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IMG_0994Despite being the only Gentile writer in the New Testament, Luke still gives us a lot of Old Testament connections in Acts. Inspiration certainly has a lot to do with this. Along with that we remember that Luke is a physician playing the part of church historian. He is doing his best to give us an accurate representation of the events that unfolded (Luke 1:1-4). He was present for some of the events in Acts and others he had to rely on eyewitnesses of the events and diligently recorded them for us.

In recording the events one of the things that stands out is the constant connection with the Old Testament. Just like Paul, Luke makes it very clear that the New Testament is a direct continuation of the Old Testament story. There is a continuity here that must be pointed out. Luke does so masterfully.

We see it at Pentecost when Peter proves from the Old Testament that Jesus was the Messiah who was to come.

We see it in Stephen’s speech where he tells nearly the entire Old Testament story concluding with Jesus.

We see it in Paul’s missionary journeys where he teaches in the synagogues, reasoning from the scriptures about Jesus (see Acts 13:13-43).

We see it in Paul’s defense of his ministry, defending himself against the accusation that he preached against the Law of Moses and circumcision (see Acts 21:21, 26:22, and 28:23).

God is doing something new in Christ just as was promised in Jeremiah 31 but even the new thing resembled (or echoed as Richard Hays would say) the Old. Paul has no theology of an Old Testament that is nailed to the cross. Paul, Luke, Peter and the rest all see the continuity between the two testaments. What is more the only written Testament they had at this time was the Old. It was what they called “scripture” (2 Tim 3:16).

I believe part of our identity crisis in Christianity and even in Churches of Christ is not just our lack of familiarity with the New Testament but also with the Old. The basic gist of the New Testament is easily discernible on its own but there is so much we miss and lack if we do not spend time in the entire Bible.

The Old Testament gets attention in Sunday school for our children. It needs to get more attention from the adults as well. Why else would the inspired New Testament writers continue to point us back to things that are of little use to us today? They were begging their audience to listen into what the Old Testament (their Bible at the time) had to say and so should we! We should listen to Peter and Paul and Stephen and even Jesus who all pointed us there. We should go back and pay attention to what we learn about God in the Old Testament. We should see where it points us to Jesus. We should find out about the trajectory of scripture. There are so many treasures there to find if we will take the time to look for them.

If you want to get more familiar with the Old Testament and its connections with the New you will want to subscribe to Bobby Valentine’s blog where he does some fantastic work on this topic. Here is the link.

The baptism of the eunuch

“The Baptism of the Eunuch” by Rembrandt 1626

Acts is, in many ways, the story of God’s kingdom expanding into all the world. Jesus’ final words to his apostles were, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NET). We see that theme progress throughout the book as the apostles spread the good news in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), persecution scattering the young church throughout Judea (8:1-3) and Samaria (8:4-25), and, through Paul, all across the Roman Empire (9-28).

But to see the words of Jesus and the events in Acts as a purely geographical movement misses something critical in the story.

Philip and the Ethiopian

After Philip spread the good news to Samaria but before Paul is introduced in the story we see Philip sent by the Holy Spirit to have an encounter with an Ethiopian (8:26-40). This was no normal Ethiopian. First he was a God-fearer, that class of people who were not Jewish by birth but still worshiped Yahweh. Second, he was the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia who had made a trip to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. But the most scandalous, most shocking thing about him was his lack of gender.

He was a eunuch.

We don’t know the circumstance that led to his castration. We do know that in the ancient world eunuch were used as servants to women in high positions. It’s possible that he was castrated as a child to give him a chance to obtain work, perhaps because of the poverty of his parents.

We also know that the Mosaic law prohibited eunuchs from being a part of the congregation of Israel (Deut. 23:1) making the Ethiopian treasurer that much more scandalous. The holy irony of the reading that the Ethiopian was struggling to understand, Isaiah 53, is that just three chapters later Isaiah prophesied that God would welcome the foreigner and the eunuch (Isa. 56:3-7).

Gender Identity

Today there are debates raging in state legislatures, school boardrooms, college campuses, and church offices about how to treat those who are transgendered. Specifically, the debate is about restroom requirements and who is allowed to use what room to relieve themselves. There is fear that abusers will hurt children. There is fear that perverts will spy on the vulnerable. There is fear that privacy and decency will be lost.

There is fear of another sort that is being ignored in many debates: the fear of the transgendered among us.

I don’t know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for a person to be born with one set of sex organs and to feel as if they should have the other. I don’t know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But I do know that the Ethiopian boy overcame a great deal of fear, not to become the treasurer of a powerful nation, but to walk into the temple in Jerusalem.

The temple was segregated by both race and gender. The inner court was only for Jewish men. The next court only for Jewish women. The outer court, the one where Jesus taught and where the first Christians met, was for the rest, the leftovers, the Gentiles and ungendered, for those deemed unworthy to step any closer to the mercy seat of God. That Ethiopian treasurer stepped into the temple, bought a scroll from the Hebrew scriptures, and desperately wanted to understand how he could fit into God’s world.

Imagine the fear of a transgendered person who might dare to walk into your church. Imagine the great hope and great terror that must war within them. For reasons most of us will never know they cannot accept the sex of their birth. If it were so easy they would not risk bullying, beatings, mocking, and even death to live as a different gender. Beyond that they have stepped into a place that, historically, has been the forefront of hatred and oppression against them. Imagine the knots in their guts. Imagine the rapidity of their heartbeat. Imagine the desperate, reckless hope that they must have to dare such a thing. Hope that they might finally find a respite from bullying, from beating, from mocking, and even from death. Hope that the love that Jesus spoke of might be evident in the people who wear his name.

Imagine what they will find in response to that terror and that hope when they dare to walk into your church.

Good News

Acts is the story of God’s kingdom expansion, not just geographically, but ethnically and socially. Acts tells us of the shocking, scandalous inclusion in God’s kingdom of the hated Samaritans. It tells of the deep racial divide that made the inclusion of the Gentiles a constant struggle for the Jewish Christians. And it tells us of God fulfilling his prophecy through Isaiah and making a place within the kingdom for an Ethiopian treasurer.

This is what the Lord says,
“Promote justice! Do what is right!
For I am ready to deliver you;
I am ready to vindicate you openly.
The people who do this will be blessed,
the people who commit themselves to obedience,
who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
who refrain from doing anything that is wrong.
No foreigner who becomes a follower of the Lord should say,
‘The Lord will certainly exclude me from his people.’
The eunuch should not say,
‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree.’”
For this is what the Lord says:
“For the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths
and choose what pleases me
and are faithful to my covenant,
I will set up within my temple and my walls a monument
that will be better than sons and daughters.
I will set up a permanent monument for them that will remain.
As for foreigners who become followers of the Lord and serve him,
who love the name of the Lord and want to be his servants—
all who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
and who are faithful to my covenant—
I will bring them to my holy mountain;
I will make them happy in the temple where people pray to me.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar,
for my temple will be known as a temple where all nations may pray.”
(Isa. 56:1-7)

I don’t know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But he was and God welcomed him into the kingdom, despite the scandal.

I don’t know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for people to be transgendered. But they are. Will you welcome them, despite the scandal?

mind_the_gapI was attending a Christian College in the spring of 1992 where I spent my days struggling with life, and what God wanted from me. Other students seemed laser focused on what they were going to do with their life; I mean they had even been on the four dates that were required before you bought the engagement ring. (I’m kidding, but not really kidding).

During those days I didn’t even own a laser to focus. One minute I wanted to take the sword of the spirit and boldly conquer the world for God. The next minute going back to my parents house and eating pralines on the couch seemed like a viable option. Everyone seemed to know who they were, and more importantly they seemed to know God. Their prayer lives seemed better, their bible understanding seemed better, and their relationship with God just seemed closer which was all a bit foreign in my world. There were a thousand times in my life I felt that God was keeping me at an arm’s distance or just pushed me away all together. It’s hard to worship a God that doesn’t seem to want you around.

I mention the spring of 1992 because that’s when I first fell in love with the book of Acts. I am not overstating my case for poetic license; falling in love was a pretty good description of what happened. Until that spring I simply read Acts, when I did read it, as a history of what happened in the early days of the Church. The book of Acts was the book in the Bible we had to pick apart so we could figure out the pattern God wanted us to follow so we could make Him happy with us. Once we deciphered the pattern all that was left was to do our best so we could get a passing grade on the test. If we could get a good enough grade then God would have no choice but to let us into heaven. Once we arrived in heaven the best I could hope for is that God would be in His palace and I would live out all eternity in my mansion just over the hilltop. My home would be on the outskirts where God would continue be distant and far from me. But I reasoned, living in heaven with God distant from me was a better option than spending eternity in hell.

That’s not the story of Acts, and definitely not the story of Acts 3 where we are introduced to a man who Luke tells us had been lame since birth. Not being able to walk, his friends who would carry him to the temple gate where he could beg for money from the people going in and out of the temple. It was not the life that he wanted, but it was the life that he was condemned to live. We discover in Acts 4:22 that the man was over 40 years old, and every day his job consisted of begging at the temple gate. He did not have the ability to walk, or to be a productive member of society. He simply relied on the mercy of those who were going into the temple to worship.

The reason this man was placed at the temple gate is because he was not allowed to go any further. According to Leviticus 21 people who had any type of defect were not permitted to approach the altar. In 2 Samuel 5:8 King David seems to up the ante and says that the lame and blind are not even allowed to enter the house of God. So by the time we get to Acts 3 you have a man who has never been able to experience fellowship in the temple. He has never been able to hear the reading of the scriptures, or to participate in the festivals, or even enter in to the court of the Gentiles. If anyone felt like God was keeping them at an arm’s distance it was this 40-year-old lame man. I wonder at what point in his life did he lose the desire to go into the temple to meet God and just stared longing for the money that those going to see God could provide.

At the 9th hour of the day business is picking up, folks are rushing into the temple so that they can offer their prayers and the man begins his spiel, “Alms, anyone have alms for a poor man? Show mercy to the lame, help the poor. Alms!” His voice betrays the fact that he is resigned to live his life on the outskirts; as an outsider separated from God. That is until God closes the gap.

Peter hears this man pleading for help and offers him what he wanted most in life but had given up hope of ever receiving. Peter says, “I don’t have any silver or gold for you today, but I have something better. In the name of Jesus get up and walk.” In that one moment God closed the gap. A few moments ago the man was not allowed to go into the temple, he was not allowed to be a productive member of the community, he was not allowed to have a life, and now everything changed. Now because of Jesus this man is whole. Because of Jesus he can enter the temple, and more than that he can get close to God who only moments earlier was so far away.

That story is told time and time again in the book of Acts. We have separated ourselves from God because we refused to believe, refused to trust, refused to accept and the story of Jesus closes the gap. The disciples, who only days before were hiding out and afraid, are now speaking boldly in plain sight because Jesus closed the gap. People are selling their possessions and freely meeting each other’s needs because Jesus closed the gap. Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans are all welcomed at the table because Jesus closed the gap. A murderer risked his life, was beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and snake bit because Jesus closed the gap. In Acts 15 the church comes together and decides that since Jesus has closed the gap, we cannot do anything to cause further separation in the lives of those whom Jesus has closed the gap.

We cannot take this beautiful story of what God has done to draw us closer and turn it into a list of requirements or a pattern we must decipher. The story of Acts is the story of Jesus and His love for us. The story of Acts is that God has closed the gap, and finally we are free to get close to Him, the place we were created to be.

Harding Profile“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Acts 2:42, NRSV.

“Our greatest trouble now is, it seems to me, a vast unconverted membership. A very large percent of the church members among us seem to have very poor conception of what a Christian ought to be. They are brought into the church during these high-pressure protracted meetings, and they prove to be a curse instead of a blessing. They neglect prayer, the reading of the Bible, and the Lord’s day meetings, and, of course, they fail to do good day by day as they should. Twelve years of continuous travel among the churches have forced me to the sad conclusion that a very small number of the nominal Christians are worthy of the name.”

James A. Harding, Gospel Advocate (1887) [1]

As a summary of early Christian steadfastness, Acts 2:42 has served as a influential reference point in the Believer’s Church tradition, and it has been especially important to the Stone-Campbell Movement. As early as the 1830s some even regarded it as the biblical “order of worship.” Others simply emphasized its fundamental orientation. James A. Harding, co-founder of Lipscomb University and namesake of Harding University, called them “means of grace,” that is, four spiritual disciplines that form believers into the image of Christ.

Harding identified the four as (1) reading and studying the Bible, (2) ministering to others (especially the poor) as we share (“fellowship”) our resources, (3) participating in the Lord’s day meeting at the Lord’s table as a community, and (4) habitual prayer.[2] Sometimes Harding identifies these with the Lord’s Day assembly or communal gatherings but generally understood Bible study, missional engagement with the poor, and prayer as daily spiritual disciplines. According to Harding, believers should adopt a kind of rule of life which involves daily Bible reading, “doing good” daily as they have opportunity, and pray every morning, noon, afternoon, and evening.

But these are no mere duties. Rather, they are “four great means of grace—appointed means by which God dynamically acts among, in, and through the people of God.[3] They are not modes of human self-reliance but means of divine transformation by which God graciously sanctifies believers. They are spiritual disciplines through which God conforms believers to the image of Christ.

Harding stressed how “the life of a successful Christian is a continual growth in purity, a constant changing into a complete likeness to Christ.”[4] To “grow more and more into the likeness of Christ” should be the Christian’s “greatest” desire. [5] In other words, Harding believed discipleship was the central dimension of practicing the kingdom of God. Consequently, one of the dangers of revivalism (“protracted meetings”) was the immediate interest in a larger number of conversions where the main concern was “escaping hell and getting into heaven” as opposed to discipling people to lead “lives of absolute consecration to the Lord.” As a result, these “converts are much more anxious to be saved than they are to follow Christ.”[6]

Harding’s antidote recommended the “four habits” of Acts 2:42 as expressions of both communal and personal piety. Whoever neglects them will falter and their “falling away is sure.”[7] But if one will pursue these spiritual practices, “he will surely abide in Christ. These four are god’s means of grace to transform a poor, frail, sinful human being into the likeness of Christ.” Whoever “faithfully uses these means unto the end of life can not be lost.” Specifically, in response to the question, “Will God hold us responsible for little mistakes?” Harding answered: God “holds nothing against us” whether we sinned “in ignorance, weakness or willfulness” as long as we live in Christ as people who faithfully practice these spiritual disciplines with a heart that seeks God.[8]

God in Christ through the Spirit is graciously active through these communal and personal faith-practices. God actively transforms believers into God’s own image, and believers who pursue these gifts of grace will experience transformation by divine power rather than by human effort.

**This is adapted from John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding (Abilene: Leafwood Press, 2006), 75-77. One chapter is devoted to each of these means of grace.

[1]Harding, “Scraps,” Gospel Advocate 27 (9 February 1887), 88.

[2]Harding, “Questions Concerning the Way to Heaven,” The Way 4 (12 February 1903), 370.

[3]Harding, “Questions and Answers,” The Way 4 (17 July 1902), 123.

[4]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (23 July 1903), 735.

[5]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 5 (15 October 1903), 945.

[6]Harding, “About Protracted Meetings,” Gospel Advocate 27 (14 September 1887), 588.

[7]Harding, “Ira C. Moore on the Validity of Baptism,” Christian Leader and the Way 23 (18 May 1909), 8.

[8]Harding, “Scraps,” The Way 4 (26 February 1903), 401-2.

IMG_0994Women played a larger role in the early church than we often give them credit for. We go looking for them around Mother’s day but they often go overlooked the other 51 weeks of the year. Women played a vital role in the ministry of Jesus and in the early church. I want to highlight a few ladies from the book of Acts just to give you an idea. When we think of women in the New Testament Luke comes quickly to mind because he seems to have an eye for including stories that mention women. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that he does so not just in his Gospel but also in his second volume, Acts.

Acts 1 tells us that after the ascension of Jesus the disciples met together in Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives to an upper room (1:12),

Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (1:13)

When Acts 2 kicks off we learn the disciples “were all together in one place” when the Holy Spirit came on “each of them.” “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

If you are following the story closely Luke tells us that male and female disciples were present at Pentecost (“they were all together”) and that they all received the Holy Spirit’s power enabling them to speak in other languages (“came to rest on each of them”). The only way around this is if you link the pronouns back to the end of chapter 1 and make all refer to the apostles as they replaced Judas. However, there is one more point that knocks that line of thinking off its feet and that is the fulfillment of prophesy. Peter quotes Joel 2 in his explanation and saying “this [event] is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel…”

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17/Joel 2:28).

This all points to prophesying women at Pentecost. If that troubles you, then you should be aware that there are other “troubling” verses. My point is, I hope it doesn’t trouble you but if it does then there is more to consider about what actually happened back there in Acts that is very plain in the text but that we don’t hear about very often. This wasn’t a “one off” event in Acts. We later find out in Acts 21:9 that Phillip has four daughters who prophesied. If we think about it for a moment, there were women who were prophets in the Old Testament as well but we will save that for another time. What is more we know that Paul later instructed the ladies of Corinth in how to pray and prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:1-16). That is paired with Agabus who gives his own prophesy regarding Paul’s future in 21:10-11 which is a mirror of Acts 2 where both men and women are prophesying. Prophesy is not always or even usually future telling. Prophesy is inspired teaching for the edification of the body of Christ.

That brings us to the next point. In Acts we have women who are able to teach others the Gospel. This is not reserved for Acts 2 or for Phillip’s daughters. We find a lady named Priscilla in Acts 18 who, along with her husband, teach Apollos more specifics about Jesus than the baptism of John.

We have ladies who open their homes for the gathering of other Christians. We saw this in the ministry of Jesus and we saw this throughout Paul’s letters (Nympha, Phoebe, Aquila and Priscilla, etc). We also see this in Acts 12 where Mary’s (the mother of John) house is being used for the Christians to gather and pray for Peter’s release (12:12). When Peter miraculously escapes from prison he heads to the house and is “greeted” by Rhoda who is called a servant. The word there is paidiske which means a female slave and the gate she opens is not the gate into the home but a gate from the street into the interior courtyard of the house. Mary must have been fairly well to do and able to provide space for these Christians to assemble and worship.

That brings us to another common theme in the New Testament. The women often financially back a lot of ministry. You see this in Jesus’ ministry in Luke 8:1-3 where Luke lists women who supported Jesus financially. You see this in the ministry of Paul with Phoebe. Most of our discussion around Phoebe centers around what it meant for Paul to call her a diakonos (deacon or servant) but Paul also calls her a prostasis which means a benefactor. Phoebe probably bankrolled some of Paul’s ministry.

Women are all over these stories if we are willing to stop and listen. This shouldn’t come as any surprise. We shouldn’t look for these stories once a year. We all know how vital a role women play in church life today. They are half of the body and without them the body would not be the body.

 

 

 

pbl15coverkeynote630xI am curious how many of you are planning on attending the Pepperdine Lectures next month. This is always a very exciting time of year. The combination of speakers, seeing old friends, and taking some time off to get my cup filled is a vitally important part of my spiritual life each year. If you haven’t ever attended the Lectures, I hope you will consider going in the future. I know you will be blessed by your time in Malibu.

I wasn’t very familiar with the lectures until about five years ago. I had presented some classes with my friends Donny Dillon and Eric Brown that year on reaching young adults at the Spiritual Growth Workshop in Orlando (now called Equip) and got connected with Jerry Rushford who at that time directed the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. After some discussion over the phone, Jerry invited Eric and I to present two lessons on ministering to young adults at the 2011 Lectures. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect but when it was all over I knew I had to go back.

Two years later I was back again, this time with Missy at my side and I cannot begin to tell you what a blessing it was to be there with my wife. We were at a period in our lives of trying to discern what God was calling us to and it was at the 2013 Pepperdine lectures that God connected us up with some ministers at the Westside Church of Christ here in Bakersfield. They told us they were looking for a preacher. We told them we would let them know if we thought of anyone. Then they made themselves clearer and said they thought we should apply. Six months later we found ourselves in Bakersfield at a fantastic congregation.

Pepperdine is like that. You never know what you are going to experience there. The connections you will make are rich and deep. I thank God for the Pepperdine Bible Lectures and what a difference they have made in my life and ministry. These Lectures have literally shaped the life of my family, my wife, and my children by all of the things that have happened as a result of attending.

So if you ever have a chance to come out to Malibu in May, please do. You won’t be disappointed.

IMG_0994Christianity done correctly should have some tension between itself and the powers that be in the world. We see this from Abraham to Moses to Jesus to Peter and John. We should expect to see this today. If we neglect our mission, lose our focus and discard our values it is easier to get along with the world but we lose our distinctive identity and purpose in the world.

Somehow we feel it is a loss that Christianity has been marginalized in recent years. However, this is the place where Christianity thrives if understood and lived in line with the teachings and example of Jesus and the apostles.

In Walter Brueggemann’s book “Truth Speaks to Power” he suggests the heading for Jesus’ trial with Pilate be renamed “Pilate Before Jesus” rather than the tradition “Jesus Before Pilate.” We must recognize who is really in charge and in control of the situation.

The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”

When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” – John 19:7-11

Who has the most to lose here?

Jesus warned his disciples that they would be in tension with the powers of this world and even the powers that be in Judaism,

16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” – Matthew 10:16-20

If a disciple is to imitate their rabbi, it only makes sense that the fate that awaits the rabbi awaits the disciple as well. Now, Jesus takes the sting of that idea away in two ways: 1) his teaching his disciples to die to themselves, to take up a cross etc and 2) in his resurrection from the dead. They had nothing to fear from the world because they had already died and were promised resurrection, which put their lives and even their potential deaths in the proper perspective.

So in John 4 we see Jesus’ warning come to fruition. The disciples imitated Jesus in healing the lame man and now they are being persecuted for it just as Jesus was. This is a power struggle – ““By what power or what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7). When the powers that be have their power questioned, you can bet they will fight and fight hard. They fight because they have a lot to lose, which creates fear. Pilate was afraid and now they are afraid. Fear and loss go hand in hand. There is little fear when you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Peter and John have little to lose in a worldly sense, which means they have everything to gain and nothing to fear. How much does a Galilean peasant have to lose vs Rome or the Jewish religious elite? This fact isn’t lost on the “higher ups” in Jerusalem’s religious power structure (Acts 4:13).

I wonder if fear is what holds us back from allowing the power of God to fully operate among us today. We don’t evangelize because we are afraid of how people might respond. We don’t want to be distinct from the world because we fear people’s perceptions. We aren’t even being truly persecuted and yet we live in fear when it comes to exercising many of the defining marker and callings of our Christian faith. If we truly believe in the power of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit what is there to fear? If we believe in the second coming of Christ and future resurrection what is there to fear? If we are not to fear death itself (Heb 2:14) then what else is there to fear? What are we afraid of losing?

The antidote to fear is coming to grips with the resurrected Jesus. The reason these Galilean fishermen took on the powers of the world from Jerusalem to Rome is that these men experienced the resurrected Jesus. They saw him, touched him, ate with him, and loved him. They saw him crucified and alive again. After that, there is no more room for fear because of the promise that one day we too will be raised to be like Jesus and with Jesus. So what is there to fear when you have resurrection power backing you every day?

This is what the “powers that be” don’t want you to realize. They would rather you stay silent, be defeated, unproductive and paralyzed by irrational fears and all they have to keep you stuck there is the same old smoke and mirrors show that dates back to Pharaoh in Exodus and beyond. Imagine what the church could do if we truly through off the things we fear and embraced new, resurrection empowered, Holy Spirit embedded life in the kingdom? We would be unstoppable.

“One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.

Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.” – Acts 3:1-8

And this from Jesus…

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” – John 5:1-6

Do you want to get well? It is an important question. I am not so sure all of us want to get well. There are times in life it seems we would rather be stuck in our habit, addiction, or destructive behavior than really get well. Once you are well there are certain things you have to face, decisions you have to make and expectations to live up to.

The solution to our problem may not be what we think it is because we often get stuck on the symptom level. As long as we stay on the symptom level we can continue to embrace our unhealthiness and just treat the symptoms as we go. We never truly are well. The lame man ties his level of well being to how much money he can collect. Why would he think anything else? Sitting at the gate is all he knows. Sometimes we don’t know God well enough or are not honest enough with ourselves about what our problems really are to anticipate His working in our lives toward solutions. Real solutions can be more painful than just sticking with our dysfunction and so we avoid progress.

God wants to address our real problem with real solutions. We are tempted to get hung up on the symptoms and seek relief in more immediate ways. When God “fixes” things we may not fully understand it because His fix is a real fix and He is not interested in playing to our symptoms. God is not interested in you avoiding challenge, suffering or even pain. God wants you whole and He is willing to help you get there but first you have to want to be well.

Do you want to get well? If you do it is time to pray toward solutions rather than symptoms.

Acts 2 is one of those big chapters in Churches of Christ but how familiar are we with what is going on in that chapter? We go to it for what it takes to be converted (repentance and baptism in particular), even for the receipt of the Holy Spirit and let us not leave out the founding of the church. Remember that picture on the post that introduced this month’s theme? Acts 2 is a big deal.33AD

Are we familiar with a few verses or the whole story? When I say the whole story I don’t even mean Acts 2. I mean all that Acts 2 points us to and reminds us of in the story of God’s people as we find it in scripture.

So let me ask you this for starters, how familiar are you with Pentecost?

Let’s start with the name. Pentecost is a transliteration (changing the Greek word into the same sounding word in English) of the Greek name of the feast meaning fiftieth, as it was celebrated on the 50th day after Passover and was one of the required feasts for Jewish men. In Hebrew it is called the Feast of Weeks because it was to be taken after 7 weeks after Passover (7 weeks = 49 days). In Exodus 23:16 it is called the Festival of the Harvest as it marked the end of the barley harvest. When Passover was completed a priest would take the first of the barley harvest and wave it before the Lord. From that point they counted 50 days to Pentecost. At Pentecost, the priests would take the firstfruits of the wheat harvest and make two loaves of bread that were given as an offering (See Lev 23:15-21 for more information).

Why the 7 weeks after Passover? Think back to the story of Israel. When they escaped being slaves in Egypt through the first Passover meal and crossing the Red sea, what was the next major event in the life of Israel? It was the giving of the Law at Sinai. Pentecost was just as much an annual reminder and retelling of the Sinai story as Passover was the exodus story. The emphasis at the Pentecost was divine revelation in general and God’s divine revelation in giving the Law and instituting the Mosaic covenant at Sinai in particular. There would be no more appropriate time for God to reveal a New covenant than at this festival. By the way, the readings in the synagogue at this festival included Exodus 19-20 (God giving the Torah at Sinai) among other things (Ruth was even read pointing to reaching out to the Gentiles at harvest time – some people point to Acts 10 as being like a second Pentecost because of its similarities in reaching the first Gentiles converts through speaking in tongues).

Now, picture Sinai when Israel was encamped around it. What was the mountain like? What was its appearance?

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.” – Exodus 19:16-19

Does that remind you of anything?

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” – Acts 2:1-4

The similarities are purposeful. When the Holy Spirit comes on them in the appearance of tongues of fire this is a Sinai experience. This is such an experience because it is the establishment of the new covenant with echoes and reminders of the Mosaic covenant. Before Acts was written, Philo said this about the Sinai experience,

“(33) but as it seems to me, he at that time wrought a most conspicuous and evidently holy miracle, commanding an invisible sound to be created in the air, more marvellous than all the instruments that ever existed, attuned to perfect harmonies; and that not an inanimate one, nor yet, on the other hand, one that at all resembled any nature composed of soul and body; but rather it was a rational soul filled with clearness and distinctness, which fashioned the air and stretched it out and changed it into a kind of flaming fire, and so sounded forth so loud and articulate a voice like a breath passing through a trumpet, so that those who were at a great distance appeared to hear equally with those who were nearest to it…”

XI. (44) And, moreover, as was natural, he filled the whole place with miraculous signs and works, with noises of thunder too great for the hearing to support, and with the most radiant brilliancy of flashes of lightning, and with the sound of an invisible trumpet extending to a great distance, and with the march of a cloud, which, like a pillar, had its foundation fixed firmly on the earth, but raised the rest of its body even to the height of heaven; and, last of all, by the impetuosity of a heavenly fire, which overshadowed everything around with a dense smoke. For it was fitting that, when the power of God came among them, none of the parts of the world should be quiet, but that everything should be put in motion to minister to his service….

(46) And a voice sounded forth from out of the midst of the fire which had flowed from heaven, a most marvellous and awful voice, the flame being endowed with articulate speech in a language familiar to the hearers, which expressed its words with such clearness and distinctness that the people seemed rather to be seeing than hearing it. (47) And the law testifies to the accuracy of my statement, where it is written, “And all the people beheld the voice most evidently.” For the truth is that the voice of men is calculated to be heard; but that of God to be really and truly seen. Why is this? Because all that God says are not words, but actions which the eyes determine on before the ears.
(48) It is, therefore, with great beauty, and also with a proper sense of what is consistent with the dignity of God, that the voice is said to have come forth out of the fire; for the oracles of God are accurately understood and tested like gold by the fire. ” – Philo, Decalogue 33, 44, 46-48

God is purposefully using images from the Old Testament (which was the only Scripture they had at this point) to convey meaning of inaugurating the New. Another image that seems to have been reversed here is the Babel story in Genesis 11, which is preceded by the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 that has some parallels to the nations mentioned being present in Acts 2. The obvious connection being the Spirit allows the Gospel to be preached in people’s native language, which is a temporary undoing of the Babel punishment. It secondarily “undoes” Babel because Babel scattered but these people are gathered and the scattering was to keep them from a unified purpose but now they have been gathered specifically to participate in a unified purpose.

When you read Acts 2, realize that the story that was being told and celebrated every single year that day and specifically that day in Jerusalem was the story of the giving of the Law at Sinai. Knowing that, go back and read the Sinai experience and the establishment of the Mosaic covenant particularly in Exodus 19-24. Have the same story in your mind as the story they were telling that day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came audibly and visibly and in power. You will begin to appreciate the bigger story, which is just as much our story as any story in the New Testament could be. God is purposeful in how He moves the story forward and I hope to always have an eye and an ear to see and hear how God goes about revealing these things to us. It takes practice but it is worth it!

 

Following the Christian calendar, we are approaching May 15th. That’s Pentecost Sunday, which marks that historical day many years ago when something strange happened.

That day was surprising not just because the people present anticipated the exact events of that day unfolding as they did. No, that day is also surprising because of the events that took place seven weeks prior to Pentecost. Seven weeks before Jewish and Roman political power conspired to crucify Jesus of Nazareth by falsely accusing him of inciting rebellion against Rome (cf. Lk 23:14). On that weekend, during the celebration of the Passover, Jesus was arrested, beat and whipped, publicly humiliated, and then nailed to the cross as a demonstration of power. Rome wins! Or so, that was the message that crucifixion was meant to convey.

And though the Jewish authorities were co-conspirators in this crucifixion of Jesus, many Jews still longed for God to be faithful to his covenant promise and restore the kingdom. So the death of Jesus, as one who evoked the hope that Israel’s Messiah had finally come, seemingly suggested that hope was crushed again. And crushed, nonetheless, by death on a Roman cross!

The Gospel Proclaimed

            Hope crushed… until another Jewish man named Peter spoke up in the middle of a crowd. Some of those people had just accused Peter and his companions, of drinking too much wine so early in the morning.

Rather than mumbling like a drunk, Peter began quoting scripture from the prophets Joel and David. These were familiar scriptures to the Jewish people, scriptures which evoked the promise of hope that Israel believed in. But it was Peter’s way of telling his fellow Jews that the day of salvation they have longed for has come because God has raised the Jesus, whom they crucified, from death. This meant one thing, which Peter boldly proclaimed, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (v. 36).[1]

Try imagining what it must have been like for this Jewish crowed to hear this testimony. What are they to do? What do these Jewish people do when they realized that their own hands have played a part in crucifying the very Messiah they had hoped for? Perhaps that gives some understanding of what Luke means when he tells us that those who believed were “cut to the heart” (v. 37), asking what they are going to do now.

Peter’s response to his fellow Jews seems as simple as it is well known to us. “…‘Repent and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of you sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call’” (vv. 38-39, NIV).

Repentance, Baptism, and the Mission of God

            As most Christians know, much ink has been spilled over the interpretation of Acts 2:38 and what that means for the practice of baptism, with plenty of differences remaining. I’m not writing this article to address those difference, some of which I consider important and some not so important. However, I do want to suggest that we cannot reduce the call for repentance and baptism to merely “getting saved” or “getting right with Jesus” as those ideas are popularly understood among Christianity. Though salvation is of great importance and a promised reality for those who repent and are baptized, there is so much more to consider.

Repentance and baptism belong to the larger gospel narrative in which God is fulfilling his mission of redeeming and restoring life in Jesus whom God has made Lord and Messiah. Therefore, to repent and be baptized is to become a part of this mission, surrendering our life to Jesus by placing our allegiance to him as his followers. We repent and receive this baptism as disciples, believing (faith) that the hope and salvation of the world is now a reality come in Jesus, the Lord and Messiah. In turn, we are enjoined by God into this new life as servants of this kingdom’s King. Hence, the reason we repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.[2]

This raises a challenge for us as we approach Pentecost again, a day that seems to have become a rather mundane and mostly forgetful day for many Christians. N.T. Wright observes that in a span of one-hundred years, from AD 25 to AD 125, history emerged from not a hint of any Christian movement to a movement so large and significant that a philosopher named Aristides now regarded Christians as a fourth human race among Barbarians, Greeks, and Jews.[3] The reason for the expansion of this movement must confront us and as it does, we must allow it to renew our gospel imagination if we are to live within the Pentecost story as our story and our way.

A Living Embodiment of the Gospel

            The reason for this revolutionary movement is rooted in the belief that God had indeed made Jesus the Lord and Messiah. Jesus is now the reigning King, not Caesar! In the war of all wars, it is God who has won the the victory, inaugurating the new and last age of God’s kingdom − a world without end! Historically, we know the result is a new life of fellowship and witness, such as depicted in Acts 2:42ff and beyond. In Acts, the life of this movement is characterized by both a common love for one another as they extended hospitality to each another as well as the proclamation of the gospel without any compromise between Jesus and Caesar that entertained some form of a nationalistic civil-religion.

We are called in this text to become a living embodiment of this fellowship and witness. However, this is a challenge among a society where politics, race, and socio-economic differences continuously stir division and hatred. As local fellowships, we must become intentional pursue about extending hospitality to others among our assemblies and our homes where we bear the burdens of each other. This is also a challenge where patriotism is too often assumed and expressed indiscriminately. As disciples, our allegiance is to Jesus rather than a nation and our witness must demonstrate such allegiance as people who have repented and been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Such fellowship and witness is only possible by gift of the Holy Spirit we have received, which is the other reason for this revolutionary movement. Just a cursory reading through Acts shows that the Spirit is at work powerfully animating the disciples to live as participants in this mission of God. To say this another way, this movement is not characterized by the conventional reasoning and utilitarian pragmatism that is all too common among us today.

This is why we cannot be driven by growing a bigger church, reaching the unchurched, or some other utilitarian goal that then redefines the way we live to achieve such goal.[4] It is not that a growing church reaching the unchurched is unwanted but that what the Spirit empowers us for is faithful discipleship, whether or not that results in church growth. This is not a reproduction of first-century church forms per se but a living embodiment of the gospel, our fellowship and witness, among our own local communities.

Why It Matters

      I titled this article Acts 2 and Pentecost: Our Story, Our Way because what we read is what happens when we welcome the message of the gospel without compromise to the radical claim of Jesus or the substitution of the Spirit’s power for our own human ingenuity. It will not look exactly the same since we are embodying this gospel in different social contexts but it is our participation in the mission of God. It is an ongoing surrender of ourselves to Jesus, learning to welcome this gospel again and again by living our repentance and baptism. This is what matters, what we are in business for.

May we be the living embodiment of the gospel to the glory of God the Father, Son, and Spirit!

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[1] All scripture is taken from the New International Version, 2011.

[2] See C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary, The International Critical Commentary, vol. 1., 2nd ed. (Edinburg: T & T Clark, 2004), 151.

[3] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 359; see also Aristides, Apology, 2, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1012.htm.

[4] Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 125, rightly reminds us that “An evangelistic church is called to patience, obedience, and martyrdom rather than effectiveness, control, or success. It will have to relinquish ‘winning’ as a proper end, along with the logic of agency and causality that go with that end. It will have to relearn the truth that there is nothing we can do to bring about or extend God’s reign, so that we are left with the singular task of bearing embodied witness to that reign.”