Can you think of anything less offensive than a lamb? Lambs, those cute, cuddly, fuzzy, harmless balls of wool. Lambs are standard equipment for babies. The Bible pictures us as lambs and Jesus as the Good Shepherd who holds us in his tender care. We take our children to petting zoos to run around with lambs, and we don’t worry, because they don’t have any fangs to bite, no claws to rip and tear. Even in our ultrasensitive world – who could possibly be offended by a lamb? You’d be surprised. Cute, cuddly, spotless white lambs, no, no one could take offense at that. But try pointing to one Lamb in particular. A lamb who is oppressed and afflicted. A lamb who will be slaughtered and sacrificed. A lamb whose spotless white coat will be splattered with crimson blood. And then tell people that they need this Lamb, because He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Then you have the single most offensive message ever proclaimed. Today Jesus appears as the Lamb of God. That’s good news. It’s good news that divides between life and death, faith and unbelief.
Although there are some people in our world who enjoy conflict and division, most of us do not. We like peace. We will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation and conflict. When occasions arise that we need to talk to someone about a difficult issue and we know that they will not welcome the conversation, we usually try to put it off as long as possible. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we are hesitant to talk to others – even our own families – about Jesus. We know they may not like what we have to say and we’d rather not create conflict. We also know that Satan and his armies place a target on the back of those who stand for Jesus. And who wants to engage the prince of darkness in a fight? Wouldn’t it just be easier to avoid the conversation and the conflict altogether? That’s what many people think. But not Jesus’ disciples. Jesus’ disciples know better, they know that he said: do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. (Matthew 10:34-36) Jesus himself tells us that the Gospel is good news that divides.
We see this played out again and again in the early Christian church – and especially in Paul’s ministry. He had to flee Jerusalem because some Grecian Jews decided to kill him. He and Barnabas were run out of Iconium by an angry crowd. In Lystra some Jews got their hands on Paul stoned him and left him for dead. And in our text we see that in Pisidian Antioch (a city in modern-day Turkey) the Gospel created a polarized, tense situation. The Gospel is good news that divides. The question is: why would anyone want to proclaim, believe or stand for a message that is inherently divisive?
We will get to the answer in a bit. But first we have to address some other important issues, such as what is this message and what kind of reception can we expect. Paul concluded his sermon with this simple summary: My brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. 15 to 20 years after John pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God, Paul does the exact same thing; he tells the congregation in Pisidian Antioch that forgiveness of sins comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. There is no other way to have your sins wiped away. Faith in the Lamb who was mocked, betrayed, bloodied, beaten, whipped, pierced and crucified is the only way to be made right with God. The result of the Lamb’s sacrifice is justification. Justification is a legal term. It is a judge’s “not-guilty” verdict. Everyone needs to hear this message because everyone knows that they don’t always do what they should and that they do the things they shouldn’t. It’s called sin. We try our best to make it right. We want to remove that burden of guilt from our hearts and minds. The natural place we turn is the Law. Whether it’s the Law of Moses or the many behavioral codes of today: political correctness, environmental ethics, the law of tolerance, the golden rule – it’s where humans naturally turn for salvation. The problem? We can’t keep any of them perfectly and they can’t remove our sins from God’s sight – we cannot earn a not-guilty verdict in God’s courtroom by obedience to any law. Paul says stop. Stop trying. Stop working for righteousness and instead repent – lay your sins at Jesus’ feet – and believe – that he has paid for every last one of them. Believe that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and by that faith you are justified in God’s sight. What all our sweat and effort to obey are unable to do, God gives away for free through faith in the Lamb. That’s the Gospel. That’s the message of life.
But that’s only half the message: take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: ‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’ Habakkuk first spoke these words to the Israelites in the 7th century BC, as a stern warning that if they didn’t repent and put their trust in God for salvation, they would be wiped out by the Babylonians. They didn’t listen. They didn’t repent. And in 586 BC Jerusalem was destroyed. Paul warns his 1st century audience that if they reject the Lamb, they are rejecting God, and they will perish just like their forefathers. This is the Law. Reject this message at your own risk. Reject the Lamb and die. So, to summarize, the good news is that: Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Believe in him and you stand not guilty in God’s courtroom. Reject Him and you will die. That’s the message. Crystal clear, right?
That’s where Paul ended his sermon that day in Antioch. But the people wanted to hear more. They invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. Luke leaves some gaps in the story here, but we can be confident that throughout the following week Paul and Barnabas continued to teach this message to the people all over the city. This message was so different from anything the people had heard before that on the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. Not everyone was enthusiastically receptive to Paul’s message, though. Already, the Lamb created tension and division. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. The Greek says that they “blasphemed” Paul. They claimed that he was lying. They likely perpetuated the lie started by Jesus’ enemies in Jerusalem that Jesus was nothing more than a criminal cursed by God and that his “resurrection” was a trick played by the disciples. This is an important fact for us to understand and take to heart: some people will hear the Gospel and reject it. They don’t want it, don’t want to hear it, don’t want to be part of it. Jesus faced it. Paul faced it. We will face it.
How did Paul and Barnabas respond to rejection? Did they doubt that the message God had given them was true? Did they decide to change or soften the message? Did they say that everyone can believe what they want about the Lamb and still be saved? Did they try putting the Gospel in a cool, modern, hip package with the expectation that that would convince people to believe it? No. Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ Don’t misunderstand, Paul took no pleasure in the Jews’ rejection of the Gospel. It broke his heart. He wrote in Romans: brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. (Romans 10:1) Here is where the 21st century Christian church could afford to learn a lot from the 1st century church. When the Jews rejected the Lamb, Paul and Barnabas did not change the message to something more acceptable to the unbelieving world. Nor did they arrogantly presume that if they put the Gospel into a different package that they could convince the hard-hearted Jews to accept it. No. They boldly and faithfully proclaimed God’s message and accepted the fact that while some believed it, many did not.
Paul and Barnabas had done what Jesus told them to do: go…to the lost sheep of Israel. (Acts 3:26) But when God’s chosen people rejected his Lamb, Paul and Barnabas obeyed Jesus’ command, they turned their attention to the Gentiles. They didn’t waste their time preaching to people who didn’t want to hear it, they devoted their time and resources to people who realized the desperation of their situation and gladly heard and believed the message of the Lamb. The results were astounding: when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. Here we see a vivid example of the doctrine of election. Note the order: all those God appointed for eternal life believed. Did they make a decision for Christ? No. Had they found God? No. God searched for and found them. Election is very simple. In eternity God elected some to be saved. In time, God ensures that those people hear the Gospel, believe it, and are saved. The credit belongs to God. What about the others? Well, we saw that too, right? The Jews didn’t consider themselves worthy of eternal life, they rejected the Gospel when it was preached to them, and they perished. Who gets the blame? They do. This is what happens wherever and whenever the Gospel is rightly proclaimed: some believe it and are saved; others reject it and perish.
In theory, it’s easy, right? Some will believe, some won’t. Here’s the hard part: the Gospel is still dividing between life and death, faith and unbelief in our world today, right here in our own church, even in our own families. Jesus’ words are just as true for us as they were for Paul: do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34) Again, don’t misunderstand. We take no pleasure when people reject God’s Lamb. It breaks our hearts. We make every effort to reach the lost and straying and to faithfully proclaim the Gospel to them. But, we also understand that the message of the Lamb divides. We understand that division and rejection is not evidence that the Gospel has failed, but that it is working. Most of all, we do not let rejection tempt us to change or alter or soften the message. We pray for the courage and boldness to proclaim God’s message faithfully, that faith in the Lamb is the only way to have your sins forgiven and to stand before God justified. In humility we confess that if we are saved, it is only because God chose to save us, and all the glory goes to him. If we are lost, it is because of our stubborn pride and disobedience. That message is divisive because it confronts and condemns human pride and glorifies God alone.
Back to our question: why would anyone want to proclaim or stand for a message that is so inherently divisive? First, it brings glory to God. This is his message. This is his law and his gospel. This Lamb is the Lamb of God. Salvation is his free gift. The glory is his. To preach any other message or to change this one would break the 2nd commandment and dishonor God. Second, this is the only message that saves. The forgiveness of sins comes only through Jesus. No one can be justified by what they do, justification comes only through faith in Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who carried our sins to the cross without complaint. He is the Lamb of God whose spotless coat was splashed with his own crimson blood for our sake. He is the Lamb of God who was sacrificed on the cross in our place. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is good news. This is good news that divides; between life and death, faith and unbelief. May we faithfully hear it, sincerely believe it and boldly proclaim it. Amen.