The Sovereign God Is Full of Surprises

As we’ve been reading the book of Acts, we’ve stressed that we’re trying to learn to read the story we’re in, the story God is telling, rather than the stories that we tell ourselves. We want to train our minds to run in biblical ruts, to have God’s acts in history shape our understanding of ourselves and our own day. The narratives of Acts provide patterns for us to use in considering our church and our lives. Part of this means that we will regularly be challenged by the Scriptures when God surprises us with the stories he tells. This morning I want to look at three surprises in Acts 13, all of which have to do with God, and two that have to do specifically with the work of the Holy Spirit.

Surprise 1: The Spirit-filled Man

What do you think of when you think of being filled with the Spirit? If you were to meet someone who was filled with the Spirit, what would you expect them to do? How would they act? What would they say? Or flip it around: what sorts of things would they not say or not do? If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, my guess is that you would think of either the gifts of the Spirit or the fruit of the Spirit. You’d think of supernatural manifestations of the Spirit’s power in prophecy or speaking in tongues or healing or powerful preaching. More importantly, you’d probably think of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Our expectation of the Spirit-filled person is that they would sincerely love people, that they would be manifestly gentle, that they would speak with kindness and patience in all circumstances. And those are good expectations. Now watch how God surprises us by expanding our view of what it means to be Spirit-filled.

As Pastor David mentioned in the exhortation, the Holy Spirit commissions Paul and Barnabas for their missionary work in Acts 13:1-3. In 13:4, they are sent out by the Holy Spirit, and they travel to Cyprus where they preach the word of God in the synagogues there. They arrive at Paphos, and the Roman proconsul (essentially a governor of a province) Sergius Paulus wants to hear what they have to say. Here’s a prominent government official, a man of intelligence (13:7), who is eager to hear the word of God. But in his court there is a magician named Elymas, a prophet, most likely a soothsayer who gets paid to predict predict the future, who opposes their preaching and tries to turn the governor away from Christianity. Here is where our expectations about the Spirit-filled life get upended.

But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him  and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”

This doesn’t sound like what we call kind or civil or gentle. These are biting words, pointed words, sharp words directed at a particular person. In this case, the fruit of the Spirit is name-calling, insults, and harsh words. It’s another example of boldness: speaking words that are clear and courageous, in this case, about the sin of Elymas.

This passage, because it connects being filled with the Spirit with these harsh words, is a challenge to us. First, it demands that we recognize that this type of speech can be motivated and animated by God’s Spirit. It forces us to enlarge our vision of the Spirit-filled life. Not that the Spirit-filled life doesn’t include sincere love and patience and kindness and gentleness. But apparently the Spirit-filled life is compatible with this kind of direct, sharp, pointed speech. We have to have a new category for Spirit-prompted insult.

As pastors, this passage challenges us to discern when this type of sharp, biting speech is appropriate and even necessary. This is speech from an apostle, a leader in the church, and thus I don’t think that all Christians are called to speak with such biting words. But, as leaders, when should we speak this way? When is a sharp word evidence of the Spirit’s work, and when is it simply that we’re being angry jerks? Let me take a stab at defining the type of occasion where it’s appropriate.

Here we have a man, Sergius Paulus, who is open and receptive to the gospel. In essence, God has paved the way, he’s made a straight path, for Paul to give the gospel to Sergius. But then, we have another man, Elymas, who is trying to make that straight path crooked. Or to change the metaphor, he’s trying to build a wall between Sergius and the gospel. So, when someone tries to build a wall between people and the gospel, sharp, pointed, exposing words are appropriate (and maybe even necessary) to tear down the wall. If Elymas didn’t want to hear the gospel, that’s one thing. But when he actively hinders others from hearing and responding, Paul tells the truth. He calls a spade a spade. “You there, building the wall, tearing up the path. You are a son of the devil. You are an enemy of all righteousness. You’re a liar and a villain.”

We see this same pattern in Jesus’s ministry. If you’ve read the gospels, you know that Jesus had sharp words for the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees. He did not treat them with kid gloves. He was not tender with them. He calls them names: a brood of vipers, sons of the devil, blind fools, and whitewashed tombs. And in Matthew 23, he pronounces seven woes or curses on them because of their hostility to his ministry. And in those curses, he explains why his language is so sharp.

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. (Matt. 23:13)

You hear the common threads between Matthew and Acts? Like Elymas, the Pharisees and scribes are preventing people from entering the kingdom. They keep the hungry from being fed by the word of God. And so Jesus doesn’t play nice with them. He confronts it head on.

The passage in Matthew helps us to make a key distinction that explains why Jesus speaks so strongly with some and is so gentle and patient with others. Jesus and Paul distinguish between apostles of the world and refugees from the world. A refugee is someone who is at least interested in hearing the gospel message. They may not believe, but they’re curious. They may recognize that there’s something missing in their life. They may feel guilty because of their sin and shame. Whatever the reason, they might be interested in entering the kingdom. The next verse in Matthew describes apostles of the world:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matt. 23:14-15)

Apostles of the world are on mission. They prowl around looking for people to devour. They have a false gospel and they are looking to spread it. They actively oppose the gospel of Jesus. This is why Jesus speaks one way to the woman at the well, to the prostitutes and sinners who come to him for refuge, and another way to the leaders who seek to hinder his ministry.

We see this distinction in Acts 13. Sergius Paulus is a refugee from the world. Elymas is an apostle. He’s a false prophet with a false gospel. And when an apostle from the world tries to build a wall between us and the refugees, the Spirit fills us and love demands that we speak up. Note that: Love demands. That’s why Paul’s words to the sorcerer are not contrary to love and kindness and patience. They are driven by love and kindness and patience. Love for Christ and kindness for the governor and patience with his questions—these are what call forth such strong and biting words from Paul.

And so we must labor and pray that God would help us to distinguish between apostles and refugees, and that we would have the Spirit’s wisdom to speak appropriately in all circumstances. That burden falls particularly on your pastors.

But this passage doesn’t just challenge us as leaders. Even though you may never be called to speak like Paul does here, you are called to say “Amen” when it happens. Which means you too must learn to recognize worldly apostles and false prophets, and when godly leaders speak the biting truth, you can’t cluck your tongue and say “Easy now. Isn’t the Spirit a spirit of love and kindness? Don’t speak so harshly.” Instead, you should have a category in your mind for Spirit-filled, Spirit-prompted biting words so that you say “Amen” when you hear them.

So that’s Surprise 1: Being filled with the Spirit means that we have a zeal for God and the gospel and a deep love for people so that demands that we speak sharp words when apostles from the world seek to hinder our efforts with refugees.

Surprise 2: The Surprising Joy of the Church

Paul and Barnabas travel to Pisidian Antioch. They go to the synagogue and they’re invited to give a word of encouragement to the Jews and God-fearers there. A golden opportunity for gospel witness. I’ll come back to Paul’s sermon in a moment. For now, look at 13:42. In response to Paul’s message, the people are eager to hear more. They begged them to come back. Jews and devout converts wanted more. The next week, the whole city, Jews and Gentiles, are gathered to hear what Paul has to say. And here we see the same pattern that we say in the early chapters of Acts. Just like in Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders are jealous (13:45; cf. 5:17) and seek to hinder Paul’s message. They contradict and revile Paul. They mock him. And, like with Peter and John earlier in the book, Paul and Barnabas respond with boldness (13:46), saying that they will now go to the Gentiles with the gospel. The Gentiles rejoice (13:48), the word spreads throughout the region (13:49). And then, like earlier in Acts, the opposition escalates. From jealous mockery to organized persecution (13:50). This time, the Jews go to prominent men and women, leaders in the city, most likely God-fearers (devout) like Cornelius, and stir up persecution. They convince these devout Gentiles to run Paul and Barnabas out of town. So just like that, just as it was taking off, Paul’s mission to Antioch in Pisidia comes to an end. Now, here’s the surprise. “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). The mission looks like it failed. The Jewish leaders won. The economic and political leaders of the city run the apostles out of town. And yet we don’t see despair or moping or anger. We see people who are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.

This is a challenge to us. How will we respond if our opponents, the apostles from the world in our own day on a mission to preach their false hope, stir up business leaders and community leaders and political leaders against us? What will we do if they turn people who were open to the gospel against us (note: devout in 13:43 and 13:50)? What if they lie and slander us and get us fired or run out of town or prevent us from engaging in ministry? Will we murmur and complain? Or will we rejoice? When they contradict us and revile us and mock us, will we continue to speak up boldly (13:46)? When they are filled with jealousy, will we be filled the Holy Spirit so that we still welcome refugees and still sharply oppose worldly apostles, and we do so with joy and laughter in our bones?

I know what I hope and pray for for us. My question is how. Where will that joy and that boldness come from? Being filled with the Spirit, yes. That shows up in both surprises. But can we say more? I think we can see the roots of Paul’s boldness with apostles from the world and the church’s joy in the face of persecution in Paul’s word of encouragement.

Surprise 3: The Surprising Ways of the Surprising God

Paul’s sermon breaks down into three sections, marked out by his address to his audience.

  • 13:16: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.”

  • 13:26: “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God.”

  • 13:38: “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you

Each section has a different focus, one that will sound familiar based on earlier sermons in Acts:

  • Section 1: Old Testament Promise

  • Section 2: Fulfillment in Christ

  • Section 3: Call for Response

Paul walks through the Old Testament and gives the essential background for the work of Jesus. He then shows how Christ fulfills the Old Testament expectation in his life, death, and especially the resurrection. And then he calls for a response from his hearers: repent; receive forgiveness of sins and freedom from condemnation and bondage. I could spend a lot of time unpacking this sermon, but I’m going to highlight one aspect of each section and then connect it to our two Spirit-filled surprises.

One, in the section on the Old Testament, Paul emphasizes that God acts, God delivers, God keeps his promises. Note how God-centered Paul is. God chose our fathers (13:17). God made the people great. God led them out of bondage. God put up with them in the wilderness. God destroyed the Canaanite nations (13:18). God gave them the land. God gave them judges (13:20). God gave them Saul. God removed Saul. God raised up David (13:22). And finally, from David’s offspring God brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, just as he promised (13:23). The God that Paul preaches is the Sovereign Promise-Keeper. He acts. He delivers. He is faithful to his word.

Two, this Sovereign, promise-keeping God fulfills his word by using those who oppose him to accomplish his purposes.

“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.” (13:27)

Note this: because they didn’t recognize Jesus or understand the Bible, they fulfilled the Bible by condemning Jesus. They don’t get Jesus and they don’t get the Book, and therefore, they fulfill the Book by executing Jesus. This means that opposition to God’s plans does not frustrate God’s plans; it fulfills them. Ignorance of the Messiah doesn’t hinder the Messiah’s mission; it accomplishes his mission. This is the surprising way that sovereign God accomplishes his purposes. He takes the evil intentions of his enemies and uses them for good. There is no way to successfully oppose the Sovereign Promise-keeping God that Paul preaches. His plan is to use opposition to his plan to accomplish his plan. It’s why C.S. Lewis can say, “For you will certainly carry out God's purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.”

Three, therefore, A) receive forgiveness and freedom in the name of Jesus (13:38-39), and B) Don’t scoff at this work, lest you too be one of God’s surprising fulfillments.

And now we can see how this message—The Sovereign God keeps his promises by using his enemies to fulfill his mission—can undergird the bold, Spirit-filled insults of Paul and the persecution-defying joy of the church.

Start with the first. Paul has a message for the world. Forgiveness of sins and freedom from condemnation in the name of Jesus. And this message is personal for Paul. His life has been changed by this gospel. He’s been forgiven for his pride and blasphemy and persecution of Christ and his church, and he’s been freed from his blindness and from the power of Satan. He was a son of the devil and an enemy of all righteousness. So he loves the gospel and he loves people and he wants them to hear it. Therefore, if someone—say, a magician—seeks to hinder the message and keep the gospel from an eager audience, Paul will not mince words. Filled with the Spirit, he will boldly call out the false prophet and trust God to act. And sure enough, God uses the magician’s opposition as an opportunity to demonstrate his power and grace and bring the governor to himself. God accomplishes his purposes in surprising ways.

Second, remember that the Jewish leaders failed to recognize the Messiah or understand the Bible, and therefore fulfilled the Bible by killing the Messiah. In the same way, the Jewish leaders in Acts 13 reject and revile the gospel, and therefore cause another of God’s promises to come true. Notice Acts 13:46-47.

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.’” (Isa. 49:6)

Do you see what just happened? God did it again. God planned for opposition to his plan to accomplish his plan. He’s promised to salvation to the Gentiles. They will enter the kingdom. And here is Paul, preaching to Jews and God-fearers about forgiveness and freedom, and it’s Jewish opposition to this message that results in this message going forth to the Gentiles, like God promised, and they receive eternal life with joy. In fact, just so you don’t miss it, Luke says, “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.” God had appointed some of these Gentiles to eternal life. He’d chosen them. And his plan was to save them by (step 1) having Paul preach in a synagogue about the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus (“God brought to Israel a Savior”); (step 2) Cause this message to awaken interest among Jews, devout Gentiles, and then the whole city; (step 3) cause the interest in Paul’s message to provoke jealousy in the Jewish leaders, leading them to mock and revile the gospel; (step 4) so that Paul could turn to these gathered Gentiles and say “Salvation has come to you! Forgiveness of sins. Freedom from condemnation. In the name of Jesus. It’s yours. Take it.” That’s God’s plan. That’s what he had appointed to happen.

And this truth—that God keeps his promises in surprising ways—undergirded the joy of the church when Paul and Barnabas are kicked out and it looks like the mission fails. The disciples rejoice in the Holy Spirit because they know this is just the way that God loves to work. Faithful setbacks aren’t setbacks. They’re set-ups. God is setting you up. For what? For a surprise.

The Table

Which brings us to the Table. Some of you are in the midst of setbacks. Life is not going the way that you’d planned. That relationship you care so much about has gone south. That job you had high hopes for just isn’t panning out. The person that you’ve been praying would respond to Jesus has shut it down. Whatever your setback is this morning, I have a surprise for you. A little word of encouragement. It’s this Table. Here’s what the Lord Jesus says here: “I’m going to present myself to you in a picture. An edible picture. Simple bread, simple wine. I know it doesn’t look like much. But it’s a reminder. I keep my promises in surprising ways. I will be with you. My body was broken so that I could be with you. My blood was shed so that I could be with you. I will be with you, in all of your setbacks, in all of the opposition, in the reviling and the mockery, in the joyful success and the frustrating failure. I will be with you. So take and eat.

But I’ve got more surprises. This bread—this is my body. And this people—this people is my body. Not only will I be with you when you eat the bread in humble faith, but I will be with you in the people that I’ve gathered. I’ve filled them with my Spirit and given them gifts so that they would bear much fruit. When you’re with them, you’re with me. Don’t just take and eat. Take and eat together.