Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Areopagus ignorance

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
Acts 17:30-31

Paul knew his culture. That much is clear in his ability to astutely argue with the Athenian philosophers on Mar's Hill. He was there by the invitation of the philosophers assembled there (Acts 17:19) and immediately he answered their request to know more of his teaching. He starts with a cultural observance, moving from the known about the people of Athens into the unknown teaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of these men had already heard his preaching (Acts 17:17-18) as he reasoned with them in the public marketplace (agora) at Athens.

This is both a defense of the gospel and a sermon that prepares the way for the gospel to have maximum meaning in the culture of philosophy at Athens. There are several things I notice. First, Paul was not afraid to argue the reasonable points of the gospel. And in doing so, he entered into the rarified intellectual atmosphere of his day. Secondly, Paul knew his culture. He was acquainted with pagan philosophies and poets and could use his understanding to build a platform for the gospel message. He is a strong apologist for the faith because he knows how to present the faith. Thirdly, Paul was not afraid to make bold assertions. Basically, at this point in his argument, Paul is telling the philosophers of Athens, the wise men and faculty of his world, that they are ignorant and unlearned of the most important truth in the world. God could overlook that ignorance in the past, but now they would be held to knowing God's truth because God had commanded the preaching of the gospel in the world. These were serious assertions.

I grew up in an atmosphere where fundamentalism tended to have a negative view of scholarship and intellectual exercise. We were told to just believe because God said to believe. And although that is one reason to believe, it is not the only one. The result was that there were some theological insecurities and ignorances that I swallowed because of this negative view toward the mind. But I do think better of academic vigor these days. It is one way in which the presentation and purpose of the gospel can be more clearly refined. And I am all for the gospel taking the minds of the world's greatest thinkers captive toward righteousness! Minds ultimately shape culture. And when the gospel shapes the philosophy of one who shapes the culture, Christian virtues and values can thrive in a way that builds this world in true knowledge, and not the spiritual ignorance that human pride can foster.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Monday, August 30, 2010

the power of praise

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the

prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened.
Acts 16:25-26

This was the reaction of Paul and Silas to their first major opposition in Asia Minor. At Philippi they had great opportunity with the gospel. So much so that demonic powers have fallen (16:16-18). But when people who had made a living from occultism find their trade shutting down by their work, a mob soon turns against their work with the result that the missionaries are imprisoned in the Philippian jail (16:19-24).

But this does not stop the advance of the gospel in the least. Paul and Silas are holding a prayer meeting in their dungeon cell. There, in the middle of the dark night they were praying and singing hymns to God. They turned their worst hour into an hour of worship. They would not turn from their love for the God Who saved them, even when proclaiming His greatness landed them in their present predicament.

And God heard their prayers. At the moment of prayer and praise, God shook the walls of the prison with a mighty earthquake, and although everyone was released from their chains, no one made a break for it. The jailer is amazed. And he had heard the singing just moments before. He needed no more convincing. He ran to Paul and Silas to find out what they knew about this God who saved them, and the jailer was convinced God could save him as well.

The next round of new converts came from the jailer and his household. By the time Paul and Silas left Philippi, they had seen God work in the darkest hearts, through the darkest circumstances, and in the darkest of places to bring the light of the gospel to lives. They left a church there that was born in difficulty, but quickly nurtured in the transforming power of God.

Praise should accompany the gospel. Worship should follow the message of hope in Jesus. And even when circumstances mean that the gospel may not be well received, we should labor on with joy, knowing that God will be glorified in our worship and work. And that alone may be enough for people to see the difference and want to know the God who can be praised in prison walls!

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

legalism does not preach the gospel

Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.
Acts 15:10-11

Peter's summary of the situation that the Jerusalem church council was considering is masterful. He knew that the gospel existed as a totally new message. His generation was the last one that ever had to wrestle with the burden of keeping the Law. Jesus, by His saving work on the cross, had changed all of that. Peter saw legalism (the system of religion that insists that those who call themselves Christians must keep the standards of the Old Testament Jewish legal code) as dangerous for several reasons.

The first reason it was dangerous was that it was ultimately working against God's plan. Peter calls this "putting God to the test". The leaders of the charge to make the Gentiles into Jews were those from Pharisaical backgrounds. They had created much of the confusion by adding to the Old Testament their own tedious interpretations of it. They had been masters of making man the center of the relationship. And Jesus had no kind words to say about their selfish pursuit of legalism. It really hurt and angered the heart of God.

The second reason it was dangerous was that it had already been proven a failure by history. Jesus brought a better way. All throughout Jewish history God's people had struggled to keep every demand of the Law. And Peter admits that right up to his own generation none had been able to bear the burden of legalism added to the Law. And they shouldn't have been able to do so because it had become something that God never intended it to be.

The third reason had to do with the nature of the gospel. It comes through the grace of the Lord Jesus, and not by the works of the Law dutifully followed. Peter's words are telling. He puts the Gentiles first, showing that he clearly had a learning moment by watching salvation come to the Gentiles. He says the Jews will be saved this way, just like the Gentiles. By the gospel reaching the whole world, the ineffective nature of Pharisaical legalism is glaringly obvious. It is clearly all about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

There have been times when I have run across those within the present church who insist that there is some reason to keep the Old Testament Law. They shortchange the gospel just like Peter charges here. Most recently, it was watching a YouTube video of Joel Osteen (try not to snicker) delivering a "sermon" on the dangers of eating pork. And you could see he was passionate on the subject. Here is a guy who can barely talk about sin as an offense to God, and he wants to preach the dietary restrictions of the Law as having some healthy value. Odd... Pharisaical... and a clear indicator that he does not preach the gospel. That is ultimately what legalism does: it does not preach the gospel.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

a pattern for healthy church structure

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Acts 14:23

Paul and Barnabus were a ministry team. And they practiced team ministry in their first missionary endeavor. The commitment to this shows up in the way in which they considered their church planting works complete: they structured young churches with team leadership in accordance with the pattern they practiced. The language of the text indicates that a plurality of elders served in each church. When the body of believers matured to this structure, then the missionary apostles could commit that work to the Lord.

I have been privileged in my ministry to have always worked in churches where team ministry has been a driving value. I searched for this because I firmly believe it is what the Lord wants the church to be. And there is no room for grandstanding or idol-making of the leaders of the church. Turning a pastor into a rock star is always a bad idea. When a church is healthy, any of its elders should be speaking into the life of the church with giftedness and strength. That does not mean that some are not more gifted than others. Paul soon became the ranking member of any ministry team he was a part of. But that team still had the impact that he never would have alone. The same is true in the church. No one man should ever draw the media circus. Ever. Never. I don't care how many sports arenas he can fill with warm bodies.

It would seem that by the term "appoint" Paul and Barnabus were involved in the selection, training, development, and evaluation of these elders. Nothing is said about the time frame involved. I am assuming that it was a natural result of the discipleship and teaching that took place. By the time their work in a given church was finished, elders were appointed.

The way in which Paul and Barnabus "let go" of the responsibility of leading the young body is telling. It is the same pattern for their own call into mission work. They appointed them, and then with "prayer and fasting" committed them. Paul and Barnabus were sent out by the leaders of the church of Antioch in a similar fashion (Acts 13:3). Spiritual disciplines and worship were a part of the process in which these leaders were recognized and commissioned to the work that God had called and gifted them to build up the church.

There was no investiture ceremony with pomp and circumstance described here. It is simply the church seeking God's confirmation and assurance. It is the development of disciples and leaders among them for the building up of the body. The key was at the end they were committed to the Lord. Even church planters and leadership development experts are no match for Jesus. After all, it is His church and He is building it!

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How does the gospel grow?

And when the Gentiles heard this, 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

In Pisidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabus encounter a hearty response to the gospel among the Gentiles. This is the second major stopping point on their first "missionary" journey. In about two weeks time, nearly the entire city shows up to hear Paul preach the gospel (Acts 13:44). They had been preaching in the synagogue, and the Jewish leaders who had not accepted the gospel began to argue against them, concerned at all the Gentiles who wanted to know more. That is when the crucial decision to address these crowds of Gentiles exclusively was made. And the gospel poured out to them.

The result was that many believed, as described in this passage. But the other result was that persecution against the gospel also increased, this time led by the Jewish authorities (Acts 13:50). But that was the sort of thing that Paul and Barnabus had seen happen before. They knew they had been true to the gospel because it had been both warmly received, and violently opposed!

Those are the facts of what occurred, but there is an interesting underlying set of truths that show us just how the gospel advances. It does so under the direction of a sovereign God and in the efforts of His obedient disciples. Both are necessary. God does the drawing and the saving. But He has ordained that men do the preaching. There is no other way for people to know the truth and come to believe it. Without a doubt, God is sovereign in salvation. Acts is one of the clearest places to see this, in fact, it is evidenced throughout the book (see the chart from the ESV Study Bible on top of this post). Even this passage gives clear statements to this with the firm conviction that "as many as were appointed to eternal life believed". The conclusion is that God sovereignly worked in their call and conviction. But Paul and Barnabus still preached, the people still listened and responded. And the fact that some chose to actively persecute the gospel shows that human choice was still valid.

Here is where I see this going in terms of application for me. I certainly must believe the scriptures when they teach that God is sovereign in the process of salvation. But that in no way removes from me the responsibility to preach the gospel at every opportune moment. In fact, I would argue that it increases my responsibility. I have no idea to whom God has been urging and calling. I assume it is everyone since His desire is that none perish. I don't see Paul or Barnabus being selective about trying to ascertain who God was sovereignly calling. They did know that obviously those who opposed the gospel were not at the moment being responsive to any work of God. But those people sure knew the gospel even if they did not believe it! There you go: let's make sure people know the gospel, even if they do not believe it! So the gospel grows through God's sovereign work AND through the preaching of it by people in the world. Both are essential and still are the process in effect today.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Monday, August 23, 2010

the reason persecution fails

So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.
Acts 12:5

In the story of Peter's capture by Herod and eventual miraculous release by the hand of God we see how God is sovereign even over the attempts of those who hate the gospel to silence it. Peter was still God's chosen instrument. God was not done with him. God would use even his capture, persecution, and eventual release as a means to grow the church (the result of this episode in Acts 12:24).

But if we back up and take a look at the response of the church to these events, we see the reason that persecution never succeeds in stamping out the church. While Herod exerted every bit of political and governmental power at his disposal to stop Peter, the church just carefully and with fervor prayed. The text says this was earnest prayer. In fact, the very night of his release, when Peter makes his way back to the house church headquarters in Jerusalem, there is a prayer meeting going on interceding for him! We laugh at the way in which Peter interrupts it, and how those assembled there struggled to accept that it was Peter at the door, but nonetheless, Christ honored the fervent prayers of his sincere, but still faith-challenged, followers.

So a strong church ought to be defined by its fervent commitment to prayer in the midst of challenges. They may still need commendation to faith. But no church that is a truly praying church is a failing church! That much can be known from the pattern in Acts. Every challenge brought them to prayer, and God moved to answer their prayers. This earnest prayer of the early church is the reason persecution could not stand against the advance of the gospel.

Herod's rage at Peter's escape is understandable. He cannot seem to get his hands on the apex of the Christian movement in order to stop it. He orders the prison guards executed and moves to his Caesarean retreat to sulk. There, in the midst of political duties his pride becomes his eventual undoing. The chapter ends with his prideful end and miserable death. God strikes him down with a painful death and the gospel advances despite the cruelest efforts of tyrants to oppress the truth and dictate what people will believe.

To get updated on the state of the persecuted Christian church worldwide and how you can pray and work to end it, visit: www.persecution.com and support the ministry of Voice of the Martyrs.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

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- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

return to Antioch

So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
Acts 11:25-26

There is a lot crammed into these two verses. Acts 11 is a turning point in the history of the church. It documents the overwhelming shift that took place when the church embraced the gospel mission to the gentiles. No longer was faith in Christ just an offshoot brand of Judaism limited to the synagogue. At this point, it took on the identity as a world religion by embracing the mission to the gentiles. And the flashpoint became the city of Antioch.

The church leaders in Jerusalem receive a report back from Peter and his party that gentiles have come to faith in the episode of Cornelius' conversion. Their conclusion is straightforward: "Then to the gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life." (Acts 11:18). The church that scattered after Stephen's death began preaching the gospel to gentiles and greek-speakers with the result that a strong new church emerged in the gentile city of Antioch. Barnabus is sent by the apostles to investigate this new work. As Barnabus supported this new church, the gospel expanded and even more gentiles were coming to faith. The work of discipleship was more than one leader could manage. Barnabus remembered God's call on a man who has dropped off the scene. He travels to Tarsus (we don't know how long this took) and tracks down Saul. He brings him to Antioch and for the next year they faithfully teach the hungry new disciples.

The church at Antioch developed its own identity. The incredible response and growth in this new mission field, combined with the powerful teaching under Barnabus and Saul create a new distinction in the gentile world. The people of the city begun to take notice of these people who seem like "little Jesuses". The give them a nickname: Christians - "little Christs". And the church embraces this derisive title as a noble calling. The growing church in Antioch became the model of ministry for the advance of the gospel. And in the process the entire body of believers gained a new identity.

There is so much to unpack here, but in the interest of brevity I will just mention the powerful principles in these two verses. 1) The exponential power of the gospel is clearly demonstrated. If we preach it in the context of the Spirit's leading, lives can change, and sometimes the effect will be incredibly responsive in a short amount of time. Antioch was sort of an "instant church". 2) There is something to be said for team ministry here. Barnabus knew Saul was just the kind of man God had raised up for ministry among gentiles. He dropped everything, left Antioch, and did not return until he had Saul along with him to assist in the endeavors. Getting the team right was crucial to the success of the church. It was after that happened that the large church grew into a healthy and strong church that was noticed by its surrounding society. 3) Christianity gets noticed when it is authentically lived out in its culture. In the case of Antioch believers, it resulted in a new ridicule that the church embraced as a name that framed their mission! 4) There is witness to the strategic power of God. Saul was set on the back burner because of the controversy he had been causing. God led Barnabus to bring him back at just the right time for a task that built the church to a point that Saul was nearly ready to launch out in a dynamic ministry that would bring the gospel to the heart of Roman world. Like stages in a rocket, Antioch would take the gospel to the point where missions trips to the gentiles would create the modern church as we know it.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

simple gospel, simple faith, elegant beauty

And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.
To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Acts 10:42-43

Peter has literally been led by God to the home of a God-fearing gentile centurion in Caesarea. There, in a gentile home, in a predominantly gentile city, Peter's Jewish prejudices have been stripped away and the gospel is all that remains. It is clear to him that Jesus' command to preach to everyone includes non-Jews. He is obeying the Lord's command by telling Cornelius about the Lord's command!

What He tells those assembled there is what still comprises the gospel today. Christians preach (proclaim) it and back it up with their own experience (testify) as they help others come to an understanding of eternal salvation through Jesus Christ. The elements of it are straightforward: 1) Jesus was appointed by God as the judge of the living and the dead. This is the outcome of Lordship at its must essential. All people will give an account of themselves to Jesus Christ. 2) The scriptures (both Old and New Testament) teach this clearly. One can demonstrate through the biblical texts that Jesus accomplished what God had sent Him to do. 3) People must believe the gospel by faith in order to receive forgiveness of sin through Christ. The element of faith, the object of faith, and the exercise of faith is necessary for salvation. It is not what I do, but what I believe about what Jesus has done that results in forgiveness of sins and salvation.

The impact in this story was profound. As soon as these gentiles turned by faith to Christ, God evidenced it to Peter and the Jews with him by pouring out His Holy Spirit on the gentiles. It was clear that they had the same life-changing relationship with Jesus that all believers had. There was no reason not to accept them into the Body of Christ. Peter immediately suggested that they be baptized. A new era in God's work starts in the house of a soldier in Caesarea. From this point on, the gospel begins to move into the world, one people group at a time.

I enjoy this simple look at the elegance of the gospel. It is not complicated. It is direct. It appeals to the deepest of human needs, but requires no forms, no disclaimers, no layers of complicated efforts. Faith believes that Jesus is Lord and has accomplished the forgiveness of my sins. And that faith launches out in obedience to the Lord in a life that is dramatically changed by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. I can think of nothing more beautiful, more emotional, more powerful, or more amazing to be a part of than this!

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

many believers, one church

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

The book of Acts is punctuated with these little pauses to measure the growth of the gospel. And they show us the growing maturity of the young church in the process of moving the gospel forward into new regions and to new people. At this point, the church has broken through the walls of Jerusalem and pretty much the entire Holy Land has now been responsive to the gospel. From north to south, Israel has had the gospel preached to it. There are hundreds of little congregations in the towns and villages around the countryside, and important urban centers have a strong central core of believers: Jerusalem, Samaria, Damascus, Caesarea, and Joppa all have churches that have become centers of gospel proclamation and outreach.

And in chapter nine of Acts God does the unthinkable: He converts the fiercest of persecutors into the most aggressive of evangelists. In Saul, a new energy for advancing the gospel and building up the church is born. There was a lull in the attacks on the gospel when God in mercy saved the chief enemy of Christianity. This was the "peace" mentioned in this growth survey. That stability in the absence of the threat of Saul allowed for believers to be built into solid disciples who did two things: They walked in the fear of the Lord and they experienced the comfort of the Holy Spirit. This led to more gospel outreach and a multiplication of the message.

When believers really fear the Lord, the gospel advances. Why? Because they realize just Who Jesus is, what He has done, and what He wants from His followers. Fear is not a cowering in a corner, but rather a healthy respect and awe that moves one to worship the Lord and obey His commands. Real worship leads to an advance of the gospel, not a retreat into a comfortable assembly.

And they were not alone in the move to advance the gospel. The Holy Spirit of God was comforting and encouraging them to multiply the message and grow new churches. All of this was being directed and empowered by God Himself as believers grew and obeyed their Lord's command to take the gospel forward to all who would hear it.

One other point of note from this passage... It is a point of theology, but it is beautiful. The text uses the word "church" (ekklesia) in the singular to refer to the actions of all the believers in the entire geographical extent of gospel outreach. The oldest texts of this passage are consistent in this usage. The entire body of Christian faith began to be referred to as "the church". The assembly, the ekklesia, began to be the term to refer to all of Christian faith. There are many believers, but one church, one faith, and one Lord over them. For those who think celebrating diversity is a liberal value, you might want to look to the true celebration of it in the biblical text. It has been going on through the grace of God for over two thousand years in the church that Jesus founded. And it has been going on in lives that have been changed by that grace. One God gets celebrated. One Savior is praised in song in His church. He is the center around which the diversity makes one beautiful church! Diversity without the center is chaotic and eventually celebrates sin. Diversity within the focus of the central saving work of Christ creates a unity and a joy that is the vibrant, holy life of the church!

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Monday, August 16, 2010

comfort zones hinder the gospel

Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
Acts 8:25

The concentric circles of gospel impact keep growing. So far the gospel message has been a purely Jewish phenomenon. It has primarily been centered in Jerusalem. But that is changing. A persecution rose throughout the church after the martyrdom of Stephen and the scattered disciples kept at the preaching the gospel. The result of the persecution was continued growth and maturity of the church. Philip winds up in Samaria and proclaims Christ to the people who had traditionally been the religious enemies of the conservative Jews. The gospel is warmly received.

The apostles travel to Samaria to investigate the report, and have the good news confirmed, even with the dilemma of Simon's offer to purchase the gift of the Holy Spirit's power as part of the experience. The gospel comes, with a rebuke, but it still comes to the city and powerfully transforms the people involved. The old prejudices melt away and in the end the event is clearly the advance of the gospel and not only the Samaritan capital city, but villages in Samaritan territory becoming recipients of the gospel message. The command that Jesus gave to His sent men to preach the gospel into Samaria has been obeyed.

I think about this in the light of modern prejudices. And we evangelicals like to think we are a "great commission" people who are reaching our world, but I think there is still a lot of changing to take place. It amazes me that most large seminaries, when they turn out church planters, turn out young men who seem to be most concerned with going to their own generation and people group. In the eighties and nineties it resulted in the mega-church movement with starry-eyed seminarians thinking suburban dreams of box church mall goodness. Ten years ago, the backlash was generational, with youthful church leaders reaching gen-Xer's and post baby boomers. Now the move is to go urban and hip (again... just a new hipness), but primarily we seem to be finding the white middle class, or the children of them, and trying to win them.

This tendency is why I am thrilled to be part of a church, that though it is suburban in its core, is Great Commission in its roots. We have young christian leaders committed to serving in Islamic lands, in China, in hispanic ministry, and to truly serving the poor in Kansas City's urban core. And we partner with these opportunities, not just promote them with 30 second commercials! I love to see the shake up and what it does to our comfortable white bread world! I think it is what the church ought to be doing. It had to be what shook the First Century church forward. May it always do so, even today, until our Lord returns.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Friday, August 13, 2010

electronic textbooks make sense

I am preparing to teach three graduate level courses this semester and discovered that several of the textbooks are available for the Kindle on amazon.com. The cool thing is that even though a Kindle is a popular electronic device, Amazon has chosen to make the process non-platform specific.... and free. That means that you can download Kindle for free for your PC, your Mac, various cellphones and with your Amazon account, you can read your books a lot of places. And you don't have to buy the $189 Kindle to do so. You still have to buy the electronic books, but they are still about the same or often cheaper than the printed textbooks.

So I am going to encourage my students to buy electronic versions when possible. Why? They can take notes in the Kindle application. They can copy citations electronically. It just makes sense. And if you think that paper is ruining the planet (it's debatable) then you can also satisfy your inner hippie environmentalist tree-hugger. I just prefer the lack of library maintenance with paper volumes!

Kindle for PC downloadable by clicking this link.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The response to the gospel may not be a happy one.

Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.
Acts 7:52-53

This is not the way most preachers are taught to end a sermon. This is nothing that Robert Schuller, Rick Warren, or Joel Osteen would be proud of! It is the truth and it is meant to convict. It is not a statement made in haste or without context. Stephen has slowly and carefully and most importantly BIBLICALLY made a case that the history of Israel has been one checkered with disobedience and disregard for the God Who called them to Him. His masterful walkthrough of the Old Testament and Israel's history is a homiletical tour de force worthy of careful examination. The bottom line is that this summary conclusion is carefully and powerfully supported in the sermon throughout the text of the Old Testament.

The result of this kind of preaching was evident. Stephen did get a response. The religious leaders were furious and literally rose up as a mob, drove him outside the city and in an expression of outrage at what they perceived as blasphemy, stoned him, leaving his corpse outside the city gates. It was not a pretty sight. Stephen's first recorded sermon is also his last. But his first blood shed in defense of the faith and for the sake of the gospel would not be the last.

Sometimes the gospel must advance through times of hardship and persecution. The first few centuries of church history are written in the blood of the martyrs. They gave their lives for the message of the gospel. They rolled us forward through the preaching of the cross, the reverence of the Holy Scriptures, and their courageous commitment despite the personal and social price.

I wonder if American evangelicalism even has left in it this kind of courage and commitment. We have our most popular preachers holding to a theology of appeasement. We have adopted an entertainment model for the church... dim lighting, musical artistry, drama and staging, sermons deliberately adverse to theology. If a message is preached, it comes across as consumeristic and psychological. Jesus will heal my mind and give me what I want. But there is more to the gospel than this... much more. Jesus said we give up our lives to find life in Him... we carry a cross (where suffering and public torture, and dying happen) daily when we follow Him.

I believe God is calling me to be balanced with the gospel. At times I can see myself like Peter before Cornelius or Paul before the Areopagus, sharing with seekers why turning to Christ will meet their quest. At other times, Stephen moments will exist where those hard and opposed to the truth need to be reminded of where they have offended a holy God, the judgment to come, and the narrowness of the path of discipleship. Above all this, I must resist all efforts to ever soften the gospel in order to manipulate the one who must believe by faith and hear the word of God consistently and carefully proclaimed.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Where leaders come from

Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.
Acts 6:3

This passage is the origin of New Testament local church leadership. Traditionally, these seven men are thought of as the first deacons since the issue at stake in this conflict had to do with a service ministry. The apostles statement in Acts 6:2 indicates that administrating a service ministry was the ongoing reason for their appointment and the initial task assigned to them. But it was quickly not just the only thing they did.

To me it is also clear that their leadership was something more to the church than just feeding widows. They were required by the apostles to be men of exceptional spiritual maturity. Their reputations were sound and they demonstrated wisdom and the Holy Spirit's fullness in their lives. They were definitely mature disciples and leaders. It would seem to me that they quickly progressed to more leadership responsibility rather quickly.

Stephen seemed exceptionally gifted as the first among equals. He did wonders and signs, perhaps just as the apostles had been doing in Jerusalem (Acts 6:8). He was a persuasive evangelist and public speaker (Acts 6:9-10) who engaged thinkers and religious leaders with the truth of the gospel. He was much more than an administrative deacon at that point.

These men, elected by the church, were appointed by the apostles into church ministry and leadership. I think they were they first body of leaders meant to focus exclusively on the local church and its community, as the apostles broadened their efforts to expansion of the gospel beyond its present Jerusalem context. I think they became (from a practical standard) elders in the local church. They set the pattern for later development of both the offices of deacon for service and elder for leadership... the offices that still make the local church thrive, grow, and expand the gospel into our generation. Spiritual leaders still come from the local church. It is not just seminaries or colleges or parachurch ministries that make them. They must come from within the context of gospel ministry in the local church setting.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Only Criteria for Civil Disobedience

But Peter and the apostles answered, "We must obey God rather than men."
Acts 5:29

God's authority trumps human authority. At issue in this account is the balance for a believer between his relationship with the state or human authorities, and his relationship as an obedient disciple to his Lord. The applications and issues raised today are complex and I don't think every nuance of it can be gleaned from this passage, but the main clear principles are all here to observe, understand, reflect upon, and apply carefully to any situation arising today.

We ought to understand the issue that brought the apostles to this statement of conviction. The issue was not whether they would have to pay taxes, nor did they involve themselves with any political party. They did not cite this principle because an ideology among their civil leaders had swung left when they preferred it stay right. No, they made this declaration in sharp defense of the gospel mandate that had been given to them by Jesus. Their Lord had told them to proclaim the gospel to everyone in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the world. The Jewish authorities told them to stop that! The authorities responded by locking them in prison. God miraculously released them to get them back to the task. The question as to who had the greater authority over them was never really there at that point! THEY HAD TO OBEY GOD.

The same principles should govern a christian's relationship with civil authority. Only in the realm of the commands of scripture and specifically the advance of the gospel is human government outside its authority over us. When it demands that we disobey God, we simply cannot because "we MUST obey God rather than men." That is becoming more pressing upon us as society is moving further and further away from accepting the legitimacy of any biblical authority, really any authority but the will of society itself. The day now is on us where the firm conviction of the apostles in Acts 5:29 will necessarily define biblical christianity.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Only one name that saves us

And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
Acts 4:12

This is the conclusion to a short and powerful sermon preached by Peter. It stirred up its share of controversy in its day. It was accompanied by the undeniable miraculous healing of a lame man at the temple gates. The religious authorities moved against the apostles and the early church, but they had a problem: they hated Peter's exclusive claim to truth, but they could NOT deny that a real miracle had indeed taken place at the temple (Acts 4:16).

The world has never like it that Christianity is by nature an exclusive religion. But all truth must also be defined by the fact that not everything IS that truth! Jesus Himself taught that He was the sole means of eternal salvation and the ONLY path to God the Father (John 14:6).

The apostles would suffer for their exclusive claim (Acts 4:17-21). Eventually it would escalate to imprisonment and death. But they were only emboldened by the persecution and they trusted a sovereign God and kept right on preaching the exclusive and saving gospel of their Lord (Acts 4:24-31). You cannot stamp out God's Spirit or the power of the preaching of the Cross!

For those today who want to mix any kind of gaseous spirituality, eastern buddhism, or gnostic secrets with the teaching of Christ, beware! You do not have Jesus if you do not have ONLY Jesus as your Savior!

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A World Savior

God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.
Acts 3:26

Peter embraces the global impact of the gospel. He understood His Lord's command that the good news would be preached in the world. And he knew it would start with the Jews in Jerusalem. He still has lessons to learn about how it will extend to the Gentiles. But his theology is straight. For now, it is enough to see how he understood the work of Jesus' death as a fulfillment to the Jews of a key messianic mission. He came "to you first". He would come to non-Jews next.

Peter proclaims a message of repentance and forgiveness to those who would accept the gospel (Jews in his present audience). He also says that Messiah will return in the context of the Jewish nation accepting the saving work of Jesus (Acts 3:19-20). The gospel was key to reaching both Jew and Gentile. It is the message of the church... really her only message.

Peter preached a message here that has served as the pattern for evangelization ever since. Paul took the gospel "to the Jew first, and also to the Greek". His habit was to find a synagogue or Jewish gathering on the sabbath, no matter where he went in the Roman world, and from there to preach the gospel and by extension then evangelize all around him, including Gentiles.

What Peter started and Paul perfected is still important to understand. No one needs to adopt Jewish culture and traditions to truly become Christian, but certainly the gospel is unlimited. It reaches Jews and Gentiles alike today. Jesus, the Messiah, is a world savior AND He alone is the hope of Israel!

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

New SmallGroups.com digizine

I have enjoyed utilizing smallgroups.com in small group church ministry for years. Now they have a new digizine. Worth checking out: http://christianitytoday.imirus.com/Mpowered/imirus.jsp?volume=smgr10&issue=1&page=1#0

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Acts Two Priorities

And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Acts 2:42

I cringe when people excitedly tell me they want to be part of an "Acts 2" church. Sometimes they want to be part of a "First Century" church. I'd rather be part of a 21st century church that stayed true to biblical definitions! I know they probably just mean they want to see biblical priorities and experiences. But Acts 2 was a newborn's first cry. Nobody wants or needs to be back to being a baby. Still, in that description we see biblical priorities that still should define what life in the church should always be.

Four things marked these first believers in their commitment together. The text says they "devoted themselves" to these things. This meant they paid constant and consistent attention to them. They were defined by a commitment to teaching and doctrine. This came from the apostles who had just trained with Christ Himself. They were committed to "the fellowship", indicating that the assembly of believers was a commitment that all believers made. It would have been strange not to be together. They were committed to "the breaking of the bread" both at the Lord's Table and probably in broader shared meals together. They were committed to prayer... to sincere devotion to God together in response to the first three priorities.

These four things form a healthy pattern for any church. It is expected that a Christian would want to be devoted (not just at weddings, funerals, Christmas or Easter) to a church that is weekly, even daily, devoted to these things.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Gospel's Epicenter and Expansion

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Acts 1:8

This verse is significant because it is the command from Jesus that defines the vision and scope of ministry that He intends for His church to accomplish. It is nothing short of worldwide impact. It is the goal of Jesus that the gospel always goes global. This is what the first disciples were instructed to do.

And really this helps us understand the structure of the Book of Acts because we can see how from the epicenter of Pentecost in Jerusalem, the gospel spread in waves to the known world. Jesus conveyed a clear vision and the Holy Spirit empowered a generation of men to take the world the message of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Churches followed all over the Roman world as people came to faith. It is absolutely and miraculously amazing that in one generation the gospel was firmly planted in such a way that Christianity has flourished for over two millennia.

As the gospel enters into its third millennium, the challenge has not changed. It is still the same: continue to go global. There are always pioneering opportunities with every tribe and nation and ethnicity needing to know that Jesus will save sinners. My generation must be as obedient as that first generation was!

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Eulogy for the man of God, Moses

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
Deuteronomy 34:10-12

Moses was used by God in a mighty way. His life was miraculously spared by God as a baby in the bulrushes of the Nile. His family defied a king's edict by keeping him alive. He was miraculously prepared by God, both by being brought up in the household of the king of Egypt, and by fleeing to forty years of wilderness shepherding as a nomad in the desert. His life was uniquely empowered by God. When he was called to lead Israel at the burning bush, God gifted him supernaturally and that power God gave to him followed him right to the end of his days.

The text here eulogizes Moses with three quick statements. They describe his unique ministry and life. First he was was known by God "face to face". God has a very personal relationship with Moses. At least twice on Sinai Moses had these encounters where he conversed with God in His very presence as the hand of God wrote the law of God for Israel. Moses' habit was to regularly enter "the tent of meeting" to talk with God and discern His will.

The second unique characteristic of Moses had to do with the power of God displayed through Moses to Egypt. No prophet ever had a more powerful and unique relationship with a superpower of human government. And God used Moses to teach the world a lesson in God's sovereignty over human nations, people groups, and individuals.

The third unique fact about Moses had to do with that same power of God displayed by God through Moses to Israel. Moses helped birth a covenant nation... a people still unique to the heart of God. And Moses still has his ministry beating at the heart of Judaism to this very day.

I learn a lot from the faith lessons and the leadership lessons in the life of Moses. Finishing up a time in the Pentateuch has been instructive. And really the impact of God's use of Moses still reaches my heart today. That is a powerful story of the work of God that will continue impacting generations. What a testament to the life that will hear God, respond to God, and let himself be used by God! That's what Moses did, and really, that is the challenge for me as well.

- Posted with my iPad. The Apple Kool-Aide tastes fine.