When Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the church in Antioch of Syria on their first great missionary journey, they went down the Orontes River to the port of Seleucia on the Mediterranean. They set out in a ship west to the Island of Cyprus. They landed first on the east end of Cyprus and taught the gospel there, and moved across to the west end of Cyprus, encountering for the first time opposition in the form of a false prophet by the name of Elymas.
Having taught the gospel there, they boarded another ship and sailed north from Cyprus to Perga along the Mediterranean Sea on the south coast of Asia Minor, which is now the nation of Turkey. At that place, or close by, two crucially important things happened. One is that their helper, John Mark, turned back and went home, leaving them to face the dangers and the difficulties and the responsibilities by themselves. That must in itself have been a discouraging event. Many people believe that also in this lowland area Paul must have also gotten sick. He indicates in Galatians, chapter 4, that when he first came to the southern regions of Galatia to preach the gospel, he did so because of a physical ailment. Many people believe that Paul experienced that at Perga, or while he was in that area. And so he and Barnabas began to make their journey northward, over a hundred miles northward, through very rugged country to a place 3600 feet above sea level - another Antioch - this time Antioch of Pisidia. This city was very different from the one from which they had come. It was a Roman colony, meaning that Roman officers who retired could come there and receive a piece of land and be considered citizens, not of Antioch, but of the city of Rome. And there was a significant Jewish population there. It was on the big road, which was the trade route between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. It was a prosperous area. It was an ideal place for the gospel to spread in both directions if Paul and Barnabas could teach people there.
So they came to Antioch and they found the synagogue. That was the place to begin because people already knew the law and hoped in the prophets of the Old Testament. Paul and Barnabas attended the meeting of the synagogue on the Sabbath Day. The service began by quoting from Deuteronomy 6 about their God and what made them God's people. They would have read a portion of the law; then a portion of the prophets would have been read. And then the ruler of the synagogue, who was the spokesman who called on people to do things, looked to the visitors, and he gave Barnabas and Paul the opportunity to say something to the people present. He said, "If you have any word of exhortation, say it." That word "exhortation" is translated "comfort" or "consolation" or even in some versions "encouragement." One version says, "If you have any message of encouragement, say it." And Paul arose with the gesture of his hand as if to say, "I do have something to say." And what we have recorded in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia is Paul's first recorded sermon. And what a message it is - this word of exhortation! Would you please follow along from Acts 13, beginning at verse 16, as Scott reads what Paul said.
"So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: 'Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, 'I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.' Of this man's offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, 'What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.' Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of 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 appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, 'You are my Son, today I have forgotten you.' And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, 'I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.' Therefore he says also in another psalm, 'You will not let your Holy One see corruption.' For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: 'Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.'"
What is there in that passage which made it a word of exhortation - a message filled with consolation and with encouragement that so challenged these people that it left some of them begging to hear Paul the next Sabbath, and that nearly the whole city turned out the next Sabbath to see what Paul would say about these things, and it led to the kind of envy that started the process of persecution against Paul and Barnabas? What they said was powerful. In the three great sections of Paul's speech that day, there are three lines of exhortation for us.
First, this great word says to any of us who are overwhelmed by life that God is in control. Tom mentioned as he led us in prayer that sometimes we are bombarded from every side with the idea that God is not and that our devotion to him and our worship and prayers to him are useless exercises. Life may sometimes leave people feeling that way.
So what Paul does in this passage is to remind his hearers of God's track record with Israel. He says that God chose these people and made a great nation out of them at a time when they were experiencing terrible bondage in Egypt over long years; at a time when it looked like nothing was happening and injustice was winning; at a time when it looked like it was hopeless for them. God was working his will. And then he points out that God brought them out of Egypt and their slavery there with an uplifted arm and he led them to freedom and safety when it looked like Pharaoh's chariots would bear down upon them and wipe them out and take whatever was left back to Egypt with him. You remember the story of how Moses said, "Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord." And then he commanded the people to go forward. God parted the waters and took care of the rest of it. Then, Paul says, God put up with them, or he carried them like a father with his little children, through the wilderness at a time when it looked like these people were capable of nothing except faithless grumbling. At every opportunity they murmured against God as if God had let them down. When it looked like that God might just as well wipe out the whole bunch of them, he continued to work toward his promise. Then, bringing them to the promised land after all those years, he gave them the land even though he had to deal with seven nations who were mightier than these former slaves were, according to Deuteronomy 7:1. God still gave them the inheritance that he promised, though it looked like they were weak and their enemies were mighty. Then, the Bible says, when these people departed from God, when they ended up dealing with the consequences of their own disobedience and breaking the covenant and falling into the hands of their oppressors, they cried out and God raised up judges to deliver them and give them safety and life. He was in control. He was working his will. After a while, that wasn't good enough. And these people began to clamor to have a king so that they could be like the other nations who lived around them. This didn't make sense. If you had just had a God who had defeated all the other nations and gave you the land that you lived in, why would you want to be like the nations that God had defeated? But they did. So God raised up Saul, the son of Kish, and gave them a king who ruled for forty years. That king, as you know, proved to be a moral and spiritual failure. God removed him. And, even though the people did not deserve further mercies, God raised them up another king, a man after his own heart - King David. And God promised that of that man's descendants he would give them a savior.
That was a quick survey of the history of Israel, which demonstrated that at every turn it looked like nothing was happening. It looked like things were coming apart. It looked like the situation was hopeless and useless and yet on every one of those occasions, God was still steadily and progressively moving toward keeping his promise. When we say that God is in control, we don't mean that everything that happens is what God wants to happen. We mean that in spite of it all, the God who has made a promise moves history toward the keeping of his promise. That point is still relevant for us today as we look forward to the time when the Lord will come for his people. God has proven that he can do that and that he will do it.
That day in that synagogue Paul made a statement in verse 23 that must have shocked those hearers on two counts. First he said, "God has brought to Israel a savior"- past tense "has". They were meeting every Sabbath and reading the law and the prophets and singing the psalms looking forward to that savior, and Paul says, "God has done it." Then the second shocking thing is instead of saying "a Savior, Christ, the Lord" or some statement to the effect that the Messiah had come, Paul said, "God has brought a Savior, Jesus, as he promised." That was what Paul announced that day.
The first encouraging point here then is that God is in control. I want you to consider the implications of that statement. On the one hand, when we are involved in trying to walk in the light and when we are engaged in trying to trust our heavenly father and submit to him and be faithful to him, that thought that he is in control is such an encouragement to us. You remember the time back in the days of the prophet Elisha? In II Kings 6, this great man of God was such a powerful force that when the king of Syria, who was the greatest enemy of Israel during that day, would discuss any war plans or any intention in his bedchamber, Elisha would go to the king of Israel and tell him what the Syrian king was planning. The Syrian king, of course, became so frustrated by having his plans thwarted that he brought his army and surrounded the place where Elisha, the man of God was. Elisha's servant looked out one morning and it took his breath away. There was the Syrian army surrounding the house where he was. He want to Elisha and he said, "Master, what shall we do? What is going to become of us?" Elisha calmly prayed, "Lord, open his eyes that he may see." And God did. And do you remember they were surrounded by horses and chariots of fire? You and I don't always have the blessing of seeing God's control, but we are called to depend on it just like Israel is being reminded of here.
The other implication of the fact that God is in control is a little more pointed exhortation to all of us. If we are going to want to say that God is in control of history, that he is in control of unfolding events, then we have to pause and ask, "Well, what about me personally?" Is he in control of my life? Am I submitting myself in obedience to his revealed will? It doesn't make much sense to claim that God is in control of everything except me - to think that we can call on God to depend on his control of everything when we want him to be in control and when we really need his help, but then insist that he has no business telling me how to live morally and socially in my own personal life. When we are overwhelmed by life, let's remember that God is in control.
The second encouragement in this passage is that when we are overwhelmed by uncertainty in the world (and there is plenty of that to go around), we can remember that the savior has come. There may be so many things that we do not know the answers to, and some that we never will understand, but one thing for us to be certain of is that God has sent the promised king and savior. Notice two statements in Paul's address that day. One I have just read most of in verse 23. "God has brought Israel a savior, Jesus." Look at the last phrase - "as he promised." And then skip down a little ways to verse 32. "And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus." What he is doing is bringing the good news of a statement of certainty - something that has happened and can be known and depended upon.
Somebody says, "Well, I'm not too certain that God has ever sent a savior. I don't know whether to believe that Jesus has come and if he is the savior or not." Well, in that case, Paul offers three lines of evidence in this passage that are powerful in their implications. First, he says to them, "Remember the ministry of John the Baptist." These people lived a good long ways from Judea where John the Baptist had done his work out by the Jordan. And yet, undoubtedly, many of them had been there to visit, and they knew of the work of John the Baptist, and they knew that everybody regarded John as a prophet. They also knew of the stir John had caused as he told people that they needed to prepare themselves for the coming of the Lord. And he reminds them that John the Baptist said two things. First, "I am not that one you have been looking for." John was a great man. John was someone who came in the spirit and the power of Elijah. But he was not the Christ, by his own word. And secondly, John says, "There is one coming whose sandals I am not worthy to take off. That is how much greater than me he is." Paul is saying here that Jesus is that one who was coming. Jesus is the one that John the Baptist announced and introduced as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The first line of evidence is the ministry of John the Baptist.
The second line of evidence with regard to Jesus is fulfilled prophecy. Paul is saying that people gathered in the synagogues every Sabbath in part to read the prophets, to stir their hopes by reading those great promises. And then he says, not understanding the prophets and not knowing Jesus, they fulfilled those very prophecies and promises by hanging him on the tree at Calvary. Some of the great statements of Old Testament prophecy were so obvious in their effect that there was going to be a cross that you and I can look back on them and wonder how they could be missed. The 22nd Psalm, for example, has a number of phrases in it that appear again at Golgotha. In verse 1, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Remember Jesus' cry on the cross? Verse 7 says, "All who see me mock me and make their mouths at me and wag their heads. He trust in the Lord. Let him deliver him." Remember the mockery on the cross that day? Verse 14, "I am poured out like water. All my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax. It is melted within me." Verse 16, "Dogs encompass me. A company of evil doers encircles me. They have pierced my hands and feet. I count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and for my clothing they cast lots." Paul is saying those prophecies were fulfilled when they put Jesus to death on the tree. We could consider others. Isaiah 53 is a great example of what I am talking about here, as you know. The fulfilled prophecies are the second line of evidence that is here.
And then third, the most powerful point that Paul makes is that the resurrection of Jesus proves that he is the one God had promised. Paul says they took him down from the tree and they laid him in a tomb, but God raised him up. And over the space of many days (you and I know it was 40 days), Jesus appeared to many witnesses, people who knew him, people to whom he appeared at different times and in different circumstances, and over and over again, people saw him, ate with him, touched him, heard him when they weren't expecting to do so and weren't trying to do so. And Paul is saying here that if the prophets talked about one who would suffer and if the prophets talked about one who would be begotten again and one who would be raised up to sit on the throne and one whose body would not see decay, if the prophets talked about suffering and then those things, the only way they could have been true is if there were a resurrection. And if there was a resurrection, then God made and declared that that one he raised up is his son and that he is our savior. That is what Paul was declaring.
Friends, when there are things that are uncertain, we should be called back to what we already know about Jesus. Peter, when people were drifting away and losing interest in Jesus and it looked like nobody would be left, Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and know (look at that word order) that you are the holy one of God." The apostle Paul, when he is in a Roman prison and his friends have forsaken him, it looks like he is going to be offered now. It says in II Timothy 1:12, "Nevertheless, I am not ashamed for I know for whom I have believed and I am persuaded that he is able to keep what I have committed unto him against that day." Then John, in his old age at a time when false prophets were troubling people and idolatry was a real danger, said in I John 5:20, "And we know that the son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true and we are in him who is true in his son, Jesus Christ."
When we are overwhelmed by life, God is in control. When we are overwhelmed by uncertainty, Jesus is the savior. And, when we are overwhelmed by sin, it helps to remember that we can be forgiven. At verses 38 and 39, Paul said, "Let it be known to you therefore brothers that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed."
If you consider the possible responses toward the mention of forgiveness, DO you realize there are only three or so? One is to shrug it off, mocking the idea that someone like me would need to be forgiven. Forgiven by whom? Forgiven by what? I have just been living my own life, doing as I please. What is there to forgive? God doesn't see me or know me. That arrogance is one response. The second response is to try to cover up by doing better on our own - going on with life as if nothing ever happened but never dealing with what has been done and never having it resolved and never letting it be blotted out. David tried that for a while, according to Psalm 32. Just hiding, covering up, pretending that everything is ok.
The other option is to long for forgiveness and to desire for forgiveness so deeply but not to think it is possible; The idea that what I have done is just so bad nobody could ever forgive me and I could never get a fresh start again. There are lots of people who feel that way. But Paul is announcing that forgiveness is possible through Jesus. He says that in him, by him, everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. I think the word "freed" here in this version would be better translated "justified." It is the same word that is translated that way in other places. And it is saying to us that forgiveness with God is a special type of forgiveness. It is not merely letting things go. But in God's forgiveness, the wrong is dealt with and the sin is blotted out. God maintains his integrity, his justice while forgiving in his mercy. And he does it by having his own son pay the penalty and then offering us mercy in and through him.
And all of those things that could not be accomplished by law (that is being set free from the law of sin and death), having a situation where there is no condemnation any more, where the wrong has been dealt with never to be brought up again, that is available through Christ. No wonder that news made such an astonishing impact that day in the synagogue in Antioch.
Paul finished what he was saying with a word of reality. He quoted from Habakkuk 1, verse 5, in verse 41 here, and in the days of Habakkuk it was a time when God was about to bring the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, down into the land to deal with the sin and the evil that was there. People were about to be taken captive. In other words, it is a word of warning. It is saying here that if someone shrugs off what God has done by his long promise in giving his son and offering justification, then a person chooses for himself a certain course or direction in that rejection. That is something that can't be ignored.
Here is a word of encouragement for us all today. God is in control. Jesus is the savior. Forgiveness is possible if you and I will let it be in our lives. Maybe you are here today and you need to believe and repent and accept that gift. Maybe you are somebody who has been overwhelmed and you need to have your feet back on solid ground. If we can help you, won't you let that happen today? Come and let us do so while we stand and sing together.