The Old Preacher

Viewing the World through God's Word

Category: The Word (page 1 of 31)

More Feast

Full from the first feast (http://theoldpreacher.com/feast/–Ephesians 1:3-6)?  There’s more coming.  We’re not only chosen in Christ.  Not only adopted in Christ.  But . . .

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding(Ephesians 1:7,8).

“In [Christ] . . . ”  Paul uses that phrase (or some form of it) 10 times in 12 verses.  Every spiritual blessing that God has given is “in Christ”. They are not in whatever we believe God to be.  They’re not dropped from heaven by angels.  They don’t come through our sincerity or religious practices.  They are in Christ.

In him we have redemption through his blood . . . ”   In the movies, a man “redeems” himself by righting a past wrong.  Real redemption, though, runs deeper. The Greek word Paul uses is apolutrosin–“release from slavery by a ransom payment”.

Harmonizing with redemption is “the forgiveness of sins”.  Whoa!  Sin is an archaic non-issue, right?  We admit to “not being perfect”.  But we’re certainly not slaves to sin—slavery from which we need a Savior to ransom us!  Forgiveness, like redemption, is God’s work, for we all have sinned against him—and couldn’t stop if we tried.  We need Christ to release us from sin’s slavery by paying the ransom for us ”through his blood”.  Even God couldn’t just pronounce us forgiven.  Justice demanded a ransom be paid.  We have that “through [Christ’s] blood.”

This, Paul explains, is in accordance with “the riches of [God’s] grace [unmerited favor] that he made abound (Greek, perisseuo—“gave excessively, bestowed in extravagant quantities”) toward us.”

Lois loves to give Christmas gifts, especially to our grandchildren.  So when the family gathers to celebrate, she has presents piled under the tree and, not all fitting there, stacked around the room.  That’s how God is with his grace in Christ—lavish.

And, writes Paul to the church, God made his grace abound to us “in all wisdom and prudence”.  This is the manner God gave us his grace—wisely and prudently.

“And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment– to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:9,10).

“[M]ystery (Greek, mustayrion)” refers to something long hidden, but finally God-revealed. This mystery of God’s will is God’s purpose or plan “in Christ”.  And, writes Paul, God was delighted to make this mystery of his will known.

What is this “mystery of his will”?  It is “ . . . to bring all things together under one head, even Christ”.                      “ . . . bring” translates the Greek anakephalieo-o.  It means “to gather everything together under the control of one person, unify, make into one”.  Thus the NLT says, “At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth”.

But revelation of God’s will isn’t execution of God’s will.  Only “when the times will have reached their fulfillment” will God put this mystery into effect.  F.F. Bruce comments:  “ . . . when the time is ripe for ‘the consummation of his purpose’, in his providential overruling of the course of the world, that consummation will be realized.”

Paul is telling the church that God is in charge of human history.  He’s orchestrating and administering events and direction to fulfill his purpose. And his purpose is to unite all things under the control of Christ.

Herman Bavinck (19th century Dutch Reformed theologian) wrote . . .

“’Round about us we observe so many facts which seem to be unreasonable, so much undeserved suffering [such as child abuse], so many unaccountable calamities, such an uneven and inexplicable distribution of destiny, and such an enormous contrast between the extremes of joy and sorrow, that anyone reflecting on these things is forced to choose between viewing this universe as if it were governed by the blind will of an unbenign deity, as is done by pessimism, or, upon the basis of Scripture and by faith, to rest in the absolute and sovereign, yet however incomprehensible wise and holy will of him who will one day cause the full light of heaven to dawn upon these mysteries of life.”

“In him we were also chosen, {Or were made heirs} having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11,12).

We have been chosen in Christ.  We have been made heirs of an eternal inheritance in Christ.  Though both are true, the Greek in this sentence is unclear.  Whichever Paul meant we were “predestined” for it.

And this predestination is “according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”.  This is a breathtaking clause.  God has a plan (Greek prothesis—purpose, design).  According to that plan, God works out all things “in conformity”(Greek, Boulay—counsel, resolve) with his will/purpose.  It’s an echo of Romans 8:28,29 . . .

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

God is sovereignty.  And his sovereign purpose is clear:  “in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”  By “we, who were the first to hope in Christ” Paul means Jews who believe in Messiah Jesus.

“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession– to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13,14).

Consequently, “you also were included in Christ” refers to Gentiles who “heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation”.   Gentiles “believed [and] were marked in [Christ] with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit . . . ”  The “seal” is the “Holy Spirit” who identifies believers as belonging to Christ.  Furthermore, the Spirit “is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession . . . ” 

As a “deposit”, the Holy Spirit, who lives in believers, is a portion of the total purchase price paid in advance, a promise that the full payment will come in due time.  When Lois and I bought our house, we deposited 20% of the total price—the balance (plus interest) was to be fully paid in 30 years (we did it!).

John Eadie, 19th century Scottish theologian comments . . .

“The earnest (deposit) , though it differ in degree, is the same in kind with the prospective inheritance. The earnest is not withdrawn, nor a totally new circle of possessions substituted. Heaven is but an addition to present enjoyments. Knowledge in heaven is but a development of what is enjoyed on earth; its holiness is but the purity of time elevated and perfected; and its happiness is no new fountain opened in the sanctified bosom, but only the expansion and refinement of those susceptibilities which were first awakened on earth by confidence in the Divine redeemer. The earnest, in short, is the ‘inheritance’ in miniature, and it is also a pledge that the inheritance shall be ultimately and fully enjoyed.”

Paul here writes of “redemption” as our future experience, as he does in Roman 8:23 . . .

“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

The fullness of the inheritance will certainly bring great joy to us.  But God’s ultimate purpose is “the praise of his glory”.

* * *

The heavenlies hold blessings belonging to God the Holy Spirit.  They’ve come to us in Messiah Jesus.  How foolish that sounds to unbelieving ears!  How narrow!  God’s blessings fall from heaven like snowflakes on everyone who needs them!  No, they’ve “fallen” in Christ.

We, who believe, who know these blessings have come in Christ, don’t appreciate the feast we have.  That’s why we have to prayerfully, thoughtfully read this gospel again and again.  It’s like studying how the feast was prepared–so that, when we sit down to “eat”, we don’t presume it’s cheap fast food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Feast

When our family celebrated Easter, all the women contributed food.  Which meant our dishes were overflowing.  I think of that when I read Ephesians 1—so much blessing, it overflows.  Taste after taste of delicious gospel truth.  Hard not to make a meal of each sentence.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).

Paul begins by nearly exploding with praise—long praise (one sentence, verses 3-14, 202 words in the Greek text!)  “Worthy of praise (meaning in context of the Greek eulogaytos) is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

What has God done to deserve such praise?  God “has blessed us (graciously lavished his favor on us—meaning of euloyaytos in context) with every spiritual blessing (a blessing coming from the Holy Spirit) in the heavenly places (literally, in the “heavenlies”).

According to Sam Storms (pastor, Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City), “‘the heavenlies’ are where Christ is, where we are (in spiritual union with him), where demons are, and where God is revealed! In other words, ‘heavenly realms’ does not refer to a physical location but to a spiritual reality, God’s world, in which believers have a share and which evil forces still seek to attack . . . It is a way of saying that this world is not the only reality”.  From that spiritual reality, Christ came to open the way for believers to be blessed by God with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

Note:  These spiritual blessings in the heavenlies that come to us are “in Christ”.  Just as God is not whomever we make him to be but the God who is “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” so God’s blessings can be found in only one source—Messiah Jesus.

 Nor are “spiritual blessings” vague or merely emotional.  Paul lists them, beginning with what theologians call “election” . . .

“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4a).

 God chose (Greek, eklego) us in Christ before the creation (Greek, katabolays—“foundation”) of the world “that we should be holy and blameless in his sight”. 

Since God chose us before creation, no created thing or person had any bearing on God’s choice.  No merit, no circumstances affected God’s choice. He  didn’t choose those who now believe because we merit it or because circumstances demand it.  Storms writes, “We must still believe in Jesus, but our belief is itself the historical and experiential fruit or effect of God’s pre-temporal elective decree (see Eph. 2:8). The religious implications of this are profound, for either a person thanks himself for his faith, because it resulted in his election, or he thanks God for his election, because it resulted in his faith.”

God’s choice came with purpose: “that we would be holy and blameless in his sight.” 

Paul may be thinking of the present as the Spirit progressively sanctifies.  But Ephesians 5:25b-27 suggests his purpose will ultimately be fulfilled at the end of the age . . .

 Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

“In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—” (Ephesians 1:4b,5).

Having chosen us believers before the world’s creation, God destined us “to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ”. Adopted”—a powerful, emotional, life-changing experience.  And God adopted us “[i]n love.  Adoption is especially staggering given that by nature we were “sons of disobedience” and “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:2,3).

“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12,13).

 Paul explains that God not only desired (“will”) to adopt us, but it was “his good pleasure”.  As a father is delighted to bring a hurting child into his family, so God was delighted to destine us for adoption.

 “ . . .  to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:6).

Here stands God’s ultimate purpose in choosing us sinners to be made his holy and blameless children:  that the glory of his grace might be revealed, and revealed, praised.

Note: God freely gave the glory of his grace “in the One he loves”—that is, in Christ.

Just last night we watched a TV show where a wayward young lady was convinced she was going to burn in hell for the wrong she’d done.  The minister’s wife in the story assured her, “God’s not like that.  He’ll forgive you.”  But God is only “not like that” in Christ.  We can’t trust God to forgive us, only God in Christ.

* * *

So we believers  sit at a feast.  A table filled to overflowing with every blessing of the Spirit in Christ.  Chosen by God before anything else existed, so that corrupting, killing sin would be undone by holiness and blamelessness.  Can we wrap our minds around that?  Before we were born God chose us.  Did he look down a mental list of names and check us off?  (By the way, our faith in Christ Jesus is proof of our election.)

Then he was delighted to predestine us for adoption as his children (not everybody’s a child of God).  God’s not only God, but our Father.  Among other things that means we’re joint-heirs with Jesus of an eternal inheritance in a new creation with new immortal bodies.

Illness now leaves me feeling impoverished, a beggar without a crust of bread.

But when I read Ephesians1:3-6, I realize God has welcomed me into a table heavy with a lavish feast fit for a child of the King.

 

 

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Dear . . .

“Dear Reverend. Dear Allan.”  Letters or emails, I always gloss over the salutation.  We do the same over New Testament letters’ salutations, too.  On to important stuff—the letter’s body!   But, wait!  The salutation’s important, too.  Look . . .

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God . . . “ (Ephesians 1:1a).

Paul identifies himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus . . .” An apostle (Greek, apostolos) is a “sent one”, a “messenger”, an “envoy”, a “commissioned representative”.  In the New Testament, the apostle represents Christ and is charged with planting and establishing churches.

The New Testament uses apostolos of the Twelve (11 plus Mathias replacing Judas)–a unique, closed group.  It also uses it of Barnabas (Acts 14:4,14), James the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19), Andronicus (Romans 16:7), Junias (Romans 16:7), as well, of course, of Paul.

By what authority does Paul claim to be an apostle?  Victor Furnish (Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Southern Methodist University) explains . . .

“When he describes himself as ‘an apostle by the will of God,’ he is not emphasizing his own obedience or response to a divine call. He is, instead, emphasizing the call itself, God’s sovereign initiative in establishing him in an office to which he was destined even before his birth (Gal. 1:15) and for which, apart from the grace of God, he is in no way qualified. The apostolic authority about which he reminds his readers is based not in any personal merit of his own but solely in the grace of God which had been given to him.”

John Stott (20th century English Anglican priest and acknowledged leader of the worldwide evangelical movement) commented on “by the will of God”:  it means we “must listen to the message of Ephesians with appropriate attention and humility. For we must regard its author neither as a private individual who is ventilating his personal opinions, nor as a gifted but fallible human teacher, nor even as the church’s greatest missionary hero, but as ‘an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’, and therefore as a teacher whose authority is precisely the authority of Jesus Christ himself, in whose name and by whose inspiration he writes”.

“To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus . . . “ (Ephesians 1:1b).

As he describes all believers, not just an elite few, Paul addresses his readers as “saints” (Greek, hagiois)–“holy ones”.

And he calls them “faithful”, meaning not that his readers are reliable, but that they are full of faith.

They are saints and faithful “in Christ Jesus”.   I view “in Christ Jesus” to be the realm in which Paul’s readers are both “saints” and “faithful”.  He is the power in which they are transformed.  His Spirit, his character, his purposes shape their lives just as being “in sin” once shaped their lives .  Here’s what Paul wrote later in this letter about in- sin lives . . .

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.  All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:1-3).

But we who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are no longer “in sin”.  The realm of our life is “in Christ”.

Now, a point about manuscript. A manuscript is a handwritten copy of a portion of a Bible text.  The New Testament boasts over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, far more than any other ancient work.   The point?  “in Ephesus” doesn’t appear in the best manusripts.  This has led to the general consensus that  Paul is writing an “encyclical”—a letter he wants shared with all western Asia Minor churches.   Of course, now in God’s providence, it has gone global.

 “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:2).

Paul’s greetings are more than form.  “Grace to you . . . ” is Paul’s sincere prayer for “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” to pour out favor and power into the lives of his readers.  Listen to John Piper’s comment . . .

“Grace is about to flow ‘from God’ through Paul’s writing to the Christians. So he says, ‘Grace to you.’ That is, grace is now active and is about to flow from God through my inspired writing to you as you read — ‘grace [be] to you.’”

“ . . . peace” reminds Paul’s Jewish readers of the Hebrew “shalom”, an inner sense of wholeness and tranquility.”  Again Paul is praying for his letter to be the conduit of peace to his readers “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

 *  *  *

Much is in a salutation, if we pause to look!  But, what shall we do with it?  Pray . . .

God our Father I pray that as we read this letter you will pour grace upon us.  May we hear Paul’s words as Christ’s.  May your unmerited favor be lavished on us through this letter.  And may the peace that passes understanding guard our hearts and minds in the Lord Jesus Christ.  In his name and for his glory I ask, amen.

 

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Take a Look at This Beauty!

You visit a dealership to buy a car.  You’re welcomed (accosted?)  by a salesman who leads you to a shiny new vehicle and  points out the car’s best features.  That’s what we’ll do today with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—introduce it by pointing out just a few important features .

We left Paul in his rented house in Rome chained to a Roman guard around the clock awaiting his trial before Caesar.  While there, Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (60-62 A.D.)

Paul had evangelized in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-20:1) fall 52 A.D. to spring 55 A.D.  In that city, he received the most violent opposition yet (Acts 18:23-41; 2 Corinthians 1:8-10).  But among a population  of at least 250,000 he planted several house churches, with more in villages not far from the city and larger churches in Asia Minor cities like Laodicea, Pergamum and Sardis.  Scholars generally agree Paul intended Ephesians to be circulated among all those churches—a considerably large body of believers.

Ephesus, though, was the recognized center of religious and political life in the area of the Roman empire.  The imperial cult was everywhere present in the city—temples of Claudius, Hadrian, Julius Caesar, and Augustus for Romans to pay homage to their emperors.

The temple of Diana (or Artemis) stood as the largest building in the region and the city’s primary religious site. The platform on which it was built measured more than 100,000 square feet, the temple itself was 425 feet long by 220 feet wide by 60 feet high. Made entirely of marble with pillars overlaid with gold and jewels, it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Not surprisingly, Ephesus was a center for magical arts and various occult practice, the chief of which was “Ephesian Letters” (Ephesiagrammata), six magical terms said to possess power to ward off evil spirits.

One popular story told of an Ephesian wrestler unbeaten in the ancient Olympics because he wore the “Ephesian Letters” on his ankles.  Officials discovered and removed them—the wrestler then lost three consecutive matches.

Among Diana’s attributes was power over demons of the dead.  Her followers invoked her authority to raise the dead, heal the sick and protect the city.

Perhaps the presence of pagan temples and belief in a goddess like Diana led Paul to write that well-known text, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Paul explains our “struggle” (Greek–palay, “wrestling, conflict, fight”) is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  What struggle?  The fight of faith, the fight of obedience, the fight of living a life worthy of our calling, even the fight of living a moral life as an unbeliever.  We are opposed and that by spiritual powers of evil.  “Bad things” can’t be ultimately caused by “bad people.”  More than human wrongdoing accounts for “wrong” in the world.  We might say there are ghosts under our beds.  And only Christ can defeat them.

During and after Paul’s ministry in Ephesus Gentiles joined the Jews in the house churches.  Coming from popular pagan religions, they needed grounding in the gospel and in Christian living. The influx of Gentiles also created tension in the churches, especially since Gentiles didn’t particularly value the Jewish heritage of the faith and Jews treated them as outsiders.

That situation likely prompted Paul’s powerful words . . .

“So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:12-22).

Racism remains a cancer in America. Paul announces it can overcome (Jew/Gemtile; black/white; etc.P not by educatio, or protests, or government programs, but by Christ’s transforming work that makes all believers “one new humanity . . . thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”  The local church should be the body where all races find unity in their new Christ-identity.

John Piper has called Romans “the greatest letter ever written.”  If so, Ephesians is a close second.  It’s been called “the crown of St. Paul’s writings” and “Pound for Pound . . . may well be the most influential document ever written.”  Sounds like we’re in for a mind-stretching, soul-feeding, Christ-exalting walk through a breathtaking letter.

With that in mind, the most excellent way to end this brief introduction  is by praying one of Paul’s magnificent Ephesians prayers–a prayer I pray God will answer in part through our study . . .

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power” (1:17-19).

 

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The Christian & the Slave

Racism remains rampant in the U.S.  November 2015 CNN poll: 49% of Americans call racism (belief that one race is superior to another) “a big problem”.  Surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t openly condemn racism–not even slavery.  But it does attack slavery in an unusual way.

Paul has arrived in Rome.  He’s now under what we might call “house arrest”, chained to a Roman guard, while awaiting his trial before Caesar.  He writes a letter to a friend–Philemon.

“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1-3).

Paul calls himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus”, not of Rome, nor of Caesar.  He believes Christ Jesus has captured him and sent him to this “prison”.  “Philemon” is Paul’s “dear friend and fellow worker”, a member of the Colossae church.  Philemon is a slave owner.  Paul addresses his letter not just to Philemon, but also to Apphia and Archippus and “the church that meets in your home”.  Paul mentions Christ twice in this greeting—signifacant because Christ is the “hidden star” of this letter.

“I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints.  I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints” (Philemon 4-7).

Paul tells Philemon how he always thanks God for him, hearing of his faith in Christ and love for all believers.  Paul tells him, too, how he prays for Philemon—that Philemon may actively share his faith, so that he may have “a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ”.  (Sharing the faith deepens our understanding of Christ!).  Philemon is known for “[refreshing] the hearts of the saints”, and this love encourages Paul and gives him great joy.

“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul– an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus–I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.  Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.  I am sending him– who is my very heart– back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.  But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.  Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good–no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (Philemon 8-16).

Onesimus.  His name means “useful”, this one who became a useless slave to Philemon by stealing from his master and running away.  But he  has providentially found his way to Paul’s house.  Paul has led the slave to faith in Christ Jesus.  He now is  sending him, with this letter, back to his master.

Paul writes persuasively.  Since Onesimus has become a Christian, Philemon should welcome the slave back as his “dear brother in Christ”.  Paul could command Philemon.  After all, Philemon “owes” Paul.  It was the apostle who led him to Christ.

Instead, he “appeals” to him “on the basis of love”.  In other words, Paul wants this not to be a law-matter, but a heart-matter.

“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.  I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back– not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask” (Philemon 17-21).

How can Philemon refuse?  Paul urges him to “welcome him as you would welcome me”.  He promises to personally pay Philemon back anything Onesimus owes him.  Paul even tells Philemon he’s confident he’ll exceed his requests.

“And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philemon 22-25).

How to understand Paul’s request for a guest room?  Did he really expect the Lord to answer Philemon’s prayers, so he’d be freed?  Or was he “warning” Philemon he’ll soon show up and know how he’s treating Onesimus?

Paul sends greetings from five men  with him.  But is what most compelling is what Paul doesn’t write at the end of this letter . .

What did Philemon do when Onesimus returned?

* * *

The same question can be asked of us.  Now that we know what Paul wrote to Philemon, what can we do about the scourge of racism?  I’m not suggesting that any of our “doing” will wipe out racism, any more than what Paul wanted Philemon to do would wipe out slavery.

I am suggesting we can make a small difference, especially in our churches. (Yes, we find it even there.)  If there is someone in our church of a different ethnicity, or someone we might discriminate against (a poor person, an unkempt person, etc.) . . .

Now that we know what Paul wrote to Philemon,
what can–what will– we do
about racism, about discrimination?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Acts Unfinished

Acts finishes unfinished.

“For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house
and welcomed all who came to see him.
Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God
and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ”
(Acts 28:30,31).

That’s it?  No details of that time?  No what happened to Paul afterward?  Did the statute of limitations run out?  Does he appear before Caesar?  Was he freed?  Executed?

Luke’s ending implies Acts’ story is meant to continu–fto be ongoing– generation after generation, century after century.  We are “writing” the current chapter.

Dr. Gordon Fee suggests Acts shows us that God’s intent for his church is “a triumphant, joyful, forward-moving expansion of the Gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities” (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p. 93).

That was the story of Acts.  First in Jerusalem through Peter.  The Holy Spirit is mightily outpoured.  Peter preached his Pentecost sermon.  3000 Jews from all over the Roman Empire (in Jerusalem for Passover) repent, believe and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Within months, that number grows to 5000.  Almost immediately Jewish authorities turn hostile.  But the gospel advances through the apostles’ preaching and the Holy Spirit’s signs and wonders.

Persecution intensifies.  Stephen is martyred.  Believers scatter from Jerusaleminto Judea and Samaria, gossiping the gospel wherever they go.  Meanwhile, Saul of Tarsus, a young rabbi, has followers of “The Way” jailed.  He travels to Damascus, Syria to drag wayward Jews back to Jerusalem and punishment.  But on the road, the risen Christ appears, blinding him and converting him.  From now on, he takes center stage in the Gospel’s forward-moving expansion.

But he is not alone.  Peter finds himself led by the Spirit to a Gentile house.  He preaches to Cornelius and his household, and the Spirit is poured out on them as at Pentecost.  The Jewish Christian church is becoming Gentile–especially as persecuted believers scatter to Antioch, Syria and plant a strong Gentile church there.  From Antioch, eventually the Spirit sends Saul (soon to be known as Paul) on three missionary journeys through western Asia and ultimately eastern Europe.  At every step, Jews oppose.  But at every step, as the Spirit empowers, the Gospel advances.

Finally, in the Jerusalem temple, a Jewish mob grabs Paul.  His life is spared only because Roman troops rush in to restore peace.  But he spends the next two-plus years imprisoned before being shipped to Rome to stand before Caesar. In Rome, in his own rented house,  Paul is chained to rotating guards who repeatedly hear the gospel.  Jews reject it.  But Gentiles come to listen and be saved.

Acts ends without an ending.  That will come only when Jesus does.  The book, then, is not just history; it’s a paradigm for the church in every generation.

Again, as Dr. Fee writes, Acts shows us that God’s intent for his church is “a triumphant, joyful, forward-moving expansion of the Gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities” (How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, p. 93).

Historically the Gospel hasn’t advanced on a straight incline.  Periods of expansion have been interrupted by periods of halting.  That seems to be so in America now.   Statistics are a mixed bag.  I’ve read 8-10 studies.  The Pew Research Center says in 2008, 80% of Americans considered themselves Christian.  (Whether they were or not remains another story.)  By 2017 that number fell to 75%.  Evangelicals from 2007 to 2014 fell from 26.3% to 25.4% (Pew Research Center).  Another study claims evangelicals have slightly increased.  Another says, “Okay, church attendance is declining; but it’s really just clarifying who the real Christians are.”

The polls are dizzying.  But I’ve deduced this:  we Christians in America are probably declining a bit in number.  But even if we’re holding steady, nothing in any research I’ve read suggests that the Gospel is not triumphantly and joyfully moving forward.  In other words, if God intends the church in Acts to be roughly replicated in each generation, it’s not happening here and now.

So the non-ending end of Acts gives us something to pray for and work toward:  a church through which the Gospel is triumphantly, joyfully moving forward with an expansion of the Gospel, despite opposition, empowered by the Holy Spirit, resulting in changed lives and local communities.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rome Finally

Years ago our young family vacationed at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.  It was this N.J. boy’s first trip to the South.  I was fascinated and excited to arrive.  In today’s text, the apostle Paul arrives in Rome–the city he long hoped to visit, albeit not as a prisoner.

Three months later we set sail on a ship that had wintered at the island, an Alexandrian ship with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there for three days; then we weighed anchor and came to Rhegium. After one day there a south wind sprang up, and on the second day we came to Puteoli.  There we found believers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome (Acts 28:11-14).Three winter months on Malta, when sea travel was treacherous. They embark early February on a grain ship.  After a day’s sail, they reach Syracuse on the east coast of Sicily.  They spend three days there, then set sail again, docking at Rhegium on Italy’s toe.  There they wait one day for a south wind to blow, taking them 180 miles in two days to Puteoloi, the principal port of southern Italy.

Image result for map of paul 4th missionary journey

In Puteolois they find a community of Christians.  While the centurion conducts week-long business, Paul is permitted to visit them.

“And so we came to Rome.”  But, author Luke will backtrack to tell of an important meeting.

The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage (Acts 28:15).

A few miles north of Puteoloi, they reach the Appian Way.  News of Paul’s approach has reached the capital city, so believers from there travel south.  Some walk 33 miles to Three Taverns.  Others travel 10 miles further to meet the apostle at the market town of Appius.  Paul thanks God for their encouraging presence.  Three years have passed since he wrote the Rome church, and he must have wondered how they received it.  Now his long desire to visit Rome (thoughunder different circumstances) is being realized, and their welcome lifts his spirits.

When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case.  But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor — even though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” They replied, “We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you. But we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against” (Acts 28:16-22).

Paul is allowed a measure of freedom awaiting his trial.  He lives in a private house, lightly chained by his wrist to a Roman soldier.  (Interesting to speculate on Paul’s conversations with these guards, who change every four hours.  They, of course, hear everything Paul teaches his visitors.)

After three days Paul makes contact with the leaders of the Jews, inviting them to come to him.  He insists he did nothing against “our people” or against “the customs of our ancestors”.  Nevertheless, he was arrested and handed over to the Romans who wanted to free him.  But the Jews objected, forcing him to prove his innocence by appealing to Caesar.  He is a prisoner, he says, “for the sake of the hope of Israel”; that is, for the fulfillment of that hope in Messiah Jesus.

The Jews deny knowledge of Paul’s case (they want little to do with Paul and his Christianity).  All they know is Paul’s Christianity is everywhere-opposed by the Jews.  But they’re willing “to hear from you what you think”.

 After they had set a day to meet with him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.  Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe.  So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,  ‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.’  Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” (Acts28:23-28).

They come together again, this time more Jews than before.  Paul labors long “to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets”.  They  disagree with each other, some convinced, the majority refusing to believe.  The bulk of the Jewish community, then, stands opposed to Messiah Jesus.

Paul pronounces the Holy Spirit’s words through the prophet.  Isaiah 6:9,10 stands in judgment against them, a solemn last word in Acts. If Romans 9-11 is any indication, Paul spoke these words with sorrow.  But Jewish disbelief means riches for the Gentiles.  “ . . . they will listen”. 

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28:30,31).

W.M Ramsay (19th & 20th century New Testament scholar) suggests the two years was “the statutory period within which the prosecution might state its case”.  If the Romans did or not, we don’t know.  Many scholars argue that Paul was later released and traveled again.  In any case, for those two years, the gospel spread.

There, in a house unknown to us Paul received visitors.  And with courage and without hindrance he preached the fulfillment of God’s saving reign in the Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly the Romans knew—and allowed it. So there, in the heart of the empire, Luke shows Acts 1:8 being fulfilled:  the Lord Jesus Christ is made known “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

 * * *

Since Acts closes in “unfinished” fashion, I believe Paul’s (crazy) route to Rome is a paradigm for today.  I’m thinking of men and women who cross language and culture lines (missionaries) with the gospel.  I have a friend who ministers in a country officially “closed” to the gospel among a little-known people group.  Families are coming to faith in Christ.  God still gets his servants where he wants them to make his good news known.

One important reason to faithfully support our missionaries in prayer and finances.

 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations,
and then the end will come
(Jesus, Mat
thew 24:14).

 

 

 

 

 

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Castaways

In 2000 “Castaway”, Tom Hanks played a FedEx employee marooned on an island after his plane crashes in the South Pacific.  Hanks has to transform himself physically and emotionally to survive.  In today’s text Paul and 275 other men are castaways on a Mediterranean island with an experience quite different from Hanks’.

After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it.  Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.  When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”  He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.  They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god (Acts 28:1-6).

Image result for map Paul's ship journey to Rome

Safely on shore, the men learn they are on Malta.  Luke calls the people barbaroi—“barbarians.”  The island, strategically lying at the narrows of the Mediterranean was settled in the 6th century B.C.  In 216 B.C. Rome captured it from Carthage and Augustus settled Roman veterans there.  These “barbarians” are descended from the Carthaginians.

Luke is probably using barbaroi to mean “natives” of the island.  In any case, they show remarkable kindness to the 276 survivors.  It’s a cold, rainy morning and the castaways are wet to the bone.  So the “natives” build a welcoming fire to warm them.

Paul pitches in.  But as he lays sticks on the fire, a viper, cold and stiff in the twigs, grabs his hand.  The islanders see.  To them, it’s a sign.  The man survived the sea, but Justice wins out.  The man must be a murderer.  When they see Paul shake off the snake, they wait for him  “to swell up or suddenly drop dead.”   When he doesn’t, the “sign” changes.  He must be “a god”. 

Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him.  After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.  They bestowed many honors on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed (Acts 28:7-10).

Publius, a land-owner, is island-chief.  He courteously welcomes the shipwrecked men and orders them fed for three days.  When Paul learns Publius’ father is ill, he goes in and prays for him and the man is healed.  Then, in a scene reminiscient of Jesus in Galilee, crowds of sick flocked to Paul “and were cured”.  The “barbarians” treated them royally then.  And when the men were ready to sail, the islanders filled the ship with “all the provisions [they] needed”.

* * *

God provided.  A fire to warmly welcome the castaways.  Food from the chief for three days.  A shipful of provisions for the trip to Rome.

God provides.

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
*Count your many blessings, see what God has done.”

God provides.

God lavished mercy.  The barbarians could have been indifferent to the castaways, or hostile.  Instead, they were kind.  Publius’ father was a pagan, one single sick old man.  God healed him.  The islanders were pagans.  Yet every sick one who came to Paul was cured.

God lavishes mercy.

You were dead through the trespasses and sins  in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.  All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us  even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:1-9).

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22,23).

God lavishes mercy.

Encouragement for us next time we feel like “castaways”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DarB

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Shipwreck

The most famous shipwreck of all time is the sinking of the “unsinkable” Titanic.  It went down in the Atlantic, tragically claiming 1,514 lives on its maiden voyage April 14, 1910.  Not until 1985 did an expedition find the shipwreck and discover the Titanic split in half–two sections lying in the ocean floor about 1/3 a mile apart, the stern crushed, the bow remarkably intact.

No one made a movie about Paul’s shipwreck.  But hundreds of thousands have read about it.

Image result for map Paul's ship journey to Rome

About midnight on the fourteenth night of the storm, as we were being driven across the Sea of Adria, the sailors sensed land was near (Acts 27:27).

Two weeks.  324 hours.  Almost 500 nautical miles.  The storm has blasted its fury on the ship and its crew and passengers.  Suddenly, in midnight’s blackness, the sailors hear waves crashing on rock and sense land is near.

They took soundings and found the water was only 120 feet deep. A little later they sounded again and found only 90 feet. At this rate they were afraid we would soon be driven against the rocks along the shore, so they threw out four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight (Acts 27:28,29).

Soundings show water’s depth shrinking fast.  They throw out stern anchors.

Then the sailors tried to abandon the ship; they lowered the lifeboat as though they were going to put out anchors from the prow. But Paul said to the commanding officer and the soldiers, “You will all die unless the sailors stay aboard.” So the soldiers cut the ropes and let the boat fall off (Acts 27:30-32).

Sailors try to abandon ship in the lifeboat.  Paul warns everyone will die unless they all stay aboard.  The sailors cut the lifeboat’s ropes and waves catch it away.

As the darkness gave way to the early morning light, Paul begged everyone to eat. “You haven’t touched food for two weeks,” he said. “Please eat something now for your own good. For not a hair of your heads will perish.” Then he took some bread, gave thanks to God before them all, and broke off a piece and ate it. Then everyone was encouraged, and all 276 of us began eating — for that is the number we had aboard (Acts 27:33-37).

Night’s eerie darkness surrenders to pre-dawn light.  Paul, the prisoner, has become a leader.  He urges everyone to eat.  They’ll need strength for the challenge ahead.  With words reminiscent of the Eucharist, he eats.  His confidence encourages them all.  The whole ship—276 of them—start eating.

After eating, the crew lightened the ship further by throwing the cargo of wheat overboard.  When morning dawned, they didn’t recognize the coastline, but they saw a bay with a beach and wondered if they could get between the rocks and get the ship safely to shore. So they cut off the anchors and left them in the sea. Then they lowered the rudders, raised the foresail, and headed toward shore (Acts 27:38-40).

The crew throws overboard the wheat cargo, a final attempt to lighten the ship.  Morning brings clear sight of an unknown coastline—a bay with a beach.  Could they sail between the rocks and reach shore?  They try.

But the ship hit a shoal and ran aground. The bow of the ship stuck fast, while the stern was repeatedly smashed by the force of the waves and began to break apart. The soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners to make sure they didn’t swim ashore and escape. But the commanding officer wanted to spare Paul, so he didn’t let them carry out their plan. Then he ordered all who could swim to jump overboard first and make for land, and he told the others to try for it on planks and debris from the broken ship. So everyone escaped safely ashore (Acts 27:41-44)!

The ship hits a sandbar, its bow aground while waves smash the stern.  Guards who lose prisoners pay with their lives.  “Kill them!” shout the soldiers.  “Kill them before they escape!”  But the centurion wants to save Paul; he orders the prisoners spared. Everyone is commanded overboard, swim or float on debris.  They all survive the stormy waves and reach the beach.

* * *

Hard to imagine the apostle Paul swimming for his life through rough seas from a shipwreck toward a strange shore.  I find it harder to imagine God’s reason for sending Paul on that ship to Rome.  Surely there were others.  Earlier, when the seas weren’t so treacheerous.  Paul did evangelize on their safe island.  And Lord only knows the effect of his witness on the ship’s crew and the centurion with his soldiers.  But two years of prison in Caesarea and a long near-deadly ship vogage seem an outsized price to pay.  God must have had other reasons, I guess.  But he’s not telling.

What’s even more surprising is that God didn’t save Paul from shipwreck, but through it.  How like Jesus!  God didn’t save Jesus from the cross, but through it.  That’s good news.

So is this:  God saves his suffering people.  Here’s the less-good news:  God saves his people through suffering, but usually not from it.

I’m staggered at how many and how much Christians suffer.  In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Pastor Timothy Keller writes, “No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it.”  Death, and often its painful precursor, is the ultimate example.  It comes to us all–the most devastating shipwreck.

But God saves us through it.  If we’re believers, we pass through “the valley of the shadow of death”–and meet Jesus on the other side, suffering gone with the “better by far” come.

Still, while surrendering to his will, I pray God save me from “shipwrecks.”

 

 

 

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Northeaster & the Angel

“ . . . the sea represents a place of peril, of human vulnerability, the place where would-be sailors are at the mercy of the elements” (William Willimon–American theologian and bishop in the United Methodist Church).  True story today, but especially so in the 1st century.  Paul, now a prisoner at Caesarea, is taken by sea to Rome.

When the time came, we set sail for Italy. Paul and several other prisoners were placed in the custody of an army officer named Julius, a captain of the Imperial Regiment. And Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was also with us. We left on a boat whose home port was Adramyttium; it was scheduled to make several stops at ports along the coast of the province of Asia (Acts 27:1,2).

Image result for map Paul's ship journey to Rome

“We” implies Luke, as well as Aristarchus, is traveling with Paul, who is under the guard of Julius, a Roman centurion.  Julius chooses a ship which will stop at Asian ports as it makes its way home to Adramyttium. The ship sailed north from Caesarea reaching Sidon in about 24 hours . . .

The next day when we docked at Sidon, Julius was very kind to Paul and let him go ashore to visit with friends so they could provide for his needs (Acts 27:3).

Friends” in Sidon had probably been evangelized in the dispersion after Stephen’s martyrdom.  It’s likely Paul had previously visited the church.  Now the centurion allows Paul to visit them for a meal and maybe some supplies to help on his journey.

Putting out to sea from there, we encountered headwinds that made it difficult to keep the ship on course, so we sailed north of Cyprus between the island and the mainland. We passed along the coast of the provinces of Cilicia and Pamphylia, landing at Myra, in the province of Lycia. There the officer found an Egyptian ship from Alexandria that was bound for Italy, and he put us on board (Acts 27:4-6).

As they set sail on the westward leg of the journey, headwinds hinder their course. They  use the island of Cyrus as a shield and dock at Myra, a regular port-of-call for grain vessels.  The centurion now books passage on another grain ship destined for Italy.  Since it is early fall, some commentators suggest ship  owners were trying to squeeze in one more trip before winter, when seas were especially treacherous.

We had several days of rough sailing, and after great difficulty we finally neared Cnidus. But the wind was against us, so we sailed down to the leeward side of Crete, past the cape of Salmone. We struggled along the coast with great difficulty and finally arrived at Fair Havens, near the city of Lasea. We had lost a lot of time. The weather was becoming dangerous for long voyages by then because it was so late in the fall, and Paul spoke to the ship’s officers about it. “Sirs,” he said, “I believe there is trouble ahead if we go on — shipwreck, loss of cargo, injuries, and danger to our lives.” But the officer in charge of the prisoners listened more to the ship’s captain and the owner than to Paul. And since Fair Havens was an exposed harbor — a poor place to spend the winter — most of the crew wanted to go to Phoenix, farther up the coast of Crete, and spend the winter there. Phoenix was a good harbor with only a southwest and northwest exposure (Acts 27:7-12).

Gale-force winds now make sailing westward impossible.  “The weather was becoming dangerous for long voyages . . . because it was so late in the fall . . . “   Officers and crew hold a council.  Paul, an experienced traveler,is pulled in.  He warns of danger if they go on.  But they decide they can make safer harbor.  They turn south and “struggled . . . with great difficulty” and finally reach Fair Havens. “Winter sailing” meant “scant daylight, long nights, dense cloud cover, poor visibility and the double raging of winds, showers and snow (Military Institutions of the Romans 4.39).  It is now October A.D. 59.  The ship is anchored in a harbor exposed to wind-whipped seas.

So Paul’s warning to the ship’s officers is well-founded—but disregarded.  Most of the crew argue to continue on to Phoenix, where a good harbor for wintering awaits.

When a light wind began blowing from the south, the sailors thought they could make it. So they pulled up anchor and sailed along close to shore.  But the weather changed abruptly, and a wind of typhoon strength (a “northeaster,” they called it) caught the ship and blew it out to sea.  They couldn’t turn the ship into the wind, so they gave up and let it run before the gale.  We sailed behind a small island named Cauda, where with great difficulty we hoisted aboard the lifeboat that was being towed behind us. Then we banded the ship with ropes to strengthen the hull. The sailors were afraid of being driven across to the sandbars of Syrtis off the African coast, so they lowered the sea anchor and were thus driven before the wind. The next day, as gale-force winds continued to batter the ship, the crew began throwing the cargo overboard. The following day they even threw out the ship’s equipment and anything else they could lay their hands on.  The terrible storm raged unabated for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone. No one had eaten for a long time (Acts 27:13-21a).

A gentle, summer-like south wind springs up; the sailors think they can make Phoenix.  Soon after pulling up anchor “a wind of typhoon strength” (a “northeaster,” they called it) drives the ship away from the coast and out to sea.  They’re at the storm’s mercy.  To save the dinghy they’re towing from being smashed into the ship they pull it aboard.  To strengthen the ship’s hull from being pounded apart they stretch cables several times around it.  To keep the ship from rising too high in the wave-crests they drop its anchor.  To lighten the ship against the onslaught of waves, they throw “cargo” and some of “the ship’s equipment” overboard.  Extreme measures.  The storm “raged unabated for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone.”

Finally, Paul called the crew together and said, “Men, you should have listened to me in the first place and not left Fair Havens. You would have avoided all this injury and loss. But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down.  For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’  So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. But we will be shipwrecked on an island” (Acts 21b-26).

After many days fighting the furious storm, the crew gathers around Paul.  Why would they listen?  Probably because Paul’s warning at Fair Havens came true.  Plus they’re desperate for any solution.  Paul’s message is good news-bad news  Good news:  nobody will die.  An angel promises God will keep everyone safe. Bad news:  shipwreck on an island and  the ship will go down.

* * *

We’re called to believe apart from an angel.

It reminds me of Thomas.  When  doubting Thomas saw the resurrected Christ, he finally believed.  Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).  I take that to mean special favor, special joy, comes on all of us who believe God, who believe Jesus risen, though we haven’t seen him.

When we sail smooth seas, trusting the Lord’s words doesn’t break a sweat.  But when a “Northeaster” hits, an angel would help, wouldn’t it?  I’m sure one has come to some.  I’ve read several accounts of Christians comforted in suffering by an overwhelming presence of the Lord.  I think most of us, though, are left with promises on a page.  We’re called to believe without an angel.

To make matters worse, the promises confuse.  Some seem to say that if we believe and keep praying, the Lord will deliver us.  Others promise deliverance through death into heaven.  We’re left to trust that God will do what’s best.  And the “worst” is entrance into eternal glory with our Lord.

Sometimes, though, in a raging “Northeaster”, it would be nice to have an angel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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