God gathers His church in the line of continued generations. God establishes His covenant with believers and their children, giving to them the promise of the remission of sins in Christ. In the Old Testament, God spoke the words of his covenant to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then to the nation of Israel. That covenant was God’s intimate relationship of love and fellowship. He was their God and they were His people. He would love them with an unbreakable love and dwell with them, protecting them and caring for them. This covenant, God continues with His church today as well. Today He still carries on His wonderful relationship of love and fellowship with His people. This covenant was accompanied in the Old Testament with God’s promise: I will be your God for the sake of the Messiah whom I will send. He will save you from sin. Because of Him you will be a people unto Me. That was the promise of God’s covenant.
In Acts 2:39 Peter makes reference to this promise when he spoke these words to the Jews listening to him: “The promise is unto you and to your children.” We consider this particular verse of Peter’s Pentecostal sermon in our broadcast once again today. That verse reads, “For the promise is unto you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” These words are significant for the church of today because they teach us how God has chosen to gather His church with each new generation.
We discovered last week that wherever God establishes His church in the world today He blesses that church by continuing to save in the generations of believers. This is how God gathers His church. He saves the children of believers. We also noticed, however, that this does not mean that God promises to save every child born into the church to believing parents. The promise of which Peter speaks is meant only for God’s elect people. They alone are in Christ, and they alone can be and are the objects of God’s fellowship and favor for Christ’s sake. Even when Peter now pronounced on Pentecost that the promise of salvation in Christ is to you and your children, he did not mean that the promise of salvation is given to everyone in the church. God does not intend or desire to save every child born to believing parents in the church. But this does not change the truth that wherever God chooses to establish His church today, He gathers His people in the line of continued generations. He does that today just as He did in the Old Testament. That is what we considered last week. This week we turn our attention to a second way through which God has chosen to gather His church with each new generation of believers.
Peter adds that God’s promise is not only given to those born into the generations of the church, but it is to all those that afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. In the New Testament the church has come of age. Included in her scope is not just one nation of people, not just one race of people, as was true in the Old Testament with Abraham’s natural seed. The new development of the church from the time of Pentecost is that all nations, peoples, and languages of the earth are included in the covenant. With each new generation God prunes the vine of His church of those branches that bring forth no fruit. And He grafts others into that vine of His church by calling them through the preaching and the work of the Holy Spirit. Through that call God establishes His covenant with those who are afar off and speaks to them the promise of the covenant, that of the remission of sins in the blood of Christ. We wish to examine this idea for a few moments in our broadcast today.
A New Development
We need to understand, of course, the reference Peter makes on the day of Pentecost when he explains to these Jewish converts to the Christian faith that the promise is to all those that are afar off. At first glance we might think that Peter is speaking of people who lived in far-off lands. Some will insist that Peter was referring to the Jews of the diaspora—Jews that were scattered all over the world, many of whom were in Jerusalem at this time for the feast of Pentecost. But these Jews were included already in the first part of this verse when Peter told them that the promise was to “you and your children.” Peter is definitely referring to people other than Jews when he spoke of those who are afar off. But the impression might also be left that Peter was indeed speaking only of people in far-off lands. In other words, we might think he refers here to the catholicity of the church, that God would gather His people from all over the world in far-off nations and peoples.
This is true in a certain sense, too. People from far-off lands and nations are definitely included in those who are afar off. We certainly cannot discount the truth that this was going to take place in the New Testament era. The church of Christ would become catholic, or universal in nature. We know that to be a fact today. But what Peter meant by the terminology “and to all that are afar off” is people who in their former generations were estranged from God, alienated from God in their unbelief. These people were afar off from God, His covenant, and salvation. Peter means by the words “afar off” what Paul speaks of in Ephesians 2:11-13 when addressing the Gentile believers, “Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh…that at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”
This is the New Testament development of God’s covenant: the promise of salvation in Christ, and therefore the covenant blessing, would be to those who were at one time strangers from the covenant and its promises in the Old Testament. The promise now would be to other peoples and races and nations of the earth. In the Old Testament it was limited to one nation—the nation of Israel; to one people and race—the Jews. But, Peter says, not only is the promise going to be to you and your children, but to all those who are afar off. The apostle Paul says it in these words in Romans 9:26: “And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.” Then there is this added idea too: the promise of salvation in Christ would now not only be pronounced to the generations born into the church, but God would speak this promise to others outside of the confines of His church. The promise of salvation in Christ would be published to peoples, races, and nations outside of the established church in order to bring them into the church as well.
Now, this “new development” in the church after Pentecost would be accomplished by means of the call of the gospel. Again, Peter explains, “The promise is to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” This phrase qualifies the gathering of the church: only those whom God calls will share in His covenant and fellowship. Not everyone in this world or in the church institute will receive the remission of sins in Christ. Only those whom God calls to be a people unto Himself. This means, of course, that God does not desire to save everyone in this world. Christ did not come to die in order to make salvation available for everyone in this world. In fact, God does not desire the salvation of or send Christ to die for everyone in the church! We took note of that in our last broadcast already. They are not all Israel that are of Israel. God’s promise is reserved exclusively for the children of the promise, God’s elect people, chosen in Christ before the world was created. The same is true of those who are afar off. God’s fellowship and favor, His love and friendship, are reserved exclusively for those whom He calls out of the darkness of this world and into the light of salvation.
Now, that needs some explanation, of course. You see, the call of the gospel goes out to all nations, all peoples, all races, all classes of men without discrimination. Since Pentecost the Great Commission of Christ in Mark 16:15 is carried out by the church: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” That is the church’s mandate in the New Testament. She must go out into the world and preach. This is how God fulfills His sovereign purpose for the gathering in of the church: through the preaching. God has chosen to call sinners to repentance by sending forth men into this world who are officially sent by the church to preach the gospel. Those who pooh-pooh the preaching as if it has little importance in saving souls ignore the clear teaching of Scripture. The preaching is the power of God unto salvation. God’s Word instructs us in I Corinthians 1:21, “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” To those who are called, the preaching is God’s wisdom and power to save.
In the Old Testament the call of the gospel was limited to the nation of Israel alone. Yet, it was through the power of the preaching even then that God chose to maintain His covenant and its promise in Israel. The psalmist sings in Psalm 68:11, “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it.” God’s Word in the Old Testament was published by the mouths of the prophets. But when the church came of age on the day of Pentecost, that promise of the gospel now is proclaimed far and wide by the church. Many are called by means of the preaching. It may be true that by God’s sovereign direction not everyone has yet heard the gospel preached. Christ tells us that the end of the world will not come until the nations have heard. But here is where some confusion might set in. God the sovereign Lord does not save everyone whom He calls through the preaching. Many are called but few are chosen. If we are to understand what Peter means here when he says, “even as many as the Lord our God shall call,” we have to make a necessary distinction.
The church of Jesus Christ today is commissioned to preach the gospel to everyone who will hear it. Without discrimination, without reservation, without hesitation, she must preach the gospel to all those who are afar off. She must preach the gospel in season and out of season to those in the church and those outside of the church. That external call through the preaching is heard by many. But to many it is a savor of death unto death rather than a savor of life unto life. They stumble at the preaching because they were appointed to stumble, Peter tells us. The preaching of the gospel serves only to harden them in their sin. It does not bring many—perhaps most—to faith and repentance.
But the call that Peter now refers to here in Acts 2:39 is not merely the external call of the preaching but the internal call of the Spirit in the heart of God’s elect. God’s intention as Lord—the sovereign Ruler over all things—God’s intention through the external call, through the preaching, is to cause His Word to fall upon the hearts of His elect people. God does not desire the seed of the Word to be sown in the hearts of everyone, mind you. He desires through the external call the salvation only of His elect. When that seed of the Word falls on the hearts of the elect it meets with the all powerful, irresistible work of the Holy Spirit. From within, internally, in the heart, the Spirit takes that Word preached and makes it effective unto salvation. That is the internal call of God through the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
Now we can understand what Peter is explaining to these devout Jews on the day of Pentecost. The promise is unto you elect Jews and to your elect children in your generations. God is not forsaking you and your children. But now God will also gather into His church those who were at one time alienated from God and His covenant. They too receive the promise—not all of them but only those elect whom God as sovereign Lord calls by the preaching and the work of the Spirit. These too God grafts into His church with each new generation. These too are gathered in and will join together with you as the one body of Christ. And when these who are afar off are grafted into the church,God will continue with them in their generations too. Again, we are reminded of Ephesians 2:13: “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” Or again in verse 16: “That he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby.” Beautiful, is it not?
What a unique mixture! We are told that when Paul went out on his mission journeys, he went to the Jews first and then the Gentiles. Paul would enter a city where there was an established synagogue or church. He would preach there, with the inevitable result that the Jewish leaders (not all of them but most of them) would reject what Paul preached. Yet, among these Jews God would save some and use them as a foundation for the Christian church established in that city. Then we find that the Gentiles were also called and brought into the church and there was a beautiful blend of Jews and Gentiles. There was a perfect blend of those who knew the Old Testament Scriptures and those new to them. There was a perfect blend of those whose generations were already established in the church and those whose generations were new to the church. It is also striking that there were, at times, some clashes between those who were imbedded in their traditions and new to the Christian faith. This is why Paul had to teach the law of liberty in the churches. Yet, through it all the churches grew in grace and in the knowledge of God. The church of the New Testament took on a character of its own—a mature character, a character that was conducive to the gospel. In this way the churches grew in the knowledge of Scripture. By means of the Spirit of truth the church is now where it is today.
Now, this has something to say about the character of the church of Christ today. There are individuals and families belonging to the church that were born and raised in their generations in the church. They are already familiar with the covenant God has established with them and their children. They were raised in it and have been given wisdom in those ways. These are necessary for the building up of Christ’s church with each new generation. The church has much reason to give God thanks for them. But there are also individuals and families that have been gathered in from outside of the church through the preaching of the gospel. These carry with them a new-found zeal and enthusiasm for the truth of God’s Word. They too therefore have a necessary place in the work of the church. They are not outsiders, forever looking in and never seeming to fit with those who are born and raised in the church. Shame on that church where this might be true! God gives His church a unique blend of both—a beautiful blend of both. Both are of vital importance to the church. They are able to learn from each other. The one has wisdom in the ways of the church. The other has the zeal to keep the gospel new and fresh and the zeal to share that gospel with others. Together these are able to sharpen one another in the gospel—that the church will not neglect instructing the next generation, on the one hand, and not forget the need to reach out to others with the gospel, on the other. God draws such members together as one body of people for the mutual benefit of one another. That is the beauty of the passage we have before us today.
A Steadfast Fellowship
The early Christian church, soon after the day of Pentecost, was yet made up of only Jewish Christians. But because of their new-found faith in Christ it was indeed a blessed place to be. The saints continued steadfastly together. We today, seeing the value of our fellow members in the church, understanding why God has brought us together, we too must continue steadfastly. There is unity amidst diversity in the church. But notice, these saints continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine. This is necessary for the unity and fellowship of the church. The church must always maintain the truth of God’s Word as taught in the Scriptures. Then there is unity. In this way God will continue to preserve and gather His church from one generation to the next. Likewise, the early church continued together, we are told, in fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers. The prescribed way God’s saints fit together is in fellowship, in worship, and in prayer. May each of us understand our place in the church. May Christ continue to gather the church from one generation to the next until He returns.