Rebuilt Ruins Will Reach the World

Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written,

"After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old."

The Institutional Background for This Message 

The Baptist General Conference has just passed a historic milestone. On Thursday it approved a new constitution. On Friday it elected a new president, Robert Ricker.

And if we took a survey, we would probably discover that dozens of churches within the BGC are on the brink of similar historic decisions. Bethlehem, for one, will be facing major decisions this fall concerning the building of a new sanctuary, and the revision of our governance structure.

The deacons have been studying the constitutional issue for well over a year and the long range planning committee—in one form or another—has been in existence for almost three years. If I read the signs correctly, both of these groups will lay their recommendations before the church for our consideration in the next several months.

The Personal Background for This Message 

That's the institutional background for today's message. There is a personal background. Two weeks ago I preached at Irvine Presbyterian church in California. At the end of the service I had a chance to talk briefly with Jim Conway. He's probably best known for his writings about men in mid-life crisis.

We talked a little about Bethlehem—that I have been here for seven years and that I have no dreams after Bethlehem except heaven. He said, "So you haven't hit your mid-life crisis yet?" I said, "I don't know; I'm 41." He laughed and said, "You're not there, yet. The average age is 42.5!"

So what do we need institutionally and personally at this particular point in our history? From the institutional standpoint we will face the greatest change and challenge since the early '50s. And from the personal standpoint I am supposed to hit the wall next summer and either become an insurance salesman or buy a sailboat.

Well, I think what we need—what we need as a church and what I need as a 41 year old pastor who has been at Bethlehem seven years—is to hear a clear and powerful statement from God about who we are and why we are here. What is our identity and what is our destiny? It is absolutely essential for long-term, fruitful ministry that we be able to give clear, resounding biblical answers to the questions: Who are we? And why are we here?

There are many ways that the Bible says it. This morning I want us to listen to a text that had never struck me the way it has in the last six or seven weeks. The text is Acts 15:16–18.

The Context of Acts 15:16–18

First, let's get the context clearly before us.

The Controversy Concerning Circumcision

It's about 15 years since Jesus died and rose again. Some zealous Jewish Christians from Jerusalem make a trip to Antioch and begin to preach among the Gentile Christians: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved" (15:1).

This does not go over well with Paul and Barnabas. In fact, if we can judge from Paul's attitude in his letter to the Galatians, the controversy was red hot.

The Meeting in Jerusalem

The church decides to send Paul and Barnabas to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to see if some doctrinal unity can be achieved.

Luke records four phases of the controversy in Jerusalem:

  • In verse 5 he tells us what the Christian Pharisees said: Gentiles must be circumcised.
  • In verses 7–11 he tells us what Peter said: Back at Cornelius' house God made no distinction between Jew and Gentile but gave them the Holy Spirit and cleansed their hearts by faith. Both Jew and Gentile are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.
  • In verse 12 he tells us how God had done signs and wonders among the Gentiles through the hands of Paul and Barnabas.
  • Finally, Luke tells us in verses 13–21 how James gave the concluding resolution that carried the day.

The Argument of James

It's James' argument from the prophets that I want us to look at this morning. Let's begin reading at verse 14. James says,

Simeon [= Peter] has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written,

"After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old."

Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God . . .

Four Questions About This Text 

I have at least four questions to ask of this text:

  1. What is this quotation from the OT prophets intended to support? Why is it brought in?
  2. What does this prophecy mean in its OT context of Amos 9?
  3. How does this prophetic word support what James is trying to say?
  4. What does it have to say about who we are at Bethlehem and why we are here?

1. What the Quote Supports

What is this quotation from the OT prophets intended to support? Why is it brought in?

The answer is given in verses 14 and 15. Verse 15 says, "And with this the words of the prophets agree . . . " And then James quotes the prophecy. So James wants to show that what he has just said is in agreement with prophecy: "With THIS the words of the prophets agree."

So what does "this" refer to? What is it that the prophets agree with? THIS refers back to what he just said in verse 14, namely, "Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name." With THIS the words of the prophets agree.

So what is it that James wants to support with this prophetic Scripture? He wants to support the fact that in the ministry of Peter God himself visited the Gentiles and by his own initiative took out of them a people for his name.

  • God himself did the visiting and took a people for himself;
  • the people he visited were uncircumcised Gentiles;
  • and the instrument he used to take them was a minister of the church.

For James those were the decisive truths that settled the issue of whether uncircumcised Gentiles could be accepted into the people of God or not.

Could these truths be supported from prophetic Scripture? James clearly believes they can. He gives a loose rendering of Amos 9:11–12. But notice he does not claim to be quoting Amos. He says in verse 15: "With this the words of the prophets agree." He uses the words of Amos to say what he believes all the prophets taught to one degree or another.

But let's go back now to the ninth chapter of Amos and try to answer our second question:

2. What the Prophecy Means

What does this prophecy, that James cites in Acts 15:16–18, mean in its OT context?

Judgment on God's Own People

Let's start reading at Amos 9:8. God is prophesying judgment upon his own people:

Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground; except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord.

For lo, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall upon the earth. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, "Evil shall not overtake or meet us."

Rescue, Rebuilding, and Hope

Then at verse 11 the focus turns from judgment to rescue and rebuilding and hope:

In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord who does this.

Now what is God saying here through his prophet Amos? He is saying that the time is coming when his anger will be turned away and that the ruined people will be restored.

It's PEOPLE that he has been talking about in the preceding verses: "All the sinners of my PEOPLE shall die by the sword" (v. 10). And it is people that he has in mind in verse 12: "That THEY may possess the remnant of Edom . . . "

So I conclude that the repairing of the booth or the tent of David in verse 11 is a graphic way of speaking of the restoration of his people to spiritual wholeness. It is the people who have fallen into the ruin of sin and judgment. Now it is the people who will be repaired and rebuilt.

The Destiny of the Nations Called By God's Name

Then in verse 12 the purpose of that rebuilding is that Edom, the typical hostile Gentile nation, might be possessed by the new, rebuilt people of God.

At first that might sound merely like defeat and subjugation of Israel's enemies. But look at the second half of verse 12. The purpose of repairing and rebuilding the sinful people is not merely to possess the remnant of Edom, but to possess "all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord."

If defeat and subjugation were in view, he would not say that the target is the nations called by God's name. These are not enemies. People called by God's name are God's people. So the point in this text is not defeat and enslavement, but conversion and ingathering. This is world missions in Amos 9:12, not world domination.

The Same Message in Other Prophets

And just like James says, this is not unique to Amos. Isaiah 11:10,

In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek [this is not enslavement!], and his dwellings shall be glorious.

And Zechariah 2:11 says,

And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in the midst of you.

So the answer to our second question is that the prophecy James cites in Acts 15:16–18 means in its OT context that there is a day coming when God will return in favor to his people, repair them and rebuild them, and make them a means to gather in all the nations who are called by his name.

3. How the Quote Supports James' Argument

How does this prophetic quotation support what James is trying to say?

James' Words to the Council

Recall James' words to the Council in Jerusalem. They are summed up in Acts 15:14—

  • through the ministry of Peter
  • God himself visited the uncircumcised Gentiles
  • and took out from them a people for his name.

Does the quotation from Amos agree with this? If we let the OT context be our guide, it does indeed!

The Restoration of God's People

First of all, James quotes God in verse 16, "I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up." And we understand this to refer primarily to the restoration of God's people (especially the Jews).

Jesus came into the world and began to gather a true believing remnant of Israel. First there were 12 apostles; then there were 5,000 converts in Jerusalem. And so it spread as God began to fulfill his promise to rebuild the dwelling of David and repair the ruins of his people.

A Way Opened for the Gentiles

Then James goes on in verse 17 and says that purpose of these rebuilt ruins was not to horde the blessing of God but to make a way for the rest of men to seek the Lord, specifically, all the Gentiles who are called by the name of the Lord.

So here's what James is saying:

  • Peter is part of the rebuilt ruins of the people of God; and, right in line with prophetic Scripture, he did not horde the blessing of salvation.
  • And so he became the instrument by which God himself visited the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius.
  • And through this human instrument and this divine visitation God took out from the Gentiles a people for his own name.

So the answer to question 3 is that the quotation of Amos 9:11–12 hits the nail right on the head. It supports James' main point by showing that God had promised to come and rebuild the ruins of his people and make those very people the instrument by which he would reach the Gentile world—the uncircumcised world—and gather his elect (those who are called by his name) from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

4. What This Says About Our Identity and Purpose

What does this have to say about who we are and why we are here?

The answer from the text is very simple:

  1. We are ruins in the process of being repaired and rebuilt by the grace of God,
  2. and we are here that the rest of men may seek the Lord, all the Gentiles who are called by his name.

But some one may ask, Didn't you imply that the rebuilt ruins of the dwelling of David were converted Jews like Peter and not Gentiles like us? The answer is yes, that's the way the rebuilding starts. But just as soon as the rebuilt dwelling begins to fulfill its destiny described in verse 17 and Gentiles start to be gathered in, they too become part of the rebuilt ruins.

This is what Paul meant in Ephesians 2:19–20 when he said to the converted Gentiles—you and me—"You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone."

So let me give the answer again.

Who are we at Bethlehem?

We are ruins—we need to pause there and let that sink in—we are ruins . . . in the process of being repaired and rebuilt by the grace of God.

And why are we here?

The logic of verse 17 is unmistakable: it begins with the glorious little world "that" (or: "in order that"). We are here THAT the rest of men may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who are called by his name.

Two Practical Applications 

Now let me draw this message to a close by giving two practical applications of what we have seen.

1. Let Us Be Encouraged

Let us be encouraged—mightily encouraged—that the times of tearing down are over, and that we live in the day of divine rebuilding. Let it sink into your mind that we live in a day when God's purpose is to rebuild the ruins of his people.

Specifically, let it be an encouragement in your own life when you still feel very much ruined and fallen and broken down like a booth in the wilderness. Preach to yourself from this text that today is a day of repair and a day of rebuilding. God's will, revealed in prophetic Scripture and reaffirmed in the apostolic word, is that we not languish in ruin and disrepair. He is eager to rebuild the ruins of your life.

And let this be an encouragement to pray for the church—across this city, across the BGC, across the nation and around the world. O how grievous it is to read in Operation World of the weakness and nominalism and leadership void in the churches around the world. This does not accord with the revealed will of God for this age of salvation.

This is a time for lifting up what is fallen and rebuilding the ruins. And so God has given us strong encouragement in this text to pray and work for the awakening and deepening and strengthening of God's church around the world, and for a new day of power in the BGC.

But power for what? That leads to the second and final application.

2. Let Us Know Who We Are and Why We Are Here

If God is rebuilding the ruins of his people "that the rest of men may seek the Lord,"—if, as verse 17 says, that is God's purpose for rebuilding the ruins of his church—then let us be perfectly honest with ourselves: we will only experience the ongoing blessing of God if devote ourselves to helping the rest of mankind find the Lord.

If I have been on the right track, we now know who we are, and why we are here in downtown Minneapolis.

We are ruins being rebuilt by the grace of God.

And we are here that the rest of men may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles who are called by his name.

And my prayer for myself and for this church is that the crystal clear statement of who we are and why we are here will give us great faith and courage to face the challenges of the fall, and will keep me from throwing my life away on a sailboat when I turn forty-two and a half.

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