And While the Debate Rages …

Welcome to day 35! We are currently reading and blogging about the New Testament, every day this summer. You can check out my previous posts, and even get a reading schedule, by clicking here. Thanks for join me today.

Today’s reading takes us from Acts 10 through Acts 12.

It’s no surprise that Luke finally takes the gospel to a full-blown Gentile. We’ve been patiently waiting for this moment since the first chapter. But Luke makes the journey interesting for us, showing us the silliness of our own debates. And he does this by walking us on a path.

The Path

First, the spirit of God took the gospel to the Samaritans, whom Jewish people traditionally despised. Even though ancient Samaritans had a considerable claim to the Jewish faith, the Jews didn’t buy those claims. (The Samaritan woman in the gospel of John even knew of the anticipated Messiah.)

From there, the gospel was given to the Ethiopian Eunuch, a man who was sexually mutilated. And while he was a follower of the Hebrew faith, he was still seen as being less than a man. And he was alone.

These, then, were the two conversion stores which lead us to Peter, who was staying in the port city of Joppa.

The City of Profound Decisions

At the end of Acts 9, Peter healed two people in Joppa, which, historically, was incredibly famous for being a port city, used even by King Solomon. In this city, then, Peter stayed with a man Luke calls “Simon the Tanner.”

Simon the tanner has an interest in this story, though. Because of his profession, Simon is constantly in situations that would make him “unclean” by Jewish purity standards.

Peter is on the edge here. Luke wants us to recognize that Peter knew his beliefs were about to undergo a serious reconsideration. For Peter, a devout Hebrew, to willingly stay at a home that would also, by default, make him unclean, is astounding.

But back to Joppa for a moment. Joppa was the very city where Jonah sought refuge from God’s call for him to preach to Nineveh. Twice in God’s sweeping plan of salvation, the coastal city of Joppa is indeed a city of profound decisions.

It was where Jonah decided to catch a boat to sail away from his calling.

And it was where Peter decided to go toward his calling.

But neither were sure of what it was, exactly, that God was calling them to do, because they both were called to ethnically despised people. This little port city was part of two journeys that took God’s servants to groups of people who would have never been considered for inclusion into any plan designed by God.

Peter was greatly criticized for listening to this call. The leaders in the Jerusalem church wondered how he could endanger his identity and status by entering into the home of a Gentile — and eating with him.

And while this debate is happening, Luke decides to introduce us to the city of Antioch, the third largest city in Rome.

An Open-System

It was a metropolis, much bigger than the ethical and ethnical town of Jerusalem. Antioch could be described probably as an “open system,” culturally acceptable to various beliefs and people. Jerusalem was very much a “closed system,” and had great difficulty accepting non-Hebrews.

Antioch, by its nature, had more influence and power and attraction than Jerusalem. It had a population of over half a million people, and it the only city in the ancient world to actually have streetlights along its marble-paved roads. Antioch was a city of wealth and power.

It’s no surprise, then, that both Jews and Greeks had already formed a group of believers in Antioch, before Cornelius received the spirit of God. He wasn’t even the first Gentile, because Gentiles were already being accepted as believers in Antioch, without the discretion and direction of the Jerusalem leaders.

And, for the remainder of the story told in Acts, the Jerusalem church tries, in vain, to play catch-up to what’s already happened in other parts of the Roman Empire.

God Doesn’t Wait On Us

I love this. We believe we have so much power in our decision-making ability.

We believe we hold the power of God in the consent of our opinions.

But time and time and time again, in Acts, we find that God doesn’t wait for our opinions to catch up with his working. The formation of human history is not dependent upon the participation of humanity. God does what he wants.

He asks us to be participants, though. Because the story of Cornelius is really more about Peter than it is about the Gentile soldier.

Peter was the one who needed to be converted. Peter was the one who needed a glimpse into a plan so extreme that it overwhelmed him, and pushed him to the edge. At a city of decisions, Peter was the one with the decision to make. He was on the edge. And God opened his eyes.

We need our eyes opened today! God has brought us to the place of decision. He has placed us in various relationships and moments, and has led us to people who need the grace of God in their lives. But there is no burden for us to “teach” them, because God has already prepared their hearts — just like he prepared Cornelius.

God doesn’t need your abilities. But he does want them.

And he won’t wait on you.

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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.

Why You Feel Like a Failure

Today is day twenty-nine of ninety days of reading through the New Testament. Thank you for taking time to join me in this journey. The reading is John 13 through John 15.

Obedience is over-rated. It’s over-taught. It’s over-emphasized. Or, maybe I should say that it’s just taught wrong.

So much of our heritage is spent teaching obedience to certain lifestyle rules. “Do not speak this way. Do not go here. Do not do this. Do this. Say these things. Don’t say these things. Give your money here. Give more of your money here.”

I suppose those things have a place. But that kind of teaching really only leads to guilt.

Let’s be honest. You will always feel like a failure when your idea of being a believer is doing instead of believing.

But this is probably the basis of your spiritual formation. It was for me. We’ve been told, from sermons and classes, to stop doing certain things. But mere teaching is not life-changing. We don’t change just because we’re told to. Behavior formation rarely leads to lasting change. Instead, in my experience, it just leads to an immense weight of guilt. We don’t have enough self-control to change our own behavior.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Switch, makes this their thesis. Studies on human behavior have proven that even with good intentions, we do not have enough self-control and self-strength to make those changes last. If you have a moment, you should watch this clip with Dan Heath, describing why research shows that behavior modification will always lead to failure.

I’m not real sure Jesus was that interested in ethics training. He knew, as the Word of God, that mere humans do not have the ability to change their own behavior. Because he says something way too profound about the spirit of God to be worried about teaching behavioral change.

Jesus, the Word of God, says that God’s spirit brings truth and counsel and intimacy with God.

It is God’s spirit that brings change.

Jesus wasn’t teaching them to obey any code of ethics. He was teaching them obedience to humility, and giving them God’s own breath to lead them. There is no ethics training here, no mobilization of a church army for politics or moral behavior. Let me show you.

Earlier, in John 13, Jesus removes his clothes and washes the feet of his disciples. He uses a Passover meal, a wash basin, and a towel, and becomes their servant, cleaning their calloused and dirty feet. The man who could raise Lazarus from the dead, turn water into wine, heal those with blindness or paralysis, is the very man who now looks just like a common slave.

And it was this moment that John calls the full extent of Jesus’ love for his followers. (Though many English translations indicate that Jesus “loved them to the end,” the Greek of this phrase is very convincing that Jesus loved them “to the utmost” via this one, single action, hence the footnote in the NLT.)

Really? Removing his clothes and washing their feet is the full extent of his love for these people?

Yes.

The full extent of his love was washing the feet of his denier, Peter, and of his betrayer, Judas.

Understand that moment for Jesus. He had no contempt in his service. He humbled himself before the two men who, with their own words, would commit selfish acts of treason against him.

And the others? They would all forsake him, too, at the hour of his death.

So when Jesus calls for their obedience, he isn’t calling for a moment of behavior training. He’s not listing all of the sins they must avoid. He’s calling them to a life of humility, not situational ethics or moral relativism. He’s calling them to a life lived by the spirit of God.

I’m not sure I’m ready to grasp this, though. To wash the feet of betrayers is almost unthinkable. Seriously.

Think of the one person that you always avoid, because of personality conflicts, or maybe because of a past (and heated) disagreement. Could you wash their feet? Could you willingly serve them?

And want to?

Obedience is being open to the counsel and truth of God’s spirit. That is life-changing. We replace the breath in our lungs with the breath of God. The air that keeps us alive is not mere oxygen, but the very creative and protective force of God. In fact, Jesus knew that his disciples could not – on their own – follow this extreme example. Perhaps, as John wrote, only the One with all the power of the universe, could serve so eloquently.

Rather, Jesus promised them help. Supernatural help (John 14:16). Because they – we – need it.

They did not have the power to follow such an extreme example. So obedience can’t mean “rule-keeping.” If it did, there would be no need for supernatural help.

Obedience, then, is submission to the supernatural means to serve those we once despised.

Only God’s spirit brings truth and counsel. And until we breathe God’s air, we’ll continue to be mired in the guilt of our own inadequacy.

Responding to an Invitation (Day Seventeen)

Welcome to day seventeen in the reading of the New Testament, and thank you for joining me on this journey. Today’s reading is Luke 1-3.

There are two things that strike me in these first three chapters, and I can’t escape either.

One, is the overwhelming presence of the spirit of God, and the movement of angels.

The other is the inclusion of four songs in this narrative.

So Luke begins his story bathed in the presence of the divine, and the response of those who have these experiences, and all of this is wrapped around the story of the birth of Jesus.

Luke begins a story, which most believe is the first of two parts of a much longer story, continued with the New Testament book the Acts of the Apostles. And he begins it with how people are suddenly involved in a global and historical and universal plan to save the world.

That is no small moment, for a lowly priest like Zechariah, or an unwed girl like Mary, or the midnight shepherds, or an anticipating Simeon. They are, to me, the four points around this amazing story.

Zechariah, when offered a glimpse into this divine plan, and told by an angel of the Lord that the spirit of God would fill the life of his yet-to-be-born son, though, could only respond with unbelief (1:18). Later, after the birth of John, Zechariah begins his song, and Luke records it as the second song in his gospel. His song gives us several reasons for praising God.

Mary, when offered a glimpse into this divine plan, and told by Gabriel she would conceive a son with the power of the spirit of God, she accepts it and declares herself to be a servant of God (1:38-40). She then composes a song, detailing the awesomeness of God.

The shepherds, upon hearing the song of the angelic host, first wait, and have a conversation about their experience (2:15). Only then, with they all confer that God’s voice was spoken through these angels, they leave in a hurry (2:16).

Simeon, whose life was filled by the spirit of God, and then moved by that spirit to be in the temple at the very moment Jesus would be presented, instantly believed. His experience is the pinnacle of these responses: he actually cradles Jesus in his arms. And he fully believed, in that moment, that he was holding the Christ (2:28). And then he begins a song.

So, four appearances by the divine. Four songs. Four responses.

We find ourselves among these responses.

Some of us are in complete disbelief, when God presents his plan to us. Just like Zechariah.

Some of us are humble in these presented plans. Just like Mary.

Some of us have to talk it out. Process it. Just like the shepherds.

Some of us anticipate God’s direction. Just like Simeon.

Which, for me, makes me think of my own response to God.

Because, really, God’s spirit is active. It is his holy breath in our lives, moving us, counseling us, guiding us. God manifests himself in our lives with his creative and protective ability. But how often do we really consider those movements?

__________

Thanks for reading. You can find all the posts through these ninety days here.

Led by the Spirit and the Word (Day Two)

This is our second day of our 90-day challenge to read the entire New Testament this summer. Today’s reading takes us from Matthew 4 through Matthew 6.

Like you, I’m sure my perspective shapes my reading. I can read the same passages on different days, at different times, and find something different. Or, rather, I am led by the Spirit to find something different.

Today, I’ve seen something new. I see how the Spirit and the Word are leading to a radical reshuffling in the lives of people. People’s lives, in the presence of the Spirit, are forced to change. The Spirit and the Word compel people to different places and circumstances.

That, though, is a difficult position for many of us. Just how much are we led by the Spirit? Are we led by the Spirit in every moment, in every decision, in every circumstance?

For instance, the very first verse in today’s reading is this:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

How interesting, then, that the Word of God was led by the partnering agent of the Trinity, to be tempted. Are our own personal temptations paraded before us by the leading of the Spirit?

Here, then, are a few thoughts for today. I’ve found that a few things are lost along the way, and the compulsion of the Spirit and the Word leads people, invariably, to lose, or realign, their perception of value.

The compulsion of the Spirit and the Word leads to a loss of momentum. Jesus’ temptation, in Matthew, comes immediately after his baptism. This intense moment of ordination, with the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus like a dove, is followed by the same Spirit leading Jesus to a time of tempting. Jesus is compelled by the Spirit to leave the peace of the dove for the isolation of the desert. The momentum Jesus feels after his baptism is seemingly shattered when his humanity and his divinity are both questioned. Yet the compulsion of the Spirit enabled Jesus to withstand these various attacks. And, here, we learn that our idea of momentum is no longer about our action in the water, but God’s action of leading and saving and empowering.

The compulsion of the Spirit and the Word leads to a loss of a plans. Jesus, in 4:19, commands Peter and Andrew to walk away from their jobs, their income. (Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.) The phrase in 4:20 says they left their jobs at once. At once. No question. No wondering. No life goals. No five year plans. There is a compulsion by Jesus that dissolves all questioning. Plans are changed, and their lives are never the same.

The compulsion of the Spirit and the Word leads to a loss of fairness. Our belief of fairness rests in our idea of personal effort and achievement. If we receive good things, we believe we do so at the work of our own hands. Success. Homes. Money. Any of those things must belong to those who labor and work and plan. Be wary, though. That is karma. That is not from God.

5:45 says that God gives the sun to both the evil and good, and God gives rain to both the righteous and unrighteous. American culture gives us the luxury of personalization and isolation. We have cultivated belief systems that lead to such exclusion. Yet God’s view of humanity is the same. His provision is open to all. Our concept of fairness, and success, is shattered with an understanding that God’s provision and grace is free, and never deserved or earned.

The compulsion of the Spirit and the Word leads to a loss of performed righteousness. 6:16 begins with this powerful phrase: “When you fast …” Fasting is a necessary and powerful spiritual discipline. To ignore it, or ridicule it, or to not seek it, is to be spiritually immature. But there is more here. After a brief teaching on how the “hypocrites” fast, with such pomp and fanfare, Jesus ends, in 6:18, by saying that our fasting should be done in secret. The implication is powerful. Fasting should be done, but should not be done for public righteousness. Our time with God is private, personal. To open that special venue to the attack and impression of others just defeats the intent. Righteousness, then, isn’t bent on our effort and spiritual intent, but how we feel God’s leading, and hear God’s voice, in the private times of sincere and intense devotion.

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Matthew’s gospel begins with such power. These first six chapters have already begun to reorder our relationship with God. Which is, after all, the purpose of the Word in humanity.

Thanks for joining me in this journey. And, it’s not too late to begin. Get a printable reading schedule here, and start reading today! You can also read day one’s post here.