Viewing the World through God's Word

Month: July 2016 (Page 1 of 2)

“Don-cha Just LOVE It?”

Christian author Walter Wangerin, Jr. (one of my literary heroes) tells of the summer he, his wife and four children (two of their own plus a black  boy and girl by adoption) drove from Indiana to Colorado for a family reunion.  Talitha,  black and youngest of the four, was age six.  (Picture a chocolate brown cherub.)

“Talitha peered at the world with an irritating enthusiasm.  Her phrase for the trip was, “Don-cha love it?”—flopping her tongue out on the word love so that it left little dribbles on her chin.  She drove her brothers (then seven and eight) to gloom and to bloody expression.  Every morning, every sandwich, every stream and tree in the landscape received from her the same obnoxious approval:  “Don-cha loooooove it?”

One windy Colorado Sunday, when Grandfather Wangerin concluded his sermon to his family on an outcropping rock, Talitha jumped up and threw open her arms in a wide embrace and at the top of her lungs shouted, “Don-cha love it?”

On the return trip home, the family stopped for lunch in Kansas.  A waitress approached, pen in hand, ready to take their order.  Looking up, she gazed at the family and frowned.  The children (thinking this is what folks do in Kansas) gazed back.  The waitress wondered aloud if this black-and-white group was a school field trip. “No,” answered Wangerin, “family reunion.”  She gazed another moment, stumped.  Then, with brightening face, “Adopted!”

Having taken their orders, the waitress left.  Talitha, bright-eyed and smiling proudly, announced her new-found secret discovery:  “I know how she knew I was adopted.”

“How?” asked her father.

“The child stood up and threw out her arms and shouter louder than grandpa on the mountain:  ‘BECAUSE I’M . . . BLACK!'”

Every head in the restaurant turned to stare.

“And then Talitha caused her brothers a mortal anxiety by asking the diners, one and all, their opinion on this particular issue. 

‘Don-cha just love it?'”

(From Mourning Into Dancing.  Available from Amazon—

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A wonder for the family of this story, because earlier on Talitha was largely unresponsive to most stimulation.  For me the story is a wonder because of Talitha’s wonder.  That’s what I hear in this little chocolate cherub’s “Don-cha just love it?”.  Wonder.  That feeling of surprise mixed with admiration at seeing something beautiful or unexpected.

Like a poor young girl from the Midwest plowing up a sand dune and, for the first time, gazing wide-eyed  at the broad and blue rolling  ocean.  Like the young couple standing arm in arm in sanctified silence watching every breath of their precious newborn sleeping in her cradle.  Like a lonely, abusive, ridden-with-guilt old man realizing for the first time God really loves him and through Christ forgives him for all his sins.  Like the gray-haired widow roaming through her empty house looking longingly at photos of her beloved who  is gone now two years suddenly thinking of heaven soon and a joyous reunion forever, because of Jesus.  Wonder.

Too little wonder in my life.  Especially the older I get.  Not that wonders are absent.  I just don’t see them.  O Talitha, I want to look at a butterfly in flight and shout, “Don-cha just love it?”!  I want to watch rain drops splash into a puddle, a toddler take her first step, feel my wife’s hand on me, read God’s good promises in his Word and cry, “Don-cha just love it?”!

“Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law” (Psalm 119:18).  MoreoverOpen my eyes that I may see wonderful things in all you have done, O Lord.  Take the blinders from my eyes.  Take the crustiness from my soul.  Wonders never cease with you, for you are the eternal God.  And one day you will make all things new (Revelation 21:5).

I want to “tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done” (Psalm 78:4).

I want to stand awe-struck before you and declare,  “Many, O LORD my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare” (Psalm 40:5).
So let’s . . .

“Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done.  Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice. Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always. Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced . . . ” (Psalm 1051-5).


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)

The Supreme Election

Watch the Republican and Democrat National Conventions and you’d believe the candidates are Washington and Lincoln resurrected.  In my opinion, however, they are sadly (or spectacularly) unqualified.  Are they the best this country can offer?

I would never vote for Hillary, if for no other reason than her abortion position (see

Well, what about Trump?  David French warns . . .

” . . . as I watched men and women chanting for Donald Trump, I thought of the second part of that John Adams quote, in which he diagnoses what happens when democracies start to fail, when the people start to reject the world they made. They turn to a savior: They soon cry, “This will not do; we have gone too far! We are all in the wrong! We are none of us safe! We must unite in some clever fellow, who can protect us all, — Caesar, Bonaparte, who you will! Though we distrust, hate, and abhor them all; yet we must submit to one or another of them, stand by him, cry him up to the skies, and swear that he is the greatest, best, and finest man that ever lived!” In other words, when the guardrails crumble, the call for the strong man echoes the loudest. Make America Safe Again. Make America Work Again. Make America Great Again. Get on the Trump Train, citizens. Daddy’s home.”  (Read more at:

Jonah Goldberg, in his online “The Goldberg File”, definitively says, “There are no saviors in politics.”  So I’ve seen over the election cycles:  what the candidate promised in his campaigns, what sounded so hopeful, so good for the country, he didn’t deliver.  Think of the “hope and change’ with Obama.  How’d that work out?  Remember how low George W. Bush’s favorability ratings sunk toward the close of his presidency?  “There are no saviors in politics.”  So even if Trump is being transparently honest in what he intends, he’ll be unable to fully deliver.  And he could turn out worse than some fear.

But, neither can I pull a George Will and refuse to vote for Trump because he’s neither truly a Republican or a Conservative.  So I vacillate between not voting for president at all or voting for Trump holding my nose.  However, here’s what keeps me tossing back and forth:  the Supreme Court.

“In the next few years, the Supreme Court may face as many as four vacancies as some of the justices age or enter retirement. That means the outcome of November’s elections could be critical in determining the court’s future composition” (

With Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death, the Court meets with only eight members.  Scalia’s chair will likely be filled by a justice nominated by the next president.  Three others could retire over the next four (or eight) years:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg (about to turn 83), Anthony Kennedy (80 this November) and Stephen Breyer (78 this fall).   Of course, just one could shift the Court’s balance for decades.

I paid little attention to the Supreme Court until the last few years.  I guess I naively assumed each justice did his/her best to impartially interpret the Constitution as the framers intended.  Maybe they historically did.  But lately at least the Court seems to have become as politicized as the two other government branches.  And if we have more Justices who see the Constitution as a “living document” to be interpreted according to the times and not according to what the framers intended, we stand at the mercy of imperfect, politicized humans who will drag America further from the truth and justice our Creator wants.  This is no small issue.  In fact, in my mind, it is the issue.

Hillary Clinton would nominate Left Wing justices who will effectively legislate from the bench.  Donald Trump provided a list of judges he claimed were “representative of the kind of constitutional principles I value” and said he would use the list as a guide for nominating a justice.  The last part of that statement obviously gives him “wiggle room”; but the names he provided are said to be stalwart constitutionalists.  At least it seem our chances are better with him.

A bit of good news:  “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20, NIV).  Thank God our ultimate well-being isn’t determined by who sits in the Oval Office!  We belong to another—a better—kingdom.  Our better country forever.  Here we are “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11).  In the world, but not of the world.

Here’s what makes me uncomfortable about that:  though we’re not of the world (in terms of belief-systems, values, future, etc.) we are in the world (which means if the economy depresses, our finances suffer too;  if America suffers some form of God’s wrath because of baby-slaughter, we too must endure an under-wrath nation; if new laws further discriminate against Christians, we’ll be objects of persecution).

None of this settles my vote.  Just reminds me that much more is at stake for much longer than first appears.

God, give us wisdom from above!






Idol City

After the threatening mob, believers in Berea covertly conduct Paul to the coast.  They find passage on a ship and stay with him, sailing southeast for hours, the sea offering a welcome respite from the chaos in Berea, and, before that, in Thessalonica.

Docking in Athens, they leave Paul for their return to Berea.  Paul arrives at Athens once the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean world.  Now its glorious pulse of politics and literature and theater is past.  Nevertheless, it houses one of the Roman empire’s best universities.  Tourists are attracted to its architecture and sculpture.  It’s still the center of philosophy,  still the city of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  And the remaining magnificent architecture of the Parthenon and the Acropolis for us today is still a world wonder.  Athens abides as the cradle of Western democracy.

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 17:14,15, TEV).

Waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him, Paul tours the city.  He’s struck, not by Athens’ glorious history or magnificent buildings, but by its idols.

While Paul was waiting in Athens for Silas and Timothy,
he was greatly upset when he noticed how full of idols the city was.
(Acts 17:16, TEV).
The TEV’s “greatly upset” doesn’t quite capture Paul’s reaction.  The Greek word is parozuneto—“provoked, irritated.”  More like convulsion than distress.  This idol-provocation will elicit Paul’s “sermon” coming in the following post—the next in our “Acts Eight” series.

For now, lest we think this an ancient history lesson, let’s think about idols today.  First, idol definitions.   From the “Oxford Dictionary”:  (1) An image or representation of a god used as an object of worship; (2) A person or thing that is greatly admired, loved, or revered.”  From the “EasyEnglish Bible Dictionary”:  a false god that people made out of wood or stone or metal. Two of these three definitions fit the ancient idol above.  But, apart from certain churches, what idols fill our cities today?

Nicholas T. Batzig is the organizing pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond Hill, Ga.  He wrote a provocative blog, “Sophisticated Temples of Modern Idolatry”  (, well-worth reading in its entirety.

Here’s his opening paragraph . . .

“For decades, the consumeristic and narcissistic culture in which we live has served the unsuspecting and unconscious worshippers of North America with extravagant buildings in which to showcase the idols of a sophisticatedly synchronistic (coexistent) and paganistic society.”

In plainer English. we live in  a consumer-centered, self-centered culture.  We don’t suspect, and we are unconscious of this sophisticated and pagan society that has drawn us to worship its idols showcased in its extravagant buildings.

Batzig identifies these “extravagant buildings”—the mall (now supplanted by the internet?), the university, the movie theater, the stadium and the gym.

The Mall. We go to buy necessities, but also luxuries.  As we do, we see other items we’d love to have.  So here our desires for more are fed—desires that can never fully be satisfied.

The University.  We attend to learn for a career.  But in the mix we also study and imbibe all sorts of ungodly worldviews.  These exalt the individual mind while displacing God.

The Movie Theater.  Here’s where the worldviews of the university are set out in narrative form to entertain us while subtly showing us how these worldviews can be lived in exciting, challenging , bigger-than-life ways.

The Stadium.  We spend millions to build new sports stadiums, scream like banshees for our football team, wear their shirts, shout their praises, celebrate their victories, groan at their defeats.  We identify with them.  Their victories and defeats become ours.

The Gym.  Here, amidst the long lines of workout equipment, we worship our bodies and, by extension, ourselves.  Bike faster.  Lift heavier.  Stretch further.  Keep at it longer.  Look younger, tighter, leaner.  We fight off age itself.

We’re not wrong to shop at the mall, etc.  But we should at least consider the possibility that these buildings are modern temples and what they contain are modern idols.  And beware accordingly. Lest we unsuspectingly fall into 21st century idolatry.

Pastor and author J.D. Greear offers one further definition.  “An idol,” he writes, “is anything that promises a life of security and joy apart from God.”  He goes on to ask, ” What do you so desperately need that you can’t imagine a fulfilled life without it?”  (Go to  for Greear’s blog.)

Ugh!  A right to the gut!  No.  A knife to the heart!  Does that make good health (no more Primary Lateral Sclerosis) my idol?  Are my wife, children and grandchildren idols?  If Greear is correct, idols aren’t limited to certain churches or ancient cultures or even those “extravagant buildings” Batzig writes about.  They may very well be unconsciously set up  in our hearts.

Paul’s sermon to the Athenians (coming next time) will help us root them out.  For today, let’s hear the words Paul wrote months later to the Thessalonians . . .

” . . . you turned to God
from idols
to serve the living and true God,
and to wait for his Son from heaven,
whom he raised from the dead,

Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
(1 Thessalonians 1:9b,10, ESV)

This calls for a heart-mind self-examination.  Do any of these buildings in my city contain something I imagine my life can’t be fulfilled without?  Do I treasure my health, my family or anything else more than God?

“Show me, O God, if I do.  And then, enable me to do what the Thessalonians did.  Enable me to turn from these idols to you, the living and true God.  What I can buy at the mall, learn at the university, enjoy at the movie theater, celebrate at the stadium or improve at the gym isn’t life-fulfilling, isn’t worth giving my life to, and will not come to save me from your coming wrath on this world.  Keep me, O Lord, from the empty idols of this world to find fulfillment in you alone.”


















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.







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)



Distressing, Diminutive Demon

In the 1970’s demons captivated charismatics.  They searched for demons of gluttony, demons of lying, demons of insomnia.  A demon lurked behind every bush.  Naturally that extremism gave demon-believers a bad name.  The devil dressed in long red underwear didn’t help either.  Evil spirits eventually were left to a few Catholic exorcists or to Hollywood.

Yet, it’s impossible to believe the Scriptures and deny the demonic.  From the serpent in Eden (Genesis 3:1; Revelation 12:9) to the devil tempting Jesus (Mark 1:13) to John warning that the evil one controls this world (1 John 5:19) to Satan’s last day frenzy (Revelation 12:9; 20:2), the existence of spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12) is frighteningly unmistakable.  Like a disturbed beehive, they seem particularly stirred up when the Gospel is advancing . . .

One day as we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a young servant woman who had an evil spirit that enabled her to predict the future. She earned a lot of money for her owners by telling fortunes.  She followed Paul and us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God! They announce to you how you can be saved!” She did this for many days, until Paul became so upset that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I order you to come out of her!” The spirit went out of her that very moment (Acts 16:16-18, TEV).
 Author Luke rejects any idea that this slave-girl was a fake.  She “had an evil spirit that enabled her to predict the future.”  Furthermore, she was a money-maker for her owners.  People paid to have their fortunes told.  What she announced as she followed Paul and the others was true.  But it cast them in a bad light.  The “Most High God” was a familiar term for the Supreme Being among Jews and Gentiles alike.  (Kind of like a politician giving the generic benediction:  “And may God bless the United States of America!  Which God exactly?)  “Saved” was the object of many prayers and vows made to “the Most High God”, especially of those who belonged to the so-called “mystery cults.”
Paul finally lost it.  Unable to contain his annoyance any further, he turned and ordered the spirit out of the girl. in “the name of Jesus Christ.”   “The spirit went out of her that very moment.”  It was almost laughable.  I can see Paul steaming hotter with each step.  And finally casting out the irritating little demon.
But it really wasn’t funny.  It was good news, of course, for the slave-girl, though whatever damage she might have done to her previous customers remained.  But it wasn’t good news for Paul and Silas . . .
When her owners realized that their chance of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them to the authorities in the public square.  They brought them before the Roman officials and said, “These men are Jews, and they are causing trouble in our city.  They are teaching customs that are against our law; we are Roman citizens, and we cannot accept these customs or practice them.”And the crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas. Then the officials tore the clothes off Paul and Silas and ordered them to be whipped. After a severe beating, they were thrown into jail, and the jailer was ordered to lock them up tight. (Acts 16:19-23, TEV).
The slave-girl belonged to them; under Roman law they held property rights, which Paul and Silas had now made worthless.  Beside Paul and Silas were traveling Jews propagating religious superstition.  So the owners dragged them before the magistrates, who had them beaten and locked up in jail.
We’ll meet Paul and Silas in jail next time.  (We already know what happens, right?)  For now, though, let’s figure out why Luke (inspired by the Holy Spirit) included this incident.  (Doing that is always helpful for interpreting a passage.)
Reason 1:  to show the reality of evil spirits.  Paul underscores this years later when he writes:
Put on all the armor that God gives you,
so that you will be able to stand up against the Devil’s evil tricks.

For we are not fighting against human beings
but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world,
the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age.
So put on God’s armor now! Then when the evil day comes,
you will be able to resist the enemy’s attacks;
and after fighting to the end, you will still hold your ground
(Ephesians 6:11-13, TEV).
Wicked spiritual forces are real.  And, while we are to love every person, we are to resist the spiritual enemy’s attacks by putting on all the “armor” that God gives us , , ,
So stand ready, with truth as a belt tight around your waist,
with righteousness as your breastplate,
and as your shoes
the readiness to announce the Good News of peace.

At all times carry faith as a shield;
for with it you will be able to put out all the burning arrows
shot by the Evil One.
 And accept salvation as a helmet,
and the word of God as the sword which the Spirit gives you.

Do all this in prayer, asking for God’s help.
Pray on every occasion, as the Spirit leads.
For this reason keep alert and never give up;
pray always for all God’s people
(Ephesians 6:14-18, TEV).
Reason 2:  to show the greater power in the name of the Jesus Christ.  Paul and Silas possessed no inherent power over the demon, but Jesus did—and does.  The invocation of his name forced the demon to flee immediately.  (Notice, by contrast, Paul’s lack of “showmanship” some TV preachers display!  Maybe that’s why he never got his own show.)
It was the power of his name that gave strength to this lame man.
What you see and know was done by faith in his name;
it was faith in Jesus that has made him well, as you can all see
(Acts 3:16; see also Acts 4:10,30; 8:12;10:48).

Not to recognize our enemy is to minimize the power of evil.  To minimize evil’s power is to “play around” with what God calls sin.  And to “play around” with sin’s power is to make ourselves potentially vulnerable to the cosmic powers of this dark age.  We should be warned.

At the same time, we mustn’t fear demons lurking around every corner.  The name by which we are known—the name of Jesus—is infinitely more powerful.  We must trust in that name.  Live by that name.  Speak that name.  Honor that name.  Willingly, gratefully bow before that name. And remember . . .

The reason the Son of God appeared
was to destroy the devil’s work
(1 John 3:8, NIV)

Listen and watch!  Stand and live!  In Jesus’ name!

Europe Invasion

“Christianity in Europe is sick, perhaps mortally sick. Across this continent, only 5-6% of the population still has some connection to any church tradition, according to church leaders . . . Rome, despite its proximity to the Vatican, has become one of Europe’s most secular cities . . . Antiquity has bequeathed to this generation of Europeans magnificent structures, which once housed the faithful in worship. Today they are significantly empty and increasingly old.”  (

“[It’s happening in Europe]—the place where apostles preached, and where Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Barth, and countless other spiritual luminaries called home.”( . . .
For a compelling blog suggesting reasons, go to . . .
And for a historical overview of the decline of Christianity in Europe, go to

Today we go back to the beginning of Christianity in Europe, according to Acts  . . .

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.  When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.  So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.  During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.  From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis (Acts 16:6-11).

It’s supposed that Paul, Silas and Timothy ultimately aimed for Ephesus, a major city on the west coast of Asia.  (Paul’s general tactic was to evangelize cities.)  But they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.”  Whether this came through a prophetic word in a church meeting or to Paul directly, we’re not told.  In any case, God clearly had a destination in mind for these missionaries.

” . . . they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”  F.F. Bruce comments:  “If the province of Asia was not to be the field of their evangelistic activity for the present, then it was natural for them to cast their eyes further north, and think of the highly civilized province of Bithynia in North-West Asia Minor, with its Greek cities and Jewish colonies.”  But again, God interposed.  (The “Holy Spirit” and “the Spirit of Jesus” are, of course, the same Spirit.  We’re not told why he’s identified two different ways.)  The important point:  God is directing these men.

The most stunning direction comes to Paul in a night vision at Troas.  Troas was a Roman colony (originally a military outpost securing surrounding conquered territory; eventually a city of high status) and a port city for ships traveling between Asia and Macedonia.   How “convenient” given Paul’s vision!

(By the way, notice “we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia”, suggesting that here author Luke joined the missionary team.  We’re not told any details.)

Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology Online explains:  Visions occur frequently in the Bible as instruments of supernatural revelation . . .  Revelatory visions portray scenery or dramatic circumstances to the human recipient while the human is awake. The distinction between a vision and a dream has to do with whether the human is awake or asleep; the result is the same . . . Throughout the Bible, visions of God and his sovereign lordship are needed in order to propagate his truth among humankind.

In his vision Paul saw a man standing, pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  They immediately concluded God had called them to preach the Gospel to the Macedonians.  So they boarded ship and sailed to Samothrace and the next day to Neapolis, the port city for Philippi about ten miles away.

From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.  On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.  One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.  When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.  (Acts 16:12-15, NIV)

Typically, Paul would first visit the city’s synagogue.  It seems, however, Philippi had none, meaning fewer than than ten Jewish men lived in the city.  Outside the city gate at the river Jewish women (and probably some God-fearing Gentiles) met for the traditional Sabbath prayer.  Paul and his team found the unofficial meeting place, preached the Gospel and “The Lord opened [a woman name Lydia’s] heart to respond to Paul’s message.  After she and her household were baptized, Lydia invited the missionaries to her home.  Lydia thus became the first European believer in the Lord.

God moves in a mysterious way, huh!  Paul “invaded” Europe with the Gospel and his target was a small group of women meeting by a river.  His ways are not ours.  So, while the state of Christianity in Europe today saddens us, we shouldn’t despair.  Just look, for instance, how he directed Paul and his team to Philippi.  By some means and for reasons unknown to us, they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.”  That meant direction-change.  Bithynia seemed the next logical place.  ” . . . but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.”  Only other option—Troas.  And there “a vision appeared to Paul in the night”, a vision they concluded was God-sent.

Ancient history, right?  Today we have the Bible through which God communicates to us.  It’s the word by which we must evaluate everything else, because it is the written revelation of God’s last word—and his name is Jesus.  Does that mean, however, that God no longer speaks through visions?

This book tells the fascinating stories of several people among thousands who are receiving dreams and visions from God through the Middle East as he reaches out to Muslims and they respond.

It’s available at the following link from Amazon:

But even if you don’t buy it (I don’t get a cut!), we should know that God the Holy Spirit is moving in this fallen, lost world.  Christianity may be sick in Europe.  America may not be far behind.  But Jesus is Lord.  And where we can’t go, the Holy Spirit can.

Father in heaven, may we not limit you or box you in by our narrow thinking.  “The wind blows where it will.”  How the flaming Middle East and spiritually-dead Europe need the wind of the Spirit to blow!  And then there’s us, Father, living in a country where you are being pushed further and further out of our public life, starting to walk in the dead-end ways of Europe.  Blow on us, too, Holy Spirit.  Ignite our hearts to flame for Jesus in these last days.  You are able to do more than all we can ask or even imagine.


Timothy’s Call

I’ve always been amazed how God uses sinful humans like us to accomplish his saving work.  He’s God, after all.  Nothing impossible, you know?  Created the universe without a word of input from us.  Yet he chooses to spread his Gospel through us dust-made-into-man-reborn-by-his-Spirit creatures.

Just as amazing is how God calls us to the work.  (Here I’m thinking of all believers, not just the “paid professionals.”  We’re all called to follow Jesus and to “gossip” his Gospel.)  Probably the most dramatic was his call to Saul of Tarsus (better known as Paul).  Literally a blinding light and Jesus audibly calling Saul to take the Gospel to Gentiles.  A most humiliating experience it was for the arrogant young rabbi.

By contrast, here’s Timothy.  Called to join Paul and Silas on Paul’s second missions trip.  But no  knock-him-down-in-the-dust-blinding-light-from-heaven.  Sounds more like Paul was simply hiring another hand.  Here’s how author Luke recorded it.

Paul traveled on to Derbe and Lystra, where a Christian named Timothy lived. His mother, who was also a Christian, was Jewish, but his father was a Greek.  All the believers in Lystra and Iconium spoke well of Timothy.  Paul wanted to take Timothy along with him, so he circumcised him. He did so because all the Jews who lived in those places knew that Timothy’s father was Greek (Acts 16:1-3, TEV).

Timothy, son of an ethnically-mixed marriage, may have become a believer on Paul’s first missions trip.  It’s likely that Paul arrived back in the area looking to replace John Mark, who had “withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work” [on the first trip] (Acts 15:38).  If so, that would be why believers in that area gave their opinion of young Timothy.  Based on those recommendations, “Paul wanted to take Timothy along with him . . . ” Not exactly a Damascus Road experience, though.

A word of explanation about Paul circumcising Timothy “because all the Jews who lived in those places knew that Timothy’s father was Greek.”  To Jews, a Greek father made Timothy a Gentile. To Gentiles, Timothy was practically a Jew, having been raised in his mother’s Jewish faith.  Paul circumcised him, then, not because he believed circumcision was necessary for a Gentile’s salvation (he didn’t), but so his religious “status” would be unambiguous and he’d be more accepted in his ministry by both Jews and Gentiles.  Not terribly interesting, I know, but an example of Paul becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (see 1 Corinthians 9:9-23).

As they went through the towns, they delivered to the believers the rules decided upon by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, and they told them to obey those rules.  So the churches were made stronger in the faith and grew in numbers every day (Acts 16:1-5, TEV).

With no I-Phones or Internet, the three men hand-delivered the letter communicating the Jerusalem Council’s critical decision that Gentiles wouldn’t have to be circumcised and obey Moses’ law.

And that kindled the Gentile church.  The little word “So” (Greek, men oun) indicates continuation of the prior thought.  Here’s my interpretive paraphrase:  ” . . . the church was made stronger in the faith and grew in numbers every day as a result of Paul’s visit and the welcome letter from Jerusalem.”

Something else may have strengthened and grown the church:  Timothy.  His call, mundane as it seemed, showed that the Holy Spirit was not only converting sinners, but also  building a leader among them.

In the last post I noted that “The church was born in a hostile environment.”  Nevertheless—despite arrests, beatings and even martyrdom—author Luke reported the church’s advance again and again . . .


So those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized,
and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
(Acts 2:41)

And the Lord added to their number day by day
those who were being saved.
(Acts 2:47b)

But many who heard [Peter’s] word believed,
and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
(Acts 4:4)

And more than ever believers were added to the Lord,
multitudes of both men and women.
(Acts 5:14)

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God
(as a result of Philip’s preaching)
they sent to them Peter and John . . .
(Acts 8:14)

So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace
and was being built up.
And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit,
it multiplied.
(Acts 9:31)

And [Dorcas being restored to life] became known throughout all Joppa,
and many believed in the Lord.
(Acts 9:42)

And the hand of the Lord was with [those who preached at Antioch, Syria],
and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
(Acts 11:21)

And when the Gentiles [at Antioch in Pisidia]
heard [the word of the Lord through Paul]
they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord,
and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.
And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.
(Acts 13:48,49)

So (there’s that little word again) two points to make . . .

One, we never know how God might use us when he calls.  In fact, we won’t know how he has used us until the new creation.  Most of us tend to think of ourselves as ordinary.  But God sometimes uses ordinary people in extraordinary ways.  (The enabling power is the Holy Spirit.)  And even from what seems like ordinary Christian living (like raising our children to follow Jesus) God can produce extraordinary results.  Timothy is a classic example.  A new convert.  From a mixed marriage.  Yet he became like a son to the apostle Paul and was instrumental in leading the church at Ephesus through turbulent times.  Two key letters in the New Testament are addressed to him.

Two, the church is the most important institution on the planet and, when all others fall, she will stand.  The local church doesn’t seem so significant in the world’s scheme of things.  A bunch of common people.  Sometimes frustrating.  Easily tempted by the ways of the fallen world.  Rarely mistaken for Christ’s body on earth, speaking his words, doing his deeds.  But the church is triumphant because her Lord is.

So may the church’s advance Luke recorded be true of the church today!
And may the Lord, who called us, use us in that advance!
Help us remember:  We are the church triumphant!

Missionary Melee

O PreacherThe church was born in a hostile environment.  Less than two months earlier, the Jewish Council in Jerusalem had pushed the Roman governor to crucify Jesus.  So, as 120 followers of their now-resurrected and ascended Lord met, they knew they were a minority in enemy territory.

When the Jewish holy day Pentecost came, the Holy Spirit poured down and empowered those believers as Jesus had promised.  Peter preached Jesus as Messiah to a curious crowd, and 3000 repented and believed.  It was an exciting turn of events, but one which would lead to greater hostility.

Some time later Peter again preached to a curious crowd after he and John had brought healing to a well-known lame beggar at a temple gate.  Authorities arrested the two apostles for preaching Jesus resurrected.  After being released, the apostles continued to spread the news about Jesus as the unity of the church community deepened.

They grew to about 5,000.  (Even so, the church probably never reached 20% of the city’s population.)  Growing numbers, continual sermons and undeniable miracles compelled the Jewish Council to arrest apostles again, this time threatening and beating them.  But the Lord answered their prayer for boldness and the gospel continued to spread accompanied by signs and wonders.

One of the church leaders, Stephen, publicly defended himself by condemning the unbelieving authorities. They stoned him to death.  That day, great persecution broke out against the church.  Believers all scattered from the city, except the apostles.  But, wherever they went, they preached the word about Jesus.

Saul, a rising-star rabbi, ravaged believers.  He stormed from house to house dragging them off to prison.  He received official authorization to Damascus, Syria.  On the way, a sudden blinding light struck him. Jesus appeared to him and called him to preach the gospel to Gentiles.  After healing, Saul (later to be known as Paul) started preaching Jesus in Damascus.  It wasn’t long before he had to escape for his life.  Fleeing to Jerusalem, he continued his ministry there.

Meanwhile, Peter worked miracles and preached the word in Samaria.  Most notably he told the good news to a Gentile household of Romans.  When the Holy Spirit came upon them all, it signaled the Lord’s acceptance of them and the start of a great influx of Gentiles.  Scattered believers from Jerusalem planted a strong Gentile church in Antioch, Syria.

All this advance, however, was not without cost.  In addition to Stephen’s martyrdom by stoning, King Herod had James, John’s brother, killed by the sword (probably beheaded).  Only the Lord knows how many other believers were martyred in “the great persecution” of those early years.

Theological contention became another cost of the gospel advance, especially after Barnabas and Paul won Gentile converts on Crete and in southern Galatia.  The issue?  Should circumcision and obedience to the law of Moses be required of Gentile believers?  After all, Jesus was the Jews’ Messiah.  And the church was born Jewish.  Leaders held a council in Jerusalem.  Conclusion:  Gentiles would not be required to be circumcised and obey Moses’ law.

I’ve reviewed our trip through Acts so far, because we’ve been on a long hiatus in Galatians and James.  (We’re following the Acts’ narrative, interrupting it to consider the apostles’ letters about the time they wrote them.)  Today we come to a surprising, somewhat unpleasant incident . . .

It started unremarkably enough when Paul suggested to Barnabas they revisit the new churches from their first missions trip.  Barnabas replied, “I’d like to take Mark.”  Paul thought it unwise.  “Mark deserted us last time, remember?”  Their conversation escalated until it erupted into a cutting confrontation and ended in the first church split in history.  Here’s how author Luke recorded it . . .

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.”  Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them,  but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work.  They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus  but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.  He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches  (Acts15:36-41).

I understand the Scripture is Holy Spirit-inspired.  I still find it surprising that Luke included  this “missionary melee” for the whole world to read.  It wasn’t a friendly conversation over coffee and bagels.  It was a “sharp disagreement.”  The same Greek term is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament translated “angry”:  “Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day” (Deuteronomy 29:27j, ESV).  That’s pretty hot and heavy stuff.

That these two church leaders would get into “a sharp disagreement” is almost as shocking as overhearing your pastor and his wife arguing.  And then the Holy Spirit leads Luke to include it in his narrative!    It reminds me that the heroes of the faith were just men and women like us.  We don’t venerate them as saints.  (All born-agains are saints!)  Nor should we think of their exploits as beyond us, because the same Spirit who empowered them empowers us.

Don’t you wonder, though, why the Sovereign Lord allowed it?  I don’t know, except that the Lord uses us in our weakness.  (” . . . for my power is made perfect in weakness”–2 Corinthians 12:9).  And just how was his power perfected here?  Simple:  two missionary teams instead of just one.  Paul chose Silas and went his way.  Barnabas took Paul and headed off his way.

If you’re like me, you’re asking, “Why couldn’t the Holy Spirit have led Paul to say, ‘Hey, Barnabas.  We could double our effectiveness if I took Silas back to Galatia and you took your cousin Mark to Cyprus.  What do you think?'”  Instead—verbal fisticuffs!  God moves in a mysterious way!

Of course, from our vantage-point in time, we can see how God caused  this to “work together for good.”  Then it was probably something to be embarrassed about.

Makes me wish we could see the good in our painful “thing” while going through it.  Instead, we just have to trust God’s Romans 8:28 promise.  (And maybe sing again the old hymn . . . )

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

You fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.










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