One man's view of theology, sports, politics, and whatever else in life that happens to interest me. A little bit about me.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

TOMS: Acts 24

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 27, 2007

This chapter tells of Paul's dealings with Felix, the governor at Caesarea. The high priest and some prominent Jews from Jerusalem came to state the case against Paul. They listed their accusations. Of course most of them were untrue, especially the one about Paul bringing a Gentile into the court of the Temple. 

When Paul's opportunity to speak came, he explained that he was not doing anything to stir up a riot or provoke people. He mentioned the ones really to blame for the things that went on in Jerusalem were the Jews from Asia who opposed Paul and stirred up the crowd in Jerusalem against him. Paul did admit to provoking the Sanhedrin when he said that he had been arrested for preaching the resurrection of the dead, which we talked about yesterday.

Felix had a lot of experience dealing with the Jews, and came upon his own solution: he kept Paul in prison as a favor to the Jews. Next Luke tells us an interesting story: "After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, 'Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.' At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him." (24:24-26, ESV)

Paul was not going to shy away from proclaiming the Gospel whenever he had a chance. And so he took advantage of the opportunity of a private conference with Felix and told him the truth about righteousness and the coming judgment. Earlier in the chapter Luke tells us that Felix was familiar with "the Way" and so would have known most of the facts. I have heard a lot of people say that Felix never called for Paul again, but right there it says that Felix summoned Paul quite often. It is doubtful that he ever actually believed, though. Luke would likely have mentioned it if he did.

Felix left Paul in jail for two years, until his term as governor ended. Many writers think that it was at this time that Luke, who was Paul's servant (whether he was a slave or a voluntary servant is up to debate - however it is clear to me that Paul did not keep Luke against his will), began to track down many of the people involved in Christ's life and wrote his Gospel. Caesarea was not too far away from Jerusalem and wherever else the people he interviewed would have lived. Read what I am saying carefully. I talked about this when I introduced the gospel of Luke. Yes, Luke was inspired. But inspiration does not always mean that God told them in an audible voice what to write. Clearly this did happen in a few cases, particularly John and the book of Revelation. What inspiration means is that God superintended the writing to make sure that what the author was writing was what God wanted written. Luke's gospel has details, particularly involving the birth of Christ, that he could have only got from talking with Mary personally. As far as we know, Luke was not an eyewitness to any of the events in Christ's life.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

TOMS: Acts 22-23

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 25, 2007

This chapter mostly records Paul's speech to the Jews at Jerusalem. Paul had them silent for a while, especially when he started speaking to them in Aramaic, the home language of the Jews, and not in Greek. Paul basically recounted most of his life: how he was a free-born Jew of the Diaspora from Tarsus (the Diaspora were the Jews who were scattered around the world after the Babylonian Captivity). But he was sent to Jerusalem to learn from Gamaliel, one of the foremost rabbis of the time. Actually there are details about Paul's life in this speech that we do not learn from any other source.

Paul tells about how he saw the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus. He was trying to persecute the Christians, and Jesus stopped him and told him he was really persecuting Him, the God he was professing to serve. Even at this point the crowd seems compliant and listening. 

But Paul gets in trouble when he says the Lord told him, "Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles." (22:21, ESV) At this the crowd was incensed - yes, it's fair to call most of the people here racists - and began to call for him to be put to death. The soldiers in the barracks grabbed him and pulled him inside the building, partially for his own safety and partially because they were mad at him for making an uproar and were about to beat him. But once again Paul claimed his Roman citizenship and was able to get out of his beating.

That's really all there is to this chapter. I know it's kind of short today.

June 26, 2007

Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin, a council he was no doubt being groomed to be a part of before he met the Lord Jesus. As soon as he made his first statement, "Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day," (23:1) he got in trouble. The high priest commanded Paul's escorts to smack him in the mouth, and Paul responded, "God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?" (23:3) Then Paul quickly backtracks when he realizes the high priest said that, and the law commanded not to speak evil of the leader of the people. You would think Paul would know, if not who the high priest was, then where the high priest sat. Maybe they didn't have assigned seats in the Sanhedrin, but that seems unlikely. The next section is funny:

"Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, 'Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.' And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, 'We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?' And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks." (23:6-10, ESV)

Paul knew these people. He knew they acted all high and mighty and pious, but they did not trust each other at all. I'm sure Paul thought it was funny when the Pharisees started justifying him to the Sadducees, when they all had come together to condemn him.

The next section tells about how 40 men in Jerusalem took a vow that they would not eat or drink anything until they killed Paul. Paul's nephew found out about it and told the Roman tribune about it, who immediately had Paul transferred to Caesarea. I guess those 40 men all died. There's a detail most people don't realize is there: Paul had a sister and a nephew. That's neat.

The rest of the chapter is a letter from the tribune at Jerusalem, Claudius, to Felix, the governor at Caesarea. Caesarea was the Roman capital of Palestine. The Romans built the city largely to mock the Jews and intentionally put lots of statues of idols and false gods and the emperor in the city. Of course all these things offended the Jews terribly. How Luke got a hold of this letter we are not told. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Stop Embracing Babylon

"My kingdom is not of this world." - Jesus

"Is this vile world a friend to Grace,
To help me on to God?" - Isaac Watts

Today the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Personally I think it’s a bad decision, but I can't say that it's going to directly affect my life. The indirect results are the ones I am afraid of, but that’s not the point of this article. More significantly this ruling is being viewed as a major blow to the so-called Religious Right. 

And that's the problem I want to address today. For decades the American church has been simply a cog in the political machine on both sides of the political aisle. Both parties have their circuits of churches, organizations and committees that their candidates can reliably count on for speaking engagements, donations and endorsement. 

Meanwhile, the church has steadily lost influence in society, if you believe survey after survey over the past couple of decades. In seeking temporal victory in Washington rather than spiritual victory in people’s hearts, we have accomplished neither. We have been fighting in the wrong battlefield.

Babylon (by which I mean the temporal state) never has been and never will be the church’s friend. But there is no denying she is tempting. She promises political power and cultural influence, and in exchange all she requires is the sublimation of the church to her ends. This has been true throughout the church’s history, from Rome to Geneva to Massachusetts Bay. 

Certainly the contemporary American church is not the first church to be charmed by Babylon, nor will it be the last. But now is not the time to double down on our efforts to effect change in Washington. Now is the time to take stock of what we have lost and what little we have gained in our struggle. The church needs to stop embracing Babylon and instead return to embracing the cross of Jesus Christ. The first century church had no political action committee, and no values coalitions. They simply had the Gospel of Jesus Christ and they lived it every day. And they succeeded in turning the world upside down. 

No one denies the first-century church was successful. We have to stop judging our success or failure as a church by what goes on in the halls of political power. Today’s decision did not happen because we didn’t pray hard enough or send in enough letters. We have forgotten who is in charge here. God did not stop being God today. He did not step away from His throne for a couple of minutes and give the devil a chance to sneak one by Him. God is working and will continue to work His sovereign plan. But sadly many Christians in America are more broken up today over the decision than they are about the young girl in their congregation who is contemplating running away from home. In which situation would an encouraging word do the most good? In which one will our participation effect a greater change in eternity?

God defines success differently than we do. Samuel the prophet saw Eliab and thought this good-looking, accomplished man was surely the one God was going to choose to be the next king. Nebuchadnezzar seemed to be at the zenith of his power when God struck him with madness for a time for exalting himself in pride. The church at Laodicea had money in the bank, influential members in the community, and seemed to be a model church. But God said they were poor, blind and naked. I wonder what our political success and failure ledger look like to God? I don’t know for sure, but I am afraid those events that appear to be our biggest successes could turn out to be failures in God’s eyes.

Paul’s words to Timothy in I Timothy 2:1-2 are an appropriate way to close this piece: “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.” (NKJV) 

Notice the motive we are to have when we pray for our political officials. Paul does not say to pray for them to make decisions we like, although I would not say that is entirely inappropriate. But the main thing we are to pray for is that they will leave us alone. Paul was not interested in scoring points in Rome for the good guys. He was interested in freedom to proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel changes people’s lives in ways legislation is powerless to achieve. Let’s bring the Gospel back to the forefront of our hearts and minds, individually and as churches. When we do that, we may lose more battles in Washington, but we will gain more souls for the Kingdom of Heaven. And isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

TOMS: Acts 21

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 23, 2007

This chapter begins the last section of the book of Acts: about Paul's journey to Jerusalem, his imprisonment, and his appeal to Rome. There is some debate on the topic of whether or not Paul was obeying God by going to Jerusalem. The key to this debate centers on a couple of passages in this chapter. Verse 4 says: "And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem." Later as Paul gets nearer to Jerusalem, we read: "While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul's belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, 'Thus says the Holy Spirit, "This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'" When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, 'What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.' And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, 'Let the will of the Lord be done.'" (21:10-14)

There are those who say that the Lord was merely testing Paul's resolve with these prophecies about not going to Jerusalem, and that Paul's friends were deceived by these prophets, but Paul never was. I have to disagree. The Lord would not have allowed Luke to write all these things, because we know there are plenty of things Luke left out, if it were not important and if it did not mean exactly what it seems to mean when you try to read it. One of my Bible teachers in college used to say about Bible interpretation, "If common sense makes good sense, then seek no other sense." I think that applies in this case.

You know, it's OK if we find out about the failures of those who are heroes of the faith, and certainly Paul is one of those. We tend to elevate people like Paul to superhuman status. But of course only one Man has ever lived a perfect life, and that is the Lord Jesus. I know I can get stubborn sometimes. It's actually reassuring to know that a man like Paul had the same stubborn streak that I do.

Well, Paul gets to Jerusalem and the trouble starts, just like all the prophets predicted (Remember that prophecy was one of the special sign gifts given to the early church. And for those who say that prophecy is preaching, they need to read verse 9 of this chapter, where we read about Philip the evangelist having four daughters who were all prophets). All he had done was report to the Apostles when things started spinning out of control. James tells Paul he needs to prove that he has not abandoned his Jewish heritage: "You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the law. But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality." (21:20-25, ESV)

Even the Apostles were none too pleased to see Paul in Jerusalem. They were amazed at his work, but they knew Jerusalem was not a safe place for him. Paul did exactly as they recommended, shaving his head and taking the vow, but that did little good. It was the same Jews who opposed his work in Asia and Greece who did him in. They came to Jerusalem to observe the feast of Pentecost, and when they saw Paul they accused him to the priests and they sent out to arrest him.

The head of the Roman garrison at Jerusalem actually saved Paul's life, and brought him into the Roman barracks. He asks Paul who he is. Paul tells him and asks to speak to the people. That is where the chapter ends. Chapter 22 is Paul's message to the Jews at Jerusalem.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

TOMS: Acts 20

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 22, 2007

Here we have more of Paul's adventures. There was a plot against Paul's life in Macedonia, and he had to leave. While on his way back to Antioch, he made several stops along the way. One was at Troas, where Paul raised a man from the dead: "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, 'Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.' And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted." (20:7-12)

I can identify with Eutychus. Whenever I stop and sit down, I often go to sleep, especially in church. It's something I've struggled with most of my life. It's really embarrassing, but I can't really do a whole lot about it. It has more to do with the assumptions people make about you, or at least you feel they make about you, when you are asleep like that. Eutychus, of course, had a little bit more dangerous seat than you'll find in most of our churches today. He was sitting in a third story window. We don't know whether he fell backwards out the window or if he fell forward into the crowd. That of course would have been more dramatic.

The rest of this chapter is Paul's farewell message to the church at Ephesus. As a side note, this is the only recorded sermon in the book of Acts that is exclusively to believers. This must have been a very emotional time for Paul. You can feel the emotion as you read Luke's account of what Paul said. Paul spent more than two years in Ephesus establishing the church there. There is so much in this passage to discuss, but honestly a lot of it is like so much other of Paul's statements in Acts and his epistles it is hard to come up with a unique comment. But I do want to mention one thing Paul said that we all know but I want to say something a little bit different about it. This is how Paul wrapped up his remarks to the Ephesian elders: "In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" (20:35, ESV)

First of all, this statement by Jesus is nowhere to be found in the Gospels. It is only recorded here. It must have been a memorable statement, because Paul certainly would not have heard it firsthand while Jesus was here on earth. This would have been passed down from the Apostles who actually heard Jesus say this. 

Secondly, why would this be such an important statement from Jesus to remember? Surely there are more inspiring words, like Paul told Timothy in II Timothy, which was written just before Paul died, about keeping the faith, preaching the word, and maintaining the doctrines that were passed down. I think it is important because we don't think that way naturally. We think it is more blessed to receive than give. It's certainly more exciting.

Finally, it is important to realize exactly what Jesus was saying. This is hard for me, because I am really a tightwad and besides I am broke most of the time. Those of you who know my financial situation understand why. But I need to give as much as I can, whenever I can. Of course giving is more than money, but it is a big part of it. This is really convicting. Of course the word "blessed" has deeper implications than "happy." It has more to do with being blessed and obtaining favor from the Lord than any kind of good feeling. The Lord pours out His blessings on those who give.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

TOMS: Acts 19

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 21, 2007

This chapter starts with what has to be one of the weirdest stories in the Bible: "And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' And they said, 'No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.' And he said, 'Into what then were you baptized?' They said, 'Into John's baptism.' And Paul said, 'John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.' On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all." (19:1-7)

I don't think any passage better demonstrates what a unique time the apostolic age was than this passage. These men apparently were converted by Apollos, who came from Ephesus to Corinth, where Aquila and Priscilla opened his eyes to the complete truth. There were all sorts of incomplete ideas and incorrect approaches to the truth going around. That is why the apostles needed special gifts - miracles, tongues, etc.- so they could prove that they had a special anointing from God and they had the true way of Christianity. Now that we have about 1900 years of church history with a complete New Testament, there is no need to have these gifts.

Next we have one of the funniest stories in the Bible: "Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, 'I adjure you by the Jesus, whom Paul proclaims.' Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, 'Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?' And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded." (19:13-16) These guys apparently had some experience as exorcists. I don't pretend to understand hardly anything about demons. I do know they are powerful evil spirits, not to be toyed with. I happen to think that we read about demonic activity more in the New Testament because God allowed Satan more leeway during this time so that He could use Jesus and the Apostles to demonstrate His power, although there is no scripture to prove that.

The rest of this chapter has to do with the riot in Ephesus. Ephesus was the center of worship of Artemis, a goddess of fertility. I don't think I need to go into detail about what kind of things went on in the worship of this goddess: let's just say it wasn't good. Well Demetrius was the leader of a group of silversmiths who made lots of money selling statuettes of Artemis, and Paul was ruining his racket. Demetrius led a huge crowd of his supporters into the amphitheater. The ruins of the amphitheater are still there, and experts estimate it might have held as many as 10,000 people. The best part of this story is the town clerk, who tried to get the crowd to disperse: 
"Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion." (19:35-40, ESV) Spoken like a true politician.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

TOMS: Acts 18

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 20, 2007

The first part of this chapter tells the story of how Paul established the church at Corinth. It wasn't easy. First of all he met Aquila and Priscilla, Jews who had been forced to leave Rome and had settled in Corinth. Paul worked with them making tents. It's kind of sad that Paul had to take a job when the money ran out, but he wasn't afraid of that either. Apparently he led them to the Lord while he was working with them.

Paul got frustrated when the Jews in the synagogue began to oppose him. He walked out, saying, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." (18:6) We don't know if Paul ever publicly stomped out of a meeting like this any other time, so this was probably an incident of weakness. 

Nevertheless Paul had success in the synagogue at Corinth. Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, followed Paul. So the Jews had to come up with a new leader, and they chose Sosthenes. After Paul was in Corinth a year and a half, Sosthenes brought Paul before Gallio, the new Roman official: 
"But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, saying, 'This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.' But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, 'If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.' And he drove them from the tribunal. And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this." (18:12-17)

This is really a weird story. We don't know if the people beat Sosthenes because he was unsuccessful in getting Paul out of town or if they were just tired of the arguing between the Christians and the Jews (I suspect it was the latter). But Sosthenes eventually had a change of heart. Paul's religious enemy becomes his friend in the faith. In I Corinthians 1:1 we read, "Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes,"

The end of this chapter also has a strange story: "Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus." (18:24-28, ESV)

This theme of only knowing the baptism of John will continue into chapter 19, but it demonstrates the transitional period that was the first 50 years or so of the church. There were a lot of strange ideas going around. But Aquila and Priscilla took him aside and gave him the instruction he needed.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

TOMS: Acts 17

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 19, 2007

This chapter takes Paul to various places in Greece, preaching the Gospel.

He first came to Thessalonica, where he followed his normal practice, preaching in the synagogue first and then when the Jews who did not believe rejected him, he preached to the Gentiles. In Thessalonica the Jews stirred up so much trouble that many of the believers they thought were protecting Paul and Silas were arrested. Luke tells us Jason and others had to pay off the city officials to get themselves out of jail (this may have been some sort of bail or it may have been a bribe - either way it cost a lot of money).

Paul and Silas escaped to Berea, where the people were "more noble:" "Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men." (17:11-12) Here was a group of people honestly searching for the truth. This is the way we should treat every sermon or teaching we hear. We should never take it at face value just because we trust the speaker nor vice versa. We are individually responsible to God, and we should strive to live our lives by His word as best we can.

But the violent Jews from Thessalonica came to Berea and started stirring up trouble, so Paul left by himself and went to Athens. Athens was one of the leading cities of the world at that time. Apparently it was also without a significant Jewish community, because Paul apparently did not go to a synagogue.

I want to spend the rest of our time here noticing the difference between the way Paul addressed Jews and Gentiles. Early in the chapter we read a summary of Paul's message to the Jews at Thessalonica: "And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, 'This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'" (17:2-3) Paul dealt with what the people knew. These Jews knew the Old Testament, and Paul used that to his advantage.

Paul uses a more existential argument with the Athenians: "So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: 'Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, "To the unknown god." What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for"In him we live and move and have our being;" as even some of your own poets have said, "For we are indeed his offspring." Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 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.'" (17:22-31, ESV)

That's a long quote, but I want you to see the depth of Paul's argument. He appeals to their intellect, he talks to them on their level, he quotes some of their own ancient writings. I have met too many preachers who are proud of their (often feigned) ignorance of everything outside the scriptures. This is foolish. I know that we are told to be wise concerning good and simple concerning evil, but there is nothing evil about being familiar with the culture of the people with whom you are ministering. It doesn't mean you have to approve or participate, but Paul here gives us an example of what he meant by saying he was all things to all men. Paul's example is one we would be wise to follow.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

TOMS: Acts 16

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 18, 2007

This chapter completes the transition to just following Paul in his ministry. 

The chapter opens with Paul meeting his protege, Timothy. Timothy was the son of a mixed marriage: his mother was a Jew and his father was a Greek. We are told that he was already a believer when Paul met him. Luke mentions that Paul circumcised Timothy (which has to be a harrowing experience) since he would be involved in ministry with Jews. 

Then they came to a fork in the road, figuratively and possibly literally. They wanted to keep going north from what is now Turkey into Asia, but the Spirit prevented them from doing so. So they stopped to try to figure out what to do. "And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.' And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." (16:9-10) Notice the word "we" in the passage. That means that Luke was traveling with Paul at this point.

Unfortunately, the Lord does not speak to us today in this way. I wish He would. We come to forks in the road all the time. In my experience, the best way is to take one direction while praying, "Lord, stop me if this is not the way you want me to go." There have been a few times when I have hit a brick wall like that, but that's OK, since I want to follow His leading. It's just frustrating at the time.

They traveled into Macedonia, and met Lydia, who was a businesswoman. In the same town, Philippi, they ran into a demon-possessed girl. This poor girl was owned by a group of hucksters who made lots of money off of her. She could tell fortunes, and apparently do a good job because of the supernatural spirits in her. This spirit had it in for Paul and his group, and followed them around day after day, saying, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation."(16:17) Paul finally got tired of it, and cast the demon out of her. This didn't sit well with her owners, who demanded that Paul and Silas be thrown in prison. Paul and Silas were beaten with rods and thrown into prison.

Well you probably know what happened next. Paul and Silas began praying and singing, and in the middle of the night there was an earthquake, and all the doors of the prison came open. The prison keeper saw that no one left, and everyone knew why it had happened: because God had intervened on behalf of Paul and Silas. The prison keeper, and we assume many of the prisoners, were saved.

Then Luke gives us an interesting detail: "But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, 'Let those men go.' And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, 'The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.' But Paul said to them, 'They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.' The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city." (16:35-39, ESV)

Paul and Silas were Roman citizens. As such, they were protected from public beatings or other punishments without a trial. And yet the Philippian authorities had beaten them on the word of the girl's owners and never talked to them.I have heard this section used as a justification for civic participation by Christians. I think you can use passages in Romans and elsewhere to justify civic participation (voting, political activism, etc.) but it is dangerous to use Acts as a justification for anything. Luke just gives us a record of what happened. What happened includes speaking in tongues, miracles, visions, and all kinds of other things that were specifically for that time. In this case, we are not told if Paul's actions were right and justified or were done out of pride or spite. Luke just tells us what happened with little to no comment.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

TOMS: Acts 15

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 15, 2007

Here is another important chapter for the history of the church. Gentiles were joining the church in droves, and things were getting a little testy between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews saw the Gentiles as newcomers, and they should adapt to Jewish ways. The Gentiles were excited about their new faith, but they resented being told they needed to be circumcised (that would annoy me too) or that they needed to stop eating "unclean" foods.

The Apostles and other church leaders were not sure what to do. These things were tearing the church apart. We will discuss this a little bit more later, but even Paul and Peter butted heads over this issue. So they called Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem where the rest of the Apostles were, to discuss the matter. Luke tells us there were a contingent of believing Jews who were Pharisees who demanded that all new Christians should be circumcised. Finally it was Peter who stood up and put the issue to rest: 
"Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." (15:7-11)

James, the half-brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Jewish church at Jerusalem, proposed a compromise: "Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues." (15:19-21)

The Apostles agreed and sent out a letter to all the churches to that effect. There are a few people who believe that this letter is binding upon Christians today. I think that last sentence sheds some light on what James and the Apostles were expecting when they sent out that letter. The church was still made up of Jews, at least a large percentage, and so to keep from making offense and creating division in the church, these things should be observed. Today, the church is established as its own religion and there is no need to avoid offending potential converts from another faith. They will have to get over that themselves if they want to join.

I like the fact that the Apostles had to sit down and discuss an issue like this and come to a solution. They were not infallible (like the Catholic church claims Peter was) and they tried to develop these doctrines, with the Lord's help of course, as they went along.

The end of this chapter gives us another glimpse into the fallibity of the Apostles: "Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord." (15:37-40, ESV)

Mark had left Paul and Barnabas in chapter 14, and Paul apparently held that against him, at some level, and did not want to bring him along as they left Jerusalem. But Barnabas wanted to bring him along. Now of course Mark would go on to write one of the four Gospels, so it is not like we can say Paul was right and Barnabas was just soft-hearted. But we also cannot say that Paul was wrong and that Barnabas was right. I think if you asked Mark years later about this incident, I think he would tell you they were both right. He needed to know that he had let Paul down, and there are consequences that follow. But he also needed the encouraging voice of Barnabas to keep him from leaving the faith discouraged.

Monday, June 15, 2015

TOMS: Acts 14

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 14, 2007

This chapter details the further journeys of Paul and Barnabas. They followed the pattern of preaching in a synagogue, and usually they made several converts and made the rest of the congregation mad. Then those who were mad would get Paul and Barnabas thrown out of town. The first place Paul and Barnabas came to in this chapter was Iconium. This exact pattern happened there.

Next they came to Lystra, where they experienced more extreme reactions. When they came into town they saw a crippled man, and Paul healed him. This really got the crowd going: 
"And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, 'The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!' Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, 'Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.' Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them." (14:11-18)

This was an impossibly good reaction. So good, in fact, that it turned into a negative. They had to keep the people from going overboard in their excitement, and they had to get the people re-focused on Jesus instead of worshiping their false gods in the name of Paul and Barnabas. Paul and Barnabas were not concerned about drawing a big crowd and putting on a show. They were more concerned about preaching the gospel of Jesus. I wonder what some of the publicity hucksters that call themselves preachers today would do in this situation. I have a sneaking suspicion that they wouldn't care that the people would be worshiping another god, as long as they were giving them money and praise at the same time.

But then things went from crazy high to crazy low. In a hurry: "But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe." (14:19-20, ESV)

This shows you how fickle people can be. First they thought they were gods, and then they turned on them and stoned Paul. Whether Paul really was dead and God resurrected him or whether Paul just appeared to be dead we aren't entirely sure. There are some who say that this is the experience when Paul writes about in Corinthians when he saw the "third heaven." I don't know, personally, and really it is not that critical either way. But either way Paul got up and went right back to his ministry. Paul was not going to be stopped. I doubt if I would have his determination.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

TOMS: Acts 13

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 13, 2007

This chapter marks a transition in the book of Acts. For the first 12 chapters, the star has been Peter, with the other Apostles and other leaders mentioned from time to time. From this point until the end of the book almost all the focus is on Paul.

We were told in Chapter 11 that Barnabas was at Antioch and went to Tarsus to get Saul. Antioch was quickly becoming the center of the Gentile church. The church there was experiencing tremendous growth. But right in the middle of that great work, the Holy Spirit came in the midst of their prayer meeting and told them to separate Paul and Barnabas for a special work. Now of course the Holy Spirit does not come to us today in an audible voice- this is something not even the radical Pentecosts claim. There is no getting around the fact that the Apostolic Age was a special time in the history of the church. Yes, God always has the power to do miraculous things, but the problem is He rarely chooses to use that power. God was going to make sure the church got started on the right foot, and so He helped the Apostles not only by supervision, but also by direct special revelations.

And so off Paul and Barnabas went. They first went to Cyprus, which is where Barnabas was from. They met a magician named BarJesus or Elymas, who opposed their work. Finally Paul struck him blind for a season.

The next section is mostly a sermon by Paul in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia, which is in what is now southern Turkey. Luke records Paul's sermon, which is no doubt typical of the sermon that he preached in many synagogues. He started with the history of Israel in Egypt through David and the prophets and leads from there to explain how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures.

I will let you read Luke's account of the results: "And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God.The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, 'It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth."' And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed." (13:43-48, ESV) 

This is the pattern Paul followed throughout the rest of his ministry: he preached first in the Jewish synagogue, and then when he ran into opposition from the synagogue he began preaching to the Gentiles. The Jews were the people who had and knew the Word of God. They would be the ones most open to hear about God sending a Messiah Redeemer into the world. The general culture of Roman times believed in a literal pantheon of gods who lived in a separate world from our own. They would not understand or accept monotheistic religion the way a Jewish person would. 

In this way Paul adapted to the cultural realities of his time. And we should do the same. It definitely would not involve preaching Jesus in synagogues today. Our time is different. I'm not saying I have all the answers, but we are still commissioned to proclaim the Good News in a way that many will hear and believe. Don't be afraid to proclaim it, but also don't be afraid to change how you proclaim it if that becomes necessary.

Friday, June 12, 2015

TOMS: Acts 12

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 12, 2007

This chapter is primarily about the rescue of Peter from prison. But the chapter begins with the execution of James. This James was the brother of John, not the James who wrote the epistle of James, who was Jesus' half-brother. The James who was killed was the James of Peter, James and John, the inner circle of Jesus' disciples. Despite his lofty status in Jesus' ministry, this is the only time he is mentioned in Acts. But we can assume that James did a good job of leading the church in his own way, he was just not the visible leader that Peter, Paul and John were. I think we can learn a lot from James. He remained faithful and all he got for it in this life was an execution. That's not a very happy message, but God had a different plan for James than He did for Peter or John.

Peter was also in prison with James. As the most visible leader of the church at that time, he was quite a prize for Herod, who was desperate for something he could do to get on the good side of the Jews. When he killed James, he saw that he really pleased the Jews, so he decided to do the same thing to Peter. But of course God had a different plan for Peter. And so the night before he was to be executed, Peter was sleeping (which is a miracle in and of itself) and an angel came to him and woke him up and led him out of the prison. Luke reveals a funny observation: "He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision." (12:9)

Then of course he comes to the house where the church is praying for him. I have heard lots of preachers say that the believers didn't have faith because they didn't believe it was really Peter when he came to the house. I don't know. I wouldn't be too hard on them. The main reason is you can be sure they weren't expecting a miracle like that. They were probably praying that Herod would have a change of heart and announce his release, or at least a delay of his sentence. I think the answer  to their prayer didn't fit their plan, so they assumed it wouldn't happen that way. But of course the Lord always defies our expectations.

The chapter ends with a very strange story: "Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king's country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, 'The voice of a god, and not of a man!' Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last." (12:20-23, ESV)

I don't know what this really has to do with anything, but it is an interesting story.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

TOMS: Acts 11

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 11, 2007

Peter came back to Jerusalem after opening the door of faith to the Gentiles and promptly gets himself in trouble. The people in Jerusalem could not understand how Peter could fellowship with Gentiles. There will always be people who find fault and criticize every new thing. But at least most of them seemed to respond positively after Peter told his story: "When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, 'Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.'" (11:18)

I guess at some level there is nothing wrong with skepticism. We all have beliefs and assumptions about life, about God, about just about every other topic you can think of, without knowing all the facts. The real problem begins when you don't do what the Jerusalem church did here. When you hang on to your worldview, your opinion, whatever, when there is solid evidence from a creditable source to disprove what you think, you need to be open-minded enough to admit you were wrong. Some folks have a hard time with that, don't they?

Meanwhile other Christians, instead of criticizing, took advantage of the new open door: "Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord." (11:19-21) These people took advantage of the new situation and began preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles.

The end of this chapter has a section that is very strange: "Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul." These were true prophets, foretelling the future with the help of the Lord. Lots of people today say that when prophecy is mentioned in the New Testament that it is a reference to preaching. But that is simply not the case. Prophecy of the future was another miraculous work of the Spirit during this time.

Other than that, there really isn't a whole lot in this chapter to talk about.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

TOMS: Acts 10

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 10, 2007

My computer monitor fizzled last week, so I went most of the week without a computer. No computer, no blog. But we're back now!

This chapter is one of the crucial passages in all the Bible. It tells the story of how Gentiles were brought into the Church. We are not sure exactly when this took place, but we assume it was at least a couple of years, perhaps longer, after the church began. For all of the church's existence up to this point, it was a Jewish religion. Kind of an offshoot of Judaism. The Apostles really had no idea that God planned to bring Gentiles into the family of Christ, even though there are hundreds of passages in the Old Testament about Gentiles coming to know the Lord.

Anyway, the story starts out by introducing us to a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius. Here was a man who had been influenced somewhat by the Jews. He "feared God" which means he probably made sacrifices to God and possibly attended the synagogue. We are told that he prayed and gave alms. Then he saw a vision of an angel, appearing to him and telling him to send for a man named Peter.

Meanwhile Peter was seeing a vision of his own. He saw a vision of all kinds of unclean animals and a voice from heaven that said "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." (10:13) Peter refused, saying "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean." (10:14) God responded with "What God has made clean, do not call common." (10:15) Of course God was trying to introduce Peter to a new concept: that Gentiles were going to be welcome in the new church.

Peter learned his lesson well: "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection." (10:28-29) It was this moment that expanded the church to what it is today. The Apostles really had no idea what they were starting, but they just let the Lord lead.

Luke records that the people who believed began to speak in tongues: "While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God." (10:44-46, ESV) This passage more than any other demonstrates the true purpose of the gift of tongues. The gift was to demonstrate to the Jews that the church, and secondarily the expansion of the church to include Gentiles, was a legitimate work of God. Once there was no need to vindicate God's work, there was no need for the gift. 

I have a lot of questions and doubts as to whether any of the gifts described in the New Testament are for the church today. I know there are lots of people who try to differentiate between the gifts, saying that some are for today and some ceased, but nowhere in the Bible will you find that there was a difference between the gifts. Paul and the other New Testament writers treat them all the same. 

Maybe I have struggles with this topic because I don't see any sort of gift in my life. I also must say I have never heard any truly Biblical teaching on the subject that makes me want to believe in it. All I have ever heard is that gifts are an outworking of one's personality. The teaching either consists of stories demonstrating how different people approach life in the church differently or I am handed a bad "personality test" and then told what my gifts are based on the results. I'm sorry, but it's not miraculous when everybody has a different personality. When Paul tells the Corinthians to desire the best gifts, is he telling them to change their personality? Most teachers today would say no, but by their teaching Paul is telling the Corinthians to perform an impossibility. I don't know. I know God can change people's outlook and approach to life. I've seen it happen. Is that changing someone's personality? Perhaps it is. I would appreciate any feedback.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

TOMS: Acts 9

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 4, 2007

This chapter tells the story of the conversion of Saul. Saul was the leading enemy of the church after the death of Stephen. I didn't mention him specifically in the previous chapter, but Luke does, saying that he was ravaging the church.

As a result of the persecution, the church began to scatter and grow. And so now there were believers all over, not just concentrated in Jerusalem. Saul decided his next target would be the believers at Damascus. And then the unthinkable happened: "As he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' And he said, 'Who are you, Lord?' And he said, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.'" (9:3-6) It was certainly unthinkable for Saul. He thought he was doing the work of God by throwing the believers in jail, trying to root out this false doctrine. Now here comes Jehovah God to him and tells him that He is the one Saul is persecuting. 

Now Saul's conversion is unlike any in history. If one didn't know any better, they might think that God was doing Saul a favor by appearing to him in this way. Somebody might say that if God would appear to them like that, they would be saved too. The foolishness of such a statement is apparent if we think about it. No one who would make such a statement can deny that they are unaware of the Gospel. If people who have heard the Gospel reject it, that is not God's fault. On the other hand (to answer a question I just dismissed) I believe God is the one who ultimately brings all of us to salvation - even the faith to believe is a gift from God. So at some level God does a special work in every believer's life, so to claim that Paul was privileged is nonsense. God's call in Paul's life was just more dramatic than just about everyone else.

Saul's conversion bore immediate fruit, as he began to preach Jesus in Damascus. So much so that the Jewish leaders were planning to kill their former enforcer, and Saul had to be let out of the city in a basket. He came to Jerusalem, and the believers were afraid of him. It took Barnabas to come and introduce him to the church.

The last section of this chapter tells the story of two miracles by Peter. The first is the healing of a crippled man, Aeneas. The second is the resurrection of Tabitha. It is always touching to read about how the people came to Peter and showed him the things Tabitha had made for them. This lady was certainly someone who made a difference in her community.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

TOMS: Acts 8

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 3, 2007

The Sanhedrin had done it: they had stoned a man for preaching Christ. They began to systematically attack the church, which initially had the desired effect of getting the Christians out of Jerusalem: "And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him." (8:1-2) The Christians were stunned by this development, and many left Jerusalem in fear for their lives. But as they scattered, they did not let that stop them from preaching the Gospel. 

Philip, one of the six remaining deacons, made the first significant move, preaching the Gospel in Samaria. Remember the Samaritans were mixed-race and were despised by most Jews. But Philip had a wonderful ministry in their midst. 

But there was a problem in town, named Simon. The Bible tells us Simon held a lot of sway over the people because of his magic and other tricks he was able to do. They all thought of Simon as a spiritual leader, even though he himself knew it was all sleight of hand and nonsense. So when Philip came preaching and led many of Simon's followers away, Simon figured these new guys were just like him: "Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, 'Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.' But Peter said to him, 'May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.' And Simon answered, 'Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.'" (8:18-24)

Simon thought the Apostles were hucksters like him. He was surprised when he found out that this was not a trick. Whether or not Simon believed after what Peter said to him, we don't really know. We assume that he did not, but perhaps he did after all.

In the midst of this great work, an angel came to Philip and said, "Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (8:26) Remember that the first few years of the church were a special time. God used visions and even angels to help the church accomplish God's purpose. These things were both a sign to the Jews and an encouragement to the believers.

As he is traveling across the desert, he meets up with a caravan and hears a man reading from the book of Isaiah out loud, "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." (8:32-33, ESV)

This of course is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. This man was probably the treasurer of the kingdom who happened to be Jewish (why else would he be traveling from Jerusalem with a copy of Isaiah?) And I'm sure you are familiar with the story, how Philip used the text from Isaiah and told him the Gospel. He believed, and famously asked to be baptized at a watering hole they came to. 

Baptism, of course, has its roots in Judaism. Perhaps this man was a converted Jew and not a born one. This man had perhaps been baptized into Judaism, and doubtless he had witnessed baptisms. He was familiar with the custom, and understood the significance of the ceremony: that of renouncing a former religion and adopting a new. He may have seen some Christian baptisms in Jerusalem.

If you are not aware, Ethiopia was for many centuries the only Christian kingdom in sub-Saharan Africa. The kings of Ethiopia claimed to be the descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, although that has never been proven. Today we think of Ethiopia as the epitome of famine and want, but for most of the last millennium that was not the case. Ethiopia was for many years a prosperous kingdom, and was the only area of Africa not to be dominated by a European power between 1800 and the end of World War II. It was a series of corrupt governments and bad economic and weather conditions in the last 40 years that led to the severe famines and other problems many of us associate with Ethiopia.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

TOMS: Acts 7

For an introduction to this series, click here.

June 1, 2007

This is an incredible chapter. I know I'm not going to give it justice here, because I don't have time to dig into all the details. This chapter gives Stephen's sermon to the council.

The sermon focuses on God's purpose through the history of Israel, going all the way back to Abraham. He hits most of the highlights, jumping from Abraham to Joseph to Moses, on whom he spends most of his time. After he finishes his story of Moses, Stephen quickly mentions Joshua, David and Solomon and then gets straight to the point of the sermon: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it." (7:51-53)

He had them when he was talking about Abraham and Moses, but when Stephen started blasting them, they were disappointed, to say the least: "But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul." (7:57-58, ESV)

This may sound a little weird, but the Jewish leaders finally came to grips with what they were fighting with Christianity. They were not dealing with resentful hero-worshipers who were still mad that they had crucified their leader. They were dealing with confident people who knew that God was leading the world in a new direction. They were proclaiming that the death of Jesus was a part of God's plan to bring in a new way of worshiping and knowing Him. And it was happening right in Jerusalem, the very city where Jesus was killed and the heart of Judaism.

I want to say something else here that may be controversial, but hear me out before you accuse me of blasphemy. A lot has been made of Stephen's sermon and the apparent differences in the outline of the facts in his sermon and the way they occur in the Old Testament, particularly his timeline of Abraham's life. Skeptics point out the differences and say that somebody is lying, and others spend a lot of time trying to reconcile the two. 

May I go so far as to say that it doesn't matter? Stephen's account probably reflects the understanding of most 1st century Jews, but we shouldn't give it any more weight than that. This does not mean this section of Acts is not inspired. All that is necessary for that is for Luke's account to accurately reflect what Stephen said. Stephen never claimed to be inspired, he was just preaching a sermon. Lord knows if you took every sermon to be inspired, you would get into trouble in a hurry. If you can logically reconcile Stephen's sermon with the Old Testament account, fine. But don't spend too much time on it. If you come to a place where they can't be reconciled, just stick with what was intended to be an accurate historical account: the Old Testament.

Monday, June 1, 2015

TOMS: Acts 6

For an introduction to this series, click here.

May 31, 2007

This is the shortest chapter in Acts, but it is significant.

We are not sure how far along these events come in the progression of the church, but we assume it is less than a couple of years. Remember that the church was still basically concentrated around Jerusalem, and the church there was still in this arrangement where they shared everything. And we have our first schism in the church. It seems the Diaspora, Jews who were born elsewhere in the world and who spoke Greek as their mother tongue but returned to Jerusalem, were mad at the native Palestinian Jews, who were the majority. They accused the Apostles of favoring the native Jews when they made their distribution of food to the widows.

The idea of Peter and John and the other Apostles driving a wagon around Jerusalem delivering food is a strange one for us to think about, but it really happened. It's a picture I thought about a lot when I was delivering pizza for a living (for those of you who know me, it's pretty obvious I'm writing this section in 2015). They couldn't have been serving food at a central location, because if they were I highly doubt that anyone would be turned away. They had to have been delivering it to people's houses. Perhaps many of the foreign-born Jews lived on another side of town from where the Apostles were living. Whatever the reason, it was unfair to accuse the Apostles of favoritism. But that's exactly what the Diaspora did.

The Apostles were tired of this distraction: "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables." (6:2) They came up with a good solution: "Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." (6:3-4)

These men are usually referred to as the first deacons. Notice their names: "Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch." (6:5) The last five of these men all have Latin or otherwise non-Jewish names. The Apostles and the church at large were sensitive enough to these issues to recognize that enlisting some men from among the foreign contingent would be a positive step toward rectifying the hurt feelings in the church. The Diaspora were no doubt treated as second-class citizens by the general population of Jerusalem. The church was not a place for such sinful behavior.

The office of deacon is designed to assist the pastor and to serve the church. The first deacons were more like assistant pastors than the deacons we have now in most of our churches, middle-aged business men who act as a board of directors. These deacons knew who the primary authority was, the Apostles. They were certainly leaders, and they had spiritual as well as practical authority. This is true for all times, since Scripture outlines the specific qualifications for a deacon. They are not as stringent as those for an elder, but they do carry spiritual authority. The Scripture is broad enough that I don't think I have seen very many churches where the relationship between elders/pastors and deacons is unbiblical, but we should think through these things. The church is too important for us to just assume that since this is the way it's always been done, that's the way it's supposed to be.

We can see what kind of spiritual leader Stephen was. He went out and preached and performed miracles in the city. Then some Jews paid some other people to come to the council and say, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us." (6:14, ESV) Then the council had Stephen arrested. And that is where the chapter ends. Stephen's defense makes up most of chapter 7.