Why do people become Christians? – part 2

Peter was the first person in the history of the world to discover how and why people become Christians. 

First and foremost, Acts 15:11, he understood that it’s purely “through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved.”  It’s not because of anything we do that we become Christians, it’s all God’s doing, as we see in the meeting God set up between Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10. 

The reason God set up that meeting was because, in Peter’s words in Acts 15:8, “God knows the heart,”and in Cornelius God saw a very good heart. The man and the timing, then, were just right for the first Gentile in history to hear “the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,” Acts 10:36

It all began, then, with God noting a man with a good heart, and God then sending Peter to get the message about “peace through Jesus” to him. So now we have two stages in why people become Christians – the first being a good heart, followed by hearing the good news about Jesus.

The “good news” part is then explained in Acts 10:37-43. This is the gospel in its purest state, boiled down to its raw basics, making it digestible and easy to understand for all people through the centuries. And in verse 44 this was all that was needed for “the Holy Spirit to come on all who heard it.” 

And the reason for the Holy Spirit coming on them was to “purify their hearts,” Acts 15:9. So the conversion of those first Gentiles to Christianity began with a good heart, was followed by hearing the good news about Jesus, which heard and believed opened up a lifetime of the Holy Spirit transforming their hearts into the very likeness of Jesus’ heart.  

So what was in Peter’s ever so basic message that got through to Cornelius and his household so quickly and so profoundly? According to Acts 10:38 it was what the Holy Spirit did in Jesus’ life. It gave him the “power” to go “around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”  And to people with good hearts that had a huge and immediate appeal. But why?

Because doing good and healing was what their good hearts were all about too. Cornelius loved doing good and helping people in need, and now he was hearing that the heart of God – displayed in bright, shining reality in the life of Jesus – was just like that too. 

And unlike their Gentile gods, the God seen in Jesus was very much into healing too, and healing in two striking ways – first of all in the “forgiveness of sins,” verse 43, but also in God “appointing Jesus as judge of the living and the dead,” verse 42

Both parts to a Gentile would have sounded amazing, because their gods weren’t about forgiveness at all. Their gods must be kept happy, or else, but Jesus pictured a God of mercy, kindness and compassion. And then to hear that Jesus was also a “judge of the living and dead” – well, what a huge relief that was, and what peace of mind it would have given them, to know that a great God really did exist who had the power to deal fairly and justly with every human, dead or alive, whether good, bad or evil. 

By contrast, think of all the innocent people who’d died at the hands of their Gentile tyrants, who’d been held back from their potential by the selfish and greedy, who’d never known love or appreciation, who’d lived in fear of punishment for every tiny infraction, whether guilty or innocent. That was the world and culture they’d lived in, as do so many people today, but here was wonderful news of a God with absolute power who was nothing like that.  

And the Gentiles loved it. And to know that this powerful Jesus chap was also alive and well, despite being killed, was icing on the cake. He was real, alive and powerful enough, therefore, to deal with everything that was so wrong in their world, and he could heal the damage done too. 

Combining Acts 10 and 15, then, we have two clear reasons why people become Christians: it’s two goods, a person’s good heart to begin with, followed by the good news about God’s heart seen in Jesus, leading to the Holy Spirit then healing and polishing their hearts throughout their lifetimes.  

Is that it, though? No, there’s one more “good” that explains why people are so drawn to Christianity. But more on that in part 3….

Why do people become Christians? – part 1

In Acts 15:4 Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem to report in to the apostles and elders about “everything God had done through them” on their journey through south western Turkey, and the Gentiles’ enthusiastic response to their message resulting in their conversion to Christianity.  

But, verse 5, “some of the believers (in the Jerusalem church) who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.’” 

The “believers” who’d travelled down to Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas in verse 2, however, had seen personally how “the Gentiles had been converted, verse 3, and it had NEVER required circumcision or obeying the law of Moses.

So who was right? Well, going back to the first ever Gentiles to become Christians – namely Cornelius and his household in Acts 10 – none of them were required to be circumcised or obey the law of Moses either. What stands out in their story of conversion to Christianity instead was Cornelius’ “prayers and gifts to the poor coming up as a memorial offering before God,” Acts 10:4

And it’s those two words, “memorial offering,” that are so important, because they help explain why people become Christians. But how, exactly?  

Well, a “memorial offering” goes back to the grain offering in Leviticus 2. When an Israelite brought an offering of grain to give to God, just a small portion of the offering was set aside for God, verse 9. This was the memorial offering, and God happily accepted it as representing the entire grain offering being given to him. 

In describing the Gentile Cornelius as a “memorial offering” too, therefore, it meant God accepted him as representing the entire Gentile world. In other words, what happened to Cornelius in how and why he became a Christian would be the how and why all Gentiles in every age become Christians. Peter understood it that way too, because later on in Acts 10 he realized in Cornelius that Godaccepts men from every nation who (just like Cornelius) fear him and do what is right,” verse 35

In this one man Cornelius, then, we can pinpoint why people become Christians, no matter what century they live in; it’s always the same. What got the ball rolling for Cornelius in his conversion to Christianity, then, is what gets the ball rolling for everyone else in their conversion to Christianity.

So, what does get the ball rolling? Well, it was Cornelius being a “God-fearing” man (verses 2 and 22) and wanting to do what was right and good that started the ball rolling for him. Like Jesus, verse 38, he “went around doing good.”  

Cornelius had a good heart that deeply respected God, which he expressed in his heartfelt desire to do what was right and good in God’s eyes. 

And that’s what started that first Gentile – whom God accepted as a memorial offering representing all us Gentiles – on his journey to becoming a Christian. It was his good heart. For simply having a good heart, therefore, he was already well on his way to his conversion to Christianity. And so is anyone else through the ages in all nations who has a good heart. 

And if this sounds somewhat shocking, it was shocking to those who heard it in Acts 15 too. Because this was totally different to what most of them had believed. That’s why the question of Gentiles being accepted as Christians without being required to obey the law of Moses or be circumcised had involved “much discussion” in Acts 15:7

But Peter now knew in Cornelius that God accepted Gentiles and set them on their way to becoming Christians based onknowing their hearts,” verse 8. And that was it. That’s all God needed in a person, just like the memorial offering was all God needed from a person’s grain offering. He didn’t need anything else, like circumcision or obeying the law of Moses.

A good heart, therefore, is the starting point of conversion to Christianity. And with that point firmly established in the story of Cornelius God then took Cornelius and his household on to the second part of their journey to Christian conversion, which he’ll do for all those with a good heart today as well, since Cornelius as a memorial offering represented all Gentiles “from all nations.” His journey is our journey too.

That’s why it’s so important that we talk about this second part of the journey to Christian conversion to those with a good heart today, because, like so many Gentiles with good hearts in the days of Paul and Barnabas, they will respond to it. More on this second part, then, in part 2….

Why would God let us make such a mess of things? – part 2

“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).  

Why would God let us make such a mess of things?

It was in Lystra in Acts 14:8 that Paul told a man “who was lame from birth and had never walked” to “Stand up on your feet” and the man “jumped up and began to walk” (verse 10).

The people who saw it happen “shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’” (verse 11). Paul was horrified. He ran into the crowd yelling, “No, no, no, we’re human just like you. And we’re here to bring you the good news, that there’s a living God you can turn to rather than all these worthless gods of yours.” Which sounds a bit like an insult, but he then says in verse 16,“In the past, God let all nations go their own way.” 

Butwhy did he say that? Because it explains why these people in Lystra were so taken up with the idea of the gods appearing to them in human form. It was simply the result of God allowing entire nations to create their own gods in place of him – and end up trusting in these gods of their own making and imagination instead of trusting him. And “in the past” that was the way things had always been for these people – but – Paul was now showing them something entirely different. 

He was showing them a God who could heal a man who’d never walked. Their gods couldn’t do that. But these unfortunate people had been living their entire lives in utter dependence on gods that in reality had no power at all. It was just as Paul said, that their gods were “worthless.” 

Imagine being told that today too, that all the gods we’ve created and depend on for help and healing, or for guidance in how to live and make life work out well for ourselves, are completely useless and a waste of space. 

A person would well ask, then, “But why would God let that happen?” Why, for century after century, would he let us live under this delusion that we can handle life without him and depend on worthless gods instead? Or why, to echo Paul’s words in verse 16, would he “In the past, let all nations go their own way,” and we end up with gods that are no help to us at all?

The answer Paul gives is in verse 17, that “God has not left himself without testimony,” or as another translation puts it, “God never left us without evidence of himself and his goodness.” So, while letting us go our own way and create our own gods, and make a right mess of the planet and our own lives, he never hates us for it – or gets in a jealous sulk and makes sure we suffer for rejecting him. 

Amazingly, verse 17, despite us going our own way, “He has shown kindness by sending us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, giving us food and happiness to our hearts’ content.” He doesn’t hate us, and he never has. He’s always loved us, and here was this same living, loving God proving it yet again in Lystra by healing a man who couldn’t walk. Because that’s where God’s focus is; it’s on providing clear “evidence of himself and his goodness.” 

In other words, “dear people of Lystra, can you see why we, Paul and Barnabas as ordinary humans just like you, are here? We don’t come to you as gods, we’re here because there’s a living God who is showing you through us that this is what HE’S like, and what he loves doing.” And compare that to their gods too.   

So, lifting all this up into our day, when it’s our turn now to ask, “Why would God let us make such a mess of things?” – the same answer applies. We still experience all kinds of good things, good food, good friends, great memories as families, and lovely mornings when the air is fresh, or sunning ourselves and feeling the warmth seep into our stressed out bodies. 

The question then becomes, “But why would God let these things still happen to us too, after all the gods we’ve created and looked to instead of him?”

God’s answer to us is what he said through Paul and Barnabas to the people of Lystra: “It’s to show you what I’m like compared to your gods, because I’m all good news. I’m kind and good, because I love you and I always will, and I’m more than willing to show my goodness, kindness and love for you even more when you’re ready to dump your worthless gods and trust in me.” 

“Appointed for eternal life” – part 2

Does “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” In Acts 13:48 mean that we only believe in God and go to heaven if God has chosen us to do so? Or that it’s only by his appointment that we believe, not our choice? 

The context of Acts 13 suggests otherwise (covered in Part 1), and so does the book of Acts up to this point. From Acts 1:8 on it’s clear that God appointed steps in his plan of salvation: first the Jews and then the Gentiles. The Jews were the first to be appointed for eternal life, meaning God appointed them to be the first in line to hear (and be given the chance to believe) the amazing good news that, because of Jesus, the doors to eternal life had been flung open to us humans. The Jews would then fulfill the second part of God’s plan in Isaiah 49:6, of passing on that wonderful good news to the Gentiles.  

Which is exactly what happened. First, the Jews heard the gospel about Jesus from the apostles, and Paul then took it to the Gentiles. To each in their appointed turn. 

As Gentiles, then, it’s now our turn to grasp what “the doors to eternal life being flung open to us through Jesus” means. Does it mean eternal life in the future, for instance, like Christians today who talk about going to heaven one day? But is that what made the Gentiles in Acts 13:48 “glad,” and why they “honoured the word of the Lord” – that they too now would be going to heaven after they died? Is that what made the gospel such good news to them? Or closer to home – is that what thrilled me and what got me honouring and soaking up the scriptures too? 

Knowing there’s a resurrection to eternal life in the future is certainly comforting in a world where life now has so many fears and uncertainties – but is that all Christianity has to offer, that we’re simply treading water until at last we escape this mortal coil for a blissful life in whatever we picture heaven to be? Was that the “good news” Paul was bringing to the Gentiles?  

Fortunately, Paul himself answers that for us in verses 32-33, when he says, “We tell you the good news.” So here comes Paul’s definition of the gospel message, which is: “What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us,” the proof of which was the “raising up of Jesus.” 

So, what God promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (“our fathers”) has now been opened up to us by the resurrection of Jesus. Ever since his resurrection, then, we can experience what was promised by God in the Old Testament. 

And it’s not some time in the future we get to experience it, or after we die; it’s right now. That’s why “through Jesus” we’ve been forgiven and justified (verses 38-39). Our relationship with God has been totally restored through Jesus so that in our lives in the here and now we can experience all those wonderful promises God made being fulfilled.  

What better news could there be than that? But to Paul’s dismay his fellow Jews rejected it (verse 46). To which Paul replies: then you “do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life.” But why on earth would they think that when God had made them worthy by forgiveness and justification through Jesus? 

Forgiveness and justification through Jesus had flung open the doors to eternal life in the here and now. That was the good news the Gentiles leapt at, because they thought THEY were the ones who were unworthy of eternal life, not being Jews. 

But now they heard Paul saying in verse 47, that the Jews were supposed to be “a light for the Gentiles” (quoting Isaiah 49:6). In other words, it was God’s plan all along for the Jews to understand the good news message first so they could then pass it on to the Gentiles.

And the good news message was this: that salvation and eternal life had been opened up to the whole world to be experienced in the here and now, just as God had promised, thanks to forgiveness and justification being made possible by Jesus. And the Gentiles who heard that in Acts 13 loved it. 

“Appointed for eternal life”

In Acts 13:48 the Gentiles (in Pisidian Antioch) “were glad and honoured the word of the Lord, and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” 

It’s a key verse used by some to prove predestination, that God predestined, pre-appointed, pre-determined, chose, called and elected only some people for belief and eternal life. And plain observation seems to back that up too, because most people aren’t “glad” and don’t “honour the word of the Lord.” It looks like God meant it to be that way, then, that only some people would be saved and appointed for eternal life, while a huge majority wouldn’t be. 

But where is the good news in a message like that? And what kind of picture of God does it paint, too? Because it doesn’t sound fair at all. It also contradicts Peter’s statement in Acts 10:34 that “God shows no favouritism.”  

So where do we go from here? Fortunately, there are obvious hints in the context as to what’s going on here, the first of which, in verse 45, is the Jews being “filled with jealousy,” because they thought that God had only chosen and appointed them for eternal life.  

So when they saw “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord,” including those awful, undeserving Gentiles, it must’ve been really galling. Why should Gentiles receive the same understanding and privileges as Jews, when it was the jews who had “honoured the word of the Lord” for all those centuries, and the Gentiles hadn’t?   

It’s like watching new immigrants waltzing into your country and immediately being given the same privileges you’ve worked all your life and paid taxes for, and they haven’t. 

So Paul reminds these jealous Jews in verse 47 that God “made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth,” quoting  Isaiah 49:6. The Jews had been given the amazing privilege by God of being the first to understand salvation. So, yes, it was true, that to begin with God had only chosen the Jews and appointed them for eternal life – but there it was in their very own scriptures that God had also appointed the Jews to “bring salvation” to the rest of the world, which meant the Gentiles too.    

But instead of these Jews accepting what their own scriptures said, they “talked abusively against what Paul was saying” (verse 45) and “rejected” it (verse 46). So Paul tells them, “We had to speak the word of God to you (Jews) first,” because that was the first part of God’s plan, to give the Jews the understanding of Jesus now being the key to salvation and eternal life (which was done by the apostles in Acts 2, 3 and 4 ). But the second part of his plan was the Jews passing that good news on to the Gentiles. The Jews, however, didn’t like that idea at all, because they were jealous of the Gentiles being just as privileged as they were. 

Paul’s reaction in verse 46 was blunt: “Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” 

What a kick in the pants that was, because the Jews thought it was the Gentiles who were unworthy of eternal life, not them.The Gentiles, meanwhile, were thrilled (verse 48), because they thought Jesus was only Israel’s Saviour, not theirs. But here was Paul saying it was their turn now to be appointed for eternal life, just as scripture had predicted, and they jumped at it. 

So verse 48 in context has nothing to do with only some people being appointed for eternal life and the rest aren’t. It’s talking about the Gentiles being given their turn at receiving eternal life, and believing the scriptures that proved it. The Jews had been given that privilege first, but they’d rejected it – and rejected their calling in Isaiah 49:6 too – so Paul and Barnabas “shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium,” Acts 13:51.

What’s in the gospel message that really gets to people? (Part 2)

Continuing from part 1 last week, what really gets to people about the gospel message are two things. The first of the two is “forgiveness of sins” in Acts 13:38 (covered in part 1), which is followed immediately in verse 39 by the second thing, that “Through Jesus everyone who believes is justified.” 

“Justified” means being totally acceptable to God. But what made that so shocking – and what really got to those people listening to Paul – was Paul’s next statement that they were all justified “from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”

To the Jews in the audience that must have been the most shocking news they’d ever heard, because the backbone of their beliefs was the law of Moses. How could anyone dare suggest, therefore, that the law of Moses wasn’t enough to justify them?  

But Paul said it was “through Jesus” and belief in him, and not Moses, that made them acceptable to God, because the law of Moses never justified them in the first place. It was never meant to. It was meant instead to make sin more real, or as Paul phrased it in Romans 3:20, “through the law we became conscious of sin.” Paul knew that in his own experience too, because he would “never have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’” (Romans 7:7). 

So all their attempting to live up to the Ten Commandments hadn’t made them acceptable to God. But they kept on trying to obey the law of Moses anyway, because what else could they do to get themselves right with God? Paul even said that his efforts at “legalistic righteousness” were “faultless” (Philippians 3:6). So he couldn’t have tried any harder to please God, but the pressure to keep that up had been so demanding and relentless that it reduced him to crying out, “What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Try as hard as he could, he knew it was never enough, and he hated himself for it.  

He was like a child who so desperately wants to be acceptable in his Dad’s eyes by living up to his Dad’s high hopes and dreams for him. It’s an awful pressure on the child, though, because he keeps on failing. 

But then he hears his Dad say, “Why are you trying so hard to seek my acceptance, son, when you’ve already got it?” And if the child wonders how on earth that’s possible, it’s because his Dad understands justification. His Dad got the gospel message, that we don’t have to make ourselves acceptable to God, because Jesus did that for us. It was Jesus’ great gift to us – well actually his second great gift to us, forgiveness being the first. But what a gift that becomes for a Dad to pass on to his children, because he can watch with joy what happens to them when they believe it.  

It was this same great gift that Paul passed on in his first sermon as an apostle in Acts 13. And it shocked his listeners back then just as it does today, because how can it be possible for God to accept us when even as mature Christians we keep on failing him so miserably too? 

But what keeps us going and “pressing on,” as Paul phrased it in Philippians 3:14, is knowing God has already made us acceptable to him no matter how much we dither and doubt and fall short of his standards. Why? Because of Jesus, who justified us when there was nothing we did – or can do – to make us right with God. He made us right with God, all day and every day, so live with that and see what it does for us, and for our kids….

What’s in the gospel message that really gets to people?

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)    

”You are a child of the devil”

In Acts 13:9-10 ”Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right. You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?’” 

Strong words indeed; so what stirred them? There’s a clue back in verse 6, because Elymas was “a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet.” He could really wow people with his acts of magic and captivating teaching. His skill at both had caught the eye of the governor of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, too, because Elymas had become his “attendant,” or spiritual advisor (verse 7).  

So what we’ve got in Elymas is a very clever man, who had the ear and the respect of the top man in Cyprus, and huge influence over the public as well. And he’d managed all this as a Jewish foreigner promoting Jewish teachings that had deeply impressed the pagan Roman Sergius. 

Sergius, therefore, had been well primed by Elymas to delve into the spiritual teachings of the Jews, so it’s no surprise that, on hearing about Saul and Barnabas and what they were teaching, Sergius “wanted to hear the word of God” from them too (verse 7). 

Elymas knew he was in trouble. No way could he equal or better the knowledge and wisdom of Paul and Barnabas. But he had an ace up his sleeve: he was a master of “trickery and deceit.” He could twist what sounded true into something that didn’t sound true. He knew how to “pervert” something obviously “right” (verse 10) into something that sounded wrong. He had the craftiness and cunning of a lawyer who can bring facts, evidence and even eye witnesses into question, and turn a jury his way instead. 

Which was exactly what Elymas tried to do with Sergius: he “tried to turn the proconsul from the faith,” verse 8. He could see his boss was leaning very favourably to what Paul was explaining from God’s word, so it was time for desperate measures: Elymas blatantly resorted to the devil’s tactic in Genesis 3, of twisting what God’s word clearly said into something God never meant or intended. 

But Paul, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 9), saw right through Elymas and called him out. Note that Paul was being inspired by the Holy Spirit to do it too, as encouragement to all Christians since then that the Spirit will help us recognize the devil’s children and have the courage to expose them. 

We could do with that courage too, because there are masters of trickery and deceit trying to “turn people from the faith” and “pervert the right ways of the Lord” in our day as well. Within even mainstream Christianity there are those who are trying to turn people away from the clear teaching of Jesus about male and female and marriage in Matthew 19:4-6. One has to wonder why they are directly opposing the word of God, but in Acts 13 we know why: the deceit and trickery of the devil trying to make people his children, not God’s.    

So it’s not surprising this happens when we’re also living in a culture riddled with trickery and deceit at all levels – politicians, media, big corporations, pharmaceutical companies, health authorities, and even multi-billionaires posing as “philanthropists.” Their consciences are so dead they can lie without blinking. Their agendas are blatantly driven by power and greed, yet somehow they convince us they are noble and right. They are masters at what they do. 

They are like Elymas to a tee, “enemies of everything that is right” (verse 10). But for that to infect how Christians behave as well, is a tragedy. The encouraging part is, the Holy Spirit has people like Paul in the church too, who – filled with the Spirit – expose those trying to twist the word of God, call them out as “enemies” (verse 10), and do what Paul did in verse 11, when he openly declared to Elymas “the hand of the Lord is against you,” with proof to follow. 

Because when Paul did that Sergius Paulus responded. He saw right through Elymas too, and instead of being turned away from the word of God, he believed and loved it (verse 12). And in so doing he became a child of God, not a child of the devil.       

Does the Holy Spirit still speak today?

In Acts 13:2 we are told “the Holy Spirit said….,” and it’s put in inverted commas as a quote by a voice with specific instructions: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 

So, did the Spirit literally speak to those gathered together at this point? And was it in a voice that everyone could hear? No explanation is given here in how the Spirit spoke, or how they knew it was the Spirit speaking, but there are people today who claim the Spirit speaks to them too. When I’ve asked how they know it’s the Holy Spirit speaking it’s almost taken as an insult, so it’s a touchy subject.   

But it’s also a vital one, because it’s clear in the book of Acts that communication by the Holy Spirit is how God’s will is known in this era of Jesus’ ministry. And, fortunately, it’s this chapter, Acts 13, that gives us clues to help us know if it’s the Holy Spirit speaking, and how the Holy Spirit “speaks.” 

The first clue is in Acts 13:1-2, because “in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers” who, on realizing the gigantic task facing them in Acts 11:18 that “God had granted the Gentiles repentance unto life” too, put all else aside, including food, to seek the Spirit’s help and guidance.  

And when the church did that the Holy Spirit responded. So the first clue in knowing it’s the Spirit speaking is the church’s humble recognition that, in an impossible situation or challenge, trusting the Spirit is the place to start. And it has to be the Spirit inspiring that understanding too, because this is how he makes God’s will known. It’s to those who recognize the only way that we as a church can truly be witnesses to a world that knows little to nothing about Jesus is by the power, wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).    

So that’s where they began in Acts 13: they got together in mutual recognition that only the Spirit could help them. But how did they know when an answer came that it was the Holy Spirit responding? By the second clue: that they all agreed. They all came to the same conclusion that the first step in this massive new mission they’d been faced with was sending out Barnabas and Saul to kick things off. Just like Acts 6:5, “This proposal pleased the whole group.”    

But someone could say, “Yes, but, we did that in our church too and we all agreed, but it all turned out horribly.” 

Which brings us to the third clue, that it’s on looking back that we can say with certainty it was the Holy Spirit speaking. Luke, for instance, was totally confident in Acts 13:2 that “the Holy Spirit said,” because the fruits proved it. Read the rest of Acts 13 and there’s no doubt that sending out Saul and Barnabas was obviously Spirit inspired. 

Which brings us to the fourth clue the Spirit is speaking, because amazing things happen that no one could have foreseen or even guessed at, like what happened next in verses 4 to 12. I doubt any five year plan or conference to exchange ideas would have come up with that. 

But how did the Holy Spirit speak? Was it through a voice? There were “prophets” in the group in verse 1, so did a prophet speak? Prophets speak today too, but how do we know they’re speaking what the Spirit is inspiring? 

That’s answered for us in Acts 13:13 to 48, because what Saul said in those verses tied in totally with being a witness to Jesus, which is what the Holy Spirit had been given to the church for (Acts 1:8). So that’s our fifth clue it’s the Holy Spirit speaking, because what is spoken is absolutely in tune with why God raised up Jesus (Acts 13:30-35).    

So, does the Holy Spirit still speak today? Absolutely, because we depend on him speaking to us just as much as he spoke to them in Acts 13, to know God’s will and be given opportunity to teach it – and be able to look back and know by the fruits that it truly was, and is, the Holy Spirit speaking. 

And what if all five clues operate the same way in our own lives as well, when we’re personally faced with overwhelmingly challenging situations? What if we too put all else aside to seek the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and guidance (the first clue), and the conclusion we come to is obvious (the second clue), and looking back later the fruits are great (the third clue), because amazing things we could never have imagined happen (the fourth clue), and what happens becomes a wonderful witness to Jesus being alive (the fifth clue).  

But that’s life for us now – as groups and as individuals – faced with the daunting task in verse 47 of “being a light for the Gentiles, that you (we) may bring (knowledge and experience of) salvation to the ends of the earth.” According to Acts 13, we can call on the Holy Spirit and he will “speak” to us, and in ways that will give us some great stories to tell too.