Control Is An Illusion

For those of you who are new to this blog, I am writing a post a day for 90 days, as I read through the New Testament in 90 days. This is day 33 out of 90. Today’s reading is Acts 4 through Acts 6. The narrative in Acts is beginning to get tense.

And something powerful is starting to happen in this kingdom. Because at this point, in the book of Acts, we see something emerge about leadership and gifts and the spirit’s calling. Mighty things happen when we move people to God’s spirit, instead of moving them to God’s work.

Peter, the denier, has now become the defender. And he has indeed become powerful. So powerful, in fact, that he heals a paralyzed man at the end of chapter three, only to be arrested and tried before the Jewish ruling council.

Imagine that for a moment. A man is healed beyond all human wisdom. His legs, unused and worn for his entire life, is now running. And those responsible are arrested and tried for such.

Peter and John both were there, arrested and on trial, and, in a sweeping statement, defend the resurrection of Jesus when they were on trial for something else entirely.

“It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth — whom you crucified but God raised from the dead — that this man stands before you, healed.” (4:10)

Peter really says that. And by saying that, he puts the Sanhedrin on trial, and his defense is staunch. I start to sweat every time I read that. (Would I be so bold?)

Peter, though, isn’t finished. This very man who denied knowing Jesus at all, now will defend him to his death.

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (4:12)

Peter isn’t content with talking about the man who was healed. He is burdened with salvation, and he must — he must — share it.

Yet he and John were common fishermen. Blue collar workers. Ragged clothing. Dirty feet from all of their walking. Their skin was bronze from their exposure to the sun. But their eyes were on fire.

These two guys had no theological or rabbinical schooling. No Th.D., no M.Div., and no framed degrees on their office walls.

And of all the things, this was what amazed the Sanhedrin. Not the formerly paralyzed man who now can’t stop running.

How could ordinary guys speak with so much grit, so much passion, and so much authority?

Because their lives were filled by the spirit of God.

Their lives were so changed that people feared them (5:13). They were almost unapproachable, yet those with dire needs couldn’t stay away from them. Luke wants us to see how the spirit has so changed their demeanor. They were confident. Brave. And fear-inspiring. They were now pillars of truth in a world that tried to hide truth in a grave.

Because the spirit of God breeds fear. By its nature, as seen in Acts 2, it does not act in normal ways. And we happen to like normal, unassuming leaders, being very fearful of people with too much passion. Too much zeal.

Yet, these guys were anything but unassuming. Even Peter’s shadow had healing power. Though I try to not get too technical with the original language in these posts, I love what Acts 5:15 really says about Peter’s shadow. Literally, it “overshadowed” their disease. I love that. Love it. This is great story telling, and great writing. Luke’s words are helping to shape the story.

Later, though, they were burdened with complaints. Specifically, complaints about the needs of various widows. Even the utopian society Luke mentions at the end of Acts 2 was rife with complaints. They needed help in administrating various resources, so they select seven men. Everyone loved the idea. Because everyone loves forming committees and boards. Still do.

Of those seven are two men named Stephen and Philip.

And neither are famous for helping complaining widows. Which is interesting.

After these seven men are selected, Luke mentions nothing about them administering the aid to these ladies. Here is what it does say:

They [presumably a smaller group of apostles] presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. (Acts 6)

These seven men were presented and anointed with prayer. Then the word of God spread, with more who became believers, including the Jewish priests. And then Stephen started performing miracles. But there is nothing in these verses to verify that these men did the job they were chosen to do.

The apostles anointed these men for one service. Yet two of these men, seemingly, did something else. Namely, witnessed on behalf of Jesus, just like the apostles.

There is something to learn here.

Church programs do not work. At least that’s the message between the lines. If the apostles couldn’t recruit people to do their assigned job, or, at least, stick to their assigned job, do we really think we can do the same with those in our own church fellowships? More over, the baptism of the spirit of God produced the radical transformation we see in both Stephen and Philip, not their service in this ministry for which they were recruited.

Bill Hybels, the pastor of Willowcreek, a church with 24,000 members, said as much in 2007, when he issued a public apology for believing their own church programs would effectively make disciples. They valued participation over discipleship, and realized that while thousands of people were participating, those same thousands were not deepening their faith.

Control is just an illusion. And the spirit of God, in people’s lives, is not under our control. We may anoint someone for a designated act, but God’s spirit has the final say in how that person’s gifts are realized in the kingdom.

And I love this! God is so unpredictable to us! But his ways are higher, mightier! Let’s move people to God’s spirit, and not God’s work, and mighty things will happen!

Three Things the Mission of Jesus Makes Us Leave Behind

This is day thirty-two in the ninety days of reading the New Testament. Today we leave the gospels, and begin Acts. Our reading is from Acts 1 through Acts 3.

And today we must leave some things behind.

Acts is the continuing saga began by Luke in his gospel, written between the 60s and the 80s. And the opening verses of Acts place us within the final days Jesus spent with his apostles. We find here a very dramatic shift.

Jesus wants to talk about the kingdom of God. As a matter of fact, Jesus spends forty days talking about the kingdom of God with the apostles (1:3). Yet in forty days’ worth of conversations, Luke only records two statements by Jesus. Here’s the first:

“Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized withwater, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (1:4, 5)

Here is the second:

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (1:7, 8)

Both of these statements come after conversations about two different kingdoms, though. The first comes after forty days of conversations about the “kingdom of God.”

The second statement comes after this question, from the apostles: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

In this writing, Jesus doesn’t really satisfy our curiosity about either. Are they the same kingdoms? Are they different?

I don’t think it really matters.

It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “Enough with the teaching, boys. We’ve had these conversations too many times.” The mission now begins. And the mission is simple:

  • Stay in Jerusalem … for now.
  • Receive the holy spirit of God.
  • Be my witnesses.

And then he leaves. Gone. In a cloud. And they couldn’t stop staring into the sky. Two men, dressed in white, shook them from their trance, and told them that the mission begins now.

It was time for them to leave Jesus behind. His physical presence was gone.

And so the first thing we must leave behind is the temptation to be paralyzed by the teachings of Jesus.

I must admit that I have this temptation today. After spending thirty-one days reading the gospels, being in and out of Jesus’ life and geography, I am staring intently up into the sky as well. I do not want those moments to be over. And I readily admit a fear today, of moving on into the New Testament narrative.

The opening scene of Acts places us squarely in this position, though. It is a sweeping prologue, that immediately makes us aware that there is something to do. Not just to learn.

But … the doing isn’t much like what we think.

There isn’t much teaching involved in Jesus’ mission for his apostles. He’s not asking them to try to change people. He’s not asking them to gather people. He’s not asking them to fight sin. He’s not asking them to fight governments. He’s not even asking them to establish any government, or kingdom. No sermons. No bible classes. No church plants (in the sense of our current and cultural definition of people beginning a church gathering in a particular place). No great stages for worship. No worship teams. No church budgets.

He only tells them to receive the spirit, and to be his witnesses. And while the idea of being a witness can take any form, I think the charge is simple enough. So simple, in fact, that we’ve just tried every which way to mess it up.

Enough with that, though. There are a couple of more things in these first three chapters that make us leave behind any preconceptions about Jesus. I want to share those with you.

First is the final word on Judas. And the final word is that he was replaceable.

One of the Twelve had to be replaced. His story is so well-known that it does not need to be repeated, but listen carefully to the Word of God here in Acts. Even one of the Twelve wasn’t immune to the fame and notoriety Jesus can afford anyone. And the fruits of his payment — the field that he bought with his blood money — would forever be deserted (1:20).

His placement next to Jesus made him famous to the wrong people, and he was a willing part in the treason. Yet, with a decision and a prayer, he is replaced. That is quite sobering to me, and it should be to all of us who “labor” for God. We can all be replaced. This kingdom is much bigger than any one of us, and the second thing we should readily leave behind is the idea that in some way we are important because of our contribution, and our proximity, to Jesus.

The story of Judas proves that to us.

And finally, the immersion of the spirit in Acts 2 got my attention. Jesus often teased the coming of this spirit throughout the gospels. There was no notion of how that would occur, though. Jesus just said that it was coming.

And Luke begins Acts by teasing this coming gift.

In 1:2 Jesus gave instructions by the holy spirit. In 1:5 Jesus spoke of the coming baptism into the holy spirit. And in 1:6, power will accompany this spirit’s visitation upon them. Luke is heightening the suspense for us.

So what would that look like? Move yourself to their side of history for a moment. What would this feel like? How would you know when it happened? And how long do you think you would need to wait?

We aren’t sure what their eyes saw in that upper room when the spirit came, though. Nor are we really sure what they heard. The sound on their ears only sounded like a violent wind. Their eyes only saw what looked like tongues of fire. I don’t think it’s some sort of existential moment, here, though. I don’t see tiny wicks above their heads, and their hair blowing like orphaned feathers.

But I do see something here they can’t fully comprehend. And there’s the point.

It can’t be fully explained.

God visits us in inconceivable ways. The exact second we believe we can pinpoint and exactly interpret God’s working and moving is the exact second we look like fools. God can’t be contained. He can’t be predicted. His will and his ways are sovereign and infinitely far above our ability to think and imagine. That’s what Luke wants us to see here. This doesn’t appear to be normal. It doesn’t appear to be prescribed.

Because. It. Isn’t. Normal.

God is not normal.

And so the third thing we must leave behind any idea that God can be contained.

He cannot.

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I hope these thoughts have challenged you today. These first three chapters challenged me in ways I wasn’t entirely ready for this morning. Wow. Thanks for reading. Blessings to you today.

Pray With Your Eyes Open

Today is day thirty of ninety days of reading through the New Testament. Congratulations to you, dear reader, for finishing one-third of this challenge today! Our reading today takes us from John 16 through John 18.

When we pray, we come to God. We approach God. We stand in his presence. And today is especially for you, if your prayers have grown cold.

Too much is written about prayer, I think. Too many lessons and manuals and such. We treat it as some mystical idea, as something that requires a great degree of teaching.

And yet, we all know someone who is relentless in their praying. They speak to God all of the time. They speak to God with forceful demands. And they learned by doing it. We want to pray like that.

But we also know people on the opposite end of this scale, who feel so confident in their relationship that they spend little time in prayer, because they just believe God knows what they need. I hurt for those people. Even though they are good people, they miss the point. Prayer is an opportunity to stand next to God. And to not pray is to essentially pass on this unbelievable opportunity.

Jesus’ prayer in John 17, gives us the sense that there is something deeply moving about speaking with God. And it’s something to not be overlooked.

Because as Jesus prays, he comes closer to God. That is what happens in prayer.

Look, first, in the Old Testament, at the Psalms of Ascents, which are Psalms 120-134. These fifteen praises and prayers were spoken on each of the fifteen steps of the Jewish temple. Every step taken was one step closer to the presence of God. And every step had its own prayer. They are prayers of hope, because coming to God is the most hopeful experience for all of us.

Jesus, in the garden, in the very lengthy prayer of John 17, does something very similar. And, in teaching us how to speak to God, he does so by coming to God — by walking toward God. It’s a process. Watch how this happens.

In 17:1, the prayer begins with Jesus looking toward heaven. He turns his eyes to God.

In 17:6 the action, and motion begins. 17:6 Jesus prays that he has revealed God’s name to his disciples. In 17:11 he prays that he is coming to God. in 17:13, he says “I am coming to you.”

Jesus is on his way to God, as he speaks to God.

At the end of this prayer, in 17:24-26, Jesus speaks with authority. He is now with God. “I want those you have given me to be where I am” (17:24).

Obviously, there are great and masterful things Jesus says in this prayer. And this prayer is followed by Jesus’ arrest, and the back-and-forth style of story-telling John loves to use.

But today, it was this that moved me. It was this act of prayer that spoke to me.

Crisis moments send us into this kind of prayer. We speak deeply, and, our conversations with God move us to God. We walk this path, this road, to God, that gives us audience with him, so much so that we begin to speak with God’s authority as we pray.

Find no disrespect there. We’ve all made demands of God. We’ve all spoken for him.

And that’s okay. Prayer is this journey of ascending to companionship with God. It’s not some great mystery.

This is how the Word speaks to God. This mobile, on-the-move Word, today, comes to God. He has been everywhere, with everyone. And now he comes to God.

As I finished this post, it was this band that I heard, probably because their name: Ascend the Hill. Here’s their cover of “Hallelujah, What a Savior.” Hope it blesses you today.

M. Night Shyamalan, Two Blind Men, and the Road to Jerusalem (Day Fourteen)

Thanks for reading the New Testament with me! Today is day fourteen in our journey, and the reading is Mark 10 through Mark 12.

As a personal note, this reading has stretched me in so many ways. It has been tough, and in some ways, tougher than last summer’s challenge of reading the entire bible through in ninety days. While last year it was a challenge of completion, this year, and this challenge, has become an exercise in listening.

Reading these chapters, and doing a little bit of outside reading, has opened these stories to me, again, in such new ways. Seeing Matthew as a kingdom gospel, and seeing Mark as a hero gospel has placed me in the middle of these stories in a fresh way. I hope that what I’ve written here has been a blessing to you.

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Let’s back up for a minute.

Mark 8 details for us Peter’s confession of Christ. The journey in today’s reading actually starts there.

Because in those few verses, from 8:27 through 8:30, Peter answers Jesus’ identity question with the all-too-familiar refrain, “You are the Christ.” But don’t move so fast that you miss what just happened.

Peter’s confession, in Mark’s gospel, is the thrust for the remaining part of Mark’s story, because it is the first time the word Christ has been used, since Mark 1:1. Mark has paced this story, and has placed the big revelation right where you would expect to find it.

Peter has finally discovered what the reader of the gospel knew from the opening sentences. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.

Once Peter understands this, and once that the characters and the readers know the same thing, Jesus, the hero and conqueror, makes the big twist, just like an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

And here’s the twist: as the hero, he will not survive these fights. He will be killed.

Yet he will rise again.

But the resurrection part of Jesus’ telling wasn’t clear to his disciples, and certainly wasn’t clear to Peter. The way of the hero is the way of suffering, and if anyone should desire this path, then they, too, must be willing to follow the way of self-sacrifice.

This is not at all what a conquering hero, a bullet-proof man, would say. Because surely a hero who heals the sick and raises the dead is invulnerable himself. Right?

Peter’s confession here, and the detailed finish to the story which follows, is the first of three such allusions to the ending that Jesus gives. He says something similar again in 9:32ff, and 10:32ff. Mark writes these allusions to make sure everyone knows that the Christ is ready to endure the unthinkable.

Today’s reading, in Mark 10:1, begins Jesus’ one and only trip to Jerusalem, where the unthinkable will take place.

This, then, is the beginning of the end of this hero story. For all great hero stories have the final battle, the last test, the ultimate enemy to defeat.

I couldn’t help, though, but think of Phil Driscoll’s song, Road to Jerusalem. Here’s the song, with a “one-of-those” YouTube videos. It’s the only place I could find it online. But, the song is awesome, and, for me, is the soundtrack to the arc of the story Mark begins here. Listen to it as you read these stories in Mark, or as you read the rest of this post.

The Christ, then, is prepared. On his way to Jerusalem he makes a stop in Jericho. Leaving the city he almost trips over a blind man named Bartimaeus. My heart literally jumped when Jesus called him, and the disciples said to this man these words:

Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you! (10:49)

Wow. Really. On Christ’s way to Jerusalem, to take on his most wrenching battle, he has time to find a man with such a great need.

This man only wanted to see. And Christ the healer gives this man his sight immediately. No delay. And Mark uses this as a brilliant way to tell this story.

Earlier, in Mark 8:22ff, the Christ healed a blind man, and it was a healing done in two parts. Christ the hero seemed to be faltering in his ability. Yet, as always, there is more to the story. Mark used the healing to push his story, to say that faith is a process. Belief is a process. And the man who was healed in Mark 8 had very little of both. His healing, then, took longer, because there just wasn’t enough faith to make it complete the first time.

It is no surprise that this two-part healing in Mark 8 was written prior to Peter’s confession of the Christ. It was the last bit of suspense before Mark makes the ultimate revelation with the lips of Peter.

It’s a powerful thing Mark says with this first blind man. Until we accept Jesus as the Christ, we will have great complexity in our own healing stories.

Now, Bartimaeus is the second blind man, and his healing is the final healing before the Christ enters Jerusalem. And his healing is done immediately. His faith activates the immediacy of the Christ’s healing power — Go, your faith has healed you — which is very different from the first blind man in Mark’s story, whose lack of faith delays the immediacy of the Christ’s healing power.

It moves us, stirs us, to see that faith and acceptance of the Christ are the beginnings an eye-opening adventure.

But the last verse of this passage is the most heart-moving. Here’s what Mark writes:

Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. (10:52)

This road is the road into Jerusalem. And Bartimaeus can now, for the first time, see the road, and can see the Christ, whom he follows as the Christ walks the road to enter the city of his death.

Upon arriving in this fated city, then, the Christ stands in deep thought, after the amazing journey written in this gospel. It’s a powerful verse, with a great sense of expectation. Here it is Mark 11:11 …

Jesus entered Jerusalem and went to the temple. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

The Christ stands on the steps of the temple. People behind him are stirring, buzzing with excitement. He looks at the place once built to contain his very divine presence. Teachers brushed his cloak walking beside him. And the sun was setting, casting long shadows across the portico, and the Christ shielded his eyes from the final intense beams of the day. It was a long pause on those steps, and his eyes lingered from scene to scene, and he saw the hearts, and even the thoughts of each. Whispered voices reached his ears, as some hoped he was a new customer for the lambs that would be sold for sacrifices. Others knew of his reputation, and had hushed tones of curiosity. He would return to those steps the following day, and with a vengeance.

The hero has a few more things to do.

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Thanks for reading with me! You can read all of the posts for these ninety days by clicking here. Blessings to you today.