Stories of rescues have a peculiar power for us. Dramatic ones are often reported widely. One of the famous rescues in the Bible – Noah’s – has been replayed in countless talks, books and songs. Somehow those who survive help to lift our spirits when we are faced with terrifying and sickening tales of human disaster. Many may die but we find hope in those who come through safely, even when there’s only a few in comparison with those lost. This wonder we have at rescue stories links strongly into the Bible’s storyline, and Paul makes use of it in our passage.
The verses themselves are mostly taken up with a sermon. Why? Well, remember that Luke’s concern is to show us how the Lord started his kingdom in Israel but then spread it among the Gentiles. Paul is the man chosen to start that non-Jewish extension and so Luke will prioritise him for the rest of Acts. Hence he includes this sermon which lays out some of the apostle’s vital, foundational thinking. Paul is certainly now the leader of this first mission team (v13; suddenly shrunk by Mark’s unhappy (Ac 15:38) departure for Jerusalem), as they travel into the mainland and arrive at Pisidian Antioch in the Roman province of Galatia (not to be confused with Syrian Antioch where they hail from), where they begin evangelism with a synagogue visit (v14).
Paul’s policy will be to talk with Jews first about the Messiah (Ac 13:46; Ro 1:16) and so he is glad to address the local Jewish centre when invited (v15). In some ways the scene reminds us of an occasion when Jesus spoke in a synagogue (Lk 4:16). However, Paul stands (v16) whereas Jesus sat (Lk 4:20). That could, of course, simply be the local culture. But it does reflect an attitude which Paul will promote in his sermon: humility. He is only an apostle, whereas Jesus is the Christ. To discover Christ in the gospel should make us feel small, as we see his glory as the Son of God. And to discover Christ should make us feel corrupt, as we see his purity. So to meet the Lord in the gospel should always be humbling, as it was for Paul (Ac 9:4).
But how can Paul preach humility to these Jews and God-fearers far from Israel? He goes to the Exodus of centuries earlier, when the Jews were rescued from Egyptian slavery (v17; Ex 3:7-8). That rescue was a defining moment for Israel, shaping national life in many ways including the annual Passover festival (De 16:1) and the giving of the law at Sinai (Ex 19:5). However, the fact is that it was also a failure since they remained selfish and sinful. This resulted in 40 years in the desert (v18; Ps 95:10) before finally gaining the promised land (v19). But even then, the troubled years of the Judges followed (v20) until the Lord sent Samuel, only then for Israel to demand a mistaken king: Saul (v21). So another 40 years went by until, at last, they gained a king after God’s own heart: David (v22). Using history, therefore, Paul drives home his point that the Exodus simply wasn’t enough: Israel remains a nation which needs saving. That’s an idea we can relate to since all our experiences of rescues (personally or hearing of others) show how limited their impact actually is. We may be inspired by them to better living, but in reality we soon fall back into old, spoiled ways. And, of course, every rescued life ends up ultimately dead anyway.
Facing this painful reality, however, does not have to lead to despair. Our longings for rescues can point us to something better, as Paul shows. King David died, but from him came a true saviour (v23). Paul tells his hearers, therefore, humbly to seek a new beginning, just as John the Baptist preached (v24). It’s time for Israel to be reborn and John saw Jesus as clearly the only one in all her history who could bring this about (v25). Jesus came for a new Exodus (Lk 9:30) which would achieve what the first never could: complete salvation for God’s people. Paul, once proud, now meekly sees this (as his name-change reflects). Paul’s hearers need to see it too (v26). As do we. It’s easy to hide from the reality of life in a range of ways. But we need to face the truth of all that’s wrong and see how all our attempts at ‘saving’ humanity are weak. Even the best of lives and the best of societies remain broken, tainted, sinful, dying. Even the best of rescues ends in darkness. If we turn to Christ, however, we can truly, and fully, be saved from sin and death.