Two hundred forty miles to the 5th sermon of “The Acts Eight”. Paphos on Cyrpus by ship to Perga (where John
Mark turns back), then six days through rugged and dangerous mountains over 3,600 feet elevation. To Antiock of Pisidia (in today’s Turkey). Antioch was a main garrison city for Roman military in the midst of a Greek and Jewish population.
Paul and Barnabas attend the local Jewish synagogue where the visitors are invited to speak an encouraging word to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the Sabbath congregation (Acts 13:13-15).
Paul recounts God’s revelation in Israel’s history from the patriarchs to King David.
Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! 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, he endured their conduct for about forty years in the desert, he overthrew seven nations in Canaan and gave their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years. After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. 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'” (Acts 13:16-22).
Note Paul’s claim that God was the main actor. “God chose our fathers” . . . “he made the people prosper” . . . “he led them out”, etc. The history of Israel is God’s story. To the Jews and Gentile God-fearers this was familiar ground. In the bright light of this 21st century day, however, it’s a radical, if not provocative, claim. How does one ethnic group get to claim God as the actor in their history? And which God? And what makes Israel’s God so special? Many dismiss the whole business as religious fanaticism.
As Paul continues, the radical, provocative claims only increase . . .
“From this man’s (David’s) descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. 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’. Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. 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. Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, 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 fathers 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.’ 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.’ So it is stated elsewhere: ‘You will not let your Holy One see decay.’ 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. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay. Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:23-39).
Paul preached this to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who knew the Prophet’s words. They knew Moses’ law. They understood animal sacrifices for sin. The news of Jesus’ death wasn’t all that significant, since dozens of Jews were routinely crucified by the Romans.
But the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection was something else altogether. It was, declared Paul, a fulfillment of Scripture. And there are witnesses. It means the forgiveness of sins through Jesus. It means justification (a verdict of “not guilty”) because of him.
To 21st century minds this sounds like foolishness. The Prophets were strange–ancient to us and old is always odd. Moses’ law is for orthodox Jews; it’s an ethnic thing. Sin went out with the clunky portable radio you carried around to sound cool with your music. And the guilt of sin is something you get psychological counseling for now.
So Paul’s conclusion may be even more appropriate for us than for his Antioch audience . . .
“Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: ‘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'” (Acts 13: 40,41).
That quote from the prophet Habakkuk calls to mind the fact that throughout biblical history, the Lord did some surprising, totally unexpected things. (Take the opening of the Red Sea or the choice of shepherd-boy David as king, for instance.) But this one, well, this takes the prize. Jesus, sent by God, gets crucified. Everybody who believed in him saw their dreams die. Then, on the third day, his tomb stands empty and his followers see him alive again, complete with nail-scarred hands and a heavenly bodyl
Scoff? Mock? Jeer at such childish ideas? “Look, you scoffers”, and C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia author) might add . . .
“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”