“In the past, God let all nations go their own way,” Acts 14:16, but why would he do that when it was obvious from the very beginning where it would end up?
God gave Adam and Eve freedom of choice, and what did they do with it? They did exactly what Paul said in Acts 14:16 – they went “their own way.” And what a mess of things came of it: In Genesis 6:5-6 “human evil was so out of control that God was sorry he’d made the human race in the first place.”
And things haven’t improved much since, have they? Not according to Paul, because he describes the end part of our history as well in 2 Timothy 3:2-5 when people will be “self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane, contemptuous of parents, crude, coarse, dog-eat-dog, unbending, slanderers, impulsively wild, savage, cynical, treacherous, ruthless, bloated windbags, addicted to lust, and allergic to God. They’ll make a show of religion, but behind the scenes they’re animals.” And we’re now stuck in this nasty human experiment of our own making too.
But God had another story running alongside our story showing that we’re not stuck. And this was the story that many Gentiles were picking up on – as Paul and Barnabas discovered when visiting the Jewish synagogue in Iconium. They found several Gentiles attending the synagogue too, drawn to the story of Israel and Israel’s God.
And what the Gentiles were learning from Israel’s story was how different Israel’s God was to their gods. Israel’s God had stuck with his people no matter what. And any time the Israelites turned to him for help he always graciously responded.
And that was the story Paul and Barnabas told on their journeys into the Gentile world, because the story of Israel led to the existence of Jesus, who’d come to “confirm the message of God’s graciousness,” Acts 14:3, by his death providing forgiveness and assurance of God’s acceptance (13:38-39).
But what really excited the Gentiles was hearing that God would “confirm the message of his graciousness” in their lives too. And he’d do it through very obvious “signs and wonders” as well, Acts 14:3.
As Christians of many years, then, they’d be able to look back on a life of God’s graciousness providing all kinds of amazing things happening in their lives, just like he’d done amazing things in the lives of the Israelites.
And God was already demonstrating his amazing graciousness with signs and wonders in healing a man in Lystra who’d been unable to walk since he was born. What, then, would God do in their lives too that was just as miraculous and just as easily recognizable as God’s doing?
Because that’s what God wanted both Jews and Gentiles to see and recognize, that life as a Christian is filled with confirmation of God’s graciousness – and have it confirmed in signs and wonders too, like being freed from thoughts of revenge, hatred, bitterness, despondency and hopelessness, or being freed from the fear of death, or being freed from addictions to one-upmanship, money and power, or being able to forgive even one’s worst enemy, or viewing the world and people through Jesus’ eyes, not the eyes of the culture. And best of all, discovering our hearts are being tuned more and more to Jesus’ heart.
In which case there will be many occasions when the extent and proof of God’s graciousness will really hit home to us, making the gospel message so real, just as it was for the Gentiles in Acts 14 when they heard it, and they then began to experience it personally too.
So, why does God let us make such a mess of things? Because he has the story of Israel waiting in the wings for us, that tells of the Israelites “going their own way” and making a horrible mess of things too. But God was always gracious with them, because when they came to their senses and turned to him he always responded. And that gospel message is the same for us today (Hebrews 4:2).