The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: Acts (page 1 of 4)

Apollos and the Not-Full Gospel

According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, 70.6% of adult Americans identified themselves as Christians.  According to another poll, 42% claim to be born again or evangelical Christians.  While still another claims 22% born again/evangelical.  (According to the National Association of Evangelicals, evangelical Christians “take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.”)

Which study is right?

This isn’t about statistics or “brands”, though.  It’s about whether these self-identified Christians are really Christians.  And, if I am and you are. 

We are walking our way through the Book of Acts, pausing to study Paul’s letters at the point he wrote them.  Having finished the Corinthian correspondence, let’s briefly pick up Luke’s account in Acts 18 . . .

When he landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch. After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples (Acts 18:22,23).

Map of Paul the Apostle's Third Missionary Journey in the New Testament

In the first sentence, Luke reports how Paul ended his second journey and, in the second sentence, how he started his third.  Then, unexpectedly he introduces us to Apollos . . .

Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John (Acts 18:24,25).

 Image result for map alexandria egypt

Today Alexandria is Egypt’s second largest city.  It boasted the largest library in the ancient world and was home to a Jewish population containing scholars who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into common Greek (the Septuagint).  Apollos was a native of that city, a well-educated Jew “with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.

Arriving in Ephesus (author Luke doesn’t explain why) Apollos “spoke with great fervor (literally, “fervent in spirit”) and taught about Jesus accurately”.  But, Apollos’ “gospel” was deficient:   “he knew only the baptism of John.”

What does that mean?  Was Apollos preaching the gospel?  Was he even a Christian?  That he had been “instructed in the way of the Lord” and that he “spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately” leads us to label Apollos a Christian gospel preacher.  That “he knew only the baptism of John”, however, causes us to hesitate.

Sound like we’re headed for the theological “weeds”?  We’re not.  The issue is major:  what makes one a real Christian?  Or:  how does one become a Christian?  Or:  what constitutes the Christian gospel?

Our clue in this instance is to ask, “What was “the baptism of John” which Apollos knew ‘only’”?   We find the answer from the pen of Matthew . . .

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him'” (Matthew 3:1-3).

“I [John the Baptist] baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11).

So, John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance to get ready for Messiah’s coming.  That, however, isn’t Christian baptism nor does it provide the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This is clear from the kind of “believer” Apollos’ ministry produced.

Author-Luke fills us in.  Apollos left Ephesus for Corinth.  Early on his third missionary journey, Paul arrived in Ephesus . . .

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.  Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.  But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord. God did extraordinary miracles through Paul . . .(Acts 19:1-11).

Two vital experiences were missing from Apollos’ “gospel” . . .

One, baptism “into the name of the Lord Jesus.”  By such baptism, the believer professes union with (“into”) and allegiance to (“the Lord”) the crucified-risen Christ. Should children be baptized?  This text doesn’t address that.  Is baptism necessary?  This text makes it a vital part of the gospel and of becoming a Christian.  Inconvenience (or embarrassment) shouldn’t keep us from it.

Two, the coming of “the Holy Spirit”.  This reception of the Holy Spirit coincides with the apostle’s gospel on the Day of Pentecost . . .

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your 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.”  With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”  Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:38-41).

When we are baptized, we should pray for and expect the Holy Spirit to “come upon” us.  In this case, the Holy Spirit signified his presence with tongues and prophecy.  On other occasions, he may express his presence with other gifts and fruit.  But this coming of the Holy Spirit is central to the gospel and to becoming a Christian.  Paul taught ” . . . if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9b).

So, Luke is showing us baptism in Jesus’ name is central to the gospel.  And he’s showing us that the coming of the Holy Spirit is central to baptism.  Apollos’ “gospel” lacked both.  Enter Priscilla and Aquila . . .

He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.  When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ (Acts 18:26-28).

* * *

Despite studies done, we don’t get to self-identify as a Christian.  We become a Christian the full gospel way.  If you haven’t been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, do it.  Publicly profess your unity with and allegiance to Christ.  And pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon you as part of your baptism.  He is the power for living the Christian life.

If you have been baptized and filled with the Spirit, remember Whose you are and Who empowers you.  And know this:  the Spirit of Christ may do more wonderful things in you and through you than you can now imagine.




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Another City Riot!

Ferguson.  Baltimore.  Dallas.  Ephesus. Test:  pick which one doesn’t belong.  Ephesus?  Nope.  All belong.  Ephesus didn’t make non-stop cable news and no one was killed; but it was another city riot.

I included a short video and a few photos (two modern-day), for background information.  Maybe overkill, but I find these cities interesting.

Image result for map of ancient ephesus


Pine Bay

Paul spent more time in Ephesus than any other city.  He was wildly successful.  Not only the city, but ” . . . all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10b).

Now after these things had been accomplished, Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, “After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.” So he sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he himself stayed for some time longer in Asia (Acts 19:21,22, NRSV).

Image result for map Paul's 3rd missionary trip

Why go west to Macedonia when he wanted to go southeast to Jerusalem?  To collect an offering from the Macedonia Gentile churches for the poor Jerusalem Christians (1 Corinthians 16:1-4).  So, guided by the Holy Spirit, Paul  made his plans.  But he hadn’t counted on the riot.

About that time no little disturbance broke out concerning the Way. A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the artisans. These (artisans) he gathered together, with the workers of the same trade, and said, “Men, you know that we get our wealth from this business. You also see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost the whole of Asia this Paul has persuaded and drawn away a considerable number of people by saying that gods made with hands are not gods.  And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The city was filled with the confusion; and people rushed together to the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s travel companions (Acts 19:23-29, NRSV).

A little disturbance?  Author Luke, euphemistically, calls it “a little disturbance”.  Demetrius, pressing on the profit-loss, rounded up angry Artemis salesmen.  Artemis was “the ancient mother goddess of Asia Minor, worshiped in that land from time immemorial as the mother of gods and men.  Her temple at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world; her image, enshrined in that temple, was believed to be of heavenly workmanship:  it appears to have been a meteorite in which the semblance of a many-breasted female was discerned.  Her worship was marked by the traditional features of nature-worship; it was presided over by eunuch priests and three grades of priestesses.  She had a special festival about the time of the spring equinox, at the beginning of the month Artemision:  it may have been at the time of this festival in A.D. 55 that the trouble now described by Luke broke out” (The Book of Acts, F. F. Bruce).

Image result for image of artemis of ephesus
The open-air theater, which sat an estimated 25,000 to 30,000, was famous for concerts, plays, as well as religious, political and philosophical discussions and for gladiator and animal fights (  On this day, it became the city’s riot-center where chaos reigned.

Image result for the open air theater at Ephesus

 Paul wished to go into the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; even some of the officials of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theater.  Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together (Acts 19:30-32, NRSV).
Look at Luke’s little humor:  ” . . . the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together”.

Several factors fueled the riot.  One, a dramatic fall in profits from the sale of Artemis images.  (Luke twice makes this business-loss their first concern.)  Ephesus had once been a rich trade center.  But, when the harbor silted up, trade plummeted.  Tourism became the city’s main revenue source. Lost income from Artemis images sent profits plunging.
Two, the shameful offense to the great, world-worshipped goddess.  Artemis abandoned in favor of a crucified Jew!
Rioting silversmiths didn’t distinguish between Jews and Christians.  So Jewish Alexander was shoved to the stage to defend the Jews—to no avail.  The town clerk fared better.  He served as official liaison between the city’s civil administration and the Roman provincial administration.   His warning that the riot might bring Rome’s wrath and reminder they had legally-acceptable ways to register their protest quieted the mob and emptied the theater.

Some of the crowd gave instructions to Alexander, whom the Jews had pushed forward. And Alexander motioned for silence and tried to make a defense before the people.But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours all of them shouted in unison, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”But when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Citizens of Ephesus, who is there that does not know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple keeper of the great Artemis and of the statue that fell from heaven? Since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash.You have brought these men here who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the artisans with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges there against one another. If there is anything further you want to know, it must be settled in the regular assembly. For we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” When he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.  After the uproar had ceased, Paul sent for the disciples; and after encouraging them and saying farewell, he left for Macedonia (Acts 19:33-20:1), NRSV).

* * * * *

” . . . the closer you are to the King and the more focused you are on the gospel, the more likely you are to draw the enemy’s fire.”  So writes Reformed pastor and theologian Derek Thomas.  But why does God allow us to suffer for the gospel?

Back in Philippi, Paul and Silas suffered prison apparently so the jailer and his family might be saved (Acts 16:25-40).  But why did God send his servant smack into the middle of a city riot here?  Writing later to the Corinthian church, Paul tells us . . .

We want to remind you, friends, of the trouble we had in the province of Asia. The burdens laid upon us were so great and so heavy that we gave up all hope of staying alive. We felt that the death sentence had been passed on us. But this happened so that we should rely, not on ourselves, but only on God, who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8,9, GNT).

After a life time of studying the word and years of preaching and planting churches, Paul still had God-reliance lessons to learn.  So do we.  So do I.  When we’re living for Jesus but life turns hopeless, when we feel condemned to a terrible fate, God is teaching us to rely on him alone.  And to remember he is the God who raises the dead.




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The Prevailing Word

World Series.  Despite being up 3 games to 1,  the Cleveland Indians couldn’t prevail over the Chicago Cubs.  Prevail:  “to prove more powerful than opposing forces; win out, carry the day, come  out on top, prove superior.”   The Cubs proved more powerful than the Indians.  They prevailed.

Author Luke evaluates Paul’s ministry in Ephesus:  “So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed” (Acts 19:20).   It “grew mightily”,  spread greatly throughout Ephesus and all of Asia (today’s Turkey).  It “prevailed”, proved more powerful than forces opposing it.  For the first two years in Ephesus, the Lord’s word won the day.  But powers opposed it.

Synagogue to Tyrannus Hall.

Jews formed the first opposing force.  After encountering John’s twelve disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7,   Paul turned to the Jews in Ephesus.  He . . .

” . . . entered the synagogue and for three months spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the kingdom of God.  When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the Way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:8-10).

As in other cities, Jews rejected Paul’s message.  They “stubbornly refused to believe”, and even “spoke evil of the Way before the congregation.”  Taking this public stand, they made themselves culpable before God for rejecting their Messiah.

It must have been with heavy heart that Paul left the synagogue, taking with him those who did believe.  He  continued to reasonably present (Greek, dialegoumenos) the Lord’s word “in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.”  We’re told nothing about Tyrannus or how this “hall”, used for informal education and debates, was made available to Paul.  Some ancient manuscripts suggest he used it 11 a.m to 4 p.m., probably six days a week.  This continued for two years.  Co-workers took the gospel to neighboring towns.  Some of Revelation’s “seven churches of Asia” may have been planted then, as well as the church at Colosse.  ” . . . all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord”, wrote Luke.    Despite stubborn opposition from much of the city’s Jewish community, ” . . . . the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.”

Image result for pictures of seven churches of revelation

Signs, Wonders and Evil Spirits.

The diseased and demonized are victims.  But the forces behind them are opponents.  Disease denies “God loves you.”  Evil spirits’ power prove their ascendancy over Paul’s Jesus.  But Luke reports . . .

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them”(Acts 19:11,12).

This “handkerchiefs” and “aprons” thing sounds like TV evangelists selling Jordan river water.  Actually it echoes the woman who was healed after she “touched [Jesus’] garment” (Mark 5:27) and the healing of others who touched “even the fringe of [Jesus’] garment” (Mark 6:56).  Rather than evoking scenes of frauds, it recalls powerful signs and wonders associated with Jesus.

“So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.”  This power-show attracted itinerant Jew “exorcists”.  One group, “the seven sons of Sceva”, led by a self-proclaimed “high priest”, tried to duplicate Paul’s success by using Paul’s technique.  But with humiliating results . . .

Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit said to them in reply, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered them all, and so overpowered them that they fled out of the house naked and wounded” (Acts 19:13-16).  

What of evil-spirit-power today?  In the mid-1970’s, the charismatic movement was in full swing in northern New Jersey.  Every problem had its own demon—obesity, lust, laziness, obsession with chocolate, etc.—for Christians and non-Christians alike.  We arrived to plant in church in the swamp of that unbiblical teaching. Nevertheless, we’d be wise to recall Paul’s position on demonic powers . . .  We shouldn’t attribute more authority to them than they have; but we ignore them at our peril . . .

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12, ESV).

They exist.  They are anti-Christ.  But in Ephesus ” . . . the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.”  Even more . . .

Bonfire by Exorcists.

When this became known to all residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks, everyone was awestruck; and the name of the Lord Jesus was praised.  Also many of those who became believers confessed and disclosed their practices.  A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins” (Acts 19:17-19) 

F. F. Bruce comments . . .

A number of such magical scrolls have survived to our day . . . The special connection of Ephesus with magic is reflected in the use of the term “Ephesian scripts” for such magical scrolls.  The spells which they contain are . . . considered to be unusually potent . . . On this occasion fifty thousand drachma’s worth of such documents went up in smoke . . . The powers of darkness were worsted, but the gospel spread and triumphed” (The Book of Acts).

So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed” (Acts 19:20).

The Lord’s Purpose Prevails.

Proverbs 19:21—“Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”  In first century Ephesus, it was the Lord’s purpose for his word to prevail—against stubbornly resistant Jews, against disease, against evil-spirit-powers, against fraudulent exorcists.  So it did.  Ephesus became a leading center of Christianity for centuries.

In 21st century America, the Lord’s word isn’t prevailing.  Look at shrinking churches.  Look at Christians’ minority status.  Look at the rise of other worldviews that minimize Christianity.  Look at the casual attitude of many Christians about the faith.  Instead of prevailing, the Lord’s word seems to hold on by fingernails.  Furthermore, as we’ll see, Paul’s visit to Ephesus ends with a city-wide riot against him.

This is a good time to “cheat” and check how the story ends.  Go to the back of the book.  Keep a finger in Revelation.  No, you don’t understand everything in it.  (Who does?)  But one point is crystal-clear:  in the end, the word of the Lord prevails.

It proves more powerful than opposing forces.  It wins out.  It carries the day.  It comes  out on top.  It proves superior. 

Best to be on the prevailing side.  Regardless of how things appear at the moment.











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12 Empty Men

In the 1957 movie, “Twelve Angry Men”, one jurist (Henry Fonda) tries to convince the other eleven  that the accused isn’t guilty of murder. (They’re all certain evidence proves he is.) Tempers flare and hidden characters are revealed.  The drama provides fascinating insight into the hearts and minds of  these twelve men!

In Ephesus, the apostle Paul comes upon twelve “empty” men.  Here we get a fascinating insight into the working of the Holy Spirit . . .

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions (of Asia, today’s Turkey) and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.”  On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied—altogether there were about twelve of them. (Acts 19:1-7, NRSV).

Image result for map of Paul's 3rd missionary journey

Why did author Luke (inspired by the Holy Spirit) include this unusual incident?  Not only because it happened.  But because Luke intended to tell us something.  (Author’s intent is a critical question for interpreting most any Scripture.)  In discovering Luke’s intent we’ll discover how this event applies to us.

Let’s start our answer-search with Paul’s question to the twelve “disciples”: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?”  Now why would Paul ask that?  Dr. Gordon Fee’s (theologian and author who currently serves as Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada) view of the Spirit in Paul’s theology hints at an answer . . .

Any careful reading of Paul’s letters makes it abundantly clear that the Spirit (for Paul) is the key element . . . of all Christian life and experience.  To put that in theological perspective, it needs to be noted that, contrary to historic Protestantism, “justification by faith” is not the central theme of Pauline theology (Listening to the Spirit in the Text, p. 37).

If  true, Paul’s question to the twelve is perfectly reasonable.  They are “disciples” of John the Baptist.  They haven’t heard that Messiah (Jesus) has come and with him the Spirit-riches of last days’ salvation.

So Paul announces the good news and the twelve believe, are baptized in Jesus’ name and receive the Holy Spirit.  We understand, then, why Paul asked the twelve about the Spirit.  But, why did Luke include this incident?

Pentecostals (and some Charismatics) point to this passage as a proof-text for “baptism in the Holy Spirit” as an experience subsequent to salvation.   They argue that, since these twelve are called “disciples” they must have been Christians, but without this “second blessing” of Spirit-baptism.  Clearly, though, these men are disciples of John (the Baptist).  Furthermore, how could they be Christians if they’ve never even heard of “a Holy Spirit”?   In the saving work of Messiah Jesus, and in the Pauline theology of it, the Spirit is the key element . . .

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:4-7, ESV).

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9, ESV).
Therefore, these “disciples” were of John, not Jesus.  Pentecostals, though, aren’t alone in misusing this passage.  Some non-Pentecostals seem fixated on bludgeoning Pentecostals with this text.  No (as I’ve argued), this doesn’t prove a “second blessing”!  By misusing this text, they miss the bigger word-picture Paul paints.
 I think Dr. Gordon Fee gets it right:  The key to understanding Acts seems to be in Luke’s interest in the movement, orchestrated by the Holy Spirit, of the Gospel from its Jerusalem-based, Judaism-oriented beginnings to its becoming a worldwide Gentile-predominant phenomenon.”   (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth).   Luke intends to show us this movement, this Holy Spirit-orchestrated stream flowing from Jerusalem Jews to the Gentile world.
But why include “the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”?  When the Holy Spirit was initially poured out on the Day of Pentecost, Luke describes the phenomenon of speaking in other tongues (Acts 2:1-4).  Then, later while Peter preached the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius, ” . . . the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:44-46).  Now, here in the great Gentile city Ephesus Luke reports how the Holy Spirit came upon (the twelve) and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.”

Luke is showing us movement—the movement of the Gospel, orchestrated by the Holy Spirit from its Jerusalem-based Judaism beginnings (Pentecost, Acts 2) to its becoming a worldwide Gentile predominant phenomenon (Cornelius in Acts 10, the twelve in Ephesus in Acts 19).

We 21st century Americans see that movement bottled up.  Evangelical Christian percentage of the country’s population is slowly shrinking.  Yet, in places like Africa and South America, the movement continues.   We mustn’t be complacent about stagnant movement here.  But we can be encouraged that the Holy Spirit’s orchestration of the Gospel movement continues despite the obstacles.  God will see to it that his will is done!

Finally, this incident reminds us of a very personal application of the Spirit-filled Gospel.  I’ve called these twelve men “empty”.   Even though they believed John the Baptist’s preaching and looked forward to the coming Messiah and showed their repentance from sin and to the coming Savior by being baptized in John’s name.  But inside they were “natural” men—men without the living, transforming presence of God the Holy Spirit, men still dominated by the sinful nature.

Then Paul, returning to Ephesus according to God’s will (see, finds them.  He announces what John prophesied Jesus fulfilled.  They believed, were baptized and were filled with the Holy Spirit.  Their “emptiness” overflowed with the regenerating, sanctifying, empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

Luke wants us to know that this “movement” is available to us, too.  His concern isn’t speaking in tongues or prophesying.  It isn’t whether we call ourselves Pentecostals, Charismatics or something else.  It’s that we understand a movement of the Gospel is still sweeping through the world.

And that we welcome whatever God the Holy Spirit wants to do in our lives.  So that we are no longer empty, but filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name to the glory of God the Father.

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If God Wills . . .

You didn’t close your bait box.  Dozens of worms are escaping (except for the hook-impaled one).  Now you have to waste time rounding up those slimy, scattering critters.  Hence, metaphorically “to open a can of worms” has come to mean “to deal with a simple matter only to complicate it or create unexpected trouble” (

Like examining a 3-word phrase Paul uses in today’s text . . .

After this, Paul stayed many days longer (in Corinth) and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had cut his hair, for he was under a vowAnd they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews.

When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined.  But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus.  When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and then went down to Antioch.  After spending some time there, he departed and went from one place to the next through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples (Acts 18:18-23, ESV).

Paul tells the Ephesians, “I will return to you if God wills.”  What God wanted would determine if Paul came back to Ephesus or not.

That might sound as loony as the old Blues Brothers line, “We’re on a mission from God.”

Image result for blues brothers photos

But author Luke implies such God-directing moments were typical . . .

“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them . . . ” (Acts 16:6,7, NRS).

However, “ . . . if God wills” opens a can of worms:  the magnitude of the topic, tough questions, “rabbit trails” of complex subjects.  We’ll try to limit the can of worms to only questions that will help us understand the significance of Paul’s words.

How inclusive is God’s will?

If it only applies to Paul and maybe other Christian preachers spreading the gospel, then it doesn’t mean much to us.  But one  of Paul’s profound statements shows how inclusive God’s will is . . .

“In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will . . . ” (Ephesians 1:11, ESV). 

Identifying our inheritance as one of the spiritual blessings we have in Christ, Paul refers to God “who works all things according to the counsel of his will.”  “Counsel” translates the Greek boulayn—“resolve, purpose, plan, decision”.  And “will” translates the Greek thelaymatos—“design, purpose, will” (as the result of what one has decided or purposed).  “Works” translates the Greek energountos, a present active participle implying continual, ongoing activity.  It might be accurately translated “who continually brings about all things according to the purpose of his will.” 

How inclusive is God’s will?  Not just an apostle’s destination, but all things.  Including the riches of our inheritance in Christ and the flight plan of a butterfly and the crazed scattering of our escaping bait.  And everything in our lives.  Continually.

Doesn’t God’s will limit us?

Yes.  It limited Paul.  The Holy Spirit barred him from Bithynia.  So God’s will  limits us regarding what we worship and how, how we use God’s name, what we do on the Sabbath, and how we treat our parents.  God’s will also limits us regarding violence and sex and other people’s property and accusations we might make against someone, even our desires (Exodus 20:1-17).

This aspect of God’s will we might call directive.  God directs us to live our lives within the limited moral parameters of his will.  (“Be sure to close your bait box securely!”)  A second aspect of God’s will we might call decreed.  This refers to God’s sovereign will.  He will do what he wants independent of what we want.  God wanted his Son to be crucified.  Though he used men’s evil choices, Jesus’ death didn’t depend on them.  No matter what Jews and Romans and disciples willed, Jesus was going to die.  If God wants our earthworms to escape and scatter, they will even if we sit on the bait box!  If God wants Paul back in Ephesus, the entire Roman army can’t block his way.

Doesn’t the limiting nature of God’s will humble us?

It should.  It reminds us—uncomfortably—(despite Winston Churchill’s famous speech to the contrary) we are not masters of our fate and captains of our soul.

We don’t like that.  We dig in our heels against a will that rules ours.  Instead, we should bow.  Essentially this is what James admonished the proud . . .

Now listen to me, you that say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will travel to a certain city, where we will stay a year and go into business and make a lot of money.’  You don’t even know what your life tomorrow will be! You are like a puff of smoke, which appears for a moment and then disappears.  What you should say is this: ‘If the Lord is willing, we will live and do this or that'” (James 4:13-15, GNT).

Wouldn’t that make us slaves to God’s whims?

It would if God were capricious, worse if what he wanted was evil.  But Paul, after writing eleven chapters about God’s mercies, appeals to the church to respond to this merciful God by learning to do the will of God.  Then he pointedly explains that God’s will isn’t whimsical, capricious or evil, but “good, pleasing and perfect” . . .

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1,2, NIV).

God’s will is good.  Greek agathos—“morally good, upright, worthy, beneficial”.  God’s will is pleasing.  Greek euarpestos—“well-pleasing, acceptable, satisfying” (in God’s sight).  God’s will is perfect.  Greek telios—“complete (as opposed to partial with important missing parts), undivided, entire”.

Let’s admit God’s will is “good, pleasing and perfect” to God.  Learning to do God’s will in the doing (“test and approve”) is spiritual worship to him.  However, it’s in such worship to God—humbly learning to do what he wants—that we find a way of life that is “good, pleasing and perfect.”

But doesn’t God’s will lead us sometimes to suffer? 

No getting around it.  Experience teaches it.  So does the apostle Peter . . .

“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17, ESV).

But God promises to use that suffering for ultimate good . . .

” . . . we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5, ESV).

It’s not as if we can escape suffering if we resist God’s will.  Everybody suffers.  But it’s God’s will to “redeem” our suffering for ultimate and eternal good.  With all the foregoing in mind, then, Jesus teaches us to . . .

Pray for God’s will.

Not only are we to humbly submit to what God wants, not only are we to say, “I’ll go to Toledo tomorrow if God wills,” but we are to pray that God’s will might be done.  Listen to Jesus’ famous prayer-lesson . . .

“Pray then like this:  ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven . . . ” (Matthew 6:9,10, ESV).

This prayer is HUGE.  I’m not only to request our Father to cause me to do his will today at work and at home and in my finances and sex life.  I’m to ask that our Father’s will be ultimately and eternally done in the coming of his consummated kingdom to earth.

True, God reigns now.  “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psalm 103:19, ESV).  But not without opposition from the world, the flesh, and the devil.  One day, though, Jesus will come with the clouds.  On his thigh these words will be written:  “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16).  And what he wants will be fully, wholly done.  Then we shall know the full goodness, delight and perfection of his will—not just to him, but for us.

As I reread this blog, I realize (despite my best intentions) that I did indeed open up a can of worms.  Hopefully, though, I didn’t lead you to concentrate on chasing worms, but on fishing.  Maybe I can nail it with this final thought:  Until the day God’s will is fully, wholly done, may “If God wills” be found, not only on the apostle’s lips, but on ours.

jesus praying photo: jesus prayer-1.jpg

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Mocking Corinth

Hard to picture God, especially since he’s spirit!  We can picture him, though, in Jesus.  Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, NIV).  Of course, we haven’t seen Jesus.  But it’s easier to picture a flesh-and-blood God than a spirit one.
Now here’s a higher-level of “hard”.   Picture the Lord mockingly laughing at his enemies.
Why do the nations plan rebellion?
Why do people make their useless plots?
Their kings revolt, their rulers plot together against the Lord
and against the king he chose.
“Let us free ourselves from their rule,” they say;
“let us throw off their control.”
From his throne in heaven
the Lord laughs and mocks their feeble plans.
 (Psalm 2:1-4, GNT)
Let’s go back once more to Corinth.  The Lord’s message had run into Corinth (see 2 Thessalonians 3:1 for this concept of “run” or “spread”.)  Then it ran through Corinth.  And in its wake it left the church of Jesus Christ.  Men and women, who once practiced sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, stealing, greed, drunkenness, reviling and swindling, were now washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, ESV).
Resistance, though, had been formidable.  It had come from the morally-corrupt, sexual-charged, pleasure-seeking populace whose practices created an evil environment.  It had come, too,  from Corinth’s Jews who  fiercely rejected Jesus as Messiah.  (See Acts 18:5-10 and
Today we come to the final act of Jewish resistance that author Luke records . . .
When Gallio was made the Roman governor of Achaia, Jews there got together, seized Paul, and took him into court   “This man,” they said, “is trying to persuade people to worship God in a way that is against the law!”  Paul was about to speak when Gallio said to the Jews, “If this were a matter of some evil crime or wrong that has been committed, it would be reasonable for me to be patient with you Jews.  But since it is an argument about words and names and your own law, you yourselves must settle it. I will not be the judge of such things!” And he drove them out of the court. They all grabbed Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the court. But that did not bother Gallio a bit (Acts 18:12-17,GNT)
A new man occupied the Roman governor’s mansion in Corinth.  For hostile-to-Jesus Jews this was a chance to silence Paul using Roman law.  The mob met to plan and plot.  Then, at the right time and place they physically grabbed Paul and dragged him to court.  “Court” was little more than a raised platform set outdoors where the governor sat to pass judgement on legal disputes.  But this judgment would have both far-reaching and laughable consequences.
The accusers speak first.  “This man is trying to persuade people to worship God in a way that is against the (Roman) law!”  Like China today (as one example), the Roman empire legalized the religions they deemed permissible.
Now the accused’s turn comes.  But before Paul can defend himself, Governor Gallio does.  He’s made his decision:  the case doesn’t merit hearing.  Paul wasn’t preaching a new (illegal) religion , but a form of (legal) Judaism.   Gallio’s decision had decade-long consequences.  Implicitly he allowed the legal spread of Christianity.  We should remember Governor Gallio was administrator, not just of Corinth, but of all Achaia province.  His verdict established case law for other judges.  Paul was free to keep spreading the Lord’s message.
If this outcome was frustrating for the Jewish mob, it became physically painful for the new synagogue president, Sostheness (the former, Crispus, had converted to Messiah Jesus).  Humiliatingly thrown out of Gallio’s court, “[t]hey all grabbed Sosthenes . . . and beat him in front of the court.”  Maybe Roman law had been Sosthene’s idea.  Maybe the mob had expected Sosthenes to influence the governor.  Or maybe they just looked for a scapegoat to beat up.  Whatever the reason, the mob bloodied their synagogue president, which troubled Governor Gallio not one bit.  
That’s when the Lord might have laughed and mocked their feeble plans.
Paul stayed on with the believers in Corinth for many days, then left them and sailed off with Priscilla and Aquila for Syria (Acts 18:18, GNT).
Paul stayed in Corinth “for many days”, probably to establish new believers in the faith.  Then, after nearly two years in the city, he sailed away, taking Priscilla and Aquila with him. “Whoredomville” remained.  But planted beneath its morally corrupt radar was the Spirit-empowered, Jesus-exalting, God-centered church.  Far from perfect as the Corinthian correspondence will show.  But alive with the life-transforming presence of the Lord.
White Christian America and Corinth.
I’ve just begun to read The End of White Christian America.   Author Robert P. Jones reports that “the proportion of white Christians in the country, while still comprising the largest [group), has slipped below a majority to 47%.”  Among the causes?  Aging, immigration and “waning cultural influence”.  “The incursion of the Internet and national cable news . . . has made it impossible for White Christian America’s contemporary descendants to assume that their own beliefs are universal.”
Paul in Corinth reminded me of our growing minority status in the U.S.  The apostle and his team, as well as the new believers they left behind, were a tiny minority.  And one bizarrely (in their eyes) different from the sexually-charged, pleasure-seeking, idol-worshiping city.
See parallels between the Christians in Corinth and us in America?  Maybe our “shrinking” is a surprise.  But eventually we have to face the fact that the “white Christian America” we once knew is gone.  Our influence on the culture continues to wane.  We’re getting older and other ethnic groups are moving in with religions far different from Christianity.  That requires us to live faithfully to our Lord as a minority and, like Paul, engage the majority with the Lord’s message, both in word and acts.
But we must do this too:  we must remember that the gospel-believing and gospel-proclaiming Paul left Corinth having successfully planted the good news by the power of the Spirit.  And perhaps mouthing words he would later write back to this church . . .
“But thanks be to God,
who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ
and through us spreads everywhere
the fragrance of the knowledge of him.”
(2 Corinthians 2:14, GNT)
Hear the Lord laughing?





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Sin City

A reconstruction of ancient Corinth in the video above

That’s what they call Las Vegas:  “Sin City”.  Earned from its prolific prostitution, strip clubs, gambling casinos, drug use and organized crime.  Ancient Corinth had notoriety too.  Greeks created a word for it.  Korinthiazesthai—“to live like a Corinthian” (the verb form of the noun Korinthos).  It meant “to live with drunken and immoral debauchery”.  Or as Liddell and Scott bluntly define it in their Greek Lexicon, “to practice whoredom”.  It was to the Sin City  of ancient Greece, 50 miles west of Athens, Paul now headed.

The City of Corinth

Destroyed in 146 B.C. , Corinth was rebuilt a century later by Julius Caesar, making it a Roman  colony and the administrative capital of the Roman province of Achaea.

The city boasted two seaports with a main land travel route from Rome to Asia.  It thus became a major commercial trade center accompanied by  great wealth.

“A famous temple to Aphrodite had [once]stood on the summit of Acrocorinth in the Classical Age (5th & 4th centuries B.C.) . . . It had fallen into ruins by Paul’s time, but successors to its 1,000 cult prostitutes continued to ply their profession in the city below. [This was worship by sexual intercourse to the goddess.] Many of them were no doubt housed in the lofts above the 33 wine shops uncovered in the modern excavations. Corinth was a city catering to sailors and traveling salesmen. Even by the Classical Age it had earned an unsavory reputation for its libertine atmosphere; to call someone ‘a Corinthian lass’ was to impugn her morals. It may well be that one of Corinth’s attractions for Paul was precisely this reputation of immorality.” (The Biblical World In Pictures).

” , , , there flourished far more [obscure] vices, which had come in with the traders and the sailors from the ends of the earth, until Corinth became not only a synonym for wealth and luxury, drunkenness and debauchery, but also for filth.” (William Barclay, The Letters To The Corinthians, p. 2-3).

The city was a sanctuary for the cults of the gods of Egypt, Rome and Greece.  Aphrodite the goddess of love,  Poseidon ruler of the sea and earthquakes, Apollo the god of music, Hermes the messenger of the gods,  Isis the personification of the rainbow, Demeter the goddess of agriculture, Zeus the king of the gods, and more were worshiped there.

Corinth was arguably the most worldly city to which Paul took the Gospel.

Paul in Corinth

In Corinth we find events unfolding much as in other cities.  Paul goes first to the Jewish synagogue.  They oppose his Jesus-is-the-risen-Messiah message,, so he turns to the Gentiles.  A number of Gentiles believe which leads the Jews to drag Paul before the Roman authorities.  They conclude the Jews must settle the matter themselves, freeing Paul to  continue his ministry.  Here’s author Luke’s account in Acts 18:1-18a, TEV) . . .

After this, Paul left Athens and went on to Corinth.  There he met a Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, for Emperor Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them,  and stayed and worked with them, because he earned his living by making tents, just as they did.  He held discussions in the synagogue every Sabbath, trying to convince both Jews and Greeks. 
When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul gave his whole time to preaching the message, testifying to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah.  When they opposed him and said evil things about him, he protested by shaking the dust from his clothes and saying to them, “If you are lost, you yourselves must take the blame for it! I am not responsible. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”
So he left them and went to live in the house of a Gentile named Titius Justus, who worshiped God; his house was next to the synagogue.  Crispus, who was the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his family; and many other people in Corinth heard the message, believed, and were baptized.  
One night Paul had a vision in which the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid, but keep on speaking and do not give up, for I am with you. No one will be able to harm you, for many in this city are my people.”  So Paul stayed there for a year and a half, teaching the people the word of God.  
When Gallio was made the Roman governor of Achaia, Jews there got together, seized Paul, and took him into court.  “This man,” they said, “is trying to persuade people to worship God in a way that is against the law!” Paul was about to speak when Gallio said to the Jews, “If this were a matter of some evil crime or wrong that has been committed, it would be reasonable for me to be patient with you Jews. But since it is an argument about words and names and your own law, you yourselves must settle it. I will not be the judge of such things!”  And he drove them out of the court. They all grabbed Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the court. But that did not bother Gallio a bit. 
Paul stayed on with the believers in Corinth for many days, then left them and sailed off with Priscilla and Aquila for Syria. (Acts 18:1-18a, TEV).
In case you missed them here are several out-of-the-ordinary events . . .
  • Paul met Aquilia and Priscilla, tent-making Jews who had been among Jews expelled from Rome by the emperor.  have been caught up in the emperor’s expulsion of Jews from Rome.  Until Silas and Timothy arrived, Paul plied his tent-making trade with the couple to support himself.
  • Apparently Paul was fearful of opposition in the city—hence the encouraging vision from the Lord.  Paul (in 1 Corinthians 2:3) admits that “I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling”.
  • Does “many in this city are my people” mean the Lord had chosen many for salvation or many already believed?  We’re not told.
  • Paul remained in Corinth between 18 and 24 months, making converts and establishing the church.

Power of the Cross

Because Luke’s narrative is similar to that from other cities, we’re apt to read it with a yawn.  We shouldn’t.  The planting of a church in notorious Corinth testifies to the transforming power of the cross.  Here is a wealthy city, thriving in its commercial trade, proud of its political stature, worshiping a plenitude of gods (to appease them for their blessings), and captivated by its illicit pleasures.  If  ever there was a city whose sin shut it off to the Gospel, Corinth was it.

But the Gospel unleashed a greater power.  Listen to how Paul wrote of it later . . .

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
(1 Corinthians 1:18, ESV)

That greater  power saved some of Corinth’s most morally corrupt  . . .

“Do not be deceived:  neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters,
not adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves,
nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers
will inherit the kingdom of God.
And such were some of you.
But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified
in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
(1 Corinthians 6:9b-11, ESV).

Lost Loved Ones.

Have family members hardened in unbelief?  Parents or sons or daughters so caught up in the world they have no interest in Jesus?  Close friends drifting deeper and deeper into immorality or addiction, who seem far beyond saving?  And years of praying and speaking haven’t made a dent in their disinterest or unbelief?

We can take courage from Corinth.  The Holy Spirit can penetrate the hardest heart.  Out of moral perversion and spiritual darkness the Lord Jesus Christ, by the Spirit of God, can wash the filthiest life, sanctify the most corrupt sinner and justify the guiltiest transgressor.

Into today’s sin cities the Savior still comes to claim his own.







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To an Unknown God

Live in an idolatrous culture?  Depends on how we define idolatrous.  (See

If the potential “idol” is necessary for our happiness, something we so desperately need we can’t imagine a fulfilled life without it (as J. D. Greear writes—see link above), then we’re hard-pressed to answer no.

First-century Athens had 30,000 idols (one per deity) though a highly-civilized Greek city of 10,000 people.  Additionally they had at least one “to an unknown god”.  (To be sure they offended none?)

Athens wasn’t on Paul’s “Must Preach At Cities” list.  He was there waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him from Berea.  Touring the famed city, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).  So he “reasoned in the synagogue and in the marketplace with those who happened to be there” (Acts 17:17).  According to Acts 17:18 he reasoned about “Jesus and the resurrection”—the living God as opposed to lifeless idols.

Among the “happened to be there” in the marketplace were Epicurean (pleasure the chief end of life, especially peace) and Stoic philosophers (man’s rationality and individual self-sufficiency primary).  To both Paul was a “babbler” (Greek word used of scavenger birds, therefore came to be used of worthless loafers who picked up scraps of learning.)  Others concluded he spoke of foreign gods (because he talked about Jesus and the resurrection).

“And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus . . . ” (Acts 17:19). 

The Areopagus, or “Hill of Ares”, was the site of a council that served as an important legal institution under the Athenian democracy.  This Council changed many times over the centuries.  Originally, it was Athens’ central governing body; but under democracy it was primarily a court for serious crimes.  Since Paul wasn’t charged with a crime, apparently on this occasion it met to formally consider Paul’s “philosophy.”

Very Religious (17:22,23, TEV)

Paul stood up in front of the city council and said, “I see that in every way you Athenians are very religious.  For as I walked through your city and looked at the places where you worship, I found an altar on which it is written, ‘To an Unknown God.’  That which you worship, then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you.”

A brilliant opening!  (The Holy Spirit is known for his omniscience.)  Paul had their attention.

With all our secularization talk, the U.S. remains a religious country.  The Hartford Institute estimates (no official list exists) there are almost 315,000 “Christian” churches plus 12,000 non-Christian.  Gallup reports 40% of the population claim to attend (most certainly an inflated figure).  Nevertheless, even with our growing number of “nones”, we’re a religious people.  We just have different idols.

Unknown God Known (17:24-28, TEV)

God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made by human hands.  Nor does he need anything that we can supply by working for him, since it is he himself who gives life and breath and everything else to everyone.  From one human being he created all races of people and made them live throughout the whole earth. He himself fixed beforehand the exact times and the limits of the places where they would live.  He did this so that they would look for him, and perhaps find him as they felt around for him. Yet God is actually not far from any one of us; as someone has said, “‘In him we live and move and exist.’  It is as some of your poets have said, “‘We too are his children.'”

“Let me tell you about that ‘unknown God'”, Paul proclaims.  “He’s Creator of everything.  Lord of heaven and earth.  Doesn’t live in temples.  Self-sufficient, needs nothing from us.  Life-giver, we needing everything from him.  Source of all races, setting times and places for all to live.  Has a purpose:  that we would seek him and perhaps find him, because he’s not far off.  ‘In him we live and move and exist.’  Even your poet says, ‘We too are his children.'”

This brief, majestic description infinitely exalts the “unknown God”.  He is  high above every idol the Athenians or we might have.  Every comparison between God and the greatest idol inevitably crumbles.


Call to Repentance (17:29-31, TEV)

“Since we are God’s children, we should not suppose that his nature is anything like an image of gold or silver or stone, shaped by human art and skill.  God has overlooked the times when people did not know him, but now he commands all of them everywhere to turn away from their evil ways.  For he has fixed a day in which he will judge the whole world with justice by means of a man he has chosen. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising that man from death!”
Not the “invitation” we expected!  “God commands you to turn away from your evil ways, because he has set Judgment Day and the Judge is Jesus resurrected!”  We’re almost offended.  We’re used to being “sold” on the greater good God can offer than idols.  Paul sounds like a scraggly old man on city streets shouldering a sign board:  REPENT OR PERISH!

Mixed Response (17:3-34, TEV)

When they heard Paul speak about a raising from death, some of them made fun of him, but others said, “We want to hear you speak about this again.”  And so Paul left the meeting.  Some men joined him and believed, among whom was Dionysius, a member of the council; there was also a woman named Damaris, and some other people.
Greeks believed in a spirit-resurrection, so most mocked a bodily one.  Some just wanted to hear more.  But a few believed.  Though a church wasn’t formed, Gospel seeds were planted among an intellectually-hardened people.  Paul was ready to move on to Corinth.

Our Response.

A fine line between being an idolater and just wanting something good!  For example, is a healthy body rid of primary lateral sclerosis an idol?  When our three children were young and under our roof, I “loved them to death” as we say.  (I still love them deeply, but differently as adults.)  Were they idols to me?  Money has never held great importance to me.  But now that Lois and I are retired with limited funds, it concerns me more.  Does that make it an idol?

No simple formula.  Especially since idolatry is a heart-matter demanding ongoing vigilance.  That’s why I think the apostle John’s words are the wisest we can end with living in an idolatrous culture of all kinds of unknown gods . . .

Dear children,
keep away from anything
that might take God’s place in your hearts.
(1 John 5:21, NLT)
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Reactionary or Reflective?

‘We must all experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  How do we react to that warning?  Typically, I believe it, but push it to my brain’s back burner.  Or, how about this:  “This Jesus . . . is the Messiah” (Acts 17:3)?  Do we dig into the meaning of “Messiah” and why Paul said “This Jesus”, or do we assent superficially to this teaching?

In today’s text we find starkly contrasting reactions to Paul’s preaching.  The first sets out an example we should shun, the second one we should seek

Having left Philipi (  Paul, Silas and Timothy (Luke is out of the picture until 20:6) travel  southwest (by horse or foot)  on the Via Egnatia, the great Roman highway.  Thirty-three miles to Amphipolis, 27 to Apollonia, 35 to Thessalonica.

Paul and Silas traveled on through Amphipolis and Apollonia and came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue.  According to his usual habit Paul went to the synagogue. There during three Sabbaths he held discussions with the people, quoting and explaining the Scriptures, and proving from them that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from death. “This Jesus whom I announce to you,” Paul said, “is the Messiah” (Acts 17:1-3, TEV).


Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province Macedonia with a population of 100,000.  The city was a center for both trade and philosophy.  Greek, Roman, Egyptian and imperial cults marked its religious life.  The city had a Jewish population sufficient to support a synagogue.   As was his habit, Paul visited to preach the Gospel “to the Jew first.”

Unlike Philippi, author Luke offers no personal conversion accounts.  Instead, he summarizes Paul’s message from the Jewish Scriptures:  “the Messiah had to suffer and rise from death” and “This Jesus . . . is the Messiah.” 

Some of them were convinced and joined Paul and Silas; so did many of the leading women and a large group of Greeks who worshiped God. But some Jews were jealous and gathered worthless loafers from the streets and formed a mob. They set the whole city in an uproar and attacked the home of a man named Jason, in an attempt to find Paul and Silas and bring them out to the people (Acts 17:4,5, TEV).

Jewish men, upper-class Jewish women and Gentile Greeks who adhered to Jewish Law but remained uncircumcised “were convinced.”  All these “joined Paul and Silas” forming a new church in the city.

On the other hand “some Jews were jealous.”  Suspicious of Paul.  Envious of his success.  Protective of their synagogue.  So they rounded up “worthless loafers from the streets and formed a mob.”  Rushing the house of Jason (who lodged the visiting missionaries), they searched for Paul and Silas.

But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city authorities and shouted, “These men have caused trouble everywhere! Now they have come to our city,  and Jason has kept them in his house. They are all breaking the laws of the Emperor, saying that there is another king, whose name is Jesus.” With these words they threw the crowd and the city authorities in an uproar.  The authorities made Jason and the others pay the required amount of money to be released, and then let them go (Acts 17:6-9, TEV).

Jason and other believers bore the brunt of the mob’s anger.  Like Philippi, Thessalonica was self-governed by Greeks, albeit under Roman rule.  These magistrates don’t appear terribly troubled when they hear Paul and Silas had identified  “another king” other than Caesar.  Their sentence was basically bail, to be lost if Paul and Silas  returned.

Results of Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica, then, were mixed.  A church was planted of those who were convinced that Jesus is Messiah.  But other Jews reacted with hostility, and not (apparently) over truth.  They were jealous.  It seems, therefore, they gave little consideration to the substance of Paul’s message.  They heard, “The Messiah had to suffer and rise from death.  This Jesus whom I announce to you is the Messiah.”  But what spurred reaction was the numbers convinced who left to join Paul and Silas.  Like the seed scattered on rocky soil in Jesus’ parable, Satan stole away the word from these jealous Jews who never thought deeply about this Jesus (Matthew 13:4).

As soon as night came, the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. When they arrived, they went to the synagogue.  The people there were more open-minded than the people in Thessalonica. They listened to the message with great eagerness, and every day they studied the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was really true.Many of them believed; and many Greek women of high social standing and many Greek men also believed (Acts 17:10-12, TEV).


Berea lay 60 miles from Thessalonica.  Paul’s tactic was the same:  visit the synagogue and preach from the Jewish Scriptures that Messiah had to die and rise.  And this Messiah is Jesus.  Luke observes that the Bereans were more eugenays than the Thessalonia.  The word can be translated “noble” (ESV), but TEV is probably more accurate to translate “open-minded.”  Unlike the reactionary Thessalonians, “They listened with great eagerness . . . and every day . . . studied the Scriptures” with the result that “many of them believed.” Maybe the Thessalonians who believed responded similarly.  Maybe only some Thessalonians reacted with hostility.  But Luke’s intentional description of the Berean response commends them.

But when the Jews in Thessalonica heard that Paul had preached the word of God in Berea also, they came there and started exciting and stirring up the mobs.  At once the believers sent Paul away to the coast; but both Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea.  The men who were taking Paul went with him as far as Athens and then returned to Berea with instructions from Paul that Silas and Timothy should join him as soon as possible. (Acts 17:13-15, TEV).

The Berean visit ended abruptly.  The trouble-making Thessalonian Jews showed up in Berea.  Paul probably didn’t want to leave so soon, but “the believers sent Paul away to the coast” with Silas and Timothy to meet him in Athens once they were sure the new Berean believers were ready to go it alone.

The people of Berea responded wisely, commendably.  Eugenays means they were objective and receptive, but also that they held high moral principles and ideals (“noble”).  These qualities drove them everyday to  “[study] the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was really true.”

* * * * *

Here, then, are two examples of sermon-listening and Bible-reading.  First, some of the Thessalonians.  Now we’re not apt to sue our pastor if he preaches something we don’t like.  But we are apt to listen enough only to presume we’ve heard it all before.  Or to tune him out not wanting to hear any disagreeable lesson.  Or to half-listen while letting our minds wander to something more pressing or exciting.  (A real problem, since even good listeners retain only about 10% of what they hear!)  All this is reactionary listening, like the hostile Thessalonian Jews.

The better example is the Bereans.  They listened with “eagerness.”  They wanted to learn something new.  They rejected the I-heard-it-all-before attitude.  But they weren’t so open-minded that their brains fell out.  Everyday they studied the Scriptures to see if Paul’s message matched up.  They wouldn’t react against the humiliating doctrine that their Messiah had to die.  Their Scripture-study-response became the Holy Spirit’s fuel to ground them in the Gospel.

I know time is a problem.  If we go to Sunday Worship, who has time to study the sermon-Scripture later?  If we read the Bible on our own, how can we grab more than a few minutes.  Besides, a little Scripture, even if not interpreted correctly, is better than none!

But superficial Scripture knowledge as culture attacks our faith increasingly, may not be enough.  Times call for disciples learning to know and live God’s word.

Let’s not be like some of those Thessalonians!  Don’t buy what the preacher says just because he says it.  Or whatever might “stick” from a cursory reading.  Let’s be like the Bereans—listen eagerly, but then study the Scriptures.  Because men’s words can’t save—only God’s.  And even God’s must be understood correctly.







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Jail Quake

In the 1979 movie, “Escape from Alcatraz”, Clint Eastwood  and his prison  pals painstakingly dug their way of the island prison with spoons.  
Paul and SIlas walked out of a Philippi prison after singing worship songs interrupted by a precisely timed and placed earthquake.

They had been on their way to the Jewish prayer-place.  A slave girl and her owners started following.  Her evil-spirit-induced cries irritated Paul.  Unable to endure any more, he turned and demanded the demon out.  Good for the girl, not so much for her owners.  With their income-source gone, they (taking a page from Americans), dragged Paul and Silas to court.  The Roman magistrates found the Jewish wanderers guilty of teaching anti-Roman customs and ordered them beaten with rods and locked up in prison.

Upon receiving this order, the jailer threw them into the inner cell and fastened their feet between heavy blocks of wood.  About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other
prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:24,25, TEV).

The retired-soldier-jailer didn’t know it, but his life would change forever that night.   It started with midnight hymn-singing.  The other prisoners listened; the jailer fell asleep.

Suddenly there was a violent earthquake, which shook the prison to its foundations.  At once all the doors opened, and the chains fell off all the  prisoners.   The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he thought that the prisoners had escaped; so he pulled out his sword and was about to kill himself,
But Paul shouted at the top of his       Paul and Silas in Prison - Acts 16
voice, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
The jailer called
for a light, rushed in, and fell trembling at the feet of Paul and
Silas (Acts 16:26-29, TEV).

Curious the way the Lord works miracles.  He could have silently opened the cell;  Paul and Silas could have tiptoed past the sleeping jailer  (see Peter’s “jail break” in Acts 12).  But he chose to save the old sleeping soldier.  So he orchestrated a “jail quake”.

Now comes the most significant part of this event . . .

Then he led them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?  They answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your family.”  Then they preached the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in the house.  At that very hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; and he and all his family were baptized at once.  Then he took Paul and Silas up into his house and gave them some food to eat. He and his family were filled with joy, because they now believed in God (Acts 16: 30-34), TEV).

Had the jailer heard the slave girl’s cries (“These men are servants of the Most High God! They announce to you how you can be saved!” —Acts 16:17)?  Did he mean, “How can I be saved from punishment by my superiors?”  Whatever he meant, Paul and Silas knew what they meant.   The door (both of the cell and the jailer’s heart) was open.

Paul and Silas tell the word of the Lord.  It seems the jail was a dungeon underneath the jailer’s house.  He takes Paul and Silas there to wash their wounds.  They baptize the jailer and his whole believing family.  Now the house, rocked by the “jail quake” rocks with the joy of faith in God.  This, it appears, was the Lord’s aim all along.  The jailer didn’t just happen to hear the Lord’s word and believe; he and his family were the Lord’s target from the start.  (No, I don’t know why.)

The next morning the Roman authorities sent police officers with the order, “Let those men go.”  So the jailer told Paul, “The officials have sent an order for you and Silas to be released. You may leave, then, and go in peace. But Paul said to the police officers, “We were not found guilty of any crime, yet they whipped us in public – and we are Roman citizens! Then they threw us in prison. And now they want to send us away secretly? Not at all! The Roman officials themselves must come here and let us out.”  The police officers reported these words to the Roman officials; and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were afraid.  So they went and apologized to them; then they led them out of the prison and asked them to leave the city.  Paul and Silas left the prison and went to Lydia’s house. There they met the believers, spoke words of encouragement to them, and left (Acts 16:36-40, TEV).

Apparently the Roman magistrates thought one night in jail would teach these Jewish trouble-makers.  Just release them; they’ll never come back here.  But when the jailer relayed the officers’ order,  Paul and Silas were of no mind to simply move on.  Why?  Either they were demanding justice or not allowing these magistrates to lay any legal groundwork for future injustice.  Consequently these self-important authorities were compelled to openly apologize and politely ask the missionaries to leave.  After encouraging the new believers, they did—triumphantly, though not without scars.

* * * * *

The Book of Acts records the advance of the Gospel.   Acts 1:8 may stand as its theme statement . . .

But when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

If so, then Acts 14:22 should be arguably nailed to it . . .

“We must pass through many troubles to enter the Kingdom of God,” they taught.

The Gospel will advance, the empowered apostles will bear witness to the risen Lord, but normally in the face of opposition.  No triumphalism here!  Not in Philippi.  Not anywhere.

Triumphalism, as defined by Dr. Sam Storms, is “belief that the overt and consummate victories that we will experience only in the age to come are available to us now.”  How easy to watch these four missionaries march out of Philippi as conquering heroes who cast out a demon, escaped prison, converted a Gentile family and compelled the arrogant Roman magistrates to almost grovel at their feet!  How normal to think this is the “normal Christian life”, and we should expect a similar triumph in the next town!  (All the while conveniently forgetting the beating, the stocks, the hours in the cell and the nearly absolute authority of the magistrates.)

Typically we teach this story in Sunday school, while ignoring James being martyred by the sword (Acts 12:2).  We much prefer Hebrews 11:32-35a . . .

There isn’t enough time for me to speak of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.  Through faith they fought whole countries and won. They did what was right and received what God had promised. They shut the mouths of lions, put out fierce fires, escaped being killed by the sword. They were weak, but became strong; they were mighty in battle and defeated the armies of foreigners.  Through faith women received their dead relatives raised back to life  . . .

to Hebrews 11:35b-39a, TEV . . .

Others, refusing to accept freedom, died under torture in order to be raised to a better life.  Some were mocked and whipped, and others were put in chains and taken off to prison.  They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were killed by the sword. They went around clothed in skins of sheep or goats – poor, persecuted, and mistreated.  The world was not good enough for them! They wandered like refugees in the deserts and hills, living in caves and holes in the ground.  What a record all of these have won by their faith!

Of course.  I do too!  But the same commendable faith in the same Lord is found in both.  The Lord delivers Paul in Philippi, but eventually he’ll let him die a martyr.  Turn off the preacher who deceives us with his “ya gotta have big faith” talk!  Stop deluding yourself into thinking that the Christian who really believes and is really committed enjoys the triumphs of the age to come now without defeat and humiliation and pain.

We must be biblical Christians, holding on to faith no matter what (and trusting the Spirit to gift us with faith when we cannot).  And, let’s do it  waiting with expectant hope for that great “jail quake” yet to come . . .

“I will once more shake not only the earth
but heaven as well.”
 The words “once more”
plainly show that the created things will be
shaken and removed, so that the things
that cannot be shaken will remain.

Let us be thankful, then,
because we receive a kingdom
that cannot be shaken.
Let us be grateful and worship God
in a way that will please him,
with reverence and awe;

because our God is indeed a destroying fire
(Hebrews 12:26-29, TEV)



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