Archive for September, 2008

To circumcise or not to circumcise – Acts 15

Controversy.

I suppose where truth is to be defended we will always have controversy. Everyone thinks they have the right answer. Yet, our own convictions, experiences and even selfish ambitions play a part in our interpretation of truth. Much like the political systems of civilized countries, the new church had a method of dealing with the interpretation of truth. They had apostles and elders in Jerusalem that were the authority – and they had spirit-led discussion.

Here’s the scenario:

As the church had just recently come into agreement about the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church, some Jews started teaching (insisting) that Gentiles must first be circumcised before they could become part of the church. This was all based on certain scriptural references (see Exodus 12:43 – 49) but Peter and Barnabas argued that since in his experience, the Holy Spirit came upon those Gentiles he was teaching, just as it had happened that fateful day we read about in Acts 2. There was no circumcision, just the gift of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, since the Holy Spirit did not seem to be concerned about the lack of circumcision in the Gentiles, neither should they.

Apparently, the discussion became quite heated, and Paul and Barnabas and some others were sent back to Jerusalem for an answer. Ultimately, James agreed with Paul and judged that Gentile males would not need to be circumcised to become a part of the church of Israel. But, he did have some other suggestions:

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

How is it that the Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, but they must now follow these new “rules”? This was my first thought. Exchanging one ritual for four others? I didn’t see the Holy Spirit requiring the Gentiles in the home of the Roman Centurion to eat certain things and avoid others. As I meditated on this, I started to wonder if this was simply instructions (teaching) on what to do next, rather than requirements for “membership.”

So I looked up this chapter on the Internet and here’s some good information about James’ four new recommendations (found at http://users.aristotle.net/~bhuie/acts15.htm):

The four requirements James bound upon the Gentiles are halakah based on commands found in the Mosaic Law. In Hebrew, halakah literally means “the path one walks.” Each of these commandments was based on ancient requirements found in the Law of Moses for a “stranger” (Heb. ger) who desired to live among the tribes of Israel. In fact, all the original commands can be found in the 17th and 18th chapters of Leviticus.

In this matter, James defined the path that the Gentiles should walk in order to be accepted by the Jews. James used a halakic interpretation of these commands from the Law of Moses regarding the ger to address how first-century Gentile “strangers” could be accepted into the assembly of Israel.

Let’s look at these four commands from the Torah and see how James interpreted them for the Gentiles of his day:

The precursor requirement to abstain from things contaminated by idols is found in Leviticus 17:3-9. This command requires any ox, lamb or goat sacrificed by an Israelite or a ger to be brought to the door of the Tabernacle of Meeting. The reason for this requirement was because these animals were being sacrificed to demons outside the camp instead of to God (Lev. 17:7). Paul tells us that the sacrifices Gentiles made to idols were actually sacrifices to demons (I Cor. 10:19-21). Therefore, James’ command based on Leviticus 17:3-9 was designed to remove this demonic influence from the lives of the Gentiles coming into the assembly of Israel.

The command against sexual immorality comes from Leviticus 18:6-23. This passage is an extensive listing of forbidden sexual practices and relationships. Included in this wide-ranging list are incest, homosexuality, adultery, and bestiality. Leviticus 18:26 states that neither the Israelites nor any ger that dwelt among Israel should commit these abominable sins. All of these were detestable practices that had made the Gentiles (Heb. goyim) unclean (Lev. 18:24).

The commandment against eating animals that had been strangled was based on Leviticus 17:15-16. This passage states that Israelites or a ger living among them would become unclean by eating animals that had died naturally or had been killed by wild beasts (cf. Lev 22:8). This command has its basis in the commandment against eating blood. An animal that has been strangled (or has died naturally or been killed by wild beasts) has not had the blood properly drained from its body. James proclaims that Gentiles coming into the church were to keep from becoming unclean by avoiding such things.

The command to abstain from eating blood is found in Leviticus 17:10-14 (as well as Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17; 7:26-27; 19:26; Deu. 12:16, 23; 15:23). Neither the Israelites nor the ger dwelling with them were supposed to eat the blood of an animal, because the blood sustains the life of the flesh (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:11, 14; Deu. 12:23).

So as we can see, all the underlying commands found in Leviticus 17 and 18 applied to the Israelites as well as the ger living with them. James took these ancient commands from the Torah and built halakah upon them for the Gentiles coming into Messianic Israel.

You see, some have cited this chapter as evidence that the entire Mosaic law was abolished with the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, it’s only talking about a single aspect – circumcision. James’ guidelines were tips on how Gentiles could be accepted in synagogues on Sabbath.

I equate this to how we encourage those who come to our churches to study the Bible, learn about sins to avoid, habits to help us grow. Just because a person receives Jesus Christ and believes and is baptized, this does not mean the need to nothing else, but to just continue living the same way they had been. On the contrary, when we give our lives to God, we are joining the battle and we need to know the tools to keep us on track and strong.

The other encouraging thing in reading about the New Testament church, is the method they had to deal with controversy. They had structure and hierarchy to protect the truth. They were able to deal with issues as they came up and this was key to their survival. I have seen a number of fledgling ministries and churches get crushed because they thought they could survive without this.

Forgive us, Lord, when we try to push our own agendas instead of looking to what You want. Ultimately, what we want is to please You.

grace & peace,
e

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Paul Gets Stoned! – Acts 14

Paul went on a missionary trip and all he got was this lousy t-shirt!

No – not that kind of stoned, silly! Are you serious???

Paul and Barnabas continue their preaching mission trip to Iconium, where they began to preach in the Jewish synagogue. A great number of Jews and Gentiles listened and believed. Yet, some of the jealous Jews plotted to have these two mistreated and stoned. They heard about the plot and escaped to Lystra.

There, Paul sees a man who had crippled feet. Apparently, this man made eye contact with Paul because the next thing we know, Paul tells this guy to stand up. Immediately, this man jumps up and starts walking. Well, the people who saw it thought Paul and Barnabas were gods from heaven! They called Barnabas Zeus and Paul they called Hermes. Even after Paul and Barnabas tried to tell them they were not gods, the people still wanted to believe they were:

14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16 In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Trouble-making Jews came from Antioch and Iconium to stir things up for Paul and Barnabas. They won the crowd over and Paul ended up being dragged outside the city, stoned and left for dead.

In a moment, from god-like status to being stoned. Perhaps these Gentiles were not yet ready to believe?

Doing what God tells you does not mean you’ll always escape persecution. Paul must have been wondering why God didn’t rescue him from this particular mob scene. I would have had questions. Yet, Paul and Barnabas continued in their mission.

Give me that kind of determination, Lord. Let me hear Your will for my life so clearly as these men so I can go with confidence.

grace & peace,
e

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Paul & Barnabas’s Clear Mission – Acts 13

In this chapter, we see Paul (Saul) and Barnabas getting called and sent out to spread the gospel from the church there in Antioch:

1 In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

They preached in Cyprus, Paphos and Perga. Everywhere they went, the Gentiles seemed eager to hear and many people believed and were saved. Also, where ever they went the Jews became increasingly aggitated and were continually trying to start protests and uprisings against these men.

Because of their determination and their calling, these men continued, undaunted by the Jews and their attempts to thwart what God was doing.

I was especially encouraged by these verses:

49 The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51 So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

No matter what the Jews threw at them, they simply shook off the dust and moved on, filled with joy.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t make enough noise in the big picture to get the attention of many established religions. I’m not hunted down by religious leaders who are trying to discredit me and get me thrown out of cities.

Yet, I do have an enemy who is trying to discredit me and ruin my faith. He sends naysayers and sloths in my path to discourage me and divert my attention. He somehow uses those closest to me to distract me and try to throw me into depression and despair.

Yet, like Paul, I want to be so focused on my calling and so filled with the Holy Spirit that none of that can deter me from accomplishing what God is wanting to do in and through me.

My thoughts return to that opening paragraph – where God told the men at Antioch to set apart Paul and Barnabas. They were given a very clear direction and mission. They were prayed over with the laying on of hands after fasting. This was a very deliberate calling and mission. It was clear to these two what they were to do.

We don’t see too much of this today, with the exception of those called to do missionary work. What is my mission? What is my calling? Do I have people sending me out – and intentionally praying for me? I can see how, with such a clear calling and team of prayer warriors back home, these two could more easily retain the joy of the Lord and a keen sense of relentless pursuit, in spite of the difficulties.

Hmmm…lots to think about here.

peace,
e

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Peter escorted from prison by an angel – Acts 12

Peter escorted from prison by an angel

Peter was escorted from prison by an angel

Well, King Herod needed to get involved. All the commotion of the growth of the new “church” had created a fantastic opportunity to muster some political bonus points:

1 It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2 He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3 When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

I’m sure many of Herod’s citizens did not like these “Christians” and as Herod perhaps surmised, the murder of James, one of “the twelve” was pleasing to some Jews in that city. Up until now, the church had been growing and growing. It seemed nothing could be done to stop them. The religious leaders were puzzled as to how to deal with the problem, and most officials were afraid to do anything.

Until Herod. Now, the seemingly Holy protection of those that walked close with Jesus was nothing but a rumor. James was beheaded (a likely result when the phrase “with the sword” is used) and that meant the disciples were vulnerable after all. Of course, Jesus already warned the disciples that they would be persecuted (see Matt. 10:16-26).

So, Herod was going to do the same to Peter. No telling what favor he could drum up with the death of “the Rock.”

But the church was praying. Did you catch that in verse 5?

The result? Peter received a special visitor while in prison – an angel – who took his hand and escorted him right out of there to his freedom. This was unfortunate for the guards at that time since letting a prisoner escape was punishable by death.

There is power in prayer. Wounds are healed. Captives are set free. God’s kingdom is advanced. The enemy is defeated.

I find myself thinking about what power the church could have if we would only pray:

…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. – 2 Chronicles 7:13-15

Seems we’ve got a very similar situation today in America. Politicians looking to leverage any little comment or event to their political advantage – no matter who gets hurt.

Heal our land, Lord! Call your people to prayer once again. Send your Holy Spirit to convict us of our arrogance and cause us to humble ourselves and pray. Bring revival and cause your church to turn from their wicked ways. Let it begin with me, Lord.

e

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First “Christians” – Acts 11

“Christian”

“A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, a monotheistic” – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian

“A believer in Christianity; An individual who seeks to live his or her life according to the principles and values taught by Jesus Christ; Of, like or relating to Christianity or Christians; Kind, charitable ” en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Christian

“”Christ’s ones,” that is, believers in Christ.” www.answering-islam.org/Testimonies/TruePath/glossary.htm

“A person who believes in biblical person of Jesus who claimed to be God in flesh, died, and rose again from the grave and who lives according to …” www.carm.org/atheism/terms.htm

“”The name given by the Greeks or Romans, probably in reproach, to” the followers of Jesus. It was first used at Antioch.” www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Free-Bible-Dictionary-C.php

The term “Christian” was first used in Antioch as described here in Acts 11. I tend to believe the last comment I posted above when it says “probably in reproach”. Yet, the name stuck.

This kind of reminds me how the name “Wildmen” stuck when our band of brothers started meeting on a regular basis, learning how to be godly men, fathers, husbands and servants. The wives of some of the men started encouraging their men to continue attending this men’s group because they liked how their husbands were becoming more like Christ as a result. They coined the term “Wildmen” (based on the “Wild at Heart” study by John Eldredge) and it stuck.

The term “Christian” may have originally been meant as an insult, but today, it identifies those who believe in and follow Jesus Christ.

I am proud to be identified with both the “Wildmen” and the “Christians”.

Thank You, god, for calling me to both. I am forever grateful.

grace & peace,
e

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“Nothing here is unclean” – Acts 10

Unfortunately, my Bible reading times are usually very limited and I get distracted easily. This leads to a fragmented understanding of the context of what I’m reading (that’s why I need dBrag so much!).

One of my favorite things about performing in the shows I’m involved in is that I get to see the whole story at once. I remember the first few years of performing in “The Rock & The Rabbi“, I would frequently get so involved in the narrator’s delivery that I would nearly miss queues or almost fail to be ready to come in on my part. One reason is that the narrator, Gary Richardson, is such a gifted storyteller. The main reason is the story itself. Just hearing it happen all at once, in context, uninterrupted, gives it new life and fresh meaning. I couldn’t help but be drawn in…

The same thing happens with our new show, “The Witnesses.” As I read Acts 10 this morning, I was reminded of a particular show I was performing (when I had learned my parts pretty well and stopped worrying so much about the notes and the music) and I was able to really listen to Gary’s lines. This scene (found here in Acts 10) really impacted me. I had read all the parts to this story separately, but was never able to string them all together as eloquently as Gary is able to do. the whole picture never really popped out like this before.

I’ve hinted about what’s going on here in my previous few posts: how God’s plan was to spread the good news to all nations, all people, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all parts of the world. Well, at this time, many in the Jewish nation felt that as God’s chosen people, the gospel story was just for them. Gentiles (anyone non-Jewish) were filthy, unclean and were looked down upon as second-class citizens. Clearly, God came to save everyone, including the Gentiles.

Peter’s vision of the unclean food is God’s way of setting up the scene for what was about to happen to Peter. He was preparing Peter for what was to come. He gave Peter a vision:

9 About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13 Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

16 This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.

In the script of “The Witnesses”, the line is, “nothing here is unclean,” And it resonated within me that first time I was able to really listen to the narration as I was performing.

You see, immediately following Peter’s vision, men from the house of a Roman commander came to find Peter – as God Himself had told them to do. Peter was about to go into the home of this Gentile and minister the Good News to him and his household. Through the vision, God was telling Peter that the Gentiles were not unclean. A “good” Jew understood about Kosher foods and the need to avoid anything that was not. They thought they understood the same thing about avoiding “unclean” Gentiles as well. But, God has other ideas.

This was not an easy lesson for the disciples and the leaders of the early church. This issue was about to cause huge division inside the new church. All hell was about to break loose within these men’s lives. I think Peter may not have understood what was about to happen. But, he was only obeying what God told him to do. And that’s all that mattered.

This gets me thinking about my life. Would I have been willing to go against the established understanding if I felt God was guiding me to do so? What about you? What if it goes against what you’ve been taught for years? What if it goes against the traditions you’ve held since childhood?

“Nothing here is unclean.”

e

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Saul’s Conversion – Acts 9

What a whirlwind! The early Christians must have been dizzy with emotions – first fear for their lives as Saul is given license to hunt them down and slay them. Then, rumors of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascas. They must have thought it was a trick. They must have really wanted the rumors to be true!

I especially think Ananias was a brave soul. I’m not sure if he heard an audible voice, but I imagine he questioned if he heard God’s voice telling him to seek out this Saul, whom he knew was infamous for killing men like himself.

But, he obeyed. Ananias went to the house on the street he was instructed to go to (nothing like hearing specific directions fro God, huh?). He said a simple prayer as he was told:

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

And, immediately Saul was healed – from his temporary blindness, and his long-term spiritual blindness.

The disciples were skeptical. They did not trust this man. Who can blame them? They probably thought it was a trick to get at the leaders of this movement with the intent to shut them down permanently. But, after a while Saul’s preaching made it clear that there was no deception here. Saul had been miraculously converted.

And, God had big plans for Saul. I like the foreshadowing that he told to Ananias in this chapter:

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

This verse is key in understanding all that is happening in the book of Acts. With the conversion of Saul, as with the persecution of the church to begin with, God was preparing His church to take the good news to the Gentiles and to all the world.

How is your communication with God these days? Do you talk to God? Do you listen for His voice? Or, do you, like many people I know, rely on the lame excuse that God doesn’t really talk to you like that? Perhaps you’ve made agreements with the lie that God doesn’t really talk to people directly, or that God has abandoned you all together (see John Eldredge’s book “Walking With God” for more info on that topic). Or, perhaps you stay way too busy to ever stop and listen for God’s voice.

What if God told you something crazy like this today? Would you quickly dismiss it as your crazy thoughts again? Would you argue with God? Would you obey? What would I do?

The encouragement for me after reading today’s chapter is to slow down and listen for His direction. I may be missing out on very big opportunities.

grace & peace,
e

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Saul begins his persecution of the church – Acts 8

Well – the treacherous act of the stoning of Stephen stirred things up quite a bit. The Bible says that at that point persecution broke out among the church, and Saul began to “destroy” the church. Look at verse 1:

1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

I noticed where it said, “and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” This scattering sets the stage for even faster growth. The church was growing from within by leaps and bounds. But, God had bigger plans.

I imagine that if it was then like it is today, things may have become very “comfortable” in the early church if left alone. Sometimes God has to stir things up a bit. This persecution pushed believers outside the comfort zone, into Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth (sounds familiar somehow, no?).

Isn’t it ironic to see Saul’s role in this? Isn’t God amazing? The one player that first persecutes the church and who takes on his role as destroyer of Christians is the one player who, after these Christians are spread all over the known world, becomes a powerful force to disciple these new Christians all over. Who knew?

Furthermore, we see an even more amazing storyline developing that would change the hearts of “the chosen” forever and bring the good news to all people. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Are you uncomfortable in your comfort? Is God telling you to stir things up a bit? Is God stirring things up in your comfort zone? He may be calling you to the next big growth of His church.

e

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The Stoning of Stephen/Intro to Saul – Acts 7

This chapter is the continuation of the story of Stephen. We saw last chapter how Stephen was chosen as part of the “committee” in charge of food distribution for the new church – which was growing and growing every day.

Stephen was falsely accused of blasphemy by those who did not agree with Stephen’s methods…even though we read that Stephen was “full of God’s grace and power.” This led to the elders calling Stephen before the high priest for an official explanation.

Stephen launches into one of the first gospel sermons – and the people gathered there did NOT like what he was saying. But – if you read it, you’ll see a simple, powerful narrative of the Old Testament stories of Moses and the children of Israel.

Apparently, Stephen gets pretty worked up and starts to stepping on toes with this commentary:

51“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”

Oops…did he cross some kind of line? I find it interesting that we see that those involved in the ensuing stoning of Stephen “covered their ears” and yelled at the top of their voices. The had heard enough. They had decided what they would do with Stephen.

Meanwhile – this entire scene was done in front of a young man who would later become a key player in our Lord’s story of forgiveness and restoration leading to powerful changes in the church. This young man’s name is Saul. Saul got to see the whole thing and was apparently assigned to hold people’s coats while they stoned this Christian leader. What kind of impression did that make?

Stay tuned…

e

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God in me (Part deux) – Acts 6

I love to read about the new church in the book of Acts. In chapter 6, we see that things were growing to the point where some organization was necessary. So, “the twelve” got together and came up with the idea that they should apppoint their first “committee”.

ew.

Well, everyone seemed to like the idea and they appointed seven men to overlook the distribution of food:

5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

You’re familiar with the story of Stephen – and we’ll see more about him in the next chapter. But, what about the other six men in the group? Why was Stephen so well known?

8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.

Oh – because he was God’s man. Now I get it. We don’t really hear too much about the others.

Soon, others began to argue with Stephen, then they made up lies against him to get him into trouble, saying he was speaking blasphemy against Moses and God.

I imagine there’s a lesson in all this. Perhaps the lesson is to leave God’s work to the ungrateful complainers and whiners if you want to live in peace. Or, better said, if you really jump in and do God’s work, and God is in you, you WILL face opposition – and it WILL cost you.

Something to ponder today…

e

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