Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Matthew 1

Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus. It is interesting to contrast the genealogy in Matthew with Luke’s account. In Matthew the genealogy begins with father Abraham and works forward to Jesus. It traces Jesus’ Hebrew roots and goes back to the first Hebrew. In Luke the genealogy begins with Jesus and goes back to Adam – the first human. The gospel writers are writing to specific audiences for specific reasons. In Matthew’s case, since he is writing to a Hebrew audience, the connection needs to be to Abraham. Luke, who is writing to the gentile world, needs to trace Jesus origins back to the first human – our guaranteed common ancestor.

We then have the birth of Jesus as Matthew records it. Mary and Joseph are engaged, Mary is found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph will break the engagement but will do so quietly so as to not subject her to public humiliation. Under Hebrew law a betrothal (engagement) was as legally binding as a marriage. The couple was legally married even though the marriage has not been consummated. This explains some rather odd references in ancient literature and the Old Testament to women were “widows and virgins”. They were betrothed and their husbands to be had died before the marriage was finalized.

Joseph has a dream and in the dream he is told the truth about Mary’s child. So he keeps his promise and takes Mary as his own – thereby taking the child she was carrying as his own. Once they are married, any children born to Mary are legally Joseph’s children.

Introduction to Matthew

Here is the introduction to Matthew that I wrote for my Ugandan friends:

Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels. He prefers “Kingdom of Heaven” over “Kingdom of God.” (Because of the 3rd Commandment to “not take the name of the Lord in vain,” many Jewish writers would not say or write the word “God” for fear that they might take God’s name in vain.) Matthew has a deep interest in the Old Testament Law. The Gospel does not identify an author but from earliest times has been attributed to Matthew, the apostle and onetime tax collector (see Matthew 9:9). Little is known about when or where Matthew was actually written, and scholars date it as early as AD 50 and as late as AD 100. Matthew was not the first of the Gospels written (Mark is generally believed to be the first) but in the Canon it is listed first because the early church saw it as a link between the Old Testament and the New Testament. This linkage can be seen most clearly in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount that links the old and new. Jesus repeatedly says “you have heard it said… but I say to you…” Matthew is also called the “ecclesiastical” Gospel, and its pages brim with concern for the life of the church.

Matthew’s connection to the Old Testament (he quotes the Old Testament more than any other Gospel writer) portrays Jesus as the promised Messiah, The Christ of God.

Acts 28

Paul, shipwrecked on Malta, is able to continue his ministry of preaching and healing. I have learned to call these detours on the road of life “Divine Appointments”. Many times on our journey we are detoured from our intended routes. These are the times when we need to be extra sensitive to what is happening around us. These are the times when it is highly likely that God has placed us in a place and time so that, like Philip and Paul and the early Christians, we can bear witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ. As Christ followers, it is good to remember that every conversation, every encounter, every person we meet is an opportunity, in word or deed, to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

We don’t know if St. Paul ever visited other upstate cities, like Albany, Rochester or even Buffalo, we do know that he visited Syracuse (28:12).

Luke ends his narrative of the Acts of the Apostles with the Acts 1:8 trajectory completed. The story began in Jerusalem with Pentecost. It proceeded out to Judea with the preaching of the Apostles. It went down to Samaria with the preaching of Philip and then scattered to the ends of the earth under the leadership of several Apostles, along with Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, etc. The book of Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome awaiting his audience with Caesar. It is my contention that the book of Acts does not end here. It is my contention that for the past 2000 years we have been living in the subsequent chapters of the book of Acts. It is my contention that we continue to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people at home, around us, around us but different and to the ends of the earth!

Welcome to Acts 29 . . .

Acts 27

Chapter 27 is the story of Paul’s journey to Rome. It proves to be a difficult and arduous journey by land and by sea. There is an extended storm and finally the boat is shipwrecked. Paul demonstrates both his profound faith and trust in Jesus Christ and his extraordinary leadership ability by setting an example for the sailors and, ultimately, convincing the Centurion to not kill the prisoners and so everyone makes it to land safely.

There is on interesting textual problem in 37. It says that there were 276 persons in the ship. The sailing vessels of that time would not have been large enough for 276 people and cargo and still stay afloat. Many early copies of Acts say 76 persons (a much likely number) or “about 76” persons. Luke, having shown such precision in his writing to this point would have likely counted the passengers and crew and so I would go with 76.

Acts 26

This is the body of Paul’s defense before King Agrippa. He once again gives his testimony about how he persecuted the church and how Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Notice verse 14 has some new information from the conversation between Jesus and Saul. Jesus says “it hurts you to kick against the goads.” This expression does not appear in any of the other accounts of Paul’s conversation, either in Acts or in his letters. The reference is to the pointed sticks that were put behind plow animals to keep them from going backwards when plowing. It would be painful to fight against one’s harnessed purpose. Jesus is saying, and Paul certainly understands, that Paul has been set aside for a specific purpose and task – that of being the Apostle to the Gentiles – and he is only hurting himself in resisting.

When Paul gets to the climax of his message and speaks of the resurrection of Jesus. Festus (24) thinks Paul has gone crazy and when Paul appeals to Agrippa we get the great sermon finisher of all times. Agrippa says: “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” and Paul responds “Whether or quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am – except for these chains (29).” Could there be a better witness or testimony than to be living the life Christ has called us to and invite others to follow our own example. 1 Corinthians 11:1 – “Be imitator’s of me as I imitate Christ” – would be a great example.

Acts 25

Paul is under arrest for 2 years. Governor Felix is replaced by Porcius Festus. Paul is brought to an audience with Festus because the leaders from Jerusalem are still advocating that Paul be brought back to Jerusalem, hoping to ambush and kill him on the way. Paul refuses this and says “I am standing before the emperor’s tribunal; this is where I should be tried . . . I appeal to the emperor (10/11).” This is Paul’s right, as a Roman citizen, and so Festus orders him to be sent to the Emperor in Rome.

Before Paul is sent to Rome, Festus has King Agrippa and his wife Bernice, listen to Paul’s case and Paul takes this opportunity to preach the gospel.

Remember that the Holy Spirit has told Paul, several years before this, that he must bear witness to Jesus in Rome. Paul knows that he is going to Rome, I am equally certain that Paul did not expect to be going to Rome in chains.

Acts 24

In Caesarea, Paul is kept under house arrest. Five days later Ananias, the High Priest, comes down from Jerusalem with a well known Roman attorney, Tertullus. After the preliminaries, Paul is allowed to give his defense.

Paul’s defense is pretty short, he explains himself, explains that he did not do what he was accused of and can produce witnesses. The end result of his defense is that he is kept in prison, but his friends are able to care for his needs. We get some insight from Luke as to why this delay, verse 26 tells us that Felix is hoping for a bribe from Paul.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Acts 23

Paul is permitted to go before the Sanhedrin. It has become an even more rancorous place than 20 years earlier and, if possible, is even more badly divided: Sadducees versus Pharisees . Paul seems to intentionally play these differences against each other by claiming that he is there because of the Resurrection of the dead. This pits the Pharisees (who believe in the Resurrection) against the Sadducees (who do not believe in the Resurrection). The usual shouting match ensues and Paul, once again, has to be rescued by the Roman Tribune and his soldiers.

A plot to kill Paul is revealed. More than 40 men have vowed that they will not eat or drink until Paul has been put to death. Paul’s nephew learns of it and warns Paul and the Tribune. Paul is packed off to Caesarea by the sea with a letter of introduction and 200 hundred soldiers, 70 horsemen and 200 spearmen – a formidable military attachment. Paul is given a horse to ride.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Acts 22

We left Paul on the steps of the barracks, in chains but addressing the rioting Jerusalemites. In this speech he tells his story: he was a student of Gamaliel, he was educated and trained in the Law. He tells of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and his healing through Ananias and his baptism. He tells of how he was sent by Jesus to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. At the mention of the Gentiles, the crowd, once again, goes crazy, shouting, throwing dirt in the air, tearing their cloths, etc. The Tribune takes Paul into the Praetorium and orders Paul to be examined by flogging. When he is tied up and the flogging is about to begin Paul asks the Centurion if it is legal to flog a Roman citizen without cause. In Roman times a person could obtain citizenship through several means: 1) your parents were Roman Citizens; 2) you bribed the right officials and it was conferred to you; 3) you performed a great service to the Empire and it was conferred on you. Paul’s admission that he was born a citizen of the Empire immediately changes how they treat him.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Acts 21

Paul is repeatedly warned by the Holy Spirit that trouble is waiting for him in Jerusalem. In Ptolemais (7) he is warned by a prophet named Agabus that Paul will leave Jerusalem bound and in chains. The Disciples attempt to talk Paul out of going up to Jerusalem but Paul proclaims “I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus (13).” Paul, in his letters, repeatedly tells his churches that he does not need to survive. What he must do, and must always do, is to faithfully follow the leading of his Lord Jesus.

Paul visits James and is warned of the hornet’s nest that Jerusalem has become. The Jewish nationalist party and the ultra conservative religious groups are coalescing into a dangerous mix. When religious fundamentalism and political fundamentalism join hands there is serious danger on the way. This political/religious fermentation ultimately leads to a violent outbreak and a revolution in Judea and Jerusalem – an event that is probably 15 years away from the story in Acts 21. In AD67, nationalists overthrow the Roman governor and take control of Jerusalem and the surrounding country side from Jerusalem to Masada on the Dead Sea. In AD 70 Rome sends General Titus of Rome to quell the rebellion and he does so in the most thorough and brutal way possible.

At this stage of the story Paul becomes the focus of this pent up anger and frustration. He is accused, wrongly, of taking a Greek into the Temple (a man named Trophimus (29)) and is, once again the center of a mob. The Mob is seeking to kill him when the Roman tribune arrested him and had him taken to the Praetorium (yes the same Praetorium from which Pontus Pilate ordered Jesus’ crucifixion). Paul stops on the steps of the prison and addresses the crowd in Hebrew . . . .

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Acts 20

Paul has now set his heart on returning to Jerusalem before Pentecost and makes a series of “farewell” stops on the way. He returns to Macedonia and Greece and stays at Troas for about a week. 20:7 and following has the odd story of Eutychus who falls asleep while Paul was doing an all night preaching/teaching session. He falls out a 3rd story window and appears to be dead below but when Paul takes him by the hand he is OK and Paul goes up stairs and preaches through the rest of the night.

Paul meets with the Ephesian Elders and says a long and hearty good bye. There is something in Paul that has him realize that he is not going to pass this way again. He is going up to Jerusalem and he is well aware that there will be trouble for him. He also has a dream of going to Spain on his way to Rome (remember that was the purpose of the Romans letter -- see Acts 16 of Romans). It is difficult to say whether Paul believes his life is in danger (and therefore won’t return to Ephesus) or whether this mission dream of traveling to Rome has him realize he will not likely pass through Ephesus. The story, as Luke tells it, leaves room for both interpretations.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Acts 19

Ephesus was the home of the temple of Artemis (one of the 7 wonders of the Ancient world – along with the gardens of Babylon, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Colossus of Rhodes, etc. ). The temple of Artemis was a major economic source for the artisans and merchants of Ephesus. Ephesus was also a center of the Gnostic philosophy and was the final home of Jesus mother, Mary and the youngest of the Apostles, John, son of Zebedee. This region of Asia Minor was to be the heart of John’s Apostleship.

Paul is making inroads with the Gospel. He spends two years there working in a lecture hall, the Synagogue and other places. The Church in Ephesus was strong and gaining strength. Paul’s stay in Ephesus was also accompanied by some amazing miracles. Eventually it leads (ready for the all too familiar theme) to riots. This riot is caused by the artisans and the merchants who make their livelihood from making idols and selling them in the market around Artemis’ temple.

The clerk in Ephesus is most concerned about civil unrest and rioting. Under Roman rule, on the short list of things the Romans would not tolerate was rioting and civil unrest. If the clerk cannot calm the crowd Ephesus is at risk of military intervention to quell the riot.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Acts 18

Paul goes to Corinth (moving south from Macedonia to Beroea to Athens and now Corinth). Corinth was a prosperous and decadent city. Its prosperity came from the shipping industry (strategically located to benefit from all the key Mediterranean trade routes). Corinth was a cosmopolitan city with a diverse cultural heritage. Corinth’s reputation in the Roman Empire was as a debauched and decadent city. There is a word in Latin that translates “to corinthianize something.” To corinthianize something was to take something good and pure lead it into total debauchery and decadence.

Here we meet Aquila and his wife Priscilla, refugees from Rome and tent makers, like Paul. Here is an insight into Paul’s understanding of women in ministry. Remember that he uses Lydia in Macedonia. When we meet this tent making couple they are introduced in verse 2 as Aquila and his wife Priscilla but in 26 when they are working with Apollos Priscilla is mentioned first and then Aquila. In Greek writing the most important person is always listed first (note that on any list of the Apostles, Peter is always listed first and then there are variations on how the others are listed – except Judas Iscariot who is always listed last). Priscilla, not Aquila, is the more important person as far as the gospel is concerned.

Paul spends 18 months in Corinth, teach and preaching and building the church. He makes more than one visit to this church and sends at least two letters (most scholars believe there was a third Corinthian letter – or one of the letters is a combination of two letters). From Corinth, Paul moves back to Caesarea and up to Jerusalem and finally back to Antioch.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Acts 17

Paul and his team cause rioting everywhere they go. First in Thessalonica, the crowd is yelling a great thing “these people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also!” I would love to have that reputation. The person who is turning the world upside down has now come to town! Paul and Silas are sent off to Beroea where they have a few weeks to teach and preach before the rousers from Thessalonica make it to Beroea and stir up the crowd there as well. Paul is then taken to Athens.

This rather famous sermon, Paul among the Aeropagites, is a model of Christian evangelism. It is the same model we see from Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8. First, note that Aeropagus is the Greek for the Hill of Aries; it is sometimes translated “Mars Hill”. (Aries/Mars is the Greek/Roman god of war.) Paul is deeply distressed by all of the temples and idols on the hill side. When he is in the Aeropagus he is invited to speak, remembering that he saw an altar to “an unknown god”, Paul uses that altar as the spring board for his message. This is the Evangelistic message, he, as did Philip; begin where the person or group already is. Paul does not presume that his listeners know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nor does he presume that they have even heard of Jesus of Nazareth. He uses their “unknown” as a spring board to tell them about Jesus. Some are converted, others, who are in love with new ideas and new teachings, scoff. Paul goes off with the convinced and begins to work with them.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Acts 16

Paul’s entourage grows as Timothy joins Paul and Silas at Lystra. Because his mother was Jewish, Paul has Timothy circumcised (his father was Greek). Although this seems to contradict everything Paul has argued in the previous situation (and in the entire letter to the Galatians), we must remember that Paul is a pragmatist and with everyone in the area knowing who Timothy’s parents were, having him circumcised causes less of a disturbance than not doing so.

In 6-10 there are two things to note. One is that with the invitation to “go across to Macedonia” the Gospel intentionally crosses from Asia (Middle East) into Europe for the first time. The second thing to notice is that in verse 10 the pronouns change. Up to this point of the story Luke has referred to Paul’s group in the third person “they”. Notice that in verse 10 the pronoun changes to “we”. This indicates that the writer, Luke the Physician, has now joined the entourage.

11 and following we have the first converts in Macedonia. Appropriately, the first convert is a Jewish woman named Lydia. She is a woman of some means (a seller of purple cloth would only be working with the most affluent in an area because it was very expensive). She, and her entire household, become followers of Christ and are baptized. Lydia is from an area of Macedonia where women lived somewhat emancipated lives. Women could own property and, clearly, could own and run their own businesses.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Acts 15

Thursday, June 14, 2012                

                The Jerusalem Council marks a significant expansion and turning point for the early church. Up to this point the Christian movement has been a sub sect of Judaism – still practicing the ways of the Hebrew Scriptures, still following the Levitical Code. With the expanding Gentile mission the inevitable conflict arises.  The question: how Jewish must a person become before he/she is considered a Christian. In other words what requirements of the law must still be lived in order for one to be considered “saved?”
                The question rocks the church and focuses on the leaders of the Gentile mission, Paul, Barnabas and others versus the leaders of the Jewish Mission (James and the Elders in Jerusalem). Acts fifteen records the debate and the resolution. The matter is resolved in verse 19 and following and is reported to the Gentile churches through a letter from the council. The Council resolves that there are four things that must be kept: 1) abstain from things polluted by idols; 2) abstain from fornication; 3) abstain from strangled meat; and, 4) abstain from drinking blood. These requirements have the effect of saying “stay away from pagan worship.” Many of the pagan temples worshiped through feasting, usually on meat that came from animal sacrifices and the religious experience was often lived out through ritual fornication with temple prostitutes.
                Notice 36 and following. Paul and Barnabas part ways. The contention between them is whether or not to take John Mark. Remember John Mark left Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey to return home. Barnabas, ever the encourager, wants to give him another chance. Paul, the driven leader, does not want to take someone who left them in the middle of their work. The end result is that Barnabas takes John Mark and they sail to Cyprus (remember Barnabas’ home) and Paul joins up with Silas (who had been sent with the Jerusalem Council’s direction) and works his way through Syria and Cilicia.  This Acts reminds us that even in our disagreements on process and procedure and even personnel, if we stay committed to the work of making disciples for Jesus Christ God will use us in different and unique ways. We don’t know what happens with Barnabas and John Mark – except that later in Acts Paul and John Mark are reconnected and in one of Paul’s later letters he intentionally commends John Mark for his faithfulness (Colossians 4:10 and 2 Timothy 4:11). Nothing should be made of not hearing about Barnabas after this episode. Remember the author of Acts, Luke, is more interested in playing out the Acts 1:8 trajectory than in completing biographies.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Acts 14

     Paul and Barnabas continue their missionary journey. The pattern seems to be consistent. They go to a synagogue and make many new followers of Jesus. The religious and civic leaders get either jealous or nervous and stir up the crowds against them. They escape with their lives. Sometimes they are beaten, sometimes they have stones thrown at them, and sometimes they have to run for the next town. See verse 22 "It is through may persecutions that we must enter the Kingdom of God." That is to say, it is a mistake to think that Christ followers will always enjoy the good will and wishes of the wider community. When life change through following Jesus encroaches on the vested interests of an area. . . there is trouble.
    The whole episode of the Priest of Zeus wanting to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas gives us some odd insight. Clearly Barnabas is the better looking of the two (so is called Zeus) and Paul, since he is always preaching and teaching, gets called Hermes (Mercury) the winged messenger of the gods in Greek and Roman mythology. Paul barely stops the sacrificial offering and ends up nearly getting himself killed.
     Notice verse 23 "And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, . . . " There is no success without successors. Paul and Barnabas are church "planters" -- missionaries. Their job is not to lead the church community in a particular place. Their method of operation is to identify leaders, call them out, raise them up and leave them in charge. Pastors would be well served to remember this. We are not called to do all the work of ministry -- but to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11). We are not called to have to make every single decision in every single aspect of ministry. . . we are called to raise up leaders who will make those decisions and, by faith, step out in the work to which they were called.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Acts 13

     The commissioning of the first "Missionaries" happens in Antioch. In reading Acts, up to this point the targeting of certain areas and populations (Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the Earth) appears to be somewhat random (if following the leading of the Holy Spirit could be called random). Now, in Antioch, the Holy Spirit reveals to the leaders that two men should be set aside and sent out to preach in new areas the Good News about Jesus. They set aside Saul and Barnabas who took John Mark along as an assistant. Notice that the first place they sail for is Cyprus. Why, we ask, would they go to Cyprus first? The text gives no direct clue except the note in chapter 4 that Barnabas' given name is Joseph and that he is from Cyprus. This is "home coming" evangelism at its finest. The first place any of us should bear witness to our faith in Christ is in our own homes and among our own people. I will admit that this is also one of the hardest places to bear witness to the faith -- among those who knew us when . . .
     After preaching in Cyprus, the Apostles go out and preach and teach in Perga in Pamphylia and then Antioch in Pisidia (yes, another Antioch). Here in Antioch of Pisidia we get the fullest example of a St. Paul sermon beginning at verse 16. It is typical of all the sermons we read about in Acts given to Synagogues: 1) God spoke to our ancestors; 2) God raised up leaders; 3) God sent John the Baptist; 4) the religious leaders in Jerusalem did not recognize the Christ of God when he walked among them and had him crucified; 5) But God raised him from the dead and appeared; 6) put your faith in Jesus and you will be saved. Many in the synagogue became Christ followers -- when Paul and Barnabas are kicked out of the Synagogue they preach to the gentiles and many more come to faith in Christ.
    When Paul and Barnabas are forced out of Antioch of Pisidia they shake the dust off their feet and proceed on to Iconium. Notice in verse 13 that John Mark leaves Paul and Barnabas and returns to Jerusalem -- this leaving by John Mark becomes a point of contention between Paul and Barnabas later in Acts.
     NOTE: did you notice that Saul of Tarsus has undergone a name change to Paul in your reading? As I understand it Jews who lived away from Jerusalem (such as Saul in Tarsus) were in the habit of using two names. One, their Hebrew name, and the other for commercial and public purposes. Saul, carries the name of the first king of Israel one Saul son of Kish. In the Gentile world he is know by the Latin Paulus or Paul.See verse 9 -- Saul, also known as Paul . . . from that time on Luke only uses the Paul to refer to him. All subsequent uses of "Saul" come when Paul is telling the story of his own conversion.

Acts 12

    Verse 1 speaks of "belonging to the church". The Greek word translated "Church" is "ecclesia" which means a gathering or assembly of people. It is a helpful reminder that the Christian church is not identified by an institution or a building type or a street address. The church exists when the assembly of believers gather together in the name of Jesus. Between times the building is just a street address -- an assembly hall. Humans have a tendency to treat things as "holy" through use and to treat places where they have encountered God as "holy ground." But the holiest things we encounter are one another gathered in the name of Jesus.
     Verse 2 we read of the martyrdom of the first of the Apostles (James brother of John son of Zebedee). Notice that James son of Zebedee has to be identified as "Brother of John". This is because the Lord's half Brother, also named James, is now a prominent leader in the Jerusalem Church (see verse 19 where Peter tells them to "tell this to James and to the "brothers" (also translated "believers")". The James there is "the Lord's half brother" that is a younger son of Joseph and Mary. James, John, and Jesus were all very common names in 1st century Palestine and the bearers of those names usually had other descriptors: James, brother of John, James the Elder, etc.
    Peter is imprisoned and miraculously delivered from Prison. The King Herod mentioned here is not the King Herod that tried to kill Jesus as a baby (see Matthew 2). This is that Herod's, aka Herod the Great, son. Herod the Great's kingdom was divided into four sections for his four sons upon his death. Not much to say about this story except the amusing piece about Rhoda not opening the door but running in to tell people Peter was there while leaving him standing in the street.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Acts 11

     The persecution of the church that began with the stoning of Stephen results in the scattering of much of the Church. While the Apostles stay in Jerusalem and continue their work there, many Christians leave Jerusalem and scatter to the country side. This scattering has the positive result of sending missionaries into places the gospel had not yet reached. The old ones used to say "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." Under persecution the Christian movement has always gone deep and has thrived. Historically, the church has never survived complacency and ease.
    One consequence of this scattering is some Cypriots have gone to Antioch and converted a number of Greeks. This revival in Antioch gets the Apostles attention and they send Barnabas to check things out. Barnabas real name is Joseph of Cyprus (note Joseph is from Cyprus is you are wondering why the Apostles chose to send him). The Apostles called Joseph "Barnabas" because of his ministry and temperament. The names means "Son of Encouragement." Great name!
    Barnabas surveys the situation and realizes that he needs a teacher to build up the Church. He goes to Tarsus to find Saul -- you'll remember that when Saul is converted on the road to Damascus he makes his way to Jerusalem but because of his reputation as a persecutor of Christians cannot get an audience with the Apostles. It is Barnabas who takes Saul and introduces him around (again encouraging!). Barnabas brings Saul to Antioch and they spend a year teaching and preaching and building up the church there.
     It is in Antioch that the Christ followers are first called "Christians." Scholars believe that this was originally a term of derision. It was meant as an insult. Clearly the early movement embraced the insult and chose to be known as "Christers!". Early Methodism has the same history. The name "Methodist" was supposed to be an insult hurled at John Wesley's Oxford "Holy Club" because they were teaching a method of spiritual growth. Wesley, being the wise leader he was, embraced the insult and called his group "Methodist!".

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Acts 10

     The Gospel has been preached in Jerusalem, in Judea and in Samaria with dramatic results. People are choosing to follow Christ by the hundreds and thousands. But, with the exception of the Ethiopian in Chapter 8, the Gospel has not yet intentionally crossed the Semitic world for the Gentile world. This changes in Chapter 10. Peter, the first of the Apostles, while residing in a town called Joppa (near modern day Tel Aviv) has a vision, it is a confusing vision. Peter has worked hard to keep Kosher and to be a faithful Jew. In this vision he is told to kill and eat animals and reptiles that are unclean. When he refuses he is told "what God has made clean you may not call unclean.". Simultaneously there is a Roman Centurion named Cornelius who lives in Caesarea by the Sea (about 12 miles away). Cornelius has a vision of an angel and the angel tells him he has found favor and he is to send to Joppa for Peter and to do what he says. Cornelius being a man of action immediately sends soldiers to Joppa to bring Peter back. The soldiers arrive in Joppa the moment Peter's vision is concluding. Peter, rightly, takes this a sign from God, and in the morning allows himself to be taken to Caesarea by the Sea.
     Peter and Cornelius exchange stories. In preparation for his arrival Cornelius has assembled his family and all of his closest friends to hear this man named Peter. Peter begins "I truly understand that God shows no partiality . . ." He preaches, what I believe is his shortest recorded sermon, and after telling the Romans assembled about the forgiveness found in Jesus . . . the Holy Spirit shows up and lives are transformed. Peter orders them to be taken to water and they are all baptized. Peter stays for several days, teaching, and telling the stories of Jesus.
     This sovereign act of God, the sending of the Holy Spirit, in a kind of Gentile Pentecost becomes the irrefutable proof that God sent Jesus for all the world (and not just a select few). Jew and Gentile, slave or free, male or female . . . The Holy Spirit was falling on all who would receive the good news of the Kingdom of God. This is one of those significant historical turning points that turns the Christian movement from a minor sect of Judaism into a global, universal movement.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Acts 9

     The conversion of Saul is one of the classic, dramatic conversion stories in the whole Bible. Saul has to travel as far as one can possibly travel to become a Christ follower. Saul was in training to be a Rabbi. He served as the official approving witness at the stoning of Stephen. He then set his sights on destroying the fledgling Christian movement, getting permission from the Sanhedrin to arrest any and all who were followers of the "Way". Persecuting the church in Jerusalem was not enough for Saul he got permission to travel to Damascus and persecute the church in that location as well.
     Bright lights and a voice from heaven stop Saul in his tracks. He hears a voice ask "why are you persecuting me?" and when Saul asks "who are you?" the voice says "I am Jesus . . ." Saul, when he arises, is blind and the powerful persecutor is now powerless and must be led by the hand into Damascus. Saul fasts and prays and waits for three days before God sends a Damascus disciple named Ananias to pray for him that he might receive the Holy Spirit and his sight. Saul immediately begins to preach the Gospel. What happens next is going to be a recurring theme in all of Saul's ministry:  people try to kill him. He escapes in the night and travels to Jerusalem where the Apostles refuse to meet with him until a man named Barnabas (his name means Son of Encouragement) introduces him around.
   I have often thought that the drama of one's conversion is about how far we have strayed. For many people, even if they hadn't chosen to be Christ followers, they were still fairly good people trying to live good lives. These people, when the choose Christ, do not often have dramatic experiences. Typically it is more of a general awakening, a realization of a new life. For others of us who strayed a long way from the truth or, as in Saul's case, were actively working against the cause of Christ the journey back is radical and dramatic. Saul's conversion is one such instance. Remember that Saul was his Hebrew name. He uses another name out in the "Greek" world. He was known as Paul.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Acts 8

     Two stories of the doings of Deacon Phillip that follow the stoning of Stephen and the persecution of the Church:
     1. He makes his way to Samaria and preaches the Gospel to the Samaritans. Many of them believe in Jesus. In Samaria we encounter Simon the magician (sometimes called Simon Magus). When the Apostles send Peter and John down to Samaria to see what is happening and to have them baptized and immersed in the Holy Spirit, Simon is so impressed that he offers the Apostles money to be given the power that they have. From this experiences comes a word (an Eponym) "Simony": which is the practice of making a profit out of sacred things. The Apostles reject this offer and go on to preach in many of the Samaritan villages.
    2. Philip is then sent by the Holy Spirit to preach to Word to an Ethiopian who is on his way home from worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem. This Ethiopian is unnamed but is identified as the Treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia (no small office). Philip, like any good evangelist, begins where the Ethiopian is and explains the claim and the way of Christ to him. The Ethiopian chooses to follow Jesus and is baptized by Phillip in some water they find along the way. The Ethiopian goes his way rejoicing and Philip is sent elsewhere.
     In Ethiopia today, the Christian Church identifies this unnamed man as the founder of the Christian church in Africa. He would be the first African Christian, to the best of our knowledge. It is worth noting that the Acts 1:8 trajectory: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the Earth is being lived out. Philip in Samaria, Philip with the Ethiopian and, as we shall see in later chapters the gospel will spread to many more global places before the end of the book.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Acts 7

   This chapter begins with a long speech by Stephen to the Sanhedrin Council. Stephen, recently consecrated Deacon, is falsely accused (see end of chapter 6) and is brought to the council. Notice that the accusations against him are very similar to the accusations leveled against Jesus.
     The speech is a recounting of the entire history of Israel from Abraham through the wilderness and the tabernacle. The speech ends with an accusation that the current religious leaders are simply playing out the story that their religious ancestors had played before them by ignoring the intent of the law and killing the prophets (see Jesus words in Luke 11:47). Upon hearing these accusations the council became enraged, rushed Stephen, dragged him out of the town and stoned him to death. One detail to not be missed is the end of verse 58 "laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul." The act of laying their coats at his feet puts Saul in the official condoning this act position. He is not just watching the coats he is an official witness to the stoning of Stephen. Like Jesus on the cross, Stephen, prayed for the Lord to receive his spirit and also prayed that the Lord would not hold this sin against them. And then, the text says, he died.
     Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr. His death precedes the first significant persecution of the early Christian movement which has the consequence of scattering the believers which then has the consequence of the gospel spreading to new places (like Samaria as we shall see in Chapter 8). Stephen is remembered annually on the Feast of Stephen which is celebrated on December 26.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Acts 6

This is the first indication of dissention in the early Christian movement. The complaint has to do with the distribution of food. Apparently, the Greek speaking members of the community believe that their widows are being slighted in the food distribution in preference to the Hebrew speaking widows. The Apostles are asked to arbitrate and their solution is a great example of leadership. They respond by saying: we were set aside to be witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus not to keep accounts or to wait on tables. However, since the problem cannot be allowed to continue, choose 7 from among yourselves men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom and we will appoint them to this task.

Notice: the Apostles did not name the team but had the community select the team. All I can see is the Apostles dropping their work of prayer and teaching to put out this “fire” in the early church. Notice also that they did arrange for fire fighters to come and fix the problem. They acknowledge the problem and invite the community to make a solution.

Look at the names of the 7 – Most of them have Greek names. Isn’t that just like the Christian church? If you have a complaint show up with a solution and be willing to be a part of the solution. The last thing the church needs is a “complainer” committee. Instead of point out problems, figure out solutions and help fix the problem. Too many of us only want to serve God in an advisory capacity.

One of the 7, Stephan, preaches with great power and authority and is arrested. The parallel between the arrest and stoning of Stephen and Jesus arrest and crucifixion is intentional as we shall see in chapter 7.

Acts 5

I have often wondered, after Ananias and Sapphira are buried, what the offering the next Sunday looked like. It is an odd story but is indicative of the growing authority and spiritual presence of the early church leaders that the death of this couple is attributed to punishment for lying to the church leadership (aka Apostles). The Ananias/Sapphira story is followed by a brief description of the healing ministry of the Apostles – people are left on mats where the Apostles might walk by in the hopes of their finding healing and relief from their distress. The number of new believers is growing quickly.

I believe it is this growth that leads to the inevitable persecution of the young Christian movement. In 5:17 and following, the apostles are arrested and put in prison, but the Lord miraculously opens the doors and tells them to go and stand in the Temple and preach. When the Apostles are found preaching and not behind the locked doors they are again brought before the Sanhedrin – which becomes another occasion for Peter and the Apostles to preach the clear message of the Gospel: Jesus was dead but is alive, he is the way to repentance and forgiveness of sins (31).

Enter the teacher Gamaliel. Gamaliel was one of the most prominent Rabbis of this era. St. Paul was a student of Gamaliel. He speaks to the council about various teachers who have risen and fallen over the years and he concludes: “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them (5:38-39).” The council has the apostles flogged and released.

Notice the Apostles response to this beating: “they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name (41).” Like their prayer for boldness, they are prepared to do whatever it takes to be faithful to Jesus life, death, resurrection, teaching and way.