Archive for the ‘God’ Category

(71) We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works – Ephesians 2:10

December 9, 2013

The next three of Paul’s letters – Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians – are written to churches he founded. They have different themes and pack a lot of teaching into their few chapters.

The theme of Galatians is justification – being made right with God – by faith. The churches that Paul and Barnabas founded in Galatia had come under the influence of Jewish Christians who taught that the Gentiles had to adopt Jewish customs, including circumcision, in order to become Christians. Paul emphasises his own Jewish background and heritage and yet says that we “know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). In every generation there has been the tendency to reduce Christianity to a set of rules and regulations – do this, don’t do that – but although this makes it easy to judge ourselves and others it leads to a sense of failure and guilt.

The answer is to live in freedom from the law’s demands and freedom to walk in step with the Spirit. As we do this daily we will see the fruit of the Spirit, which Paul describes as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV), developing in our character and we will be closer to obeying the law than if we try in our own strength.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians starts by describing our redemption as part of God’s overall plan, which was conceived before the world was created and will be brought to full implementation when everything in heaven and on earth will be united. He then describes how God’s grace to us is seen in that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). The best demonstration of love in the world does not come from self-made men and women but from people who allow God to work in them and through them.

When he turns to practical matters Paul emphasises unity in the body of God’s people and love for one another. He addresses relationships between wives and husbands, fathers and children, and masters and slaves, setting out radical teaching, including that husbands should love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25) – a very high standard to aspire to.

He ends with advice about how to “take your stand against the devil’s schemes” by putting on “the full armour of God.” Using the picture of the Roman soldier he tells us to stand firm wearing “the belt of truth”, “the breastplate of righteousness,” the shoes of “the gospel of peace,” “the shield of faith” and “the helmet of salvation.” In the same way as this equipment safeguards the soldier in battle so these godly character traits provide us with a strong defence against the attack of the devil and the world around us who would like to see our faith destroyed. The only offensive weapon we have is “the sword of the Spirit,” a reference to the word of God which we are to use under the Spirit’s direction to provide guidance and truth for ourselves. Fully equipped with the spiritual armour we are also to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions” (see Ephesians 6:11-18), maintaining constant contact with our heavenly commander.

Paul wrote to the Philippians to thank them for a gift they had sent him when he was in prison. Despite being in chains his letter overflows with joy, his personal joy and his joy for them. He tells them to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) and not to be anxious about anything but to give everything to God in prayer, a practice that will bring us peace as we learn to trust in him.

Paul encourages them to love one another, humbly putting others ahead of themselves. He quotes from a poem, possibly an early Christian song, which describes how Jesus, despite being “in very nature God”, “made himself nothing” and came to earth as a man and humbly gave himself to die on a cross for us. It was his humble act that resulted in God exalting him “to the highest place” and giving him “the name that is above every name” (see Philippians 2:6-11). We should imitate Jesus’ humility in our relationships.

Those who think that Christianity is an easy option have not read the high standards that Paul sets before us.

(70) And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:13

December 6, 2013

Paul’s relationship with the churches he founded was like a father with a child. He loved them deeply but was not afraid to address their failings as he wanted them to grow to maturity. We see this most clearly in his relationship to the church in Corinth as we have two letters that he wrote to them. 1 Corinthians covers a range of questions and issues while 2 Corinthians is a much more personal letter in which Paul defends his work as an apostle.

From 1 Corinthians we learn that the church had different factions, it had problems with immorality, members had lawsuits against each other, there were issues with idolatry, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was chaotic, they didn’t know how to use spiritual gifts and they were unclear about the resurrection. This is quite a list but reflects the growing pains of a church established in a pagan seaport which, like all churches, is influenced by the community it is part of.

Given Paul’s strict upbringing as a Pharisee it is all the more remarkable to see his love and patience for a church with such problems. He starts by thanking God for them, praying that they will be enriched and strengthened by God.

With regard to the issues that they had written to him about, he appeals to them to put aside their divisions, to stop giving their teachers marks out of ten and to see them as servants who contribute to their growth in God. He is adamant that there is no place for immorality in the church and urges them to flee from it saying that “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you” and “You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19). We are to honour God with our bodies.

In 2 Corinthians Paul talks about a collection for the church in Jerusalem which had been hit by a famine. He encourages regular giving so that those who have plenty share with those who are in need, telling them that “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously” (2 Corinthians 9:6). Paul is clear that giving is a voluntary act given in response to what God has given us, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

In 1 Corinthians Paul talks about the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to individuals to build up the church. These include gifts of speaking words of encouragement and wisdom, gifts of teaching and healing, gifting in leadership or administration. Paul says that all are given “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7), but human nature being as it is, we quickly become proud of what we see as our gifting and ability, rather than on where the gifting came from and its purpose.

Paul uses the picture of the human body to illustrate how we are to think of ourselves with our gifts in the church. The body is made up of many members – the foot, the hand, the ear, the eye – each with its own place and function in our body. Paul imagines the foot saying it doesn’t belong to the body because it isn’t a hand or the whole body being just an eye – which can’t hear! These ridiculous scenarios illustrate that just as God arranged the various members to form one body so in the church, members are arranged “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25).

Underpinning all of Paul’s instructions is the paramount importance of love in the church and in the middle of this passage he gives one of the most sublime descriptions of love ever written. 1 Corinthians 13 is often read at weddings but its message is about love for all, not just within a marriage. If we were to regularly meditate on these words, written to a divided church, then all our relationships would be greatly enhanced.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

(69) But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us – Romans 5:8

December 5, 2013

Acts describes the growth of the early church and gives us glimpses into how it operated but we get much more insight into what it means to be a Christian from the New Testament letters. There are twenty-two, thirteen from Paul and nine from other apostles. The first nine of Paul’s letters are to churches while the other four are to individuals. They are roughly arranged in size order – see the Bible Bookcase.

Paul’s letters to churches tend to follow a similar pattern. He introduces himself and tells them how he is praying for them. He expounds doctrine – explaining who Jesus is and what he has done – before moving on to practical application and final remarks. Different letters have different themes depending on the need of the specific church he is writing to.

The first letter in the New Testament is Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It was written before he visited them so does not contain some of the corrective challenges found in the letters to churches he knew. Romans provides a comprehensive explanation of God’s plan of salvation as fulfilled through Jesus.

Salvation is about being saved from God’s wrath. This is an unpopular idea today but Paul describes people’s wickedness in turning our back on God’s righteousness – his perfect standard – which is inexcusable given the evidence of God’s character and nature as seen in the creation around us. We all judge right and wrong in others, and are keen to see justice done on those who do bad things, but this means that we are without excuse in our own behaviour which we know often falls short of the standards we set, let alone God’s perfect standard. Paul summarises our position by saying that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

This is a bleak assessment but it is only half of the sentence. The good news is that all “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). ‘Justified’ is a legal term meaning that we are declared right. That takes effect immediately, but it does not mean that we suddenly become perfect. That is a process of continual improvement, called sanctification, which takes the rest of our lives.

The reference to redemption would have reminded people in Paul’s day of the slave market where slaves could be set free for a payment. When Paul says that Christ redeemed us, he means that he paid the price for our sins so that we could go free from the punishment we deserve. This is available to all, but it is not forced on us: it has to be received by accepting that we need to be set free and that Jesus has died to make that possible.

The extent of God’s love for us is shown in that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Paul is supremely confident in the power of God’s love for us and says, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Some saw this as an opportunity to live as they pleased as God will love them whatever they do. Paul strongly dismisses this idea and insists that we must not live to please our sinful nature but live in tune with the Holy Spirit who lives within us and who equips us to live as God’s children. He exhorts us “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1). We do this by avoiding taking on the world’s way of thinking and being transformed by the renewing of our minds through reading God’s word and walking in step with the Spirit.

Paul concludes with a number of instructions on how to live. These cover the different gifts we each have, our relationship to the state, and being kind towards those who have a different approach to their faith on practical matters. Paul is very clear that we cannot earn our salvation by keeping the law, but that if we truly appreciate the extent of what God has done for us in his love then our response will be that we will keep the law by loving others. “Love is the fulfilment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

(68) Paul took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus – Acts 19:9

December 4, 2013

At the end of his second missionary journey Paul visited Athens where he demonstrated his knowledge of Greek culture and writing. The Greeks worshipped many gods and, afraid to upset any of them, even had an altar dedicated “To an unknown God” (Acts 17:23). Paul took this as a starting point for preaching to them about “The God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24), and quoted from their literature before talking about Jesus. He then spent over 18 months in Corinth, establishing a strong church before setting sail back to Antioch.

Paul’s third journey took him to Ephesus, a town on the west coast of Asia (present day Turkey), where he spent three months teaching in the synagogue before opposition caused him to move to “the lecture hall of Tyrannus.” Luke says “he had discussions daily” (Acts 19:9), indicating that this was a dialogue, not just preaching. People were able to raise their questions and the question and answer style is evident in some of Paul’s letters as he raises objections to his own teaching and deals with them – see for example Romans 6:1 & 6:15. Ephesus was a commercial centre for the region with many people coming and going and “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10) as a result of Paul using the city as his base for two years.

Paul’s time in Ephesus was brought to an end by a riot in the city which was started by the silversmiths who were concerned for their livelihood. Their main income came from selling images of their goddess Artemis (the temple of Artemis, also known as Diana, was one of the original seven wonders of the world) and sales were falling as people became Christians. Not for the first time, the spread of Christianity had an economic impact on a community.

After visiting the churches he had founded in Macedonia and Greece, Paul set off for Jerusalem. When they arrived at Caesarea they stayed with Philip the Evangelist, which is probably where Luke heard the account of his time in Samaria and with the Ethiopian official, and a prophet called Agabus came and said that Paul would be bound by the Jews in Jerusalem and delivered to the Gentiles. The disciples, including Luke, urged him not to go but Paul was convinced that he should go saying that, “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).

Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem was low key. He met with James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Jerusalem church and told him and the other elders about what God had done among the Gentiles through his work. They were pleased, although their main concern was still to avoid offending the Jewish believers wherever possible. After a week Paul was spotted in the temple by Jews from Asia who stirred up the crowd against him saying that he his teaching was contrary to Jewish laws and customs. This led to a riot which the Romans stopped by arresting Paul.

Paul then spent over two years under arrest in Caesarea and appeared before a number of Roman Governors and local kings. He was a Roman citizen, which gave him various rights, and during his trial he used his right to appeal to Caesar. As a result he was sent to Rome for trial. Luke records the journey in detail, including a dramatic account of a storm and a shipwreck on Malta. Paul was under house arrest for two years in Rome where, despite being in chains, he had considerable freedom to preach. Luke ends his book by writing that Paul “welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ – with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31).

We do not have any record of Paul’s trial before Caesar – the infamous Nero – but it is traditionally thought that he was released and undertook further missionary journeys (his letters make references to places not mentioned in Acts) before returning to Rome where he was martyred.

Paul’s life made a huge impact on the people of his day. But his impact on Christianity comes from his letters, thirteen of which are in our New Testament.

(67) They examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true – Acts 17:11

December 3, 2013

After recording Peter’s experience with Cornelius and the conversion of Saul, Luke moves his focus to the church in Antioch. Antioch was the leading city of Syria at this time, and the third city of the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria in Egypt (its ruins are near the current town of Antakya in Turkey). It was a very multi-cultural city and when disciples who were scattered after the stoning of Stephen arrived there some of them preached to the Greeks as well as the Jews. As a result, a large, multiracial church was established.

When the Jerusalem church heard about this they sent Barnabas to check it out. He was very pleased with what he saw and stayed to encourage the young church. He also went to find Saul, who had returned to his home town of Tarsus, and asked him to come and join him in Antioch to teach the new converts.

Luke notes that “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). Whether this name was used proudly by the disciples or was a term of mockery used by outsiders we are not told, but it stuck and became the name for those who followed Christ.

The second half of Acts is dedicated to Paul’s travels around the northern Mediterranean – known as his missionary journeys – taking the good news of Jesus to Jews and Gentiles and establishing many churches. His first journey started in Antioch when God told the leaders of the church to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2), which was to go and spread the good news to other regions. They set sail for Cyprus and then to towns in the province of Galatia (in present day Turkey).

Their time in each town followed a similar pattern. Paul, as he is called from this time on, started by preaching to the Jews in the local synagogue. As a consequence, some Jews accepted that Jesus was the promised Messiah and became Christians while others opposed the message, both verbally and physically. As a result, Paul and Barnabas were excluded from the synagogue and went to preach to the Gentiles, many of whom responded positively and became Christians. Paul’s preaching was accompanied by “signs and wonders” (Acts 14:3), including healings and the popularity of their message led to great jealousy from the Jewish leaders who had them driven out of the town or, in some cases, even stoned.

This left new church congregations which had the Old Testament and what they had heard about Jesus from Paul and Barnabas. Revisiting the churches on their return journey they appointed leaders, known as elders, to oversee the churches. This was Paul’s pattern throughout his three missionary journeys recorded in Acts.

Paul and Barnabas had taken John Mark, the author of the second gospel, with them on their first journey but he deserted them when they got to Galatia. As they planned a second journey Barnabas, always the encourager, wanted to give John Mark a second chance but Paul saw him as a liability and refused to take him. Luke records that “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:39), an example of how the Bible records its great men’s failings. It also shows how God works through our weaknesses as this resulted in Barnabas and Paul going separate ways so doubling the area covered.

Paul had many companions who travelled with him, including Timothy, Titus, Silas and Luke who wrote the Gospel and Acts. He was also later reconciled to Barnabas and John Mark.

On his second journey Paul went through Cilicia and Galatia to the Roman province of Macedonia (present day Greece) and established churches in Philippi, where Paul and Silas were released from prison by an earthquake, Thessalonica and Berea. Rather than being hostile, the Jews in Berea “were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). They set us an excellent example of neither rejecting what we hear out of hand nor just accepting it at face value. Christianity does not require blind faith. The balance of being open to what people have to say but weighing it carefully to see if it is true is to be commended.

(66) As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him – Acts 9:3

December 2, 2013

The central character of the second half of the book of Acts is Paul. Paul was an intelligent, passionate and courageous man who was brought up as a devout Jew and became a Pharisee, a teacher of the Old Testament law. He lived in Tarsus, a city in the Roman province of Cilicia (in present day Turkey) and didn’t meet Jesus during his lifetime but came to live in Jerusalem during the time of the early church. As a Pharisee, Paul was convinced that the growth of the early church was a bad thing. He thoughtthe disciples of Jesus who worshipped him as the Messiah were dangerous heretics and he set out to persecute them into silence.

We first come across him at the stoning of Stephen when he is called Saul, which was his original name. As the crowd stoned him Luke notes that, “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58) and that he approved of Stephen’s execution. Saul then took the lead in persecuting the church, dragging men and women from their homes and putting them in prison.

As the church spread so did the persecution and Saul set off for Damascus with the authority of the high priest to arrest “any there who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2) – this is what disciples of Jesus were known as at this time – and to bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners. But near the end of his journey Saul had an encounter that dramatically changed the course of his life. ‘Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, he replied”’ (Acts 9:3-5).

Saul was left blinded by this experience and had to be led by his companions – who had heard the voice but not seen anyone – into the city. For three days he was blind and so stunned that he neither ate nor drank.

A man called Ananias, one of the bit-part heroes of the Bible, was told by God to go and find Saul and pray for him to receive his sight. Ananias is naturally concerned at the thought of going to meet Saul given his reputation and tells God about his evil exploits (just in case God was not aware of this information!). God then tells him that Saul “is my chosen instrument to carry my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Ananias goes to see Saul, prays for him and he regains his sight. He was immediately baptised into the Way of Jesus.

Saul had clearly done some thinking during his three days of blindness, combining his deep knowledge of the Old Testament with what he had learned about Jesus because he immediately goes into the synagogues proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God. This completely bewildered the Jews in Damascus who were expecting him to come and arrest those who followed Jesus and after a short period of time they decided to kill him. Saul the persecutor had become Saul the persecuted and he had to escape from the city by being lowered down the city wall in a basket.

We still use the expression ‘a Damascus Road experience’ to refer to a sudden, life-changing experience. For Saul, it turned his whole thinking upside down and set his life on a completely different course. However, the transformation didn’t happen overnight and we know from his own writing that he then spent three years in Arabia (see Galatians 1:18) where he must have done a lot of rethinking about everything that he had learnt as well as praying about his future. After those years he returned to Jerusalem. The church, understandably, was very wary of him until a man that the apostles had nick-named Barnabas, meaning encourager, took Saul to the apostles so they could hear his story.

Without the bravery of Ananias and the encouragement of Barnabas, Paul might not have become such a key member of the early church and we might not have had his letters which make up a quarter of the New Testament. We do not know the impact that it may have when we encourage other people.

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November 30, 2013

Through the #biblein80tweets

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(65) It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life! – Acts 11:18

November 29, 2013

The scattering of the Jerusalem church led to the good news about Jesus being spread throughout Judea and Samaria. Luke gives an account of Philip, one of the seven chosen to attend to practical matters in the church, who went to Samaria, the old capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, which was then a city of Samaritans. His preaching and healing drew large crowds and brought joy to the city.

Just as things were going really well in Samaria God told Philip to go about fifty miles south to a desert road heading south from Jerusalem. There Philip stood with no one around wondering why he was there until a chariot came by with an Ethiopian government official in it. Philip ran alongside it and heard that he was reading from the prophet Isaiah about a man who “was led like a sheep to the slaughter” (Acts 8:32 quoting Isaiah 53:7). The official asked Philip who the prophet was talking about so Philip told him the good news about Jesus. The Ethiopian saw some water and asked to be baptised and “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39).

The persecution of the church lasted for some time. Luke gives us no indication of the timescale in Acts but it would be reasonable to assume that it was a few years before his next summary statement: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Acts 9:31). By this time there were churches established in towns throughout Judea and Samaria and beyond. These were groups of Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was their promised Messiah and put their trust in him.

The apostles travelled around the fledgling churches teaching and encouraging them in their faith. They also performed miracles. Luke records that Peter, the leader of the twelve, prayed for a lady called Tabitha who had died and saw her restored to life. This created a stir in her home town of Joppa and he stayed there and saw many come to believe in the Lord Jesus.

While he was there Peter saw a picture of animals that were ‘unclean’ – meaning that the law prohibited Jews from eating them – and heard a voice telling him to eat them. He refused but the voice said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). Peter was perplexed by this but it turned out to be the preparation for one of the most significant steps in the development of the church.

The previous day an angel had appeared to a Roman Centurion called Cornelius living in Caesarea, thirty miles up the coast from Joppa. We are told that “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (Acts 10:2). The angel told him to send men to Joppa to fetch Peter. When they arrived Peter was prepared to go with them and they journeyed to Caesarea.

When Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house he found a whole group of people waiting to hear what he had to say. The Jews at this time were brought up not to associate with people from other nations, or even visit them and, as Peter explained to Cornelius, he was unsure what to say. Jesus had operated almost exclusively among the Jews which meant that Peter had no example to follow in his dealings with Gentiles. (The word Gentile is sometimes used to translate the Hebrew and Greek words for ‘people’ or ‘nations’ in English Bibles when they refer to non-Jews.) Reflecting on the strange vision he had seen the day before, but still struggling to adapt to this new situation, Peter told them about Jesus, his life, death and resurrection. To the complete surprise of Peter and his Jewish companions, while he was speaking, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (Acts 10:44). God conclusively demonstrated to them that the good news about Jesus was for all nationalities.

Peter had to explain himself to a suspicious and critical church back in Jerusalem, but when they heard his account they, praised God that, “It’s really happened! God has broken through to the other nations, opened them up to Life!” (Acts 11:18 in The Message). The church was now set for a dramatic new phase of expansion to the Gentiles.

(64) More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number – Acts 5:14

November 28, 2013

The early church grew rapidly in Jerusalem in its early days. The Sadducees, a group among the religious authorities who didn’t believe in any form of resurrection “were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2) and, after they healed a crippled beggar, Peter and John were hauled before the Sanhedrin to give an account of their teaching and their actions. The authorities could not decide what to do with them so warned them not to talk about Jesus any more, but Peter and John said that they could not obey them rather than God.

The apostles performed many miracles and met in the temple courtyard. Luke makes an interesting couple of statements about the early church that seem contradictory: “No-one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (Acts 5:13-14). The church was not a club that people casually joined. To become part of it was to be fully committed to a group of people with common power and purpose. They shared their material possessions and boldly proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.

The Sadducees, jealous of the apostles’ popularity, arrested them all and imprisoned them but an angel led them out of jail overnight so that when the Sanhedrin assembled and sent for them they found the jail empty. Someone then told the Sanhedrin that the apostles were back teaching in the temple courts. Fearing a riot if they used force they sent officers to ask the apostles to come and appear before them. Under questioning Peter accused the high priest of killing Jesus. This infuriated the Sanhedrin to the point that it was ready to put them to death but they were rescued by a moderate Pharisee called Gamaliel who advised the council to let the apostles go free. He made an astute observation that, “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39). They were released with a flogging and continued to preach the good news.

The apostles not only faced hostility from the authorities but also had practical problems to deal with. As people became followers of Jesus they became aware of their social responsibilities and brought money to the apostles to provide support for widows who had no form of income. But as the number of disciples increased there were complaints that the distribution of food was unfair. The apostles realised that there was a danger that they would get drawn into practical matters and neglect preaching. In response they appointed seven men to serve the practical needs of the disciples.

One of the seven, Stephen, was “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “performed great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). When this led him into opposition he preached so powerfully that his enemies accused him of blasphemy and brought him to the Sanhedrin. Luke records a long speech that Stephen made to the assembled group, where he recounts the history of God’s people from the time of Abraham to Solomon. Then he accuses the religious leaders of murdering the promised Messiah which infuriates them. After he claims to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God they take him out of the city and stone him to death.

Up until this point the focus of the church is confined to Jerusalem. But in response to this dreadful event Luke records that, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). The second phase of the expansion of the church was initiated by the death of the first Christian martyr.

(63) All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit – Acts 2:4

November 27, 2013

The fifth book of the New Testament, after the four gospels, is the Acts of the Apostles. This is Luke’s second volume which, like his gospel, is addressed to his patron, Theophilus. He sums up his first book by saying, “In my former book … I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1-2). The use of the word ‘began’ indicates Luke’s view that Jesus continued to act after his death and resurrection through the church and he describes how this came about.

Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus told his disciples that they were to go and proclaim his message in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth and Luke uses this geographical list as a loose structure for Acts as he tells us how the gospel spread west from Jerusalem to Rome, the heart of the empire. Others took the gospel east into Asia – it is traditionally thought that Thomas travelled to India – and south into Africa – Acts includes an account of a government official from Ethiopia who became a believer. In the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection the good news about him spread rapidly across the world, with his followers using Roman roads and shipping lanes to get around and the common Greek language for speaking and writing.

After commissioning the disciples to go, Jesus also told them that initially they were to stay where they were in Jerusalem until they were empowered by the Holy Spirit. So, the apostles, along with a wider group of Jesus’ disciples numbering around 120 men and women and including Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, stayed in Jerusalem devoting themselves to prayer. On the day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus returned to heaven, they were all together in an upper room when “suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (or languages) as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:2-4). (The same word in Greek can be translated ‘tongue’ or ‘language’ and in English we use the word ‘tongue’ to mean ‘language’ too as in the expression ‘mother tongue’.)

This dramatic event was noisy and a crowd soon gathered to find out what was happening. This included Jews from all over the world who were in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost and they were amazed to find a group of uneducated Galileans speaking in a huge variety of languages and “declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:11).

Some accused the disciples of being drunk, which gives an indication as to what the scene was like, but when Peter got up to speak to the whole crowd he said that they weren’t drunk as “It’s only nine in the morning!” (Acts 2:15). He told them that this was the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit on all people and a time when “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (see Acts 2:17-21 quoting from Joel 2:28-32). Peter described how Jesus did many signs and wonders before he was crucified and how he was then raised from the dead, something that could be confirmed by the 120 witnesses with him.

The people were “cut to the heart” by what Peter said and asked what they should do. Peter told them to “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38). This promise was for them and for their children and “for all who are far off” (Acts 2:39), both in terms of geography and time. The impact of Peter’s preaching was immediate in that around three thousand people responded and were baptised.

The church was born and proclaimed Jesus’ love to people, caring and serving them in the power of God the Holy Spirit, something that it continues to do to this day.