Posts Tagged With: mission

Luke 4: First Words

Can you identify what book begins with the following classic first lines?  Answers are at the end of the post, if you wish to quiz yourself.

  1. ”It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
  2. ”Call me Ishmael.”
  3. ”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
  4. ”All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  5. ”You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”
  6. ”It was a pleasure to burn.”
  7. ”You better not never tell nobody but God.”
  8. ”In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
  9. ”Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
  10. “All children, except one, grow up.”

Sometimes the first lines of a book or the first words of a character let you know all you need to know about that book or character right from the start.  Remember this first line from Darth Vader in Star Wars?

“Commander, tear this ship apart until you find those plans.”  

Today, Luke gives us Jesus’ first public words in his adult ministry, a quote from the beginning of Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to tell the poor the good news.  He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners, and sight to the blind, to set the wounded victims free, to announce the year of God’s special favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

More about that later.

Sin is big and pervasive.  We are kidding ourselves if we think sin only affects our relationship with God, as if it is some cosmic, spiritual black dot on our heavenly record, which if not dealt with will adversely affect our afterlife in some way.  Sin affects every square inch of our lives.  Sin has a spiritual effect, to be sure.  But it also has social, physical, and psychological effects on life here and now as well.

Think about Adam and Eve and effects of the first, prototypical sin:

  • They are declared guilty and are cursed by God for their actions (spiritual)
  • They are separated from God’s presence, alienation begins between the two of them, and Adam is placed in a position of dominance over Eve (social)
  • They suffer a loss of innocence and feel shame and fear for the first time, all the while trying to shift blame off out themselves (psychological/emotional)
  • The physical hide then must cover themselves, they will experience pain in childbirth and in their work, the ground will be less fertile, and they begin to decay and die bodily (physical)

Sin is an all-encompassing problem that affects all corners of our life.

Now, back to Luke 4.  Jesus arrives on the scene.  Interestingly, Paul will call Jesus the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45; c.f., Romans 5:12).  We have the start of something new as Jesus steps back into the synagogue in Nazareth, his childhood home.  Luke makes it clear this is a fulfillment of prophecy: “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing” (4:21).  Like a good opening line, we are introduced to the redemptive ministry that will be Jesus’ sole concern for the next three years.  This is Jesus’ raison d’être: I came to reverse and release, heal and forgive, to make new.  True to Luke’s concern for the marginalized, the people mentioned here are the harassed, harried, and undesirables.  For the rest of the book we will watch Jesus accomplish this mission in his short life.

The interesting thing, though, is how Jesus’ declares his redemptive mission will be equally as pervasive as the sin he has come to address.  If sin affects all corners of our lives, Christ’s salvation will cover just as much ground.  Jesus has come to reverse the curse every human has been under since we moved east of Eden.  Notice how all four areas of life in the diagram above are also found here in this statement from Luke 4:

  • Announce the year of God’s special favor (spiritual)
  • Release to the prisoners (social)
  • Set the wounded victims free from “oppression” as the NIV says (psychological/emotional)
  • Recovery of sight for the blind (physical)

Salvation is not only a matter of forgiveness of sin.  Jesus has come to save every inch of us, our relationships, and our world.  Salvation is an all-encompassing solution that affects all corners of our life. 

Now that is something to get excited about!

(Answers: Pride and Prejudice; Moby Dick, Tale of Two Cities; Anna Karenina; Huckleberry Finn; Farenheit 451; The Color Purple; A River Runs Through It; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; Peter Pan)

How did you do on that little quiz?

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Colossians 1: Jesus Is Enough

Jesus is cool.  He just isn’t the be all, end all.  He was a good man.  He taught good things.  But he is not sufficient enough to handle the weight of all of your cares, needs, and expectations.

Or is he?

In various ways we hear the same message the Colossian Christians would have been hearing.  Jesus is great but you need more than just Jesus.  You need Jesus plus religious rituals.  Jesus plus the law.  Jesus plus knowledge.  Jesus plus rigorous asceticism that shows your spiritual strength.  Or Jesus plus carnal indulgence without spiritual affect, showing your spiritual strength.  Or today we might say, Jesus plus a 401k plan.  Jesus plus some good counseling.  Jesus plus a group of friends.  Jesus plus church.  Jesus plus good works.  Jesus plus a good education.  Jesus plus career success.  Jesus plus a good marriage.

Not that there is anything wrong with taking advantage of the help and blessings that can come from most of these “pluses.”

Right from the start, Paul makes us face whether we think Jesus is enough to complete our lives.  Do we think Jesus is the center of our life; or is Jesus the add-on, the value added element, the plus in a life that is being lived just like everyone else in the world?  We can tell from the letter that the false teaching threatening the Colossian church didn’t think Jesus was sufficient.  If we are introspective enough, we can look at our own lives and tell whether we think Jesus is sufficient for life.

In Colossians 1, Paul offers the following assertions about the deep meaning and value to be found in the person of Jesus:

  • Paul starts with the most important and fundamental point of all: Jesus is the embodiment of God (1:15, 19).  When you have Jesus you actually have God within you.
  • Jesus reigns over our home because God “transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved son” (1:13).  He is in charge of our reality.
  • As he was the power that brought about creation (1:16), Jesus is the very reason we exist.
  • Jesus is the reason we do not fear God’s wrath (1:20, 22). We now have reconciliation, peace, and are viewed by God without accusation.
  • As the “firstborn from the realms of the dead” (1:18), Jesus is the reason we can be assured of our own resurrection.
  • We will all submit to something, and Jesus is our best object of submission.  In a wordplay in 1:15-18 on the variations of the word “head,” Paul makes it clear that Jesus holds this position in reality, thus life is better lived in line with that reality.
  • In a truly difficult verse, Paul explains that it is now our job to “complete” the unfinished work of Jesus (1:24).  The only thing that can be unfinished or “lacking” in the work of Jesus must be the part that depends on us: to be his hands and feet in this world today.  Thus, Jesus becomes the purpose behind our mission in life.
  • When the King is “living within you as the hope of glory” (1:27), Jesus is our reason for hope.
  • Jesus is the core of our message, as “he is the one we are proclaiming” (1:28a).
  • Jesus is also our way to maturity as we “grow up” and become “complete” in him (1:28b)

It sounds like Paul thinks Jesus is more than just an add-on to a life that is looking elsewhere for meaning, security, and hope.

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Romans

Romans is a personal favorite of many people.  Paul, who almost all agree was the author, touches on almost every major theological belief in this great book, so the next three weeks are sure to be stimulating.

Rome was the center of the New Testament world.  A city of several million, it was the political and cultural center of the Roman Empire, home to the Caesars.  Rome was the ancient equivalent to New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong or Tokyo.  Religion was big in Rome, mainly the worship of the Roman gods and the developing Emperor cult, but there was a large, vibrant, and legal Jewish population in Rome as well.  Remember that when Christianity first stated it was considered a Jewish sect so it too was a protected religious movement and not largely persecuted.  Christians would suffer severely in Rome but not for another 20 years after the writing of Romans.

Romans was most certainly written in Corinth around AD 55 and delivered to Rome and first read to the church there by the deaconess Phoebe (Romans 16:1).

The purpose for Romans has been described in many ways.  Martin Luther read his own issues with the Roman Catholic Church into the book and saw Romans as a treatise against works-oriented religion.  It is certainly that, but that characterization has more to do with 16th Century Europe than 1st Century Rome.  Others imagine Paul sitting down and writing Romans as a theological compendium, a statement of his beliefs.  There is too much that is specific to the Roman church for that to be true, plus that would make Romans truly unique amongst New Testament letters.

Like every other letter in the New Testament, Romans is situational.  There was something going on that made Paul write this letter, to a church he had not started nor even visited.  Paul had a habit of setting up home bases for his various mission endeavors.  First it was Antioch, then Ephesus, now Corinth.  Paul’s greatest desire was to get to Spain where the Gospel had not really yet been preached widely (15:23-33).  By all appearance, Paul was preparing this Roman church to be his next launching point for that campaign.  However, this church was a divided church turned inward on itself in no condition to be involved in outward mission.  We know from the ancient Roman historian Suetonius that around AD 49 the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome because they had been rioting amongst each other concerning a person named “Chrestus” (c.f., Acts 18:2).  This likely was an argument between Jews and Christians over Christ.  So for a span of five years until Claudius’ death in AD 54 when the Jews would have returned to Rome, this largely Jewish church with a defined Jewish flavor became thoroughly Gentile.  Leadership changed.  The culture and practices of the church changed.  Now in AD 55 we have a power struggle and identity crisis in the Roman church, largely involving ethnicity and customs.  Issues like circumcision, food, holidays, a background in paganism, an Abrahamic heritage, and the like would have been hotly debated, and these will pop up a good bit in our readings.  Paul is writing a significantly divided and prejudicial Roman church attempting to help them sort out their problems for the sake of the advancing Kingdom of God.

Background aside, Romans is so popular because the Gospel that all of us needs to hear speaks freedom, hope, love, and faith into every situation, whether in ancient Rome, modern Memphis, the Philippines, Malaysia or Canada.

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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 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 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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