Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Hope of Israel: Acts 28:17-31

As we face up to the realities of the time, we might ask ourselves – what hope is there? After all, with the financial hardship biting – and the possible loss of Woolworths pick n mix, what hope do we have for the future? Or for the families of those policemen who tragically died last weekend. Or for you, when bad news comes. What hope?

In our reading tonight, Paul is in Rome. And Paul is a prisoner. Verse 16 tells us that he was living in his own place, with the soldier that guarded him. He’s under house arrest. Can you imagine, someone constantly with you, watching your movements?

Yet while Paul can’t get out and about, he is free to host people, and he certainly uses that freedom. Verses 17 to 22 show us the first meeting Paul had with the local leaders of the Jews. He had summoned them to come along and talk to him. As he talks to them, he describes how he has come to be in Rome. He has been transported from Jerusalem to Rome, via two years in Caesarea and a shipwreck off Malta. The remarkable thing here – and I mention it only in passing – is how God sometimes answers prayers in ways we don’t expect. If you’re taking notes, have a look later on at Romans 15:22-33. There, Paul asks the Roman Christians to pray for him as he’s going to Jerusalem and then coming to see them. He asks them to pray ‘that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea… so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company’ (Rom 15:31-32). God achieved this, through the arrest and trials and appeal to Caesar. Not quite what Paul expected!

As well as describing how he finds himself in Rome, Paul tells them why he is a prisoner in Rome. Look how Jewish Paul is, identifying very closely with the Jews – ‘brothers… our people… the customs of our fathers… my nation.’ He says that he has done nothing against his people or the customs of the fathers – he stands in the line of Jewish expectation. Yet the Jews objected to his freedom and wanted him put to death, so he appealed to Caesar.

Do you notice in his summary of Acts 21-27, there are three ‘nothing’s. Paul had done nothing against the Jews; the Romans had nothing against Paul; and Paul had nothing against the Jews (no charge).

Now here he is in Rome, a prisoner – and why? Look at verse twenty. ‘For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.’ (20). Paul is a prisoner because of the hope of Israel. Israel was looking forward to something – it had a hope, and yet Paul was in chains because of it.

So Paul arranges a day when they’ll come back to hear about the hope of Israel. The Jews are keen to hear of it – they know that everywhere Paul’s sect is spoken against, even though they personally haven’t heard any bad reports.

Soon enough, the day arrives, and the Jews crowd together at Paul’s house to hear about the hope of Israel. What was the message? Why was Paul in chains? Verse 23: ‘From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.’ Here’s the hope of Israel – God’s kingdom, and God’s king, Jesus.

This is what they were looking forward to. This was their expectation. They knew that God’s kingdom would break into the world – and Jesus was their great hope. Jesus IS their great hope. He makes this clear through the teaching of the Scriptures. The Law of Moses covers the first five books of the Old Testament, and the Prophets covers both the historical books of the kings as well as the prophets. And what do they point to? Or rather, who do they point to? The Lord Jesus, God’s King.

Paul speaks on his topic from morning till evening – all day long. Yet the reaction is mixed. As in other places, God’s word divides people. Some were convinced, others disbelieved. Some accepted the word, and others rejected their hope.

Do you notice what Paul says to them? He doesn’t plead with them to accept – rather he quotes the Scripture to them, condemning their hardness of heart. Let’s look at the words he uses: ‘The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: “Go to this people, and say, You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.”’ (26-27 cf. Isaiah 6:9, 10)

This is the commission that God gave to Isaiah in Isaiah 6 – his great vision. Yet often, when it is read in church – certainly at my ordination back in June – the reading ends abruptly at the end of verse 8 when Isaiah says ‘Here am I, send me.’ But the message that he’s sent to give to Israel isn’t so positive.

They’re harsh words, yet they’re addressed by God to the people of Israel who refuse to believe. They may well hear and see, but they don’t understand and perceive. The hope of their people had been explained to them, yet they refused to listen and accept it.

Do we take care to listen and understand?

Look at verse 28. Paul had gone to his people first, but when they don’t listen, he instead turns to the Gentiles. ‘Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.’ The Jews refused to listen, the Gentiles will listen. The hope of Israel is the hope of the world.

We see this in operation in the closing verses of the book of Acts. ‘He lived there two whole years at this own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.’

Do you see that Paul’s message was the same for both Jews and Gentiles – compare verse 23 with verse 31. The kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus. The hope of Israel is the hope of the world. All who came to him were welcomed and heard – both Jews and Gentiles.

You might be thinking to yourself, this is a really strange way to end the Book of Acts. Paul had arrived in Rome, the promise of Jesus was that he would testify before Caesar (27:24), yet the book ends with him under house arrest. Surely Luke should have included some action? I mean, he doesn’t even tell us what happened when Paul met up with the Christians to whom he had written the Letter.

But both God and Luke knew what they were doing. Right back at the start of Acts, we find what some have described as the structure or the key verse of the book. 1:8 ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ As Acts unfolds, we see the progression – it takes until chapter 8 for Philip to reach Samaria, prompted by persecution in Jerusalem, then we see the gospel spreading further and further on Paul’s missionary journeys. At the close of the book, the gospel (and Paul) has reached the capital of the world, the centre of the world, Rome. The implication is that it will therefore spread to the end of the earth.

But more than that, as Paul himself testifies in 2 Timothy 2:9 ‘my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!’ Paul is under house arrest here (his letters to Timothy were probably written later on in his life), living under a soldier’s watch. But the word is not bound – he proclaims and teaches ‘with all boldness and without hindrance.’

What an encouragement for us, in a day when Christmas can seemingly take place without a thought of the Christ at the centre of it. What an encouragement when we face hard times – the gospel is not bound – the word advances, and God accomplishes his purposes.

And what is our hope, our confidence? The hope of Israel is the hope of the world – Jesus Christ, born, crucified, and risen. Just as the prophets promised. Over the next few Sunday evenings, we’re going to look at the hope of Israel in greater detail – thinking about the promises of a new covenant and a new king.

Do you know the hope of Israel tonight? Are you trusting in the Lord Jesus? Why not come to him tonight, and name him as your king.

If you are a Christian, then be encouraged by the hope of Israel. In this bleak world, the Lord Jesus is our great hope – the future is certain in his hands. The word of God advanced in Paul’s day – will we help to advance it in our day, and pass it on to the next generations?

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on 30th November 2008.

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