God gathers His church in the line of continued generations. God establishes His covenant with believers and their seed and gives 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, in Jacob, 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 too He carries on His wonderful relationship of love and fellowship with His people. This covenant was accompanied in the Old Testament by God’s promise: I will be your God for the sake of one I will send who will be the Mediator of my covenant. This Messiah that I will send will save you from sin, and it will be by means of His shed blood that you will be a people unto me. This is the promise of which Peter spoke in Acts 2:39 when He said, “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.” We began our study of this verse in our last broadcast and we wish to finish it today.
We discovered last week that the people of God’s covenant in the Old Testament church were not cut off at the time of Pentecost. The coming of Christ did not abolish God’s covenant with His church. Peter explained to the Jews standing around him on the day of Pentecost that the promise was still to them and to their children. The church of the New Testament was merely a continuation of the church of the Old.
We also discovered in our last broadcast that Peter could say this because God’s covenant and its promise are established by God only with His elect people in Christ. 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 though the nation of Israel as a whole would be cut off, this did not mean that God had severed His relationship of favor and love with His elect people in Christ. The same covenant and its promises God would continue to establish with His church in the generations of believers in the New Testament church—although now that covenant would be established on better promises. The coming of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit does not change the truth that God gathers His church in the line of continued generations. He does that today just as He did in the Old Testament. Wherever God establishes His church in the world today He blesses that church by continuing to save the children of believers.
But there is more to this passage we began to consider last week. Peter adds that this promise of God to His church is not only to the elect children born into the generations of the church. It is also “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. The new development of the church from the time of Pentecost is that God grafts all peoples, languages, and races into His 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.
This is what we wish to examine for a few moments today.
II. A New Development
We ought to understand, of course, what exactly Peter refers to when he tells these Jewish converts 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 speaks of those who are afar off. But the impression can also be left that Peter was indeed speaking only of people of 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 too. These foreign 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. It has, in fact. But what Peter meant by the terminology “and to all that are afar off” is a 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 in Ephesus. He writes, “Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; 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, in essence, is the new development of the new dispensation 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: God would now by means of His church proclaim 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.
This “new development” in the church after Pentecost would be accomplished by means of the call. Again, Peter explains: “The promise is to all that are afar off even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” There is the qualifying phrase of this verse: not everyone is called by God to share in His covenant fellowship and in the remission of sins in Christ. 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 even desire the salvation of or send Christ to die for everyone in the church institute! We took note of that in our last broadcast. They are not all Israel that are of Israel. God’s promise is reserved exclusively for the seed of the promise—the elect within the church. 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. The promise of salvation in Christ is reserved for those whom God calls unto that salvation.
That needs some explanation, of course. 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. This is how God fulfills His sovereign purpose for the gathering in of the church—through the preaching. Those who belittle the preaching, as if it has little importance in their lives, ignore the clear teaching of Scripture. Those who think that individual Bible study or group Bible study isjust as important as the preaching are wrong. The preaching is the power of God unto salvation. God’s Word instructs us in I Corinthians 1:21-24: “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. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” Notice: 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. The only exception was when Jonah went to Nineveh to preach. 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 was published by the mouths of the prophets in the Old Testament. But when the church came of age at the time 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. But 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—or even 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. And 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 also gathers 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 whom God as sovereign Lord has chosen to call by the preaching and the work of the Spirit. These too God grafts into His church. These too are gathered in and join together with you as the one body of Christ. And when these who were afar off are grafted into the church, God will continue His covenant with them in their generations too. Beautiful, is it not?
What a unique mixture! When Paul went out on his mission journeys, we are told that 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 some God would save 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, on the one hand, and those new to the Christian faith, on the other. 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 dispensation 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—now Old and New Testaments. And by means of the Spirit of truth the church is where it is today.
This has something to say about the church of Christ today too. There are individuals and families that make up many churches today who have been born and raised in their generations in the church. They already are 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. The church has much reason to give thanks for them. But there are also individuals and families that have been gathered in from elsewhere 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 have a necessary place in the church of Christ. God gathers into His church a unique blend of both—a beautiful blend of both. Both are of vital importance to the church. Both 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. Together they are able to sharpen one another in the gospel. God draws them together as one body of people for the mutual benefit of the church as a whole. That is the beauty of the passage we have before us today.
III. A Steadfast Fellowship
The result of Peter’s instruction on the day of Pentecost is given to us, not in this verse itself, but in verse 42 of Acts 2: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” The early Christian church, though as of yet made up of only Jewish Christians, was indeed a blessed place to be. They continued together steadfastly, we learn. Seeing the value of one another in the church, understanding why God has brought us together, the church continues steadfastly. There was unity amidst diversity. But notice, these saints continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine. That is what was necessary for the unity and fellowship of the church. The church must always maintain the truth of God’s Word as taught us in Scripture. Then there is unity. And in this way God will also continue to preserve and gather in the generations of believers. Compromise may give numbers, but in the end it leads to the demise of the church. The church continued together, we are told, in fellowship, in breaking of bread, and in prayers. There it is: the prescribed way that God’s saints all fit together: in fellowship, in worship, and in prayer. Such is the result of the instruction of the Word of God we have been considering.
May each of us understand his place in the church. God brings His people together to labor in the gospel, to bring others into the confines of the church, and to see to it that our sons and daughters are instructed in the ways of God. We pray fervently as believers in the church of Christ that, if it is the will of God, He will add powerfully and by His grace to the church those whom He has chosen to save. But as believers we also pray fervently that God will preserve our children and children’s children in the knowledge of the truth. May God’s will be done. May His church grow in His grace.