In Acts 13:27, Paul makes a fascinating claim about the Jews of Jerusalem and their rulers. He notes that even though they did not identify Jesus as the Messiah or recognize Him in the prophecies of the Old Testament, they fulfilled those prophecies in their bad treatment of Him.
This is demonstrably true, and it is vital to our conviction that Jesus is the Son of God. Fulfilled prophecy, after all, is one of the foremost proofs of the inspiration of Scripture. If the Bible predicts something that happened hundreds of years after the prediction, it reveals the intervention of a God who knows the end from the beginning.
These fulfilled prophecies are particularly relevant when they concern Jesus. The Old Testament contains many prophecies about the Messiah. When we see these predictions take place in Jesus’ life, they prove that He is who He claimed to be.
However, there is a way for wannabe Messiahs to “game the system”. It’s theoretically possible for a man to deliberately seek to fulfill all the prophecies himself. That doesn’t prove that he’s the Messiah, only that he read the prophecies!
In Jesus’ case, though, this is impossible. There are things that Jesus chose to do to fulfill prophecy—riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, for instance. However, many of these prophecies aren’t about Jesus’ actions. They’re about the actions of His hate-filled enemies, men who would have done anything to deny He was the Messiah but unwittingly confirmed His Messiahship through their own choices. Here is a list of only some of the prophecies about Jesus that His enemies fulfilled:
- They conspired against Him (Psalm 2:1-2, Acts 2:27-28).
- They valued Him at 30 pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12-13, Matthew 26:14-16).
- They used a trusted friend to betray Him (Psalm 41:9, John 13:21-30).
- They scattered His followers (Zechariah 13:7, Matthew 26:56).
- They condemned Him unjustly (Isaiah 53:8, Luke 23:22-25).
- They scourged Him (Isaiah 53:5, Matthew 27:26).
- They gave Him gall and vinegar to drink (Psalm 69:21, Matthew 27:34).
- They pierced His hands and feet (Psalm 22:16, Mark 15:25).
- They cast lots for His clothes (Psalm 22:18, Matthew 27:35).
- They made Him a public spectacle (Psalm 22:17, Matthew 27:39-40)
- They taunted Him with God’s failure to save (Psalm 22:7-8, Matthew 27:41-43).
- They killed Him (Isaiah 53:12, Matthew 27:50)
- They allowed Him to be buried with the rich (Isaiah 53:9, Matthew 27:57-60).
These prophecies are numerous and specific. Together, the evidence that they offer is overwhelming. When we consider the way that even Jesus’ enemies worked to prove who He was, we can only say along with the centurion who attended His crucifixion, “Truly, this was the Son of God!”
Acts 11:1-18 contains one of the most remarkable examples of good behavior in the entire Bible. Peter returns to Jerusalem to Caesarea, fresh from the triumph of baptizing the household of Cornelius, the first Gentile converts to Christ.
However, this poses an ideological problem for Christians whom Luke describes as being “of the circumcision”. These are brethren who believe that in order to follow Christ, you have to follow Moses too. That required observant Jews to maintain the bewildering tangle of dietary laws from Leviticus, laws that no one but Jews followed.
Thus, to eat with a Gentile was to violate the Law, and in observing that Peter ate with the household of Cornelius, this is precisely the accusation that the Christians who are of the circumcision are making. They don’t condemn him right out, but it’s fair to imagine their feet tapping impatiently as they wait for an explanation.
Of course, an explanation is precisely what Peter is delighted to give. He has associated with Gentiles only because the Holy Spirit has shown him a vision, a vision that simultaneously identifies Greeks as fit prospects for the gospel and declares all foods clean. The baptism of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon those in Cornelius’s household, confirms that this dramatic change is the will of God.
Here is where we come to the remarkable thing. The party of the circumcision causes plenty of trouble later, pressuring Peter into hypocrisy and provoking Paul to write the epistle to the Galatians, among other problems. In Acts 11, however, they make the godly choice. In the face of evidence that Peter had done righteously, they walk back their implied accusation and acknowledge that God has opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles too.
This is hard. Indeed, this is very hard. At one point or another, all of us have found ourselves in a place where we have jumped to the wrong conclusion. Maybe, like the party of the circumcision, we stated the facts and then raised an accusatory eyebrow. Maybe we went so far as to say the ugly part out loud, to accuse another of wrongdoing on the basis of inadequate information.
When we find out the truth in such cases, the temptation is to double down on the error. We will stick to our guns on the mistaken assessment of the situation, the mistaken interpretation of Scripture. We will manufacture additional arguments, additional claims, attempting to shift some or all of the blame for our mistake to the other. If we do so with sufficient volume, these efforts may even persuade bystanders and silence any opposition.
However, they will not change the truth, and they will not please God. He desires truth in the inmost parts, and choosing to continue in error is knowingly insisting on a falsehood. Though it is painful to our pride, the righteous choice is to retreat, to acknowledge that we assumed too much. Only this kind of honesty and self-honesty will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
The Bible is full of stories of amazing occurrences, but sometimes, the narratives about very ordinary men and women are what attract our eyes. For me, one such is the tale of Ananias the Damascene disciple in Acts 9:10-17. Everything we know about this man comes from the book of Acts. Indeed, it all comes from the various accounts of the conversion of Saul. We’re introduced to him in this story, and after it concludes, we never see him again.
Nonetheless, the Scriptures do reveal some things about him. He lived in Damascus (duh). He was a devout, Law-keeping Jewish follower of Jesus. He had a good reputation. Apparently, he even possessed the miraculous spiritual gift of healing, so he had encountered an apostle at some point.
Jesus has a plan for Ananias, and He tells him about it. He needs to seek out a man named Saul of Tarsus and lay hands on him so that he can regain his sight.
This plan does not thrill the soul of Ananias. He has heard of Saul of Tarsus, as probably every Christian alive had. Saul was Church Enemy Number One, responsible for the scattering of the Jerusalem church and the imprisonment or death of many innocent believers. What’s more, Ananias knows that Saul has come to Damascus to dish out more of the same.
The Lord’s response to Ananias’ concerns is noteworthy. He doesn’t pause to calm the fears of His understandably concerned disciple. He says, simply, “Go. This one’s Mine.” Obedient to the word of the Lord, Ananias goes. Saul obeys the gospel, and the world will never be the same again.
I am encouraged by Ananias. I am heartened that he too had qualms about obeying God when it came to evangelism. I often have had, and continue to have, those same qualms with much less reason!
In fact, it may well be that Ananias’ conversation with Jesus is included in Acts 9 because we do find it so easy to identify with him. Afraid of personal work? Well, here’s your guy!
However, we should not focus so much on Ananias’ reluctance that we overlook Christ’s reply. God is mindful of our frame, and there is much in His word that reveals His compassion for us. Despite His compassion, He remains King. When He says, “Go,” He means, “Go!” It may well be that He has a plan for us too, and that as with Ananias, there is someone only we can help.
Ananias obeyed God, and when he did, he found that he had nothing to be afraid of. 99.9 percent of the time, when we speak up for the Lord, we will find the same thing. I don’t have any idea how many people I’ve invited to study the Bible with me, and not all of them were willing, but I can’t think of one who even replied with an unkind word. Fear of the unknown, especially when it comes to evangelism, is natural and understandable, but when God calls us to do His work, fear needs to take a back seat.
When it begins, the chronicle of Acts 8:4-24 looks like another one of the success stories of the early church. As often happens throughout the book, when someone (in this case, Philip the Evangelist) brings the gospel to a new location (in this case, the city of Samaria), it is received with joy. As also happens, like Elymas in Cyprus, Sosthenes in Corinth, and Demetrius in Ephesus, an opponent of the gospel emerges, somebody who views the early church as spiritual competition. In Acts 8, this opponent is Simon, a (stage) magician who had been leading the people astray for a good while.
However, in Acts 8, the narrative doesn’t go in the expected direction. Rather than being blinded or getting beaten, Simon himself becomes a disciple. He believes in Jesus! He is baptized! Indeed, he abandons his deceptive lifestyle, following Philip and being amazed himself rather than amazing others.
Tragically, events expose Simon to a temptation that he fails to resist. Peter and John come to town and, as only apostles can do, begin to impart miraculous spiritual gifts to others by laying hands on them. Simon’s reaction, though, reveals that despite his conversion, he has come to the Lord with significant baggage. He offers the apostles money in exchange for the ability to pass along the Holy Spirit himself. Though the text doesn’t say so, we can infer that Simon wasn’t planning to offer those gifts for free.
Peter forthrightly condemns Simon for his covetous heart, and Simon’s ambiguous reply leaves us uncertain whether he has repented or not. Ultimately, he proves to be little different than the other villains of the book of Acts.
Nonetheless, Simon’s example offers us two valuable spiritual lessons. First, he shows us that it is all too possible for us to fall away. This is denied by Calvinists, who hold to the doctrine of eternal security. Typically, they will argue that Simon wasn’t really saved. He only appeared to be.
However, rather than offering security, this argument merely replaces uncertainty about our ultimate fate with uncertainty about our initial salvation. If Simon was not saved despite having believed and having been baptized, none of us can be sure that we were saved through belief and baptism either. Additionally, if Jesus says in Mark 16:16 that those who believe and are baptized will be saved, who are we to disagree, even in the case of Simon?
Second, Simon shows how the flaws in our character before we come to the Lord can distort our service to Him. He had been a con man, and despite his awe at the power of God, it ultimately meant nothing more to him than a way to make money. So too for us. If we are not careful, the lust, pride, or greed that ruled us before Christ will simply find a new expression in a religious context. If we wish to inherit eternal life, we must succeed where Simon failed by making no provision for the flesh and its lusts.
When I was growing up, I attended many Bible classes about the necessity of baptism for salvation. Clearly, that’s a good and worthwhile thing to teach children, but not all the arguments I heard in defense of that Biblical truth were equally good.
In particular, I remember being taught to use James 2:14-26 as a counter to Ephesians 2:8-9: “You say that we’re saved by faith apart from works, and baptism is a work, so we don’t have to be baptized? Well, here’s a passage that says we’re saved by works, so we do have to be baptized!”
There are several problems with the above exchange. First, despite the multitude of claims to the contrary, Ephesians 2:8-9 isn’t about baptism. Baptism isn’t even referred to in Ephesians until 4:5, which describes baptism as an essential ground for the unity of the Spirit.
Instead, 2:8-9 is an abbreviated form of the arguments Paul makes in Romans 3:19-4:12 and Galatians 3:1-14. In those passages, he contrasts justification by faith with justification by the works of the Law, especially circumcision. There is no reason to read any other meaning into “works” in Ephesians 2 than the meaning Paul repeatedly assigns to it elsewhere, particularly when no Biblical author ever describes baptism as a work. All Paul is saying in 2:8-9 is that we cannot be saved by perfect Law-keeping.
In short, the argument against baptism from Ephesians 2 is a bad argument. The text doesn’t come anywhere close to supporting it. Sadly, when we argue for baptism from James 2, we implicitly accept the false equivalence between works and baptism and concede the validity of this bad argument.
However, James 2 in context isn’t about baptism either. As far as I know, baptism is not mentioned anywhere in the entire epistle. Instead, where Paul is concerned with defeating Judaizing teachers, James has a different objective. He’s addressing brethren who have gone to the opposite extreme, who claim that because they are justified by faith in Christ, they don’t have to make any efforts to live righteously.
In response, James points out that the faith that does not produce spiritual fruit is useless, dead, and ineffective for salvation. The “Christian” who agrees that Jesus is the Christ but lives wickedly is no better than the demon who agrees that God is one and shudders. We cannot be justified by works in the sense that we keep the Law perfectly, but we are justified by the works that complete our faith and give it life.
This is a valuable argument, and one that ought to apply a boot to the backsides of do-nothing disciples everywhere. It does not, however, prove that baptism is necessary for salvation, nor do we need it to. There are plenty of other passages for that!