A few years ago now, one of my mates signed up for a group called Toastmasters. I don’t know if anybody here knows about toastmasters? Basically, it’s a group of people getting together to improve their public speaking skills. Each week, a few of the members have to get up and give a speech to the group. It’s a great idea. I must admit to you though, that I had this brilliant plan all worked out in my head how I could use something like toastmasters as a Christian. I had this idea that I could join the group, and then – ever so casually – preach to them whenever I was asked to give a speech!
I never did do that, and I’m still not sure whether it would have actually been a good thing or not. But in today’s passage, we see how Paul and Barnabas find themselves in a slightly similar situation. Difference being that Paul and Barnabas were invited to speak at the church – not down at the local.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been continuing our journey through the book of Acts. We’ve seen, with Peter, how the good news about Jesus is available to everybody – regardless of ancestry. We’ve seen how God answers prayer. And we’ve seen how God can use us as individuals and us as a church.
Last week, we left Paul and Barnabas on the Island of Cyprus. The place where Barnabas grew up. And this week, verse 13, they leave Cyprus for Pamphylia. Which is – roughly speaking – in the same neck of the woods as where Paul grew up – Tarsus. Doctor Luke – who’s writing all this down – tells us that they arrived in the town Perga where, much to Paul’s disgust – as chapter 15 tells us, John Mark leaves to go home to Jerusalem.
And it’s interesting that Luke doesn’t mention Paul and Barnabas doing any missionary work while they were in Perga. And I suspect the reason for that is that Paul wasn’t actually well enough to do any preaching or speaking. Apparently, that part of the world was known for a particularly nasty type of malaria. My Father had malaria as a young man, and even 10 years ago he would still have relapses every now and again. It’s a terrible disease. Your drained of energy. Apparently the type of malaria in Perga was so bad that your head felt like somebody was pushing a red-hot poker through it.
And yes, Luke doesn’t tell us in so many words that this is what Paul had. But we do know that the reason Paul actually went up to the Galatian plataue – which is where Psidian Antioch was – the reason Paul went to the Galatians was because he was sick. In his letter to the Galatians, chapter 4:13, Paul says “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.” What an amazing God we serve! Paul gets sick, and goes up to the Galatians, and an incredible work of God takes place. Almost a whole town turns out to hear the word of God for themselves.
I can just picture Paul, slowly recovering from his illness. Probably being looked after by his mate Barnabas. And come the Sabbath, Paul feels well enough to go along and sit in on the synagogue service. Notice how, in verse 14, the two of them just go in and sit down. They’re there to listen. To hear God’s word. They sit through the service. Prayers, readings from the Law and from the Prophets. And it’s then that some of the synagogue leaders suggest that “if they’ve got a message of encouragement”, they should feel free to speak.
And you know, sick or not, for Paul that’s like waving a red flag at a bull. “If you’ve got a message of encouragement.” IF! That’s the whole reason why Paul and Barnabas are on this journey. Because they have the most amazing, most brilliant, most life-changing message of encouragement possible. If there’s only one message of encouragement you hear this year, make it this one!
So Paul gets up. Hushes the crowd. Pauses. And begins one of the most brilliant sermons ever. So much does God’s Word move the crowd that the next week it’s like the whole town turns out to hear Paul speak God’s word to them. There’s basically 4 parts to what Paul has to say. First off, he speaks about the good news in the Old Testament. Then he speaks about the good news of Jesus. Then he ties them together, showing how the two are actually one. And he finishes by challenging his audience – challenging us – to be followers of Jesus; to continue in the grace of God.
Remember, this is a mostly Jewish audience that Paul is speaking to. People who met weekly to study the Old Testament. People who prided themselves on being descendants of Abraham. People who called themselves the chosen ones of God. And Paul looks at them, verse 17, and he says, “Yes! Yes, God chose our fathers.” Yes – we have an incredible history of God dealing with us Jews as a people.
Yes: God has done amazing things for us. Verse 17, God chose our Fathers; he made the people prosper; he led them out of Egypt with his mighty power. Verse 18, God himself endured the Israelites’ hard hearts while they were in the desert. Verse 19, God himself overthrew all the nations that were in Canaan and gave the land of Israel to his people. Verse 20, God provided judges. Verse 21, God gave Israel a king when they asked for one. And verse 22, God removed Saul as king and replaced him with David.
Can you hear the thrust of what Paul is saying to them? God did this, God did that, God did that other thing, God did, God did, God did. Paul is looking back over the history of God’s dealing with Israel, and seeing time and again how God is in charge. This is the good news of the Old Testament: God deals with people. God is the one who acts to save his people. Time and again looks after his people. Provides all that they need. What a wonderful God we serve! God is the one with a plan, and Paul is showing how all of the Old Testament was God’s acting to bring about one person. Verse 23: Jesus Christ. The answer to the promises of God.
God has a plan. What a powerful message. Maybe something which we need to be reminded of today. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment. Or to worry about the future. And if God didn’t have a plan – if God hasn’t got a history of acting to save… then we should worry about the future. Because who knows what tomorrow will bring. At the moment, everybody seems to be worried that climate change is going to kill half of us off. And maybe it will – I’m no expert. But God does have a plan! Hallelujah, he does! We can look back through history and see all the times when God has acted to save us. And as we look back, like Paul does, our gaze will be drawn inexorably, relentlessly, to the center point of history: Jesus Christ himself!!
Says Paul, the gospel of the old Testament is all about the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Good news is Jesus. Verse 26: the message of salvation come to us. The message that Jesus came, verse 23, as promised. That he was wrongly tried and executed – as promised. Was buried. The message that though Jesus died God raised Jesus from the dead. As seen by a crowd of witnesses. This is the gospel of God. The Good news. The message of encouragement Paul has for us today just as he had for the crowd in Antioch.
That’s how Paul summarises it in verse 32: We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. The Good news of Jesus is the good news that God has been leading history towards ever since creation.
And, says Paul, the evidence that Jesus is the answer is right there in the Old Testament. He takes 3 quotations from the Old Testament: Psalm 2, Isaiah 55, Psalm 16 – and he shows how everything applies t0 Jesus. The risen Lord – as promised long ago.
Paul’s looked back over history – and seen God’s hand at work. He’s show how it all leads to Jesus – how the Old Testament points to Jesus being God’s Messiah for us. A wonderful message of encouragement: God acts.
But it’s now that Paul opens the floodgates of encouragement, verse 38. He gets to the whole point of what he’s been saying. He zooms in from the big picture of history to a personal level. What does it all mean for us? What does all this “gospel” mean for me and for you. Verse 38: Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him, everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.
I can speak for myself and say that I have an inbuilt tendency to drift towards law. Not that I’m always keeping the law. Quite the opposite. As Paul says over in Romans, the law makes me aware that I’m a lawbreaker. That I fail. That I don’t deserve God’s goodness. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I’m sure the people in Paul’s crowd knew exactly what I’m talking about. They were Jews and God-fearers. People who dedicated their lives to following God’s laws. Some of them, at least, must have recognised their failing. Know that they didn’t keep God’s perfect law perfectly.
But this is the message of encouragement: through Jesus the forgiveness of sins. Through Jesus, those who believe in him are set right with God. Justified. Completely and absolutely. Justified. I’ve been a Christian my whole life, and I can still barely take it in! We have been set free. By faith and not by works. By believing in Jesus – trusting in Jesus. And yes – we are all rotters. But the good news of history for you and for me and for all who would hear and believe is that we can be forgiven.
Paul almost finishes his message of encouragement with that. Almost. Because a message of encouragement is not enough. What the Word of God demands is action. In verse 40, Paul warns the people in Antioch – warns us all – not to reject God’s offer. Not to hear the brilliantly good news and just laugh it off.
And some of you might be sitting there thinking that you’ve heard all this before. You’ve heard how Jesus came, died, and was raised from the dead. You’ve heard the stories of how God has a plan that centres around Jesus. But isn’t it the truth that we need to hear Paul’s sermon again and again and again and again and again. This message of encouragement needs to take centre stage in our life. In Jesus, we are free. If we forget this, if we slip back into trying to earn our way into heaven….
This is all about God’s grace: God’s mercy to the world – to the Jews – and to us. That we can come as we are to Jesus and be set right with God. We need to continue in the grace of God. That’s what Paul says to the new converts in verse 43. Because it’s only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ that we are right with God.
And if we know that grace: isn’t it exciting! How could we hold such a message of encouragement to ourselves? How could we hold it back. The people in Psidian Antioch certainly couldn’t. Come the next Sabbath, not only where they back to hear more; they’d also brought what Luke describes as “almost the whole city” with them.
One week, and the church is packed! Wow – can you imagine that sort of excitement in our small church. Could we be so encouraged by what God has done for us in Jesus, that we can’t hold it back. That we share it with our friends and relatives. I pray that God might do something like that. That he might light a fire within us. That we might be encouraged beyond belief.
And yes, not everybody will be thrilled. Paul and Barnabas ended up getting booted out of town. The Jews were envious. Jealous at the idea that just anybody could be set right with God. But verse 47, we are a light for the Gentiles. To bring salvation to the ends of the Earth. Jesus’ salvation. The Good news. I love verses 48 and 49. Chosen by God, people accept Jesus. And verse 49: the Word of the Lord spread through the whole region.
I never have joined toastmasters. And I don’t really think it right to join with the express purpose of preaching the gospel and then getting out. But I know that if I was a member, I would bring Jesus into my speeches. How could I not – it’s the best news I could tell!