Theme: A Turning Point in Paul’s Ministry
1) From the Jews to the Gentiles
2) From the Old Covenant to the New Covenant
3) From human judgment to God’s decision
In the name of who has chosen us for change, Jesus Christ our dear Savior,
One of the reasons I enjoy studying history is because I find it fascinating to think how differently things might have been, if not for a few changes. Every historian, in fact, every person at some point asks the question, “What if?” I have a book at home that goes by that very title; 800+ pages of historians debating what minor changes would have meant in the most significant moments of history. It’s an interesting thought, but not very productive in the end. As Christians we recognize that things may change throughout history but our One God remains in control. Whatever happens, He is well aware of it long before it comes to pass and is able to use it for the good of His people.
As we read in the book of Acts we’re reminded that it’s a history of the early Christian Church. As history, it’s therefore tempting for us to ask the “what if” question at many points. What could a seemingly small change have meant for the grand masterpiece of God’s Church throughout the ages, especially a change at its very beginnings? We may speculate, but Paul picks up on that idea of change and repeatedly speaks about major turning points in his life and in the lives of all Christians. Our text for study and application today presents us with such an instance in his ministry. As we read from Acts 13:42-52, meditate for yourself upon the Turning Points of Paul’s Ministry: 1) From Jews to Gentiles, 2) From the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, and 3) From human judgment to God’s decision.
So when the Jews went out of the synagogue, the Gentiles begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath. 43 Now when the congregation had broken up, many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. 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. 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.'" 48 Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was being spread throughout all the region. 50 But the Jews stirred up the devout and prominent women and the chief men of the city, raised up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them, and came to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
A significant part of Paul’s ministry dealt with helping people see the transition from God’s revelation to the nation of Israel to His act of salvation through Jesus Christ for all people. The new Church that would emerge from the resurrection and ascension was to be an assembly of all types of people, male and female, slave and free, and Jew and Gentile. Because of the historical role of the Jewish nation as God’s chosen people, the transition was rocky for many. Fewer sections of Scripture are as clear and to the point as Paul’s words in Acts 13. And fewer sections better show the great difference in the attitude of Christians in comparison to their opponents.
In this case, the opponents that Paul addressed were Jews. It wasn’t always this way, plenty of Gentiles rejected Christ as well. But in this context, it is the express fact that Gentiles were being included as part of God’s family that drove these Jews to anger and jealousy. The single verse of our text that governs the turning point that we see comes in v.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. The basic question the Jews had was “Why?” Why is this change now taking place? Why are the Gentiles now treated as equals? And Paul and Barnabas gave them a direct answer.
It was true that the word of God originally came to the Jews. Paul says even more, “it was necessary” that it happened this way. But nowhere along the line did God, or Paul, ever say that it was because of the Jews themselves that this was the case. They were chosen to bear the word of God, not to hoard it only for themselves. And they were chosen as God’s instrument, not because they were greater than all the other races in the world.
Throughout the Old Testament a feeling of spiritual pride grew within the nation of Israel. They allowed their egos, instead of their hearts, to be inflated by the promise as God’s chosen people. They largely ignored or added to God’s Word, so much so that they barely recognized the Messiah when He finally came. And the most ironic twist of all was that they were the ones responsible for murdering Jesus on the cross. Talk about contrast, change, and a turning point!
Paul cuts through their remaining pride by telling them that they needed to heed the word of God just as much as the ones they despised as being inferior for God. We see this great contrast in the way the attitudes of both are described. The Jews display characteristics of: jealousy and blasphemy through contradictions. The Gentiles display: joy, glorifying God, and even begging to hear the word of God. The great contrast between these two sides had nothing to do with national heritage. It was a result of their lives either displaying the blessings of God’s grace or the great void that existed through unbelief of the same.
Therefore the turning point Paul describes is ultimately about more than just two sets of people. It was also about the teaching of God through His Word. The great contrast that we recognize through the word of God is the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. In our service last weekend we talked about the New Covenant and its connection to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. But to fully understand it in the context of God’s Church, especially the early Church, one must also be aware of the Old Covenant. The word Covenant represents a binding promise between God and people. The Old Covenant was given to the nation of Israel as the sign that they were God’s people. He established a promise with them that He would be their God and they would be His people. He gave this promise to Abraham when He promised to make him a great nation. He gave it in another form to Moses when He pronounced the written moral law through the Ten Commandments. God reiterated this promise through King David, and on throughout time in the prophets. Despite the Old Covenants restrictions within the nation of Israel, what never changed was that it was meant to preserve the promise of the Messiah, given long before Israel became a nation. This is the one shared feature between the Old Covenant and the New; they simply approach the promise of Christ from different perspectives.
What we see in the Jew’s attitudes of our text is a hollow remnant of Old Covenant belief. Notice how they react with envy. You might remember that God described Himself often in the Old Testament as a “jealous God,” especially when He gave His law. Notice how the Jews in our text commit blasphemy, the very sin that struck deepest to the intention of the Old Covenant; that God was the one true God amidst the myriad of idols. In their vain attempt to uphold their zealous pride the Jews committed offenses against the very things that had been the source of their interaction with God for generations prior. They probably felt they were being true imitators of God by showing envy, as if their sinful response was anything close to God’s righteous claim on His people. They probably felt justified in blaspheming Paul’s preaching while in truth they were blaspheming God. Again, whether good or bad, the turning point was not in some quality or deficiency with the Jews, it was in the disposition of their hearts in relation to the covenant of God. This covenant had turned from being one of demand to being one of forgiveness, while still focusing on the work of the Chosen One of God. The Jews failed to catch on because they had implemented too much of themselves into their relationship with God. The Gentiles however, responded in the same manner that all who are touched by the gospel do, with joy in their hearts, praise for their God, and eagerness to continue hearing the Word.
As we speak of the contrast of the responses to Old and New Covenants, it leads us into our final turning point, the change between human judgment and the decision of God. We’re taken aback somewhat by thw wording of verse 48: Now when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. The idea of an “appointment” makes us think that salvation has very little to do with anything other than God’s arbitrary choice. It is true that some are of the opinion that what we do here on earth and what we believe in our hearts doesn’t matter in the end; for them it comes down to God’s own choice about those He will accept and those He will reject. But that is not what the Holy Spirit is telling us here.
The emphasis is that God’s election of grace precedes our attachment to that grace by faith. The fact that God must choose us before we choose Him is completely in-step with the rest of Scripture. To the Ephesians Paul said that God chose believers “in Christ before the world’s foundation (Ephesians 1:4).” This is the call of election. It is meant to reinforce the truth that God alone is the active force in our salvation. As John would also write, we only love God because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). The teaching of election, that believers are appointed to eternal life, is not designed to make us feel helpless before God, but rather to encourage us to have confidence in the hope of our salvation. God’s appointment to salvation is nothing more than His decision in eternity to forgive us for the sake of His Son.
Here again, we see that turning point in our text. Those who reject this appointment “judge themselves to be unworthy of eternal life” as Paul says. Either way a judgment, or think appointment or decision, is rendered. For the believer the judgment is given by God through Christ as a free product of the promise of forgiveness. Faith simply attaches us to that. For the unbeliever, the judgment is their own decision to reject God’s Word of promise and seek an alternate way to heaven. The lesson of the Jews in the Old Testament was meant as a remembrance to all people. Just as they were not of more intrinsic value on their own to God so also no one today is randomly chosen as greater or lesser. God has acted in His grace for all people but also leaves all people in complete freedom to reject that call.
Whenever you think of God’s election of believers, remember that He simply wants to remind you that it comes before faith. An easy way to do this is to think of the alphabet, a,b,c,d,e … before f. God’s election before faith. The working of His grace in Christ precedes the attachment of our lives to that grace.
As a final point worth noting, let us remember the predominance of God’s word in this section. We’re told at the beginning that Paul preached to the people. The following Sabbath they gathered, almost the entire city, to hear more about “the word of the Lord.” It was the word of God, in both Old and New Testaments, that was originally given to the Jews and then also glorified through Gentile converts. And at the end of our text, it was the word of the Lord, once again, that continued to be spread throughout the region. There were many significant things about Paul’s turning point. Jew to Gentile, Old to New Covenant, human judgment to God’s decision. But the one constant was the word of the Lord; the word of grace and truth through Jesus Christ.
Because of that word, we don’t have to worry about “What if?”
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, amen.