A Record of God's Grace and Holiness: Paul's Preaching at Antioch

 •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 9
"Now when Paul and his company... departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down. And after the reading of the law and the prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. Then Paul stood up, and beckoning with his hand said, Men of Israel, and ye that fear God, give audience. The God of this people of Israel chose our fathers, and exalted the people when they dwelt as strangers in the land of Egypt, and with a high arm brought He them out of it." Acts 13:13-1713Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem. 14But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down. 15And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. 16Then Paul stood up, and beckoning with his hand said, Men of Israel, and ye that fear God, give audience. 17The God of this people of Israel chose our fathers, and exalted the people when they dwelt as strangers in the land of Egypt, and with an high arm brought he them out of it. (Acts 13:13‑17). (Read carefully through verse 41.)
As Paul and Barnabas entered the synagogue at Antioch, they were invited, after the reading of the law and the prophets, to give the people a word of exhortation. Paul had readiness to address them in his heart, for he carried and represented the gospel of God, that system of divine active love that is ever waiting on sinners. But when out of the abundance of such a heart his mouth speaks, it is in such a way as the synagogue could not have expected. He does not make the people his subject, giving them exhortations as out of the law or the prophets, but he makes God and His acts his subjects out of the historical books. He details a series of divine acts from the day of the exodus to the resurrection of Jesus (acts of grace, every one of them), in which God had been rising up in the supremacy of His own love and power over all the various sad and evil conditions of Israel, whether such had been brought on them by themselves or by their enemies; through their own folly and wickedness or by the hand of them that hated them.
He deals with facts-such facts as displayed God in grace, and humbled man. He brings God into the synagogue, and makes Him the great object of notice to the soul. And this, let me say, is God's own way in the gospel. He makes room for Himself, as I may express it, in both our hearts and our consciences. He breaks us to pieces, leaving us without a word to say for ourselves, exposed, convicted, and condemned, that He may introduce His own salvation to the conscience and to the heart- that the one may find peace made by Himself for it, and the other be forever drinking of a love that flows to everlasting, as it has been flowing from everlasting.
This story of grace which Paul rehearsed in the synagogue at Antioch brings out various actings of God's hand in behalf of His people. After choosing the fathers, He had of old delivered Israel out of Egypt in spite of Egypt's strength and enmity. He had then carried them through the wilderness for the space of forty years, well supplying all their need in spite of their manners and their murmurings. Then He had beaten down the nations of Canaan before their faces, and divided their lands among them. After that He had raised up a long line of judges, or deliverers, for them, to deliver them out of the hand of those oppressors whom their own folly and faithlessness had armed against them. And still further, He had given them David, a man of His own choice, to be their shepherd after they had proved the bitterness of the days of Saul, who had been the man of their choice. Thus in so Many ways, and for so long a time, had He magnified His grace, and continued in it, unwearied by t heir need, changeful as it was; and unhindered by their faithlessness, persevering and rebellious as it was.
With this tale of grace, Paul fills the synagogue at Antioch. But there was still another chapter in that story. Jesus the Messiah had been given to the nation, and was refused and crucified by the nation, but was by God raised up and given again to them; and, in the name of this crucified and risen Jesus, the forgiveness of sins is now preached, and Israel called on to accept it.
Now this was a tale of the constancy and variousness of the grace of God. Israel is seen to have enjoyed a series of accomplished blessings at the hand of God. Redemption, support, victory, deliverance, and a kingdom-all had been theirs in spite of the strength of enemies, and of their own unfaithfulness. And no w, added to these, there was provision for the forgiveness of all their sins.
And blessed to tell it, this crowning mercy, the forgiveness of sins which Paul now preached, was a blessing as sure as any, established by as sure an arm, and made theirs by as clear a title. It was set upon the resurrection of Jesus. Redemption, and inheritance, and deliverance, and the like, had been, each and all in their day, infallible, and each and all in their turn and time enjoyed by Israel. And all had stood on solid ground and in good warranty. The rod of Moses, adapted by the God of all power and might, was equal to work redemption, and Israel enjoyed redemption. The presence of God had supplied the camp, and the sword of the Lord in the hand of Joshua had conquered and divided the land. Judges could deliver from all oppressors, since the Lord of heaven and earth had raised them up; and the man after God's own heart had guided the flock of God with integrity and skillfulness. And now "the forgiveness of sins" takes its place among these blessings, for Jesus in resurrection in like infallibility can secure and dispense it. The manna from heaven had no more virtue to feed the camp morning by morning-and who could question that?-than the resurrection of the Lord Jesus has to publish the forgiveness of sins to all that believe. Death is the wages of sin, and cannot be put away, but by sin being put away. To get rid of death we must get rid of sin. But Jesus had risen. He was alive from the dead and on the ground of such a fact as that, of such accomplished victory as His resurrection bespeaks, the forgiveness of sins is as infallibly named, as surely and boldly published, as redemption was wrought by the rod of Moses, or victory and the division of the land by the sword of the Lord, and of Joshua.
Forgiveness of sins thus takes its place among the sure and accomplished blessings of grace. We can account for it as simply as for any of those wrought out of old for Israel by Jehovah. We can see why sins may now be forgiven, as once we saw why Pharaoh's host lay dead on the seashore. Jehovah looked from the cloud then, and that was enough; Jesus is risen from the dead now, having been made sin for us, and that is enough. The danger is in despising—as the Apostle closes his preaching, "Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you." This was the Apostle's exhortation.
The law and the prophets had been read in the synagogue, as we noticed, and the apostles were invited to give the people a word of exhortation. But Paul read to the synagogue from the history of Israel. He stated facts, God's facts, such as told what He had done for His people, and thus what He was to them. And his exhortation is, not to despise those acts of grace. The resurrection is one of those acts. Jesus, had died to sin. On the cross He owned the claim and fruit of sin, and answered it, and bore it. Sin was never, we may say, in so intense a sense, the sting of death as then; nor was death ever, in so solemn a judgment, paid as the wages of sin. But armed as it was in that hour of its power, it was slain. Sin was put away. The veil of the temple was rent, and the graves of the saints were opened. "Made sin, He sin o'erthrew." The claims of God in judgment upon sin were all vindicated, and he that had the power of death was annulled. So we may well say, with our Apostle, looking at the death and resurrection of Jesus, "Through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins."
The preaching at Antioch thus gives us a sweet witness of how grace has been abounding in the ways of God from the beginning hitherto. But for further confirmation of our souls in God, let me observe that both holiness and grace have had their several witnesses from the beginning; for God cannot but be just, while He is a justifier; and the stability and rest of our consciences before Him come from this, that "truth" and "mercy," "righteousness" and "peace," together dispense salvation to us. God is never more holy than when forgiving sins, as has been long since said.
The ordinance of clean and unclean told of God's holiness from the beginning, separating Him from the fallen and defiled creation. This ordinance, we know, is recognized as early as Genesis 8; His promise had already witnessed His grace, and that we get in Genesis 3. And so all through, that He is a just God and a Savior, has been His memorial here. He has ever had His two witnesses in this world of corruption and of misery—a witness to His holiness, and a witness to His grace and goodness. And the cross has redeemed all these pledges, for clean and unclean were distinguished there, and separated forever; and yet forgiveness of sins was secured, and the soul ruined of old by the serpent is delivered forever.
Thus Paul brings God into the synagogue. The rulers would have had the people exhorted, but the Spirit in the Apostle will have God revealed—revealed too, as is His way, by His own acts—that simplest, surest, most blessed way of revealing Him—the way in which "the wayfaring man" may not err, in which a child may not mistake the lesson. It is not by treatises or discourses, but by acts, that God makes Himself known to us. We might miss our lesson, had the former been His method; but His method is such that the simpler we are, the surer we shall reach Him and find Him and know Him. And Paul thus deals with the synagogue at Antioch. He brings God in, Christ in, and that too in the divine way, in the light and revelation of His doings in the midst of us and for us. The law and the prophets had already been in the synagogue, as Moses and Elias were on the holy hill. But the voice from the exalted glory would draw Peter away from Moses and Elias, and fix him on Jesus, saying, "This is My beloved Son: hear Him," when Peter would have made equal tabernacles for Moses and Elias; and so here, Paul would leave the law and the prophets, and fix the assembly on God and His Christ.
And what was thus done in the synagogue at Antioch is not only like what had been already done on the holy hill, but it is after the manner of the divine wisdom in all dispensations from the beginning, that the Christ of God should be the great object of faith, and the one great issue and result of all the education and learning of our souls—that we should be brought to Him, and then left with Him.