Rock of Offense or Rock of Ages
Text: Acts 14
Proposition: Jesus is to some a barrier to life and to others the door to life, the difference comes from the direction of God’s sovereign grace.
Introduction: Last week we traced Paul and Barnabas’s steps as they travelled across Cyprus and on to the mainland at Perga and then to Antioch in Pisidia, cities in what are today the country of Turkey. We talked about how this first missionary trip was in reality a Search and Rescue mission, not unlike that which the church is still called to do today. This morning let’s continue to trace Paul’s steps as they go to three more cities, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. In each case there were some who rejected the gospel and others whose hearts received it with faith. It was the same gospel, the same truth, the same Jesus yet there were two polarities of reception, positive and negative. So let’s ask the obvious question, what is it that causes that difference? Why is Jesus Christ so many times a Rock of Offense, even as He predicted He would be, and why are there others whose faith is awakened as they meet and receive eternal life in the Rock of Ages? Let’s see if the answer to that question becomes more clear in Acts 14.
I. In Iconium Belief and Unbelief Were Not Evidence Driven.
The difference between seeing Jesus as the Rock of Offense or the Rock of Ages is directly associated to belief or unbelief, that’s what the first two verses show us. The crowd is divided into two, Jews and Gentiles who believed and Jews and Gentiles who were in unbelief. What stands out is that the group in unbelief is far more aggressive than those of belief, consider verse two, “But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brethren.” That aggressive action is what makes Paul and Barnabas want to stay in Iconium for an extended period of time to really establish the young church in the face of such determined and malicious opposition. Verse 3 gives us a key, a clue as to what was happening beneath the surface of human action and reaction. “Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” This verse is all about evidence, the evidence of a bold proclamation of the gospel of Christ that does not pull back from proclaiming the reality of sin in all. It presents the evidence of what sin does in us and the unmistakable evidence that if it’s just up to me I will never change my life to stop the effects of sin. Before becoming a Christian sin is like carbon monoxide to us, colorless, tasteless and odorless and yet it is extremely lethal. If sin is not identified and extricated we will die as a result of it. People don’t like to hear that evidence and yet that is what Paul boldly preached and explained. Not only that, but accompanying it was the hard evidence of miracles, signs and wonders and transformed lives. The point is that as the Spirit of God placed abundant evidence before the people of Iconium their belief or unbelief was not determined just by the abundance of evidence. Look at verse 4, “But the multitude of the city was divided: part sided with the Jews, and part with the apostles.” So my point is that when it comes to seeing Jesus as either offensive or essential, evidence is used by the Spirit of God but it is not what determines belief or unbelief.
II. In Lystra Faith and Belief Are Used by Men to Make God in Their Image.
In Lystra Jesus will again be seen as either a Rock of Offense or the Rock of Ages. In this setting Paul is preaching and he sees a lame man, lame since birth, sitting there watching him. It says that Paul sees faith in this man’s heart and led by the Spirit of God he proclaims to the man to get up and walk on good feet. This sounds familiar to us as we remember Peter doing something very similar to a Jewish man by the Temple gates. Now here is Paul doing the very same to a Gentile man, both were lame since birth. Is there possibly a living parable here of how all are lame in sin, first the Jew and then the Gentile but both unable to walk towards God? I think so and yet in this situation what comes out of faith is not the glorifying of God but rather the making of gods. The crowd sees the healing as evidence of Paul and Barnabas being two Greek gods, Zeus and Hermes. They begin proclaiming this in their own language and it takes awhile before Paul realizes what they are doing. The temple priest to Zeus comes and is just about to offer animal sacrifices to them. Paul and Barnabas see this and rush into the crowd, ripping open their own tunics as an expression of angst, showing their own flesh and blood to all. In minutes it had gone from preaching the gospel to all out idolatry. Faith and belief had been used by men to make god in their own image. Why do we do that, why do we try to create God in any image? To the animist God is part of creation, to the cultist God is a force, an elephant, a monkey, an idea, the yin and a yang balance of good and evil and eventually God is you and God is me and we will one day rule over our own planets. Why do we do that? Why do faith and belief become such a destructive force in our hands? Is it that our sin nature is incapable of rightly interpreting faith because apart from the grace of God in revealing Himself to us we will consistently distort belief into an object which we can manipulate and appease. We cannot see grace when sin stands in the way. Look at how Paul seeks to put the brakes on this out of control crowd in verses 15-17, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” What Paul appeals to is their recognition of ‘common grace’, general revelation, the testimony of the existence of God by what He has created. Paul does not use arguments from the Old Testament with these people, they are not Jews but Greeks. So he speaks to what they can hear, he speaks about repentance, turning from useless things to the living God, He speaks about the sovereignty of God in letting man walk in their own ways and then drawing them to Himself. He speaks about the goodness of God and he calls them to belief in Christ. Very soon that would be challenged as Jews from Iconium would come and incite the Gentiles, whom before they wouldn’t have even given the time of day but now they travel miles to stir them up against the knowledge of Christ. The result is that these Greeks take Paul and with the Jews they stone him to the point of death and drag him out to the city limits leaving him there for dead. Ahh… but then comes the wonder of God, disciples gather around Paul and suddenly they see Paul revive and stand upon his feet. The point is that though there was a great crowd who used faith and belief to make a version of god which could only cause them to see saw Jesus as the Rock of Offense there was yet still a remnant who believed in Jesus as the Rock of Ages. In the small crowd of disciples that day, standing around Paul, was likely a young man from Lystra by the name of Timothy. God always has a remnant.
III. In the Establishing of the Church Sovereign Grace Directs Faith.
If it is not evidence that directs faith, and if faith and belief can be easily redirected by sinful man then what directs faith is the sovereign grace of God in accomplishing the plan of God. Don’t get me wrong, God does use evidence that demands a verdict, but evidence is not what gives rise to faith. It is grace that gives rise to faith and that grace is sovereignly directed according to God’s purpose and plan. Why did the Jewish people have such a resistance to the gospel when it was they who had been first introduced to God through the patriarchs thousands of years before? Of all people they should have been the first to connect the dots as to who Jesus is as the One spoken of by all the prophets. What prevented them from doing that? The direct but difficult answer is the sovereign grace of God. There was a purpose that God had in using the hardness of the Jewish heart, by which He created a door of opportunity to the Gentile people, for now. He will once again come back to the Jewish people, but for now from the events of Acts right up to this present day we are in the Times of the Gentiles. Sovereign grace directs faith, it navigates it past all the foolishness of sin and it discloses in ever brightening light the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul and Barnabas left Derbe and then went to Lystra again, then to Iconium and Antioch and Perga, in every place they appointed Elders to lead the small and not so small groups of believers. Some of these Elders were Jewish and some were Gentiles, but all were only weeks old in the Lord. Having begun by the sovereign grace of God, Paul now entrusts them to stand firm in that same sovereign grace as outposts in God’s kingdom.In conclusion let me encourage you to read Romans 11, especially as we continue on our journey through Acts. Let Paul’s conclusion at the end of that, be yours.