Acts of the Apostles: The Aftermath of Redemption

I will be posting an on-going short commentary on the New Testament book The Acts of the Apostles.

Aftermath of RedemptionI am currently reading, writing, and teaching my way through this book, fascinated by the constant story and presence of the resurrection of Jesus. So, because of its insistence on the resurrection, I tend to see it as a book of witness, rather than a book of history. It is Luke’s sequel — it is the aftermath of his story of redemption.

It just seemed right, then, as I’ve prayed, to post some of the things I’ve learned, and I do believe that someone within the reach of this tiny site will need to see this.

On a more personal note, though, there is a considerable and obvious vacuum of believers in our world who know about Jesus, but who don’t know Jesus. The bible has become a book relegated to the teaching of pastors and ministers, while many believers tend to gravitate to other mediums to be spiritually fed. I have grown tired of such, and feel there is a great vacuum of accessible materials for those who lead small groups or discipleship groups, or even for those who wish to learn on their own.

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The New Word for “Legalism”

Of all of Paul’s frustrating remarks in the first three chapters of Galatians, this is the one that is most telling:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6, 7; NIV84)

The gospel of Christ can be perverted. More on that in a moment.

There are lots of ways to date Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I won’t go in to them here, but I will tell you that I think it was Paul’s first epistle, written shortly after his first trip to the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe.

Soon after he left those cities, and returned to Antioch, he met a group of people visiting from Jerusalem, who not only came to check on the Gentile believers in Antioch, but who would then leave Antioch and travel north, through Galatia, to make a surprise visit to the church plants in those four cities.

And this group, according to Paul, came to undo everything he taught.

Their plan was to teach these fresh disciples that, in order to accept Jesus as the Messiah (and the Jewish Messiah!), they must also abide by the Jewish law.

But Paul had never shared anything like that with his church plants.

As a matter of fact, he was physically beaten in two cities because of his message that freed people – Jews and Gentiles – from the Jewish Law, grafting them, instead, into a message of grace.

So when these detractors went to Paul’s church plants, to preach a law-requirement message, he got a little upset.

A lot upset, actually. Their religion-filled, tradition-based, ethnic law-filled teaching was, in fact, not a “gospel at all.” A perversion of the gospel, in fact.

Later, in Galatians 3:3, Paul wrote this:

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?

This one statement superseded all of the Jewish law requirements Paul’s new converts faced, even as it speaks to the very heart of what we call “legalism.” Or, in other words, a perverted gospel.

God is so big, so all-consuming, that we can’t earn his favor. Believing we can earn anything from God is a complete distortion – perversion – of the gospel.

But what is this gospel? Paul identified it in the first few verses of this letter: That Jesus willingly “gave himself for our sins,” and that God, by raising Jesus from the dead, delivers us from the present evil age, because (get this!) he wants to.

This happened because it was God’s will for it to happen. Because it gave God pleasure. Because he wanted to. 

God does not operate within our ability to earn his favor, because we can’t. What gives him joy is that he saves us, because we can’t save ourselves. It gives the Father joy to deliver us from this present evil age, because the Father knows the present evil age is a machine built to subdue us.

In the four cities mentioned above, each had a sizable Jewish population. But history attests that the Jewish population in those cities were merely tolerated, never celebrated. It was the gospel of Jesus, though, that brought Jews and Gentiles together, in a culture that was notorious for keeping them apart.

But Paul’s detractors, in a bid to undo Paul’s efforts, told these emerging groups of believers that in order to accept the Jewish Jesus, they had to, also, accept, and live by, the Jewish Law – which was an obscure law code for Gentiles who had no clue what any of that meant.

So, yes, the gospel can be perverted. It still can be.

I love the local church when it functions in holiness and purity. It is, as Paul wrote to the Colossians, the place where God’s reconciliation with the world is most apparent. It is meant to be the “place” where holy relationships are maximized in the midst of a hostile world. It is meant to be the “place” which encourages and shapes and makes disciples of Jesus.

But local churches are often tempted to operate within an unhealthy nexus of power that surreptitiously requires people to invest, even at dangerously unhealthy levels, in order to be accepted by the culture of that particular local church.

(See the entire letter of Galatians for proof … or either of the Corinthian letters!)

And, when the local church does this, it perverts the gospel, because instead of liberating, it shackles. (It’s important to note that Paul knew how dangerous this was, even drawing attention to the the attraction of the messenger, whose beauty can distract you from this perversion.)

Heed carefully the words of Martin Luther, which he wrote in his own commentary on Galatians, in 1535:

Grace remits sin, and peace quiets the conscience. [But] the world brands this a pernicious doctrine. The world advances free will, the rational and natural approach of good works, as the means of obtaining the forgiveness of sin. But it is impossible to gain peace of conscience by the methods and means of the world. Experience proves this. Various holy orders have been launched for the purpose of securing peace of conscience through religious exercises, but they proved failures because such devices only increase doubt and despair. We find no rest for our weary bones unless we cling to the world of grace.

Again, Luther wrote this in 1535.

Paul wrote it like this:

If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. (3:21; NLT)

What would happen, if, for wanting an influx of laborers in the vineyard, we prayed and fasted for God’s Spirit to invade the lives of those who consistently meet during our church gatherings?

In fact, to revisit the gospels, this was precisely Jesus’ formula for church-growth:

… therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. (Matthew 9:38)

Labor. Yes, it is tough. It will require effort. But this labor should never be induced by guilt. It should always be holy, crafted from the very throne of heaven itself.

Because any other labor is slavery.

Your Faith Is Not Alone

As you read this today, I would love for you to do so as you listen to this song. One of my favorites, I think it completely encompasses everything Paul writes in our reading today. It’s a song called “Let Our Faith Be Not Alone” by the Robbie Seay Band.

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There is a kind of love that makes a person give pause.

It is poetic. It moves in your soul, like the air you breathe. It sings sweet lullabies to you in your darkest hour.

Powerful, this love is. It protects. It is steadfast. It does not waver, even when life sinks to the moors. It is the hope, in this life, that God is real and that he is alive, for only he can enable someone to love you like this. And only he can enable you to love others with the same force.

When we gather, then, as the full body of Jesus, our love is on display. It is the only gift that should keep making us want to come back.

People, together in utter anticipation, wait for the voice of God, because there is great strength found in knowing how God works in the lives of everyone else.

I lead a small group of students on Wednesday nights. I grew tired, long ago, of trying to teach students in these settings. God was calling me, last autumn, to embark upon a different type of gathering. No more curriculum. No more hours of research and writing for a thirty minute lesson. Instead, our hour-long meetings would be filled with only one thing: revelations. I wanted all of us to experience at least one part of this type of gathering, encouraged by Paul:

When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. (1 Corinthians 14:26; NIV84)

My challenge was for each student, and each adult, to spend the entire week searching for God — looking for God. They were to do so, by prayer, by reading, and, most simply, just by listening.

When met together, we would allow each person to share those revelations. And they were awesome. They were awesome, in part, because each person began to seek the gift of prophecy. Every Wednesday night was anointed.

Prophecy. That may have made you stop reading for a moment. But it is true, and it is biblical, and a gift available to all of us. Here are Paul’s words:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. (1 Corinthians 14:1; NIV84)

It is a gift that requires no interpretation (14:4). It is used to encourage others (14:3). It can speak into the depths of another’s heart (14:25). It is not a sermon, and can be given to anyone, by the spirit of God, in a moment’s notice (14:29, 30). It is a gift to be given, and used, by both men and women (1 Corinthians 11:4, 5).

It is an incredibly biblical gift few of us have ever been taught to receive. Yet God speaks to all of us, all of the time. I simply encouraged our group to listen, and share. That, friend, is prophecy.

And I was deeply moved by these revelations, in fact, i was deeply moved most every meeting. My faith was not alone. My struggles were not done alone. God was moving, and I, like everyone else, became an eye-witness to the doings of God in the lives of everyone else. Age didn’t matter, for we were all children of God, sharing the depths of our own struggles, and sharing how God was constantly renewing our hearts.

It seemed that when I no longer let the hour be dominated by just my voice, God finally was given the spotlight.

But when our time of worship is dominated by the thoughts of one person, we inadvertently make the revelation of only one person the crowning moment. I know, too, we have centuries of traditions to erase if we want to change what happens in our gatherings on Sunday mornings. Yet if you meet in a small group, you can change that, through a time of prayer.

I have found that when God starts talking, nothing else really matters, anyway.

It will be messy, though. There were times that our own Wednesday nights were messy, and times when our own selfishness kept us from hearing God. Many of us admitted as much.

Even the Corinthian church had issues. Those who interrupted the revelations of others — both those who spoke in a tongue, in their own private conversation with God, without anyone to interpret (14:28), and women who seemed to ask interrupting questions (14:34) — were told to be quiet. Yes, it was messy.

But a gathering like this is wrapped in a divine love. It is a love that tears down our walls, and lets us be vulnerable to each other, and to receive the prayer, the spontaneous prayer, when God leads others to pray for us as we share our struggles.

This kind of love does not come from us. We do not have the capacity, or the ability, to love like this. We are so adept at selfish behavior that we believe only God can love like this … that only God can love without condition.

That is not true. The love, written by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, is agape love. Unconditional love. God loves us like this, but God also enables us to love others with the same love. We can love without condition, because God gives us the ability to do so.

And when we gather, this is the supernatural love we bring. This is the most excellent gift.

This love  not our worship music, not our sermons, not or our facilities, and not our ministers — is what binds us with others in dark moments, and in moments of praise.

It is the more excellent way.

It is what levels our gatherings, because each of us only concern ourselves with the needs of others.

And it is the only gift that will outlast all of the others.

Worship may be about music. It may be about communion. But it should always be about love. The God who loves us without condition, and gives us the gift to love others without condition, is a God worthy of praise.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Before you read this, I would encourage you to watch the testimony of Michael and Heidi O’Brien. Michael O’Brien, by the way, is an amazing vocalist. I own much of his music, when he was with the band NewSong, and from his solo venture since.

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1 Corinthians 4 through 1 Corinthians 6, deals heavily with sexual behaviors, and sexual attitudes.

The community of believers in Corinth suffered from their divisions. And every deviant behavior in 1 Corinthians stemmed from this division, so much so that their division prohibited them from holding each other accountable. Here is the deviance Paul specifically addressed in this passage: A man (unnamed), who was a believer in the Corinthian church, had an ongoing sexual relationship with his stepmother.

In order to understand this, it’s important to understand two things. The first is how sex was viewed in the Roman world. The second is how God viewed a community of believers.

In the Roman world, sexual behaviors, and attitudes, were much different than what was prescribed for both the Jewish community and the Christian community. If men could have sex with someone, anyone, and do so without public shame, then there was no taboo for sex. It was a man’s public duty, in the Roman culture, to vie for public accolades — so whatever he did for sexual pleasure didn’t really matter, unless it allowed him to achieve such accolades. Sex was just a social means to a social end.

So sexual behaviors, outside of marriage, were of little concern in Corinth, and thus, of little concern for these [new] Corinthian believers.

But … a community of believers is to be different, and to have a different culture. That was how Paul began this letter!

True, Paul had stern words about the man’s sexual behavior. But Paul also had some stern things to say about the entire community of believers. He was shocked at their complacency over this man’s behavior.

I wonder if we suffer from complacency, too.

A community of believers is designed, by God, to be a manifestation of his Presence (We find this out later, more specifically, in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11). Thus, if God’s Presence is manifested among the group, such behavior would be held in account. This, to me, is Paul’s biggest critique. Of course the man should have known better. But if the faith community had been filled with the manifestation of God, then they would have known better. Instead, they didn’t have a clue, and thus it was obvious that God had not manifested himself there.

In a Spirit-filled community, grace and forgiveness and mercy and even spiritual discipline is prevalent, because it is supplied by God.

So we see this being prescribed by Paul. He counseled the Corinthian believers to no longer have fellowship with this man, to release him and then to allow him to live without the blessing of the community of believers until he missed it and wanted to return.

We must realize, though, that the repentance Paul desired was as much about the community of believers as it was about the man. If God’s Presence isn’t in the community, then the man would never have any place, or any group, to return to. 

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So now, let’s talk about sex.

At the end of 1 Corinthians 6, Paul wrote this, concerning sexual sin:

Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.

So, a person is already one with God — filled with God.

Sex, then, is that spiritual relationship manifested physically.

So, being married, and then being sexually active outside of marriage, is disastrous. Attempting to become “one” with two different people is divisive and wrong. We can only “become one,” with one person at a time.

Which means that if we are engaging in adultery, we’ve forsaken the spiritual unity of our spouse.

But, let’s be clear that cleansing and righteousness and forgiveness can happen. Paul wrote as much when he said that those in Corinth were once involved in homosexual activity and adultery, but were changed.

If you are engaged in these behaviors, God can heal you! God can forgive you!

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So, believers, allow God to manifest himself among you. Become the Spirt-fueled, Spirit-filled community God desires. Until that happens, you will never have the spiritual discernment necessary to rescue those who are lost.

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This is my forty-ninth post of 90 blogs I’m writing in 90 days, while reading through the New Testament. Thanks for joining me today.

This Is Who We Are

Blessings to you today, and thank you for joining me. This is my forty-third straight day reading through the New Testament, and you are reading my forty-third straight blog post over those readings. It has blessed me tremendously.

Today’s reading is Romans 4 through Romans 6. These three chapters are powerful, but I must confess that while reading them, I could only think of a preacher that preaches way too long.

And I mean no disrespect there. It’s really what my mind is willing to handle. Paul has a powerful theological argument, but it’s hard to digest these three chapters. Maybe you’ve found the same thing to be true.

Nevertheless, after switching translations (I linked to The Message above) and reading it fresh, the three chapters made a bit more sense to me. There are powerful words here that speak to us. This letter, in these three chapters, makes it clear that we — me and you and anyone you know — are mere followers in life.

We are powerless. We constantly rely on opinions, consultations, friendships, and counsel. We are born into a world, into a reality, designed for us to live together, in community, and we suffer greatly apart from it.

Culture, though, has seriously polluted community for us. We find illusions to it, now, in social media, where our online connections make us feel whole, even though it is illusory. Genuine community has become the victim to a personalized world. We’ve been taught to follow no one, isolating ourselves in our own hand-built world.

In this letter to the Romans, though, we find who we really are. We find our deepest created tendencies as followers. I find this comforting today. I hope you will, too.

We want to believe.

Belief is powerful. It is the blood of our anticipation. It is how we cope with our own smallness. We want to believe someone can do something that seems impossible to accomplish.

This letter to a disheveled Roman church tunes our ears to this very human instinct, and places our desire to believe squarely in the arena of faith. We want to believe that God will make us right, even against our own failures. We are made to believe that. It is our ultimate belief. Our own guilt is not the byproduct of cultural stipulations. It is the God-given signal that there is, genuinely, a right way to live. And we want to believe that.

Yet our own failures make this an impossibility. Temper, lust, anger, deceit. All of those, every day, prove to us our own inability to just be right — to just live right.

God, though, made Abraham someone he couldn’t become on his own, because he believed God could. God made him a father. He energized Abraham’s physical body to produce a child with his wife, Sarah, whose womb was dry with age. All Abraham had to do was believe it was possible, and then he became the father of us all. His life is a testament to the very power, and very necessity, of belief.

And Abraham believed even before there was some overbearing law that dictated right and wrong. Abraham knew what was right, without any written or taught standard. And his belief was rewarded. Ours is, too, through the awesome miracle of reconciliation.

Not only does God accept our belief, but validates it, every time we sin, by completely restoring our relationship with him. He restores this relationship to the pristine, pre-sin condition. Every time. Even when …

We still want to sin.

But even in the shadow of our own dreams, we are reminded, again, of our complete brokenness. We want to sin. Even writing that phrase, here, makes me shutter. Even my best attempt at holiness is met with my own failure.

Because we share the same desire to sin that was given to Adam. We share the same desire to become our own god. That is why God’s grace is necessary.

Grace is the only thing that can defeat our own tendency to leave God.

This is the verse, this morning, that energized me:

But sin didn’t, and doesn’t, have a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace. When it’s sin versus grace, grace wins hands down. All sin can do is threaten us with death, and that’s the end of it. (Romans 5:20, 21; The Message)

Even our own sin is matchless against the force of God’s grace.

We want to follow.

This letter, in chapter 6, tells the story of humanity, though, even after it shows us our own created tendencies to believe and sin. Ultimately, we are sheep. We want, earnestly, to follow something. Even great leaders in our own human systems rely on opinions and consultations of a larger group. No person makes great decisions on their own.

A baptism into the life of Jesus gives us a way to follow, though. This way changes our desires. It changes our actions. But do we completely understand that?

Our preferences change. Or at least they should, A baptism into the name of Jesus is a baptism into a completely different life. We no longer want to do the same destructive things.

Instead, we sacrifice those desires to live a completely whole life, free of guilt. That is radical.

To a city filled with slaves, Paul wrote about intentional slavery in this letter. Most slaves were held against their will, but the historical record indicates that, in Rome, some families intentionally became slaves for the guarantee of security and food.

Our life is an intentional life of slavery. We will intentionally be enslaved to a lifestyle that will destroy us, or we will intentionally be enslaved to a lifestyle that will always resurrect us.

And this is who we are.

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All through today’s reading, I kept playing this song in the back of my mind. It’s got a great guitar hook, but the lyrics are spot on. By a band called Hyperstatic Union, the song is called Slave. You can find it here.