Thursday, September 30, 2010

mercy with memory

O LORD, I have heard the report of you, and your work, O LORD, do I fear. In the midst of the years revive it; in the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy.
Habakkuk 3:2

I know what You have done.
I can read it.
And the report of victories won
Right now I need the same.

Your work, O Lord, is clear
through the ages.
Your power, O Lord, I fear
in respectful love.
How I want to praise Your name.

But right now I can't see
beyond present pain.
By faith I know You'll be
here with me.
So revive my heart I pray!

You will make your greatness known
in present difficulties.
In the future others will know what You've done
to save me now.
In your mercy I now stay.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

perspective for the future / presence for now

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Habakkuk 2:14

There are two things that God says to Habakkuk as he waits for an answer to his second question. What God gives him is something to settle the future and bring clarity to his present confusion. And these are perspectives that focus solely on the worship of the Lord.

The first perspective is for the future and gives us the goal that is God's goal for all of humanity. It is what He is ultimately working toward: the whole earth will be filled with the KNOWLEDGE of the glory of the Lord. People will know about the glory and the worship of the Lord. There will be a day when the God of heaven is worshiped globally. And it is not in the anemic theology of the universalist. It is not in the heresy of the New Age mystic who thinks that "all roads lead to God". No... it is very direct. God is moving the nations to notice Him. When Habakkuk worried about God's choice of the Chaldeans to judge Israel, he failed to see that these people were instruments in God's hands. They were part of a bigger plan that will end with global worship of Yahweh.

The second perspective comes at the end of chapter two. There we are instructed to remember that "...the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him." (Habakkuk 2:20). This is the present state of affairs. God is in his temple. He is enthroned and in control. We are called to worship and not to worry. And in that realization, many of our deeper questions just get swallowed up in the silence and worship that we find when we contemplate and marvel at His glory. God is gently calling the perplexed prophet back to worship, and as we shall see in chapter three, it worked.

So what do these two perspectives say to me right now? I think they are incredibly enlightening on our times. We live in a world where religious terror threatens our lives. Islamic terror is an attempt to convert the world to a false religion of works-based pride in submission to an angry deity that has no grace in it. And all the world's richest governments are compelled to guard citizenry against it. But God is in control, and even the struggle against Islamic terrorism is an instrument God is doing to create an awareness of the truth... to bring people, through Christ, to worship Him. Christianity and Al Quada are completely different things. Terrorist agendas have not caught God by surprise. If anything this awareness should cause people to reject obvious evil while contemplating deeper truths about the nature of a glorious, fearful, yet loving and gracious God. And the goal of that kind of realization is not fear, but worship. And we are drawing closer to that day when God will bring a final judgment and harvest of righteousness. From there, Jesus will rule and reign in a world where God's glory covers the globe like the waters cover the sea.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

tension questions: good, evil, & God's sovereignty

Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.
Habakkuk 1:5

The messages found in the small prophetic book of Habakkuk are very powerful. And they come in short quick bursts that nearly knock you down as you read them. Habakkuk wrestles with the deepest theological questions when seeking to understand both a sinful world, and a sovereign God. And the tension that the prophet feels is released in strong questions that sound like accusation. God's answers are more than reassuring. They restore faith's balance with truth from God's own lips.

The first question that the prophet struggles with is basically this: "Why do I see so much evil in my world and why does it seem to go unpunished?" (Habakkuk 1:3) Habakkuk wants to know if God is planning on doing something about the fact that human beings are so evil that they will fight, kill, and destroy lives to get what they want. That was the state Israel had sunk to, and God's law is "paralyzed" (Habakkuk 1:4) as human justice was perverted.

God's answer was surprising. He prepared the prophet for the surprising twist of His judgment on sin. God was already raising up a remedy for this. And it involved a powerful and painful judgment. God was sending the Chaldeans, "a bitter and hasty nation", to march into Israel and be His instruments of judgment on a disobedient and wicked nation (Habakkuk 1:6). God was going to match violent sin with violent judgment. It was not going to pretty (Habakkuk 1:9-11).

That led Habakkuk to immediately struggle with a second tension: "How could God use such a wicked pagan nation to judge His people?" (Habakkuk 1:13) and "Will God make this a permanent state of affairs, ultimately eradicating His covenant with Israel?" (Habakkuk 1:17) These are tough questions that will be answered through the rest of this short book. The second chapter of this book begins with a proper frame of mind..."I will wait to see what he will say to me..." (Habakkuk 2:1) Ultimately, the tension we feel when understanding God's sovereignty is only resolved by God Himself, and we should always look to Him, not our own reason or experience, to know comfort and relief.

That principle is the one I walk away with this morning. We live in an unfair world. Sin has corrupted all human relationships, and the bigger the institution, the more insidious is the sin-warp in it. Sometimes we can't even see or feel it all. Other times we know it is corrupt. That is why no human institution can satisfy our need to fully know God. We must pursue Him ourselves. We must ask the hard questions of God and wait for Him to answer. In the case of this small minor prophet, we can each hear God's answers loud and clear.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Monday, September 27, 2010

a faith that overcomes the world

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
1 John 5:4-5

Christians rise above the world. It is a natural consequence of being born anew in Christ. If we have been born of God, to one degree or another, a new relationship to the world system develops. We have the ability to rise above the tide of sin. We are no longer at the mercy of the forces of this world. How do we get such victory? By exercising faith. And what is the content of our faith? John says it boils down to our convictions about the person of Jesus Christ. We believe and know Him to be the Son of God.

This is certainly about the deity of Christ, but it is also about the saving work of Christ. It is one thing to believe that the New Testament authors taught that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh and the Savior of the world. It is another thing altogether to accept His atoning work as the solution for my own personal sin problems, and to submit to worship and His lordship over my life. It is in that more personal category where saving faith is demonstrated.

And John's clear teaching is that such faith overcomes the influences of a sinful world system. It is the mark of one who is born of God. It is the source of our victory over the place we are. It is the reason that Christianity runs counter-culture when that culture is dictated by sinful thoughts and practices. It is why sometimes there is a war of values going in that Christians must fight for their own personal survival. The world system would love nothing better than to discredit Jesus and the Church, because we run counter to cultural demands. And believers in Jesus always will swim against this strong current. We have overcome the world.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Thursday, September 23, 2010

forward position: fighting the war on error

They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
1 John 4:5-6

John is very clear that not everyone who claims to be speaking for God is doing so. The defining doctrine that keeps the orthodoxy of the church is the relationship of Jesus to the purity of the gospel. I believe that a clear Christology is vital to Christianity. Jesus must be confessed as God in the flesh, Savior of the world (1 John 4:2-3) only as the scriptures present Him. Anything that adds to or subtracts from this understanding is false doctrine and such heresy must be rejected.

Doctrinal discernment is becoming a practice that is deliberately neglected in these days. Any Christian retailer knows that theology and doctrine is a bit of a niche market in the back of the store. The displays up front are often filled with best-sellers from teachers with swarmy smiles, more fluff than tough, who say what people like to hear, even as they stray from biblical Christianity. They focus on the self rather than the Savior.

Let's heed the call of the apostle John to test the truth of the teaching (1 John 4:1). Jesus Christ has changed our lives. The power of the gospel is propagated in its purity. To diminish Jesus in any category, to mix truth and error, to stray from the teaching of the Word of God, is to risk too much. Ultimately, false doctrine enslaves us back into the world system again (1 John 4:4). Winning the war on error involves knowing the truth of the scripture, explaining it to ourselves and to others, and defending it against its detractors and attackers. The potential losses are worth the costs of knowing and defending the truth!

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

when I will be done sinning...

Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.
1 John 3:2-3

Struggling in a sinful world with an inherited sin nature is difficult for any Christian. It is the battle for sanctification realized. And it will one day be fully realized for every believer in the presence of Christ. Until then we struggle and set our hearts on thinking, wanting, and doing the right things. And we will occasionally fail.

There is a day when I will be done sinning. That day will be when I see Jesus as He is, not as I have been taught and shown. Faith will become reality, either by His return for His church, or by my return to my Creator and Savior by death. Either of these experiences will be welcomed once I know Him as He is! This is a hope that helps maintain a commitment to self-purity. That is John's point in this passage. We shall be like Jesus, not in His omniscience or all-powerful ability, but in the fact that we shall be free from sin's corrupting influence. And that is a goal and a state worth longing for.

John states that this future hope is a good motive to strive toward obedience to the truth. It has a purifying effect on us in and of itself. We want to be free from sin like our Savior. John does not say we will achieve a sinless perfection in this life (in fact, that has "not yet appeared"). But what John does say is that we have a hope that on the day we meet Jesus, we will definitely be free from sin because He will see us safely to completion in His presence. The older I get, the more welcome that day is for me. I do not long to leave this world for many reasons... some of them selfish. I think I will make more impact... I want to see my kids succeed as mature people... My marriage is still so sweet that I cannot imagine life without it. But once I see Jesus, I know that will change in a split-second of recognition of my Savior. And that is a hope I am looking for... even now.

- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

juicy tidbits from a suburban pastor

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world-the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions-is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
1 John 2:15-17

John begins his letter reminding Christians that they are in a struggle with sin. He continues this teaching by talking about the Christians struggle with maintaining a proper understanding of our relationship with the world. The greek word used here, kosmos, is used to describe a world system opposed to God. It is not meant to imply that we do not love the world of men, for John in his gospel informs us that God loved the world of men by sending His Son to die for us (John 3:16-18). Instead, Christians are to form their philosophy and strategy for life beyond those principles and patterns propagated by the worldly system around them.

John clues us in on the key elements that will let us know we are operating under the control of the "kosmos" rather than the will of the Father. The world is easily given in to by lust and desire. When a fleshly desire, a materialistic desire, or a prideful desire is our motivation, we are loving the world. That is an excellent gauge and barometer for Christian motivation.

So how can I discern these three areas of worldly control? The "desires of the flesh" are those sensual desires that motivate us outside of the will of God. The porn industry has captured the worst of these desires. But so, frankly, have Hollywood and Madison Avenue advertisers. And this desire explodes throughout our culture. We have become increasingly pornified. Sensuality drives more and more people these days and is harder to avoid now than it has ever been.

The "desires of the eyes" are on display in the high end department store, and the local convenience market! It is materialism gone amuck. It is the base desire to keep up with the neighbors at all costs. And even in a severe recession, it can be known. It is probably the one thing I see and visibly struggle through the most living in one of the most affluent counties in the world. I want a lot of stuff that I do not need.

The "pride of life" are the desires that appeal to my personal sense of satisfaction and ego. Men in particular may struggle with this because we take such personal definition in what we do and achieve. Again, the current recession has taken its toll in this regard, but it can be scene in reverse when someone complains about the lousy job they have settled for, rather than the high end personal advancement they lust for in the career of their dreams. And that can visit me in ministry when I get expressions of appreciation. Particularly in counseling, it is common to get "Thank You's" and extreme gratitude for the help and understanding. That can go to my head. I can then steal God's glory from Him if I am not careful, and it is all a pride of life kind of worldly satisfaction.

That last one can become a source of unfair judgment on my brothers and sisters in Christ. I generally offend rich people. The most successful people that I know in terms of wealth and lifestyle generally don't care much for my personality. I probably give off a wrong vibe, and God is helping me to work on that. I come from humble lower middle class roots. I'd rather wear a T-shirt and Levi's than an Armani suit. I have a hard time accepting that a good Christian couple could live in a half million dollar estate, soak in their hot tub each night, drive two new luxury cars, own a vacation home in an exotic locale, and spend tens of thousands on hobbies. Yet, there are good Christian people who can afford that lifestyle and who make valuable impact for the kingdom of God. It is a perverse form of "pride of life" for me to pass judgment on my brother... even though personally I do not resonate with them, and probably never will.

And in turn, it is wrong for the wealthy to judge my humble means. Yes, I live in a blue-collar tract housing subdivision that has probably seen better days. And I get ten years out of a used car. My clothes come off the sale rack at Target. That does not make me any less significant. But if I draw pride from that, I have become just what this passage warns against! It is insidious!

God may ask me to confront extravagance if it hinders the kingdom. But He does not ask me to harbor judgmental feelings against someone in the process. And I secretly do at times, perhaps out of envy that I will never make that kind of income, sometimes out of judgmentalism. Always that attitude is wrong

John's words here are always convicting, because at each level, I struggle with them. God uses times like this for self assessment and realignment with true living in Christ's kingdom, which is above the world and its passing desires.
- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13

Monday, September 20, 2010

the Christian's necessary relationship with sin

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
1 John 1:8-10

There are three inescapable facts about a Christian's continuing struggle with sin that John keeps squarely in front of us in this passage. Christians will be better Christians with a robust understanding of how we deal with sin. It is not that we are to be "holier than thou" in our attitudes. It is that we are to be committed to fighting our own tendencies to continue to do wrong things. This comes at a price. Commitment that is worth making always does.

The first realization is that we cannot claim to no longer have a sin nature that struggles with doing what God would have us do. The sin nature is not eradicated when we come to put our trust in Christ. We are forgiven and justified in Christ, but we still struggle with what Paul calls "sin in me". If we claim to have no more sin nature, John warns us that we are deceiving ourselves and have no relationship with the truth until we live with the fact that there is a general principle of sin still within us, even as we live within Christ.

The second fact to keep in mind is that confession of sin continues to bring forgiveness and healing to our lives. We never stop living a life of confession. Believers must humbly come to God and admit specific sins that plague us still. When we do so, God is faithful to forgive. There is never a sin that we confess that He will think is unforgivable. He always cleanse us from unrighteousness. But He will not tolerate the attitude that refuses to acknowledge the ruin of sin in our relationship with God.

The third thing to keep in mind is that if we refuse to deal with specific sins, our theology is warped. We ultimately make God out to be a liar. How? By inferring that we have not specifically sinned, we are telling the convicting Holy Spirit that He is wrong. We are telling Jesus that we do not need His atoning work. We are telling God the Father that He should not be offended by our actions. That is pretty serious and callous stuff when we think about it this way. However, when we confess sin, we in a manner of speaking worshiping God by yielding to the convicting work of the Spirit, receiving and trusting in the precious redeeming blood of the Son, and confessing our guilt before a Holy and gracious God. So a practical theology of sin results in an orthodox relationship with God.

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

Friday, September 17, 2010

in a rented house in Rome

He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
Acts 28:30-31

These are the words that conclude both the book of Acts and Paul's harrowing journey to Rome. He is a prisoner of the state under house arrest. God has provided ample opportunity for him to preach the gospel, even as his freedom is restricted by being in custody. For two entire years he was a prisoner of the state awaiting his hearing with the emperor, but he was free to share the gospel with anyone who wanted to see him. And Paul was popular.

His reputation proceeded him to Rome. He was greeted by groups of Christians and Jews before he even got settled in. In fact, some of them greet him in port and journey with him and his army escort as they make their way to the seat of the empire.

It appears that a steady stream of interested listeners came to see Paul. And there was enough support from the churches that his needs were met. He provided a house at his own expense, which was a better situation than what the government would have given him. He was able to regularly (and apparently without hindrance) receive visitors. The state placed no limitations on his religious efforts, so he was able to boldly proclaim the gospel and teach about Jesus. This was the best way for Paul to be a prisoner!

This ending may seem anti-climactic after the adventure Paul had just traveling to Rome, but it is where his heart longed to be. He was among the gentiles, in the seat of their highest culture, being sought out and entering into conversation with them about the gospel. Paul was thoroughly happy with this outcome, even if Caesar eventually might not be favorable to his case. At least he saw God deliver him over to his highest vision and calling. And in this little rented house in Rome, Paul was being used to change the world.

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

Thursday, September 16, 2010

travel with Paul & a sovereign God

...and he said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.' So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.
Acts 27:24-25

Paul's sea voyage to Rome was a Travel Channel nightmare. Even with an encouraging onset, it ended in storm and shipwreck. It was not the kind of thing one expected under God's providential direction. But God had purposes, even in this stormy and difficult journey.

The centurion who was in charge of Paul was very generous to this "religious" prisoner, granting him shore leave in Sidon (Acts 25:3). He arranged for a large commercial transport for Paul and his cargo of prisoners bound for Rome (Acts 27:6 and 27:37). He and his men eventually listened to the advice of Paul when it looked most dangerous (Acts 27:42-44) and did not kill any of the prisoners when it looked like escape was most possible.

God confirmed all this by providence and by a special message to Paul. And the apostle was not afraid to share that news with those over him. Paul was concerned for the welfare of the sailors and soldiers who were making this voyage possible. Even though they may not have made the best decisions (sailing the Mediterranean in the stormy winter in a huge cargo ship), Paul could trust in the overarching providence of God to get them through.

Part of faith is living through human interactions. There are some mundane elements to this story: a troop of common Roman soldiers - ubiquitous in the empire, a ship's crew of commercial sailors hauling grain to the heart of the empire, miscellaneous political prisoners being brought to Rome for legal action, and a small group of Christians represented in Paul and his company of traveling companions. Couple this average ensemble cast with the drama of a heavy storm in the tragedy of a shipwreck, and you have the makings of faith challenges and witnesses to the providence of a loving and sovereign God. It is the stuff of our lives that is the rule of God, and it should not take a life-threatening natural disaster to get us to remember this!

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

hope and light

To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.
Acts 26:22-23

Darkness feels dead
before the rays of sun
lift up over the horizon
and illumine what's ahead
all is changed in a new world's dawn

Those in the black
have seen a great light
and with newly given sight
in righteousness from sin turn back
a new path is known from gospel light

Death is not the end
but instead eternal life shines through
giving hope and grace to obey and endure
joy forever with God as friend
hope is real for it is known in relationship

Gospel is the hope and the light
it is the means used, message preached
it keeps us clear, reaches the unreached
it turns to day the worst of darkness in the night
in hope and light a new life is found in love with Christ

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

using politics to advantage

But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, "Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?"
Acts 25:9

Paul was in a real bind. He is finally having a chance to have his case heard after two years of stalling by the previous governor, Felix. Festus has heard his case and is willing to bring him to trial. But there is a deadly catch: Festus wants to move the trial to Jerusalem, as a favor to the Jews.

Paul is well aware of the dangers of going back there. In the hotbed of religious fervor, Festus' ability to protect him against the physical threat on his life was much less certain. The text has already alluded in background to the fact that the plot against Paul has not diminished during his imprisonment. Probably the same conspiracy awaits him that had tried to kill him before. An ambush is being planned (Acts 25:3).

Paul's answer shows his knowledge of legal custom and his rights as a Roman citizen. To go back to Jerusalem under any circumstances was not wise. To do so in the face of an ambush was suicidal. Paul appeals to his final defense option under Roman law. Paul appeals to Caesar in order that his case might be settled by the highest Roman authority, the emperor himself (Acts 25:10-12). Paul was taking advantage of his position as a prisoner of the Roman state. He appealed to Caesar in order to keep his fate settled in the Roman courts. This made it impossibly hard for his Jewish enemies to mount a case against him since their dispute was primarily religious in the eyes of Rome.

Paul again was not afraid to use the opportunity afforded him in the political system of his day. It was complicated, but it kept him able to preach the gospel, even under Roman confinement. From here on out, the Roman army would ensure his safe arrival to the heart of the emperor to stand before the most powerful man in the empire and there to have his fate decided. Paul's enemies would have very little sway in this matter from this point forward. What would happen in the next few days (Acts 25:13-27 & Acts 26) with a hearing before Festus and King Agrippa (the officials Rome had appointed to provide the background and recommendations and opinions on charges) would set the tone for how Paul's case would progress.

The reality is that the gospel always must be proclaimed in whatever cultural and political matrix a society has made for itself. Paul was able to utilize the system he was in to leverage that to the advantage of the gospel. There is nothing wrong with it. He broke no laws... just appealed to his rights. And that system would safely lead him to keep ministering. During that time we got valuable information from Paul in terms of the prison and pastoral epistles. He also got to lead many to faith in Christ, even within his own Praetorian guard (read 1 and 2 Timothy). Although Paul's life would now be primarily defined by Roman confinement for as long as it would last from this point, he was willing to take that gift and use it to his advantage. And Christians ought to know similar ways to navigate today's culture for the purpose of advancing the gospel.

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

Monday, September 13, 2010

two years of going nowhere

When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison.
Acts 24:27

This is an interesting juncture in Paul's ministry story. He is under the care of a corrupt Roman governor who is more interested in deciding his case through the persuasion of a bribe (Acts 24:26) than with understanding and doing the right thing. The Jewish leaders cannot have the opportunity to carry out their death threat against him while he is under Roman guard. They try to secure Rome's willingness to see Paul as a threat to the state with the charges they bring about him (Acts 24:5-9). They even go so far to lie about the character of Felix, flattering him overtly in the hopes of achieving this ends (Acts 24:2-3). Felix was no reformer, as they flattered him with being. He was a corrupt man who wanted to use his office to build his own future. He cared nothing for the welfare of the nation.

Felix is a corrupt political appointee. He is just serving his term and trying to fill his coffers. And that puts Paul in a predicament because he has no means ethically or actually to give the governor a secret bribe. What it creates is regular opportunity for Paul to reason the Christian faith with Felix (Acts 24:22). It would seem that for some reason Felix found these conversations interesting and regularly called for Paul to talk with him, though his monetary motives were also in view (Acts 24:25-26). So greed would pull him to Paul, where he would hear the gospel, and then alarm would cause him to carefully push Paul away. It was an odd season, and it lasted for two years.

What looked like two years of stalled opportunity for Paul was exactly what God was carefully crafting him to experience. Felix may have been a minor Roman appointee, but he was nonetheless one more step in the journey to preach the gospel to the very center of the First Century Roman world. So Paul had plenty of time to craft his message and arguments in a Roman context. And we do not see the text telling us any apprehensions or complaining from Paul at this time. He just faithfully endured with grace and conviction whatever God decreed for him. Even if it was two years of going nowhere.

The text is not real clear about WHY two years in Felix's custody was necessary. We just know that the next governor, Festus, moved Paul's case along the legal route. And maybe it was nothing more than that. Felix protected Paul in a Roman prison so that the plots against him by the Jews did not succeed. And then, in God's providence, another politician emerged who would start Paul's journey to Rome. The real test of character just might be times where we feel like nothing is happening. It is then that we question God. It is then that we are tempted to push forward in our own strength. But sometimes God has us there for reasons we may never know.

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

Thursday, September 9, 2010

confirmation in the rough road

The following night the Lord stood by him and said, "Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome."
Acts 23:11

The events in which Paul now finds himself are not easy circumstances to endure. He is now in the custody of the Roman army. It has come to his knowledge that a band of forty co-conspirators have a plot in place to ambush him while in custody and kill him. The Jewish religious leaders have evidently approved of this action because Paul is such a threat to their power base. But God is still sovereign.

By encouraging Paul with these words, God is confirming that an ambition of Paul's will be honored. Paul has already announced his plan to take a future missions trip to Rome (Acts 19:21). This is the means that God will use to get him there.

Paul had endured plots from the Jews before (Acts 20:3). God had protected him in prison before. This present experience was just a magnified version of what God had already taken him through. Paul was probably as prepared as anyone could be to cope with both Roman imprisonment as well as death threats from his enemies. What he got from God at this moment of trial was confirmation that his ministry dream would be brought to reality by God. God would take him through Jerusalem to Rome.

Trials can be the road to usefulness. If we will let them be used by God in this way. Now if Paul had asserted his wounded pride or selfishly reacted against all the hardship, he might never have known God's comfort and encouragement. Because he was willing to endure anything for the sake of the advance of the gospel, God led him through these times to the very throne room of the emperor. There is still a long and danger-filled journey again, but Paul is now assured that God is guiding him on this bumpy road. And the same God rules our lives today.

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


So the tribune came and said to him, "Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?" And he said, "Yes." The tribune answered, "I bought this citizenship for a large sum." Paul said, "But I am a citizen by birth."
Acts 22:27-28

Paul was not afraid to use tense politics to the advantage of the gospel. In this case, relying on his Roman citizenship kept him from a beating by the Roman police squad sent to break up the disturbance at the temple. Paul had hushed the crowds to share his defense of faith in Christ. But as soon as he stated that God had called him to minister among the gentiles, the crowd turned savage again.

The Roman tribune planned on using "harsh interrogation techniques" (aka a scourging with a Roman whip) to get to Paul's intentions, assuming some evil motive on his part. Just as Paul is stretched and stripped down for the whip, he asks if such treatment is reserved for a Roman citizen. This stops the entire process. A new wrinkle has developed.

Paul had a unique set of freedoms because of his citizenship. Not only could he freely travel the empire, but he also had legal protections that came in handy at moments such as these. Yet this is the first time that Paul has played the citizen card to his advantage. Every other beating he has received (all in territory controlled by Rome) he has endured. Yet at this stage, he claims his legal right.

The centurion in charge of this scene knew well that any officer who beat a Roman citizen without formal charges could expect serious charges being brought against him. The usual plan for dealing with unruly Jews had to be stopped. This was no ordinary rabble-rouser. Paul's citizenship forced a more formal inquiry to be stated. This is what Paul hoped for. His invocation of his citizenship forced a measured response to be brought upon him, rather than the emotion of a mob riot deciding his fate. It was better for Paul to be a prisoner under full protection of the Roman military than to be free man in danger of death by this unruly religious mob.

Paul's birthright as a Roman citizen was what was used by God to spare his life in Jerusalem. It eventually led (after years of bouncing around the legal administration) to his transfer to Rome and a hearing before the emperor himself. This achieved an opportunity for the gospel that was unprecedented. Paul wisely trusted God's providence in the circumstances of his birth. He had born a citizen in a Roman controlled city for a reason. And right now, this deliverance was that reason.

So it does not hurt to be thankful for the circumstances of one's birth and to use them to leverage opportunity for the gospel. This is one reason why the best missions goal is to train national church leaders. They have a birthright that no one else has, and thus more opportunity with the gospel. It also means that those of use born in the prosperous West should consider what God has given us in provisions and protections to advance the gospel, even in difficult places. I know first hand that as a "lower middle class" American, I am wealthier than most of the world by far. God expects me to use this birthright for His glory.

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

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

revolution has its consequences

Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion.
Acts 21:30-31

There may be this part of some of us, even my own heart sometimes, that secretly hopes to be wildly counter-culture as Jesus described the effect of His teaching in the world. It is the reality that Christianity is a holy rebellion against the sinful control of this world that drives this thinking. And that is true. But what is the consequence of the revolutionary nature of the Christian faith? It upsets firmly entrenched sin. And when firmly entrenched sin has created a power base for people... watch out. Christianity will be revolutionary... and persecuted. That is what is happening to Paul virtually anywhere he goes... and it is the case here in this passage in Jerusalem.

Paul had chosen to return to Jerusalem even though God had let him know several times that hardships and persecution awaited him there. He gave a good report to the apostles there. And he agreed to fulfill a vow at the temple at their suggestion. What nobody quite expected was that Paul's reputation proceeded him. And strong elements of anti-Christian sentiment were stirring up the crowds there with lies about what Paul was doing. It resulted in a riot and mob violence breaking out against Paul. By the time a squad of Roman peacekeepers arrives, Paul has already been brutally beaten and murderous rage has seized the crowd.

It is one thing to hope for revolutionary Christianity to change the culture. It is another thing altogether to live for that hope. It means being willing to be what Paul was... a life of hardship for the love of the gospel. It means being misunderstood even by your own people. It means confronting sin at its ugliest and facing death by evil means.

But even at its worst, persecution is still an experience within the sovereign control of God. The events that occurred to Paul would be used over the course of the next few years to take him before kings and leaders, eventually to stand trial before Caesar in Rome. Paul's willingness to suffer hardship for the cross led to greater impact for the gospel in the long run. And that is the kind of thing that is more than just revolutionary thinking. It is the reality of the gospel consuming our own wills in the beautiful grand will of God. And what we get from that surrender is greater than any battle fought with human hands. We get to bring glory to God and see His kingdom advance in ways never imagined before.

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

Monday, September 6, 2010

What the ministry of the Word does.

And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Acts 20:32

Paul spoke these words to the Ephesian elders as he left them to return to Jerusalem. His stirring charge to them is a classic on pastoral ministry and care. But his belief in God's ability to keep them made this departure easier to bear. He commended them to God and to God's Word. He knew that the Word of God would continue to help them grow and mature in Christian faith and leadership. He knew that by having elders who were mature and growing in their relationship with Christ in this way, the church would also grow and mature.

The ministry of the Word of God does several things. It builds us up. Paul believes that part of the reason believers should be understanding the scriptures is that it leads to truths that encourage us, strengthen us, and lead us on to maturity. The Word of God builds us up. The context is community. The teaching of the Bible will build up the community of the church. It will help us all grow.

The ministry of the Word of God gives us an inheritance. The first effect, building us up, tells us what we will be doing. By giving us an inheritance, the Bible tells us where we will be going. It is a way to know that all the details of my life are pointed by God in a definite direction. Eternity is a destination with God forever. And ultimately learning the truths of scripture prepares me for the experience that I was created for... my privilege before the world began.

The final thing Paul mentions is sanctification. The scripture give us a relationship with other believers who are also being made more holy by exposure to and obedience of the Word of God. Again, sanctification like edification has a culture in which it thrives with mutual believers. It is a mutual expression in the Body of Christ. The church is supposed to be a place where holy lives are lived for the glory of the Lord.

This quick sketch by Paul confirms that commitment to reading, understanding, and studying the scriptures is important. It is crucial to Christian growth because it leads to edification, sanctification, and ultimately the experience of our glorification with Christ and God the Father forever.

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

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Paul's missions strategy

This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
Acts 19:10

The book of Acts contains not only the history of the expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem to the entire world of the Mediterranean but also strategies for reaching people groups with the gospel. You see what Paul was able to do, and it was quite amazing. There are principles for modern Christians to understand as well.

First, even though the text talks about Paul's endeavors, he was actually traveling with a team. Silas left with him from Antioch on this second journey. Timothy and Erastus were part of the team in Ephesus (Acts 19:22). We have already seen the role that Priscilla and Aquila have played in Corinth (Acts 18:18). It is implied that Luke joined the team when they set out for Macedonia early in the mission (Acts 16:10). Paul has quite an entourage of ministry servants with him. He is not attempting the task alone.

The second part of his strategy has to do with the way he targeted the task of local church development. He focused on strategic urban cores. He knew that region by region, key cities were centers of commerce and culture. Even those from country towns and villages would eventually travel to these centers for trade, or to visit relatives, or to participate in religious or cultural practices. It made sense to target these cities and spread the gospel from them. From these core areas, Paul sent out workers into surrounding regions once a work was established (see Acts 19:22 again).

The third component has to do with the way he began reaching a city. He started looking for any who had heard the gospel in the Jewish synagogues. And he generally did all he could to preach the gospel to the Jews first. This pattern is clearly shown in Acts 19 in how he reached Ephesus. He found some disciples who needed clearer instruction (it seems they were affiliated with the synagogue). He began teaching in the synagogue. In Ephesus that stage lasted for three months until opposition forced him to take the Christians with him to a private lecture hall where he moved his strategy to include Gentiles. For three years he preached in this setting and the text makes it clear that residents from all over the province of Asia heard the gospel throughout this ministry. It was only after this that he sent out workers to the surrounding areas.

I glean from this clear pattern that the gospel is relevant in urban cores and will reach the needs of the city. It will also extend out to the rural areas. There is no need to limit the gospel impact to one particular people group, culture, or way of life. It would seem to me that this strategy is still quite sound today, since people live in metropolitan communities and spill over into the countryside. The important thing to remember is to have a reason (love and obedience for the Lord) to have a plan (reach unreached people) with the most important message of all: the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is ultimately not about a plan. It is about a Person, and the purpose He has for us.

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

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

reasoning the gospel

And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.
Acts 18:4

Paul's evangelistic method among the Jews involved strong teaching and interaction with them from the scriptures. Here, in Corinth, Paul has ample opportunity to do so each Sabbath. Philo, the first century Alexandrian Jewish historian makes it clear that Corinth was a city with a strong Jewish presence. It would make sense that there were a lot of Jews and also Greek "God-fearers" who were a part of synagogue life. Paul's early efforts involved work among the Jews in the Corinthian synagogue.

His method was to reason with them from the scriptures. The Greek word (dielegeto) in this context translated as "reasoned" in the ESV is related to the English cognate "dialogue". It carries with it the idea of prepared and informed debate in which Paul went back and forth with his hearers, dealing with their observations and objections as he laid out his case for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Jewish world needed this kind of teaching to take place. So did the Gentile world as evidenced in Acts 17 with Paul's dialogue with the Athenian philosophers. Paul was intellectually and spiritually prepared to talk through the issues at bear in putting faith in Christ. It was an intellectual as well as a spiritual exercise.

I find it fascinating that there is no tension in the Book of Acts between this intellectual and rational effort and the work of the Holy Spirit. God was adding to the church. The Holy Spirit was mighty in conviction and confirmation of the gospel. But men such as Paul and later in this chapter, Apollos (Acts 18:24-28) were able to use their intellectual and communicative gifts to help persuade people of the veracity of the gospel.

So many Christians today would choke at the concept of such a vigorous academic and intellectual commitment. We have often fallen to an emotionalism and subjectivism when it comes to faith, something our culture is more than happy to foist upon us. Why? Because then faith is just a subjective personal preference, like collecting Pez dispensers, watching "Lost", or reading Harry Potter novels. But if there is intellectual and academic depth to the Christian faith, then it transcends into a societal force. There is no other way to explain western history unless we acknowledge that Christianity is a faith that reasons, makes sense, and shapes people and society. And if it can be reasoned, then it is a worldview (and a viable one... I would argue it is the only viable one) capable of changing and directing human destiny.

That is why we need to disciple Christians to the point that they can reason the gospel. Not everyone needs to be the type of apologist who can debate university philosophy profs. But we ought to be familiar enough with the reasons to believe to speak with a colleague or neighbor intelligently about the issues and worldview they may have learned from a college that intentionally taught pure secularism.

The type of ministry Paul used in reasoning with people was carried on after him. Apollos is evidence that it was needed and encouraged. Paul's followers, Aquila and Priscilla were sufficiently discipled by Paul (and they were just lowly tentmakers) to help refine the polished and skilled Apollos in his knowledge of the gospel. It seems to have been pretty common in the early church to teach and encourage the skill of "reasoning from the scriptures". May we refine this vital spiritual skill today!

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