A Light to the Nations: One with Jesus in Gospel Proclamation
September 19, 2021 Speaker: Bret Rogers
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 13:44–52, Isaiah 49:1–6
We’re supposed to be in Revelation today, the message to Thyatira. It was hard to pull away from that series. But I’m not your only pastor; and as elders together we thought it’s time to address the church on evangelism.
Like Jesus does for the churches in Revelation, there’s much to commend about our church. Doctrinal orthodoxy—we clarify gospel truth in a world of lies. Moral resilience—we don’t tolerate sin in a culture of moral permissiveness. Generosity—you love meeting needs as they arise. Meaningful membership—not only do you hold one another accountable; you enjoy each other’s presence. There is more to commend…
But one area that needs growth is evangelism, speaking the gospel and persuading others to enter God’s kingdom by repentance and faith in Christ. One of the distinctives listed on our website is “evangelistic.” “We are constrained,” it says, “by the love of Jesus Christ to extend the free offer of salvation to all people without distinction.” Well worded. But is it who we are? By confession? Sure. No doubts there. By lifestyle? Eh. Maybe a few of you? How does it become all of us? That’s one reason I’m preaching this week and next week on evangelism.
Another reason is that we want to equip those with questions. Over time, we’ve had folks asking questions about evangelism. They’re new to the faith and want to know how and what it involves. Or they’ve seen it done before but in questionable ways. A growing number of members want to know the way forward, and I hope to provide some guidance on that—at least get us thinking in the right direction.
One more reason: we have observed the Spirit working among several members in evangelism. Some the Spirit has gifted in evangelism. Some the Spirit is moving to pray for growth in evangelism—two sisters spent four hours praying that God would do this work. Ben hosted a meeting with ten or so people who brainstormed ways for this church to embody further our Savior who came to seek and save the lost. We want to put some more wood around these glowing embers.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at Acts 13:44-52. A week earlier, Paul preached Christ from the Scriptures. He comes to the synagogue and explains from the Old Testament how God sent them a Savior in Jesus. He explains how the Law can’t save them—only Jesus frees people from their sins. On hearing this, the Jews beg him to return the next Sabbath. Word spreads. Now the whole city shows up to hear. Verse 44…
44 The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. 46 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. 47 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.” 48 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. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. 50 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. 51 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
On two occasions, here, the word of God spreads. One involves the whole city—verse 44. The other involves the whole region—verse 49. But as the word spreads, a unique pattern emerges: the gospel gets reiterated for the Jews; the gospel then gets rejected by the Jews; there’s then a missional response to reach the nations; then those who believe rejoice.[i] This pattern shapes where we’re going.
The Gospel Reiterated
First, the gospel reiterated. In verse 44, they gather to hear the word of the Lord. Then again in verse 49, the word of the Lord was spreading. What word is that? It’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. Gospel means “good news.” The bad news is that we are sinners by nature. The consequences of rebellion are death and condemnation. God’s Law condemns us. What’s worse is that nobody can rescue themselves.
But Paul brings good news. He announces that God sent Israel a Savior, Jesus Christ, just as he promised. Jesus lived the perfect life we should’ve lived. Jesus suffered our punishment. Jesus died our death. Jesus rose again from the dead, proving that he and he alone is God’s Savior. Through his life, death, and resurrection, sinners like us get forgiveness of sins, freedom from condemnation, and an eternity of joy in God’s presence. That’s where Paul has taken them in chapter 13 using two Psalms and a passage from Isaiah about God’s covenant with David.
The Gospel Rejected
The Jews then respond in two ways. Some are rightly excited; they beg him to return and teach others. But many reject the gospel. Verse 45, “when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul.” Why are they so miffed? Look back at verse 39: “by [Jesus] everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”
Imagine how that sounds to a people who, for centuries, have boasted in their law-keeping. God put the Law in place to set Israel apart from the nations. But never did he intend for the Law to become a point of boasting in your own righteousness. The Law was temporary. It pointed to a coming Savior. Yet the Jews absolutize the Law, so that things like circumcision and food laws became points of boasting over the nations.
Then enters Paul: anybody is welcome into God’s covenant people through Jesus. Even more, you’re not God’s covenant people by your law-keeping. The Law can’t free you from condemnation; only Christ can. He undermines all their grounds for boasting. The Jews must admit their Law doesn’t make them better; it condemns them. The Jews must admit that Gentiles are on equal footing at the cross. Salvation is full and free to all by faith in Christ. So, they get jealous and contradict the gospel.
The Two-fold Missional Response
Paul and Barnabas then give a two-fold response. To begin, they expose the consequences of unbelief. Verse 46, “Since you thrust [God’s word] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we’re turning to the Gentiles.” When you reject Jesus, you’re not a suitable candidate for eternal life. You condemn yourself. In verse 51, they also shake off the dust from their feet against the Jews. It was a prophetic sign of judgment (Matt 10:14; Luke 9:5; 10:11-12).
But there’s another piece to their response, which is our primary focus: they extend salvation to the nations. Look at verse 47: “Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we’re turning to the Gentiles.” Paul doesn’t mean this is the first time Gentiles hear the gospel. Paul also doesn’t mean that he’s just finished with these stubborn Jews. What does he mean?
The answer comes with Paul’s use of Isaiah 49:6, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” Essentially, Paul recognizes that the Jews hold a privileged place in God’s redemption story.[ii] But that same story includes God extending his salvation to the nations by the ministry of a particular Servant. That Servant’s mission determines Paul’s mission.
To grasp the significance of Paul’s quote, we need to understand Isaiah’s prophecy. So, turn to Isaiah 49. While turning there, I’ll explain a theme already developing. Back in Isaiah 41, God identifies Israel the nation as his chosen servant (Isa 41:8-9). But as the prophecy continues, Israel the nation is an unfaithful servant. Isaiah 42:19 says, “Who is blind but my servant, or deaf as my messenger whom I send?” The servant-nation is unfaithful, unfit to accomplish God’s will.
But Isaiah 42 also introduces another servant. He too is God’s chosen servant. But this servant is faithful. He brings justice to the nations (Isa 42:1). God gives him as a covenant for Israel and a light for the nations (Isa 42:6). So, Isaiah intentionally oscillates between the unfaithful servant-nation and the faithful servant-individual.
We find the same oscillation in chapters 48-49. Isaiah 48 reveals Israel the nation as a stubborn servant in exile who needs God’s redemption (Isa 48:3-5, 20). Isaiah 49 then introduces us to the other servant-individual who not only embodies what Israel was supposed to be but extends God’s salvation to the nations. Look at verse 1…
1 Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. 3 And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” 4 But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.” 5 And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength— 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
What’s Isaiah’s message? At first glance it seems like he’s talking about the servant-nation. He says plainly in verse 3, “You are my servant, Israel.” But as you keep reading, the picture focuses on an individual that does something for Israel. See verse 5? The servant can’t be Israel the nation because he’s going to bring Israel the nation back to God. So, we’re getting a servant-individual called “Israel,” who saves the servant-nation called Israel. How do we make sense of that?
The servant-individual embodies everything the servant-nation was supposed to be. The Servant is Israel inasmuch as he functions like Israel. He’s what you might call the True Israel, the Ideal Israel. “He’s the Ideal Israel, not only because God shows his glory in him, but because he’s going to spread God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. That’s what Israel was made for—to be blessed and to be a blessing to all nations.”[iii] The Servant fulfills that role truly. But who is this servant-individual?
Isaiah never knew his name. We know his name. Centuries later Luke’s Gospel records an old man named Simeon, taking baby Jesus in his arms and blessing God: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:25-32).
Simeon reveals Isaiah’s servant-individual as Jesus. Jesus is the true, faithful Servant sent to bring Israel back to God and extend God’s salvation to the nations. And the further you get into Isaiah, the more and more you see that the Servant must be Jesus Christ. The Servant redeems Israel by giving himself as an atoning sacrifice for sins—that’s Isaiah 53. The New Testament everywhere applies that to Jesus. Jesus saves Israel and the nations because Jesus was pierced for our transgressions.
Now, I should also add another detail. The Servant’s mission wasn’t going to be smooth; it’s a frustrating one. Notice the Servant’s cry in Isaiah 49:4, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” In other words, his mission to bring Israel back to God seems like it’s failing. That’s precisely when God responds, “It’s too small a thing to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations.” “Your work is not in vain,” in other words, “I’m bringing the nations through you!” That describes Jesus. He comes to his own people; the majority reject him. But once he dies and rises again, he says, “Go…and make disciples of all nations.”
Truly, Jesus is the Servant of Isaiah 49:6. How, then, does Paul apply Isaiah 49:6 to “us”? Verse 47, “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles…’” Is Paul claiming to be the Servant of Isaiah 49? Paul alludes to this same prophecy in Acts 26:23, only there he clearly says it’s Jesus who proclaims light to Israel and the nations. How, then, can he say God commanded us? How is Paul reading Isaiah, such that in a text about Jesus he finds a command for himself?
He’s saying that Jesus’ mission as the Servant continues now through us. When God unites us to Christ in salvation, God unites us to Christ in proclamation. We have such a bond with Jesus that his mission becomes ours. We saw that in Revelation 2:13 as well. Remember Antipas? Christ calls Antipas, “my faithful witness.” Why? Because he followed in the footsteps of the Faithful Witness. Jesus’ mission to extend salvation to the nations became Antipas’ mission. Here, it’s Paul and Barnabas’ mission. In Christ, it’s your mission. To belong to Christ is to have Christ living in you, extending his salvation to others through you.
How Christ Extends Salvation through Us
So, here’s your first application: union with Christ in salvation means union with Christ in mission. Union with Christ is a rich, encompassing subject. Theologians have rightly called it “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”[iv] It stretches from your election before the foundation of the world to your future glorification. But often overlooked are the implications for missions and evangelism.
Perhaps that’s because we tend to reduce our theology to fit the life we would’ve lived anyway without Jesus. In this case, we tend to reduce union with Christ to things that leave us comfortable. Let’s put it another way: if you want Christ for forgiveness and freedom and heaven while going about life as you would’ve done anyway without Christ, you don’t get union with Christ.
Union with Christ shapes what we’re passionate about, what we give ourselves to, how we do life now, how we engage others for his sake. If there’s no part of you that wants to share Christ with others, if there’s no yearning to save others, no compassion to help them know God, you need to ask some serious questions about your relationship with Jesus. Do you truly belong to him? Is he living in you? Are you nurturing your relationship with Jesus who came for the sick, the broken, the outcast? Are you drawing from his passion to seek and save the lost?
Evangelism doesn’t begin with me telling you, “You need to evangelize more.” It begins with God grafting you into the vine of Jesus Christ. It begins with Jesus’ life flowing into you. It’s impossible to make a corpse dance. But when Jesus gives life, you dance! You leap over the mountains to announce good news! Why? Because Christ lives in you; and God sent him to extend salvation through you. He is the Son of Man who seeks and saves the lost, who sits with the woman at the well, who calls Matthew the tax collector, who eats with sinners to bring them true, lasting joy. And he’s in you!
Consider that next: evangelism is a matter of spreading joy. What happened with Paul and Barnabas? Yes, some rejected their message. But verse 48 says, “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.” Conversion leads to joy. I doubt that you’ll run into many people who simply don’t want to be happy. In general, people want joy. The problem is that sin so easily blinds people, that we pursue joy in the wrong things or for the wrong reasons. We’re far too easily pleased. The joy promised by one experience doesn’t last, so we move on to another.
There are many things God has created to enjoy. But the greatest joy is to have your sins forgiven and brought into a right relationship with God. A while back, I had a dream that differed from others. I saw several mountains; and on the tops of each mountain were people from various languages, tribes, nations. They were celebrating, singing, dancing, rejoicing. Atop each mountain was the most beautiful scenery of unity, peace, and joy. I then saw Ben—from the furthest mountain, leaping from one mountain to the next toward me. He came to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and shouted through passionate tears, “Can you see it, Bret?! Can you see it?! How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Then he leapt off to tell more.
I don’t usually share dreams—especially from the pulpit. I don’t want people getting the wrong impression that we place more stock in experiences than we do in the Scriptures. At the same time, that dream illustrates Isaiah’s vision of the person who brings good news: Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” These are your feet, Christian! Ephesians 6 includes some special footwear as part of your armor: “as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” In union with Christ, God has made you to leap over the mountains to spread his joy. If you belong to Jesus, he has equipped you. You are not going alone or in your own strength. He makes your feet to run to tell others of his grace.
Third, bring salvation to the ends of the earth starting with those around you. Andy used to be a member here. He’s now serving overseas. He once put it this way when preaching on this text: “When you become part of Christ’s body, you’re not merely a passive recipient of grace. You’re made to be an agent of grace, an ambassador for Christ, a light to the nations.”
We can’t pat ourselves on the back for supporting missionaries, while we stay silent here. Closer to the mark is that our missionaries are an extension of the evangelistic activity already happening here. Now, evangelistic activity will look different for each person and family. The Lord has apportioned us with varying spiritual gifts, ministry responsibilities, household arrangements, vocational obligations. We also vary in physical abilities, some being more limited than others, and that’s okay. The point is working together with what we have to serve the onward march of the gospel.
Let’s make this even more concrete. All of us can begin with prayer. In Psalm 2 God says to Christ, “Ask of me and I will give the nations as your heritage.” Ask of me! That’s Jesus’ prayer; and it should become our own. God must tear down the strongholds. God must make his word effective. God must open a door for the word. God must illumine the eyes of the heart. So, pray for that to happen.
There are people in your life without Christ. For whatever reason, the Lord has brought them into your life. You see them weekly, daily. Grocery stores, coffee shops, classrooms, the office, the parks where you play—you meet people. Write down their names and start praying for the Lord to save them and to use you in the saving of them. Take their names to care group and ask your care group to start praying for them. Care group members, then follow up with each other on how those opportunities are going.
Then, as you pray, look for ways to enter their lives. Jesus entered a broken world to save sinners (John 3:17). Our mission is the same: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you”—John 20:21. That could be showing hospitality to coworkers or having a family down the street over for Saturday breakfast. It could mean coaching a sports team or frequenting a coffee shop. It could mean calling an old friend from college. It could mean choosing to attend a public school or help with tutoring. It could be following up with someone who confides in you for help, for counsel. It could be helping at the Pregnancy Help Center or meeting families at West Elementary.
Find ways to enter people’s lives, and then build the relationship. Invest beyond surface level conversations. Ask questions. Go out of your way to show concern. Do all this to know people truly. Move beyond names, occupations, and hobbies. Learn what makes them tick. Where do they find their identity? What do they believe? What are their greatest fears? Only then will we know how to apply truth with love (Eph 4:15), how to use words that fit the occasion (Eph 4:29), how to walk in wisdom toward outsiders (Col 4:5). Jonathan Dodson put it this way: “Love is inefficient. It slows down long enough to understand people and their objections to the gospel. Love recognizes people are complex, and meets them in their need…”
Once you know people, share Christ in meaningful ways. The more we grasp not just what a person does but why they do it, the more we’ll be able to connect their broken lives to the storyline of Scripture; the more we’ll apply the gospel with specificity and compassion to the areas people are hurting or to the objections people raise or to the idols people love. We’ll look at some examples of this next week in the examples of Jesus and the apostles engaging others with the gospel.
For now, it’s also crucial that we look for opportunities to serve others sacrificially. The gospel message shouldn’t be divorced from good deeds toward the people we engage and befriend. So, pray, pray, pray; and enter, build, know, share, serve. In union with Christ, bring light to those around you who sit in darkness. Pattern your life after the one who came to seek and save the lost. You are united to him not only in salvation, but also in gospel proclamation.
One last thing: even when rejected, trust the Lord’s plan and reward. The Servant’s mission came with its frustrations. Paul and Barnabas experienced that too. Being united to the Servant will also mean we’re rejected like the Servant. When that happens, we shouldn’t despair that something’s wrong with the gospel. We shouldn’t give up or grow cynical about sharing the gospel—acting like it’s pointless.
No, when people reject us, we respond as the Servant himself did. He cried to the Lord, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Some of you have felt that way with a wayward son or daughter. Some of you have felt that way with extended family. Some of you feel that way over a wayward spouse, or over a betrayal by a friend. Again and again you sacrifice, you speak truth. But in the end, they reject you. “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity,” has been your cry. The Servant sympathizes with you in that cry. And still, where does the Servant place his trust? “Yet surely,” he says, “my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God.”
He trusts the Lord to reward him. And what does God become for him? “I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength.” In this attitude of trust, the Lord makes him an effective Servant. People will reject you. But know this: your labor is not in vain. Your right is with the Lord. Your reward is coming, church. Until then, God is able to make you an effective servant in extending his salvation to others.
[i] In the city: the gospel reiterated (v. 44); the gospel rejected (v. 45); the missional response (vv. 46-47); the believers rejoice (v. 48). In the region: the gospel reiterated (v. 49); the gospel rejected (v. 50); the missional response (v. 51); the believers rejoice (v. 52).
[ii] Romans 9:4-5 says, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all.”
[iii] Taken from notes on a sermon one of our missionaries once preached from Isaiah 49.
[iv] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 161.