RPM, Volume 16, Number 26, June 22 to June 28, 2014

Studies in Acts

Acts 13:4-52

By Robert Rayburn

Certainly there can be no idea that a thorough exposure of sin and a deep conviction of sin and guilt interfere with joy in salvation. It did not for these folk. Paul preached sin and guilt without hesitation, sufficient to offend most of the religious in the town. But the disciples he left behind were, we read, "filled with joy." They had faced the fact of their sin and that had led them to find a Redeemer and a great salvation rooted in a great love.

But, it remains a fact, the same message that brings light and joy to some, scandalizes, offends, and angers others.

So, the obvious question rises: why does it have the one effect in some and the opposite effect in others? It is a question so obvious, it so loudly cries out for an answer that it is no surprise that Luke provides it. In an explanatory remark in v. 48, he tells his readers: "All who were appointed to eternal life believed." In preparing these studies, I have been reading, among others, a commentary on Acts by my former professor at the University of Aberdeen, I.H. Marshall. Prof. Marshall is an Arminian, an earnest Christian man and a man very admirable in many ways, a man who has, I am proud to say, advanced the cause of the gospel in many ways in his life and work, but he does not want to accept the simple force of Luke's words. He offers some other explanations of Luke's words, all of which are spectacularly unconvincing. In the Bible the words Luke uses here are predictable, clear, and definite. F.F. Bruce says in one of his works on Acts that he has never been able to see how to get around the predestination and election in these words.

Luke is explaining why one person believed and another did not. And he says in words that cannot be mistaken that it had to do with whether or not God had been beforehand with that person, choosing him or ordaining him for salvation. Luke is a predestinarian, or, in modern terms, he is a Calvinist. He is a Calvinist through and through, in his Gospel and in Acts. We have already noticed the streak of sovereign grace in his narrative and we will have many other occasions to notice this same emphasis later. For Luke, Lydia believed because the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message, just as here in Antioch, many believed because God had chosen them for salvation and so by his grace and the working of his Spirit brought home to their hearts the knowledge of their sin and their need for a Savior and then gave them true faith in Christ. [--which he did not do for others!]

It is God who decides, God who chooses whom will be saved, God who opens the heart and mind to the truth, and softens the will to accept even the most unwelcome truth about oneself so that one might see his or her need for Christ and believe in him. To believe in Christ is so much against the grain of a sinful human being, to submit to God is so viscerally unwelcome a prospect for a rebel against God, that only the intervention of God can explain it.

Now, why this doctrine, and why the emphasis on it, and why must we believe it as all our fathers tell us we must if we would enter into the heart of true Christian thinking and living and feeling?

After all, that doctrine puts Howard Marshall and myself in different churches, has divided believers through the ages, has spawned all manner of fights in congregations, controversies in the broader church, has pitted Christian against Christian even in times of revival. Wouldn't it have been wiser for God simply to leave this teaching out of the Bible and let us wonder as to why one believed and another didn't until we got to heaven and could handle the truth with grace and goodness?

Well, the first thing to be said is that, whether or not we understand God's reasons for telling us about his sovereign election of some sinners to salvation, the Bible teaches us this doctrine of divine sovereignty in salvation and so we must believe it as the truth of God.

I do not deny that the Bible also teaches that God desires the salvation of all men -- in one sense and in one way he does, for so the Bible teaches us. Nor do I deny that there are a few passages that pose problems for this doctrine; not very many, but a few. But, then, what is new about that. What biblical doctrine is there that does not have "problems" of this kind. These are great truths in every sense and encompass large areas of reality, no wonder we have difficulty reducing them to tidy proportions.

But, when all is said and done, there can be no mistaking the Bible's teaching. It is plain, emphatic, and repetitive. In many places, the doctrine of divine sovereignty in salvation, of election, of sovereign grace working in human hearts, is stated so bluntly that the manner of teaching seems almost calculated to offend, as if the Spirit of God were fully aware that this doctrine would be a hard sell, and wanted to be sure that no one find a way to wriggle off this hook. And, over and again it is teaching, like this in 13:48, that directly addresses this precise question: why does one man believe and another not?

Jesus asks that very question and answers it by saying "No one can come to me unless the Father in heaven draws him" and "My sheep here my voice and follow me," and then he tells the Pharisees, "You are not my sheep." Paul asks that question precisely and answers it in Romans 9 by citing God's own words, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy and I will harden whom I will harden." It is always the same; the final difference between believers and unbelievers does not lie in the men, but in God and his grace and his choice and his will his purpose, and his sovereign work first in Christ and then in human hearts by his Spirit. "Who were born not of natural descent, nor of a human decision or a husband's will, but born of God."

I know, you know that we are all guilty and that God is under no obligation to save anyone. You and I know full well that those who remain unsaved are no greater sinners than we are. And when we hear God telling us in his Word that it was not flesh and blood that taught us to believe in Christ as the Savior but our Father in heaven, or that we were not born by the will of man but by the will of God, we know exactly what that means, even if we are left with many questions we cannot answer.

Now people hate this doctrine for exactly the same reason they hate the gospel itself -- they do not like the way it lowers them, it leaves them no longer in charge of their lives and destinies, it makes them entirely dependent upon God and his good pleasure. Men are worshippers of themselves and this doctrine lays them in the dust before God and makes their self-worship absurd.

I don't suppose there is a doctrine of the Bible that has been pilloried more than the doctrine of sovereign grace, a doctrine that people in the church have felt through the ages more free to mock and scorn. Here is Robert Burns' famous "Holy Willie's Prayer," a devastating caricature of the doctrine of election and sovereign grace.

And on the poem goes, so close to the doctrine as taught in Calvinist churches as to make perfectly clear who it is that Burns is after, but with the subtle tinge of smugness and pride in every line that Holy Willie utters -- who is, of course, a churchgoer with pride peeping out of every part of him -- as to leave in no doubt how disgusted Burns is with this doctrine, how evil he thinks it to be. No doubt many have used the doctrine as a badge of pride and intellectual superiority, some have even used it as an excuse for not sharing the good news with others -- hardly Paul's application of the doctrine, obviously -- but surely the problem with those folk and with Burns as well is that they are treating the doctrine badly, they are misusing it, they have not been humbled by it before speaking about it. The problem with Burns was precisely that he was as proud before God as Holy Willie was. He could see it in Willie, but true sinner that he was, he was blind to it in himself.

Fact is, there have been a great many great minds who hated this doctrine until God's grace got hold of them and then they loved the truth of sovereign grace as much as they hated it before.

I don't hesitate to say that this is deep truth, difficult truth, complicated truth, truth that tests our character as well as our minds, but it is asserted so plainly in the Bible that it clearly is truth we cannot afford to be without.

And here is the reason why the Bible will not let us escape these difficulties. The doctrine of sovereign grace is essential to the Christian faith and life. It is the foundation of the most essential graces of the Christian life. So essential that even Christians who deny it when discussing Christian doctrine nevertheless believe it when thinking about their own salvation. It lies beneath the fear and reverence of God -- "work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is in you both to will and to work according to his good pleasure" --; it lies beneath true humility and lowliness of heart -- "For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" -- ; it lies beneath the assurance of salvation -- "My father, who is greater than all, gave them to me, and no one can snatch them out of my father's hand" and "nothing shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" --; and, it lies beneath Christian love and gratitude -- "We love him because he first loved us" "it is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief" "God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ...who loved me and gave himself for me."

Young people, if your experience is anything like mine, and I know that it has been in the case of some of you, your experience of this doctrine, or shall we say rather this group of biblical doctrines that make up the doctrine of sovereign grace, has been something like this. Growing up in the church you were dimly aware that all Christians did not think the same way and that there were particular doctrines that distinguished the preaching and teaching of your own church. Then, when you were in high school, you began to consider these teachings for yourself. You were taught them and perhaps for the first time you rubbed shoulders with peers who did not and would not receive them as part of the Christian faith, who even were offended by them. You looked in the Bible, with the help of your instructors, and found the teaching there, plain as day. And, something else. You found that this truth grabbed you, perhaps in a way that ideas have never grabbed you before. Perhaps because it was controversial you latched on to these truths with a special interest and a special fascination. And, perhaps something more. Perhaps here, for the first time, it came home to your heart how great God is and that was a delicious experience, to find yourself looking up to a God who was high above, a Sovereign, who does what pleases him in heaven and on earth.

And, then, you whet your sword and went into battle on behalf of the truth -- perhaps again for the first time in your life. And you found it invigorating to fight for the truth when it was so easy to see that you had right on your side. You had the verses and you had the theology and you had the philosophy and you had virtually the entire tradition of the best and deepest Christian thinking on your side. And, then, something else happened. You found yourself getting angry at those who would not bend to your mind and will, finding yourself inclined to despise those who couldn't or wouldn't see light as brilliant as this. And so you felt more and more justified to wield your sword with dash and verve and leave the enemy in the dust and, as was once said of another controversialist, to dust off the place where your enemy once stood.

And, then, finally, it occurred to you, or, perhaps someone older and wiser pointed out to you that your understanding of the doctrines of grace must be deeply flawed if it leads you to a sense of superiority over others and a harshness toward others. If it leads you to become a "Holy Willie" yourself.

Yet I am here a chosen sample,
To show thy grace is great and ample;
I'm here a pillar of Thy temple,
Strong as a rock,
A guide, a buckler, and example,
To all thy flock.

For the doctrine says you were blind, deaf, and dumb and willingly and determinedly so, and only God's love for you, pitched on you for nothing worthy in you, for nothing at all in you, only God's mysterious, surprising, totally inexplicable love for you, and his sending of Christ for you, and his sending his Holy Spirit to you made you a believer; that, left to yourself you would have hated God all the way to hell and laughed at the idiots who believe in the Bible and its doctrine of divine grace.

And, if that is so, how can we possibly take pride for ourselves in that? How can we think highly of ourselves? How can we look down on others who don't see what we wouldn't have seen either except for the grace of God?

And then, for the rest of your life, you will try, as others have tried before you, to get the best good from this truth of divine sovereign grace -- the humility, the gratitude and love, the fear and reverence for God, and the sense of assurance in times of trouble and doubt. Any doctrine that produces all that, is sound doctrine indeed. And you will wish that others will see as you have come to see -- for it is a beautiful truth and a most powerful one -- but you will treat them with that tenderness of feeling appropriate to one who has learned to say of the greatest sinner, even the greatest devil in all the world, "there, but for the grace of God, go I."

Text Comment

v.5 This is John Mark, the daughter of the Mary in whose house the church had met for prayer when Peter was imprisoned (12:12). He is called here their "helper," the same word Luke uses in his Gospel (1:2) in the phrase "servant of the word." Was John Mark along because, unlike Paul and Barnabas, he could give eyewitness testimony to the Lord's life, miracles, death, and resurrection? We will hear more of John Mark.

They went to the Jewish synagogues first, what is to be a regular strategy, because the synagogue provided a ready-made opportunity both to gain an audience and to proclaim the Messiah to a group of folk who understood the basic concept.

They started in Cyprus, perhaps because Barnabas was from there.

v.9 The name change. "Paul" for the Gentile, Roman world. What is in a name? Well, some names stand for a great deal. And God sometimes vindicates the names of his servants. It has long been pointed out that in the civilized world for many generations now, dogs are named Nero and sons are named Paul!

v.11 Any reader of Acts immediately recognizes that what Paul here does to Elymas was what had been done to him by Christ himself on the Damascus road. Readers of the Bible have long wondered if this blindness was not in Elymas' case also the means of his coming to the light. As Bede wrote in the early 8th century, "by the darkening of the eyes the mind's darkness might be restored to light."

v.12 A sign miracle as the gospel advances into new territory. But note the very important way of speaking in v. 12. The miracle helped him believe, no doubt, but what mattered was not the miracle but the teaching, the truth, the message, the gospel. That was what amazed and thrilled him.

In later days of missionary advance, there were no such miracles (19th century). The "signs" were rather the good works of Matt. 5:16: "let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."

v.13 Nothing is said of this here, but we learn later that John's leaving was really an act of "desertion" or dereliction of duty (15:38). We're curious for more information. Was it the rigors of the work? Could it even have been the reversal in the order of these men (did you notice: it was Barnabas and Saul through v. 7; for the rest of the history Paul is mentioned first, certainly an indication of a reversal of leadership due to Paul's commanding presence and intellectual power. But Mark was Barnabas' cousin. There is no hint of any resentment on Barnabas' part, certainly. But, could Mark have regarded this as a demotion?

It takes more grace than I can tell,
To play the second fiddle well.

v.14 Pisidian Antioch (that is a city named Antioch, but a different Antioch -- there were actually three Antiochs of some importance in this part of the world in those days--, this one in the region of Pisidia in the Roman province of Galatia. The town was a Roman colony on a strategic road. Is this the missionary strategy: strategic towns on strategic roads?

v.15 It was the custom in the synagogue to have someone make an address on the reading of the Scripture that had gone before and sometimes this could be a visitor, especially as in the case of Paul who was rabbinically trained. Jesus, you remember, in Luke 4, seized a similar opportunity.

What Paul gives, like Stephen before him, is an historical overview, to prepare for his climactic assertion that God's great acts on behalf of his people Israel now have a sequel.

His argument has many similarities with Peter's Pentecost sermon as well.

v.44 The crowd was greater than it had ever been before and mixed among it were many Gentiles. This set some of the Jews to fuming -- so human a picture! -- "it was better in the old days!" "I can't find my favorite pew any longer!" "And look at all those Gentiles!"

v.45 The NT often asserts that the Jews were motivated in their persecution of Christ and his followers by jealousy! Remember the Lord's parable of the prodigal son and the elder son who resented all the celebration over the prodigal's return? He was jealous of the attention his brother was receiving and felt that he was more worthy of such a celebration than his brother. And he was so sour over it all that he wouldn't go in to the feast his father has set to celebrate his brother's return. The elder brother in the Lord's parable, in the context, is clearly a picture of the Pharisees and the Jews who resented Christ's giving attention to those they regarded as "sinners." One commentator on that parable in Luke 15 writes, "What a mournful commentary is the Book of Acts throughout on the words 'He would not go in...'" [Trench, Parables, p. 422.]

v.46 As McCheyne put it, "God has last knocks." They could have been light to the Gentiles, but they preferred their feelings of superiority.

v.48 First came converts among the Jews and God-fearers; now, a week later Gentiles also came flooding into the new church.

v.51 It was a custom of Jews to shake off the dust of a pagan town from their feet as a symbol of cleansing themselves from the impurity of sinners who did not worship God. For Jews such as Paul and Barnabas to do this to other Jews was a powerful symbol of linking them with the false worship of the Gentiles. It was a powerful symbol of their doctrine, that the Jews who did not receive the Messiah, were, in fact, no longer a part of the true Israel and were no better than unbelievers.

Now, it is a fact of Scripture, of Christian history and of our own experience that the gospel stirs up contrary emotions wherever it goes. As Paul says in 2 Cor. 2:15-16 it is a savor of life to some of death to others. And if you stop to think about it, it is not all that hard to see why this particular message of joy and love and salvation would provoke such hostility.

Imagine yourself standing in a group of people and one of them turns to you and says, loudly enough for others to hear, "I want you to know that I forgive you!" And whatever you might say, you would think, "Well, bully for you! I forgive you too! Who are you to forgive me; and for what." In some ways, it would be even worse if you had had a sharp disagreement with that person and he or she had pronounced you forgiven and, with that pronouncement, had made it clear to all that you were the one who had transgressed and needed forgiveness.

In other words, to receive such news as the gospel brings -- as Paul summarizes it in vv. 38-39 -- requires that one accept a certain negative judgment about oneself. A judgment the more one thinks about it the more negative it seems. People are viscerally disinclined to be so hard on themselves! (A good evidence of this is the history of Christian preaching, a history that has proved countless times that the surest way to expose a nominal, superficial, hypocritical faith in a congregation and to get the preacher fired is for him to drive at the sinfulness, the unworthiness, the guilt of those who are filling the pews.) [Christ with the Pharisees!]

There is a constant pressure on this fundamental assumption of the gospel, in every culture at every time, and certainly in ours. (Hymnals that change "such a worm as I" to "such a one as I" in Watts' "Alas and did my Savior bleed," or "my own worthlessness" to "my unworthiness" in Elizabeth Clephane's "Beneath the Cross of Jesus.") The change never goes in the other direction!

Richard Baxter writes, "Never was a thief more careful lest he should awaken the people, when he is robbing the house, than Satan is not to awaken a sinner." Why does Satan tiptoe, because let a man see his sin and guilt and he will find Christ simply irresistible.

Spurgeon was already complaining in his day of a growing distaste for a thoroughgoing exposure of sin on the way to faith in Christ.

"Do you know," he asked in a sermon preached not long before his death, "why so many professing Christians are like the thorny ground? It is because processes have been omitted which would have gone far to alter the condition of things. It was the husbandman's business to uproot the thorns, or burn them on the spot. Years ago, when people were converted, there used to be such a thing as conviction of sin. The great subsoil plough of soul-anguish was sued to tear deep into the soul. Fire also burned in the mind with exceeding heat: as men saw sin, and felt its dreadful results, the love of it was burned out of them. But now we are dinned with braggings about rapid salvations. As for myself, I believe in instantaneous conversions, and I am glad to see them; but I am still more glad when I see a thorough work of grace, a deep sense of sin, and an effectual wounding by the law. We shall never get rid of thorns with ploughs that scratch the surface..." [In Forgotten Spurgeon, 106]

O Thou that in the heavens does dwell
Who, as it pleases best Thyself,
Sends one to heaven and ten to hell,
All for thy glory
And not for any good or ill
They've done before thee!

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