Today I want to show you an unlikely passage that gloriously, yet not obviously (at first), displays the gospel of grace and how it overwhelms and overcomes your past. We know, or should by now, that the entire Bible is God’s story — it’s his “story of grace” that’s being told and we’re just the filthy participants in it. Every page whispers the name of Jesus and points to what he would do, has now done, and is continually doing. Yes, even all those tedious genealogies in Genesis and 1 Chronicles and Matthew’s Gospel, and so forth, are grand platforms for God’s grace to claim center-stage. Likewise, another unsung gospel-passage that doesn’t look like it at the outset is Acts 13:1–3:
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
What in the world does this passage have to do with the gospel of Jesus’s free grace? Glad you asked!
Grace in relationships.
These verse clearly show the power of the gospel to overcome your past! Just look who was in that room together: Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul (that is, Paul), the leaders of the church at Antioch, the central hub of operations for Christianity in the first century. The fact that these guys could even be fellowshipping with one another is evidence to the enormous power of the gospel of grace in our relationships.
First, we have Barnabas, whom we first meet in Acts 4:36–37. He’s been seriously moved by the gospel and has yielded everything for its cause. He’s genuine about serving, and we know he’s legit because of the account that follows (the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira, Acts 5:1–11). We further know he’s serious about working for Jesus and the sake of the gospel because the apostles rename him, from Joseph to Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement,” or, “the one who encourages.” He was an infections man that possessed the ability to encourage those around him that were downhearted.
Next, there’s Saul. We’re get our first glimpse of Saul in Acts 7:58 at the horrendous scene of Stephen’s stoning. Saul approved and agreed that the killing of Stephen was good. (Acts 8:1) What marvelous fact this is! That the same man would go on to write the great majority of your New Testament is the same man that, here, watches and approves of the murdering of Stephen by a mob hurling rocks. And, what’s more, there couldn’t possibly be two greater opposites — one, Barnabas, who sells all to build the church; the other, Saul, who does all to destroy the church. “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3) It’s only through the gospel of transforming, rescuing, empowering, and delivering grace that we get from here to “set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2) “The gospel,” says Matt Chandler, “reconciles people who you would think there’s no way they could ever be reconciled.”
Third, we have Manaen, the friend of Herod the Tetrarch. Not to be confused with Herod the Great, the dysfunctional ruler from the Christmas story that had all the boys two-years of age and under killed, and who also executed his second wife, brother-in-law, and mother-in-law; Herod the Tetrarch, also called Herod Antipas, is just as messed up, though. And he’s lifelong friends with a prominent church leader! (Acts 13:1) Herod Antipas married his step-brother’s ex-wife and has a daughter with her, who, by way of enticing him, gets Herod to execute John the Baptist and bring her his head on a platter. (Mt 14:1–12) What a gem she is! This is the same Herod that Pilate sends Jesus to during the events leading up to the crucifixion. If you remember, Pilate finds out that Jesus is from Bethlehem and, wanting to rid himself of the matter, sends him to Herod Antipas for further trial, who, thinking that Christ is some sort of sorcerer or magician, is expecting a David Blaine-like display. Jesus refuses to do anything “magical” or miraculous and is subsequently mocked and beaten and sent back to Pilate. (Lk 23:6–11) Nonetheless, this is Herod the Tetrarch, the man that Manaen, a leader of the inner circle of the leadership of the church, was brought up with, reared with, friends with. What different paths the gospel of grace forges for those who yield to it!
But this isn’t all, because we’re also made to see that the gospel eradicates race and embraces diversity. Once again, look at who’s in this room and where they’re from: Barnabas is from Cyprus, he’s a Hellenistic Jew; Simeon is an unknown, but was called “Niger,” which is Latin for “black”; Lucius is from Cyrene, he’s African; Manaen is a Palestinian Greek; and Saul is from Tarsus, he’s a Hebraic Jew. You won’t find a clearer, more vivid picture of the gospel than the men in this room, beautifully displaying in real life that we are, indeed, all one in Christ! “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) The old divisions, racial dissensions, and wrongful attitudes of superiority and inferiority are abolished because of the gospel. No longer must we fight for our own establishments and rights. In the gospel, we’re free to defer to one another, knowing that Christ has secured everything for us.
No longer are we bound by sin to think only of ourselves, now we’ve been liberated to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Now we know that “there is no difference between one believer and another as to justification. So long as there is a connection between you and Christ the righteousness of God is yours.”1 Yes, indeed, the ground is level at the foot of the cross! The gospel overcomes and overwhelms your past! These men would’ve been raised despising one another . . . and here they are serving alongside one another. “Where we were once alienated and separated [God] makes us one,” proclaims Chandler. “There’s no longer Jew and Gentile, no longer slave and free, no longer black and white. We are all one in Christ.”
A sinner’s gospel.
The most debilitating lie you and I can believe is that we’re too wrecked with sin for God. That we’ve gone too far and made too many mistakes for God to use you, save you, forgive you. That you’re the one person in human history who has pushed the boundaries too far for his grace to reach you. What you have to realize and remember that this is categorically false! “It’s not about how awful you are,” continues Chandler, “it’s about how awesome he is . . . it is the habit, if not the consistent practice of God to pull from the fringes of darkness his brightest lights.” You can never, ever out-sin the marvelous grace of God!
The glory of the gospel that it is a sinner’s gospel; good news of blessing not for those without sin, but for those who confess and forsake it. Jesus came into the world, not to reward the sinless, but to seek and to save that which was lost.2
Regardless of your past, you’re the sinner whom God intends to save; your name was taken to the cross! Regardless of what you’ve done or how far you think you’ve gone, the invitation is still the same: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Mt 11:28)
Charles Spurgeon, Christ’s Glorious Achievements: What Jesus Has Done for You (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2003), 28.