Acts (Part 21) - Free from the Law
Paul’s message in the synagogue at Antioch focuses on the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul draws on Old Testament scripture to make the tie between God’s promises of the conquering of sin and death through a Messiah who would be King forever to Jesus. Psalm 2 speaks of David’s coronation in which God tells him, “Today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). Paul uses that to speak of the resurrection of Christ. The “begetting” is a bringing to life. And God did so with Jesus in the resurrection. Even more, based on the resurrection, Jesus established his kingdom, fulfilling the Psalm in more ways than one. Immediately Paul turns to Isaiah 55, a messianic passage (finishing the messianic purpose of Isaiah 53-55), as he reveals that the holy and sure blessings of David are gathered in the Messiah who would redeem people from sin and to God. Finally, Paul ties the holiness of the Messiah to the triumph over the grave. Psalm 16:10 is his foundation (as it was Peter’s at Pentecost) showing that the Messiah would not see corruption but would be raised to life everlasting. And it is this resurrection, Paul says, that he himself is a witness of in seeing Jesus risen. In this resurrection theme Paul has shown Jesus as King, Messiah, and Conqueror. And this life Jesus holds through the resurrection is given to us. We receive life from God. We are redeemed. We now have life everlasting.
Notice that it is one story presented. Paul goes back to the Jews and the Old Covenant to present Christ because Jesus is not some new way that God is now trying, but rather Jesus is the fulfillment of the one story, the one plan for redemption from sin to everlasting relationship with God. Paul emphasizes clearly that the Law could not redeem. It could not accomplish the removal of sin necessary to bring in right relationship. Paul says, “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” (Acts 13:38-39).
I wonder whether the Jewish rulers were really listening. I wonder whether their minds were still wrapped up in Paul’s connection of Jesus with Messiah, puzzling over the Scriptures he quoted and possibly others coming to their minds. Possibly they didn’t get this bold statement that surely would have turned them immediately against Paul if they had understood properly. But they along with the others are still too stunned by it all. Paul is invited to come back the next week and speak again (13:42). It was a new message for them, but it was starting to make sense, so they needed to hear more.
But others in the audience did hear Paul all the way to the end. Those others followed Paul as he left, seemingly to ask him if they heard correctly. What they thought they heard was that the Law could not bring them into relationship with God. Only Jesus, through his death and resurrection, could grant true forgiveness so that they could have that relationship with God. And Paul tells them, yes. That is exactly what they heard. And now, they should not turn back to the Law, something that only pointed to their shortcomings and could not bring relief, but rather they should “continue in the grace of God” (13:43).
A week goes by. The Jewish leaders are still busy with their analysis of who the Messiah is supposed to be and whether this Jesus could really fit. The rest of the city seems overtaken by the conclusion of Paul’s message. Gentiles, who may have recognized and been attracted to the God of the Jews but were put off by the stringent demands of their ritual, were excited at this opportunity—a way to relationship with God without the circumcision and heavy practice of the Law. We learn in verse 44 that “almost the whole city gathered” that next week. The Jewish rulers must have been shocked coming to the synagogue and seeing the masses. But they quickly learned what the Gentiles expected. The Jews had always attempted to make converts of Gentiles, but it was always a focus on the Law. These Gentiles were gathered to hear of the God of the Jews, expecting to get that relationship without the Law. And the ruling Jews were upset. We’re told that “they were filled with jealousy” (13:45). The word for jealousy in the Greek, zelos, is the basis of our word zealous. This jealousy they felt was not some mere envy that Paul got more converts in a week than they had gotten in years (as some commentaries suggest). It was a jealousy born in defense of their ritualistic ways. They were zealous for the Law and therefore jealous for the Law. The root of that same word is used by Paul in Galatians 1:14 as he tells them that he “was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”
So the Jews begin to contradict what Paul had been telling the Gentiles. They argued that they were the holders of the oracles of God—the Scriptures—and these Scriptures said to follow the Law if they wanted relationship with God. In irritation with these Jews, Paul tells them with sarcasm that “since you thrust [the word of God] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (13:46).
In the concluding verses of this chapter, Luke speaks of the success of the gospel even though the Jewish rulers had rejected it. In saying so, Luke forms a sentence in such as way as to be a key verse in the Calvinists’ proof texts. Luke says, “And as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (13:48b). This certainly does place the appointment (or ordination) prior to the exercise of belief (or faith). Yet still this is no real victory for the Calvinist, for the Faith Electionist and even the Arminian hold to this verse. Certainly we all know that God foreordains. God had thought out how he would orchestrate every instance of life long before the world began. God knows every attitude, idiosyncrasy, and character attribute of every single person. He knows how any situation, event, or passing word will affect each person in his/her own mix of experience and genetic disposition. And all these infinite impacts and influences in the course of life and history, God has, in his omniscience and omnipotence, orchestrated precisely along with his revelation/response activity and according to his sovereignty to work his will and his way for the good of his glory and perfect relationship. We trust that, without being able to make more than a scratch at understanding how. But in that knowledge of God’s sovereign work in life, surely then we rest comfortably with Luke’s statement that those ordained to eternal life believed. Calvinists should find no reason to gloat over that verse. It fits well with the Faith Electionist’s understanding of God’s sovereign grace.
Paul and Barnabas move on from Antioch to Iconium. At Iconium they receive the same kind of mixed reaction to their message. Some Jews, jealous for the Law, convince Gentile converts to oppose them. Others embrace their freedom in Christ. The opposition, however, is no mere disagreement. The Law speaks specifically concerning those who would blaspheme or in other ways disobey the Law. A Jew failing the Law in certain points deserved death. This is the conclusion of the Jews and converted Gentiles toward Paul and Barnabas. But when these apostles hear of their plans, they flee from the city.
Fleeing for his life is not new to Paul. He was lowered from a window in the wall of Damascus to escape from Jews wanting to kill him. Only two weeks in Jerusalem and plots were in place to take his life, so he fled to Tarsus. Here again, they want to kill him. But why is he running? Would we today not think less of a missionary who flees from threat rather than stand firm and preach, trusting in God to protect him?
I’m reminded of the guy clutching to his rooftop in a flood, praying for the Lord to rescue him. A boat comes by and a man calls out for this guy to jump in. “No,” he shouts back. “I trust in God. He’ll take care of me.” A helicopter lowers a ladder to him, but he waves it off with the same comment. Finally, the water floods over the roof and sweeps the man off to his death. As he enters heaven, he tells the Lord, “I was trusting in you. Why didn’t you rescue me?” And the Lord replies, “What more did you want? I sent you a boat and a helicopter!” It is the wrong attitude, I think, to expect the supernatural. We live in this world that God has given. And we make decisions based on the wisdom we have from God. The more we live in pursuit of God, the more our thinking will line up with God. Therefore, we don’t need writing in the sky, a burning bush, or a wet fleece to follow God’s path for us. We live in his pursuit, and we make decisions as best we can according to that.
Therefore, when we read of Paul or of the missionary who flees, we don’t have to begin to judge the action based on some contrived principle that we have decided should direct all actions. Allow other Christians to move in response to the Spirit as the Spirit directs—not as you direct. Sure we encourage, exhort, and rebuke in love based on true biblical principle. But often we try to create principles from a verse when it is merely descriptive rather than prescriptive.
Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, preaching the same message. They come upon a man who has been lame since birth. Paul fixes his gaze on him to see whether he has the faith to be healed (14:9) and then heals him. Our first thought should probably be in relation to what we have read earlier in Acts. Peter preached an initial message to the Jews in Jerusalem in Acts 2. In the following chapter (Acts 3), Peter and John come upon a lame man whom Peter heals. Now we are with Paul and Barnabas. Paul’s first message to a large Gentile crowd follows Peter’s message pretty closely, even using some of the same Scriptural support. In the next chapter following Paul’s message, he and Barnabas come upon a lame man whom Paul heals. The parallels are obvious. We are told that Paul was performing signs (14:3), so surely this was not the only healing. But Luke takes time to talk about this one precisely for the parallel to Peter. The book started with Peter and the message to the Jews. Here we are halfway through the book with the attention now turning to the Gentiles, and Luke shows Paul’s ministry beginning in a parallel way to Peter’s. Luke tells us that this message to the Gentiles is just as much God’s work as was the message to the Jews.
The people of Lystra are astounded at the healing. They probably confer among themselves, remembering a story by Ovid. Ovid had written of a visit by the gods Zeus and Hermes to a town in the neighboring region of Phrygia. They came with the appearance of ordinary men. No one in the town showed them hospitality until an old couple invited them into their home. Zeus and Hermes made their home into a temple and they were made priests. Then as punishment to the others, the gods destroyed all the other homes. That is the background to what we see happen next. The people of Lystra, seeing the godlike healings, believe that Barnabas and Paul are Zeus and Hermes. They rush out to worship them, but with renting of their clothes and urgent words, Paul and Barnabas stop the activity saying that they were only men like everyone else.