Bringing Salvation to the Ends of the Earth
Topic: Missions & Evangelism Passage: Acts 13:44–13:52, Isaiah 49:1–49:6
I’ve got a question to ask you; then I want to hear your answers. Don’t be shy; we’re maturing in Christ together. The word will teach us more in just a moment. But what comes to mind when you think about union with Christ? Give me a few answers…
Union with Christ in Salvation & Mission
I figured many would answer in some way related to personal salvation. Union with Christ is an encompassing subject. It stretches from election in eternity past to future glorification. But often overlooked is that union with Christ in salvation means union with Christ in mission. It’s in no way some “Get out of hell free!” card, while we go about life as we would’ve done it anyway without Christ. No, union with Christ shapes what we’re passionate about, how we do life, and what we give ourselves to.
How does union with Christ lead you to extend salvation to others? That’s the question we’re faced with this morning. It’s not a matter of if you extend salvation to others. For the person who truly knows Christ, it’s a matter of how. How is the living Christ extending his salvation to others through you?
Let’s read how Paul sees union with Christ determining his mission. I’ll begin in verse 44. Remember that a week earlier, Paul preached Christ from the Scriptures. The Jews beg him to return the next Sabbath to explain more. Word spreads. Now the whole city shows up to hear what he has to say. And we pick it up in 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.
Luke continues his theme of the word of the Lord spreading. In doing so, he describes two occasions where it spreads. One involves “the whole city.” You see that in verse 44. The other involves “the whole region.” You see that in verse 49. Luke’s report moves outward from the city to the region. But as the word spreads in the city and then out to the region, a unique pattern emerges.
In both the city and the region, the pattern goes like this: 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; and then those who believe rejoice. Luke does this twice—once in the city then again in the region.[i] This pattern shapes where we’re going.
And not just today—that pattern reappears throughout Acts, because that’s the pattern of Paul’s mission. He offers the Jews salvation first and then extends that salvation to the nations. But that pattern isn’t just the result of Paul inventing the most effective strategy. It’s not just trial and error as ministry goes on. It’s no mere coincidence. No, the pattern is one determined by God’s mission in Scripture.
We’re observing the supernatural outworking of God’s mission through a special Servant living in his church. And it has lot to do with us, and with the way we view ourselves, and with what you do with the days you have left on earth…
The Gospel Reiterated
I’m going to use the pattern I just summarized to structure our time. But I’m going to run through these two occasions—his mission in the city and his mission in the region—simultaneously. And then we’ll have some specific application. So, let’s first look at the gospel reiterated. That comes the first time in verse 44—they gather to hear the word of the Lord. Then again in verse 49—the word of the Lord was spreading. Acts is a book about the word of the Lord spreading.
But if you ask, “What word of the Lord is in view”? The answer is all that Paul preached throughout chapter 13. It’s the gospel of Jesus Christ. Gospel means “good news.” The bad news is that we’re sinners by nature. We’ve committed cosmic treason against our Maker. The consequences of rebellion is death and condemnation. God’s Law condemns us. What’s worse is that nobody can rescue themselves.
But Paul is the messenger of 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 us to this point. That’s the message he reiterates. Some were rightly excited; they begged him to return and teach others.
The Gospel Rejected
But not all the Jews respond this way. In fact, a number of them reject the gospel. Verse 45, “But when the Jews [he means, of course, the unbelieving Jews (cf. Acts 14:2)] saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him [or another translation, blaspheming [God]].”
They’re likely not jealous simply because Paul’s message attracts greater numbers. In context, think of what Paul just said about Christ in relation to their own Law. 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, circumcision, food laws.
Don’t get me wrong, God put the Law in place to set Israel apart from the nations. But never did he intend for the Law to become for his people a point of boasting in their own righteousness. The Law was provisional. It pointed to a coming Savior. Yet the Jews absolutized the Law, so that things like circumcision and food laws became points of boasting over the nations.
Then enters Paul: everybody in the crowd—not just Jews, but Gentiles—anybody is welcome into God’s covenant people through Jesus. Even more, the Law can’t free you from condemnation; only Christ can. The Law can’t make you righteous; only Christ can. Whoa! He undermines all their grounds for boasting. The Jews must admit that Gentiles are on equal footing at the cross. It doesn’t matter what your background, or where you’ve come from, or if you have “Satan Rules” tattooed across your knuckles, salvation is full and free to all by faith in Christ alone.
So they’re filled with jealousy. They’re jealous to preserve their own glory. That leads to contradicting the gospel and blaspheming God. Note that: jealousy for your glory contradicts the gospel and blasphemes God. In verse 50, their jealousy even leads to persecution: “…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.” So we see here that a number of the Jews reject the gospel.
The Two-fold Missional Response
Paul and Barnabas then give a two-fold missional response. To begin, they expose the consequences of unbelief. Verse 46, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust [that word] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we’re turning to the Gentiles.”
“You judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life”—that’s the exposure. Jesus is the only one who can make us suitable candidates for eternal life. When you reject Jesus, you’re not a suitable candidate for eternal life. “You’ve condemned yourself by that rejection,” is what he’s getting at.
There’s also an exposure in the prophetic act of verse 51. They shake off the dust from their feet against the Jews. Jesus taught his disciples to do the same thing when others didn’t welcome their message (Matt 10:14; Luke 9:5). The most detail comes when Jesus sends out the seventy-two in Luke 10:11-12. There it’s clearly a sign that judgment will fall on the Jews who reject Christ. Jesus says that it’ll be more bearable on Judgment Day for Sodom than for the Jews who reject their Messiah. So the consequences of unbelief are no eternal life and only condemnation.
But there’s another piece to their response: they also extend salvation to the nations. Look at verses 46-47: “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’re turning to the Gentiles.”
Now, we need to be careful. By “turning to the Gentiles,” Paul doesn’t mean this is the first time Gentiles hear the gospel. Cornelius and his household heard it in chapters 10-11. Paul also doesn’t mean that he’s just frustrated and finished with these stubborn Jews, that from now on he’s reaching the Gentiles only. No, the first thing he does in 14:1 is offer the gospel to Jews again. We also know from Romans 9-10 that Paul had great sorrow—he prayed fervently for Jews to believe in Jesus. He also doesn’t mean that reaching Gentiles is second best. It’s not some attitude of, “Well blast! Guess I’ll reach out to those filthy Gentiles now.” No, Jesus himself commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. What, then, does Paul mean?
We might race to Romans 1:16 for an explanation: the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also the Greek. But even that prescribed order in Paul’s mission isn’t his own creation. It’s rooted in Scripture.
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 redemption story includes God extending his salvation beyond Israel to the nations by the ministry of a particular Servant. The Servant’s mission determines Paul’s mission.
To grasp the significance of Paul’s quotation, we need to understand Isaiah’s prophecy. So let’s turn to Isaiah 49. While turning there, I should fill you in on 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, exactly? 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 or the Ideal Israel. As our brother Andy once put it, “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? Who is this True, Ideal Israel? Isaiah never knew his name. We know his name. Centuries later Luke’s Gospel records an old man named Simeon. “It had been revealed to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” He was in the temple one day. Mary and Joseph brought in the child Jesus. Simeon took up Jesus in his arms and blessed God, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 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 here. The Servant’s mission wasn’t going to be smooth; it’s actually 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 back Israel 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’ll make you a light to the nations.” “Your work’s not in vain,” in other words, “I’m bringing the nations through you!” That describes the ministry of Jesus rather well. 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 in the world, then, does Paul apply Isaiah 49:6 to “us”? That’s what he says. Look again very carefully at Acts 13:47: “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.’”
Who does Paul think he is applying Isaiah 49:6 to himself?! Is he claiming to be as faithful as the Servant? He can’t be—Paul says of himself elsewhere that he’s the chief of sinners. Is he claiming to be the Servant of Isaiah 49:6? He can’t be—Paul alludes to this same passage in Acts 26:23, but there he clearly says it’s Jesus who proclaims light to Israel and the nations. What’s he saying, then?
He’s saying that Jesus’ mission as the Servant continues now through the church. When God unites us to Christ in salvation, God fully incorporates us into Christ’s mission. We have such a spiritual bond with Christ that his mission becomes our own. We find similar statements elsewhere: Jesus is the Light of the world (John 8:12); yet Paul says, “You are light in the Lord” (Eph 5:8). Jesus is the true Temple (John 2:22); yet Paul says, “You are God’s household…growing into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:20). Same here: Jesus is the true Servant; yet our union with the Servant means his servant mission to the nations becomes our own servant mission. To belong to Christ is to have him living in you and to have him extending his salvation through you.
The Believers Rejoice
That’s what happens with Paul and Barnabas. They extend the Servant’s salvation first to Israel, just like the Servant did. They experience some level of rejection, just like the Servant did. They then extend salvation to the nations, just like the Servant does. When the Gentiles learn this good news, those who believe rejoice.
Verse 48, “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.” Also verse 52, “The disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” See once again that Luke connects conversion with joy. The Gentiles rejoice. The disciples were filled with joy. Evangelism is for joy, brothers and sisters.
Evangelism is a matter of bringing joy in Christ to the lost world
That’s the first way I want to apply this passage. Christ’s mission is to bring joy to the lost world. 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 with the trinkets and comforts of this world. The joy promised by one experience doesn’t last, so we move on to another.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many things God has created for us to enjoy. But the greatest joy is to have your sins forgiven and brought into a right relationship with God. To know God is the highest joy and the only joy that endures forever. Moreover, when we know God, we can enjoy things in this life rightly and more fully as God intended. Even through trials, we see the early church joyful.
The gospel was just rejected. Paul and Barnabas were just persecuted. And yet, there’s a lasting joy in God’s salvation. It’s like Paul says elsewhere: we can even rejoice in sufferings, knowing “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope doesn’t put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:3-5). When you think about evangelism, think about bringing joy to others.
Union with Christ in mission will mean rejection…but also reward
That doesn’t mean everyone will receive joy in Christ. Some will reject it, just like they rejected Jesus and just like they rejected Paul. And that’s something else we should take home. Being united to the Servant in mission will also mean we’re rejected like the Servant. We can expect a mixed response to the gospel. It’s normal for people to reject the gospel and the messengers who bring it.
When that happens, we shouldn’t get mad and frustrated. We shouldn’t despair that something’s just gone plain wrong with the gospel. We shouldn’t give up and grow cynical about sharing the gospel—“just pointless anyway.” No, when people reject us, we respond as the Servant himself did. How was it again? 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 someone you cared for like a son or daughter. Some of you feel that way over a wayward spouse, or over a betrayal by a friend. Again and again you sacrificed, you spoke truth. But in the end, they rejected you. “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity,” has been your cry. And yet 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 us, because of our union with Christ. But our labor is not in vain. Our right is with the Lord. Reward is coming. Therefore, we can keep sharing and keep sacrificing.
God’s sovereign choice gives hope that some will believe
Another reason we can keep sharing and sacrificing is the sovereignty of God in salvation. “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed,” it says. People must hear the gospel. People must believe the gospel. But God’s sovereign choice stands behind their belief. People will believe, because God appointed some to eternal life.
Revelation gives us a picture of them at the end of time. It’s not just a handful—it’s countless multitudes from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. God has appointed a countless multitude for salvation. It’s just as he told Abraham, they’ll outnumber the grains of sand on the seashore. This reassures us that our sharing the gospel isn’t in vain when we face rejection. All whom he has appointed will believe.
Our responsibility is to be faithful with the opportunities God gives. We go. We speak the gospel. We weep for people’s salvation. We trust God to save his own.
Bring salvation to the ends of the earth starting in Fort Worth
God has commanded us, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”[iv] What is darkness in Isaiah? It is moral depravity (e.g., Isa 5:20). It’s people sitting in their depravity without the light of God’s special revelation. And we’ve been called to take the light to them.
I want to quote our brother Andy again. He was so spot on when he preached this text before leaving to Africa. He said, “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.”
Friends, if you’re not interested in being a light to others, if there’s no part of you that wants to share Christ with others, then you need to question whether you know Christ at all. Does he truly live in you? Incorporation into Christ by necessity means incorporation into Christ’s mission. Christ lives in his people to extend salvation to others. You’re not doing it on your own, or in your own strength. You do it because he lives in you. Think of that when you’re timid—he lives in you. Consider that when you’re weary of serving and serving and serving—the Servant lives in you. If he lives in you, he will enable you to share Christ with others.
Perhaps you have people in your mind right now who’re without Christ. Let me encourage you to write down their names. Carry their names with you, and pray for them to know Jesus. And then look for opportunities to share with them. If you need help sharing the gospel with them, I’d be more than excited to help equip you as best I can.
If you’re hearing this message and thinking, “Gosh, I’d really love to go out from this body to reach people in other lands without churches and without such ready access to the gospel, but I just don’t know how.” Come talk to me. We can start equipping you and walking with you toward that end.
I’m also in the middle of planning some short-term trips this year. I’d like to visit some teams in China and in Russia this year. If you’d be interested in going, please come see me. If you can’t go, consider supporting the teams financially when they ask. However the Lord has gifted you, he lives to extend salvation to others through us. Let’s be that light to the nations.
[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]I suppose some could argue that the “us” is limited to Paul and Barnabas in this context. Very well. But Paul also says to the churches later on, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”