now said: “Turn left, Arrive.”

And so we arrived in the lovely little County Limerick village of Hospital. It has one pub and a post office.

Be careful what you aim at. You might just get there.

When the disciples of Jesus fretted about what their own life-journey might look like once He had left them, He gave them a very reassuring reply.  This is a wonderful encouragement for anyone who has no confidence in Sat-Navs, or indeed, in their own ability to make it through life -and, later, when the time comes, through death too.

This is what Jesus said:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-3)

Isn’t that wonderful? The accommodation is prepared and the route is familiar. “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  The mapmaker walks with us.  And you know the way. You really do.

“But wait a minute. Are you sure about this?” In the Bible text, there’s a heckler and his name is Thomas. I’m so glad for this guy! He reminds me that it’s alright to ask questions. It’s even alright to express doubts. God made us this way and He is not alarmed about it. The Bible says: “Cast your cares upon Him and He will sustain you.” (Ps 55:22) So here comes the heckle: “Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

And Jesus gave one of those wonderfully perfect answers that has changed the lives of millions for at least twenty centuries.

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:6-9)

It’s all to do with knowing and seeing. Read the passage again and see how those two verbs intertwine and explain each other. If you know me, you know Him. You know Him and you’ve seen Him because you’ve seen me. Don’t you know me? Anyone who’s really seen me and seen Him.

There’s much more of course. Jesus goes on to explain the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the difference that makes. He talks about relationship, and intimacy and confidence in prayer… all kinds of wonderful truth. The passage we read is an introduction to that later teaching, but it’s of a piece with it.

Bill Johnson once said that “Intimacy with God is our source of strength.” I’ve found that to be the case. No one ever goes faster than their prayer-life. You proceed at the rate of your fellowship with God.

But so often the experience of our lives is like that Limerick journey. We think we have it set but we have miscalculated. The only safe way is meet the mapmaker and walk with Him.  Day by day.

And Jesus spoke in Aramaic, of course. And Aramaic, like Hebrew, had no abstract nouns, so the way they expressed abstract concepts was to pile up concrete expressions. For example, they had no words for “He thought” so they used the phrase “He said in his heart.”

And here, Jesus expressed the vital truth to which I now come, by saying “I am the way, the truth and the life.” It meant “I am the true, living way.” It’s almost the complete opposite to those claims of exclusivity that are sometimes constructed upon it.

Don’t you know me? You’ve been with me such a long time! If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father! And once you’ve seen that and known Him, there is no journey, because you have already arrived. You are where you need to be. I am with you. I will never leave you nor forsake you. I am with you to the end of the age. 

Without the way there is no going.

Without the truth there is no knowing.

Without the life there is no living.

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Persistence under Pressure (Acts 14: 1-7)

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“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. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders. The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country,where they continued to preach the gospel.” (Acts 14: 1-7)

Did you hear the last verb? They “continued.” It speaks about determination, courage and  persistence under pressure.

And all through this passage, the verbs tell the story of what that attitude looked like:

“They went as usual…”  They kept on with the project of speaking to the Jews first. They persisted in this, and, 

“they spoke so effectively…” That is to say, they brought their God-given fluency to the task

“They spent considerable time” there. They stuck with the programme. They kept to the job at hand.

“They were speaking boldly.” They brought their God-given bravery too!

“….enabling them to perform signs and wonders.” What a powerful combination of God-given gifts and Holy Spirit anointing. These things always run together: “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him,” (2 Chr 16:9). God is on the lookout for people like you who are ready to go for it. When He finds you, then He is ready to work through you.

But there is always pressure to relinquish your persistence. Stuff happens. People complain. There’s a resistance that sometimes becomes gossip, slander, libel or even worse.

In this instance, it developed into a concerted plan of attack: “There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them.”  This has been the story of Paul’s Christian career so far! Plots and conspiracies seemed to follow him around.

Someone once said to me : “It’s because he never left people alone. He kept nagging at them.” Well, it’s a perspective, albeit a rather negative one! And you have to think of the reason why he persisted.  In 1 Cor 9:16, he said:  “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” There was a burden laid upon him to speak out the truth that he had discovered.

Imagine if you had a cure for cancer in your pocket – wouldn’t you want to share it with everyone you met? Wouldn’t it grieve you to see people suffering and dying for want of the very thing that you could give them freely?

So the believers persisted. They were like a mighty, unstoppable river flowing with life and energy. And when a rock proved unmovable, the river simply flowed around it and took a slightly different course. That’s what happened here. For Jesus had instructed them: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.”  (Matt 10:14)

So, they simply “fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the gospel.

And that’s the final aspect of persistence under pressure: “they continued….”

There was a pressure without them to stop and shut up, but there was a greater pressure within them to press on and speak out. Why? Because, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4)

There’s a familiar passage from the speeches of one of the great American presidents, Calvin Coolidge. He said this:

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Of course, he was speaking from the angle of Man solving his own problems. But the perspective of Paul and the believers on mission was that left to themselves, that attempted solution will always fail. But what if there was a way through? What if there was a Man among men who had somehow brought the way and the truth and the life that made real success -success in life, success in death- really possible?

Wouldn’t that create a real persistence that no pressure could squash and defeat?

 

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The Shut Door (Acts 13:42-52)

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Sometimes your words are received gladly. Other times, not so much.

Here’s the experience of the first Christian mission:

“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.

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. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.

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[f] a light for the Gentiles,
    that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ”

48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

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: 42-52)

This is an important passage for understanding the development of Christian mission. The key word here is “jealousy.” “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy.”  What crowds are these? They are Gentiles. When the Jews heard the Gospel within the confines of the synagogue the response was positive, and even warm. There was genuine enthusiasm to listen and to understand the things that Paul was teaching. Once it became apparent that outsiders were flocking to get in on the action, there was a different story, and the door was shut: “They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.”

The irony is – as Paul and Barnabas point out- that the very raison d’etre of the Jewish people was to be a “light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he says that he is not “ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom 1:16). In what sense is the gospel “first for the Jew”? What does this mean for Christians today?

Paul himself has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart (Rom 9:2), because his fellow Jews have not believed the gospel. However this is no poor reflection on the gospel—God’s word has not failed (Rom 9:6).

God’s word shows that being born Jewish does not guarantee salvation. Abraham’s son Isaac was chosen, but Ishmael rejected; Jacob was chosen, but Esau rejected (Rom 9:6-13). God can choose to reject some, and save others—it is his own divine choice: “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Rom 9:18). Salvation depends upon God’s free choice—not on being born Jewish.

Furthermore, salvation depends on faith. When the gospel is preached, it must be believed. However many Jews were so busy trying to get right with God by works, that, when they heard the gospel, they dismissed it: “they pursued it not by faith, but as if it were by works” (Rom 9:32). Thus, Paul’s fellow Jews heard the gospel, but refused to believe it.

Does that mean an end for the Jews in God’s plans?

Paul reminds the Romans, and us, that there has always been, and presently exists, a remnant of the Jews, who do believe the gospel: “there is a remnant chosen by grace” (Rom 11:5). There will always be many Jews who believe the gospel.

Furthermore, there is a process at work involving the Jews, from the time of Christ’s death and resurrection until his return. Before Christ, the Gentiles were without hope and without God (Eph 2:12). Now the Gentiles are being saved as a result of the disobedience of the Jews (Rom 11:30). But the process does not stop there. The salvation of the Gentiles is designed to provoke the Jews to jealousy so that they may be saved: “salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious” (Rom 11:11). In fact, the olive tree into which the Gentiles have been grafted (the church) has Jewish roots—Gentiles are grafted in “contrary to nature” from a “wild” olive tree (Rom 11:24).

Disobedient Jews however, when made envious (by Gentiles being saved by their own God, their own Messiah, and their own Bible), can be grafted back into their own olive tree: they are the “natural” branches (Rom 11:24). That is what is meant by the gospel being “first for the Jew”—they are the natural heirs and recipients still of the gospel—they are the “natural” branches. This process—Jews “out” and Gentiles “in”—is not an end in itself: it also has the purpose of provoking the Jews to envy that some may be saved (Rom 11:14). In fact, this is the process by which the Jews will be saved. And at the last day, when Christ returns, we will see that all Israel who are really Israel have been saved (Rom 11:26); that God’s word has not failed (Rom 9:6); and that he has kept his call and promises to Israel, which are irrevocable (Rom 11:29).

But for now? Paul’s experience was the experience of the shut door and Luke gives their response as an example for evangelists everywhere: “So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” 

Even rejection doesn’t hinder their rejoicing. When you are a Christian, you are in love and all the misery in the world doesn’t dampen that love. You are in love, and out of love you cannot go.

I am always stirred by the passionate testimony of Steve Brown who said: “You ought to live your life with such freedom and joy that uptight Christians will doubt your salvation… If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church: it is simply a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis. If there is no celebration, there is no real worship.”

Don’t let anyone’s resistance rob you of the right to rejoice.

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“Please Speak…” An Open Door in Acts 13: 13-41)

Image result for open and shut

Evangelism can go two ways. You either experience the open or the shut door, and you quickly learn not to waste your time. You smile, shrug and move on. Mark 6:11 is quite emphatic: “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” 

Acts 13 contains accounts of both scenarios. First, the open door:

“From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia,where John left them to return to Jerusalem.14 From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak.”

What an opportunity!  If you have a word, speak it! 1 Peter 3:15 reads: “Always be ready to give a logical defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope that is in you, but do it courteously and respectfully.” And Paul was ready.

Incidentally, notice that it was Paul and not Barnabas. The elder partner has the grace to step aside to let the younger man speak.

Paul’s introduction is interesting:  “Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God…” It’s an indicator of the make-up of the synagogue audience.

And then, rather like Stephen in Acts 7, he launches into a short summary of Old Testament history. But you notice right away that he is following a different route through the story of Israel. Stephen was focusing on the Temple, but Paul directs them to the King, through David to the Messiah:

“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.’

23 “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior 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.’ “

It is quite possible that all the information so far was known by his hearers. After all, when he arrived in Ephesus (which is further away), he came across a group who “knew the baptism of John.

So now Paul launches into the core of his proclamation: Jesus and the message of the resurrection.

Sometimes our evangelism focuses on the needs of the listeners, a desire for heaven,  the inadequacy of a life without God, or the necessity of breaking the addiction of sin. There’s nothing wrong with any of these motivating factors but by themselves they don’t constitute gospel proclamation.

By contrast, this is how Paul proceeds:

26 “Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent.”

Again we have the shape of the audience outlined, and the point made that this news is for both kinds of people. It is to us – all of us!

And then Paul speaks rather like Peter, but with the added nuance of a scholar: “The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.”

The evidence for the resurrection is brought forward: “God raised him from the dead, 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. We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.”

Now we begin to see why it is vital to know and understand the Old Testament. This is not a new thing but an ancient promise. “This is that” as Peter put it. This is that which the Psalmists  prophesied. Paul uses the Psalms as Scriptural backing for both the death and resurrection of Jesus and the promise of our legacy in Him: ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’ 

What are those blessings? The first is the promise of resurrection, as just declared, but Paul has more to say:  “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin.”

Isn’t that an extensive catalogue of blessing? It’s that powerful optimism of grace that we call Holiness of heart and life. “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin.” Every sin!Paul does arrive at the needs of the audience, the desperate needs of sin-addicts and all the things I mentioned before, but that’s the consequence of receiving the good news about Jesus and accepting by faith all that He has done for us. It’s not the news itself.

Paul’s “appeal” is powerful. Again, he uses Scripture to make his point: “‘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.”

He makes the offer and then says: are you really going to miss it? Are you too busy poking fun to get a grip on what’s in front of you?

 

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