History Is God's Story
Now Paul and his company set sail from Paphos, and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem; but they passed on from Perga and came to Antioch of Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them saying, "Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it." So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: "Men of Israel, and you that fear God, listen. The God of his 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 bore with them in the wilderness. And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty 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 posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming John had preached 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 after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.' Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you that 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 these by condemning him. Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb . . . "
This is the first sermon in the book of Acts that we hear from the apostle Paul. And one way to understand it is to see two main points. One point is that everything in the history of Israel was leading up to the coming of Jesus and the great salvation for sinners that he would accomplish when he died and rose again.
The other point in this sermon is that the story behind Jesus is God's story. This text is utterly saturated with God. Sixteen times Paul presses home the truth that God is the central Actor in history. Walk with me through this text to see this, and then how relevant it is for us from newscasts to spelling tests.
Sixteen Declarations of God's Acts in History
- One, in verse 17a, it is God who chooses Israel from all the people of the earth for his special purposes.
- Two, in verse 17b, God made the people great during their stay in Egypt. It was not mere natural fertility. God made them grow.
- Three, in verse 17c, it says God led them out of Egypt with an uplifted arm. In other words, God flexed his muscles in Egypt. God made an unusual display of his power. God meant to be seen as the mighty deliverer of his people.
- Four, in verse 18, God bore with Israel in the wilderness. Or another old reading with one letter different says that God carried Israel like a father carries a child (Deuteronomy 1:31). God was the guide and sustainer and Father in the wilderness.
- Five, in verse 19a, it was God who destroyed the seven nations in the land of Canaan. Sure the people swung the sword, but Paul wants to stress the pervasive hand of God in all human triumphs. Like Proverbs 21:31, "The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord."
- Six, in verse 19b, it was God who gave Israel the land of Canaan as an inheritance. He owned it. It's his to give to his children who trust him. It was not the Canaanites' land. It was God's. The earth is his for he made it (cf. Psalm 95:5). And one day he will give it to the meek for an inheritance.
- Seven, in verse 20, it was God who gave them judges. These rulers did not rise up merely in the course of human events. God raised them up.
- Eight, in verse 21, it was God who gave to Israel her first king, Saul.
- Nine, in verse 22a, it was God who removed Saul. Just like Daniel says (in 2:21), "God changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings." Or as God says in Daniel 4:32, "The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will." God removed Saul.
- Ten, in verse 22b, God raised up David the son of Jesse. God chose him—a young nobody who was good with a sling shot and liked to play the harp and write songs. God took Saul down and put David up. It was God's doing.
- Eleven, in verse 23, it was God who brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus—and not as though God were the impersonal force behind the flow of history, but the verse says at the end, God did it "as he promised." In other words, God wasn't just active in the moment Jesus entered the world. He had set things up for it. He had planned long ago, and spoken of it long ago, so that when it happened, we would know he was doing it.
- Twelve, in verses 24–25, we meet John the Baptist. And what Paul quotes him as saying is that he takes attention off himself and put it on the Christ, God's anointed Savior. "I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie." Jesus said that no prophet born of woman was greater than John (Luke 7:28). Yet John says, he is not worthy to untie Jesus' sandals. In other words the point of John's words are to show that Jesus is the center of the story, not anyone else.
- Thirteen, in verse 26, when Paul says, "To us has been sent the message of this salvation," who is the actor behind that passive verb, "has been sent"? Who sent us this message? The answer is God. God planned it. God accomplished it in Jesus, and God is sending it.
- Fourteen, in verse 27, Paul goes out of his way to show that even those who did not know God—who were out of step with God and could not understand his "manual of operation"—nevertheless did what God planned and prophesied. "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 these by condemning him." What's the point of saying such a thing? If a person reads and understands God's prophecies and fulfills them, you may conclude that they partnered with God to get them done. But if you don't know the prophecies and you do them, who is at work making sure that happens? God. That's the point. Paul is on a mission here to make plain that history is God's story. God is the central Actor whether men acknowledge him or not. He is getting his work done, even through those who do not know him.
- Fifteen, in verse 29, Paul makes the same point: "And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a tomb." What was happening in the arrest and trial and death of Jesus was not mainly the work of man. It was God's plan laid out in Scripture. Paul shares the same God-centered view of history that Peter expressed in his first sermon in Acts 2:23, "This Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (cf. Acts 4:28).
- Finally, sixteen, in verse 30, it is God who raises Jesus from the dead: "But God raised him from the dead." Yes, Jesus gave up his own life freely and he took it again with divine power. But Paul's point is that God has been at work from the beginning and was at work in the death and resurrection, and is at work now in sending the message of this salvation.
The Point Paul Was Making in Preaching This Way
Now think about all this for a moment. Don't take this kind of narration of history for granted. Let it strike you as strange as it really is. Is this the way you tell stories about what happened? When you tell somebody about the past, do you say, "God did this and God did that and God did that and God did that, etc."? Do you say that God did virtually everything? Probably not. So Paul didn't have to either. He chose to preach this way. He consciously chose to narrate history this way. He was making a statement. One that we need to listen to again and again today.
He was saying, There is a great and glorious God. Know him. Reckon with him. Think about him. He was saying that God is really working in history. He is the main Worker in history. He is the explanation for, the meaning of, everything.
The Superficial and Naïve Age in Which We Live
We live in an age where this is not believed. Therefore it is a superficial and naïve age. It is superficial and naïve to discuss events and never deal with their most important connections, namely, their connections with God and his purposes. Check yourself on this. Are you as superficially secular and naïve as most people?
Virtually all our communication media and educational enterprises are superficial because they don't deal with the most important aspects of their subject, namely, their connections with God and his purposes. Almost all news reports are superficial. Almost all history books are superficial. Virtually all public education in America is superficial. Almost all editorial and news commentary is superficial. All this because of the incredible, unimaginable disregard for God—the main Reality in the universe, the explanation behind everything, and without which all understandings are superficial. When the main thing is missing, the thing is superficial whatever it is.
It's Not Religion; It's Reality
Someone may say, "O that's just religion. You can't expect education to be about religion." It's not religion. It's reality. If you want to be a Christian, it means believing that God is the main Actor in world events—that he is the most important Factor in all matters. Paul was talking to unbelievers here. He was evangelizing. And part of what he was trying to do was show them a way of looking at the world that sets the stage for the gospel—namely, that it is God's world. He made it. He owns it and everyone in it. He works in it. He is guiding it to his appointed goals. Everything without exception, everything has to do with God, and gets its main meaning from God.
When I pray for my sons in school (whether Calvin Christian, or Roosevelt High, or Bethel College), what I pray (among other things) is, "Lord, cause them to see everything in relation to God. How does this subject come from God? And how is God working in it now in the world and in this school? And what are God's purposes for this subject—geometry, PE, English, grammar, spelling?"
God and Spelling
Spelling? I can hear someone say, you mean there's a Christian spelling!? That's always the way the non-God-centered cynic poses the question. "Right, I'm sure Christians ought to have their own way of spelling!" That just shows how superficial the questioner is. As long as you are simply dealing at the superficial level of things, you might be able to convince yourself that God is irrelevant to spelling (I can't even there). But once you start asking a few questions, he is immediately relevant and on center stage.
For example, what will you answer a boy who says, "Why should I learn to spell the way everybody else does? Why can't I just spell the way I want to?" You might say, "Well, because if you spell your own way, you won't communicate as well with others and you will put barriers in the way of having your ideas accepted." Then suppose he says, "Why should I care about communicating well or about barriers to my ideas being accepted?"
Now watch this? We are just below the surface of superficiality in education, and already the ways divide. You can answer that question taking God into account, or, like most of the world, leaving God out of account. You can say things like, "If you can't communicate well, you won't succeed in business and you won't make as much money or make advances in the community or (here's the great substitute-God of our day) you won't have as much self-esteem." That's one way to answer. And it stays at the superficial level.
Or you can answer something like this: "You should care about communicating first, because you are created in the image of God who was and is the great Communicator, and second, because you have something infinitely important to communicate, namely, the truth of God, and third, because God is love and is dishonored when his human creatures scoff at whether it matters that our previous gifts of knowledge can be effectively shared. And fourth, because language was God's idea from the beginning ('In the beginning was the Word') and God is a God of order and beauty, not of chaos and anarchy—not even spelling anarchy."
This is not a sermon about spelling. It's an urgent plea at Christmas time that you not be conformed to this superficial, God-disregarding age. It doesn't even know the questions to ask, let alone the answers to give. If you become as superficial as the world, who, pray tell, will bear witness to the centrality of God the way Paul did?