Preaching repentance

These days, if a preacher wants to make a good first impression, it’s probably better not to say too much about sin. Preach a more encouraging word, say, about the boundlessness of God’s love. Don’t talk about repentance, at least not right away.

Paul apparently never got that memo.

As we saw in an earlier post, Paul’s first recorded sermon in Acts takes place in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (not to be confused with the Antioch in Syria, Acts 11). Identifying with his audience, he briefly retells the story of Israel, emphasizing the sovereign faithfulness of God to his people. It is only after Paul reaches David that he introduces Jesus into the story, the Savior from the line of David whom God promised in ages past.

At this point, Paul could simply have called upon the people to believe in Jesus as their promised Messiah. The message would have been: God made a promise; he has faithfully fulfilled it; therefore believe in Jesus. Happy ending.

But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he tacks in a more dire direction, warning the people of the need to repent from their sin.

In the same breath as mentioning David and Jesus, Paul introduces John the Baptist. It was John’s role to point away from himself to Jesus as Messiah. But like the prophets of old, he did this by preaching a message of “repentance to all the people of Israel” (Acts 13:24, NRSV).

The people needed to do more than merely welcome their Savior. They needed to repent.

Paul then highlights how the people of Jerusalem and their leaders failed miserably at recognizing the coming of their Messiah. They did not, Paul says “understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath,” but ironically, “fulfilled those words by condemning him” (Acts 13:27). There is already an implied message of warning here: Every Sabbath, they came to worship. They heard the words of the prophets, just as you have today. And to what end? They committed a terrible injustice by having an innocent man killed. So…what do the prophets say to you? Where will you stand in relation to Jesus?

The crucifixion, of course, is not the end of the story. The good news is that God has faithfully raised Jesus from the dead, again in fulfillment of ancient prophecy. As Peter did in his Pentecost sermon, Paul refers to Psalm 16:10: “You will not let your Holy One experience corruption” (Acts 13:35), arguing that the prophecy pointed forward to the resurrected Jesus, not David himself, whose body was buried and then decayed. 

This is the gospel: through Jesus, “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). And to hammer the point home, Paul warns them not to ignore the warning of the prophet Habakkuk: “Look, you scoffers! Be amazed and perish, for in your days I am doing a work, a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you” (vs. 41). The reference is to Habakkuk 1:5. The “work” of which God speaks through the prophet is his raising up the Babylonians to punish Israel for their wickedness and injustice.

Surely an ancient text warning of the coming Babylonian exile would strike a chord with Jews of the Diaspora, living as a minority in Gentile territory, alienated from their homeland.

That’s it. That’s Paul’s ending: The Jews in Jerusalem found themselves on the wrong side of ancient prophecy. Don’t make the same mistake.

What was the response?

At first, it seemed positive:

As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people urged them to speak about these things again the next sabbath. When the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God. (Acts 13:42-43)

And the following week, a great crowd gathered to hear Paul and Barnabas.

But as we’ll see, things quickly deteriorated, suggesting that the message of repentance didn’t stick.