Paul and Barnabas had traveled to the city of Antioch in Pisidia. On the Sabbath day they peacefully entered into the synagogue and sat down. After the proscribed reading of the law and prophets, they were asked whether or not they would like to exhort the congregation. Paul took full advantage of the opportunity, giving to them the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. He declared the good news that the Messiah, the Saviour had come. He said that forgiveness of sins can be found in Jesus of Nazareth. Remember, this was a Jewish synagogue. Perhaps those people had heard of Jesus. If they had, then they knew He had been rejected by the Jewish leadership and had been crucified by the Romans. But Paul told them that seventy-two hours after His burial, He arose victorious over death – the penultimate end of sin. “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, That through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, From which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.”
That quotation from Acts 13:38 and 39 contains the last words before our text. “Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets; Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, A work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you. . . “ When Paul was led of the Spirit to quote from Habakkuk 1, I think there was a very good likelihood that he saw hatred in the eyes of some of the rulers of that synagogue, and he probably saw scepticism in the eyes of some of the others. He took one verse from Habakkuk and threw it like a harpoon into the hearts of those people. And like the first harpoon of many whalers, in some cases it accomplished its desired work. But in other cases it only made the beast more mad with pain, hatred and revenge.
Let’s use three words from Acts 13 as the points of our message – “beware,” “behold” and “believe.”
It is both a good thing and a shame when the preacher doesn’t have to constantly re-establish his congregation’s doctrinal foundation. We wish that there were so many new converts joining our church all the time, that a constant teaching of basic doctrine would have to be necessary. But if that were the case, then this could be addressed in new comer’s classes. And in meetings like this one we could assume that everyone knew the basics of Bible Christianity. Paul assumed that the people to whom he was preaching accepted some Biblical facts. For example, they should have believed that Jehovah is sovereign and superior to all things. They should also have known that He is holy and hates sin. Most human beings live to some degree in denial of their own personal sinfulness. But properly-raised, religious people will at the very least intellectually grant to God His holiness and His deity. This may not be universally accepted in the United States, but Paul was preaching to displaced Jews – the “Diaspora.” So when he said, “Beware” he was assuming there was already a foundation upon which to construct that warning.
This business of warning others, is at the root of the work of God’s prophet. Elijah told Israel, “Repent or the Lord is going to send you an all-devouring famine.” Jeremiah said, “Repent or the Lord is going permit the Babylonians into your city and your homes.” Through Habakkuk God said, “Repent, or the Chaldeans are going to devour you like hungry lions.” Paul sounded just like one of the prophets of old, except that he quoted one of the prophets of old.
I found it very interesting to compare the first words of both verses 40 and 41. The word “beware” is “blepo” and is most often translated “see,” “look” and “take heed.” At first I thought, “Oh, oh, this is going to hurt my outline if both verses begin with the same word.” But thankfully, verse 41 begins by saying “know and pay attention.” This is the word “eido” (i’-do ). These verses say, “Look and take heed of God’s warning; you need to realize that judgment is coming.”
Paul had could have quoted himself, if he had only already written Hebrews 2:1-4: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?” Or he could have quoted himself in Hebrews 12:25: “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, Much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven.”
Acts 28 records a mirror image in Rome of what was happening in Antioch: “And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not. And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers, Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive: For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.”
Verse 40 shows us is that it is my commission to take the declarations of the Word of God and repeat and reiterate them over and over again, reminding people of what God has promised. “Heaven and earth shall pass away” but the promises of God’s judgment against sin and unbelief will not pass away. Since Paul was preaching to people who claimed to believe the Word of God, he prefaced his warning with “Beware” – “Take a look and take heed.”
Then he said, “Behold” – “Pay attention ye despisers.”
Verse 41 is a quotation of the Septuagint – the Greek translation – of Habakkuk 1:5. It is not a direct quote of the Hebrew as we find it in our Bibles.
Habakkuk is written in the form of a conversation with the Lord. The prophet said he couldn’t understand why things were so backward and upside down in the world. And then the Lord explained that the cause is sin. Back and forth they went for three short chapters. Habakkuk’s first question was why God hadn’t stepped in to stop to the wickedness in the nation. The Lord then explained that the Babylonians were on their way to do just that through judgment.. “Behold ye among the heathen, and regard, and wonder marvellously: for I will work a work in your days, which ye will not believe, though it be told you.” Paul’s version, rephrased under the direction of the Holy Spirit was: “Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you.”
Some people might try to criticize the Bible for inconsistency and inaccuracy in cases like this. But Paul didn’t say he was quoting Habakkuk. All that he said was that this was the message of one of the prophets. And that is absolutely true.
Why do the heathen rage and the people take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed? Isn’t it because they despise the Lord and His holy government? Why don’t the heathen turn to the Lord the way that Cornelius did or the way that Sergius Paulus did? Isn’t it because they despise the things of God, while the Lord gave those two heathen men new hearts to believe, receive and love the things of God? Paul not only accurately referred to the LXX version, but he also appropriately called the unbelieving Jews “Heathens.” That is what you are when you refuse to listen, to believe and to practice the commands of the Lord. Professing Christians and even genuine Christians often behave like the heathen.
Paul was telling those people in Antioch that if they rejected the Gospel which he had given them, they were behaving like heathen. And just as the Chaldeans had swiftly fallen on Jerusalem, judgment was going to fall on these people. Even a superficial reading of Jeremiah or a dozen other prophetical books shows us that those Jews refused to believe God could or would judge them. Perhaps they felt that they were untouchables. “No cop can arrest me; no army can destroy my way of life; God loves me despite all my sin.” But God’s love for Israel and Judah didn’t slow His hand of judgment; down it came! “Ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you.” Neither Israel, nor Judah, nor many of the people to whom Paul was preaching believed, despite the fact that it was declared, reiterated and highlighted again and again before the judgment fell. They were told they wouldn’t believe – and they didn’t.
And that brings us to our last word: “Believe.”
God’s prophets must be believed even when the message is painful or distasteful. God is One who cannot lie. God’s prophets, if they are indeed God’s prophets, are telling the truth: “Judgment is coming.” “Be sure your sin will find you out.” Satan has done a powerful job in encouraging and empowering thousands of false prophets down through the years. They have effectively dirtied the waters, until the average man can’t distinguish the truth from the lies without the Holy Spirit’s direct intervention..
Take heed to the message of God’s prophets and believe what they are telling you. Look and see – here comes the judgment of God if you refuse to believe the warning and trust the Saviour. Today’s judges will not be Chaldeans. They may be North Koreans, or hurricanes, or fire and drought. But God is still sovereign over His creation, and He is still holy. As it so often does, the message of the Lord eventually boils down to believing Him and responding to its message. And the necessity for that is not the slightest bit different today than in Paul’s day or the day of Habakkuk. “Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, A work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you. . . “