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Empty words. Unfulfilled promises. We experience a lot of those in our world. The infomercial makes all kinds of promises about a product. It looks like it does all the wonderful things they say it does. So, you order it, and you find that it’s not what they said it would be. It doesn’t live up to the promises. Those promises were empty words.
The politician makes all kinds of promises about jobs and taxes, but once they are elected many seem to forget what they promised, or even end up doing the opposite of what they promised. Their promises were empty words.
I’m sure you can think of many more examples, but the point is clear. Promises are just empty words when they go unfulfilled.
Paul knew about empty words. He had been one of those who preached empty words before he met Jesus on the Road. He had been among those who told people that the way to be right with God was by not only following God’s laws, but all the laws his fellow Pharisees had added to God’s laws. They had added all kinds of rules that defined what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath, like exactly how far you could travel before it was considered breaking the Sabbath, and exactly how you had to wash your hands after you had been to the market. You might remember that they accused Jesus’ disciples of not washing properly and of “harvesting” on the Sabbath when they stripped some grain off the stalk as they walked through a field.
The reason these rules of the Pharisees were empty words was not because they went into all kinds of unnecessary detail, but because they promised something they couldn’t deliver. The Pharisees, and at one time Paul, said that following these rules, some of them God’s rules, and some of them man’s rules, could justify you. They could make you right with God. The problem is that they can’t. Keeping the rules of God and man can only make you right with God as long as you keep them, as long as you never break them. Once you have broken a law, keeping that law again, or keeping every other law, doesn’t make up for the one time you broke the law. That mark against you doesn’t go away. The laws of God and man were not designed to grant forgiveness. They only demand obedience and accuse you of sin when they are broken. Paul makes it very clear to the people in the Synagogue in Antioch, “you cannot be justified through the law of Moses.”
We need to watch out so that we aren’t deceived by empty words. Our sinful nature is a sucker for the empty promise that there is something we can do to make ourselves right with God.
How many people like the saying, “God helps those who help themselves?” Those are empty words. They are not found anywhere in the Bible. They imply that if you work hard then God will have to help you. But that’s not what God says. In fact, a definition of God’s grace could be that God helps those who cannot help themselves. He gives us things we have not earned or deserved.
A member once said that they were taught in a previous church that God loves those who love him. That sounds good, but as you study Scripture you learn that those are empty words. They are not true. They imply that if you love God first, then he will respond by loving you. The fact is that God loved us before we loved him. He loved us even when we were his enemies and hated him. We love because he first loved us.
The preacher speaks empty words when he tells his listeners that if they have a strong enough faith, and if they worship faithfully, and if they pray fervently, God will have to bless them with health and wealth. Those are empty words because Jesus says almost the exact opposite. He says that if we follow him faithfully we will have to bear crosses in life. He says that if people see that we are like him they will hate us just as they hated him. Paul told Timothy everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.
Paul wanted the people in the Synagogue in Antioch, and everyone who reads what he said to them, to know that anytime someone promises that by keeping laws or doing something good you can earn anything from God, or especially that you can make up for a sin and be right with God by doing something good, those are empty words. They are promises that will go unfulfilled because they do not have the truth of God’s word behind them.
Instead of the empty words the people had been hearing from their sinful nature and from their religious leaders, Paul proclaims to them fulfilled words. God’s promises kept.
Paul gave the people a list of fulfilled promises going back to his rescue of Israel from Egypt. He reminded them that God had told Abraham that he would give his descendants the land of Canaan, but not right away. They would be strangers in a foreign land for 400 years because it was not time for him to bring judgment on those living in Canaan. Then, when the time was right, God did exactly what he promised. He brought a bunch of shepherds out of Egypt, kept them alive for forty years in the wilderness, knocked down the walls of Jericho and gave them victory after victory over nations and people who were stronger and better equipped than they were. People might have thought it would never happen after so many years had passed, but God’s words were not empty. He fulfilled his words. He did what he promised.
Paul reminded the people of God’s promise to David, that he would never fail to have one of his descendants on the throne. Those seemed like empty words to many. There had not been a descendant of David on the throne of Israel for over 500 years. And when Jesus, a descendant of David came and claimed to be the one who would sit on David’s throne forever, his own people condemned him and handed him over to Pilate for crucifixion. Was that promise of God to David and to the world, empty?
Paul says, “no!” In fact, by condemning him they fulfilled the statements of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. In their blindness they ended up doing what God had foretold, what needed to happen in order for Jesus to fulfill his mission and be the one to sit on David’s throne forever.
In order for there to be forgiveness of sins the world needed a perfect substitute. We needed to have someone who lived without sin who was willing to take on himself the punishment God’s law demanded for everyone else’s sin. That’s why Jesus had to suffer and die. He needed to do what keeping the law could not do. He needed to pay the price that God demanded to expunge the record of our sins and choose to remember them no more. So, gentlemen, brothers, let it be known to you that through this Jesus forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you, also forgiveness from everything from which you could not be justified through the law of Moses. In this Jesus, everyone who believes is justified.
How do we know those aren’t empty words, a promise that will go unfulfilled? God has fulfilled his promise by raising up Jesus. As Paul wrote the Corinthians, If Jesus didn’t rise, God’s promise of forgiveness would be empty, worthless. If Jesus didn’t rise we would remain in our sins and putting faith in Jesus would be worthless. But Jesus did rise from the dead. Jesus showed himself to over 500 different people over a period of forty days before he ascended back to heaven. Anyone who thought Paul was speaking empty words could ask around and learn from people who were there, who looked for his body and couldn’t find it, and who saw him in his resurrected body, that what Paul was proclaiming was true. The promise that God’s Holy One would not see decay wasn’t empty. Jesus rose from the dead just as he said he would, just as Scripture promised. Jesus truly was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification. Everyone who believes in him is justified, declared not guilty, forgiven.
Because Jesus rose from the dead every promise of God is completely trustworthy. We aren’t speaking empty words when we tell someone that Jesus paid for their sins. We aren’t speaking empty words when we tell someone that Jesus is with us always, that he is ruling everything that happens in the universe for the good of those who trust in him, that he has gone to prepare a place for us and that he will come in glory to take us to be with him. The fulfilled words of God are victorious over the empty words of man.
What a great comfort to know that because Jesus lived and died for us, and then rose from the dead God’s promises are not empty, but completely trustworthy.