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The Mission of God

Back to all sermons The Life of Paul

Date: November 19, 2006

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: The Life of Paul

Scripture: Acts 13:16–13:41

We began two weeks ago looking at the Life of Paul in the book of Acts. It seems that the overarching theme so far is salvation by grace, that through Jesus’ life and death something remarkable is offered, something free and undeserved that has the power to transform lives and transform our world. Salvation, as well as the word “saved,” is one of those overused Christian words, like “blessed” or “sin,” that can sometimes lose its meaning. But instead of defining it, I think that as we look at the life of Paul, we’re going to get a very clear understanding of what salvation by grace is all about.

The first week we looked at the fact that you should not be here, but by God’s grace you are here, whether it saved you from a life headed in the wrong direction or just kept you from falling away from God. The second week we proclaimed that you are welcome here, just as Paul, with his background as a persecutor of the church and potential murderer, had been welcomed by God and had to be welcomed by Ananias as a member of God’s church. You should not be here, but you are welcome here. And if this church is a collection of people who would not be here if it weren’t for God’s welcoming grace, then we need to create a culture of humility and honesty where we can be honest with each other about our sins and mistakes and welcome each other. As LL Nash, a 19th century minister from North Carolina, once said, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

We’re picking up the story of Saul’s life this morning in Acts 13. As the chapter begins, Saul is one of the teachers at the church in Antioch. During worship the believers hear the Holy Spirit tell them to set apart Saul & Barnabas for the work to which He has called them. So they take off to Salamis and proclaim the word of God in the synagogues. From there, they move on to Paphos and then to Perga and then to Pisidian Antioch. In the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, Paul is invited by the synagogue rulers to speak a word of encouragement, so he gets up and speaks to the Jews and tells them the story of election and salvation. Before we read this, I need to say that this is going to be in many ways a big picture sermon this morning. While some sermons deal with specific issues facing the life of the believer, like forgiveness or anger or money, this one is much more big picture, tracing the history of salvation and how Jesus was the consummation of all Israel had hoped for. Big picture sermons are important, however, because they usually deal with big picture concepts like purpose, mission, vision; why we exist and what we are here on earth to do, why God has called us to follow Him. So this may be a different sermon with less specific application, but hopefully a big picture understanding that will guide the everyday decisions you make,.

With that in mind, let’s read Acts 13:16-41:

16 Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: "Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! 17 The God of the people of Israel chose our fathers; he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt, with mighty power he led them out of that country, 18 he endured their conduct for about forty years in the desert, 19 he overthrew seven nations in Canaan and gave their land to his people as their inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years. "After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. 21 Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 22 After removing Saul, he made David their king. He 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 think I am? I am not that one. No, but he is coming after me, whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.' 26 "Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 27 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. 28 Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But 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. 32 "We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: "'You are my Son; today I have become your Father.' 34 The fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay, is stated in these words: "'I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.' 35 So it is stated elsewhere: "'You will not let your Holy One see decay.' 36 "For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed. 37 But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay. 38 "Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. 39 Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. 40 Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: 41 "'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.'"

Quick summary - Paul begins by focusing on how God chose Israel and led them out of Egypt into the promised land. He talks about the judges and the time of the kings, focusing especially on David, because the Messiah was expected to be a descendant of David. And then, Paul writes that from David’s descendants has come Jesus the savior. He says that the Jews did not recognize who Jesus was, thus fulfilling the words of the prophets. They killed him, but God raised him from the dead. Finally, and most importantly, Paul tells his audience that forgiveness of sins is offered, and everyone who believes is justified, even though they could not be by observing the law.

Notice Paul’s strategy for convincing his Jewish listeners that Jesus is Lord and the Messiah, the anointed one of God: he takes them through the history of Israel in order to show them how Jesus is the climax, the focal point to which all of Israel’s history has been pointing. This is common in the book of Acts - Stephen does the same thing in Acts 7. I thought it would be valuable this morning to do a similar thing, to step back and give a sketch of what the story is, the story of God, the story of Israel which points to Jesus.

You may remember from my teachings on Abraham that in Genesis 12:1-3 that “The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. 2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."”

All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. There are two themes that show up prominently in Acts 13 and in Israel’s history, both of which find their fulfillment in Jesus. The first is that God chooses and blesses his people, not just so that they might be his special people, but so that they might bring God’s blessing to all the nations of the world. Remember that previously there had been a fall from grace in the Garden of Eden and then a scattering of the nations at the Tower of Babel. And now God comes to Abraham and tells him that he is going to use Abraham and his descendants as a rescue operation, to bring His blessing all the people of the world. God’s plan to save humanity from the chaos, oppression, hatred, and injustice into which they have fallen is to bless Abraham and his descendants so that they might in turn be a blessing to all the nations of the world, so that injustice might be replaced with justice, hatred with love, oppression and chaos with peace. You can see that from the very beginning of God’s plan, it was not meant to be only for Israel, but ultimately for the whole world. From the beginning there is a vision of the new creation, the kingdom or reign of God that will some day be established again on the earth.

So God makes a covenant with Abraham, that He will be his God and Abraham will follow him, and through his descendants they will rescue or save the world, restore the world to what it was meant to be – a place of love, peace, justice, where people live in harmony and God’s blessing is on everyone.

But if you remember from another of my previous sermons, Abraham right away goes down to Egypt and almost throws it away by pretending that his wife Sarah is his sister and almost losing her to Pharaoh before he is rescued by God. What you find throughout the Bible is this second theme repeated over and over – going away and coming back home, slavery and exodus, exile and restoration. Repeatedly God’s people leave him, or are taken captive as slaves or taken away into exile. There’s Jacob fleeing home and Esau and God’s blessing, only to return to face him and wrestle with God. There is Joseph sold as a slave into Egypt, and then the whole Israelite nation becoming slaves in Egypt, only to be rescued by God in the exodus. There are the many kings leading the people astray, and then being followed by kings who repent and turn the people back to God. There is David following God but then screwing up with Bathsheba, and ultimately being forced to run away from his rebel son into exile. There is the nation of Israel splitting into Northern and Southern Kingdoms – Israel and Judah, and then being conquered by Babylon. The temple is destroyed and the people are taken into exile. Remember God’s plan - to rescue and save humanity through Abraham and his descendants. However, it is obviously failing, because the Israelites can’t seem to stay committed to God themselves.
But then after 70 years in exile, Persia conquers Babylon, and lets Israel go home and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Psalm 126:1-2 is a great picture of what it is like to return from exile – “When YHWH restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like people who dream; our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

Again, the pattern of exile and restoration repeats itself. Throughout the story of Israel you keep hearing the refrain spoken from God to His people: “COME HOME!!! BECOME THE PEOPLE YOU WERE MEANT TO BE!!! WALK IN FREEDOM!!! DON’T YOU REMEMBER HOW MUCH BETTER IT IS TO BE HOME?”

So Israel returns home, but are still slaves in their own land, under the authority of first Persia, and then Egypt, Greece, Syria, and finally Rome. And it becomes clear through the prophets, like Daniel and Isaiah, that finally, through one shocking exile and restoration, the new creation will come. A Messiah will come and bring salvation, and inaugurate the kingdom of God. And so the Israelites begin to eagerly await this Messiah, who they believe will conquer Rome, restore the Temple and Israel to its former glory.

But God has a different restoration in mind for His Messiah. For example, Isaiah 53:5 says
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
The Messiah will be a suffering servant who comes and experiences exile from God so that the people of God might be restored and the world might experience the blessing of God.

The rescue plan all along was that God would use Abraham and his descendants to bless all the nations, to bring them all back to God and fill the land again with peace, love, and justice. But God’s people continually strayed and were brought back, wound up in slavery and exile and were redeemed. So God did it himself. In Isaiah 59:15-16, we read that “the LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. 16 He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.” The Messiah, the Savior of Israel and the world, will be none other than God Himself.

This is what Paul’s message is in Acts 13: Two of the great themes of Israel’s history are finding their fulfillment in Jesus. God’s desire to bless Israel and that through them the whole world would be blessed, is now happening through Jesus and his followers. The kingdom of God, an invasion of justice, peace, love, and grace, is breaking into this world. And, through Jesus, Paul proclaims that the pattern of going away and returning home, slavery and exodus, and exile and restoration is finally reaching its climax. The greatest exodus has been offered – not deliverance from Rome or earthly oppression, but freedom from the oppression of sin once and for all. Through Jesus, there is forgiveness for everything you have ever done wrong or ever will do wrong, and there is freedom from captivity offered to all. It is as if a great door has been swung open in the cosmos, offering everyone freedom and the chance to enter into a quality of life known as eternal life. Paul preaches that restoration with God is possible, that forgiveness and reconciliation with God is offered once and for all.

The rescue plan that God began with Abraham has been inaugurated by Jesus. While the Israelites never really got around to blessing all nations, Jesus now sends us out to do just that.

And now Paul has become a part of what God had planned all along for the Israelites and now is being done through the church – Acts 9:15 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.

So, the first thing we learn is that God has a plan to rescue humanity from the sin, chaos, decay, hatred, oppression, and injustice that we have brought upon ourselves. His plan was that through Abraham and his descendants, the world would be made right. He would bless His people so that they might bring that blessing to the world. But as they continued to lose their way, repeating the pattern of going away and coming back, slavery and exodus, exile and restoration, God did it Himself, sending His son Jesus. And now, through the Spirit of God, the church is called to bring the transformative news of God’s rescuing justice to the whole creation. We have been called to join God in His mission of transforming lives and transforming the world, replace hatred with love, injustice and oppression with justice and freedom, and chaos with peace.

The church exists for mission, to announce to the world that Jesus is Lord, bringing the kingdom of God to earth.

That’s the big picture.

So what does this mean for us? What does this salvation history and the fact that Jesus is the consummation of all Israel hoped for mean to us?

The elders and I have been talking through the vision and purpose of NewLife a lot this fall, with the goal of presenting a vision and strategy that reflects who God has created Newlife to be. One thing that is clear is that this church exists for mission – not missions, although that is part of it, but mission, the missio dei (mission of God), to see His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. We long to see injustice replaced by justice, hatred by love, division with reconciliation, war with peace. We long to see the salvation available in Jesus transform lives, our community, and our world.

First of all – God still has the same desire, that He would bless His people so that they might bring God’s blessing to the world. However, the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles, has taken the place of Israel. Israel has found its fulfillment in the church.

Romans 9:6-8- For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring.

God has blessed us – Jews & Gentiles alike – so that we might bless the world, be part of his saving plan for the world. We exist for mission. Like Israel, the more we get consumed by our own issues, the farther we stray from our purpose.

Second of all - Forgiveness of sins is offered to all. Notice in Acts 13:42-43 what Paul encourages his hearers to do: “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.” Paul tells the Israelites who are following him to “continue in grace.” Once you are forgiven, you are forgiven, once and for all. You are no longer under the law, living to measure up to some standard. You are under grace, justified, completely forgiven for everything you’ve ever done or ever will do. Now you must live as if you are forgiven, live as if you are free, not as if you are a slave to sin. You do not obey in order to be accepted; you obey because you are accepted. Christians are people learning who they are in Christ, learning about their new identity. You are a saint, a holy/set apart one. The more you understand the gospel, that you are saved by grace and already seen as perfect, the more you will grow.

Third of all – take as a warning Israel’s response.

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 and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. 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 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 Jews 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 from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

The Jews rejected Paul’s message, so he took it to the Gentiles. God offered the salvation to the Jews, but when they rejected it, He took it to the Gentiles. The problem was that the Jews liked being God’s special people, and were offended that Paul was preaching that the law no longer would make you accepted to God, and that salvation was available to both Jew and Gentile. Take this as a warning – God’s salvation will go forth, his kingdom will come, and it’s up to you whether or not you want to be a part of it. The Jews in Acts 13 rejected the message, so Paul took the message to the Gentiles, who received it gladly. You are invited to take part in God’s mission of bringing his blessing to the world. But if you reject this opportunity, he will continue on without you. It reminds me of a parable Jesus told in Luke 14 about a master throwing a party: 'Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.' "'Sir,' the servant said, 'what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.' "Then the master told his servant, 'Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.'“

Jesus told this parable to tell his Jewish listeners that they were rejecting God’s message, so he would bring it to those who would gladly receive it. God’s word will go forth, and it’s up to you whether or not you want to be a part of it. The purpose is mission, to be blessed so that you can be a blessing. The Israelites wanted to keep it for themselves. Many churches like to keep it for themselves. But Jesus’ salvation is offered to all

Continue in the grace, and go and bless others. Our church is committed to joining God’s mission of transforming lives, transforming our community, and transforming our world. Our vision is to see people transformed into people of love, truth, peace, and justice, and our world transformed into a place of love, peace, and justice. This is worth giving our lives for, because it is God’s mission and will not fail.