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The Gospel Spreads -- a study of Acts 13:26-39

Do you know the good news about Jesus?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 13:26-39

The good news is simple: Christ died for our sins, and God raised Him from the dead. Now, all people need to have an opportunity to hear that and respond. For us today, this lesson is pointed: do we understand the facts of the gospel? Can we explain them to people who live around us in this anti-church culture?

Therefore, let it be known to you, brothers and sisters... (13:38)

[This post was originally a newsletter for teachers. I'm slowly putting older resources online for quick reference.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Getting Ready to Travel.

Anyone can help you with this one: when you’re getting ready for a long trip (even better, an international trip), what do you do? There are all of the logistics for the homestead, such as the newspaper and mail and bills and pets and saving up vacation time. But more importantly for this discussion, there is the prep for the places you will go. Have you ever taken the time to learn the language of the place you will visit? How about the customs? When our church travels to Honduras each summer, we are given a list of do’s and don’ts based on our organizing agency’s many years of experience. It would be easy to get into trouble in a foreign land if you didn’t know “the rules”. Have any stories like that?

The point: our lesson this week is on a turning point in Acts, when the focus shifts from Jerusalem to Antioch—the worldwide mission of Jesus gets underway. But Paul and his friends didn’t have any manuals for what they were trying to do. They relied on the Holy Spirit to put them in touch with guides who could help learn the do’s and don’ts (and we will read that they still had cultural trouble!). Stressful!

{Related Topic: English Is the Worst. Google “English is a difficult language” or “Why English is hard to learn poem” to hint at why English speakers have such a hard time learning another language—because our own language’s rules are bizarre and so we don’t know how language works. If you can be careful (because Google can be dangerous), Google “Funny mistranslations”. You’ll find things like American Airlines’s slogan “Fly in Leather” was translated as “Fly Naked” in Mexico. Coors’s slogan “Turn It Loose” became “Suffer from Diarrhea” in Latin America. You really have to be careful about what you’re trying to say! Imagine doing all of this as a missionary for the first time—a lot of people spoke Greek (like English, it was the business language), but we’ve just learned that mistranslations can be ugly.}

Facts about Paul’s First Missionary Journey. And if you guys know all of this and don’t need to spend any time catching up on Acts, you can just start with the facts:

  • Acts 13 - 14:28

  • Length: 2 years (45 - 47 A.D.)

  • Total miles traveled: Approximately 1,235

  1. Antioch (300 miles north of Jerusalem)

  2. Seleucia (seaport 16 miles west)

  3. Cyprus (island 90 miles west)

  4. Perga (seaport in Asia Minor about 150 miles away)

  5. Antioch of Pisidia (100 miles north)

  6. Iconium (60 miles to the east)

  7. Lystra (only about 18 miles away)

  8. Derbe (another 20 miles)

  9. Finally back to Antioch of Syria by way of backtracking through the previous stops

Remembering the Book of Acts

Author. Here’s a quick recap of the things I find important (and by all means feel free to show the Bible Project video or print out the Bible Project poster for Acts):

Due to lots of language clues, the church throughout history has believed that the same man wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, namely a physician named Luke. Paul had such a companion for 15 years of mission work, and the times Acts switches to first person implies that one of Paul’s companions wrote these works. Luke would have had multiple years in Jerusalem and in Rome (when Paul was under house arrest) to do eyewitness research.

Date. Here’s what we know about the timeline: Festus was governor of Judea from about 59-62; he was sent to Judea to replace Felix who had been recalled to Rome after violently putting down a revolt that roughly coincided with the “trouble” Paul had been stirring up. Paul had been in prison for 2 years in Caesarea when Festus arrived and called for his trial (probably to make a good impression on the restless locals). That would put Paul’s trial before Festus in 59. He then lived under house arrest in Rome for 2 more years, and that’s where Acts ends. Some people, like me, believe that Luke would have completed Acts very soon after Paul’s house arrest ended, else he would have mentioned the other huge historical events from the 60s. Others believe that Luke wrote much later but didn’t feel the need to mention anything after Paul’s house arrest.

What’s Happening in Acts

Acts 13 is a major turning point in the book of Acts.

What we studied in Acts 1-12 was the birth of the church, the commissioning of the Apostles, and the growth of the church in Jerusalem and among Jews. We have Pentecost, the appointing of the first deacons, the stoning of Stephen, and the hints of the mission with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Then we meet Paul in chapter 9 and his ministry with Barnabas in Judea. The focus for all of these chapters has been on Jews, Jerusalem, and the ministry of the Apostles (Jesus’ 12)—in other words, connecting the story with Jesus and His mission to the Jews (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria . . . )

But in chapter 13, everything changes. Now the emphasis will be on Paul and His international mission work. You need to point out that Paul began his work in the synagogues (to the Jews), and it is only after being rejected by the Jews that Paul goes openly to the Gentiles (Greeks).

One Last Serious Topic for you to work in:

When Churches Need to Reach New Groups.

One of the reasons God allowed serious persecution to break out against the early church is they weren’t trying to reach all peoples—they were just trying to reach people like them (Jews). I’ve heard Christians gripe about the early church, how they weren’t “doing their job”. But how hard is it to reach people who aren’t like you? God commands every church to reach out to everyone in the community around them. We don’t—sometimes because there is another nearby church that is a better cultural fit for some people, and sometimes because we don’t want to make the changes necessary for those people to feel comfortable and welcome in our church family. When you discuss our passage this week, I want you to find a way to work this question in: have you ever been a part of a church that was making a difficult transition to reach a new demographic?

  • Sometimes this change is forced upon a church. The community changes around the church, and either they adapt or close their doors. Every year, thousands of churches close for that reason.

  • Sometimes this change is just traumatic and difficult. Reaching new people might involve changing music, décor, programs, language, and more. It’s hard. In these chapters in Acts, we will read about some of the heartache and bitter fights that went on as Paul tried to reach a new group of people.

I really hope your group will take the time to discuss this idea regularly throughout this quarter in Acts: what are you willing to change in your church/Bible study group to connect with new groups of people? That leads to the other really important topic for this quarter:

What Do We Change? What Do We Keep the Same?

The reason “change” is so hard for churches is we aren't sure what we can change, so we’re worried about changing anything. That’s certainly in the background of all of these Acts debates about “what do Gentiles need to do to be saved?” Something we say around here is “we can change the method, but we can never change the message”. I think that’s true, but it’s also easier said that done, because parts of the message are tied to the method we use to share it! You’ll have plenty of chances to talk about this this quarter. If you have any problems, please let me hear about them!


Bonus Topic! Key Moments in Christianity

As a historian, I love topics like this: what are the most important events in the history of Christianity (post-ascension)? There are lots of results for this online, and they’re all interesting. Here’s a short list:

  • The Conversion of Constantine. The first Roman Emperor to recognize Christianity—forever changing the church.

  • The Council of Nicaea. This was the first big council to answer a massive theological question (Is Jesus God?).

  • The Battle of Tours. Charles Martel defeats the Muslims in Spain and keeps western Europe under Christian control.

  • The Fourth Lateran Council. Pope Innocent III claims all power on earth and defines transubstantiation. (Not saying that every moment is a good moment.)

  • John Wyclif translates the Bible into English. This is the first major translation into a vernacular language.

  • The 95 Theses. Part of a continent-wide move for reform, Martin Luther ignited what we now call the Reformation.

  • The First Great Awakening. The Awakenings associated America with Christianity for our entire early history.

  • The Bill of Rights. The first time religious freedom is codified in law.

So many events belong here! Canonizing the New Testament. The first Latin Bible. The first pope. My point would be that the events of Acts 13—inevitable as they were—redefined the church as strongly as any event in history. We know that God wanted the events of Acts 13 to happen; what do you think God thinks about the things that have happened since?


Part 1: Crucified (Acts 13:26-29)

“Brothers and sisters, children of Abraham’s race, and those among you who fear God, it is to us that the word of this salvation has been sent. Since the residents of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize him or the sayings of the prophets that are read every Sabbath, they have fulfilled their words by condemning him. Though they found no grounds for the death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him killed. 29 When they had carried out all that had been written about him, they took him down from the tree and put him in a tomb."

Key #1 to this passage: Paul doesn’t change the message. He starts with the resurrection and works from there (see below for the gospel basics). His audience is God-fearing Gentiles and Jews (“children of Abraham’s race”)—language designed to connect his audience with God’s story and bring them into this discussion. What could we call our audience today that would get their attention? Note that Paul also distanced his audience from the great crime of having Jesus executed; I’m guessing that went over well. The reference to a “tree” connects his audience with Deuteronomy 21:23 and the curse pronounced there. Basically, Paul started with the fact that his audience was familiar with Judaism (he was in a synagogue) and crafted a gospel message that they could follow.


Part 2: Resurrected (Acts 13:30-37)

“But God raised him from the dead, and he appeared for many days to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. And we ourselves proclaim to you the good news of the promise that was made to our ancestors. God has fulfilled this for us, their children, by raising up Jesus, as it is written in the second Psalm: You are my Son; today I have become your Father. As to his raising him from the dead, never to return to decay, he has spoken in this way, I will give you the holy and sure promises of David. Therefore he also says in another passage, You will not let your Holy One see decay. For David, after serving God’s purpose in his own generation, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and decayed, but the one God raised up did not decay.”

These words are extremely straightforward. Point out that the resurrection was an essential key of the gospel to Paul, and in this he’s talking about a physical, bodily resurrection. You might remember that a number of Jews (i.e. Sadducees) did not believe in such a resurrection, and you can point out that many Greeks held a view of the universe that said “spiritual” is good and “physical” is bad. Paul wanted everyone to be clear about God’s plan for eternity. Paul then pointed out eyewitnesses, something that would be very important to skeptical hearers. And finally, Paul made several strong Old Testament connections (connecting Jesus with David and the prophecy in Psalm 2:7). All of this was done with his target audience in mind.

My recommendation is to move through this section and the next before wrapping it all up with an explanation of the gospel. However (and below), you might want to stop here to talk about “decay” and why Paul cares about it so much. David “decayed” but Jesus did not. Paul is talking as much about purpose and impact as he is physical body—the entire person. David died, his body decayed, and he faded from history. Jesus, on the other hand, will never decay because His purpose is eternal. As proof, God raised Jesus from the dead so that He will never physically decay either. I have people ask me about cremation; they are worried about it—”if that body is cremated, how can it be resurrected?” Paul hints at that answer here: given enough time, every body eventually returns to physical dust. But that does not stop God from resurrecting us. This follows what Pastor David preached about last week; when Jesus returns, the present heavens and earth will “pass away” in fire, very much like a cremation. And yet, on the other side, a new heavens and earth will emerge which is somehow the same and yet not the same. Think of it this way: we don’t want to live in our current body forever, right? At least, not in the condition they’re in. The new body God gives us will be recognizable; it will be familiar to us. And yet, it won’t have the problems with sin and sickness.


Aside: Resurrection and Decay

Why is the resurrection so important to Paul? One of the reasons is this word “decay” (“corruption”). Decay is a slow destruction over a period of time. It is the exact opposite of “abundant life”. Decay goes beyond physical death to actual oblivion—the removal of a being from existence. It breaks down at the cellular (and eventually molecular) level. That is not God’s plan for His people! In the resurrection, there is no decay. No stench of death of any kind. This is why Paul cares about the resurrection.


Part 3: Proclaimed (Acts 13:38-39)

“Therefore, let it be known to you, brothers and sisters, that through this man forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you. Everyone who believes is justified through him from everything that you could not be justified from through the law of Moses.”

And then Paul ends with a beautiful “invitation”. This is why Baptists are so passionate about ending every sermon with a gospel presentation and invitation to repent—the great sermons of Acts do! Here’s what I recommend for you to spend most of your class time on: using this sermon as your template, what are the basic elements of the gospel?

In a nutshell, the gospel (“good news”) is that Jesus died on a cross to obtain forgiveness for our sins and God raised Him from the dead as proof of our eternal life. I recommend having someone in your class read 1 Corinthians 15 for more detail on this. So . . . what about all of that other stuff we are told to put in a “gospel presentation”? We’re taught to say something to the effect of (1) we all sin, (2) our sin deserves punishment, (3) God cannot ignore punishment, (4) Jesus paid that punishment, (5) salvation is a free gift, (6) you can/must accept that free gift. And then we’ll say something like: (1) You must know the facts of the gospel, (2) you must believe the facts of the gospel, and (3) you must act on the facts of the gospel. And then there are the words like “atonement” and “justification” and “redemption” and “sanctification”.

All of those things are embedded in Paul’s sermon. But think of it this way: the gospel is incredibly simple: Jesus died for our sins and God raised Him from the dead. That’s the good news. But it matters what happens next. You have to believe the good news. (And when you believe, all of that other stuff just happens. When a person truly believes, the Holy Spirit “moves in” and changes start happening. But those are the results of the good news, not the good news itself.)

So—have your group summarize the gospel in a way that makes sense to them.

Then, just as important, let’s apply the gospel to our context. Who is our “audience” here in McDuffie County, and how can we present the gospel in a way that makes sense to them (without changing any of those basic elements)? This is where things get hard and Christians get into arguments. Paul was speaking to Jews, so he used lots of information from the Old Testament and things that were important to Jewish history.

Who are we speaking to here? What’s important to them? Is there anything in that we can use to help them understand the gospel? Well, there is, but probably not as easy as we would want. A lot of older people around us have a background with a church, but that background might not be very positive. It might not be a good idea to talk about “church” if they had a bad experience in one. And with younger people around us, fewer of them have had any experience in a church, so they don’t know much of anything we’re talking about.

Based on your experience with the people around us, what do you think might get their attention with the gospel without changing it? I think about the “human condition”—more than ever, people are struggling to have meaningful relationships, people are worried that they are losing control of their lives, there is fear of terrorism and pandemic and recession and natural disaster, people are overwhelmed with bad news. We can ask them: “how are your solutions working?” The truth is that as we try harder and harder to marginalize God or remake Him in our image, God will allow worse and worse things to get our attention before it’s too late. Sin is real and sin has consequences. But that’s not the end of the story—there’s still good news. In the world around us we see ample proof of human sinfulness. God sent His Son to provide salvation for everyone who would believe in Him. Now, as Christians, we serve a living God who wants us to proclaim that good news to everyone before time runs out.


Aside: Justification

“Justification” is a key word that Paul uses to describe the results of the gospel (here, he uses the verb form “justified”). David has used the phrase “just-as-if-I’d never sinned”; that works, but let me go into a little more detail if anyone in your group wants to know.

Greeks used the term in a moral/legal sense: someone gets what’s coming to him. In a positive way, it can refer to “someone who has fulfilled his duties”. In a negative way, it can refer to someone who is going to be punished — both people are justified. (Note that that is very different than how we use the word today! Today, we think of “justified” as in “legitimate reason”.)

Paul, though, uses the word in a much more nuanced manner. In the Old Testament, the word “justified” was almost always used in its positive sense, as in Isa 53:11. BUT the only person in the Old Testament who could truly say he had only good things coming to him was the Messiah. In Isa 53:11, God says that the Messiah will through his own justification justify others.

In other words, in Christian usage, “justified” does not mean that we get what is coming to us; it means that we get what is coming to Jesus. Indeed, we do not get what is coming to us! In Paul’s usage, “justified” means “declared right with God” or “acquitted of all charges”. Hallelujah! But we should remember that indeed we have sinned—yes, justification is free to us, but it came as the cost of the Son of God. We must always remember the price that was paid on our behalf.


Closing Thoughts: Statistics about the International Mission Board (IMB)

For Southern Baptists, “mission work” often makes us think about our International Mission Board. The Board has been in a hard place in recent years, with funding reductions leading to personnel reductions. This received a lot of “bad press” in recent years as we have had to call missionaries back off the field. (Please note that such decisions are always more complicated than that, but that’s an easy way to explain it.) We are thrilled to say that Southern Baptist response to this crisis has led to increased giving to the IMB, and further streamlining within the IMB (cutting back on overhead) has meant that we can now appoint missionaries at levels from years past. Here are some quick facts for you to share with your class:

  • Total Field Personnel (09/2017): 3,612

  • Field personnel added 2016 :299

  • Overseas baptisms 2015: 93,922

  • Overseas churches 2015: 42,704

  • New churches 2015: 6,138

  • Newly engaged people groups: 872

  • Unreached People Groups still not Engaged (6/2017): 3,203

Yes, if someone asks, these numbers are much lower than they have been in the past. But a big part of that is financial. In recent years, the IMB has not had a balanced budget, and they had been selling properties to keep going. That’s not sustainable, and this “reset” as they call it has been coming.

Here’s what you can say: December is our month for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. 100% of that offering goes to the IMB. The IMB receives 60% of its operating budget from the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. If you want to see those number go back up (and the world isn’t getting smaller), then encourage your group to give to this special offering this year!


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