Acts

Acts 28: What Will You Do With Paul?

Luke has been following Paul’s judicial proceedings for many chapters, often with tremendous detail.  Why do we just end with Paul in house arrest for two years in Rome awaiting trial?  We need more closure than that.  Was Paul exonerated?  Did Jews show up from Jerusalem to plead their side of the case and did it go south for Paul?  Was Paul released and freed to go to Spain to preach the gospel as he so desired?  Was Paul killed in Rome for some charge brought against him successfully?  We are simply left to wonder.

Scholars have taken up the question and posited many a theory.  Here are a few:

  1. Acts was intended by Luke to be a legal defense for Paul before the Roman court, thus it had to be completed without these answers.
  2. Things did not turn out well for Paul and it didn’t fit the kind of ending Luke wanted to have so he left these details out.
  3. Luke was forced by sickness, jail, or traveling to finish his account abruptly.  Maybe a protegé of Luke finalized the letter quickly after Luke’s unexpected death.
  4. Acts starts with the word “first” (1:1), so maybe Acts was the first volume of two or more intended books about the gospel and the early apostles, but we do not have the later volume(s) or it/they were never written.
  5. The favorite theory amongst conservative scholars (and the one I like) is that Acts does end in the most appropriate way theologically, even if not historically.  Paul is not the focus of Luke’s book, the gospel is.  Luke starts in 1:8 with a charge from Jesus to take the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the “very ends of the earth,” a place like Rome.  Thus, Acts ends with the gospel being preached in Rome with great freedom and acceptance, especially amongst the Gentiles.  Luke would have felt like this was a very fitting ending, so the argument goes.

This is now the second book in a row where we come to an abrupt, seemingly incomplete ending.  We saw the same thing at the end of Mark.  We saw there that Mark seemed to be leaving the reader with the question, “What will you do with Jesus?”  Let’s take that same approach here in Acts, just to experiment again.

Maybe Luke wants to leave us with these questions: “What will you do with Paul?  What will you do with a gospel that is open to all?  What will you do with a church that includes Jews but also Gentiles who are much more receptive to the Gospel?”

Back then, some would have said Paul is a heretic who has hijacked this restored Judaism and perverted into an ecumenical, watered-down movement of grace and acceptance to all.  Some would have said Paul has got it exactly right; come join a “new Israel,” no longer defined by race.  Some would be quick to write off the Jews because they had their chance.  Some would like to muzzle Paul or even kill him.

Interestingly, people say the same things about Paul and other more modern religious thinkers today who say similar things, don’t they?  Give me Jesus, but you can keep your Paul.

The question for us, though, as we end this great book of Acts is the same question Caesar will have to answer: “What should I do with Paul?”

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Acts 27: Shipwrecked!

Today’s chapter is immensely interesting for three reasons.

One, Luke is writing good literature.  We are coming down to the end of the book.  We have a goal we know the main character has — to get to Rome — but further, seemingly insurmountable complications come.  Luke knows how to push us along in the book!

Two, Luke is writing convincing history.  Scholars who study the book of Acts marvel at how historically accurate and detailed this chapter is.  This chapter is one of the best accounts of ancient nautical practices in all ancient literature.  This is not the kind of chapter an author makes up.  This was written by a smart researcher and eyewitness, as we know from the “we” in the first verse.

Three, Luke is ultimately writing theology.  It is not entirely correct to call Acts an historical account.  It is too theological to be pure history in genre (that is no denial of the factual nature of Acts).  Acts is selective history written for a specific theological point.  I was struck by how even this account of a shipwreck became a way for Paul to preach the gospel and also a great test of faith:

“So take heart my friends.  I believe God, that it will be as he said to me.” (27:25)

“If these men don’t stay in the ship,” he said, “there is no chance of safety.” (27:31)

What did you see in this chapter worth noting?

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Acts 26: The Wounded Healer

I have to admit I don’t think of Jesus saying much more to Paul on the road to Damascus than verse 15.  I have missed the great richness in verses 16-18 of this third version of Paul’s conversion in the book of Acts.  I was especially drawn this time to the first part of verse 18:

I will rescue you . . . so that you can open their eyes to enable them to turn from darkness to light. (26:18a)

Remember the context of this original story.  Jesus was saying this to a blinded Paul, a Paul who was experiencing nothing but darkness.

I imagine if I were Paul I would have been saying, “Open my eyes!  Help me to turn from darkness to light!”

Maybe that was the point of God’s choice to blind Paul.

Drawing on the work of Carl Jung, the now-passed Roman Catholic priest and scholar Henri Nouwen once wrote a great little book called “The Wounded Healer.”  His main premise is that just as we see over and over again in the Scriptures, God usually chooses to use “wounded,” broken people to become the “healers” of others.  Nouwen even argues that one cannot adequately do the work of a healer until we face, accept and even embrace our own woundedness.  Then, just like Jesus who allowed himself to be emptied of glory and wounded on a criminal’s cross, we are really prepared for God’s work.

God’s way of working is beautiful and poignant!

What did you see today?

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Acts 25: Give Me Justice

I have offended neither against the Jews, nor against the Temple, nor against Caesar. . . . I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, which is where I ought to be tried.  I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you well know.  If I have committed any wrong, or if I have done something which means I deserve to die, I’m not trying to escape death.  But if I have none of the things they are accusing me of, nobody can hand me over to them.  I appeal to Caesar. (25:8, 10-11)

Paul is willing to stand trial where he should stand trial.  He is even willing to pay the just price for what he has done, though they will find out that he has done nothing wrong against anyone and shouldn’t be punished at all.  He will jump through whatever hoop they put in front of him, wait in jail as long as it takes, even appeal to Caesar and be shipped off to Rome, just so long as he gets justice.

But injustice Paul cannot abide.  Be framed on trumped-up charges without a fair trial?  No way!  Allow the Jews to spout slanderous half-truths without a response?  Not for a minute!  Be turned over to the bloodthirsty Jews because of some back room deal?  Paul will not stand for that.  That would simply be unjust.

Paul wants one thing: justice.

Following Jesus doesn’t mean we have to just lay down and take it.  Yes, the way of Christ is the path of self-denial and sacrifice, but justice does not have to be ignored in the process.  Meekness is most certainly a virtue (Matthew 5:5), but that does not mean a person has to offer themselves to any malevolent soul that wishes to do them harm.  One can be humble and sacrificial while also upholding and pursuing justice.  We are not called to let injustice proliferate in an already unjust world.  Even Jesus didn’t die because of injustice.  He died to uphold the justice of a God whose holiness had to be honored.

Like Paul, we can humbly serve a world that is not always hospitable.  We can put ourselves in places of discomfort and risk.  But we can do all of this while insisting that justice be done by those whose job it is to ensure it.

What struck you today?

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Acts 24: Resurrection is Key

Paul is confronted by Felix, the Roman governor in Caesarea.  Is Paul truly the rabble-rouser the Jews make him out to be?  That is a serious charge in peaceful Rome.  In response, Paul confesses the following:

It is true that I do worship the God of my ancestors according to the Way which they call a “sect.”  I believe everything which is written in the law and the prophets, and I hold to the hope in God, for which they also long, that there will be a resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous. (24:14-15)

What strikes me here (and in almost every other public address either Peter or Paul gave in Acts) is that resurrection is so foundational to the belief-system of the apostles.  Key to the gospel is resurrection from the dead.  This is mentioned again later in the chapter at 24:21.

I wonder if resurrection is that fundamental to our ways of thinking and talking today.  I more often hear forgiveness from the guilt of sin mentioned in our gospel language.  That is okay.  Of course, forgiveness is important as well, and it was a part of the gospel sermons in Acts too (c.f., Acts 2:38).  But not as often as resurrection.  If we have downplayed resurrection in favor of forgiveness of guilt from sins, what are we missing?  And why have we made this switch?  What does this reveal about us?

Paul is a wanted man.  Leave him alone in Jerusalem for 15 minutes and he is dead.  He is sitting in a Roman jail under suspicions of disturbing the peace.  Rome deals swiftly and decisively with people who upset the Pax Romana.  In Felix, he is talking to a man who more so wants a bribe than the truth, and Paul has no intentions of paying up.  He is headed to Rome, where Caesar’s word is truth, and Caesar has no reason to preserve Paul’s life.

How can Paul maintain such boldness and calm?  Paul has already told us:

I hold to the hope in God . . . that there will be a resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous. (24:15)

What do you think about this?

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Acts 23: Rescued by Rome

Seemingly insignificant things can end up making a world of difference when God is concerned.

Paul is born in Tarsus in Cilicia making him a Roman citizen.  He is born a Jew, and it clear from today’s passage that it is this Jewish heritage that mattered most to Paul’s family.  These were Pharisees, apparently a long line of them (23:6).  Paul’s father will go to the expense and trouble to get him to Jerusalem to train under Gamaliel the Pharisee (22:3).  This is a good education.  By all of his own accounts scattered throughout Acts and his letters, it is this Jewish background that Paul gloried in.

And yet in today’s reading it is Paul’s Roman citizenship that makes all the difference between life and death.  The Jews are ready to tear him “in pieces” (23:10).  A gang of Jewish extremists have pledged not to eat or drink until they kill Paul (23:12).  An assassination plot is hatched (23:15).  But leave it to the Jews and Paul is as good as dead.

Ancient Roman Citizenship Diploma

It is because of his Roman citizenship that the Roman tribune is involved at this point.  The tribune’s greatest desire is simply to preserve peace, but he ends up protecting Paul nonetheless.  The tribune’s palace guard whisks Paul out of the fomenting Sanhedrin.  The Roman respect for law ensures Paul a fair trial.  An army of two hundred foot soldiers and seventy horsemen escort Paul out of Jerusalem and off to a Caesarean prison, and safety as well.  Ultimately, it is Paul’s Roman citizenship that will bring him to Rome so he can give his “testimony about [Jesus] in . . . Rome” (23:11).  Bottomline:

When I [the tribune] learned that he was a Roman citizen I went with the guard and rescued him. (23:27)

Where one is born is not nearly as important as what one does once one is born.  And yet Paul’s place of birth is what rescues him at this moment.

What seemingly insignificant detail from your life has turned out to have made a world of difference?

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Acts 22: I Was One of You

Have a blessed Ash Wednesday!

Christians are called to live in this world, yet not become a part of the world.  That is a hard balancing act.

Twice in today’s reading, we see Paul tell people he is, or at least once was, just like them (22:3-5, 19-20, 25).

Paul disputing with Jews and Greeks (mid-12th century)

A murderous mob of Jews has descended on Paul at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Some have heard he has defiled their sacred space with a unclean Gentile.  Others just hate this traitor and want to see him gone.  Either way they are ready to rip him limb from limb.  Had it not been for the intervention of the low-level Roman tribune, they would have had their way.  Paul uses the opportunity to address his accusers.  The gist of his remarks are that he once was just like them.  A Jew.  A well-trained one.  A law-respecting one.  He too once persecuted Christians.  He gets where they are coming from.  He once was just like them.

As the chapter continues, the tribune himself orders that Paul be flogged so as to expedite his interrogations.  Paul is quick to assert is rights.  He is a Roman citizen from birth.  He is entitled to a trial.  Again, though, we see Paul saying essentially, “I am just like you.”

And yet now Paul is different.  He has discovered there is something more important to God than law.  He has learned that the Messiah has come in the form of Jesus.  He is a Roman, but his ultimate allegiance is to a different Lord than Caesar.

I once was just like you.  Now you can become one like me.

Some will like that message because it brings hope and purpose.  For other it will only be scandalous and the heat will be turned up.

What struck you anew in this chapter?  

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Acts 21: Kill Him!

Is anyone else struck by how much the account of Peter’s and now Paul’s life in Acts parallels Jesus’ life?

For instance, just in today’s reading alone, we are approaching the end of Acts and Paul is in the Temple doing an act of “purification.”  Unbelieving Jews have charges trumped-up against him.  A mob demands that Paul be killed.  Yesterday we saw Paul in a “Gethsemane moment” of solitude and a “last supper” with dear disciples in Ephesus.  Next, we will see a series of Jewish and Romans trials that are anything but conclusive.  I have never noticed this parallelism before.

Maybe the point is that Jesus’ followers will be exactly that: followers.  They will share the experiences of Jesus.

Have you noticed this?  In what details?  

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Acts 20: Bound by the Spirit

I would love to go to Jerusalem.  What a great trip that would be!  Maybe some day.

Interestingly, in this passage Paul isn’t as enthusiastic about his trip to Jerusalem.  Nor was Jesus in Luke’s first volume (Luke 9:51).  Both had to set their faces resolutely towards the city of David.  Jerusalem meant death.  Jerusalem is the place of loss and separation, in this context.

This is likely why Paul seems more melancholy and introspective in today’s reading.  By the middle of the chapter Paul is in Troas on his way to Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem.  The rest of his party sails from Troas to Assos but Paul, who usually surrounded himself with traveling companions, walks the 25-mile journey to Assos alone instead.  In Ephesus, Paul gathers the elders of the church together to encourage them to watch out for “fierce wolves” in sheep’s clothing and to stay strong in Christ (20:29-31).  Paul knows he is “bound by the spirit” to go to Jerusalem (20:22).  Twice he tells the Ephesian elders they will not “see my face again” (20:25, 38).  Paul’s phrase “after I am gone” (20:29) has a foreboding tone of finality.

These are last words.  The kind of things Jesus said to his apostles in John 13-17 just before he died.  The kind of things you say just before “going to Jerusalem.”

Yet, both Jesus and Paul went.  It was their mission, and they knew it.

What stood out to you?

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Acts 19: Power Struggle

Today’s chapter is filled with power.

God performed unusual works of power through Paul’s hands. (19:11)

So the word grew and was strong, in accordance with the Lord’s power. (19:20)

Paul walks into Ephesus with incredible power.  Disease and evil spirits flee from Paul whose very skin exudes power (19:20).  An evil spirit, “too strong” and “overpowering” for the seven sons of Sceva, the Jewish high priest, submissively acknowledges Paul’s power through Jesus (19:15-16).  The name of Jesus grows in “prestige” and “power” in Ephesus (19:17, 20).

This emphasis on power is no accident.  This is Ephesus, after all.  Power was everything in Ephesus.

Ephesus was the most important city in Asia Minor at the time.  Though the city was a part of the Roman Empire, they had been granted the right of self-government so long as they maintained the rule of law and a general state of peace in the city (read that into the end of the chapter).  All roads converged in Ephesus, making it a center of commerce.  They had a major stadium and theatre.  Most every street had a major temple to some pagan god or the Caesars.  Ephesus was the home to the temple of the fertility goddess Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  Altogether, Ephesus had the power of empire, trade, law, culture, and the womb.  This was an ancient New York, London, or Toronto.  Power in every kind, everywhere you went.

But now, with the gospel’s arrival with Paul, there was a new power in town.

What did you notice today?

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Acts 18: Working for the Kingdom

Everybody’s working for the weekend/everybody wants a little romance/everbody’s goin’ off the deep end/everybody needs a second chance. 

Remember those lyrics from the ’80s Canadian rock group Loverboy?  Are we going through the week working for the weekend?

Actually, I think Paul was, at least when he was in Corinth.

Paul comes to Corinth and meets up with Aquila and Priscilla, two tentmakers from Rome. Paul quickly takes up with them because this is his trade too.  Paul spends eighteen months in Corinth (18:11) and it appears he supported himself (along with some support from the Thessalonians) during that time making tents.

Then on “every sabbath” Paul would go to the synagogue to share with “great energy” the gospel that “the messiah really was Jesus” (18:4-5).  Paul strikes me as the kind of person who is always talking about Jesus no matter where he is, but it seems that for the better part of a year and a half Paul did most of his ministry on the weekend.  Paul did the best he could and he worked hard at ministry with the time he had.

What struck me today is that Paul didn’t feel bad about the tent-making work he had to do the other six days in order to make his sabbath ministry possible.  Maybe sometimes we feel like our jobs take away from the time we could spend doing ministry in a world that needs Jesus.  Interestingly, Paul himself didn’t feel that way.

In 2 Corinthians 11:7-9, a snippet from a letter written to the very church we are reading about in this section, Paul talks about how his tent-making work was part of his mission, not separate from it.  It didn’t subtract from his ministry, it enabled it.  Therefore, he was working as hard for the Kingdom each day when he made tents as he did on the Sabbaths sharing the gospel.

This might give us an even greater appreciation for the work God has blessed us with, regardless of occupation.

What did you see anew in this chapter? 

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Acts 17: Turning the World Upside Down

These are the people who are turning the world upside down! (17:6)

What an incredible thing to have people say about you, especially as Christians, especially knowing that upside down is really right side up!  What do such people talk about along their revolutionary way?

They’re saying that there is another king, Jesus! (17:7)

The kingship of Jesus was foundational to the message of the gospel from its beginning.  If you want to shake up a society, preach that Jesus is King.

This was Philippi, the main city in a highly patriotic Greco-Roman colony.  Many of the residents in Macedonia were former members of the military.  The city Philippi and the region Macedonia were named after Philip of Macedon, the father of Greek conqueror Alexander the Great.  There is only one king in this city: Caesar.  He is Lord and King, and to suggest otherwise is seditious.

Later in this chapter we see the same thing happening in Athens.  Paul walks into this thoroughly, conscientiously idolatrous city and says to the Athenians: your religiosity is “ignorance” (17:23).  There is an invisible God over all of these idols, from whom all life comes.  This God had even conquered death through a man named Jesus (17:31).  The intelligentsia of Athens heard this message and called it “ridiculous” (17:32).

I am not sure we have perfect equivalents to this.  Maybe it is like walking into the Republican Convention with a “Jesus for President” sign.  Better yet, it is like Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the day of Prince William’s coronation turning crown in hand to the front altar of Westminster Abbey and saying Jesus is the only real king.  It is telling Bill Gates that Jesus is the real CEO of this company.  It is telling Stephen Hawking, because of our King Jesus whom he rejects, we understand truth better than he.  It is telling the licentious celebrity culture of Hollywood and the materialistic advertisers of Madison Avenue that we can find greater fulfillment in a man named Jesus.  Seditious, ridiculous.

Actually, much more personally, it is like saying to our own hearts “there is another king, Jesus.  You won’t get your own way.  Your agendas and orders are not the final word here.  There is a better answer than following your own desires.  You are not the center of the universe.

Yeah, that’ll turn our worlds upside down.

What stood out to you in this chapter?  

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Acts 16: Spiritual Discernment

Happy Valentine’s Day

I have always been drawn to the following passage:

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, since the holy spirit had forbidden them to speak the word in the province of Asia.  When they came to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the spirit of Jesus didn’t allow them to do so. . . . Then a vision appeared to Paul in the night . . . When he saw the vision, at once we set about finding a way across to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the good news to them. (16:6-10)

I am convinced spiritual discernment is a huge topic I have neglected.  I think that is because I come to passages like this one and I leave confused.  I just can’t see my way forward into the topic.

How do we know the will of the Spirit?  How did Paul know the Spirit had forbidden them from going into Asia and Bithynia?  Was it that sixth-sense “knowing” that many of us feel at times, or was it something more?  Was this knowledge from a prophecy he had received?  The Macedonian Call came through a vision; was that how he discerned the stops on his journey?  Then we come to the word “concluding” in verse 10 and it seems some level of reason and deliberation was involved, but to what degree?

Some are sure that every whim and fancy is a message from God.  Others say God gave us a brain and expects us to use it, and the implication often is to use it to the exclusion of all other options.  I am convinced the way forward is somewhere between these extremes, as we see in this passage.  I would like to learn and experience more on this topic.

Do you have wisdom on this matter you can share?  

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Acts 15: What Does It Take to Be Saved?

Now, that’s a loaded question!  And not one I am about to try to answer here.  But it is the question the Christians in Antioch were asking.

Grace through faith in Jesus?  Definitely!

He [God] purified their [Gentiles] hearts through faith. . . . It is by the grace of the Lord Jesus that we shall be saved, just like them. (15:9, 11)

But is there more?  At least some of the early Christians thought so:

They must be circumcised,” they [believers from the party of the Pharisees] said, “and you must tell them to keep the law of Moses.” (15:5)

Much like Acts 2, Acts 15 is one of the more significant chapters in the book.  There is so much to say about this chapter.  The chapter also produces so many further questions.  Some of these observations and questions would be:

  • When an argument ensued, they gathered together to talk it out.
  • The Scriptures played a important role in their decision-making (15:15-18), but so did the everyday ministry experiences of the apostles involved (15:12).
  • Early Christianity was diverse enough to encompass former Pharisees and former prostitutes, Zealots and tax collectors, those with a great level of obedience to the Jewish customs and those who thought those customs were largely irrelevant.
  • Even after the decision was made to disagree with the Pharisaical Christians, the apostles and elders still accept them as “some of our number” (15:24).
  • This conflict ends with feelings of “delight,” “encouragement,” and “peace” (15:31-33).
  • How did the apostles and elders making the decision know what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” (15:28)?
  • Why was blood in food deemed that much more important than circumcision or the Sabbath?
  • This decision was given to Christians in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia.  Was it also intended to apply to other churches too?  For instance, Paul didn’t make a big deal over food sacrificed to idols in Corinth.
  • Is baptism equivalent to circumcision?  Do the principles here regarding circumcision apply to modern debates over baptism?
  • What modern issues of debate would be in line with the topic of law observance?  Worship styles, gender roles, marital history, sexual preference?

However, I don’t want us to miss the big point in this chapter, so important that Luke says it twice:

Therefore this is my judgment: we should not cause extra difficulties for those of the Gentiles who have turned to God. (15:19)

For it seemed good to the holy spirit and to us not to lay any burden on you beyond the following necessary things. (15:28)

This did not mean there were no boundaries or requirements.  The Gentiles in Antioch were expected to avoid food associated with pagan idolatry, food that would still have a good amount of blood in it, and sexual perversions (15:20, 29).  Still, the apostles and elders decided to go the path of least resistance.  They endeavored to place as few barriers as possible between God and those Gentiles seeking Him.  Important to any debate Christians might have today regarding what it takes to be saved should be this same principle: don’t make it any more difficult than it has to be.

What stood out to you in this important chapter?  

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Acts 14: Sacrifices for God

They [Paul and Barnabas] warned them [the disciples in Galatia] that getting into God’s kingdom would mean going through considerable suffering. (14:22)

It sure will.  It seems everywhere Paul went on this trip he was either chased out of town or beaten half to death. In no time at all the crowd in Lystra goes from wanting to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas to wanting to kill them.  They went from being the object of sacrifice to the sacrifices themselves.  God’s mission necessitates sacrifice.

I am struck, though, how Paul and Barnabas go back through the cities where they are persons non gratis to reinforce the core message of the Kingdom to the new converts (14:21-23), and part of that core message is that disciples have to be ready to sacrifice.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this the “cost of discipleship,” not always something we hear a lot about in some Christian circles these days.  But how can we share with any credibility the story of a suffering Savior if we are not willing to suffer ourselves?

When was the last time you saw the Kingdom advance by suffering or sacrifice?

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Acts 13: Pure or Prejudiced?

Tell me if I am reading this passage wrong:

As Paul and Barnabas were leaving, they [Jews in the synagogue] begged them to come back the next sabbath and tell them more about these things.  Many of the Jews and devout proselytes followed them once the synagogue was dismissed.  They spoke to them some more, and urged them to remain in God’s grace. 

On the next sabbath, almost the whole city came together to hear the word of the Lord.  But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with righteous indignation, and spoke blasphemous words against what Paul was saying. (13:42-45)

At first, when Paul and Barnabas were in a synagogue, the Jews were interested and wanted to hear more.  Less than a week later when the whole city — Jew and Gentile — shows up to hear Paul and Barnabas, the Jews who were rather receptive turn on them in anger and have them driven out of the city.

Why such a strong change?

I am wondering if the answer isn’t at the beginning of verse 45: “But when the Jews saw the crowds.”  Now, when they were out in the city streets, in neutral or even foreign territory, in mixed company, when Gentiles are included in the audience being encouraged to turn to God, things change.  They don’t like what Paul is preaching.  More to the point, they don’t like who Paul is preaching to.  God is our god, they thought.  This party is by invitation-only.  No Gentiles allowed.  The Gentile water-fountain is around the corner.

Why the change?  Well, it wasn’t because of doctrine or theology.  As Paul points out in 13:47, they were arguing with their own prophet Isaiah, not him:

“I have set you for a light to the nations, so that you can be salvation-bringers to the end of the earth.”

Jewish election was not an end unto itself.  God didn’t just want the Jews to receive divine light then keep it to themselves.  The election of Israel was a means to an end.  They were given light in order to shine it on the whole world.  Blessed to bless.  As far back as the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12, the Gentiles were in God’s sights.

So it seems to me that the Jews in Pisidian Antioch (and so many other places) were actually reacting from emotion rather than theology.  Socially driven prejudice, not the Scriptures, flavored their decisions about what they thought God should and should not do.

I am sure glad we don’t ever do that today.

What do you think?

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Acts 12: Rescued!

I have never noticed before today how similar this account of the near-death and rescue of Peter is to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

  • Both face one of the Herods
  • Both are arrested around the time of the Passover
  • The arrest of each is preceded by the killing of a previously popular leader: John the Baptist and James
  • Both Herods are motivated by placating the Jewish people
  • Jesus hung between two criminals, while Peter was chained between two soldiers
  • Jesus escaped the tomb; Peter escaped a prison and iron city gate
  • Once freed, both go to a “Mary” first
  • The reunion with friends is incomplete in both accounts: people run off to tell others, and Jesus and Peter both tell someone to tell significant disciples about their return
  • The guards in both accounts are put to death for their perceived negligence

The interesting point is that while both stories are so similar, the fate of each was quite differently: Jesus died but Peter was spared.

Nonetheless, God’s will is done in each story.  It was God’s will for Jesus to die on that day.  Presumably, it was God’s will for Peter to live another day.  Both served God’s greater goals — to die for all and to continue preaching and leading the early church — but in different ways.

We can rest in an assurance that God will bring His will to pass one way or another.  Some times we will be rescued like Peter.  Sometimes we will not, like James.  But, positive or negative outcomes, God’s desires will be done.

What verse struck you in this chapter?

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Acts 11: No Need to Argue

Why did you do it? (11:3)

That was the question the Jewish followers of Jesus back in Judea asked Peter about visiting and eating with the Gentile Cornelius and his household.  This sort of thing was not done.  God’s people are Jewish not Gentile, or so they thought.  Why would Peter of all people extend table fellowship to uncircumcised and therefore unclean Gentiles?

So Peter tells them his story.  I am amazed at how it ends.

“As I [Peter] began to speak, the holy spirit fell on them, just as the spirit did on us at the beginning.  And I remembered the word which the Lord had spoken: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the holy spirit.’  “So, then,” Peter concluded, “if God gave them the same gift as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus the Messiah, who was I to stand in the way of God?”  When they [the Judean brothers and sisters] heard this, they had nothing more to say.  They praised God. (11:15-18)

It sounds so easy.  Everything was so clear-cut for them all: We Jews had this experience.  Then those Gentiles did too.  So that confirms God’s will here.  Nothing more to say.  Praise God for His generous grace!

When Christians today argue with each other over who is acceptable to God or not, I am afraid it is rarely that easy to resolve.  Each side has a whole litany of reasons why there is “more to say.”

It seems to me that the best way to explain why consensus was so easily attainable in this passage is that the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” mentioned here in Acts 11 was manifested as speaking in tongues.  It did say in 10:46 that Cornelius’ family spoke in tongues after the Holy Spirit “fell on everyone.”  Therefore, this phenomenon was immediately observable and objective.  They must have been thinking: We received this.  They received this.  That is how God works.  So, there is nothing more to say.

I am afraid it just isn’t that easy today.  How I wish it could be.  For many of us the tradition we come from does not believe speaking in tongues is still a common experience at salvation (or that it ever happens anymore).  Maybe we could point to the fruit of the Spirit in a person’s life as a testimony to divine election and approval, but that is not completely visible, it takes a long time to develop, and even non-Christians are observably and objectively patient and gentle many times.

What I really want to say is maybe we just need to stop worrying about who is accepted by God and not.  Most of those debates involve groups of people who both claim to have faith in Jesus.  Maybe we should focus our attention on other matters, like those who don’t believe at all.  But there will always be people amongst us who would say like Peter did, “I can’t do that.  I have never done that before.  I don’t think that is right.”  And for those people these debates are very real and important.  I just wish the way to resolution could be as easy as what we are seeing here.

What do you think?

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Acts 10: God Leads the Way

This was not Peter’s plan at all.

Go to a group of Gentiles?  Eat with them?  Even baptize them?  No, this is not Peter’s plan, at all.

But it was God’s.

All throughout this chapter God through His Holy Spirit is leading the way:

  • Long before Peter came along, Cornelius and his household had developed a reverence for God and a life of prayer and giving (10:2)
  • The messengers from Cornelius’ household were sent by God to Peter, not vice versa (10:5-6, 20)
  • God brought Peter the vision of the sheet and animals
  • The Spirit coaxes Peter along: “It’s all right; get up, go down, and go with them.  Don’t be prejudiced.” (10:20)
  • Peter says his change of perspective came because “God showed me I should call nobody ‘common’ or ‘unclean.“” (10:28)
  • Out of the ordinary pattern we see in Acts, the Holy Spirit fell on the household before they were baptized (10:44-48), which is best understood as God showing proactively that these Gentiles were acceptable and baptism should be extended by a reticent Peter

As one of you said in a recent comment, this book is more about the acts of the Holy Spirit than the “acts of the Apostles.”  And yet, it is the acts of the Apostles too, in that they are the vehicles of God’s gospel and grace in a partnership between God and humanity.  They have to obey and go.  Still, this is God’s mission to rescue a lost world.  Like Peter, too often we wouldn’t choose to go where God sends.  We wouldn’t reach out to the people He chooses.  Leave it to God to broaden our horizons!

May we find the places in life where God has already been working.  May we set out to simply play the part that is needed next.

Lord, send us to the Corneliuses of our neighborhoods!

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Acts 9: Hunter turned Hunted

Caravaggio's "Conversion on the Way to Damascus"

This is a very familiar chapter for many of us, I am sure.  Today, we see Saul turn to Paul, the hated hunter of Christians turn to a hunted Christian himself.  How does that happen?  By nothing less than a vision of the very presence of the resurrected Jesus himself.

What struck me in this chapter were the many words that all pertain to eyes and seeing.  The word “see” is used six times (9:7, 8, 9, 12, 17, 18).  The past tense “seen” or “saw” is used three more times (9:12, 27, 35).  Paul doesn’t just hear a voice, he has a “vision” (9:10, 12).  Paul’s eyes are mentioned twice (9:8, 18). Interestingly, even in the Peter and Dorcas story that follows Paul’s conversion, her eyes are mentioned (9:40), as are the words “weeping” and “showed” (9:39), both words connected with vision and eyes.  Ananias is told to “look” at Paul praying (9:17).  Three other vision related words show up here: “appeared” (9:17), “demonstrating” (9:22), and “watching” (9:24).

Of course, this is simply because this chapter is in part about Paul being blinded.  But it also seems the author is trying to make a larger point.  Saul the Pharisee was a very learned man.  He had an almost unparalleled passion and commitment.  He was willing to kill or be killed for his beliefs.  Surely, amongst his Jewish religious leader friends he was respected.  Why else were they laying their coats at his feet when they stoned Stephen (7:58)?  Why else was he a ringleader (9:1-2)?

And yet he was blind.  The physical blinding of Saul only paralleled the spiritual blindness he had in his heart.

By the end of the chapter, vision is restored to Saul’s physical eyes, but the scales fall off of his heart too and a new man is born — Paul.  And this new man gives the enlightened cry of a person who can see correctly:

“This [Jesus] really is the son of God!” (9:20).

What did you “see” anew today?

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Acts 8: A Scattered People

Scattered or Sent Out?

That very day a great persecution was started against the church in Jerusalem.  Everyone except the apostles was scattered through the lands of Judaea and Samaria. . . . Those who were scattered went all over the place announcing the word. (8:1, 4)

One way or another God is going to spread his Kingdom.  That was what He wanted (1:8) and here it is happening.

Were the disciples not spreading out as desired?  Were they, like we often are today, more comfortable staying where they were, with people like them, in familiar territory?  Did God use — or even bring, if your theology and this situation allows that idea — this persecution to advance His kingdom?  This is a speculative conclusion; we can’t know for sure.

What is clear is that His kingdom grew one way or another.  God’s people talk about God wherever they go.

What unpleasant time in your life right now might God be using to advance His Kingdom?

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Acts 7: Spirit-Filled People

Stephen amazes me.  Bloodthirsty men grab him.  The Sanhedrin is no guarantee of justice.  These proceedings can be every bit the Kangaroo Court they were with Jesus.  Yet, Stephen is firmly resolute.  He says what has to be said (v.51), knowing this will only sign his own death warrant.

How can he be this bold, this obedient?

We find the answer in verse 55:

“He, however, was filled with the holy spirit.”

“Being filled” is a major idea in Acts.  Nine times some significant character is said to be filled with the Spirit (the apostles at Pentecost, 2:4; Peter, 4:8; the believers that received Peter and John after they were rescued from prison, 4:31; the seven deacons, 6:3; Stephen, 6:5 and 7:55; the blind Saul, 9:17; Saul turned Paul, 13:9; and the disciples in Pisidian Antioch, 13:52).  To be filled with the Holy Spirit seems to mean having a deep connection to the Holy Spirit, open to the work of the Spirit, known for possessing the fruit of the Spirit, especially joy and faith.  As this Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9) we should expect that a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit will be much like Jesus.

This point is brought home in a special way in the story of the stoning of Stephen.  Stephen is being pelted by rocks.  Death is drawing closer, and Stephen says two things:

Lord Jesus,” he cried out, “receive my spirit.” (7:59b)

Lord, don’t let this sin stand against them.” (7:60b)

Sound familiar?  That’s right.  These are two of the seven things Jesus said while on the cross.  Stephen is truly a man like Jesus, filled with the Savior’s very Spirit.

Five times in Acts, though, we read of other options for “filling.”  Ananias’ heart was filled with “Satan” (5:3).  The high priest and Sadducees who arrest the apostles for preaching in Jerusalem were “filled with jealousy” (5:17).  Bitterness filled the heart of Simon the Sorcerer (8:23).  Elymas the sorcerer from Cyprus was “full of all kinds of deceit and trickery” (13:10).  Seeing the success of Paul and Barnabas, the Jews in Pisidian Antioch were “filled with jealousy” (13:45).

One way or another, we will be filled.  With what do we want it to be?

Lord, fill us up until we overflow!   

 

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Acts 6: A Growing Kingdom

The word of God increased, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem grew by leaps and bounds.  This included a large crowd of priests who became obedient to the faith. (6:7)

This group of 120 sure has grown.  First it was to 3000, then over 5000 men.  Now they are growing by “leaps and bounds.”  Let there be no mistake, God wants His kingdom to grow.

Acts 1:6-8 is considered by many to be a bit of a thesis statement for the book.  Many key themes from the book of Acts launch off from this passage.  We also find here this sentence which also becomes the very structure of Acts:

Then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth. (1:8)

Think of it like concentric circles spreading out from Jerusalem, where the events of Acts 1-4 took place.  Now we are in the Judea section.  The Jesus movement is still very much a Jewish thing, though now there are “Hellenistic” or Greek Jews in the mix.  Next, with Philip we will see the gospel move to Samaria, a far less palatable place to a good, upstanding Jew.  Paul and Barnabas will take the gospel in the latter half of the book into the pagan Greco-Roman world until the book ends in Rome, the furthest civilized city to the west where the gospel would realistically be expected to go.  We know from Romans that Paul’s greatest desire is to go to the Far West, to Spain, where the gospel has yet to go.  Unto the very ends of the earth, indeed.

God wants His kingdom to grow.  I see nothing in the Bible that indicates God wants to sell the kingdom like a salesperson hawks his wares to one more empty shopper seeking a new trinket or novelty.  No billboards and slick advertising campaign are needed (and if they are, aren’t we admitting we have turned God’s kingdom or at least our churches into one more consumer good?).  Still, we don’t need to glory in being ostracized outsiders whose small numbers are a badge of honor.  God wants growth.

We can be certain that God wants his kingdom to grow spiritually; maturity is always the goal.  God intends for his kingdom to grow numerically, as we are seeing here in 6:7.  As Acts 1:8 makes clear, God is looking for geographical growth too.  That same verse confronts our insular and even prejudicial tendencies and says God is looking for a kingdom that grows ethnically.  The kingdom is going to be a 64-pack of Crayolas, praise God!  But that ethnic growth is what produces a problem in Acts 6 too as the leaders try to deal fairly with both Greek and Jewish widows.  This verse from Acts 6 also indicates he wants the kingdom to become socially diverse; the Jesus movement was now made up of Galilean fisherman and now Jerusalemite priests too.  Next thing you know, we will have ancient politician’s wives joining in (hint, hint).

Of course, God’s desires are no different today.  What would it look like if our Christian circles were growing in numbers and spiritual depth, reaching out into new neighborhoods and countries, and becoming increasingly more diverse ethnically, racially, and socially?

What made you think in today’s reading?

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Acts 5: Celebrating Suffering

We want to run away from hard times.  We pray for them to stop.  We do all we can to avoid them.

I am not sure that is all bad.  I don’t think we need to go looking for trouble; it has a way of finding us just fine without our help.

But the apostles in today’s passage endure a sound beating and berating at the hands of the Sanhedrin and what do they do?  Celebrate!

They called the apostles back in.  They beat them and told them not to speak in the name of Jesus.  Then they let them go.  They, however, went out from the presence of the Assembly celebrating, because they had been reckoned worthy to suffer disgrace for the name. (5:40-41)

Is there anything to celebrate in suffering for Jesus?  Several things, actually.  We better understand our Savior, who suffered greatly in life.  We are reassured of our devotion when we are willing to suffer.  We can be confident that we are perceived of as a threat to the power brokers of this world if they are willing to take the time to push us down.  We will no doubt develop perseverance, patience and character as a result of our suffering.  We will become stronger through adversity.  But the biggest point of all is in the last clause of v.41: we know we love the name and reputation of Jesus more than our own welfare and interests if we endure persecution to the point of suffering,  In addition, we are reassured that God had enough confidence in our ability to faithful endure suffering that he allowed it to come our way.

It will take some time to retrain the heart to these realities, but this idea is a wonderful one!

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Acts 4: Giving to One Another

There was no needy person among them. (4:34a)

Really?

No one among the first few thousand Christians in Jerusalem had material needs?

Christians can’t say that today.  Of course, there are many times more Christians today than there was back then, and in many more impoverished areas of the world.  Still, that is an incredible claim.  Oh, for that to be true today!

How was that possible?  We have part of the answer if we back up a few sentences:

Nobody said that they owned their property; instead, they had everything in common. (4:32b)

This is the thinking that makes the lack of need possible: the realization that the material blessings that come our way are not our own.  We are stewards of God’s possessions.  We are conduits not swimming pools — blessings come in order to flow through us and out, not be collected for our leisure.  I need a new mind in this regard.  The feeling that makes this kind of radical care for the community of believers is in the sentence before this one:

The company of those who believed had one heart and soul. (4:32a)

A solidarity of spirit.  A unified soul.  A deep kindredness that has knit people together as one.  When that happens how could we let our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer in need?  I need a new heart in this area too.

Maybe that is the secret.  In only three chapters since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we have seen a sea change in these disciples.  They have a new understanding they did not have before.  They are now becoming known for harnessing extraordinary power to heal.  In this chapter especially we have seen a boldness they certainly didn’t have two months before.  Now they possess a sacrificial love for each other.  How did they do it?

They didn’t.  The Holy Spirit came upon them in a deeply transforming way.  Their new mind and the new heart came from above.

Come Holy Spirit and give us radical, giving love for each other!

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