Luke tells us in Acts 13:14 that Paul and Barnabas arrived in Pisidian Antioch. It seems likely that they arrived in town several days before the Sabbath, during which time they became familiar with the city.
And on the sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets, the officials of the synagogue sent them a message, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” (Acts 13:14-15)
Paul stood, gestured with his hand, and started to talk. What follows in Acts is the longest recorded sermon from Paul that we have in the New Testament.
What Paul did in Antioch became his modus operandi. He entered a town and began teaching in the synagogue. When the Jewish communities gathered in the synagogue, there almost always were some Gentiles who joined them for prayer and exhortation, Gentiles who were drawn to the monotheistic Jewish faith with its emphasis on a God of justice and love who created all things and ruled as King of the universe.
The New Testament refers to these Gentiles as “God-worshipers” or “God-fearers.” Such persons were included among the people of the synagogue and the Jewish community, to a point. It was only as the men underwent circumcision and possibly a form of baptism—a ritual bathing—that they became full converts; until then they seem to have been welcomed and yet retained a lesser status. It was these Gentile God-worshipers who found the gospel Paul preached to be so compelling.
Paul’s message in the synagogue at Antioch began by recounting Israel’s story, a story that each person in the synagogue would have known by heart. Then he proclaimed that Jesus was the long-awaited Savior from God, but he added that the leadership in Jerusalem had not recognized this and instead condemned him to die. Their actions, Paul noted, fulfilled the words of the prophets. Paul proclaimed that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, “But God raised him from the dead!” (Acts 13:30).
Paul concluded his sermon with these (and other) words:
Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38-39)
I like the way Eugene Peterson captures this last sentence in The Message: “Everyone who believes in this raised-up Jesus is declared good and right and whole before God.” Let’s consider the meaning of the gospel Paul proclaimed.
According to Paul, the fundamental problem with the human condition is sin. Paul uses the word fifty-two times in his letters. The Greek word he used, hamartia, means literally to miss the mark. A similar Hebrew word for sin that is often used in the Old Testament means to stray from the path, which assumes there is a path we’re meant to walk on.
Paul uses hamartia several different ways. It is first an orientation of the human soul. We have a tendency to stray from God’s path, to miss God’s target for our lives. We don’t like rules. We don’t want to be told what we can do or cannot do. If the speed limit is fifty-five, I want to drive sixty-five. If there is a sign saying, “Do not touch,” I suddenly have the desire to touch. Or, similarly, if there is something I’m supposed to do, often I dread doing it.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul puts it this way: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate....I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:15, 19).
So sin is an orientation. But for Paul, sin is also an external influence that lures us away from God’s path, as he writes in Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Sin is an orientation or human tendency, and it is an external influence. It is also, according to Paul, every act in which we turn, intentionally or unintentionally, away from God’s will for human life. We’re called to forgive, but we harbor resentment. We’re called to faithfulness, yet we struggle with desire for our neighbor’s spouse. We’re called to show kindness, yet how easily we speak harsh words and practice selfish deeds. Tens of thousands go to bed hungry, yet many of us are overweight.
Nearly all the problems plaguing humanity today have sin at their root. Injustice, racism, the lure for and misuse of power, war, totalitarianism, materialism, infidelity, abuse, addiction, and so many more problems are caused by straying from God’s path—they are all hamartia. Paul famously notes in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The condition of sin separates us from one another and from God. It harms our relationships, brings pain to our world, and leaves us alienated from God. Paul preached that Jews and Gentiles needed a savior—not a savior to deliver the Jews from the Romans, for as long as there is sin in the world there will be conquering and occupying powers; nor a savior like Caesar, who would enforce Rome’s peace by the power of her legions and with the threat of utter destruction. What human beings need is a Savior who could save them from themselves.
Jesus, Paul proclaimed, came to save us. He came to deliver us from sin, to win forgiveness for us, to call us to a new way of life, to change our hearts and minds, and then to deliver us from death and to eternal life. He came to call humanity to be a part of God’s empire, which Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
Today’s post is an excerpt from The Call: The Life and Message of the Apostle Paul