We commonly sing and repeat that glorious refrain from Psalm 136 (and others) that the mercies of the Lord endure forever, and this is certainly true in a general way. But as we see here in Paul’s first recorded sermon, there is a particular meaning of that phrase and application in the covenant that God made with King David that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ and all who believe in Him. In other words, there’s a specific reason why David sung about it so much.
The Text: “But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down. And after reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them…” (Acts 13:14-43).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
Attending a sabbath service in Antioch of Pisidia (in the middle of modern day Turkey), Paul is invited to preach (Acts 13:14-16). Beginning with the Exodus, Paul narrates the conquest of Canaan through the beginning of the Kingdom under Saul up to the covenant with David (Acts 13:17-22). From that Davidic promise, Paul preached Christ, the seed of David, from John’s baptism to His false conviction and crucifixion under Pilate, His burial, and His resurrection (Acts 13:23-31). Paul declares this good news and says that the resurrection in particular fulfills what was foretold in Psalm 2, Isaiah 55:3, and Psalm 16 (Acts 13:32-37). Forgiveness of sins and justification by faith is preached, with a warning to the Jews not to despise the message, as the prophet Habakkuk warned (Acts 13:38-41, cf. Hab. 1:5). And the response was many Gentiles requesting that Paul and Barnabas come and teach again the next sabbath and many began following them (Acts 13:42-43).
One of the striking elements of Christian Scripture and our faith is its essential historicity. The central tenants of the Christian faith are historical narrative: God created the world in six days, Adam sinned by eating fruit, Abraham built altars in Canaan, Israel was rescued from Egypt, judges delivered, kings ruled, prophets proclaimed, Christ was born, lived, crucified, buried, raised, and ascended. As we see here (Acts 13:17-31), the Christian faith is grounded in historical facts, events that you could have photographed, and there is no way to strip away the history and retain the faith.
But many have attempted (and continue to attempt) to claim that Christianity is primarily a spiritual relationship or experience, and that the history is the “shell” that holds the essential kernel of “religious” feelings and experience. The claim is that so long as you have that experience or feelings, the historical details and doctrines don’t matter very much. But this is patently false: “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching in vain, and your faith is also vain… and ye are yet in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:14, 17). Why does it matter that we believe that God created the Heavens and the Earth in six twenty-four days? Because that is what Genesis 1 clearly teaches, but the vaguer our certainty of this history, the vaguer our certainty of salvation. If Genesis 1 doesn’t mean what it says, why not the Exodus? Why not the Resurrection?
THE SURE MERCIES OF DAVID
The center of Paul’s message is this notion of the “sure mercies of David” (Acts 13:34). This “sure mercy” encompasses the selection of young David as king after Saul, a man after God’s own heart who would fulfill all of God’s will (Acts 13:22) as well as the covenant that God swore to David concerning his seed: “Of this man’s seed hath God according to his promise raised unto Israel a Savior Jesus” (Acts 13:23). This is referring to when God say to David, “I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom forever… but my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul… thy throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-16 cf. 1 Chron. 17:11-14). This promise became a theme: “He is the tower of salvation for his king: and sheweth mercy to his anointed, unto David, and to his seed forevermore” (2 Sam. 22:51). And Solomon appealed to God on the basis of the “mercies of David” (2 Chron. 1:8) and it filled the praises of Israel – His mercies endure forever (1 Chron. 16:34, 41, 2 Chron. 7:6, cf. Ps. 18:50, 89:1, 106:1, 107:1, 117:2, 118:1-4, 29, and Ps. 136).
And thus the prophets foretold the fulfillment of that promise in the face of Israelite decline: “Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (Is. 55:3). And it becomes the prayer of many in Israel that Jesus, the “Son of David” would have mercy upon them (e.g. Mt. 9:27, 15:22, 20:30-31).
It is on the basis of the sure mercies of David, that God sent His only Son, the seed of David, into the world, to accomplish the forgiveness of sins and justification by faith for all His people. David was himself the great example these things: colossal sins and failures forgiven and justified by faith – a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). And Jesus is the fulfillment: the One who fulfilled all of God’s will and who therefore cannot see corruption, who sits on David’s throne forever.
Specifically, it says, “justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). The law is good, but it cannot justify. And to the extent that people try to get it to justify them, it only exacerbates our sin. But God freely justifies sinful people in order that they may keep the law by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-5). And this is only possible by evangelical faith.