The Next Chapter

Last night we finished the book of Acts. After a harrowing boat ride, Paul finally arrives in Rome. Along the way he ministers not only to sailors and military personnel, but also to the island inhabitants of Malta. The gospel continues to spread. And in Rome he meets with the Jews living there to discuss the charges against him. He presents the hope of the gospel fulfilled in Jesus, but the group rejects the message. Once again he turns to the Gentiles.

Several themes came up as we talked last night. We clearly see God at work expanding His kingdom, directing both individuals and the church. The gospel spreads from Jerusalem to Rome, and the church, which began as a Jewish body, quickly incorporates all nations in fulfillment of Genesis 12 (that through Abraham all the nations of the world would be blessed). Opposition grows but the church overcomes. The resurrection is the primary emphasis of the speeches given by major characters in the story like Peter, Stephen and Paul.

The narrative ends with the obvious questions: What happened to Paul? What’s the rest of the story? Luke leaves room for us to add our own chapter. The story of the church and the expansion of God’s kingdom is not finished yet. The story continues still today. But I wonder what those early believers would think of this chapter. Would they recognize the church they fought so hard to establish? When I read about the way that they loved and sacrificed and engaged their culture, I really wonder.

Discussing Hitchens’ book, God Is Not Great, with some friends I realized what a stinging indictment his book is against Christianity. The fact that he could lump all of Christendom into the same category of the other world religions so easily, shows that the church as a whole is failing at its job to be salt and light. That an atheist who has had as much contact with Christians as Hitchens did throughout his life is unable to caveat his statements about Christianity because he saw something different about the believers he encountered is telling.

Luke ends the book of Acts with the statement, “Boldly and without hindrance he (Paul) preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” I wonder how boldly we are preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about Jesus through both word and action to a world that so desperately needs to hear…

Until next time…stay salty.

 

On trial

Ever gotten in trouble for something you didn’t do? I have. I was in the second grade. It was early Monday morning. After breakfast, Dad began, “Son, I heard that some kids were throwing rocks (it was gravel) at each other yesterday evening at church and hit several cars. Do you know anything about it?” “No, Dad,” was my immediate response. “Are you sure, because someone said that they saw you out there with them?” I replied a little more apprehensively this time, “I saw the kids, but I wasn’t throwing rocks.” “Son, I think you’re lying to me.” Growing terror now, “No, Dad, I wasn’t throwing rocks!” Several swats later with tears streaming down my face, just as my dad was starting to believe me, “Yes, Dad, I threw rocks, too.” Three more swats for lying. To this day, I still don’t think I threw rocks, but I wanted to bring an end to the spanking.

Acts 24-26, Paul can relate to being falsely accused. Three different trials, three different Gentile authorities, three declarations of innocence (at least of anything worthy of death). With Felix, the Jewish leaders bring in the big guns, the lawyer Tertullus. Quickly Paul goes from being accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple precincts to being accused of starting riots, introducing a new religion to the empire and desecrating the Temple. A guilty verdict on any one of the three charges could easily mean the death penalty. Rome did not tolerate insurrectionists, introducing a new religion was a capital offense, and the Romans had given the Jews permission to kill any Gentile who violated the Temple. It looks like Paul is in big trouble, but you wouldn’t suspect that from his cool demeanor (unlike this scared 7 year old boy). Instead he calmly addresses the court, refuting the charges of insurrection and of defiling the Temple. And then he spends a great deal of time explaining that the primary issue was Jesus, as it had always been. He was on trial for the hope of the resurrection…a hope that he shared with his Jewish brethren. Since the time of Abraham and the beginnings of the Jewish nation and even all the way back to Adam, the people of God had been looking for the Genesis 3:15 Seed of the Woman, the Messiah, the Davidic King who would crush the head of the serpent and redeem all of creation along with every person who believes. Paul said Jesus was and is the Guy…He is the First of the Resurrected, the Jews disagreed. That was the crux of the argument. Although Felix informally dismisses the charges against Paul, he nevertheless keeps Paul in prison for the next two years, frequently visiting him, hoping to receive a bribe, but instead receiving the gospel, which cuts him to the quick.

At the end of Felix’s term, Festus takes over as governor. Festus is ready to clean up Felix’s mess and so looks into the charges against Paul. There doesn’t seem to be anything to the charges, but in an effort to please the Jews, he asks Paul if he is willing to be tried in Jerusalem. Paul, knowing that Jerusalem would be a death sentence, appeals to Caesar. Festus acquiesces. King Agrippa happens to be in town, and aware of his intimate knowledge of the Jews, Festus asks him to hear Paul’s case. Agrippa agrees, and Paul defends himself yet again. This time he describes his life before conversion, his conversion experience on the Damascus road, and his commission to preach the gospel to both Jew and Gentile. At the conclusion of his defense, he is once again declared innocent, but as he has appealed to Caesar, Paul now must go to Rome.

It’s easy to blow past these three chapters on the way to finish the book of Acts, and I even considered not writing on them; but I was struck with the similarity between Paul’s experience and Jesus’ experience with the mock trials and declarations of innocence from Gentile authorities and the vitriolic hatred and rejection by those who do not believe. Jesus said the same would happen to those who follow Him. So what about you? Are you ready to be falsely accused, to be misunderstood, to be mistreated and persecuted and rejected for the sake of the Name? I have a feeling that those times are not far off my friend. But may we face those times with courage and grace, fiercely trusting in Jesus and leaning into the Holy Spirit for the strength to finish well, proclaiming the gospel until our time on earth is done.

Until next time…stay salty.

A Fierce Faith

Our youngest son is fearless. Maybe it’s being the youngest of three boys, maybe its genetics, but there is nothing that he won’t try at least once. And he generally succeeds in his attempts. One of the drawbacks to his confident approach to life is the tendency to be a bit cocky and very competitive. Great for sports, but not so great when it becomes a hammer that crushes his opponents into dust. Humility is our key word when praying for him. And while having an aggressive personality can be challenging, it can also be advantageous. He is well-known and well-liked by most of the kids in his school, including friends of his older brothers, much to their chagrin.

I imagine Saul had a similar personality. I bet he didn’t lose much growing up. And I bet his adversaries both feared and respected him. We get a glimpse of his zeal as a Pharisee persecuting the Way before his conversion at the stoning of Stephen and as he relentlessly pursues believers to throw them into prison. But after his encounter with Jesus…watch out! Everywhere Saul (now Paul) goes, trouble follows. He has to be snuck out of Damascus in a basket at night  to save his life (I bet he didn’t like running away from a fight!). The church in Jerusalem sends him away to Tarsus because of the trouble he’s stirring up for the church there. When Barnabas picks him up as a travelling companion and fellow missionary, Paul’s consistently the one whose beat up, stoned and run out of town. Yet he refuses to back down. He has a fierce faith.

Acts 21-23. Paul’s on his way back to Jerusalem to deliver the offering that the Gentile churches have raised to support their poor Jewish brethren. But even then, he becomes the center of controversy, first with the church and then with the non-Christian religious leaders. With the church because he’s accused of steering Jewish believers away from following the Law, and with the religious leaders because he’s accused of bringing Gentiles into the temple, thus defiling it. Neither charge is true, but ironically, Paul’s mission is to share the gospel which includes the good news that Jews and Gentiles are co-heirs of the kingdom through Jesus, that there is no longer a dividing wall of separation.

Paul’s story begins to look eerily like Jesus’ own story as he is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin for a mock trial. They call for his blood, while the Roman commander Lysias, pronounces him innocent. Sound familiar? Being made aware of a plot against Paul’s life, Lysias sends Paul with an escort of 470 soldiers to governor Felix.

Paul can’t seem to help getting into trouble. Riots and violence nip at his heels at every turn. But he’s in trouble for the gospel. He refuses to compromise. Bonheoffer in The Cost of Discipleship  writes, “Those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men.” The fierceness of Paul’s faith is evidence of his total lack of fear of man. He had a vision for the kingdom to come and was on mission to share that with the world.

I pray that my son is like Paul. Until next time…stay salty.

The Outsiders

The gospel is good news. It’s the story of God’s redeeming work, reconciling mankind to Himself. It’s the story that’s been unfolding since the beginning chapters of Genesis, from the dawn of time, and will continue to the final chapters of Revelation, to the end of time as we know it, when Jesus returns and establishes a new heavens and a new earth. It’s a story for all people at all times. But it didn’t always appear that way.

Genesis 12. God chooses Abraham to be the father of the Jewish nation and reveals that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. Moses recounts the story for the children of Israel coming out of Egypt as he rehearses their history and the God who has saved them. God makes a shocking statement to this motley crew, “You will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Over and over again throughout the Old Testament, the Israelite nation is reminded of their privileged position and relationship with God, while the nations are pictured as His enemies, as outsiders. So no doubt, the early church, being primarily Jewish, struggles with the inclusion of the Gentiles (the nations) into the fold.

The story of the conversion of Cornelius in the book of Acts should have settled the question of God’s acceptance of the nations. It’s always been a part of His plan. But this early Jewish church is faced with a major dilemma. If the Gentiles are welcomed in, it will mean a final irreparable break with Judaism. And so some of the converts from the ruling parties of the Jews have a hard time seeing the Gentiles come to faith without first becoming Jews because it feels like they are turning their backs on their Jewish heritage.

Yet it is undeniable that God is at work among the Gentiles through the ministries of Paul and Barnabas. And the Jerusalem church, at the first church council, supports them. The outsiders are in. They don’t have to become insiders first, they don’t have to become Jews, to be Christian. And Luke, writing for a predominantly Gentile audience, records this for his readers.  And as the book of Acts unfolds, Luke turns a subtle spotlight on another group of would be outsiders – women. Both in Jesus’ ministry and now in Paul’s, a number of prominent women begin to take part as the gospel goes out to the ends of the earth. The gospel is good news for all.

Until next time…stay salty.

Surprise!

Surprises. Some people love them. And some people hate them. For me, I’m always a sucker for a good surprise. I don’t like the predictable, the routine, for very long. I enjoy change. Not all of it feels good at the time, but it’s one of the ways that God is shaping my character. James says, “Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials…” Trials, suffering, difficult circumstances all bring about change of some sort. A greater orientation towards God, or a running further from Him. Growing in the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control), or becoming more mired, sinking deeper in bitterness and despair. The church in Jerusalem was at one of these critical junctures.

In Acts 10, Peter and Cornelius both receive visions; Peter’s opens him up to the prospect of going to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion (aka Gentile). Cornelius’ vision instructs him to send for Peter to hear the gospel. Peter makes the trek, Cornelius and his house are converted and there is great rejoicing. But then Peter comes back home. The believers in Jerusalem are not only surprised that Peter went to visit Cornelius, they are also shocked and a little perplexed (bordering on anger). What was Peter thinking? But Peter explains how the Holy Spirit had come upon this group of Gentile believers the same as it had come upon them. Who was Peter to stand in the way of God’s work? At that point, the Jerusalem church rejoices (albeit a bit tentatively) that God has brought salvation to the Gentiles.

Why were the Jewish Christians surprised? Should they have been? They didn’t have to be. From the beginning of the Jewish nation, with Abraham, God had promised that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. Moses tells the Israelites coming out of Egypt that they are a kingdom of priests – the same imagery that Peter uses of the church in his first letter. The intent was always salvation/blessing for the world, for all the nations, through the one. Israel was to be a lighthouse. But something went horribly wrong.

God had commanded the Israelites to separate themselves from the evil practices of the nations, to bring judgment on those who had multiplied wickedness in the land. Israel was not to learn their ways. But she was to represent God to the nations. In Ezekiel, God reminds the remnant that God chose them not because they were worthy of being chosen – they weren’t the best or the brightest or the most attractive or the most righteous – He chose them because He chose them. He loved them because of who He is, not because of who they were or what they had done (sound familiar – He is incredible!). But they forgot and supposed that they were worthy of being chosen and that they had exclusive rights to God’s love. And so, instead of being a kingdom of priests, a lighthouse to the nations, of reflecting God’s amazing love for all mankind, they became an impenetrable fortress; and they despised the outsiders.

In Luke, Jesus begins to challenge the disciples view of who God loves and who Jesus came to save. This section in Acts continues that instruction. And God wants this fledgling church to accomplish what Israel was unwilling to do. He wants them to go out and share the message of God’s incredible, all-consuming love with a lost and broken world. In sharp contrast, the story of Bar-Jesus presents an interesting parallel and commentary on the Jewish nation at this point – opposing the apostles who are going out to reach the Gentiles, being blinded and fighting against God.

So what about you? Are you surprised by the breadth and depth God’s amazing love? Are you blown away by His desire to save even those who you may despise? What are you going to do about it?

Until next time…stay salty.

Operation explosion

Saul and I grew up together as kids. We lived in the same village, went to the same synagogue, and played the same pranks on Rabbi Gamaliel for as long as I can remember. The one thing that stood out most about Saul was his propensity for controversy. It didn’t matter where he went, conflict always seemed to find him. And he didn’t back down easily from a fight. One time I had to rescue him from some of the other boys because he had attacked them after they questioned his understanding of the Shema. One against seven is never good odds, but Saul held his own. Somehow we lost track of each other after our training.

And then, while I was in Jerusalem, I heard rumblings that some of the followers of Jesus were back and claiming that He had been raised from the dead! Unbelievable. I wanted to find out more for myself. I came upon a crowd gathered outside the temple. Lots of shouting, but then a man named Stephen was thrust forward and began to address the crowd. I couldn’t catch all that he was saying, but it was evident that the crowd wasn’t happy. In fact, in an instant, everyone was grabbing rocks to stone him! And as I looked across the way, there was Saul, standing over the helpless body of Stephen. Somehow I wasn’t too surprised. I made my way over to talk to him, and it turns out that he was the Council’s new hitman against the so-called Way. I thought it was an appropriate choice.

Saul was on his way to Damascus, and we talked about catching up more when he returned. But when he came back, something was very different. In some ways he was the same Saul, stirring up controversy. But now he was a powerful proponent of the Way. He claimed that Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus and that He was indeed the long-awaited Messiah that we had been waiting for. And not only that, but He was also the Son of God. I was both shocked and overjoyed because I too had become a follower of the Way. Saul’s zeal was impressive, but also deadly. He invited persecution from the moment he believed. He couldn’t help proclaiming Jesus as the Christ and facing down his opponents. It almost cost him his life, so he came to Jerusalem. And things were no different here.

After a tenuous meeting with church leadership, he was accepted in on the recommendation of Barnabas. But it didn’t take Saul long to stir up trouble and soon he was sent back home to our village. Saul had great zeal for the law and an aggressive personality that made him a dangerous opponent of the Way, but when he collided with Jesus he became a strong proponent of Christianity. God took the passion and the personality and the experience and the training that He had given to Saul and redeemed it to use for His purposes. How does God want to use you?

Until next time…stay salty.