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Archive for the tag “The Year Of The Bible”

The Thessalonian Correspondence, Part 3

Discussing prophecy is a fascinating activity, often with far-reaching implications. Back in the 1980s, there was a group of Christians that was convinced that the Lord revealed to them that there was going to be a nuclear explosion over Chicago, with destruction covering a 300-mile radius. So these folks all made arrangements to be in northern Wisconsin for the fateful event – some selling their homes and quitting their jobs. Needless to say, most of them were embarrassed when the cataclysmic event did not happen and life as they knew it resumed. Admittedly, this is an illustration of a fringe group, but it illustrates what happens when prophecy is taken for more than God intends it – which in my opinion is to call his people to righteousness and ethical integrity, even in the midst of great difficulty, even persecution. (A survey of the major OT prophets reveals that their message was for God’s people to repent and reject their sinful ways – not to predict the future, although future events were revealed in order to motivate repentance and provide assurance and comfort in the truth that God was sovereign). When Paul taught the believers in Thessalonica concerning the Day of the Lord, his purpose, likewise, was to bring assurance and comfort his readers. But as I noted last time, certain false teachers were confusing the believers and causing quite a stir. Some were teaching that the Day of the Lord had already come, the fallacy of which I discussed last time. However, it seems that there were others who were convinced that the second coming was so close that they need not work. After all, why work if Jesus is coming soon? Paul is firm with these people. Read more…

The Thessalonian Correspondence, Part 2

As often happens in a young fellowship of believers, curiosity about the second coming of Jesus tends to overshadow the day-to-day disciplines of discipleship. It is an interesting project to survey the popular teaching one hears on the radio just to get a flavor of the plethora of ideas relative to this event. An explanation of every detail of every prophecy is offered, many times with such certainty that one might be led to believe that there is no reason to trust God for his grace to live in this world. Such was the prevailing attitude of the Thessalonians when they received the very encouraging letter from Paul. But when the messenger who delivered the first letter returned to Paul and reported how it was received, and that there was considerable misunderstanding about the events of the Rapture and the Day of the Lord, Paul immediately wrote a second letter clarifying his teaching.

2 Thessalonians can easily be understood by surveying the contents of the three chapters, each one having a separate and distinct theme. Chapter one, like the first chapter in 1 Thessalonians, applauds these believers for their steadfastness and endurance during hardship and persecution.

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.  (2Th 1:3-4 NIV)

Chapter two tackles the main purpose of this letter, the clarification of misinformation concerning the Rapture and the simultaneous judgment known as the Day of the Lord. There were false teachers who were teaching that this event had already happened. If this were true, these believers were thoroughly confused. In order to clarify, Paul gives an extremely pivotal block of teaching on this subject. Paul clearly explains that certain events must happen prior to the Rapture/Day of the Lord.

Before the Rapture/Day of the Lord, the rebellion must come and the man of lawlessness must be revealed. Some suggest that this is a general reference to rebellion as explained in 1 Tim 4:1. If this is what Paul intends, it takes very little discernment to observe that we are well along in the fulfillment of this condition. But this passage suggests that more than a general rebellion is in view. Paul talks about “the” rebellion (literally, the apostasy). Then, a specific person is revealed:

Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. (2Th 2:3 NIV) He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2Th 2:4 NIV)

This is a clear description of the great and final rebellion against God under the leadership of the Anti-Christ, summarized in Revelation 19-20. In order to clarify these statements, we must do some review of the term “Temple”, which is a unifying theme of the Bible. (See His-Story: Ezekiel, Part 2, for a more complete explanation.) Let me simply say at this point, that if we understand the ultimate prophetic fulfillment of “Temple” to be the sanctuary of God in the New Heaven and the New Earth, the penultimate fulfillment must be the Church (1 Peter 2-6). That means that the Anti-Christ must be one who sets himself up as the authority in the Church and once that is accomplished, he will proclaim himself as God. By this understanding, I am making no suggestion about any current church leader or office. I am only suggesting that when the Anti-Christ is revealed, he will somehow deceive the Church (but not the believing remnant). The point for Paul in 2 Thessalonians is that until these events happen, the Rapture/Day of the Lord will not happen.

Here is a sobering conclusion, if this view is correct. Hardship and persecution for believers is getting more intense and it will culminate in the Great Tribulation. Matthew 24:1-29 speaks of this time of great distress. Then in Vs. 30-31, Jesus describes the Rapture/Day of the Lord, which comes after the time of distress has already appeared. Could the Church be raptured prior to this event? Possibly. But the force of this text and that of 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 2 seems to stand against it.

So what is the relevance of these ideas to Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence? I will unfold that in my next post.

The Thessalonian Correspondence, Part 1

There is great interest in the biblical teaching about the second coming of Jesus, and rightly so. Acts 1 tells us of the proclamation of two men dressed in white, presumably angels, who were present at Christ’s ascension and who said:

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Act 1:11 NIV)

The two letters of Paul to the church at Thessalonica address this issue in a clear and straightforward way. But before I discuss content, I wish to give a background to the letter and put it in context of Paul’s missionary travels.

Paul first visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, the events of which are recorded in Acts 17:1-9. Here is a thriving city of over 200,000 residents, with a sizable Jewish community that welcomed Gentile God-fearers who were disenchanted with Roman idolatry and Emperor worship. Upon his arrival, as was his custom, Paul brought the Gospel to the synagogue, where these God-fearers responded. But the Jews were not happy with Paul’s ministry so they organized a mob to violently expel him and his team from the city. Paul escaped to Berea and the mob followed him there, causing him to flee to Athens. When Silas and Timothy met Paul, they traveled together to Corinth, where Paul learned of the gospel’s progress in the fledgling church in Thessalonica. From Corinth, Paul writes the Thessalonian correspondence, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, most likely within a few weeks of one another.

The purpose of 1 Thessalonians is encouragement. First, he encourages them in their faith and commends them for their steadfastness in the midst of the intense persecution they just experienced (1:3; 2:17-3:10). He utters a prayer with the nurturing heart of a loving mother (2:7) and guiding father (2:11), that their faith may continue to grow.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones (1Th 3:11-13 NIV)

Of particular concern to Paul was the anxiety of the Thessalonians over the circumstances of the second coming of Jesus (alluded to in all five chapters of this letter – 1:10; 2;19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23) and of their ignorance about the relationship of believers who died prior to this event and those believers who might still be alive. The central teaching in the NT about this issue is found in 4:16-18.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1Th 4:16-18 NIV)

Regardless of one’s view on the timing of this event relative to the Great Tribulation, all believers can be genuinely encouraged to know that there will not only be a union with Jesus in the air, but that there will also be a re-union with loved ones who have already died. This event is called the Rapture, so named because of the Latin translation of the phrase in vs. 17, “caught up.” He closes his teaching on this subject by describing the coming Day of the Lord, a separate event from the Rapture when the unbelieving world is judged with the wrath of the Lord, an event believers will not experience (5: 9). His challenge is that since we have such a tremendous promise, we ought to live lives that display that hope.

So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. (1Th 5:6-8 NIV)

If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, the truth of the events surrounding the return of Jesus can be of great encouragement to you (4:18) But if you are still on the fence concerning Jesus, today is a great day to place your trust in Jesus who may be coming soon. And when he does, it will be too late!

Galatians, Part 2

As runners lined up for the London Marathon, it was obvious that there were many who were there to enjoy the day or to raise awareness for their cause, rather than to compete for first prize.  Dressed as the Tower of London, Big Ben, a tea pot, Darth Vader or one of several Disney characters, many colorfully dressed contestants began the race, but only those who were serious about reaching their goal finished.  The same is true of the Christian life.  It is not how we start that matters.  Rather, it is all about how we finish.  Paul’s letter to the Galatians is written to a group of believers who began the Christian life with dedication to the truth of the Gospel, but who were in danger of dropping out before the finish line.

Last time I introduced you to a group of teachers that I call the “legalizers”, people who believed in the necessity of faith in Jesus, but who also equally believed in following the Law of Moses, particularly the practice of circumcision. However, Paul takes great effort to explain that the Gospel he preaches has a different message.

According to Paul’s Gospel (so named in 1:11), salvation is offered as a gift to be received by faith alone.  It is based on the merits of Jesus and his death and resurrection (1:1-5), and those who believe are justified (3:16), and thereby delivered from God’s curse (3:13).  The model of our faith is Abraham, who believed God and because of his faith he was counted as being righteous.  All who in like fashion believe are considered his children (3:6-7).  While it is true that Abraham was circumcised, this procedure was not administered until after he was justified and received the promise (3:17).  The Law was never intended to bring us salvation, rather it was intended to convince us of our sinfulness and point us to Jesus (3:19).  When we do put our faith in Jesus, we become united with him in his death (2:20) and receive the Holy Spirit who then enables us to live a life that pleases God (5:16-18).  As we live our lives, we are not under the condemnation of the Law but enjoy freedom, as God’s sons and daughters, from the condemnation and guilt that the Law produces (4:1-7).  However, this freedom in no way gives us the license to indulge our sinful nature (5;13).  Rather, we have the privilege of being led by the Holy Spirit, away from deeds of the flesh and into the graces he provides (5:19-22).

So how do we know that Paul’s gospel is truly from God?

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ…But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased  16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles,  (Gal 1:15-16 NIV) (Gal 1:11-12, 15-16 NIV)

Therefore, we can have great confidence that when we place our faith in Christ alone, we have the assurance that we are children of God and can anticipate an eternity in heaven as our spiritual inheritance (6:8).

This message is extremely relevant in our day, when so many religious groups are attempting to compel their followers to attempt to earn God’s favor by religious works, religious ceremony, liturgy, and acts of sacrifice.  Please understand, these are all wonderful activities, but they do not merit God’s favor.  Their value (which is considerable) is solely as an expression of our worship to God who has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.  We might summarize the message of Galatians with a grid.  The vertical line depicts his grace or low grace and the horizontal line depicts high law and low law.

HighGraceHighLaw

If a person is in the quadrant of low grace and low law, we might say they have No Life.  That is, they have no awareness of the Law of God, and thus no awareness of their sinfulness.  Neither do they understand God’s grace, so there is no basis for them to have faith.  If a person is in the quadrant of low law and high grace, we might say they have No Assurance.  This suggestion is that they believe that God loves them unconditionally, but they have no regard to righteousness and their lives show little, if any, fruit that glorifies God.  If a person is in the quadrant of high law and low grace, we might suggest that they have either False Assurance or a life of Guilt and Shame.  Here is a person who either trusts in the Law for salvation or who has a faith in Christ but is continually burdened by his/her failure to keep the law.  But the person in the quadrant of high grace and high Law understands the Gospel of Grace and has the Law of God written upon their heart and enjoys keeping in step with the Holy Spirit. This person might be described as being Spirit Empowered. 

The Galatians began their Christian experience with the Spirit and they had the opportunity to continue in his power (3:1-5). Paul’s effort was to insure that they would not only begin their race but that they would finish it as well.  How about you?

Acts, Part 5 & Galatians, Part 1

Most associations of Christian churches, commonly called denominations, regardless of their system of government, hold national conferences where matters that concern the movement as a whole are discussed. Sometime these deliberations are reported in the media, especially when there is some controversy on the agenda. But most of the time these national convocations are largely unnoticed by the rest of Christendom. Each group has its own matters to attend to, and others are largely unaffected by their proceedings. But the first century Christian church was quite different. Acts chapter 15 records the deliberation of the first meeting of the leaders of the only Christian association that existed, and the agenda included a discussion that would set the tone of ministry for the infant Christian movement forever. In fact, had the deliberations concluded with a decision that went any way other than the way than it did, there would be no Christian church today. Let me explain.

During Paul’s first Missionary Journey, the Gospel of Grace developed and was preached in the cities of South Galatia (see below for a comment on this comment!) This Gospel proclaimed that a person is saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This gave anyone, Jew or Gentile, the opportunity to receive the gift of eternal life by trusting in the work of Jesus on the cross, apart from performing any meritorious religious works, namely obedience to the various laws set out in the first five books of the OT. Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, and secular Gentiles all responded to this message and to the Church, much to the displeasure of some believing Jews who insisted that while faith in Jesus was necessary, no less necessary was adherence to the Law, particularly the law of circumcision. Much of the persecution against Paul and his team during his first missionary journey originated with these legalizers. And when he returned to Antioch, the controversy returned with him.

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Act 15:1 NIV)

In an attempt to deal with this issue once and for all, the Antioch church appealed to the Jerusalem church, sending Paul and Barnabas, along with a few other representatives, to what is commonly known as the Jerusalem Council. The agenda was simple.

When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. (Act 15:4-6 NIV)

After much deliberation, which included an address from Peter concerning how God used him to share the gospel with Gentiles, it was the unanimous decision of all present that it was not necessary to follow the laws of circumcision in order to be saved. Salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ plus nothing. The following letter was drafted and sent back to the Antioch Church.

The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul– men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. (Act 15:23-29 NIV)

The significance of this decision cannot be overstated. The legalizers were troubling their minds with their insistence on circumcision. The conclusion was that this influence was without authorization. There would be no burden imposed in order to be saved, that is, no requirement to follow the Law of Moses, specifically circumcision. The only consideration was the courtesy of respect for Jewish traditions, but none of these affected one’s salvation. One scholar summarizes this decision.

“Had their (the legalizers) view prevailed, not only would the Gospel of salvation as a free gift from God have been subverted but also the Christian movement may well have split into a Jewish church – small and struggling and eventually fading away, and a Gentile church –  theologically rootless and tending toward syncretism. Or more probably, the Gentile mission would have almost entirely ceased and Christianity would have died the death of many a Jewish sect…”. (Robert Gundry A Survey of The New Testament, pg 260)

But the Gentile mission and Christianity did survive. The first church council clarified the Gospel and opened the door for further missionary enterprise. But before I share of Paul’s next adventure on the mission field, it is appropriate to discuss his first apostolic letter, which we now know as the Book of Galatians. I am suggesting that an apt title for this letter would be The Gospel of Grace: Paul’s Defense of the Doctrine of Salvation by Faith Plus Nothing as a  Refutation of the Legalizers Doctrine of Salvation by Faith Plus Law. (How’s that for a long title!!) But before I outline the letter, let’s establish his audience.

I am suggesting that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was composed prior to the Jerusalem Council. It addressed the problem that became the agenda for the Jerusalem Council. Further, in the providence of God, it became the outline of his presentation to the Jerusalem Council. Some have suggested that Galatians was written much later in his life, to a group of churches in the northern region of Galatia, churches that Paul supposedly founded on his second Missionary Journey. But the following points make this option unlikely.

There is no mention of the decision of the Jerusalem Council nor of the letter that the Council drafted. If Paul had written this letter fter the Jerusalem Council, he would certainly have referred to it when he faced the legalizers who were attempting to sway the early church to require circumcision.

In Galatians chapter 2, Paul records a public rebuke of Peter, who was acting in sympathy of the legalizers. Given Peter’s strong support of Paul and reasoning against these legalizers at the Jerusalem Council, it seems unlikely that this could have happened after the Council.

Finally Paul mentions Barnabas three times in his letter. But Barnabas did not accompany Paul on his second missionary journey, only the first.

In my next post I will outline Paul’s masterful argument.

Reflections on Missionary Sending

In my last post I outlined the missionary-sending initiatives of the Antioch Church and observed the extensive involvement in the missionary enterprise by this “sending church.” Today I would like to share some pastoral observations regarding missions based on the narrative of Paul’s first missionary journey and his relationship with the Antioch Church.

First –  God frequently raises up missionaries from those who are already in effective ministry in the local church.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. (Act 11:25-26 NIV)

Effective missionaries take gifts and experiences that have already been learned and developed in active ministry in the local church to the field with them. It may seem unwise to send the most gifted members of a church because of the perceived loss of available people who are able to carry on effective ministry. But for the sake of the mission, God sends the best. He will always replace those he calls out of a church and into missionary ministry.

Second – The missionary enterprise of a sending church originates as a response to the direction and leading of the Holy Spirit.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Act 13:2 NIV)

How often do we embark on an outreach project without first worshipping God and praying about the project? It was Henry Blackaby who reminded us that it is always best to join God where he is already at work. God always goes before us and then calls us to join him.

Third  – The missionary enterprise involves the body of Christ as a whole, not just the “Missions Committee.”

So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Act 13:3 NIV)

So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. (Act 15:30-31 NIV)

This is a principle that deserves careful consideration. It is a fortunate local church that has a Missions Committee that intentionally includes the entire body in the missions program.

Fourth – Missionaries are accountable to the sending church.

From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. (Act 14:26-27)

It seems so harsh to hold missionaries accountable for their ministry, but let’s consider the truth. Life a thousand miles away from the home church gives a missionary the opportunity for a lifestyle that is less than honoring to the Lord and less than honoring to the sending church. Regular reports with specific expectations should be standard operating procedure for Missions Committees, with the very real possibility of discontinuing support if not complied with, in favor of another missionary who is able to demonstrate faithfulness to his call and effectiveness in producing fruit.

Fifth – The sending church has a responsibility to support their missionaries even to the point of being their advocate in the event of controversy.

So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, (Act 15:2-3 NIV)

Notice that the Antioch Church did not let Paul and Barnabas fight their battle with the legalizers alone. They joined in and acted as a body!! The stakes were so high that the future of their church and the Church as a whole demanded that they join Paul and Barnabas. How often do we simply send a card to our missionaries, who are facing serious issues, with the body as a whole left out of the process. I don’t how this looks in every situation, but if we consider that the missionaries are an extension of the sending church, it will be impossible to allow them to struggle alone.

Sixth – Missionaries remain involved in the ministry of the local church, even if they are not on an active missionary journey.

But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord. (Act 15:35 NIV)

I know that there needs to be certain time allotted to missionaries on home assignment for support-raising and refreshment. But ministry is a calling and God’s choicest servants are a resource that must not be wasted. Let’s get our missionaries involved in the ministry while they are home.

So, in my opinion, a sending church does more than say a prayer as a missionary leaves for the field. I challenge you to consider how you and your Missions Committee might learn from the example of the Antioch Church in the continuation of the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Acts, Part 4

A search for books on how to “do church” will reveal many titles – Simple Church, Dangerous Church, Vintage Church, Deep Church, just to name a few. On my last post I recounted how the church at Antioch was a church that was formed because of the testimony to the Gospel by believers who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen. This was a dynamic community of believers, full of the Spirit and committed to the Word of God taught by gifted teachers and leaders. If I were to write a book about how this group “did church” I would give it the title, “Sending Church.”

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus.  (Act 13:1-4 NIV)

Thus, the first of three missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul and his team was inaugurated. They went first to Cyprus because that was the home town of Barnabas. From there they went to the mainland of what is now Turkey, where they visited Perga in Pamphylia, Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lustra and Derbe. Paul’s pattern was to  begin preaching in the synagogue, if there was one, because of his deep concern for his fellow Jews and also because they were recipients of the covenant from God and, as such, they has a right to hear the fully-revealed Gospel first. Yet this practice allowed him to fulfill his commission, which was to take the Gospel to Gentiles (Acts 9:15), as one of the common characteristics of synagogues was the presence of Gentile God-fearers–non-Jews who had an interest in Judaism. These Gentiles were very receptive to the Gospel and often responded enthusiastically, as did many Jews, when the offer of salvation through faith in Jesus was given.

But the non-responsive Jews regarded Paul’s message as a threat, indeed an affront to the Jewish heritage of following the Law of Moses, so they resisted, often with violence against Paul and his team. Consequently, Paul simply moved to another location where Gentiles were free to attend his teaching. Eventually, he moved on to the next town and conducted his ministry in the same pattern: preach in the synagogue, success among the Gentile God-fearers and some Jews, Jewish hostility, withdrawal from the synagogue, more success among the Gentiles, more resistance and persecution, flight from one city and journey to another.

Most of the persecution came from unbelieving Jews, not Roman sources during this period because the Roman government regarded Christianity a sect of Judaism, which was a legal religion. It was only later, when it became apparent that Christianity was distinct from Judaism, that Christianity was banned by Rome. However, among the early church was a segment of Jewish leaders who accepted Jesus as Messiah, but who also insisted that converts must not only put their faith in Jesus but also abide by the Law of Moses. We might call these teachers ‘legalizers” (the theological term is Judaizers, signifying that their legalism revolved around the Law of Moses). Their view was that faith in Jesus was not enough for salvation. Adherence to the Law, specifically the rite of circumcision, was also necessary. They gave Paul no little amount of trouble as the infant Church was spreading. The problem grew so strong that following their first journey, when Paul and his team reported to the Antioch Church (their sending church), a fundamental dispute arose that needed official Apostolic resolution. Therefore, the church initiated a plan to support Paul and his team by sending them to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the “mother church”. Acts 15 records the first Council that convened to settle church disputes:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Act 15:1-2 NIV)

The deliberation of this council resulted in the affirmation of Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles and of the essential message of the Gospel of Grace, that faith in Jesus alone is sufficient for salvation.

After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Act 15:7-11 NIV)

This conclusion seemed good to everyone present, so they drafted a letter that outlined their decision and sent it back to Antioch (Acts 15:30-31). Upon receiving the letter and hearing the report from Paul and his team, the church rejoiced and was strengthened in its resolve to spread the Gospel of Grace.

It is a wonderful experience for a local church to send members of their fellowship on missionary ventures. Our own local church has had that privilege, both in sending career missionaries to vocational ministry as well as several short-term teams on missionary projects. I would like to think that we might be considered a sending church. But the story of Paul’s first missionary journey and of the consequential attention required by his sending church, brings up a very important point that I would like to discuss in my next post. As “romantic” as it is to be a sending church, there is also great responsibility and great accountability not only by the missionary(s) but also by the church. Being a sending church involves more than sending.

Acts, Part 3

In the second century, Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This saying has often been proven correct as many countries, such as China and South Korea, have experienced spectacular growth as the result of persecution. While this does not always happen, as in the cases of believers in some Muslim countries such as Iraq and Egypt where the presence of the Church is a fraction of what it once was, the story of the martyrdom of Stephen and the resulting growth of the Church in the Roman Empire offers evidence of how God uses hardship and difficulty to spread the good news of the Gospel.

One of the men appointed to the task of distribution of food to the diverse population of those in need (Acts 6:1-7) was Stephen, who was a very powerful advocate of the Gospel. In fact, he was so effective in debating the Jewish religious elites, that he was stoned (Acts 7:54-60), an act that ignited persecution against all believers in Jerusalem.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (Act 8:1 NIV)

centrifugal forces vectorsGod used this persecution as a great centrifugal force, sending believers to places they might not have otherwise gone, and pockets of believers began to gather and share the Gospel with their neighbors, signifying the fulfillment of Acts 1:8, which says that believers will testify of Jesus in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and to the outermost parts of the earth. Acts 8:4-8 tells of Phillip ministering in Samaria and later to the Ethiopian Eunuch. We then have the account of the establishment of a community of Gentile believers in Antioch of Syria.

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. (Act 11:19-20 NIV)

With the community of believers in Antioch, God established a local church that was predominately Gentile. But Luke takes great care to explain to his readers that Gentile evangelism was in the sovereign plan of God. He does this by unfolding the stories of the two leading Apostles of the first century Church. First, he recounts the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-19), who would be the primary initiator of Gentile evangelism. Then he explains how Peter was led to the house of a Gentile tanner named Cornelius, and through a vision from God (Acts 10:9-16), was convinced that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Although Peter was the first one to preach the Gospel to Gentiles (Acts 10:34-48), it was Paul who carried the message of the Gospel of Grace to the regions of Galatia, Macedonia, Greece, and finally Rome. And, it was the church in Antioch who then sent Paul and Barnabas on their first journey of intentional evangelism and church planting among the Gentiles.

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Act 13:1-3 NIV)

All of this evangelistic ministry began with the persecution that erupted when Stephen was stoned. God strategically relocated believers to the areas of his mission field where he wanted them to share the message of the Gospel. This seems so creative of God. Stir up a little persecution and get these Christians where he wants them to be. But as I contemplate this phenomenon, I am struck with one practical thought. I am very impressed with the character of these relocated believers. It seems to me that it would be very easy for them to play the victim and curl up into self-protection mode and keep quiet about Jesus. After all, they were uprooted and chased out of town once. Who wants to go through that again?! But that is not at all what they did. Instead, they looked at their situation as an opportunity for God to use them for his glory and to bloom where God planted them.

How many times do our comfortable lives get interrupted by uninvited hardship? Perhaps a job change, or even job transfer; how about an unexpected illness that requires us to travel for treatment and become introduced to a totally new community of those with the same condition. Maybe it is time for you to join a retirement community, or even an assisted living facility. Will you view this circumstance as an opportunity to share the Gospel with a new group of God’s children? Or, will you turn inward and focus on what used to be? The eyes of faith will view these unintentional transfers in life as God’s leading in the fulfillment of his mission to be his witnesses. The seed of the Gospel continues to be planted in fields of difficulty and even persecution. How will you respond?

Acts, Part 2

foundationA few years ago our family fulfilled one of the items on my life-long bucket list: building our own house. Without realizing the plethora of decisions we would face, as well as the hours of sweat equity required to amass the equivalent of 20% down, we excitedly signed a contract and anticipated the day when the bulldozers would arrive and begin preparations for the foundation. It is hard to replicate the emotions I felt when the concrete was poured and the shape of our new home was visible from the road. But there is a fundamental theological principle that is illustrated in the foundation of a house. Important as the foundation is, it is not the house. Here is the application.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22 NIV)

The foundation of my house without the structure built upon it was not a house. Who would ever pour a foundation and then stop building and move in? The same is true of the foundation of the apostles and prophets, even with the cornerstone in place. As foundational as the apostles and prophets – even a personal relationship with Jesus – are, they do not comprise the  household of God. The household is the church. It is not uncommon to hear people say that they love the Bible and they love Jesus, but they hate the church, so they will never be part of one. That is just like saying that I loved my foundation but hated the structure and would never move into one.

While the 120 believers were praying in the upper room, recorded in Acts 2, God did something miraculous. He visited them with power from on high and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit. These empowered believers immediately began sharing the good news of the Kingdom of God with everyone who was present at the Feast of Pentecost. Consequently, Peter took that opportunity to share the message of the Kingdom, calling on everyone to repent, be baptized and receive the forgiveness of sins. Here is the punch line.

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.  (Act 2:41-1 NIV)

God did not tell these people that their personal salvation was enough. God built a house on that foundation and the people were formed into a new community. They then devoted themselves, together, to the Apostle’s teaching, to fellowship, to breaking of bread and to prayer. Further, the life of Jesus shone through them so that others were drawn to this community, resulting in the Lord adding to their number, daily, those who were being saved (2:47). Building on the foundation, God established his household. This new community had its roots in the Old Testament nation of Israel that had its origin in the family of Abraham. God formed Israel to be a light to the nations, a promise that began its fulfillment in Acts 2 and continues to this day. That fulfillment is visible in the local church.

May I say a few words about life in the local church? Sometimes it seems like I died and went to heaven when I experience the fellowship and mutual ministry in the local church. But other times, it seems like the fires of hell are about to consume me. There have been times when I was filled with so much joy and fulfillment that I never wanted the day to end. Other times, I couldn’t get to bed fast enough – only to discover that when I awoke to a new day, the pain and difficulties remained. I have been in pastoral ministry for 35 years now, and there have been many times that I approached the edge of a cliff and contemplated jumping off. But every time, I come back to this fundamental truth. When God decided to reach the world with the Gospel, he planted local churches!! He did not leave the foundation of the apostles and prophets without building the house. I have the incredible honor and privilege of leading God’s people in a local church.

May I give you a challenge? Are you actively serving God in a local church? Are you contributing to your church’s health? Maybe you have been hurt by church life, maybe you have been let down by a church leader – maybe by a pastor. There is no promise anywhere in the Bible that says that life in the community of believers will always be easy. But it is the life that God desires for every believer. Keep serving. Keep praying. Keep giving. A foundation without a house is not a house. In the same way, Christian faith apart from life in a local church is not a biblical faith.

Acts, Part 1

oreo_Cookie_One of America’s favorite cookies is the Oreo, two chocolate wafers with a creamy frosting in between. But when asked what makes the Oreo so popular, invariably, it is not the wafers. It is the frosting in between. Nabisco understands this, so in the past decade or so they introduced a “double stuffed” Oreo. They know it’s what’s in between that makes an Oreo an Oreo! If you will give me some grace to make an analogy, the accomplishment of Jesus, the King, might be compared to an Oreo cookie. His first coming, that which inaugurated the Kingdom of God and his second coming, that which will complete the establishment of the Kingdom of God on the New Heaven and New Earth, have an in between. This in between is the mission of the Spirit of God through the people of God, the Church, which is to spread the message of the Gospel among all peoples on earth. The story of this in between begins in the Book of Acts.

Acts is the second volume of the history of Jesus and his disciples written by Luke to a man named Theophilus, an acquaintance of Luke who was either interested in the story to fulfill his own curiosity or to preserve it for future generations. It could be that Theopholis was a prominent figure in Roman society, given that he is addressed as “most excellent” (Luke 1:3), a common designation for influential leaders (see Acts 23:26; 24;3; 26:25). Perhaps Theophilus commissioned Luke to write, or Luke wrote to Theopholus in order to present evidence of the power of the Gospel in an effort to convert him. At any rate, the reference to this man brings added evidence that the author of Acts is the same author as that of the Gospel of Luke.

Acts is organized to chronicle the progress of the Gospel in four phases, as outlined in Acts 1:8.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Act 1:8 NIV)

Chapters 1-8 tell the story of the Gospel’s growth in Jerusalem. Then in Chapters 8:5-12:25, we see it spread to Samaria and Judea And in chapters 13-21, it spreads from Judea to the outermost parts of the earth. The last chapters account for the final days of the Apostle Paul, with a rather abrupt ending, probably signifying that the chronological account of the story has been recorded up to that time, with Luke anticipating continuing it, but never having the opportunity to do so.

As the book of Acts begins, Luke records that the risen Jesus appears to his followers many times over a period of 40 days, “speaking about the kingdom of God” (1:3). When they came together for the final time in his presence, they asked him if this was the time when the KOG would be established on earth. But to what must have been their disappointment, Jesus instead commissioned them to spread the Gospel throughout the world, and then the end would come. Dramatically, Jesus is taken up from them. But where did he go?  Later, Peter tells us (2:33; 5:31) that Jesus is now exalted at the right hand of the Father. Instead of a throne located in Jerusalem from where the Messiah was assumed to rule a world-wide earthly empire, Jesus sits at the right hand of God, on a throne that is exalted above the world, a place of highest authority and honor. Now Jesus truly is “Lord”, and his early disciples, as well as those of all ages, bow before him and confess that he is King of kings and Lord of lords. The mission of his followers is to proclaim his status and spread his message. But they would not be alone in that quest. They would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Prophecy promised that God’s Spirit would be poured out on the Messiah (Is 42:1) and on his people (Joel 2:28-32). About ten days after the ascension, during the Jewish festival of Pentecost, God’s word was fulfilled. In a mighty display of God’s power, the Holy Spirit comes upon the followers of Jesus and empowers them to accomplish their mission. Jewish literature from the 2nd Century BC reminds us that the Jewish festival of Pentecost lost its harvest significance. “Instead, it celebrated the promise God had given to Abraham, that his descendants might become an elect people…and an inheritance from all of the nations of the earth from henceforth and for all the days of the generations of the earth forever. Thus, in Jesus day, the Feast of Pentecost celebrated the covenant renewal of Israel and the inclusion of the nations within the covenant made between God and Abraham. Now, at that Feast of Pentecost the Spirit comes in fulfillment of that expectation and hope.” (Bartholomew and Cohen, The Drama of Scripture.) People from many parts of the Roman Empire heard the Gospel in their own language, making the message of the Kingdom of God available to a variety of people, both Jew and Gentile. God’s rule begins to work outward from Jerusalem to the nations, just as God said it would.

Next time, I will deal with this marvelous event in more detail and continue to discuss the progress of the Gospel to the nations.

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