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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

An Appointment on Saturday with Grace


"When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” Acts 13:48

We looked at the middle section of Acts 13 two weeks ago. We considered a message spoken by the apostle Paul in Pisidian Antioch. Yes, on Easter Sunday we listened to a message by the apostle Paul – how cool is that?! Paul’s original audience was made up of people who attended the local Jewish synagogue. He addressed them like this (v.16) - ‘Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me!’ What was his message about? He began, ‘The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors’. Why did Paul start off with God’s choosing of the Israelite nation? Because he wanted to show that God had a plan. And that is what Paul did. He delivered an abbreviated history of that nation, covering most of the Old Testament in about seven minutes – how us who preach could learn from him!

Paul also used other words to show that God always had a plan. It was a plan to deal with humankind’s greatest need – our sin – the reality that the standard of our lives fall so far short of God’s expectation. How would God achieve this?

Have you heard of the expression, ‘living the good life’? When we say that someone is ‘living the good life’, it usually means that they are living in comfort and luxury with few problems or worries. It is a lifestyle that is heavily promoted and greatly aspired to. In our day, so much of our information comes from internet based communication. There are multitudes of influencers trying to influence us. This ‘good life’ lifestyle is presented as the ideal. And, let’s face it, it is all too easy, even for Christians, to fall into the trap of thinking that this lifestyle is something to strive for. But, that thinking is not God’s thinking.

However, God’s plan did involve ‘the good life’. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, had finally been sent to Israel. Jesus did not live a life of comfort and luxury with few problems or worries – quite the opposite. And Paul mentions the cruel way in which Jesus suffered. But Jesus did ‘live the good life’ in another way. He lived a life that was so good, in the eyes of God the Father, that it exactly matched his standard. And that is what Paul was telling his audience that God’s plan was. Because of sin, we could not live God’s good life. We were too busy inventing our own version of the good life to bother with God’s version. But Jesus lived it for us. And Paul’s message was that, having done so, Jesus then experienced the most horrendous agony as he was executed by the very people who should have received him with open arms. He suffered for our bad life. He gave us his good life. And in the most amazing turnaround in human history, God’s plan, and Paul’s message about it, reached its climax - ‘God raised him from the dead’. Jesus now lives forever and we can now have a living and loving relationship with Jehovah God. And it is oh-so-simple.

This is the thing that people found really difficult – particularly those whose mindset had been shaped by the Jewish way of life. Look at all their ritual and ceremony and life rules, which had to be followed to be considered devout? - everything contained in what Paul referred to as, ‘the law of Moses’, in verse 39. All that stuff, and yet it was not able to ‘set free from… sin’. You couldn’t ‘obtain’ it that way, says Paul. But now, through Jesus, you can. That multitude of rigid rules and ritual are truly dead and buried, never to be resurrected. They are replaced with one single command – Believe. Believe in him who did rise again. Believe that Jesus is for you, and… he… is. And this applies to everyone – regardless of their heritage. Jewishness is irrelevant. Religious background is ‘nul points’. Your past, whatever that contains, counts for nothing. Belief counts for everything. Paul says (v.39), ‘Through him (Jesus) everyone who believes is set free from every sin’.

It must have blown people’s minds that Saturday morning in Pisidian Antioch. It was a lot to take in. They needed to hear it again. They needed to hear more. And so Paul and Barnabas receive the invite in verse 42, to speak again the following Saturday. Many people are already eagerly following this pair. They cannot wait a week and who could blame them. Paul and Barnabas didn’t disappoint. What an example to us? They were always ready to talk about the Saviour. Verse 43 says, they ‘talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.’ What does this mean? Well, there are different views on this. I am going to give you my opinion. You may agree or disagree. Perhaps it’s a good one for next month’s Riverside Reflections evening!

The word ‘grace’ is such a Bible word, but it can be one that we struggle with because it is used in more than one way. Often, ‘grace’ refers to God’s free favour experienced by those who don’t deserve it. This is so in Ephesians 2:8, where we read, ‘for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith (or belief) – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’. We haven’t earned God’s saving by what we have done. We have been saved by believing in what God has done by his own grace – his free and unearned favour.

‘Grace’ is also used in another sense. God’s grace can also refer to the power by which we live the Christian life and serve him. It is used in this way in the next chapter (Acts 14:26), when Paul and Barnabas report back to their local church in Syrian Antioch, ‘where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed.’ Had they met with success? Yes, despite the opposition to the message of Jesus – despite their own human weakness – they had been successful. How? God’s grace, which this church committed them to before they left. God’s ongoing power-for-Christian-living had seen them alright.

Now, most of the commentators seem to read Acts 13:43, in that second sense of grace. They suggest that these people that followed Paul and Barnabas were now believers in Jesus and these two men were encouraging them to continue in God’s grace – his ongoing power for living a life of belief in Jesus. I don’t agree. I think that grace, here, refers to God’s free favour. I think it is a reference to Israel’s history. Israel had already experienced God’s free favour for more than a thousand years. Did they deserve all the good things that God did for them? Had they earned what he blessed them with when he watched over their national life and gave them the wonderful promises about the coming of his Son? No. Paul, in verse 18 says, ‘he endured their conduct’. I believe that, at this moment in time, Paul is pointing out exactly where they stood.

Have you ever been somewhere new and seen a map on a notice board displaying the go to places in that locality? What is the first thing that you look for? You look for an arrow and the words, ‘you are here’. That is what P & B where doing here! Here is God’s map – of his timeline – you are here! You have experienced God’s free favour towards you while you were followers of him under Old Covenant rules. But, now, you have a choice. You have come to a fork in the road. One road leads away from God’s grace. The other is the way that ‘continue(s) in the grace of God’.

I love maps! If I had the choice between my wife and family, and a map, I’d choose my family – I’d be lost without them… but same goes for a map! Not every path on the ground is marked on the map. Sometimes I come to a fork in the road, or path. It splits in two but, on the map, there is only one option displayed. Which is the path that I should follow? Is it important? It is, if I want to reach my intended destination. At these moments, I will take my time to consider, I may get my compass out to check. If I choose the wrong path for a few footsteps only, I won’t have gone far wrong, but the further I continue, the further I will be from where I should be.

That is Paul’s argument. He is telling these Jews that they can reject Jesus as God’s promised servant and continue waiting for the Messiah to come but, if they do that, they will have now taken a path that just gets further and further away from God. Rather, he says, continue on the right path, the way of God’s grace, the road to God and his promise of everlasting life. I think Paul has John 14:5-6 in mind here. There, we find a man called Thomas, who was revealing his own lack of spiritual, navigational ability. Thomas said, ‘how can we know the way?’ ‘Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’.’

The Good News message of Jesus demands such a decision. Do we feel that God has been good in preserving our lives to this day, despite our abject failure to earn it? Do we want to know the right path to take ‘to continue (always and forever) in the grace of God’? Then take the way marked ‘Jesus’!

Between verse 43 & 44, we have skipped a full week. But we know what has been happening. There was no internet social media in those days. This was the old fashioned way that news spread fast. One person ‘liked’ what they heard and told several others. They either ‘liked’ or ‘disliked’ it but, regardless, they each told several others until, in just seven days, virtually a whole city had heard about this.

Oh, how Christians like to blame social media for all the world’s ill! But social media isn’t inherently right or inherently wrong. Social media is just a vehicle for news to travel in. It’s the humans driving the vehicle that are the problem! And, long before social media, there were other vehicles that drove the spread of news, and humans drove them all in much the same way. Some drove them quite well, but many drove them very, very badly.

Anyway, in this instance the initial effect is awesome. ‘Almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord’. The Good News was big news that day! But, as always, the gospel had a fight on its hands. We don’t have to wait a week – it’s there in the following verse. ‘The Jews’, or at least some of them, and most likely those who held important leadership roles in that system of life, ‘were filled with jealousy’. They were losing the crowd that had taken so much notice of them in the past and they wanted to stop it. Right and wrong quickly went out of the window. God’s truth became of secondary importance. Preservation of status was uppermost in their minds.

This new message was so appealing to people. It made access to God within reach of ‘everyone’. But these leaders saw it as diluted. To their minds, Paul & Barnabas had just taken the essence of Jehovah’s Jewish Juice and watered it down with Gentile water, to produce something that could be stomached by all. Many were loving it, but these Jews hated this new flavour. It changed everything they stood for. If people submitted to the authority of Jesus over their lives, then these leaders would lose their influence. Gospel opportunity, once again, met with gospel opposition.

In the response of Paul and Barnabas we have a wonderful lesson – if you won’t listen then we’ll move on to people who will. They ‘answered them boldly’. Where did this boldness come from? God’s grace, his power for Christian living, gave them the strength they needed to keep going when the going got tough. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 15:9-10. He says that he had ‘worked harder than all of’ ‘the (other) apostles’, then he says, ‘yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me’. Paul worked hard - he laboured long and in a determined way. But Paul wasn’t going to flog a dead horse!

He points these unbelieving Israelites back to their own Old Testament scriptures to make his final point in verse 47. It’s from Isaiah 49:6, a section which our NIV titles, ‘The servant of the Lord’. Who is this servant of the Lord? It is Jesus. And Paul quotes this promise about Jesus which God gave – ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ This is ‘the word of the Lord’ which P & B preached that day. In effect, in verse 46, they are saying, ‘You may think that your religious life is above our supposedly diluted message. You believe that you are worth more – you are more ‘worthy’ of God’s favour because of your religious rule keeping but actually you have got it back to front. You have disqualified yourselves by trying to earn God’s favour. You have actually made yourselves unworthy by your rejection of God’s free gift of grace. You may not listen but others will’. And others do.

Verse 48 says, ‘When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed’. Ooh er – that sounds a bit pre-destinationy! You’ve spent all this time telling us that Jesus is for ‘everyone’ and now it’s gone all exclusive. Isn’t this just a massive barrier? No, I don’t believe it is. The word here translated ‘appointed’ appears, in all various forms and tenses, only 8 times in the original New Testament Greek. It seems always to refer to an appointment of someone or something from outside. Those who believed, here, were also ‘appointed’ to do so by an outside influence. It is inescapable. But in this there is presented such hope to those who, by their lives and language, carry ‘the word of the Lord’ about Jesus’ power to save, into a fallen world. There will be opposition. There will be rejection. There will be suffering. But there will be success – yes and amen – signed and sealed by the King of kings and Lord of lords - guaranteed by royal appointment.

But, some may ask - and it is a valid question - ‘where does this leave me?’ What hope of eternal life is there for me if I’m not ‘appointed’. I’ll say this – don’t worry yourself with what is God’s job. Just concentrate on what you are called to do in response to Jesus. I finished our Easter message by quoting John 3:16 – ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’. Concentrate on that. Just believe and it’s guaranteed. It’s appointed that you ‘shall not perish but have eternal life’, if you just believe that Jesus is your saviour.

And many did. A new church is formed here. P & B will visit it on their return home in chapter 14. But before they do, there’s work to do. And these new believers are ready, willing and, by God’s grace, enabled. Verse 49 says, ‘The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.’

Verse 50 then speaks of further opposition. We read a strange thing in relation to those ‘women of high standing’ who joined the opposition - they were ‘God fearing’. How very solemn. They were ‘devout’ – that is how the Greek word is translated in verse 43. They feared the one God of Israel. But they had chosen the wrong path. They had rejected Jesus and so turned away from the way to life. And so, once again, these two men moved on elsewhere. What will happen now to this newly formed church? Surely, it’s doomed. But the church is not founded on any Paul, or any Barnabas. It is built on God’s sure and certain foundation – Jesus Christ the Lord. These great preachers left, but ‘the word of the Lord’ had taken root and remained, and the chapter finishes by telling us that, consequently, ‘the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit’.

Paul and Barnabas weren’t ‘living the good life’ in the sense that misshapen human philosophy encourages us to. They weren’t living in comfort and luxury with few problems or worries. But they were on the Jesus Journey, and they lived good lives for God. How did they do it in the face of suffering and opposition? How could Barnabas continue to be the man that he wanted to be – full of encouragement to those around him? How could Paul continue to be the person that he was called to be for Jesus. Well, I quoted 1 Corinthians 15 earlier. There Paul tells us how. He says, ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect’. Why? Because it was God’s grace. God who makes plans which always come to pass. God who makes appointments which are never missed.

Do we desire effectiveness for Jesus? Can we be effective? If our Christian living depends on our own power for living, then our effectiveness will be zero. But, if we depend on God’s grace, we will be what we should be and we will be effective in the way in which he has ‘appointed’. Then Ephesians 2:10 will not just be truth on a page of our bibles, but true on the pages of our lives.

‘We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’.


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