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The New Israel
“Friends, there’s an important issue I need to begin with this morning. There’s been an elephant in the room for some time now that we can’t ignore any longer.” That’s what Peter said to the other followers of Jesus.
The elephant has a name. It starts with “J”, has two syllables, and has a “u” and an “s”. His name is … Judas. They’ve done the roll call in v13 and he’s obviously not there.
What are they going to make of Judas? Judas had been just like the other eleven. He had seen Jesus, spoken with him, listened to him, gone on mission for him, spent the last three years together with him and the others. Then he sold him. How could Judas have betrayed Jesus in that way?
In order to address their concerns, Peter stands up (some might think that’s a bit rich coming from Peter who not that long ago denied Jesus three times. A lot has happened since then, and Jesus has commissioned Peter to lead the group) stresses the fact that God was in control of Judas’ actions all along. The sovereign, unshakable rule of God stood over even the wickedness and cowardice of Judas.
Jesus’ betrayal was not a surprise to him. What Peter is implying in v20 is that this betrayal of Jesus was spoken about centuries before Judas even existed. Quoting from Ps 69 (“may his camp become desolate”) and Ps 109 (“let another take his office”), Peter sees what most of us probably wouldn’t have initially seen. In fact, most of us probably think, “Let another take his office…?” how is that so obviously about Judas?
If you were to go back and read the whole psalms you’d see, yes, King David is crying out against someone who had dealt with him treacherously, but also that these psalms really point forward to Jesus and what would happen to him. We know that the one who deals treacherously with Jesus, amongst others, is of course Judas. I don’t think we need to worry that Peter is just plucking random, out-of-context verses from the Old Testament that fit what he wants to say. What he is doing is showing that this was God’s plan. “The Holy Spirit spoke beforehand … concerning Judas” (v16). His treachery was not an accident; it was not a detour on the plan. It was part of the plan.
Judas acted under his own compulsion? Yes, but was it outside the will of God? No. This point was extremely important for this fledgling church to get. At that moment, without Jesus, without the Spirit, few in number, surrounded by enemies, and unsure of who in their midst might be another Judas, you can see why everything might seem to be hanging by a thread.
How were they going to survive, let alone take the message about Jesus to the whole world? What they needed to understand most was one of the most fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith – the sovereignty of God in all things: even in apparent defeat or disaster. Not one thing that had happened had frustrated Jesus’ plans. In fact, everything that had happened had only furthered them.
There will be times when people we love and trust turn out to be Judases. What do we do when that happens? Do we conclude the whole things a sham? Do we give up, or give in?
If Judas’ betrayal could be used by the Father to take his Son to the place where he would win salvation for humanity, then anything else can be met with the firm knowledge that God is working in and through it. Now, that doesn’t answer all the questions we might have, I know. There’s much more we could say at this point, and I expect we’ll come back to this theme in weeks to come.
For today I just want to make the point that it’s a sovereign plan.
Note that it is just plan.
In v18, Luke interrupts Peter’s talk to tell us what happened to Judas. The ending of his life takes place “off camera,” as it were. We don’t get a “live report”, so to speak.
Some people worry about the differences between Luke’s and Matthew’s record of what happened to Judas. We don’t have time to get into all that now, except to say that both Matthew and Luke records the same things: Judas is overwhelmed with grief and guilt, he dies a gruesome death, a field is purchased with the money he received, and that place is called the “Field of Blood” for obvious reasons.
Now, why is it important for us to know what happened to Judas? Again, it tells us that God’s plan has everything covered. Judas’ wickedness did not go unnoticed or unaddressed. He was held accountable for his world-class treachery.
However, it’s important to remember that Judas’ biggest problem was not the explosion of his intestines (though, in fairness, that was pretty bad). What Judas really needed to worry about was facing God and being damned for eternity.
We’re reminded of that in the prayer that followed Peter’s speech. In v25, Judas turned aside to go to his own place. They’re not talking about a field in Jerusalem; they’re talking about justice beyond death. Judas got what was coming for him. God will judge the wicked.
Now, we’ve got to be careful at this point because we all deserve to get what Judas got. We haven’t all done what Judas did exactly. Any sin is treachery against the King; whether by kiss in a garden, a lustful glance, a malicious thought, an angry word. We thank God that for those who belong to Jesus, justice has already been administered at the cross.
What we learn here is that God does not let sin go unpunished. He has a sovereign plan, yes, and this fledgling group needed to know that, and he has a just plan. Which this fledgling group also needed to know.
It changes how we look at injustice in our own lives. As Christians we can be patient. We don’t need to see justice accomplished; we don’t need to strive to settle every account; we don’t need to ensure that someone who has wronged us or our loved ones receives their full comeuppance.
God’s got it covered.
“Leave room for God’s wrath,” says Paul (Rom 12). “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
For this first Christian church: God’s plan is sovereign, God’s plan is just – you just get on with doing what you need to be doing.
What was that exactly?
Peter understands that the Old Testament not only predicted that Judas would betray Jesus and face judgement for it, but that another should take his office. If we were to read that verse in Ps 109, it’s probably not immediately obvious that it’s saying a replacement for Judas must be appointed. Nor is it necessarily immediately obvious why they needed 12 at all. I think that if we were to think back to why Jesus originally chose 12, we would recognise its importance.
If I was to ask you how many disciples did Jesus have? Most people would probably answer, 12. And in a sense that would be correct. Peter, James, John, Judas … etc etc. We might not know all their names, but we know how many there were. However, to answer 12 would not be entirely correct.
The word disciple means follower, usually in a teacher/pupil type relationship. A disciple of Jesus was someone who followed him and learnt from him. Even after all that had happened, we read in v15, the company of persons was in all about 120. It’s been out of this larger group that Jesus had chosen 12 to have a particular and special role, and it’s these select 12 he named apostles.
Now what does the word “apostle” mean? The word apostle means something different from disciple, although we might interchange them as we talk about the 12 disciples or the 12 apostles. The word apostle means ‘sent one’. An apostle is someone who is sent by another.
In the ancient world an apostle was usually a representative of a king or some important political ruler. By virtue of their commission they had the authority to speak and act on behalf of their ruler. The apostle carried with him the authority of the one who sent him. A bit like when a father sends a child to tell his siblings that it’s time for dinner. The child who is sent with the message is speaking on his father’s behalf. So when the child announces the news that it’s time to sit up because dinner’s on the table and his siblings reply ‘as if’ and he says ‘yeah, dad said so’, it means, among other things that if the rest of them do not come straight away, they will have to answer to the father. By failing to obey the messenger’s summons, they are showing disrespect to the father.
Jesus had given that same authority to a select 12. And so he says, ‘whoever receives them, receives me. Whoever rejects them, rejects me’ (Matt 10:40). The apostles were fully commissioned to speak for and to act for Jesus as his representatives. They spoke for Jesus, broadcasting his saving message to the world. They acted for him, baptizing, discipling, teaching, performing miracles.
In fact, Paul says that the foundation of the church is the prophets and apostles, with Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20). Jesus choose these 12 to do in this world what Jesus wanted to get done, namely the establishing of his kingdom, the church.
The answer is Jesus is creating a new people for God, his new kingdom. He picks 12 of them and 12 in this context is a loaded number.
When you read the Bible you’ve got to be careful. I don’t think 12 is always a loaded number. When the disciples pick up 12 basketfuls of leftovers, for instance, after Jesus feeds the 5000 I don’t think that’s a significant number at all, other than to say there were a lot of leftovers.
Why is 12 a significant number here? Why do they care? Isn’t 11 close enough? Why do they need a 12th man?
For this very reason…
When I said 12th man, what did you all think of? Cricket. In the context of Australian summer, when I say 12th man you think cricket (and if you didn’t you should have).
Well, the number gives it away here. 12 is the number of tribes of Israel which was God’s chosen people. And so when Jesus picked 12 guys to be his apostles (and when they continue it here after Judas was dropped), it’s a very loaded act. He’s starting the new people of God, orientated not around the physical sons of Jacob, but around him.
Once he’s here everything revolves around him, and so the people of God now, who is in God’s people, who is right with God, who belongs to God? That is now defined by Jesus. You can’t say that you’re in, or you’re ok, without coming to Jesus. He creates the new people who belong to God.
Jesus was saying, ‘It’s all about me. It’s not about Judaism anymore. That’s the old wineskins and the old garments. The new is here and it’s radically different and it all centres around me.’ It’s not completely different – but it is radically different, and it’s going to be better than anything you could have ever imagined.
Let me try and explain by way of analogy. Imagine you’re building a house. One of the first things you need to do is site preparation. You need to level the ground, you need to dig holes, and you need to dig trenches. Once you’ve done that then you can lay the foundation, and then after that the walls and the roof.
The OT, Judaism, is a bit like the trenches, the holes for the footings, maybe a few corner stakes. You can look at that and get a little sense of what the building, God’s house, will be like; it sets the shape for the rest of it, but it’s not the building. Jesus then, through his apostles, lays the foundation upon which the walls and roof are built, resulting in a magnificent structure that is the true kingdom of God, the church.
Jesus, in choosing 12, was saying, ‘It’s time to get out of the trenches and start living in the house, because I’m here.’ To carry on with ideas about the physical nation of Israel still having some special place in God’s plans would be like coming into this magnificent house that Jesus has built and saying, ‘great, we’ll live under the floorboards and dig trenches.’
So why 12? Jesus is saying, ‘I’m creating a new people/kingdom/community, that’s radically better, that’s all about me.’ That’s why Peter says, “We need a 12th man, to continue to show that.”
Who are they going to choose? Just any random person, or what?
Peter says in vv21-21, “It must be someone who has been with us the whole time, from John’s baptism right up until the day Jesus was taken up from us.” Why?
It is because, the fundamental job of the apostles was to witness to the Lord’s resurrection.
After they prayed, they cast a lot, it fell to Matthias, and he was appointed to be one of the twelve. Again showing that even now Jesus is the one still choosing. V24, You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen.
It’s about Jesus creating a new people that’s now about him, not Israel. A unique incident for a special time. If we were to say we should be casting lots today, we would be missing the point. Let’s not miss the point here. Remember where we are in the bigger picture: Jesus has ascended into heaven, and in a couple of days the Holy Spirit is going to descend on the church and things are going to get very exciting very quickly. There will be miracles, supernatural gifts, and displays of God’s power going off everywhere.
None of that is meant to supersede or replace the eyewitness testimony of the apostles to Jesus. The Holy Spirit wasn’t going to come and teach or show or empower or do anything to replace or undermine that apostolic testimony. Instead, the Spirit would work through people who had a real and living experience of that real, human, historical Jesus. The Spirit’s role was to enable people to testify about what they had witnessed Jesus do and say. We’ve forgotten that today.
Pentecost didn’t do away with the need for the apostles to teach the gospel. Pentecost happened in order to aid the preaching of the gospel. Let me try and tie some of these things I’ve said together by asking, ‘What does it mean for us?’ I think it means, in a sentence, we should seek to be an apostolic church, that is, a church based on the apostles.
We need to ask ‘what does it mean to be apostolic?’, because it means different things to different people. To Roman Catholics it means that through a succession of bishops in Rome, which supposedly goes all the way back to Peter, the pope has inherited the apostles’ authority (“apostolic succession”), and therefore has the power to exercise the rule of Christ over the church.
Others says that the true mark of being an apostolic church is the exercise of miraculous spiritual gifts, such as healing and tongues. An apostolic church can do today what the apostles did in the early church. For others, being apostolic means getting rid of Christian denominations and starting independent congregations, like NT house churches.
Well, it doesn’t actually mean any of those things. Being an apostolic church simply means listening to the apostles. Not being them or replacing them, but listening to them. Which in turn does mean a few things:
We can’t say I like to think of Jesus as… and then fill in the blank with whatever your preference might be. If you want to be part of God’s people, you need to come to Jesus and you need to come to the Jesus that’s taught by the apostles.
In Acts we’re told people devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Not to anyone’s ideas about Jesus, but to the apostles’ ideas about Jesus. You can’t invent your own routine. You can’t invent your own Jesus to believe in.
You can, however, take great confidence that we have the very words of those who were with Jesus and who were specifically commissioned and empowered by Jesus himself to speak about him. It’s incredible. There’s nothing else like it. Why would we want to go past it?
Who cares about dreams and visions? Jesus hardly made a big deal about those, but he did make a big deal about these guys, about their message and their mission, which was all about Jesus.
We don’t need to get sucked in to the hype of guys like Creflo Dollar and Benny Hinn who claim to be special messengers of God and even use the word “apostle”, and who have moved so far from biblical Christianity it’s not funny.
We don’t need to get sucked in to the hype of all the false healings and fake miracles, which might look impressive and seem spectacular. We do, however, have opportunity for a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit. Do you want his guidance and conviction and comfort? Then devote yourself to knowing the real, historical Jesus through the Scriptures. A growing love for Jesus and a character that is growing to be more like him is the experience of the Spirit.
We won’t get caught up in all the wrong agendas like establishing a Christian political force, as if that’s the main game. We won’t get caught up in all the talk about the nation of Israel, as if that’s the centre of God’s plans.
Jesus said, ‘I’m here to create a new people, and my kingdom right from the foundation is going to be radically different. It’s not about military or political success. Our battle’s a spiritual battle.’ We will, however, be glad that it’s all about Jesus, and the big agenda is knowing him. It’s all about him, about relationships and fellowship, which is what our hearts really long for.
Our heavenly Father, we thank you for your word, the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments. We thank you that the whole book points us to Christ. We thank you that we belong to this age, the new age, the kingdom of Jesus, and we ask that through your Spirit you will enable us to know, and grow in, and show the real, historical Jesus.
Let’s rejoice in the security and safety of Jesus’ kingdom.