Pleading with Men

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This is an excerpt from the book “Mercy Before Judgment.”

Paul’s conviction of God’s judgment and his longing for mercy provoked his intercession and his preaching. Paul engaged in both aspects of intercession. He stood before God on behalf of people, and then stood before people on behalf of God. If we are truly in pain over the condition of wicked men, it must stir prayer and the proclamation of the gospel. Prayer to partner with God for the release of mercy and proclamation so that people might hear the offer of mercy. Paul not only wept in prayer for his Jewish brethren, he also pleaded with them to receive mercy: 

Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: “‘Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’” (Acts 13:38–41) 

Paul urged his audience to receive mercy from Jesus before God did “a work that you will not believe.” This message was a quotation of Habakkuk 1:5. God warned Habakkuk that He would release a judgment Habakkuk “would not believe” because Habakkuk’s people had refused to repent of their sin for decades. Paul’s message was a warning for Israel to receive mercy before judgment and not make the same mistake Habakkuk’s people had. 

Paul pled with Israel from Habakkuk 1 because he knew God’s love for mercy amid judgment in Habakkuk 3: 

O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy. (v. 2) 

Paul also pled with gentiles: 

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30– 31) 

Paul had one chance to address the philosophers in Athens, and he used that chance to call on them to repent and receive mercy in light of God’s judgment. Paul had a sober awareness of God’s judgment on the wicked, and it compelled his intercession and provoked his preaching. Commenting on Paul’s tears for the lost, John Piper wrote: 

And I love the compassion of God. I would be utterly lost without it. I love the refrain that runs through the whole Bible, that in the midst of judgment God remembers mercy (Hab. 3:2). What keeps the Bible from being the bleakest of books, in its utter realism about the rebellion of the human heart, is the unfathomable patience of God: “Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often” (Ps. 78:38). [1]

As we have seen, intercession is designed to create a meeting between God and people, and the purpose of that meeting is reconciliation between God and people. Paul was so compelled by a burden for reconciliation that he described his apostolic ministry as a “ministry of reconciliation,”

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others… All thisis from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us theministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling theworld to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrustingto us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors forChrist, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf ofChrist, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:11, 18–20)

God makes His appeal for reconciliation through us. He pleads with humanity through His people. We are His intercessors.

The Apostolic Intercessor

Paul’s response to those who were blind and headed for judgment was simple: 

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19–23) 

Paul knew the wicked were headed for judgment, and he knew God wanted to save a remnant, so he went on a mission to “become all things to all people, that by all means [he] might save some:” He not only pursued his own Jewish people, he pursued the gentiles. While we think of Paul as an apostle to the gentiles, his pursuit of the gentiles was radical.

At the time, the Romans oppressed the Jews and occupied their territory. They were considered the enemies of the Jews. The Romans saw the Jews as a conquered but troublesome people, and the Jews saw the Romans as dirty, pagan oppressors. Paul was persecuted by both. He could have easily rejected either, but instead of running from the wicked like Jonah, Paul eagerly and desperately pursued Jew and gentile with all his might so that he might “save some.” 

Paul knew God wanted a remnant to be rescued, so he gave his life and became a “servant of all” to win some and secure that remnant.

Paul prayed for the wicked, and he preached to the wicked, but he did not stop there. Paul also endured tremendous suffering to offer mercy to those headed for judgment [2]. Paul’s embrace of suffering was a demonstration of his deep commitment to offer mercy to a remnant and a revelation of his intercessory heart. Paul followed the pattern laid down by Jesus, and his body bore the scars of his intercession just as Jesus’ body bears the marks of His intercession. Paul “thought like Jesus,” and he exhorted others to do the same. [3]

Paul’s life is a pattern for us. We should follow him in the ways he followed the Lamb.[4] Paul never forgot that he had been God’s enemy. He had persecuted God’s people and even took part in murder. When Paul was raging against God, Jesus suddenly showed Him mercy. That mercy was demonstrated to Paul first by Stephen: 

And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59–60)

As Paul participated in Stephen’s execution, Stephen cried out for Paul’s forgiveness. Stephen used the same words Jesus had used on the cross. Paul did not see Jesus die, but in Stephen’s death, Paul was personally confronted with the mercy of Jesus. Jesus showed Paul who he was through Stephen. Stephen’s cry for mercy must have been shocking to Paul, and perhaps that cry for mercy set the stage for Paul’s remarkable encounter with Jesus sometime later. 

When Paul encountered Jesus’ mercy, it transformed him, and he spent the rest of his life offering that mercy to others. Many times, like Stephen, that mercy was offered through suffering. Paul knew many, if not most, would reject the offer, but he thought it was worth his life and his own blood so that he could see a remnant saved.

1 Piper, John. Why I Love the Apostle Paul. Crossway. Kindle Edition. Location 1652.

2 2 Corinthians 11:21–33.

3 Philippians 2:1–8.

4 1 Corinthians 11:1.

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