A Room Shaking Night

The ending of Mark’s gospel is frightening to me.

Women attended the grave of Jesus, only to find him gone. An angelic being told them that Jesus was en route to Galilee.

The women left the grave, in the words of the gospel, afraid. At once, the women realized the gravity of such an event.

Aftermath of RedemptionThe resurrection of Jesus, and the promise of the resurrection for humanity, is a controversial idea. In one year, the amount of people who believe in Jesus’ resurrection dropped 13%, from 77% to 64%. Other statistics state that only 75% of those who describe themselves as “born again” believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

I tend to think it’s a threatening, for one reason. Imagine, for a moment, standing fully in the presence of the God of all, without harm. Whatever you believe about God — whether Creator or Provider or Protector — to stand in his Presence without harm is an incredible thought.

Which is why the resurrection threatens us. It speaks to our own arrogance. The message of the resurrection is that we, now, are incomplete, regardless of personal success. The resurrection confronts our own immaturity, this side of death, and that, I think, is why we have difficulty accepting it at face value.

This post, the next in a succession of comments over the New Testament book of Acts, makes us confront the resurrection, through the eyes of those who believe it, and those who are threatened by it.

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Comment over Acts 4:1-31

What began as a time for evening prayer for Peter and John became an epic confrontation between those who were to be the true “rulers of the twelve tribes of Israel”: the apostles … or the Sanhedrin.

Peter invoked the ire of the current leadership, not because a man had been healed, but because Peter taught that because of Jesus, resurrection from the realm of the dead is a certainty. Peter didn’t try to persuade this group that Jesus’ resurrection really happened. Instead, he told them that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees a future resurrection for everyone. The Sadducees, who were there, wanted none of that – they refused to believe in the resurrection, historically, because the Torah said nothing about the resurrection. So they could never buy the idea that the Messiah of Israel had died, only to come back to life.

It’s easy to see why such teaching, and the healing of the lame man, made Peter and John viable threats, though – the people believed the apostles instead of the Jewish religious leaders. So, in an effort to damage the credibility of the two apostles, the religious leaders imprisoned Peter and John.

Their plan backfired.

The imprisonment of the two apostles was the catalyst for yet another miraculous growth, with 5,000 men counted as believers in resurrection.

But the Sanhedrin was not content. The following day, Peter and John were forced into a hearing before the Jerusalem leadership (apparently the same group that sentenced Jesus to death), where the apostles were questioned about the power that allowed them to heal the former lame man. Peter, though, saw it as a moment to share the gospel with the seditious group who killed his rabbi.

So filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter addressed the skeptical group. His words were few, but powerful. He proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, and that it was Jesus’ name which provided the power to heal the man

Perhaps the most startling teaching Peter shared, though, was that salvation can only be found in the name of Jesus. This is the first time the word salvation appears in Acts and it appears, not in the context of thousands of people calling on the name of Jesus and being baptized in his name, but rather it appears in the context of a lame man being healed. That’s important. The man’s healing, after all, was the point of Peter’s and John’s questioning. So salvation, at least here, must mean more than perhaps what we’ve believed, what we’ve learned, or maybe even what we’ve been taught. In this context, salvation means the total restoration of a person from every kind of brokenness and stigmatization – physical, spiritual, political, moral, and even eschatological. (That’s a pretty big word which really means an understanding of what happens after death.) The lame man’s physical condition prohibited him from enjoying full rights in any of those categories. But once healed, he was fully accepted in every category, and could now function, without reservation, in the social realm of the Jewish culture. In fact, according to Luke, every division on planet earth was controlled by the devil. Jesus, and the power of his name, erases such divisions, however they appear, and saves people from separation. This, in Luke’s world, was the meaning of the word salvation.

So, for Peter and John, the lame man found salvation, not simply healing, in the name of Jesus. His entire life was restored back to its original intention, an intention broken by  his inability to physically walk, itself a result of sin in the world.

These were pretty strong words by Peter, and the council knew it, not because of Peter’s actual speech, but rather how the apostles appeared. The council watched Peter and John be transformed from just unschooled, uneducated, ordinary men, into men who spoke with boldness. The word “boldness” is an important distinction for these men — it was a Greek word often used to describe Greek philosophers. Peter and John, then, were no longer just men unschooled in the rhetoric of the Torah. They were no longer just men untaught in the skills of oration. They were extraordinary, and the delivery of their words was extraordinary, because they were filled with the Holy Spirit and had been with Jesus. In fact, the council of Jewish rulers – the very same council that had condemned Jesus to die – were speechless, could not deny the apostles’ testimony, and were unable to even mention Jesus’ name, even when they told Peter and John stop such public teaching.

Peter and John, though, chose to defy their order, because they just simply couldn’t help but talk about what they witnessed. The two men were released, not only because they had not broken any law thus far, but because the council was afraid of the people.

Peter and John “went back to their own” – meaning the other apostles, the true rulers of “the twelve tribes of Israel,” (certainly not all 8,000 believers!) – and shared the edict of the council. The first response of this group was to pray, not to be spared from persecution, but for boldness to continue to witness. And theirs was a prayer of unanimity!

They addressed God as “Sovereign Lord,” and the following words of the prayer indicated the belief that everything — creation, the words of David, and the so-called decisions to arrest and kill Jesus — happened because God decided them to happen. Even the threats the believers received were part of a divine plan. And this group did not pray for a release from the persecution, but rather prayed for boldness in the face of persecution.

The Lord heard the prayer (the room shook – a new symbol in Acts of the presence of the Spirit), they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they did speak the word of God boldly.

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A Few Discussion Questions

  • Have you experienced legitimate persecution and threats because of your belief in Jesus? If so, explain.
    • If you haven’t, then explain why you haven’t.
    • Why does following Jesus threaten people, anyway?
  • Read Acts 4:1-4.
    • Who interrupted Peter and John? Why?
    • Why would the resurrection disturb people? Those who deny the resurrection – what do they believe about life and purpose? Explain.
    • Is the resurrection of Jesus still a disturbing thing? Explain.
  • Read Acts 4:5-12.
    • Peter and John healed a lame man in Acts 3. Is this sort of healing still possible today? By what power did Peter and John heal? If that power is still active, then shouldn’t healing still be possible? Explain.
    • Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit (v 8). Wasn’t he already filled with the Holy Spirit? (See Acts 2:4.) So what does this mean? And how would he know? How did Luke know?
    • What does “salvation” mean? What did Peter think it meant?
  • Read Acts 4:13-17.
    • How did the council react to Peter and John? What was different about them?
    • Does being filled with the Holy Spirit produce such a dramatic change? Every time? Explain. Should it?
    • Why couldn’t the council even say the name of Jesus, in v 17? Why is the name of Jesus so threatening?
  • Read Acts 4:18-22.
    • Peter and John refused to abide by the council’s order according to what reason?
    • Does their reason surprise you? Convict you? Why do they feel so compelled to keep talking about Jesus? Do they have something we don’t? Explain.
  • Read Acts 4:23-31.
    • How did this group pray?
    • How did they address God? The Greek word for “sovereign” is the origin of the English word “despot.” Is that an accurate depiction of God? In their prayer, for what do they credit God? Are we as eager to credit God for every single thing … even the things we determine as harmful? Explain.
    • Why didn’t they ask to be spared from persecution? What did they ask for, instead? Why does that matter?
    • How did they know God heard their cries? Does God still shake rooms today, because of the cries of his people? Explain.

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A Prayer

Father, you are sovereign. We don’t tell you in order to remind you. We say that, in this prayer, because we need to hear our own mouths say that.

We ask today for courage to proclaim resurrection in your name. We know that the events that may threaten us are, in fact, ordained by you, for your own glory, and we pray, now, that we can have the freedom to proclaim the good news even in the midst of events that would cause us to suffer.

Bless your name, God!

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¹Depending on translations, Jesus was referred to either as a capstone or cornerstone. The Greek word can be used interchangeably. The capstone finished and completed a Roman arch, and held the two opposing sides together. A cornerstone was the first stone of a building, the stone by which all subsequent stones were measured. Either way, the word meant that Jesus was the ultimate completion of life, or the ultimate beginning of life.

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In a Row of Graves

Check out this picture …

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Eran and I took our daughters last weekend to visit all of the headstones of those in our family who have passed away. This row of markers is the row of my grandfather’s family. The headstone, in the bottom left corner, is my grandfather’s. Trace the row to the top right corner, and you’ll see the headstones of his brothers and sisters, and his parents.

This is their family. Once upon a time, my grandfather was a kid, in a house full of kids. His parents were in the middle of parenting. There was once a lot of noise in their house; memories were being made, and exhaustion was being fought. But the kids grew up. They left their house, fought a war, had a family, and had their own grandchildren. And now, he and his family are together again, next to each other in their graves.

The time we have with our children is precious. And it’s fleeting. Don’t waste a minute with them. Don’t emphasize petty things like sports and movies. Emphasize, instead, God’s love and grace and mercy, and how God wants to use them to heal a broken world.

Read the gospels together.

Pray together.

Speak to them of how God is testing you, and how he is blessing you.

Remind them that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are just illusions of community.

Teach them how God wants his church to be a kingdom — the kingdom — on earth, and not an organization with great things to do, and with fantastic personalities to hear.

All of this has been especially heightened for me, though, in my two experiences in the past month serving the families of children with cancer. To say that I was humbled, and overwhelmed, at the serious tests these families endure is a vast understatement. These parents truly know the value of family, and they embrace it to its fullest experience, every day — in ways I cannot.

So again, I say, the time we have with our children is precious.

Because one day, regardless of our health and wealth right now, each of our families will only be known by the words etched in the stones at our graves.

Three Years Without Cable TV

I cancelled my cable service three years ago.

And it still has been one of the best decisions I, and my family, have ever made.

After our first year, without cable TV, I wrote four posts to describe the process. They were great journeys in writing for me. They are raw, I think, but were certainly written out of passion and intensity. They are a little bit funny, a little bit satirical, and a whole lot serious. And in 2011, I wrote one addendum on what I believe to have been a spiritual battle, and my subsequent failure of such.

Here they are, again, for you. May they inspire you a bit today to think about what you allow your eyes to see.

Part 1 :: Television and Life: The Beginning of the End of My Cable Subscription

Part 2 :: Television and Life: The Philosophical Reasons We Cancelled Our Television Subscription

Part 3 :: Television and Life: My TV, My Movies, and Jesus

Part 4 :: Television and Life: What I’ve Done Since Canceling My TV

Part 5 :: Name: The Name of God and My Mistake

A Divine Investment

And so we come to the final day in reading the New Testament.

It ends with an amazing vision.

The Lamb of God, the Living Word, erupts from heaven in glory. It’s a passage that gives me pause, and makes me tremble, every time I read it.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True.

With justice he judges and makes war.

His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns.

He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself.

He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.

The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.

Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.”

He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.

On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11-16; NIV84)

With images from the Old Testament, the Word comes forth in John’s vision, with a sword from his mouth (Isaiah 11:4), with the iron rod of rule (Psalm 2:9), treading the winepress of judgement (Isaiah 63:3).

The beast, Satan, is then held captive, for only one given reason – to keep him from deceiving the nations of the world, for what the text calls 1,000 years. Understand this, though. However these verses have been interpreted, the simplest interpretation is the most clear: the force and seduction of evil is not so strong that entire nations of people will see it as their only choice. It’s power is limited, because God has limited it.

So be careful about how you see this amount of time, because if this number is taken literally, then you have no choice but to take every number in the entire book literally.

The martyrs, then, those who gave their very lives for the Lamb, were brought back to life, to reign with Jesus. Staying within what John saw in this vision, again, is the simplest and clearest alternative. This reign, of a “thousand years” is only for those who have been martyred.

I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)

They were killed, then, in the presence of Christ, they were brought back to life, in the presence of Christ. The price they paid, for their “testimony,” was worth it.

Yet these “thousand years” come to an end, and Satan is released to fight a losing battle. His release cannot defeat the infinite plan of God, nor can it impede upon God’s holy and perfect city. There are people, in this city, who have accepted God’s forgiveness. And there are people, outside this city, who have refused it. No amount of time can change this.

The forces, too, that aid Satan in this battle, have not changed, which, again, highlights the constant and complete and total miracle of grace – only God can change a heart and offer freedom, while evil can only enslave and struggle.

God’s kingdom, in this book, emerges as victorious, as a new city. In John’s vision, it is a cube, with each side being 1,400 miles in length, made of gold. Gilbert Bilezikian sees this city as God’s complete and perfect vision of a community of people consumed and radically changed by God’s grace. He writes:

… the lavish description of the city’s decorations, of its walls and foundations covered with all kinds of gems, and of the city itself made of a single block of pure gold, fourteen hundred miles high and wide, figuratively suggests an enormous divine investment in the making of the church. For God, the church is the centerpiece of history. He draws on all that is dear and durable from the world and from the passing generations to gather a pilgrim of people destined to be a showcase of his grace for eternity.

To this magnificent project, he devotes all that he as, including the gift of himself in the person of his Son.

A divine investment of grace. I like that.

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And so, we come to the end, which is filled with this divine investment, because the very last verse of the last chapter of the last book is all about that very grace.

The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen. (22:21)

We are reminded, as we close the pages, that all of God’s holy activity on our small and meager planet is an extension of who he is, of who he claims us to be.

It is this grace that rescues us from the mires and consequences of the evil in this world.

It is this grace that allows us to dream kingdom dreams, of a community of people consumed by the love and mercy of God.

It is this grace that shows our world that we are, truly, from a different realm, by the way we’ve been loved, and the way we, in turn, love.

It is this grace that redeems our hearts when they are broken and in pieces.

And it is this grace that confirms for us a place in God’s city as adopted children with full rights to his entire creation.

Grace. It is all about grace.

Thank you, God.

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Today is day 90, and the final day of our 90 days. Thank you for joining me. In a few days I’ll have some new thoughts here, about what this experience has been like for me. I want to let it settle, first, and pray over these things.

Blessings to you, dear reader, and I pray you experience the total experience of God’s grace and fullness in your life today.

Even the Devil is God’s Devil

There is no cosmic struggle against good and evil.

Movies make it their plot, but with God, there is no such thing.

Martin Luther may have said it best, when he wrote, “Even the devil is God’s devil.”

And that’s true. Here it is in our reading today:

For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule, until God’s words are fulfilled. (Revelation 17:17; NIV84)

There is no evil strong enough to even contend with God, because God, in his sovereignty, even controls what evil beings do.

Now that’s big, and that’s a pretty deep rabbit hole. Too big, probably, for this post.

Yet here, in the context of Revelation 16, God’s final judgment on all evil in the world begins. Seven bowls, filled with his wrath, are poured on the earth, and bring plagues that sound a lot (again) like the ten plagues given to Egypt.

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God has a special place in his heart for oppressed believers. Because when he frees them, in the words of Jesus, they are free indeed.

In Revelation 17, the prostitute of the world is punished. For John’s readers, there is little doubt that this woman is the city of Rome, and possibly even the Roman empire. But since Revelation has multiple applications, it’s entirely acceptable that we see this as the final judgment on the world, and on all of the nations and peoples and governments that have systematically oppressed the church, the very kingdom of God on this pale blue dot in space.

At the end of this chapter, though, God gives the authority to the beast to devour her. To eat her. And the beast, in Revelation, was evil – but God uses this evil beast to devour another evil prostitute.

God is most definitely in control.

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It’s interesting, though, that God wants people to turn to him. Even the bowls of judgment were meant to cause unbelievers to turn. Following the fifth angel, and the fifth bowl of God’s wrath, are these two verses, which say much:

The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done. (16:10, 11)

Even though it is the moment of God’s final justice, he still offers people a chance to believe in his name.

Astounding. And an amazing image. It’s not the first time, though. After each plague against Egypt, the Pharaoh was given an opportunity to release the Hebrew slaves. God is a God of amazing patience.

But when the judgement begins, it is not pretty. An angel from God’s presence fills the earth with glory from the throne room, and begins a praise for the destruction of this city.

It is with a sigh of relief, then, that today’s reading begins, and ends. The suspense of this judgment has filled the pages of Revelation, until it is delivered. The saints under the altar, have wondered how long they would need to wait for their vindication.

No evil can overtake you. Rest in the power and justice of God today, because nothing can stand against him. Read here, again, from the letter to the Romans, and be encouraged today!

If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

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Today is day 89.