His Story, Our Story (Acts 13:13-52)
When I was in fourth and fifth grade, back in New York, I used to write a lot of short stories. I would take four or five pieces of loose-leaf paper, fold them in half and staple them across the top, where it became a little book. I wrote stories of adventure and horror. I was a big fan of Freddy Krueger back in those days, so I had a series called, “Freddy In…” Freddy in India, for example, was where Freddy ravaged villages and killed people as they ate rice and rode on elephants. Freddy in Jeopardy! did not mean Freddy was in trouble, but him menacing the contestants on the show Jeopardy. I know, pretty twisted.
But the majority of my stories were called The Love of Her. This was actually more autobiographical, as I shared my escapades of chasing this girl that I liked. Well The Love of Her Part 1 was chasing a girl at school. And The Love of Her Part 2 was chasing a girl at church: Sally (I will call her Sally just in case the real person is someone’s cousin here). Sally had long black hair, which would wave in the wind and was the most beautiful 12 year old I had ever seen. I would meditate on her every night as my favorite radio station, 99.9 Love Songs at Night played in the background. And each of the chapters ended the same. I would all I can to win her approval, but she would just shake her head in disgust and I go home to write about it.
One time I even made my little sister take a note to her. The note said, “Do you like me? Check the box. Yes or No.” I never got that note back. Years later it hit me that God is writing a great story. I need to see life as His story. If you were reading fiction and in the middle of it, you read a page full of sorrow, you wouldn’t freak out, because you are hoping the author will take this mess and make some kind of message with it. History is really in fact His Story! He is still writing a story. A great and grand narrative that is not about us and what we should do, but about Him and what He has done.
We are continuing our series called, “Pulled In, Pushed Out.” The Gospel pulls us into God’s heart and pushes us out to pull others into God’s heart. This is the theme of Acts and I want to look at Acts 13 today and talk about “His Story, Our Story.” Today I want God to pull us into His heart to see that we are not roaming without purpose doing random things in life, but actually, intentional characters in a big story God is writing, we can get the motivation to be pushed out to pull others in.
But I am sure some of us are right now thinking, “Well, my story is reading like a tragedy or a horror and maybe even a comedy where the joke’s on me or a boring encyclopedia.” Or maybe you feel like God has writer’s block with your story, because you don’t see it moving anywhere. A lot of our despair, feelings of hopelessness, cynicism and fatalism in life shows us that we have forgotten that we are in His story. What can we learn about God’s Story in the world to help us understand our story in life? What is the point of this story? Today we will look at Paul’s first and longest recorded sermon as he started out on his missionary journey. First of all:
- Trust that God’s in charge of His story and ours (vv.13-25)
Paul, Barnabas and Barnabas’ cousin, John or Mark, had originally did ministry in Barnabas’ hometown, on the island of Cyprus. They preached, faced opposition, persevered and there was fruit. By the way, that’s always the pattern of ministry. Leaving Cyprus, they sailed north nearly 200 miles across the Mediterranean Sea and landed at Attalia, the port of Perga. This is the area where Paul would later write the Epistle to the Galatians.
Then John decides to go back home. Why? We’ll talk about this more in detail in Acts 15, but we are not sure why he left. Paul was really upset about this. Some say he was scared because of the 100-mile journey from Perga to Antioch in Pisidia. The journey would have entailed dangerous mountains, rivers and robbers. Others say he was homesick. We have no clue, but whatever the reason, Paul did not think it was a valid enough one to bail on them.
Finally as was their pattern, they go on the Sabbath day to the local synagogue. Here we have a clue to their service. It was open with what is called The Shema. This is the Jewish profession of faith found in Deut. 6:4ff: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One…” Following prayers, there would be a reading from one of the first five books of the Bible called the Pentateuch and a reading from the Prophets. Then there was a sermon based on the reading. You can see that we have adopted a lot of these practices in the churches. Often when a visiting rabbi was present, he would be given the chance to speak. Paul, probably dressed like a rabbi, as he was trained to be a Pharisee.
Notice there were rulers (plural). This was a mega-synagogue in that day, since most synagogues just had one ruler. So one of them texted (more likely an attendant approached them) Paul and Barnabas, asking if they would like to speak. When I got saved and traveled around the Indian community, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I would show up at a prayer meeting or something and be told to speak as I got there. This is where they get it from!
This is why I love Barnabas. The guy says, “word of encouragement” and if I was Barnabas, I would replied, “That’s my name! I’ll do it!” and get up right away. But it seems like as we watch him in ministry, he is ok with not being in the spotlight. We need more people like that. I need to be more like that!
So Paul stands up and maybe raised his hands to get attention. He addresses his own Jewish people as well as Gentiles who were there seeking and/or converted to Judaism. This is probably not the entire sermon, but a summary of it. I won’t take time to go over the details, but I want you to notice that Paul like other preachers in Acts, goes to THE Story as his bridge to the Gospel.
Notice who is the main character in this story. God really dominates this section. For example, in verse 17, God chose and made the people great. It wasn’t their cuteness, personality or size or fertility power, but purely out of grace. God led them out. They didn’t walk out. In Exodus 19:4 God says, “I carried you on eagle wings.” For 40 years, God put up with them. In verse 19, God destroyed and God gave. Verse 20-21 says God gave. Verse 22 says God removed and God raised, and God gave testimony. Verse 23 says God brought to them a Savior. And when the forerunner to the Messiah came, John the Baptist, a great prophet, he realized he wasn’t the main show. He wasn’t even the opening act as he says, “I am not even worthy to be called the lowliest of the low, the servant who typically unties the straps of a sandal to wash the feet of Christ.” He got it. Hope you see it too. God is the hero of the story and we are not. He is the main character.
Your life is not about you. It’s about God. The burden of your life is not on your shoulders. It’s on His. Francis Chan in his book Crazy Love uses this example. Suppose you are an extra in an upcoming movie. You will probably scrutinize that one scene where hundreds of people are milling around, just waiting for that two-fifths of a second when you can see the back of your head. Maybe your mom and your closest friend get excited about that two-fifths of a second with you … maybe. But no one else will realize it is you. Even if you tell them, they won’t care. Let’s take it a step further. What if you rent out the theater on opening night and invite all your friends and family to come see the new movie about you? People will say, “You’re an idiot! How could you think this movie is about you?”
How should that change our lives? Well, first of all: it gives us perspective. We all have a point of view regarding our lives. God has view. Do you know at the end of Rom. 4 Paul says “Abraham never wavered in his faith?” What Bible are you reading Paul? From our perspective, all we do is count the setbacks of Abraham’s life, but in the end Abraham persevered. God only counted the advances. God has view. He sees the whole thing.
Once I got a gift from a friend. She said it was a personal stitching of an angel. However, when I opened it, I opened the back of the box, so all I was the back of the stitching. I didn’t see an angel. I saw tangled threads that made no sense, until I looked it from the top. Listen, we look at the dark tangled threads of our lives and see a mess. We see dark tangled threads of being hurt by the churches we left, tragedy that shook us up, or the dark threads of a failed relationship, the struggles of marriage, the failed test, etc. God doesn’t see tangled threads. He sees a tapestry, woven carefully by His hands in the pattern He has planned (as the old poem goes). Until the loom is silent and He unrolls the canvas, will we see that we needed all the colors for His masterpiece. Eph. 2:10 we are his workmanship or literally, His poem. It’s not done yet! You have one bad day with the kids and you say, “I’m a bad dad.” Or one bad sermon or
Secondly, it brings contentment. As a parent, when the little sinner is born, your life changes and everything in your life starts to revolve around the child. It is draining. However, when they start to talk, its get more frustrating. You will notice that when they turn 3,4, 5 or 6 and they start to talk, that all of your sacrifices are completely invisible to that child. They absolutely don’t care about your sacrifices.
As far as they are concerned, mom and dad are just there to meet their every need. That’s why God made adults right? And there are moments when the child doesn’t get it. “No, you can’t eat that honey. No, you can’t do that, son.” And what happens? The child screams out, “You don’t love me!” What do you want to say when he/she does that?
You want to say, “You little ungrateful piece of _____. The sacrifices I have made for you are invisible to you. And the most important deeds of love/sacrifices are not these things you are asking for now. Don’t you know that I have sacrificed way more than this! Will you please trust me?”
Don’t you see that we do that with God? We say, “Why aren’t you doing anything right now God?!” We read the Bible and see words, words and words. But we say when trouble comes, “You don’t love me because you’re not answering my prayers right now!” And God says, “Don’t you know that the most important sacrifice and deed of love is not what you need right now? Don’t you see the magnitude of my love for you? Don’t you see all that I have done for you already shows you that I love you?”
If God is writing the story, I am where I am for His purposes!
II. His Story is about Believing In His Son (vv. 26-39).
We have the climax of his sermon. The whole story was leading up Paul announces that the messianic deliverer had been raised up by God in the family of David, and that his name was Jesus. Basically Paul says, “We made a mess of the story. We were not the heroes, but the villains. When the hero showed up in history, we grabbed Him and killed him.” But man’s sin was no match for God’s grace.
Since God was in charge of the story, He turned man’s mess into His message. Tragedy turned into triumph as Jesus was raised to life. Look at v.32: “This is good news!” He brings them the Gospel. God kept all of His promises when we broke all of ours. All of the OT prophecies about His coming and work on the cross and even resurrection was pointing to Him.
So what should people do? Look at v.38: BELIEVE! Let it be known to you, that “THROUGH THIS MAN.” Not through good works, not by going to church, not by being religious, but faith in Christ. Forgiveness of sins and BY HIM everyone (man, woman, boy and child) who believes is FREED from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” Powerful verse….it is one of those verses you think after reading it, “That was in the Bible?”
What does it mean to be free from everything you could not be from the law of Moses? The law is a mirror, Paul says. A mirror shows you the dirt on your face, but a mirror cannot clean your face. The mirror reveals and points you to source of cleansing.
I want to propose to you that we get this verse, v. 39, for salvation, but we don’t get it in light of our growth in Christ, or sanctification. We think when we get saved, we are forgiven of our sins (which we are) and freed from the penalty of sin (which we are) and from the POWER of sin (which is still ongoing) and one day we will be from the presence of sin. We received grace because Jesus received judgment as we receive Him into our heart.
But are you automatically freed from every sinful habit, attitude and thought pattern when you are saved? A lot of the surface sins go away, but there is an iceberg of sin underneath those sins, from which you need to be freed from day by day. New believers don’t get that. They think once you’re saved, you should be sinless and they are shocked when they see that they are more messed up than they ever thought. How does God free us from this? The same way we got saved: through the gospel. What does that mean?
I would say all of us at one time or another or even now suffer from Quiet Time Guilt. What is that? It is when the sincere believer feels a deep sense of failure and the accompanying feelings of guilt and shame because he or she has failed to set aside a separate time for Bible study and prayer. As a result, prayer is a burden. Bible study is a chore. Then you give up and feel like a hypocrite all the time. And you tell yourself, “God hates me right now. I am going to make it up to Him. I’ll stay away from Him for like 10 days, wallow in guilt, beat myself up and pay for my failure.” I used to ask people, “How’s your relationship with God?” By this I meant, “Are you reading your Bible daily for 30 minutes at least and praying for at least 40?” See what I did. I defined the sum total of my relationship with God as my devotional consistency! We put ourselves on a performance treadmill and cease relying on God’s grace to sustain us. We trust in ourselves and our consistency, becoming proud if devotionally successful—or despairing because of our inconsistency. Either way, our spiritual self-reliance short-circuits the inexpressible joy of life in Christ. The quiet time becomes a human work whereby we think we gain—or lose—God’s daily favor.
Often we assume that if we really had it together and could approach God without sin, without failing, with only pure spiritual successes to offer, then God would somehow delight in our prayer more. The opposite is true. If you approach God in that manner, you approach him as his enemy. We are all fallen. If we presume to approach him as something more than needy, dependent sons and daughters, God rightly takes offence. There’s nothing more dangerous than the pride of devotional consistency.
And we start listening to a false gospel. A gospel that says that God accepts me on the quality of my devotional consistency and not in what Christ has done. I have failed to believe the Gospel. So what do I do? I come helpless to the feet of the cross, like I came to faith the first time, repent from our sin, and receive His forgiveness and thank Him that God’s blessing on our lives is not conditional upon our spiritual performance, but conditioned upon Jesus’ perfect performance.
I am not against quiet time, so don’t go home saying, “Pastor Robin said don’t do quiet time!” But I am against putting up some standard of performance or system where you feel like you can control God and earn His favor depending on how well you keep it.
So now my walk instead of being quantified, it is more quality-focused. Your quiet time is not your relationship with God. Your relationship with God—or, as I prefer to say, God’s relationship with you—is your whole life: your job, your family, your sleep, your play, your relationships, your driving, your everything. So the questions you have to ask are: “How is your attitude with your parents changing? How are you loving that co-worker that is annoying you? How are you growing in patience over your spouse?”
This doesn’t mean we sit back and do nothing. Grace is not opposed to effort, but grace is opposed to earning (Dallas Willard). We obey His commandments knowing He loves us, even if we don’t obey them. It is out of delight now not duty. We never have to feel condemned again. We are free to receive, not achieve!
III. Continue His Story by living in grace (vv.42-52).
As they continue to minister, some love it and others hate it. This is always the case. Paul moves on to warn them if they refuse the Gospel of judgment. To the believers, notice he “urged them to continue in the grace of God.” In other words, “keep yourself exposed to God’s grace.” Keep letting the Gospel fill your heart with wonder of the Story.
There is also a warning here for us who hear the Word of God. Pastor Ray Ortlund makes a convicting point here: “Every time you hear the Word of God preached, you come away from that exposure to his truth either a little closer to God or a little further way from God, either more softened toward God or more hardened toward God. But you are never just the same. And if you think you can hold the gospel at arm’s length in critical detachment, that very posture reveals that you are already deadened. The same truth enlivening someone else is hardening you. Some people are determined to make their heart sermon-proof and will lead them astray. So write this down as Richard Baxter once said, “Lord, help me fear my own hardness of heart than anything else.” Ortlund adds, “Beware of rigidity, ingratitude, a demanding spirit. Beware of an unmelted heart that is never satisfied. Beware of a mind that looks for excuses not to believe. Beware of the impulse that always finds a reason to delay response. Beware of thinking how the sermon applies to someone else. God watches how you hear his Word.”
This text reminds us that God makes promises and God keeps those promises. I know God will, but what if I don’t? We are always breaking our promises. How do I know that I won’t mess up the story with my unbelief and hard-heartedness? I know you’ll keep your side of things, Lord, but I am not sure I can keep up my side.
Long ago, there was a man who also had doubts about himself. You might remember him. His name was Abraham. God made promises to him, but Abraham had doubts. So God says, “Let’s make an agreement.” If it was modern day, we would have said, “Get your lawyer, and a permanent pen, two witnesses, and meet me down at the courthouse where they have a public notary.” This is how we make a public document binding today. We get witnesses. We get lawyers. We sign a document. It is sealed by a notary.
In Abraham’s day, animals were cut in two and placed opposite each other so that the blood formed a pool, a so-called blood path, in between the pieces as they drained. The two parties—the greater party who establishes the terms of the covenant first, and the lesser party who either accepts or rejects the terms second—then walked through the blood as a way of saying, “May what was done to these animals be done to me if I do not keep this covenant.” The one who failed to keep the covenant paid for it with his life.
So God, the greater King passes through the pieces, first as “a smoking fire pot,” symbolic of God’s presence. God in essence says, “May I die if I am not faithful to you.” Now at this point, the “lesser” king must walk through. Notice back in Gen. 15:12 that a “great darkness fell upon him.” This means Abraham was freaking out. It was not a normal kind of sleep. It was an overwhelming sense of dread/horror/darkness/terror, where he felt crushed to the ground. He felt an incredible heaviness. He is freaking out! Why? Though I know that God will keep his end of the covenant, what about me? I’m going to fail. I’m not going to be able to get to the finish line. I’m full of weaknesses and sins and evil. I’m surely going to let God down. I’m surely going to let myself down.
Then an incredible thing happens. A blazing torch appears—a flaming torch, a lamp of fire—and it also represents God. Fire always represents God. God walks in Abraham’s place! Alan Stanglin says, “There was no doubt that Abram and his descendants were going to sin. And so God stood in for him. God walked the path of blood in Abram’s place. The promise from the Lord, in addition to the son, the descendants, and the land is that God is going to pay for his people’s sins. God pays the price whether he or Abram or his descendants violates the covenant. Either way, it’s on God.” God is saying, “I will bless you, no matter if I fail, or no matter if you fail. Either way, I will be cut up. I will pay the penalty, I will be accountable, I will take the consequences, regardless if I fail, or if you fail.” God will absorb the cost regardless of who fails. This is an unbelievable one-sided covenant.
Abram had no idea about the cost of this oath of grace. But centuries later a darkness came down again. It was so dark that it put out the sun at noon. Mark 15 tells us, “At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).” What happened to Jesus when he was crying out? Jesus was “cut off from the land of the living” (Isa 53:8). Why? So that God can say to us, “If you believe in me, I will bless you unconditionally,” regardless if God fails, or if Abraham/man fails. What incredible grace! What a crazy story! The hero of the story dies as the villain on their behalf, so to transform His enemies into His friends! And one day, the story will continue as the Hero comes as a Bridegroom for His bride. The story will continue, as C.S. Lewis says, where the next chapter will always be better than the previous one.
MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts. MacArthur New Testament Commentary (p. 326). Chicago:
Chan, F., & Yankoski, D. (2008). Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God (p. 42). Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.
Bruce, F. F. (1988). The Book of the Acts. The New International Commentary on the New
Testament (p. 258). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Ortlund, R. C., Jr, & Hughes, R. K. (83).
Stanglin, A. Ibid.
Keller, T. Ibid.