Lawless Deeds, Definite Plan

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on October 25, 2020.

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:22–24).[1]

Riots, violence, sickness, death, conflict, hatred, loss, uncertainty, fear, and the year’s not over yet. Sometimes, do the circumstances of life make you wonder: Is God really in control? Perhaps doctrinally you know better, but do your thoughts and actions tell differently? Do you wonder sometimes: If God is good, and if “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28), then do bad things mean that God has lost control? Is he merely a spectator, watching as events unfold? Or, does he wait to respond or react as necessary?

It is fallen human nature to believe that there must be something terribly wrong when bad things happen to us or if things don’t go the way we want. We assume the worst and fear what’s next, or we assume the best and hope for what’s next. But both perspectives view life through the dirty lens of human depravity.

Consider the hypothetical perspective of the disciples on the night of Jesus’ crucifixion. They had witnessed the fickle whim of popularity turn against Jesus, as the leaders of Israel pursued his execution. They were helpless as the Roman government approved his crucifixion. They did not storm Golgotha to free him from his torture. And they went into hiding as their Lord was buried.

Can you imagine the range of emotions they must have felt? Fear, confusion, anger, vulnerability, among others. I doubt seriously that any were contemplating the love of God. I would imagine they were experiencing the same feelings that many of us have in times of uncertainty.

Now fast forward to Israel’s festival day of Pentecost, approximately seven weeks later. The disciples are no longer cowering and hiding in fear. In fact, they are in Jerusalem, preaching the gospel (even in foreign languages), without fear. What changed? Were the Jewish leaders removed? Was the Roman government overthrown? Had they all gone stir-crazy from their self-imposed quarantine? None of the above.

Peter, in preaching to Israel, actually tells us what happened, and what led fearful disciples to boldly preach the gospel. In his sermon, Peter explains that even in their darkest hour, God provided not what they wanted but precisely what they needed. Peter explains that God really is in control, even from eternity past. And Peter explains that God has a purpose in all that he does.

God’s Provision

When Peter preached his Pentecost sermon, he was not alone. All the other apostles stood beside him (Acts 2:14). No longer fearful of what man can do to him, Peter addresses his audience, “Men of Israel,” meaning “the house of Israel” (Acts 2:36) or the nation. It is not a sermon for a few but the whole.

It is not the singularity of his audience but the topic of his sermon to which Peter points: “Jesus of Nazareth.” It is an intentional reference. Certainly, Nathanael captured his country’s sentiment when he asked Philip rhetorically, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). There were skeptics who rightly argued that the Christ would come not from Nazareth but Bethlehem (John 7:41- 42).

But Peter preaches not to fulfill the preconceived notions of the people but according to Scripture. As Matthew records, “[Jesus] went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). He is preaching Jesus of Nazareth, his Lord. And everyone listening knew of “this Jesus,” but Peter will not leave him to their memory or imagination. He tells them of Jesus, the testimony of God.

In fact, he explains God’s testimony revealed through Jesus, a testimony that Peter says they “know.” Through Jesus, God did “mighty works and wonders and signs” in their midst. His trifold description of Jesus’ miracles is significant. For, as Jesus said, he did not come of his “own accord” but of his Father who sent him (John 8:42), so the “works” he did were telling. God “attested,” meaning he showed forth himself in Jesus.[2]

The “mighty works” or miracles were not in dispute; even the Pharisees acknowledged Jesus’ miracles but attributed them to the demonic (Matt. 12:24). The “mighty works” of Jesus were given by God not for novelty or entertainment but to reveal the glory of God in Christ. In fact, the Hebrew parallel to the word translated “wonder” is used to describe God’s miraculous work in creation.[3] If the “heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1), so did the mighty works of Jesus.

Likewise, Israel was not without a “sign” from God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. To walk through the historical record of Jesus’ miracles is to see consistently a unique message, indeed a sign, in each mighty work. Beginning with Jesus’ first miracle and culminating in his resurrection God had revealed himself to Israel.

So, Peter preaches the testimony of God in the person of Christ Jesus, his “mighty works and wonders and signs,” all pointing to God’s provision in Christ. It was not a change in the leadership of Israel or the Roman government that led the twelve apostles to stand together with Peter as he preached. It was the gospel. It was the historical fact that in the fullness of time “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).

In Jesus’ perfect life and works he revealed his person and purpose. In his atoning death, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). And in his resurrection, he “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). He came testifying of God, and in his greatest work became our provision, reconciling us with God through faith and granting us eternal life in the family of God.

It was this gospel that gave the apostles the confidence to leave the security of their locked doors and to go into a hostile world. And the confidence God gave them he gives to all who believe savingly on the Lord Jesus Christ and trust in his provision. The apostles were fallen sinners yet saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ just like we are. Their temporal circumstances did not improve, but in fact got worse, and yet they fixed their hearts and minds on the gospel of Jesus Christ, even “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:41-42). For, they knew that God’s greatest provision was not in changing the culture, or the government, or their circumstances but in their Savior.

God’s Plan

God’s provision in Christ Jesus was not merely fortunate, or happenstance, nor was it the collective invention of the people by the people for the people. Often when we consider our needs, we look first to ourselves. Yet, when it comes to our greatest need, to be reconciled to a holy God, what we have to offer is insufficient. As sinners by nature, what we do best is sin. While we often under emphasize our own sin and over emphasize the sin of others, we still have the illusion that everything bad happening around us can be fixed by us. As far as human history goes, our track record is poor.

Consider for example the human contribution to our salvation from sin and death. Peter says to Israel collectively, “you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” this Jesus, who was attested by God. Consider the magnitude of this statement. Israel’s greatest longing was for salvation in their Messiah to come. He came, and they killed him!

The culpability is not singular: “you” is Israel collectively. Certainly, Jesus’ murder was carried out “by the hands of lawless men,” Jew and Gentile alike. And the guilt is shared by all, as is the testimony of human depravity: when it comes to saving ourselves, the human solution is always tainted by sin.

This of course is beyond depressing if you deny or doubt the sovereignty of God. Peter doesn’t. He says that Jesus was actually “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” What does this mean? It means that Jesus’ crucifixion did not thwart God’s plan but was God’s plan. In fact, Jesus was “delivered up” or “given over” according to God’s plan.

And, it was not a contingency plan but a “definite,” or “predetermined,” plan. Peter and John will later refer to it as “predestined” (Acts 4:28).

How can God’s predetermined plan include the deeds of lawless men? The Westminster Confession explains, “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (3.1). Translation? God ordained from eternity past everything that happens, even the unlawful execution of his Son, and the means by which he accomplished what he ordained even included the nation of Israel, the government of Rome, and the “hands of lawless men.” Only God can say, “Everything is going according to plan.”

Furthermore, God was not, is not, and will never be frustrated…ever. According to his foreknowledge, he knew exactly what the leaders of Israel would do, what Pilate would say, how the disciples would hide, and how everything from the human perspective would seem hopeless. He foreknew what he had foreordained. But, because God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, we can be assured that there is purpose in all things.

God’s Purpose

Despite the lawless deeds of man in the crucifixion of the Christ, we know as they know that Jesus resurrected from the dead on the third day. God literally “raised him up.” Indeed, Jesus was not only “crucified” but was “killed.” He was dead. And in dying, he endured the “pangs” or agony of death. But as agonizing as his death was, death is not sovereign. Only God is. It was no more possible that Jesus remain dead than God cease to exist. God is not dead.

Therefore, it is in the resurrection of Christ that we see God’s purpose. Just as God provided the perfect sacrifice to atone for our sin, just as the sacrifice was accomplished by the predetermined plan of God, so Jesus was resurrected from the dead, securing our redemption to the glory of God. When we see life through this redemptive lens, then we realize that God is indeed in control and working all things for our sanctifying good and his glory.

God said through Isaiah, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isa. 46:10). Temporal events will come and go, but God’s purpose will prevail. Look not to the lawless deeds of our human depravity for hope. Rather, know that he who ordained whatsoever comes to pass is your heavenly Father through faith in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. And when our hearts are troubled by riots, violence, sickness, death, conflict, hatred, loss, uncertainty, and fear, let us respond with the apostle, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! … For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33–36).

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Frederick William Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 108.

[3] Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2007), 115.

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