Shem, Ham & Japheth in the Acts of the Apostles
“The sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth.... these are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread” (Gen 9:18-19).
“Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Ac 1:8).
You might not expect to find the sons of Noah in the book of the Acts, roughly 2350 years removed from the flood. However, digging a little below the surface we find that Luke writes the Acts with a Shem, Ham and Japheth structure in mind.
The Semitic people are descendants of Shem. Abraham and ultimately Israel are Shemites (1 Chron 1:24-28). Luke concentrates on this people group in chapters 1-7 of the Acts. The Lord Jesus had commissioned his disciples to be witnesses in Jerusalem and Judaea before going to the uttermost parts of the earth (Ac 1:8). Jews from every nation under heaven (Ac 2:4) assembled in Jerusalem and heard Peter preach “let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Ac 2:36). This was the first ever ‘gospel message’ and God in rich grace ensured that it was the lost sheep of the house of Israel that heard it first. This theme of reaching the children of Shem runs into chapter 7, but comes to an abrupt halt when Stephen proclaims the true condition of Israel: “ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye” (Ac 7:51). The Jews had rejected God the Father in the Old Testament, the Son of God in the Gospels, and now the Spirit of God in post-Pentecost Acts. These descendants of Shem had rejected the witness of the Triune God, and thus God would seal them in their unbelief. Broadly speaking blindness in part had happened to Israel (Rom 11:25) and for the fullness of the Gentiles to come in God would reach out to the children of Ham and Japheth.
Enter Acts 8 and the Ethiopian eunuch (a descendant of Ham). The Ethiopians were often classed as Cushite people (Num 12:1, DBY), and Cush was the first son of Ham (1 Chron 1:8). Despite the Jews having rejected the gospel, God was going to ensure that this message went global. Even though the Ethiopian was a pious man (Ac 8:27), he was still unregenerate and in need of the gospel of Christ. God chose to save a man at the apex of Ethiopian society (Ac 8:27), and no doubt the Ethiopian bore gospel fruit in his native land. Having read Isaiah the prophet (Ac 8:28), and possibly the verse “look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else” (Is 45:22) the eunuch learnt that Jehovah was a Saviour of global proportions, and had a message for all people. Through the instruction of Philip, the eunuch learnt that the Salvation of Jehovah was Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Ac 8:37). The eunuch understood that the God of the Old Testament, was the Lord Jesus of the New Testament, with Isaiah 45’s twin verse found in Acts; “neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Ac 4:12).
The remaining race left in the Acts of the Apostles are the descendants of Japheth in Asia, Europe and further afield. The gospel is going into all the world. Acts 9 is a watershed moment when God saves an elect vessel who will carry the name of the Lord Jesus to the Gentiles (Ac 9:15). In sovereign grace, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ shines into the dark heart of this intransigent Pharisee. The Lord used Peter as the apostle to the Jews, the Ethiopian eunuch as a missionary to Africa, and now Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles – the children of Japheth. The whole earth was overspread with the sons of Noah, and for millennia they had been without hope and without Christ, but God saw to it that the message of Christ would reach their souls and “that the nations should glorify God for (his) mercy” (Rom 15:9, DBY).
As we remember the Lord Jesus this morning the Shem, Ham and Japheth structure of the book of the Acts reminds us that he is not a parochial Saviour limited by geographical boundaries and human prejudice. Rather, he will have all men to be saved, and in long-suffering mercy is not willing that any should perish. When he commissioned his own to go into all the world and preach the gospel, he meant it with absolute sincerity. The foundation of his message was his propitiatory sacrifice; of infinite worth and infinite value. The price he paid transcends human calculation, and can save a trillion people in a trillion worlds. Finite, mortal minds, cannot fathom such a sacrifice.
Because he died for all, God, in his Son, makes a free and legitimate offer to the people of the world.
His blood is sufficient for every descendant of Shem, Ham and Japheth. And though they have been scattered to the four corners of planet Earth they surround his throne, and sing; “thou art worthy … for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation”(Rev 5:9). Hallelujah, what a Saviour.