5 Practices for Pandemic Survival

This is hard. We are living through a perfect storm of global pandemic, economic crisis, racial tension, political division, natural disasters…I think I’ll stop at that point. No matter who you talk to — small businesses owners, educators, pastors, parents, mental health professionals, front line medical personnel — everyone agrees: this is hard.

We need to find a path forward. These days are unprecedented (are you tired of that word yet?). So we must develop healthy practices that bring peace and stability in the midst of the chaos.

In my life, and in the church I am honored to serve, we focus on five practices. I am convinced these practices will not only help us survive the pandemic, but maybe even flourish or thrive in these days.

5 Practices of Pandemic Survival:

  1. Focus on God. We must look above our circumstances and reflect on the One reigning above it all. Psalm 121 assures us that our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He can handle this!
  2. Practice Soul Care. Go for a walk, get a good night’s sleep, reduce the stress, spend time with the Lord, read Psalms, worship, pray without ceasing…we cannot neglect ourselves. Care for you soul.
  3. Connect with Friends. Depending on where you live, you may not be able to gather in a large group, or maybe even in a small group. But you can go for a walk with a friend. You can set up lawn chairs six feet apart and connect. We need personal, human interaction, especially in these trying times. I now keep a couple of lawn chairs in my trunk — so I’m always ready to stop, talk, and pray with people.
  4. Look Beyond Yourself. Find a way to serve and help others. It is unhealthy to think merely about your own survival. We are surrounded by people with many needs. Try helping one or two people — you will find you are also helping yourself!
  5. Choose Gratitude. There are so many things to complain about these days. Try a different approach — aggressively find things to be thankful for. Choose things to savor and enjoy, then express gratitude for them. Earlier, I made a four-week commitment to savor something everyday and capture it in a photo. I now have a file of 28 pictures to remind me to be thankful.

These are hard days. We can all agree on that! But maybe one or two of these practices can help you survive, or maybe even thrive, in this tumultuous season.

If you would like to add to this list — if you have implemented other helpful practices — please leave a comment. We are all in the same storm(s), let’s get through this together.

Top Five Books of 2019 (but I mention 9)

2019 has been a good year for reading. And as the year draws to a close, I reflect over my reading list for the year (read my earlier blog on reading lists) and a few books stand out that are entertaining and insightful. So to close out the year, here’s my list of the Top Five books I read in 2019.

Before theTop Five, however, are a couple of books that could have easily been on the list. These two books stretched my thinking and helped shape upcoming sermon series. The first is Why We Need the Church to Become More Like Jesus by Joe Hellerman. We are called to follow Jesus in community, and Hellerman exegetes significant texts to highlight our need for the body of Christ. The second is Saved by Faith and Hospitality by Joshua Jipp. Hospitality is an overlooked priority of Scripture, and though I may not agree with all of Jipp’s applications, he challenged me to think more deeply about welcoming all around me.

Ok. Here are my Top 5:

Leadership Pain: The Classroom for Growth

(5) Leadership Pain, Sam Chand. Leadership requires implementing change. By definition, change includes an element of loss, which results in pain — both for the organization and the leader. The bottom line of the book: you will never grow beyond your threshold of pain. This was a sobering and insightful book to read as I prepared to enter a new season of ministry.

The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics)

(4) Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson. Full disclosure: this is the first horror book I have read. I was not sure what to expect as I dipped my toe into a new genre, but found the book engaging as we followed Eleanor’s journey through the mysteries of Hill House. Jackson is masterful in her prose and storytelling, as is obvious from the opening of the book:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable

(3) Evangelism in a Skeptical World, Sam Chan. I would challenge every follower of Jesus to read a book on evangelism every year, and this is a good one. Chan was especially strong in helping readers craft their personal story of following Jesus. I read a couple of chapters in this book as research for my dissertation, then made a priority of returning and reading it cover to cover. By the way, another book I thoroughly enjoyed is Winsome Persuasion by Tim Muelhoff and Rick Langer, which considers how the church engages our culture.

The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything

(2) The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. I read The Trellis and the Vine several years ago and revisited it this year as our church prayerfully considers our discipleship strategy. The metaphor of erecting a trellis to the neglect of tending the vine is a strong image that moves discipleship to a relational (rather than merely programmatic) emphasis. I have already started The Vine Project, Marsall and Payne’s follow-up book, perhaps it will be on my 2020 list.

(1) Scrappy Church, Thom Rainer. This may be the shortest book I read this year, but it was one of the most significant. This summer, I accepted the position of lead pastor at The Bridge Church in Newbury Park, CA, and this book quickly caught my attention. The Bridge is a scrappy church — though we have been through difficult seasons, we are convinced God is not finished with us, and this small book gives a simple blueprint for moving forward. Rainer observes that revitalized churches share three common priorities: an outreach deluge, become a welcoming church, and develop strategies to retain church attenders. Many of our church leaders read this small book, and we will put implement several of the recommended strategies.

Please comment any books you especially enjoyed in 2019 — and happy reading in 2020!

Acts 26 — God at Work

aaron-burden-287555-unsplashNote: This is part of the “Cutting Room Floor” section of my blog. In this case, I thought it would be helpful to write out a number of the passages shared in the sermon. Hope it helps you reflect on the great truths of Acts 26.

There are many expressions of God at work in Acts 26 as Paul addresses Agrippa, Bernice and Festus. This occurs on three levels — Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures, the gospel spreading to Jews and Gentiles, and Paul’s role as he testifies to the gospel. It’s hard to cover all of this in a sermon, so here are some important passages to note.

Paul claimed that he said “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” (v. 22-23). This phrase is similar to what Jesus explained to the disciples in Luke 24 —

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

As Jesus explained and Paul taught, the Old Testament Scripture was fulfilled in Jesus. He is the seed of woman in Genesis 3 that would crush the head of the serpent. He is the descendant of David that will reign on the throne forever. He is the suffering servant of Isaiah by whose stripes we can be healed. Israel was anticipating a conquering  Messiah, but Jesus explained the Old Testament — the Christ must suffer, rise again, and proclaim the message of forgiveness to all nations.

Acts 26 reveals God at work. From the Garden of Eden, he revealed his plan that a Messiah would suffer, rise again, and good news would be proclaimed. God is at work fulfilling what he promised.

God is also at work in the proclamation of the good news of Jesus to the nations. In Acts 26, Paul asserts that Jesus would “proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.” This reminds Luke’s readers of a prophetic word given at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, by Simeon (starting in Luke 2:29):

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

It was said of baby Jesus that he would be a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. The light of the gospel would be proclaimed to Gentiles and Jews. The prophetic word spoken to Jesus and referenced by Paul has deeper roots, however. We also read similar words in Isaiah 49:

he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

The promised Servant in Isaiah, referring to Jesus, was to be a light for the nations, that salvation would reach the end of the earth. In other words, when Paul spoke of the Christ proclaiming light to the Gentiles and the Jews, he demonstrated God’s plan in action. The God who prophesied through Isaiah and Simeon that the light is for the nations (not just Israel) is now bringing his plan to fruition. The Kingdom of God is opened in Christ to all who will believe.

God is at work! Jesus is the Messiah, fulfilling Old Testament Scriptures. The gospel is being proclaimed to Gentiles and Jews, as was foretold by prophets. God is also at work in the life of Paul.

Paul’s argument throughout the sermon maintains he was acting in obedience to God, not in opposition to God. In his words, “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision…” (v. 19). God was at work in the life of Paul, fulfilling his purposes in his life. When Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, we read a prophecy given to Ananias concerning Paul (Acts 9):

15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

This was God’s plan for his life — that he would carry the gospel to Gentiles, even testify before kings of the grace of God. And in Acts 26, we see God at work! Paul there stands before King Agrippa and Festus, the Roman governor. The plan God had for Paul came to fruition as he defended himself before royalty.

Another interesting note about God at work in Paul’s life is found in Acts 13. Here, he is speaking in Antioch Pisidia, explaining to the Jewish listeners why he proclaims the gospel to the Gentiles. In doing so, he applied Isaiah 49:6 to himself:

46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying,

“‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles,
    that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

Paul continues the work of the risen Lord Jesus to proclaim light to the Gentiles and the Jews — that salvation may come to the ends of the earth. God is at work! Jesus has come in fulfillment of the Scriptures, the gospel is proclaimed to the nations (both Jews and Gentiles) in accordance with prophecy, and Paul is joining God’s work through his obedience to God’s plan for him — standing before Gentiles, Jews, and kings to proclaim the gospel of grace.

God is at work in Acts 26! The application for today is that God is still at work. He still longs for people to know him through faith in Jesus. But how will people hear this good news? Through Christ followers who join God’s work by testifying of what God has done. When we share the story of the gospel, we join God in his work to redeem people. We work in obedience to God, not in opposition to him.

The word is clear — Jesus came as Messiah in fulfillment of Scripture, prophecy is fulfilled as the light of the good news of Jesus shines to all nations, and God does this work through people who join him in his work to draw people to himself through Christ.


All Prayer

ALL PRAYER“Help me to be all prayer…”

I ran across that line while meditating on a Puritan prayer in The Valley of Vision. What can that mean, to be “all prayer?”

Whatever it means, most of us can admit we fall short of the standard. But in the early church, prayer was so important that the apostles delegated other responsibilities so they could focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6). In fact, prayer resonates throughout the book of Acts. And you can’t read Paul’s letters without reading his prayers. In our current practice, we tend to emphasize strategies and statements rather than prayer.

We should be intentional. We should be strategic. But we must be prayerful.

Join me in spending some time in this Puritan prayer:

O Lord, in prayer I launch far out into the eternal world, and on that broad ocean my soul triumphs over all evils on the shores of mortality.

Time, with its gay amusements and cruel disappointments, never appears so inconsiderate as then.

In prayer, I see myself as nothing;

I find my heart going after thee with intensity, and long with vehement thirst to live to thee.

Blessed be the strong gales of the Spirit that speed me on my way to the New Jerusalem.

In prayer all things here below vanish, and nothing seems important but holiness of heart and the salvation of others.

In prayer all my worldly cares, fears, anxieties disappear, and are of as little significance as a puff of wind.

In prayer my soul inwardly exults with lively thoughts at what thou art doing for thy church, and I long that thou shouldest get thyself a great name from sinners returning to Zion.

In prayer I am lifted above the frown and flatteries of life, and taste the heavenly joys; entering into the eternal world I can give myself to thee with all my heart, to be thine for ever.

In prayer I can place all my concerns in thy hands, to be entirely at thy disposal, having no will or interest of my own.

In prayer I can intercede for my friends, ministers, sinners, the church, thy kingdom to come, with greatest freedom, ardent hopes…as a son to his Father, as a lover to the beloved.

Help me to be all prayer and never to cease praying.

The fall season at Venture will begin with a focus on prayer. The challenge is to be “all prayer,” as we move in God’s purposes for our church. We can pray for “friends, ministers, sinners, the church, thy kingdom come” and for God to work in powerful ways in our community.

The fall season is an exciting one at Venture Church. We move into the all-church focus on Romans 8, Friend Sunday, Baptism Service — we launch into September with great expectations!

But first, we quiet our hearts and bend our knees. We enter the place and priority of “holiness of heart and the salvation of others,” and we seek God’s desire for his  people.

Help us to be all prayer and never to cease praying!

Neither Poverty nor Riches


Neither Poverty nor Riches is a thorough and thoughtful book by Craig Blomberg as part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. It is an insightful survey through all parts of Scripture. We are currently in a preaching series on finances at Venture Church, and I thought it would be useful to highlight Blomberg’s closing summary. He closed with five conclusions, and later added an application to each point.

  1. “Material possessions are a good gift from God meant for his people to enjoy.” If wealth is a good gift, not an evil one, it’s ok to pursue it. As we understand the possessions to be a gift from God, however, we will want to share with those in need, particularly those with little control over their circumstances.
  2. “Material possessions are simultaneously one of the primary means of turning human hearts away from God.” Aware of this, giving of our possessions away guards us against the temptation to place too much value on our possessions.
  3. “A necessary sign of a life in the process of being redeemed is that of transformation in the area of stewardship.” Since generosity is characteristic of a Christ follower, we should see an increased desire to give. Eventually, generosity can become part of our nature.
  4. “There are certain extremes of wealth and poverty which are in and of themselves intolerable.” Therefore those with a surplus should work hard to help at least a few people in poverty.
  5. “The Bible’s teaching about material possessions is inextricably intertwined with more ‘spiritual’ matters.” The biblical ideal is holistic aid, both physical and spiritual needs, so we should give to organizations that reflect this ideal.

These concluding statements summarize Blomberg’s observations of how each part of Scripture teaches about money. This is obviously difficult to summarize with five statements and applications! These statements do, however, give a useful framework for understanding biblical instruction on finances.

To fully understand these statements, pick up the book here. In the meantime, dive into God’s Word and discover what it teaches about money. And join us this January as we investigate four passages from Scripture that focus on this important topic.

Santa in the Bible?

drew-coffman-175709I found Santa Claus in the Bible!

Ok, this blog is a playful way of pointing out a sad reality. It is possible to lift Bible verses out of their intended context and use them to back up most any point you want to make. To demonstrate this, I found out how to make a “biblical” case for Santa! Ready for this? It starts in Zechariah 2 in the King James Version:

Ho, ho, come forth, and flee from the land of the north…” (Zech. 2:6). Can’t you hear the “Ho, Ho, Ho” of Santa as he and his team of reindeer flee the land of the north every December 24?

But it doesn’t end there, check out this verse from Revelation in the English Standard Version:

“…and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents.” (Rev. 11:10)

There you have it — right from the Bible! Ho, Ho, Ho, be merry and exchange presents! It makes perfect sense — except that it doesn’t!

Obviously, neither of these passages has anything to do with Christmas, reindeer, or Jolly Old St. Nicholas. But this is the danger of lifting verses out of context. The interpretive key to understanding God’s Word is always to ask what the original author (and Author) intended for the original readers and how that message applies to us today.

For example, let me show a better Christmas passage of Scripture (Matthew 1:21-23) and notice the clarity of its message:

21 “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). 

In this passage, Joseph is given instruction from an angel in a dream, and then Matthew identifies how this fulfills a prophecy from Isaiah. Jesus will be born, and his birth will fulfill what was promised of old. Many of Matthew’s readers were Jewish, so it was important for him to show that Jesus came in fulfillment of Old Testament promises.

Also, you notice there are two names given for the baby. He is “Jesus” (“Savior”) and “Immanuel” (“God with us”). These names reveal his identity and his purpose. This baby will be “God with us,” the fullness of deity in bodily form, the very presence of the very God. He will be the Word made flesh living among us. And his purpose is to save people from their sins. He is “Jesus,” the one who saves. This reveals his purpose — he came to save people from their sins, which would eventually be accomplished through a rugged cross and an empty tomb.

It is given with such clarity — Jesus would be born as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. He will be God in the flesh, come to save people from their sins. When God came to be with us, he came to save. Just like he promised in the days of Isaiah.

Scripture is clear. We don’t need to lift things out of context to prove a point. We just need to worship God as he is revealed in his Word.


Christmas in a Barn

Untitled designSometimes, I just need to break the routine. Do something unusual. Gain a new perspective. That can be especially true at Christmas…and I love Christmas! I turn on the Christmas music early. I love Elf. And It’s a Wonderful Life. And The Nativity Story. I use a real tree…and an artificial tree. Get the point? I enjoy Christmas!

In the midst of a busy season, though, it’s easy for the Christmas season to become routine and miss the annual opportunity to think deeply about Immanuel – “God with us.” Several years ago, I found myself at home alone one evening during the Christmas season. I turned on some music, lit up the tree, started a fire, and picked up a small book by Michael Card, Immanuel: Reflections on the Life of Christ. Here’s what I read:

Christmas is a struggle for my wife and me. Our ongoing war with the world seems to intensify as the decorations go up all over town. there is His name, in every window. Sometimes there is even a statue of His sweet infant body, lying in some straw with shepherds and wise men standing around with blank porcelain expressions. (I’ve always thought their faces convey the attitude of the world toward Christmas: blank, dazed, and bewildered.) If people today would just look at the birth of Jesus “straight on,” they would be puzzled that we should celebrate the horrific birth of a baby who was born to die. The contradictions should be more than the world can take. If Christianity could just be seen for what it is — a paradox and a mystery. The beginning in that dirty stable is one of the greatest mysteries: the plainness and greatness of Jesus, the grime and the glory. Wise men with gold in their hands and shepherds with sheep dung on their shoes. A smelly stable below and a shining star above. The birth of a gentle Lamb who was the fiercest Lion.

But the world doesn’t seem to struggle with these contradictions. They join in our season of celebration unruffled and oftentimes more joyful than we.

In an attempt to preserve some of this perspective, it is our family tradition to pile in the car and go to a real working barn, with horses in their stalls and a barn cat on the prowl for its prey amongst the hay bales. Together, we read the Christmas story by candlelight. The odor and the dark seem to press in against the fragile light of our candle. The horses stamp they feet against the cold and look at us sideways, as horses must, as if we were a little “off” for being there in the middle of the night.

The shabbiness of this setting reminds us of that other shabby place Jesus chooses everyday to be born: the human heart, a place more filthy and cold than any stable. All this comes so much closer to reality for us than the singing Christmas trees or the huge services. They may have their place and might become a genuine part of the real celebration, but not without the smell of the straw and the bewildered animals who seem almost about to speak. A baby and a barn. Only with these things can the celebration be truly complete.

It’s been many years since I read those words, and I’ve never made it to the barn. This year will be different. At Venture Church, we were dreaming about how Christmas could be a bit different this year. Out of the routine. Something unusual. A new perspective. A baby and a barn.

So we are making plans for a Christmas Eve gathering in a barn. It will be simple. It will be humble. It won’t smell like pine and cider. But we will gather in a barn to sing carols and read the Christmas story. And I hope some of us leave with a new appreciation of mystery – the grime and the glory – of Immanuel, “God with us.”

On the Way to Damascus

rob-bye-103197Preaching through Acts is an exciting journey! One of the most significant stories in Acts is the story of Saul/Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. It’s told three times in the book of Acts. Some questions arise out of a comparison/contrast of the three accounts, mainly regarding what the other men with Paul experienced. I tend to agree with Witherington’s conclusion that they all saw something and heard something, but not to the full extent of Paul. They saw brightness, but not the blinding glory of the risen Lord Jesus. They heard something, but not the clear, distinguishable voice of Jesus.

As important as these details are, however, they usually don’t play a major role in sermons. There are three observations I had, though, that probably will not be mentioned this Sunday other than a possible brief reference. I find all three interesting, and I hope they are thought provoking for you as well.

Acts 9 and Isaiah 6. If your Bible has headings for passages, Acts 9 is probably labeled “The Conversion of Saul.” That is appropriate, but it is more than a conversion story. It is a commissioning passage as well as a conversion passage. The commissioning is more prominent in the later accounts of Acts 22 and 26, in which Paul’s testimony of his conversion is coupled with a commissioning for ministry. In Acts 9, Jesus tells Ananias of Paul’s mission, but we don’t read of the message being communicated to Saul. This is most likely for literary purposes, and we can safely assume that the words spoken to Ananias would have been passed along to Saul. It is obvious in later passages that Paul connected his commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles as part of his conversion experience.

There are interesting parallels between Acts 9 and one of the more familiar commission passages in the Old Testament, Isaiah 6. In both texts, there is an appearance of God that highlights his glory (God in Is. 6, Jesus in Acts 9). The response of both Isaiah and Saul is one of brokenness. Isaiah acknowledges his sin (Woe is me, I am undone) and Saul is left blind for three days, most likely rethinking his view of Jesus and realizing the sinfulness of persecuting Christ followers. In each case, God sends someone to restore them: an angelic being places a hot coal on Isaiah’s lips and Ananias lays hands on Saul. Both are commissioned to go and proclaim the word of God. Both are warned that suffering will be involved (“How long, O Lord?” Isaiah responded, while Ananias was told, “I will show him how much he must suffer…”).

The comparisons are striking, which lends to the argument that Acts 9 should be viewed as a commissioning passage as well as a conversion passage. This is a clear message to us as readers with a personal application as well: if you have been converted, you have been commissioned. Except for the rare deathbed conversion experience, all Christ followers are called to make disciples (Ok, that part will probably be in the sermon!).

Ananias and Barnabas. Acts is filled with major characters and heroes. Peter and Paul are at the top of that list. But it’s important to notice the role of other characters as well. Ananias is a disciple (not an apostle, “just” a disciple), but he is the one who is called to lay hands on the greatest persecutor of the Church. This is a risky calling, but he obeys immediately. He addresses “Brother Saul,” which communicates complete acceptance into the family of Christ followers. He is brave. He is obedient. And as such, he is a positive example of how “typical” Christ followers should respond to the call of God.

Barnabas shows up later in the passage, as Saul is greeted with fear in Jerusalem. Barnabas (“Son of Encouragement”) comes alongside Saul and builds a bridge between him and the apostles. Saul is then welcomed into the Jerusalem Church.

Ananias and Barnabas have roles in one of the most significant accounts in the New Testament. One shows the importance of obedience, even in the face of risk, and the other shows the power of encouragement. We may not write or preach like Paul, but every Christ follower can live with courageous obedience and encourage those around us.

Paul’s Conversion and His Writing. It is interesting to observe how some of the themes of Paul’s theology are in the shadows of Acts 9. A major theme of Paul’s writing is the union between Christ and the Church (as well as individual Christ followers). At his conversion we read, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” As Saul persecuted the Church, the body of Christ, he was persecuting Jesus himself. There is a deep unity between Jesus and the Christ follower.

Paul would later write, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6) In Acts 9, Paul had first-hand experience of the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

At his conversion/commissioning in Acts 9, Paul realized the error of his thinking and actions. For him to turn to Jesus meant a rejection of his standing as a Pharisee and rising fame as a persecutor of the Church. He had found something (Someone) greater! This is evident in Philippians 3 as he counts all things as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. All of his “righteousness” he had worked for was now worthless, especially as he was led helplessly by hand as a blind man into Damascus. Jesus crossed his path on the road, and now nothing else mattered.

The Curious Case of Simon the Sorcerer

michal-lomza-338227Acts 8 introduces us to one of the more colorful and confusing characters in the New Testament: Simon the Magician. We would be better off thinking of him as a sorcerer in our vernacular, his was a dark magic, probably demonic. He performed works of power that amazed people in Samaria. They even attributed divinity to him: “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” People saw his works of magic and were amazed. He made himself to be someone great, performed works of magic (sorcery), and people paid attention to him. They listened carefully to what he had to say.

Simon is a historical figure, as the early church fathers spoke of “Simon Magus.” In their writings, Simon Magus was responsible for many heresies in the early church, and some view him as the father of Gnosticism. He is not presented in this light in the book of Acts, and it’s better to avoid reading these reports back into Luke’s account in Acts 8.

Simon the Magician serves as a contrast to Philip. Simon was well-known throughout Samaria; Philip was unknown. Simon was a powerful man; Philip was fleeing persecution. The greatest contrast, however, was that Simon made himself great so that people were amazed. Philip preached Christ, making Him great, and people were filled with joy. In this passage, joy is a more desirable response than mere amazement.

As Philip preached Christ, men and women throughout the city believed and were baptized. Even Simon! Yes, “The Great, Powerful, and Amazing Simon the Sorcerer” entered the water and was baptized with the Samaritan believers. But was this a true conversion?

We are immediately suspect of the legitimacy of his conversion experience in the following verses. He “continued with Philip” (not a phrase used of discipleship, more like a groupie or fan) and was amazed by his miracles. It sounds like Simon has not experienced much change — he is still enamored by works of power, presumably for making himself great.

As the passage continues, Peter and John make their way from Jerusalem to pray that the Samaritans will receive the Holy Spirit, and as they laid hands on them, the Spirit came upon them with observable manifestations. Simon the Magician again reveals his nature as he tries to purchase the power to dispense the Holy Spirit. Incidentally, the corruption of buying position and authority within the church is known as “simony” — not the best legacy!

Peter gives him a strong rebuke, rendered “To hell with you and your money” by the Philips Translation. He also offers him grace, by inviting him to repent.

But then the story abruptly stops. What happened with Simon? Did he repent? Was he restored? Was his a true conversion? What he just a new believer learning to overcome his past sin? We don’t know from the context of Acts 8. And ultimately, it is not the point of the passage. Simon is not just a literal man, he also serves a literary purpose in Acts 8. There were many people in Samaria. Many stories that could be told. But Luke singles out Simon, and tells his story. He is a literal person in history, but he serves a literary purpose in Luke’s account. I see at least two purposes Simon serves:

Literary Purpose 1: Uniting the Jews and Samaritans Required the Power of God

The main point of this passage is the gospel coming to Samaria. This is the beginning of the Church reaching outside Jerusalem to fulfill the commission of Jesus in Acts 1:8. But it is no easy task to unite Jews and Samaritans. Their animosity spanned centuries of history. This was racial, political, and religious division at its worst. Only the power of God, working through the message of the gospel, could bring them together.

To demonstrate the power of God, Luke includes the story of “The Great, Powerful, and Amazing Simon the Sorcerer.” He was well-known as a powerful man in Samaria. He was “The power of God that is called great.” He made himself great by his magic and all were amazed. They paid attention to this powerful man. But he was no match for the power of God.

Philip’s proclamation of the gospel was confirmed by the miraculous works of God through him. And instead of paying attention to Simon, the people paid attention to Philip. Simon himself was amazed. Simon even believed and was baptized. The great and powerful Simon bowed before the power of God working through the message of the gospel.

Only a God this powerful could accomplish the unthinkable: Jews and Samaritans were filled with joy together, recognizing one God, one Lord, one Spirit, one baptism, and one Church.

Literary Purpose 2: To God Be the Glory

When Simon tried to purchase the authority to give the Holy Spirit to others, his wrongly thought the power resided in the apostles. Instead of recognizing this as a work of God, he saw it as a miraculous ability of Peter and John….and one by which he could make a sizable profit! The selfish nature of his heart was laid bare, and the rebuke from Peter was clear and pointed.

The timing used by Luke is telling. The Holy Spirit has come to the Samaritans. The Jews and Samaritans are filled with joy together at this outpouring from God. And abruptly, we read of Simon’s offer. Against the backdrop of what God just accomplished, his request is offensive and out of place. But it serves a purpose. It’s a reminder that all the glory belongs to God, not to people. How ridiculous to think that Peter and John had authority over the Holy Spirit, that they could command him to come wherever they laid hands on people! To drive this point home, Luke used the request of Simon. His foolish request to purchase this ability highlights that this power belongs only to God. He deserves the glory, not Peter, John, Philip…and certainly not Simon.

And so Simon, who lived to make himself great and amaze people, is used in the book of Acts to highlight the power of God and remind us to give him the glory. God alone could unite Jews and Samaritans through the gospel. This is the theme of Acts 8. It is not a passage about Simon’s conversion, it is about the power and glory of God!

Half a Hundred

IMG_0210I was 10. It was 1977. Star Wars played at the drive in. Atari was born. Elvis died. I played with my brother and sister. I fought with my brother and sister. We all rode bikes, played outside with neighborhood kids, took family vacations, and hiked Fall Creek Falls. We cheered for the Vols. We had Christmas in Tennessee and Thanksgiving in Alabama. I was usually in church, school, or playing basketball. I learned to love Jesus and shoot left-handed lay-ups. I had a great family and a fun childhood. It was 1977. I was 10.

I was 20. It was 1987. Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down the wall. Whitney wanted to dance with somebody. Robin Williams said “Good Morning” to Vietnam. Fox became a network. We were still mourning the space shuttle Challenger. I was a high school graduate and making my way through Liberty University. High school basketball ended in disappointment, but college intramural basketball filled the void. I led a small youth ministry at Staunton Baptist Church and would soon take a summer job at The Master’s Inn Christian Camp. On April 9, I met Jill DeWitt. My life was changed forever. It was 1987. I was 20.

I was 30. It was 1997. We watched the Titanic sink again and tried to get MMMBop out of our heads. Peyton Manning should have won the Heisman, and the Vols were a year away from a National Championship. Mike Tyson bit an ear. Harry Potter was born. Princess Diana died. So did Mother Theresa. And I had said good-bye to my grandfathers. I had finished college and my master’s degree. Jill DeWitt had been Jill Brown since 1991. Miranda was 3, Cassidy was born in October. In between them we grieved our child that was never born. My “summer job” at The Master’s Inn grew into a 10-year ministry but was ending. We packed up and moved to Moline, Illinois to serve with Homewood Free Church. We started a new journey in a new state, new friends, and the coldest weather I had ever experienced. It was 1997. I was 30.

I was 40. It was 2007. The world had changed on 9/11/2001, but we were moving forward. We saw the third Pirate movie, the third Spider-Man movie, and the third Shrek movie. America elected our first African American president. The first iPhone was made. We were now a family of five; Logan was our millennial baby in 2000. We had moved to Southern California, leading a college ministry through Trinity Church. These were the days of Halloween Happenin’, Holland Festivals, Legoland, summer trips to Tennessee and Virginia, and keeping up with three active kids. I no longer played basketball; I coached. My oldest was entering high school and would be off to college in a few years. Life was about to change again. It was 2007. I was 40.

Now I’m 50. It’s 2017. I’d rather listen to Whitney and MMMBop than most of the current music, though Logan introduces me to great bands all the time. It hasn’t been a great year for movies, but Dunkirk was good. I’d rather not comment on politics. I’ve said good-bye to all of my grandparents and some of the best mentors in my life. These are the days of 25th wedding anniversaries in Hawaii and driving to San Diego to visit fully-launched Miranda or Santa Barbara to see college-student Cassidy. It’s enjoying the time with Logan as the only child still at home. It’s sometimes being annoyed by the drums in the house, then realizing how much I’ll miss those drums in a few years. It’s going back to Neyland Stadium for the first time since college. It’s experiencing a painful good-bye from one church melting into a passion for God’s work at Venture Church. It’s still being a student at age 50, with the expectation that “Doc Brown” may one day be a reality. These are the days of being more in love with my wife, more proud of my kids, more excited about ministry, and more aware of my need for the grace of God than ever before. It’s 2017. I’m 50.