Our survey of apostolic preaching in the book of Acts brings us today to Acts 13 and St. Luke’s first rendering of a message by the Apostle Paul. The setting is in the Jewish synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Paul and Barnabas had been sent out on their first missionary journey by the church in another Antioch, the one located on the coast of Palestine. After preaching the gospel in Cyprus, the missionary team sailed north to Asia Minor (now Turkey) and, from the coast, trekked across the Taurus Mountains to this important Roman colony. Targeting Roman colonies was clearly part of St. Paul’s missionary strategy, as was his practice of seeking out Jewish worship gatherings as his first point of departure. As he said to the Jewish opposition when he departed the city, “It was necessary that the Word of God should be spoken first to you.” Paul, of course, was completely at home in the synagogue, and when he was invited to speak, he used the opportunity to preach the good news.
Like all of the messages we have considered during this Easter season, the announcement of the death and resurrection of the Messiah is central, firmly located in the plan of the Sovereign God of Israel:
“When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him
down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead...”
What is striking about Paul’s message in Pisidian Antioch, however, is the strong statement of promise and fulfillment. Of course, promise and fulfillment was the theme of Peter’s message at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple after the healing of the lame beggar. There, the focus was on the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel to raise up for them a prophet like Moses. (Acts 3:22-26) Here in Acts 13, though, the scope of promise and fulfillment is all-encompassing:
“And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has
fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus...” (Acts 13:32-33)
“What God promised to our ancestors” includes all of the promises, beginning with Abraham (note 13:26) but culminating in the covenant with David, the ancestor of the Messiah. (13:22-23)
It is important to appreciate that in 13:32-33 Paul uses an emphatic, or intensified form of the common Greek word for “fulfill.” That ordinary form, which is used dozens of times in the New Testament, is found, for example earlier in Paul’s sermon in 13:27 where Paul stated that the leaders of the people in Jerusalem, by condemning Jesus, fulfilled the words of the prophets. In 13:33, however, Paul uses a form of the word that means “completely fulfilled.” Moreover, this is the only place this emphatic form is used in the New Testament. In other Greek literature, though, the word is used, for example, to express “to make full atonement” or, in a secular setting, “to pay off a debt.”
Perhaps some of you took out a mortgage to buy your home. When you finally paid it off, maybe you took a match and burned that document to celebrate. All that was owed is paid. There is nothing more for the bank to collect. All that you promised the bank in that document was fully discharged. That is, in effect, what Paul says to the synagogue worshipers in Pisidian Antioch concerning the meaning of the resurrection. By raising Jesus from the dead, God had fully discharged all the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, the children of Israel and King David and his descendants. There is nothing more to be done to fulfill all that God promised Abraham when he told him that he would bless him and bless all the nations of the world through his descendants. Nothing more to be done to fulfill his promise to deliver Israel from their enemies through the Son of David. What God promised had been completely fulfilled.
In the reference to “raising up Jesus” (13:33) we find the same double meaning employed by Peter in Acts 3:22 & 26. Both apostles use two words to announce what happened in the resurrection. In the first place, there is the physical—literal, if you will—act of God in lifting Jesus from death to life. In Acts 3:7, for example, Peter took the lame beggar by the right hand and “raised him up.” Both Peter and Paul use this word to describe God raising Jesus from the dead. (3:15; 13:30) However, they both also use another word “raise up” which means “to raise to prominence.” This word, then, is invested with a double-meaning that joins the raising from death with the raising to an exalted position. (3:22, 26; 13:32, 34) Thus, it is not just in the miracle of the resurrection, but in the rank that is conferred on Jesus, manifested in the resurrection, that all that God promised is fulfilled.
I call attention to this so that we might appreciate the foundational importance of the call of Abraham and the election of Israel in rightly appreciating the gospel story. On the one hand, there is a lot of fascination and what I would regard as unprofitable speculation about Israel in many quarters of American Christianity. At the heart of that speculation is a conviction that God has countless promises yet to fulfill to Israel and that much of scripture provides clues about a timeline for all that is yet to be fulfilled. This appears to me to ignore the rather straightforward teaching of the apostles about how the promises to Israel were fulfilled in Christ. I agree with these folks that the people of Israel—(however they may now be identified)—have a special place in the heart of God because of the covenant with their ancestors. However, I believe God’s covenantal love for them will be expressed by granting them faith in Jesus as the Messiah, in whom all the promises to them have been fulfilled.
On the other hand, Protestant theology has not always had a deep appreciation for the election of Israel as an essential peg in the eternal counsel of God. The election of Israel often receives a sort of “utilitarian” treatment. After all, if the Son of God is to become incarnate, it will have to come about through some particular people. That he should come as the descendant of faithful Abraham is, of course, entirely fitting and deeply edifying. However, Protestant theology has focused its interest on the challenging questions concerning the nature of the God-man and somewhat less so on the descendant of Abraham as the savior of the world. Or to put it somewhat more simply (at the risk of over-simplification), the election of Israel is treated more like a means to an end, rather than the very fabric of the Gospel. If the good news were to appear as a newspaper headlines, the difference between the tradition of Protestant theology and the apostolic tradition would be something like this: Protestant Theology - “God-man saves all the nations!” Apostolic Tradition - “Son of David saves all the nations!” In the grand story of the Bible, Israel, the descendant of Abraham, does save and bless the world. However, that is because the mantle of Israel is taken up by Jesus at the Jordan and entrusted to the apostles at his ascension.
I have spoken of “traditions.” One of my objectives in this series of messages is to invite you to consider whether there is something common to the earliest preaching of the gospel that is essential, and therefore to be passed on to every generation of the church. Obviously, by now, I hope it is clear that the announcement of the resurrection is common to the earliest records of apostolic preaching and essential to the Christian tradition. Along with announcement of the fact of the resurrection, faith in the Messiah and forgiveness of sins is also common to the earliest tradition. Paul brings this home to the Jewish community in Pisidian Antioch by closing his message with a citation from the prophets.
In all three of the messages we have looked at, the announcement of forgiveness through faith in the resurrected Messiah is said to be in fulfillment of the words of the prophets. In today’s text, though, Paul appeals to the prophets to warn his hearers against the danger of unbelief. The prophets, indeed, had predicted the rejection and suffering of the Messiah. The rejection and unbelief prophesied of the generation that put Jesus to death remains as a danger for all who hear the message. Thus the apostle cites the opening verses of the prophet Habakkuk 1:5. Here the Lord warns Israel that he is going to do an astounding work that they will not believe, even if they were told. In the immediate context, the reference is to the judgment that the Lord will bring upon Israel through the Chaldeans. Paul draws a connection, though, with the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Just as ancient Israel could not believe that God would punish their wickedness by a nation far more wicked than themselves, so that generation of Israel could not believe that their Messiah would suffer at the hands of a wicked nation and rise again. Such an astounding thing could not enter their imagination. However, it is not merely for this about unbelief that Paul cites Habakkuk. He has the whole message of the prophet in view. Habakkuk is also the one through whom the Lord said, “The righteous will live by faith.” (Hab. 2:4)
This is echoed in Paul’s words in Acts 13:39: “... by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the Law of Moses.” Here the NRSV uses “set free” to translate the Greek work “justified.” Paul will unfold “justification by faith” in great detail in his letter to the Galatians and the Romans. But here in his one synagogue sermon recorded in the Book of Acts—in the one place where the verb “justify” is used in all the Book of Acts—he is already preaching justification by faith. It is by faith we obtain forgiveness. This is how the “righteous,” the forgiven, live. By faith. The prophets warn their hearers that the word of the Lord calls forth faith and that it is here that so many stumble and fall.
It is clear from our first three sermons surveyed in Acts that the gospel clashes with a different tradition about how Israel will reach its destiny and how people find forgiveness from the God of Israel. This was a tradition in which following the Law of Moses had become an unbearable yoke. (Acts 15:10) Looking at apostolic preaching helps us appreciate, by contrast, a new, liberating, life-giving tradition in which forgiveness is offered to all who put their trust in the Messiah, crucified for our sins and raised to set us free. Israel’s tradition once had life in that, as part of the fabric of the gospel, it too offered forgiveness to those who put their hope in God. But deadness set in.
I close by reminding you of Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous distinction between tradition and traditionalism. Pelikan was a 20th century pastor and church historian who spent most of his career teaching at Yale University. Pelikan distinguished tradition and traditionalism in this way: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” This, of course, bears a lot of unpacking. I mention it in brief, in closing, as a challenge.
Tradition sustains the life of the church, the life of faith down through the ages. The text of scripture, the sacraments, the Creeds, the practices of prayer and praise and preaching and Bible study are all traditions. They are the Holy Spirit's tools to draw us to Christ so that, in him, we might have eternal life. Traditionalism creeps in when we become more attached to the particular forms the tradition may take than the tradition itself. People fall in love with the King James Version of the Bible, or the Latin Mass, to give just two examples, prizing these more than the possibility that their own children--to say nothing of their unchurched friends--might learn the faith, or learn to pray, in their "mother tongue." It is possible to love a particular version of scripture but not love the Lord Jesus commended in scripture. It is possible to love the old hymns but be profoundly indifferent to the Jesus of whom we sing and the new life he offers. It is possible to insist on a particular approach to preaching but not hear the voice of the Lord. In a word, it is possible to be deeply at home in a traditionalism that has lost its power to give life to the dead!
Pelikan's distinction does not provide a neat formula for determining when we are falling under the power of traditionalism. I would suggest, in closing, that the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and Israel can help us avoid its grip. The promises to Abraham and Israel were for the blessing of the world. The blessing of Abraham was for the blessing of all the nations. Israel was to be a light to the nations. So, we have to keep looking outward, not inward. We have to constantly think about communicating the gospel tradition in a changing world in a way that is intelligible to those who hear it.
Moreover, the form the tradition takes must also reflect the bringing in of other people and nations. God does not bless the nations by landing them in a snapshot of a particular moment in ecclesiastical or liturgical history. Their art, their music, their forms of communication need to shape the life of the church, even as these are transformed and sanctified by the gospel.
Tradition keeps us securely anchored in our faith and keeps faith alive. It needs to take shape in intelligible forms such that familiar words and liturgies and practices can shape our lives in the image of Christ. But, these forms must also be dynamic. They must be open to correction by the tradition itself and responsive to the challenge of mission. Every generation needs to be able to preach and confess and sing, "Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again!" in forms that renew and deepen their love for Jesus and one another.