In Acts 13:44 “almost the whole city (of Pisidian Antioch in south western Turkey) gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” The gospel message had created that kind of stir. And this was a city made up mostly of pagan Gentiles too, who had no background in Bible teaching, no clue about the God of the Old Testament, or the history of Israel, or the promises God had made.
So what was in the gospel message that had triggered such an eager response? And would it create the same response in people today too, who also have little to no understanding of God and his promises?
Well, whatever was said in the synagogue that day in Acts 13 it had both “Jews and devout (Gentile) converts to Judaism following Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God,” verse 43.
So there’s our clue: it was learning about the grace of God that had triggered such an eager response. But what was so great about God’s grace?
According to Paul it offered two things, the first of which he mentions in verse 38 when he says,“Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.”
To the Jews in the audience that was shocking news, because for centuries they’d lived under the cloud of God never forgiving them for what they’d done. Instead, they‘d had to pay “double for all their sins” (Isaiah 40:2), and all those sacrifices they’d “repeated endlessly year after year” (Hebrews 10:1) were “an annual reminder of (their) sins” too (verse 3), so that all year and every year they were faced with their guilt (verse 2).
As such, things had never been right between them and God, just like a child in disgrace never being able to make things right with his parents. Nothing the child says or does heals the relationship. But that’s understandable when the child knew better but treated his parents with disdain, just like the Jews who’d known better had treated God with disdain.
Like a child in disgrace, then, the Jews longed for forgiveness. And suddenly, here was Paul telling them they’d been forgiven “through Jesus.” What a weight off their shoulders that must have been, just like it is for any of us who’ve said and done things we’ve deeply regretted but could do nothing about. Even the memory of those stupidities cannot not be erased. Back they come to haunt us, sticking to us for life like a criminal record.
It’s so hard to forgive oneself too, isn’t it? You feel like such an idiot when easily charmed and scammed into stupidity, to the point perhaps of wishing you were dead, because it feels like the world would be better off without you. As Gentiles, then, we too can relate to the huge relief of knowing “through Jesus” that all that rubbish God had to watch and tolerate in us year upon year has been erased. Our criminal record is now an empty file.
And this is what makes the grace of God so amazing, and especially in a world that’s so unforgiving by comparison. In the “woke” and “virtue signalling” culture of today every wrong, no matter how long ago it was done, or how famous the person was who did it, is now being hung out like dirty laundry for all to see and spit at. Write a wrong tweet in a moment of stupidity and it will be pounced on. And no matter how much good you’ve done otherwise, it is all forgotten in the mob frenzy of holier-than-thou indignation by those who think they have the right to be judge and jury of your life – and the right to inflict the suffering they feel you deserve too.
Disgusting things people have done deserve to be exposed, of course, and appropriate penalties applied, but what reaches a person’s heart more to create deep repentance and change than knowing through Jesus there is nothing that can’t be forgiven? It’s the first and most important step in every human life, because without forgiveness we can never shake off self-disgust or the helpless feeling of never being able to correct what we’ve done wrong.
So as those Jews and Gentiles in the synagogue listened to Paul, they felt the heaviness of their past slipping away, like a fresh wind blowing the suffocating pollution out of a city. No wonder they followed Paul and Barnabas wanting to hear more about God’s amazing grace. And more is what they got too….(more about that in Part 2 next week)