What’s the story? | Acts 13:13-52

What’s the story? | Acts 13:13-52

Elijah loves Dora the Explorer. When he goes to bed, he almost always asks for a “Dora story.” So I sit down and I tell Elijah a story about Dora going on an adventure. There’s only one problem. Although I’ve been telling Dora stories for months, up until last Tuesday, I’d never actually watched an episode of Dora the Explorer. So everything I told Elijah was based on what I’d heard Monica tell him, what I’d seen here or there in snippets, or what I just made up. I didn’t understand Dora because I didn’t understand her story.

So in a typical Dora story (I know this because I just watched one), Dora has to travel to a far off destination, and has to go through a couple obstacles or landmarks to get there. Along with her best friend Boots the monkey (he wears red boots), she usually encounters old friends and new. She runs into Tico, the purple squirrel who speaks fluent Spanish. She talks to Benny the accident prone bull. And she talks to Isa, the green iguana who loves to garden. The antagonist is a fox named Swiper who loves to steal things and cause trouble. When Boots and Dora spot Swiper, they tell, “Swiper no swiping!” And there’s also this massive red chicken called Big Red Chicken.

The only problem is, I didn’t know most of this until recently. We got a Dora book from the library and that really helped fill out my Dora knowledge base. So when I’ve been telling Elijah Dora stories, I’ve told him anything I wanted. I told him about Dora’s mom and dad taking her on road trips with Boots the monkey. One time I left out boots and Elijah asked if Boots was there too. So I don’t leave Boots out, ever. Dora and Boots have gone to the grocery store and the car repair shop. Recently, and I was especially proud of this one. Dora and Boots built a spaceship out of card board boxes and flew to the moon in their imaginations. It was almost a Dora Daniel Tiger crossover. Sometimes when Monica is telling a Dora story and I’m walking by, a dragon flies up, but Elijah corrects me that dragons can’t fly. We have a lot of fun with Dora the Explorer, or at least the Dora we’ve created. This week Elijah and I actually watched an episode together. Dora went through the alligator pond and over the wall to the treehouse. I finally got the story.

Today I want to talk about another story, including your story. The Apostle Paul understood the story. He understood Israel’s story, the salvation story, and peoples’ own individual stories. So today I want to talk about the importance of knowing other peoples’ stories, of knowing the salvation story, knowing our own individual stories, and knowing how they all fit together. First, we need to know…

Their story (v13-25)

We need to take the time to hear other peoples’ stories. We need to really know other people’s history, context, and experiences. As Christians, we have a great message to tell, but we also have something to gain from hearing what others have gone through. Paul models knowing others stories in Acts 13. 

v13-15 “Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.’”

Paul and Barnabas set sail from the island of Cyprus and head 150 miles north to Perga in Pamphylia, modern day Murtina, Turkey. This is where John Mark leaves them, which will lead to Paul and Barnabas’s fight and them going separate ways in Acts 15:36-41. We don’t know why John leaves, but after he does they head 100 miles north to Pisidian Antioch, located in ancient Galatia. The Christians in Galatia are those to whom Paul writes the letter to the Galatians. This first missionary journey lasted from about AD 46-48 and he probably wrote Galatians not long after that. Once Paul gets to Antioch in Galatia, not the one in Syria where he started, he goes into the Synagogue and preaches to the Jews. The local leaders invite him to speak and he addresses Israel. As he preaches he shows he understands Israel’s story.

v16 “So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: ‘Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.’ He speaks to the Jews and the non-Jewish Gentiles who attended synagogue and worship but hadn’t converted.

v17 “The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it.” God lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt.

v18-19 “And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance.” The Israelites disobeyed so a whole generation perished in the wilderness, but God gave the next generation the promised land.

v20-21 “All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years.” Paul jumps a huge portion, going from the Israelites entering the promised land, skipping over the period of the Judges, and going right to the first king of Israel, Saul.

Would you guys think it was a little interesting if I was preaching and spent a little extra time talking about King David’s best friend Jonathan. Part of me wonders if Paul, whose Hebrew name is Saul, spends a little extra time talking about Saul since he is his namesake. Jonathan is a great Bible character by the way. Loyal, true, a warrior. You should read about Jonathan, the quiet hero of the Bible. 

Saul wasn’t a great king, so God removed him and set up King David. v22 “And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’” Paul begins to paint the picture of the ideal king, a man after God’s own heart who does his will. But the Jews would have known of David’s moral failures. David slept with one of his elite soldiers’ wife, Bathsheba, and then had her husband killed (2 Sam 23:39).  This means God’s plans must not end with king David. There must be another, better, one.

v23-25 “Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’” Paul finishes retelling Israel’s story, and it leads from Moses and the Israelites into captivity to the kingship with David, finally ending by identifying Jesus as the Savior. He is the one the people of Israel has been looking. 

So what has Paul done? He is showing that he has heard and understands his audience’s story. He get’s who they are and how they see themselves. We need to understand other people’s stories too.

    • If you are a Christian, do you understand your context? Pastor and author Neil Hudson defines a disciple this way, “A disciple is someone learning to live the way of Jesus in their context at this moment.” Paul himself is only about 200 miles to the West of his homeland. They went from Barnabas’s home turf on Cyprus to Paul’s west of Tarsus. God has called you to share the love of Christ with those he places in your path. Are you taking time to listen and understand the people God has entrusted to you? Do you know your coworkers’ story? Do you know their hopes and dreams and can you spot what God might be doing in their lives? Do you know them well enough you know exactly where they need prayer? One pastor said, “If I had an hour on a flight with a non-Christian, I would spend 55 minutes asking them questions, and 5 minutes sharing the gospel.” How can you get to know your immediate context even better? Stopping to have a conversation? Asking how they’re doing? When was the last time you asked your coworker how you could pray for them? Have you ever? Might you try it?
    • What about us as a church? Are we paying attention to our context, to the place God has called us to love and serve as a congregation? Do we love Westford? Are we getting to know our community? I recently joined a town committee. One of the things I appreciate about it is that it gives me an opportunity to get to know the people of Westford better. I recently counted up the number of vacancies on town committees, sub-committees, and task forces. There are currently 45 vacancies. Maybe God is calling you to join a town committee to get to know your context better. Maybe not. Maybe to a gym or to your school or coaching sports or some other way. We as a church need to know our context. We need to understand our town’s story to see how we fit in, and how God fits in.

Another pastor used to say, “There’s always a story.” So know the story. Once we begin to understand their story, we can point them towards an even greater story, the…

Salvation story (v26-37)

If we want to be effective witnesses for Christ, we need to be able to connect their story to the salvation story. We need to be able to understand the salvation story and share it. This is what Paul does.

v26-29 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.” Paul shows how God carried out his plans and purposes despite the religious leaders condemning and killing Jesus. God actually used that to bring about salvation as Jesus paid the penalty for the peoples’ sins. But the gospel message doesn’t stop with Jesus’ death.

v30-33 “But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm,

“‘You are my Son,
       today I have begotten you.’

Here Paul quotes Psalm 2 and says that Psalm 2 is all about Christ Jesus. If there’s anything I learned from Terry, it’s that Psalm 2 is a royal Psalm about Israel’s Messianic King, the coming Messiah. Psalm 2 talks about how the kings of the earth will fight against the Lord’s “Anointed.” Messiah means “anointed one.” “Christ” is the Greek form of the word “Messiah.” Paul is saying Jesus is the Anointed one to whom God has given all the nations. The listeners would know that the Psalm says, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish…” (Psalm 2:12a) There’s an implied judgment here. God will save you. What from? His judgment, if you turn to Jesus. It continues…

v34-37 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,

“‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’

Therefore he says also in another psalm,

“‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’

For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.”

Jesus is the Messiah, God’s king. It was always God’s plan for the king to die, but God would not let him see corruption. The Messiah would rise again. This message must have been completely mind blowing for Paul’s audience. “You mean the death of Jesus of Nazareth is the death of our Messiah? But God planned it this way to pay the penalty for our sins!” There would have been no category for what this meant. The salvation story is finally coming true, and it’s more mysterious and better than we ever imagined. 

Have you ever listened to Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story? We used to love to listen to his radio broadcast in the afternoons. He’d start by saying, “And now, the rest of the story.” Then he’d tell a story that took a sudden and surprising twist at the end. I listened to one on YouTube this week where he talked about a Franciscan Mission in Texas that was built in a grove of cottonwood trees. So people started calling it the cottonwood. Eventually the Catholic church rented out the property and then sold it, and it became a liquor store. And that’s where you think the story ends. But then he adds that a historical society came in and bought the old Franciscan mission that had been turned into a liquor store because of a small band of Texan volunteers fought and died there. And then the big reveal. Cottonwood is the word “Alamo” in Spanish. Yes the mission that became a liquor store was actually The Alamo. Then Paul Harvey ends by saying, “And now you know… the rest of the story.” This is a picture of my visit there in October 2009 when I worked for the Farm Credit Administration. 

Paul is doing a “rest of the story” to his audience. He’s saying the story ends with Jesus. And that’s what we need to do to as Christians. Once we understand someone’s story, we pray for an opportunity to show them how their story leads to Christ’s story. We get to know our context better so that we can have more opportunities to point our context to Christ as Savior. How well do you know the salvation story? Do you need to re-read the gospels this Advent? The more we know Jesus and his story the more natural it will be to share him. We want to point their story to the salvation story, which leads each one of us to ask how this impacts our own stories.

My story (v38-52)

Once we understand the big story, our history and God’s plan, we’re challenged to respond. Which direction will our story take? Will we continue on our own way or head to the Savior? Paul challenges us to believe. 

v38-39 “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” Jesus offers forgiveness for your sins. How will you respond? The Israelites couldn’t earn their salvation by obeying the law of Moses. They were never good enough to merit eternal life, and neither are we, even on our best days. We need Jesus to forgive us and give us eternal life with him. Paul warns:

v40-41 “Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:

“‘Look, you scoffers,
     be astounded and perish;
for I am doing a work in your days,
     a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’”

Paul warns them not to harden their hearts. That same warning goes out to us today. If you already believe, it’s a warning we need to share with those around us (which is so hard to do). Don’t harden your heart! Turn to Jesus. Receive salvation. Believe. And at first, the response is positive.

v42-52 “As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.

The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,

“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
       that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”

Some hear and believe, the Gentiles. But the Jews reject the message. I don’t know why. This message is intended for them. But they turn their backs on Christ. Now God offers us all this message of grace.

    • If you’re not yet a believer, if you don’t identify as a Christian, you still need to know that your story is valuable. Who you are and where you come from have worth. And if you were to look back at your story, could you identify places where God was at work in your life? Directing events? Moving people? Changing hearts? Changing your heart? What if like the Israelites, God were leading you to your Savior? Maybe he has even shown you that you’re not the savior, so he can introduce you to the one who is the Savior, Jesus. How will your story end? With Jesus? I hope so. Will you repent and believe that Jesus died and rose again and receive eternal life? Don’t miss this opportunity to know God. 

Here’s my big idea.

Know the story.

Let’s hear other peoples’ stories. Take the time to listen. Know the big salvation story. Learn about Jesus, especially if you don’t know him yet. And finally, know your own story. See how your story connects to the greater story through Christ Jesus. Don’t just make up the story like it’s a Dora story. Really know it. At the end of the Dora story there was this sweet moment where all of Dora’s friends came together and thanked her. At the end of every Dora story there’s a celebration and they sing “We did it!” At the end of our story we will come together and sing, “He did it!”

It says at the end of this passage that when the Gentiles heard that salvation had come to them, they rejoiced and glorified God. They were happy! When we really get that we get to have eternal life in Christ Jesus, it changes everything! Know the story.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (NIV)
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Pastor Jonathan Romig preached this message at Cornerstone Congregational Church. You can download a PDF copy of this sermon above, which includes endnotes and references. You can also listen on Apple podcasts. Read the story of our church here.

Discussion Questions

  • How important are peoples’ stories? 
  • What are some good ways to learn other peoples’ stories? 
  • What’s the story of salvation? Who is the hero of that story?
  • How will you respond to the story?

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For a video and manuscript of this week’s Advent, go to Advent Reading Week 1: Hope Candle.