Travelling with obedience
Last week we began a new series, travelling through the Book of Acts with the first Christians. We looked at one of the turning points in this early history – the vision Peter had, in which God showed that the church was for all people, not just for Jews. So the theory was in place, but it is no surprise that the church required a similar breakthrough to ensure the practice followed. Our Bible reading today told the story of this breakthrough, with the focus moving from Peter to Paul. So what did Paul need as he sought to fulfil God's desire to bring Gentiles to worship him? What do we need to travel with obedience now and fulfil God's purposes in Finchley?
The first and most important thing for us is to recognise that, without faith, obedience is useless, or even impossible. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that his mission was “to call Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” In his sermon here in Acts 13, his key point is that “through Jesus everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses”. But see who he is speaking to: verse 26, “children of Abraham and God-fearing Gentiles.” Good people. People who believe in God. People who are doing all the right things. People who worship every week. You see, their obedience to the law of Moses was not enough. Coming to worship each week, giving money to help others, hearing God's word – none of it was enough. They needed faith in Jesus to be fully forgiven. This is where we must start. Without faith, obedience is impossible. You can read the Bible all day, pray all day, give away everything you own, fast, preach, whatever else, and without faith it is useless. Without faith, obedience is a burden because you can never do enough. Faith in Jesus provides the foundation for obedience. Forgiveness of sins, Paul says, is through Jesus. The two are joined. Through Jesus we are justified completely. The law of Moses was never enough to bring forgiveness. But when we believe in Jesus we are fully, freely and finally forgiven. All our efforts and struggles are pointless. You see in verse 27 that Paul mentions the words of the Prophets, read every week. Yet the people who heard the words every week condemned Jesus to death. Hearing is useless if you do not believe as well. But when you do believe, everything is changed. It's a bit like the myth of Sisyphus. He was condemned to push a boulder up a hill for eternity. Every time he reached the summit, he boulder would roll down the other side. All our efforts to please God, without faith, are like pushing the boulder. It is a task doomed to failure. But when we believe in Jesus, we find the boulder has been placed on top of the hill for us. We do not have to struggle under the impossible burden of trying to please God with what we do, because God is already delighted with what Jesus has done for us. And so God is delighted with us! Not grudgingly accepting of us, but delighted! And so the foundations for our obedience are set, because now, in Jesus, even our most faltering acts of obedience are a delight to God. This is where we must begin.
And it is vital that we begin with faith, because it is clear from the passage that obedience is hard. Right at the beginning, in verses 2 and 3, the church at Antioch obeyed God by sending Paul and Barnabas off on mission. They had to send two of their leaders, out of five, away from the church. It would have been impossible if they did not trust God.
Paul and Barnabas had to trust God too. They were sent, but with no precise itinerary. All the theory was in place, but they did not know where they would put it into practice. When they did put it into practice, it resulted in rejection (v46) and persecution (v50-51). They had to trust God in order to continue obediently.
Obedience, ultimately, is the steady perseverance of faith. Paul's words in verse 43 to those who were interested, were to urge them to continue in the grace of God. That is obedience – to continue in the grace of God in the face of persecution and pain.
So how are we to travel with obedience?
Start with faith. What are your foundations? Are you obeying in the hope of pleasing God? Are you relying on your church attendance, or good behaviour? A good way to test yourself is to complete the phrase “God loves me because...” If the answer is anything other than “I trust in Jesus” you need to repent. And do so in hope, “because through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”
Once the foundation is in place, continue in the grace of God. Pray for the filling of the Holy Spirit and his guidance. Remember that opposition is to be expected when we follow God. And persevere in faith, continue to obey God whatever other people may do or say to put you off.