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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Eight Things I Learned From Reading the New Testament

It’s been a cool eight weeks since I published my ninetieth straight blog in ninety days.

Through this past summer, I ventured into the readings of the New Testament, every day, and then, through prayer and some additional readings, would write something here that moved me.

I’ve blogged only once since then, writing (or really just quoting) something brief I was reading.

There has been little time since the end of August to write much. And also, the process was so exhausting that I needed a break from this format.

Yet, in the past week or so, this format has beckoned me. My creativity seems to be waning right now, in this season of life, and this is a shred of an outlet. So I’m back. At least for now.

I did want to share here, though, some of my perspectives on reading and writing through the New Testament. And since I keep reading that blog posts should be short, I’ll make this one brief.

Here’s what I figured out.

  • Reading the Word of God requires an investment. Once we relegate our reading to “something that has to be done,” we’ve lost the passion of the narrative, and the intensity of God’s story in our world. It should not be a burden, but it should cost us something.
  • Outside writings were very helpful. It’s no secret that reading a document written in a different millennium, and from a different culture, would have scores of nuances about that environment that are just lost to us. Even the language of the New Testament, Koine Greek, isn’t readily known by most of us, and translation steers interpretation.
  • People get mad quickly. A few posts of mine generated some heat. I attribute that solely to people’s unmovable opinions, and a lack of biblical literacy. If we can’t read the Word of God and expect to be shaken, then we’ve sorely missed the point.
  • It is a relentless story. Morning after morning, day after day, three chapters at a time, the Word was a force in my life. It consumed every thought. I liked that. But it changed me, and my family. Our search for God’s purpose in our own lives, I think, has just begun.

Here are my bothers, though:

  • Jesus attacked the good folk. While we’ve tried to vilify Jesus’ opponents, they weren’t bad people — at least before they began to plot his death. They tithed, preached against adultery, had an extreme desire for holiness, went to communal worship, read the Scriptures, and raised their kids together. They had good behavior. Until Jesus’ advent, the Pharisees weren’t the villains. Their lifestyle was, in fact, aspirational. In every sense, they were good, “church-going” people. Yet their obstinacy, and their inability to be moved by the very presence of God in their lives exposed their blackened hearts. I wonder if the good folk in our world, the good, church-going folk, would be the ones Jesus would expose.
  • My experience with Western Christianity has been to ignore the things that are troubling. Where did women actually fit in the story of the New Testament? What about Mark 4, when the Word was sown, but was never given a chance to grow — and not to the fault of the people (or the soil) — where does God fit in that? What about the three stories of baptism in Acts 8, 9, and 10, when the Spirit was received by people before, during, or after their water baptism? Or Revelation 17, when God is the one controlling the evil in the vision? Is our ignorance the right response to the story of God?
  • We know, and teach, very little of the culture of Paul’s travels. How quickly our perspective of each of his letters would change, if we only knew what life was like to the recipients! How many temples of various gods did he see? What was the celebratory culture in each of those temples like? Why did he say so much about eating together?
  • Discipleship, to Jesus, was a mobile lifestyle. Very little, in the New Testament, is said about people staying put. Now, to be fair, letters and gospel stories were written to people who were static. But the idea of discipleship is mobile. Even if you are settled, aren’t there scores of people in need? Why do those people, today, remain largely untouched by the gospel message?

I promised brevity, and I’ll keep that promise. It’s no surprise that my 90-day journey is still being referenced. I’ve gravitated now, though, to a through study of the gospel of Mark, and am writing a few things for our leaders and teachers of our small groups. I hope, one day, to make those accessible.

And, by the way, you can find all 90 posts right here.

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.

How To Empty the Cross of Its Power

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours … (1 Corinthians 1:2; NIV84)

So Paul began his letter to the Corinthian church this way.

Written from the city of Ephesus, three years or so after he left Corinth, he began this letter with this solid claim:

Believers are different — “sanctified in Christ Jesus.”

And believers form their own culture, around Jesus — “called to be holy, together, with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Yet Corinth was an overwhelming city, with its own culture, and the believers were bringing the culture of the city into the church.

In Paul’s time, it was a Roman colony, enjoying Roman privileges and Roman government and Roman buildings. It had 90,000 people, and hosted an athletic festival second only to the Olympics. It had two ports, each of which faced both east and west, and connected it to both sides of the Roman empire. And it was wealthy, due, in large part, to its extensive slave trade. The temple of the Roman goddess Aphrodite alone had over 1,000 religious prostitutes, to celebrate, worship, and beseech the goddess for fertility and success.

It was stable, wealthy, and entertaining. And it’s values were a drug to the believers who lived there.

Because very quickly in this letter, we see the root of all Paul will write in the following chapters.

The Corinthian church was divided. And all subsequent issues stem from this unhealthy division. In Corinth, the believers were divided along the lines of their teachers, both Paul and Apollos.

Apollos, we’ve learned from reading Acts, was a student of Priscilla and Aquila, and who came to Corinth after Paul left. Whatever his intention while there, divisions arose, and believers picked sides — picked teachers.

Yet Paul doesn’t condemn Apollos. The division of the church was not his fault. In fact, Paul said that Apollos “watered” what Paul “planted.”

These divisions were so sharp that Paul addressed them first, though. It may be unusual to us, but Corinth fashioned itself as a city that enjoyed the presentations of famous philosophers and teachers. Remember, there were no comforts of modern entertainment. Listening to great orators was in fashion, and the believers abandoned their transformed lives, to turn the church into a cultural counterpart to what the city of Corinth offered.

Is it safe to say that we do the same? Do we mimic, in our own churches, the divisions found in our culture? Or celebrate it? Absolutely. We are human, and we sin.

But when we do, we abandon the message of the cross, just like the Corinthian believers. And like the Corinthian church, we divide, and castigate people over mere opinions, as if our intellect and passion can offer anything to the message of the cross!

But isn’t it possible for people to disagree, and still be united?

Yes. But only because we recognize our transformations, and others, because of the message of the cross.

I want to include a 10 minute clip here of Rick Atchley, who is the preaching minister for The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Texas. His illustration, regarding divisions over petty opinions, is memorable, and convicting. If you have time, please watch this today.

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For the Corinthians, Paul was only concerned about the message of the cross.

But what is the message of the cross?

Here are Paul’s words, from 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

The message of the cross is a transformed life. It is how God takes the weak and the poor, and resurrects them into a transformed life, so that others will see God through that transformation.

The message of the cross is not tribal warfare. It is not focused on opinions or ideas or traditions. Those things completely reject the message of the cross, and prove, to the world, that the message of the cross is not capable of any sort of transformation.

Believers in Corinth were living and acting like their surrounding culture. And for Paul, who spent around 18 months of his life there, this was a hurtful report. They had emptied the cross of its power, by their divisions over “words of human wisdom.” Here are his words:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:17, NIV84)

If we are united around anything other than the message of the cross, then we are turning our backs on our own call to be different. We’ve accepted the spirit of the world, rather than the spirit of God. Here, again, are Paul’s words:

We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. (1 Corinthians 2:12; NIV84)

God offered the Corinthian believers unlimited access to his work in the world, yet they refused it for their opinions and divisions.

He offers the same to us, too.

The Corinthians, though, exchanged the truth of God for the opinions of people, and the church, as a whole, suffered. Paul’s letter to these believers will attempt to weld their factions back together.

And he will do so with the message of the cross. Here’s what he wrote, at the close of our reading today.

Together you are God’s holy temple, and God will destroy anyone who destroys his temple.

Don’t fool yourselves! If any of you think you are wise in the things of this world, you will have to become foolish before you can be truly wise. This is because God considers the wisdom of this world to be foolish. It is just as the Scriptures say, “God catches the wise when they try to outsmart him.” The Scriptures also say, “The Lord knows that the plans made by wise people are useless.” So stop bragging about what anyone has done. Paul and Apollos and Peter all belong to you. In fact, everything is yours, including the world, life, death, the present, and the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:17-23; CEV)

The image of God destroying those who divide his temple is powerful.

God cares deeply that believers are united around the message of the cross, because any other identity only empties the cross of its power. When that happens, we only tell the world around us that we are better at fashioning unity than God is.

Wow.

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As always, each morning, and my time of reading, is a personal journey with God. What I write, here, is what I believe God speaks to me, in this particular setting.

I make no claim to supreme authority, but feel moved, by God’s spirit, to share, here, what the passage speaks to me. Thank you for indulging my opinions, but, by all means, don’t follow them. Follow Jesus. Embrace the message of the cross, and that message only.

We Just Aren’t That Special (Day Twenty-Two)

Today’s reading has hit me hard.

Today is day twenty-two of reading through the New Testament in 90 days. It’s been an intriguing journey for me. Spending twenty-two straight days in the gospels has opened my eyes to Jesus. I hope it has done the same for you.

Today’s reading is Luke 16 through Luke 18.

And, for the most part, Jesus is teaching his disciples some rough stuff. And, again, I feel that American Christianity has been all too willing to turn a blind eye to it.

To give us some perspective, Luke, in his narrative style, places Jesus turning and speaking to the disciples, and then to the Pharisees, and sometimes to the crowds, almost in succession.

It’s an interesting style, especially since Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, is now on his way to Jerusalem. He teaches one group, only to teach against the other group, all while “walking.”

It’s important to know that, too. Jesus is teaching his disciples to follow him, while they literally follow him to his death in Jerusalem. While he knows this way will lead to suffering and death, he teaches the same to his disciples, as they all walk this way together.

Here’s what I learned today, through these three chapters:

I am not that special.

Look closely at these teachings. Jesus is doing something here that I just didn’t see coming.

In Luke 16, there is the “parable of the shrewd manager.” It’s a tough read, but there is a great truth here. Jesus encourages his disciples to be as shrewd when their Lord comes, as the manager was when he was approached by his lord. This is serious business, and Jesus just tells them to be ready to accept truth when it shows up.

But commending this manager because of his crafty response to being fired can be tricky. Look, though, how this story is framed. It comes after Jesus answers the Pharisees’ claims that he eats with sinners (15:2), and before Luke’s claim that the Pharisees love money (16:14).

Jesus is making a rather serious point, here, even in a very interesting story. While the manager of the parable “gives away” money (even by reducing various amounts owed), Jesus is essentially saying that possessions and money matter very little. We shouldn’t be attached to it. It’s just stuff.

Here’s how The Message interprets this Luke 16:8, 9:

Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.

The way of the disciple, then, is to not be attached to stuff. When we are, when we are enslaved by our own pursuit of more stuff, we are committing idolatry. Seriously. The next iPhone, the next bit of clothing, the next car, the next home, the next travel destination, the next Groupon deal. If that’s what we want, then we really want very, very little. We want something that will always leave us empty. We want an idol.

We should rather be willing to part with all of it. And we should concentrate our attention on the bare essentials, so we can fully experience life.

Next, in Luke 16, we find the story of “the rich man and Lazarus.” The rich, wealthy man ignored the diseased Lazarus. The only attendants to Lazarus, in this story, were the dogs, who would come to lick his sores (16:21)

The wealthy man dies, and finds himself in Hades, while Lazarus dies, and finds angels, not dogs, caring for him.

But the wealthy man is in torment. And he still hasn’t learned his lesson. While in this torment, he still sees Lazarus as a lesser person, as a servant — he asks that Lazarus bring water to cool his tongue. He would’ve given the same command to his own servants, while he was alive.

(And by the way, this story isn’t about the afterlife. Don’t rob this story of its power by trying to figure out what happens when we die.)

So Lazarus is in the presence of the divine. The wealthy man is in extreme agony. And yet the wealthy man wants Lazarus to come to him. Yet, this wealthy man, and his brothers, were taught, their entire lives, through Moses and the Prophets, to have a different view of their wealth and possessions — to see them only as ways to care for others.

In life, this wealthy man ignored Lazarus’ constant pleas for help. Even though he was taught better.

Wealth, then — stuff, possessions, and money — is only useful for how it can bless others. Jesus is making this crystal clear.

Jesus ends this story with a pretty cool addendum, too: even one who was resurrected from the dead couldn’t change the minds of this wealthy family. They would still hoard their possessions at the expense of others.

And they couldn’t even fathom all that Jesus said with that statement.

Then Luke 17 comes. Jesus turns back to his disciples. And this is where my heart started to hurt.

Jesus ends this brief section with a comment about “unworthy servants” (17:10). But look what these unworthy servants are called to do:

  • To not use the kingdom as a vehicle for controversy. (17:1, 2). Make no demands on piety, like the Pharisees.
  • Forgive completely, without demand for personal justice (17:4).
  • See faith as a gift, not as a right (17:6).
Jesus just tells his disciples that they aren’t that special. Instead, disciples willing endure self-sacrifice.

Be humble. Forgive every offense. Accept the gift of faith as a gift, not as a right. And do them all without expecting anything in return.

The requirements of discipleship should never be seen as a guarantee for special rank or position in the lives of people. Disciples just do what they’re asked.

Man, that’s tough. Especially for someone, like me, who is a minister. I’m just not that special. My intersection in the lives of people, even if I am used as a blessing in their lives, is not a special calling.

I should not expect fame. I should not expect notoriety. I shouldn’t even expect a special parking place. And none of us in ministry should ever expect those things. If we do, we are doing all of this for the wrong reasons. Nor will we be following the way of a disciple of Jesus.

Think the man in Hades.

But even for those who aren’t ministers, it’s still the same. And Luke uses the healing of ten lepers to hammer this point home.

Faith can be easy to have. It took faith for all of ten of those lepers to be healed.

But gratitude is harder to find. Only one returned to praise and thank Jesus.

We’ve. All. Been. Healed. And our healing is a gift that should require us to give thanks, rather than to receive thanks, regardless of who we are, or what we do.

Oh, and that leper that returned? He was a Samaritan. An outsider.

And Jesus wasn’t even finished, as if we haven’t been squeezed enough.

Discipleship requires us to recognize the apparent, real, here-it-is kingdom of God. It’s among us. And we must give it all for this kingdom.

There is no time to look back for, or hold on to, our pleasures (17:27).

There is no time to look back for, or hold on to, our relationships (17:27).

There is no time to look back for, or hold on to, our possession, investments, and stuff (17:28).

If we are disciples, we must lighten our load. We aren’t special. We willingly follow a path that leads to sacrifice.

And we can’t follow by thinking of our own holiness, or by the stuff in the grip of our hands.

And he tells them this, as they continue to follow him to his death, in Jerusalem, by the way.

All I can say with today’s reading is what the disciples said in 16:5:

“Increase my faith.”