Opposing the Grace and Gospel of God (Acts 13:44-45)
44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God. 45 But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul.
Really religious folk have a long history of opposing the grace of God. Remember Jonah? You know, the Jewish prophet that tried to kill a whole city by hiding the gracious message of God’s displeasure with the city’s great wickedness (Jonah 1:1-2). Jonah was incensed by the idea that God would warn Nineveh. We might imagine the angry prophet saying, “Crap! If they hear and respond favorably to the LORD’S warning He just might show them mercy. But if their hope hangs on me helping them out with a word of warning… they are as good as dead. To ensure that they get destroyed I am NOT gonna tell them about His displeasure with their wickedness and I am NOT going to mention His determination to soon destroy their city.” By refusing to go to the Ninevites with the ominous oracle Jonah was opposing the grace of God; it is grace that God sends a message promising destruction if changes are not made (Jonah 1:1-3; 4:1-3). Brethren, Jonah was beside himself with anger and frustration when the Ninevites actually repented:
1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. 2 So he prayed to the Lord, and said, “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. 3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!” (Jonah 4:1-3, NKJV)
God extended His grace to the Jews through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through the cross-work of the Father’s only begotten Son the believing Jews are saved from their sins. Hooray! But that is not all? The shed blood of Jesus is so effective in removing the stain of sin that, after handling the sin of all the Jews, it continues to do the same thing for… wait for it… the Gentiles. As Paul explained this fact to Jew and Gentile audience in Antioch of Pisidia the were two responses:
- Rejoicing – Rejoicing in a redemption that now reaches every man.
- Rejecting and Reviling – Rejecting and reviling the message of salvation for people who have not either been born Jews or converted to full Judaism.
To explain the angst of the the Jews one author puts it this way:
the majority… had no use for a salvation which was open to Gentiles on the same terms as Jews. It was just this, indeed, that aroused their opposition. So they spoke out in an endeavor to refute Paul’s arguments, and cast unworthy aspersions on the missionaries (perhaps including the name of Jesus in their defamatory remarks).
Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Book of the Acts (p. 265). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Although the Jews and their leadership had initially been either interested or indifferent toward the message of Paul and Barnabas, seeing hordes of hated people with so much hope in their God was not acceptable. It was grace enough to allow a few God-fearing Gentiles to be mentored in their midst (Acts 13:16, 26, 43). The idea that a great multitude could be made right with God through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone was abhorrent. In their thinking there could be no salvation apart from the synagogue and no Messiah without accepting Moses. Polhill is adept in describing their position.
The reason for their sudden change in receptivity was evident: their “jealousy” was over the presence of all these Gentiles. It was one thing to proclaim the coming of the Messiah to the Jews. It was quite another to maintain that in the Messiah God accepted the Gentiles on an equal basis. To them this was little short of blasphemy, and Paul’s witness to them was over.
Polhill, J. B. (1992). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 308). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
“There are too many of them… in our synagogue! And they are being told that in Christ they are capable of being as close to God as we are. This fellow would have them believe that if they receive by faith this resurrected rabbi from Nazareth that they would become co-heirs with Messiah and part of one fellowship with us.”
But before we look with disdain on their dark disposition let us take a moment to look seriously at our own synagogues – so to speak. That is, let us ask the question “How does our church respond to God’s grace to another race?” So often the answer is “Fine! As long as ultimately they find their own separate-but-equal fellowship. We don’t want their kind of music, their kind of preaching, or their kind of people in here.” And thus we oppose God’s grace in our fellowships through the intentional filtering of cultures that are different from our own. The pulpit is on lock-down, the music ministry has a moratorium on melodies that are not liked by the majority culture of our gatherings, and the gospel is given a subtle spin. It is tainted by the idea that when and if Jesus is received He will lead you to either look like us or look for another fellowship; the idea that Jesus is wanting to bring ethnic diversity here is carefully excised. (To see the truth concerning the Lord’s desire to bring diversity to his people consider Revelation 7:9-10. In John’s vision what is to come all nations, tribes, people, and tongues are standing before the throne and before the Lamb – together.)
Paul and Barnabas have made a breakthrough. Multitudes are gathered in the synagogue to hear the grace of God as it is found in an unadulterated gospel. But the consequences of allowing the grace of God to do its work in the midst of the synagogue will mean a type of birth and death. Regarding the birth, there will be a new fellowship made mostly of people who have been drawn in by something other than the offer of circumcision and keeping the laws of Moses. And they will believe themselves to be on equal footing before God. They will bring in their music, their way of talking, and their voice to the table of decision making.
The Missional Community Expectations of God (Acts 13:46-47; Isaiah 49:6)
46 Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have set you as a light to the Gentiles, That you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ”
When considering the task of explaining the gospel to the world, the people best prepared to deliver the message are the Jews. If it were a competition among the nations, no nation is better suited to declare the glory and grace of God as it appears in the gospel. Why? God has worked since the days of Abram (later Abraham) to create and train a missional community to reach the nations.
- The Purpose of a Missional Community: Bless the World – The community was created with the aim of blessing the world. The means by which it will be created is only intimated here but the purpose is clear.
1 Now the Lord had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, From your family And from your father’s house, To a land that I will show you. 2 I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3, NKJV)
- The Plan for a Missional Community: Brought through Seed – In the passage that follows the plan for bringing the missional community into existence is restated. But it is also made clear that it will be through the descendants of Abraham. Through his seed God will bring the blessing mentioned in Genesis 12:3 to the nations. Seed could be singular or plural. Which is it?
15 Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time out of heaven, 16 and said: “By Myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son—17 blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. 18 In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” (Genesis 22:15-18, NKJV)
- The Principal Part of the Missional Community: The Seed is Christ – With the illumination of the Holy Spirit the apostle Paul is able to see that the seed of Genesis 22:18 is not plural. It is singular and signifies the One through whom the aforementioned blessing will be brought to the nations. God had always intended the missional community to come through a special descendant of Abraham – through Christ. He is the seed of Genesis 22:18.
8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.”16 Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ. (Galatians 3:8,16, NKJV)
- The Missional Community Identity: Witnesses – The missional community of God is peculiar. One God! When all the surrounding nations have many Gods the community delivered from bondage and created by God Himself has only God Himself. One Goal! In addition to the strangeness of being monotheistic the missional community of God is called to be entirely devoted to God. A Golden Rule! They are also to love their neighbors as themselves.
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. 6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. (Deuteronomy 6:4-6, NKJV)
The Reminder of Identity and Distinctives – Through the prophet Isaiah God begins pairing the purpose-identity (witnesses) and distinctives (one God) of His missional community. The missional community has the mission of making known the glory and goodness of the one God through witnessing.
10 “You are My witnesses,” says the Lord, “And My servant whom I have chosen, That you may know and believe Me, And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, Nor shall there be after Me. (Isaiah 43:10, NKJV)
8 Do not fear, nor be afraid; Have I not told you from that time, and declared it? You are My witnesses. Is there a God besides Me? Indeed there is no other Rock; I know not one.’ ” (Isaiah 44:8, NKJV)
When it becomes obvious that Israel has not embraced its identity or mission God decides to ensure the success of the community. How? By Himself. The Son of God, the second member of the Trinity, humbles himself. He becomes a Man to the end that He can as a man deal once-and-for-all with Israel’s worst problem: sin (Matthew 1:21). He becomes a despised Servant and Seed of Abraham so that He can bring the promises to life: blessing for the nations.
6 Indeed He says, ‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant To raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.’ ” (Isaiah 49:6, NKJV)
When we become Jesus followers we become part of His body and take on the mission of being a blessing to the nations. Jesus says as much in the opening of Acts.
8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, NKJV)
Paul and Barnabas get it! They see the Jews for who they really are – His witnesses. They are the first missional community of God. And, in Christ, Paul has received and embraced the mission of being a blessing to the nations. He will grieve over the fact that more of his brethren do not feel this way (Romans 9:1-5). That is why Paul in every city goes to them first. That is why Paul says the gospel is the power of God to salvation to the Jew first and to the Greek also (Romans 1:16-18). They are preferred because, insofar as they accept Jesus, they are prepared. When the veil is taken away Jewish fishermen, zealots, and tax collectors become powerhouses of preaching that were used by the Spirit of God to bring thousands to salvation. And when a violent and insolent Jew that was persecutor of the church is changed (Titus 3:5) he becomes an indomitable proponent of the gospel. Yes, there are a great many Gentiles being used mightily by God for His glory and the good of those that need to hear. But do not miss the fact that their ministry began with Jesus (the Seed) and was based on the early ministries of the apostles (Jews). God Almighty, thank you for the Seed and the ones He sent to bless the nations.
In the Gentiles the missional community has expanded greatly. But the mission is the same: (1) Make known the glory (read gracious goodness) of the one true God through the atoning work of His Son. (2) Teach those who receive the Son to live effectively for the Son. And to ensure that we get it done God has provided us the Spirit of Christ. The Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Truth. He enables us to do amazing things in the carrying out of the mission.
We are a missional community upon which God has great expectation, my friend. God expects that we will be witnesses. He expects us to do more than just come to church. We are, as members of the body of Christ, called to be lights leading the lost to life in Christ. Let us have great worship services. But then let us get off our butts and be intentional about being missional. It will mean working together to make disciples from among people who at this time are not in our churches. Where are they? They are in the world, my friend. They are in the dangerous places where we as a missional community must go! Let’s go!
In His grip by His grace,
Roderick L. Barnes, Sr.