The Story So Far, Week 12

I hope you’ve been enjoying the readings this week as we have read the words Moses has chosen to leave Israel with as they prepare themselves to enter the promised land. I imagine it must have been a trying experience for Moses and his role as a leader of the people. He has to deliver words to people who will be entering a land that he will not be able to see. Moses also must pass on warnings and remind them of the promises of God, knowing that the people will never cease to turn toward false gods and false worship (as we still do today). He urges them to faithful to a God who has always been faithful to us, even though we do not deserve it, nor do the people deserve the land they are about to inhabit.

Next week we’ll finally transfer our attention from Moses, whom we met back in Exodus, as Joshua will take over.

In Acts we continue to see just how the Spirit is building up this church and doing so by spreading the boundaries out far and wide. Disciples are voyaging around the Mediterranean, going to both Jews and Gentiles. We read about the council where it was decided more clearly how to bring the Gentiles into the fold and what was (and really what wasn’t) required of them. This good news is brought to the churches and Paul puts himself in harms way to do such work, getting himself arrested.

Tune in next week to find out the fate of Paul!

Giving Others Room to Serve

Acts 18 was the topic of this week’s focus passage, which I usually don’t then mention again in a post, but I think it bears repeating. Or maybe you’ll hear this for the first time if you don’t use those Bible study guides. If you don’t, feel free to look into them now. You’ll find them under “This Week”, as they are to be a weekly study for one passage to focus in on from the many chapters we read. There you can find any past weeks, as well. They are one of the things we use during our Reading Groups, but they can work for small groups or individual study.

Getting back to Acts 18, it is similar many stories of Paul as he goes around, preaches the gospel, and people believe. But what I found of great interest here was what happens once Paul leaves. He spent a year with Priscilla and Aquila, who were tentmakers like Paul. They urge him to stay, but he does not, and in doing so he leaves them in a position to fill the void. Onto the scene comes Apollos, a man “fervent in Spirit” and who is teaching about Jesus. But as accurate as he is, he doesn’t have the full story.

If someone with great charisma and skill in speaking were to come into your town, but whose teachings were not quite right, would you be quick to insert yourself into the situation and correct the errors? It can be intimidating to challenge anyone else, especially if that person is persuasive and if you do not have any sort of specific qualifications or expertise.

But Priscila and Aquila do just this. They go to Apollos to more accurately instruct him about Jesus Christ. (Kudos to Apollos for humbly listening to such correction, too). It is a great testimony to their conviction and boldness in Christ.

It makes me wonder, though, if Paul had stayed, would they have done this same work? Would they have instead called Paul for help, or referred Apollos back to Paul? Maybe Paul would have beat them to the punch? We don’t know and can only speculate. But what we do know is that after Paul had spent his time equipping the saints and teaching the gospel, he left creating a void. Into that space these disciples of Christ step in to continue the work. His leaving created an opportunity for more believers to join in the ministry.

If we never leave room for others to work, when will they feel that call to join in the ministry? If we can’t let go, if we can’t trust others to be used by God, what does that say about our own reliance on God and belief that truly he is the one at work?

Paul knew his ministry wasn’t only to proclaim the gospel, but to pass it on, teaching it to others who would in turn pass it on again (2 Tim 2). His was a ministry of equipping others and of sharing the work of the gospel. We can learn this from Paul, and also learn boldness from Priscila and Aquila, and even learn humility from Apollos, as they create a great scene of laboring together for the glory of God.

Paul’s Passport

Unless you were a geography major, you’re probably a little lost with all the movements of Paul as he goes about the ancient world preaching Jesus Christ. You may have some maps in the back of your Bible, which are great resources, but I also found some animated maps that may be helpful in placing Paul in his ministry.

You’ll find all his missionary journeys here.

Paul and Barnabas Split Up

Barnabas Curing the Poor, Paolo Veronese, 1566

As I mentioned yesterday, the early church struggled over what laws still apply to converts to Christianity, and we see that in the first chapter from this week’s readings from the book of Acts, chapter 15. Some among the Pharisees thought the Gentiles needed to first be circumcised, or in other words, the Gentiles had to become Jews first, to be followers of Jesus. The council in Jerusalem took time to decide matters and believed God was taking away any distinction between Jews and Gentiles and that all are saved by God’s grace, not the law.

The believers sent out delegates to bring this news to the early church, and this group included Paul and Barnabas (v.25). The news was met with rejoicing in the churches and Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch to continue teaching and preaching the word of the Lord.

Having just made a proclamation of unity to the churches that signified that the council was of one accord and that two groups who had been at odds were now being brought together, a sharp division arises. Paul and Barnabas intend to return to the churches they have ministered to, but Barnabas wanted to bring along John (called Mark), and Paul is not pleased by such a choice. Paul’s objection is that John has left them previously (Acts 13:13), so it would be better to choose another. We are not told explicitly why John left, but perhaps he returned to Jerusalem because he was uncomfortable with the mission Paul had to the Gentiles. This causes “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas, causing them to separate–Paul goes with Silas, and Barnabas with John.

Do we lament that division followed such unity? I don’t think that needs to be the response.

This was not a break over what the council had just decided. They do not disagree on their mission, just on the manner in which they will carry it out. Certainly it would have troubled these men to part over such circumstances, but even though they were divided, they still shared unity in their purpose. They both were committed to bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever they went and continuing to care for his church. God may have even been able to use them for a greater good given that these two esteemed disciples divided their time and energies to reach different geographic areas. It also gave opportunity for Paul and Barnabas to take on new partners with whom to serve.

God is given glory in the unity brought about in the work of Jesus Christ to break down barriers that had once separated peoples. That good news is heard by the churches as the Jerusalem council sends word and the people rejoiced. But I do not think God’s glory is diminished when two faithful servants of the gospel part ways and divide to spread their ministries in new directions. God still worked great deeds in and through these early missionaries, and the story even has a happy ending. Paul’s letters reveal reconciliation with John (Mark), and he has changed his view of his role in the ministry. In 2 Timothy 4 Paul calls for him to be brought back because he believes that John is of great use to the work of God.

Love Your Enemies – A story of Acts 9

La conversion de Saint Paul, Giordano (vers 1690)

About one year ago I preached on a text we read this week from Acts 9. It is the famous conversion of Saul, but instead of placing focus there, I gave more attention to an overlooked character of the story, Ananias. He’s the one given the task by God to welcome in a great enemy of the early church, the persecutor, Saul.

I set the stage like this:

Could you imagine? God comes to him in a vision, speaking his name, and Ananias responds, “Here I am Lord!” Then as the conversation continues he’s a little caught off guard. “You want me to do what? To Saul? I’ve heard of all the evil he is doing. You do realize that he has the authority to bind all (and by all, that means me!) who call on your name?” This has to be terrifying for him. We have the benefit of knowing the full story of Saul, how he is transformed by God and becomes a great servant of Jesus Christ. We know him much more as Paul the Apostle. Yet all Ananias knew was Saul, Saul the Persecutor of Christians, Saul the Enemy of the Church. Who really had persecuted the young Christian church more than he? Who had directly overseen more arrests and imprisonments? And that Saul is the one Ananias must lay hands on and heal.

Ananias has a tough task ahead. It boils down to the call we all have to love our enemies, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 5. We aren’t to return love to only those who love us. No, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Saul fits that description quite nicely.

I finished the message with what we can learn from Ananias’ example of following Christ’s command, and in truth, Christ’s model of loving enemies.

…I don’t claim to excel at loving my neighbors, let alone loving my enemies. This is a challenge for me. But I don’t think many of us have enemies we encounter greater than what Ananias had in Saul. I don’t think our excuses for not obeying Christ’s command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute would match up with any of the excuses I’m sure Ananias could have come up with. But he didn’t make excuses. Christ is Lord, he trusted in him–he trusted that no matter how things might have appeared, God is in control, and he obeyed.

A Pharaoh Who Did Not Know Joseph

Exodus changes the tone quickly from the prosperity Joseph and his family enjoyed at the end of Genesis, and it does so in the first chapter with the line in verse eight: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

This leads to the growing oppression of the people of Israel and sets the stage for what we know comes later in Exodus. Because he did not know Joseph, the king (or pharaoh), does not know the debt Joseph is owed for saving the land from famine. He does not know of the commitments made and relationships built. What this pharaoh does know is that the people of Israel are too many and too mighty.

Knowing your history is important as it helps shape our future and inform our decisions. Paul reminds the church of its history in 1 Corinthians 10, urging his readers not to be ignorant of what our ancestors went through and he does so that we may learn from their mistakes. If we don’t learn from the mistakes of others, we are bound to learn from our own. Paul reminds us that our ancestors, after the Exodus, were lead by a cloud, passed through the sea, were fed with bread from heaven, and yet they still turn from God to idols. Paul tells us that ignorance is not bliss, it is folly. 1 Corinthians 10:11-13 says:

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the age has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Learning from these examples is at times the way of escape. So let us choose to learn our history and learn from it, not choosing ignorance that will lead us to repeat the sins of others.