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.

 

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Neither Poverty nor Riches

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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.

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!

World and Word: How God Reveals Himself

c333d6yehi0-aaron-burdenUnless God reveals himself, he could never be known. God is completely “other” than us – unapproachable in his holiness and unlimited in his power. But he is also loving. And in his love he has made himself known to us.

In the Bible, we read a song that David wrote that helps us see how God has made himself known to us. We know it simply as Psalm 19, and in it we find the two primary ways God has made himself known.

The psalm begins with the words, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The first 6 verses continue to speak of how creation displays aspects of God’s nature. The book of Romans picks up this same idea when Paul writes:

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” 

If you had lived your life on a deserted island, there are certain things you could learn about God if you were thinking deeply. You may think of him as powerful, the One who created the world. You may think of him as faithful, as you notice that the sun rises and sets each day without fail.

This is often known as “general revelation.” God has revealed himself in ways that everyone can see: in creation, through his actions in history, and in his special creation of people. Through general revelation, we can learn about God, but it is through the specific revelation from God that we can know him personally.

As David continues in Psalm 19, verse 7 begins to speak of the law of the Lord, the testimony of the Lord, the precepts of the Lord….he is speaking of Scripture, part of what is known as the “special revelation” of God.

Special revelation includes God’s appearances throughout Scripture, his direct speech through the prophets, the life of Jesus as the exact imprint of the divine nature — and all of this is contained in the Bible.

Think back to life on the deserted island. If you had spent your life without Scripture, there are some things about God you could have learned. But just think if a trunk washed ashore with a Bible that you could read. You would see that this powerful and faithful God has entered covenant relationships with his people, revealing himself as loving, faithful, and forgiving. Even though his people sinned and worshiped other gods, in his great love he gave his only Son to bring about forgiveness to those who would turn to him.

In God’s greatness, he is unknowable. But in his goodness, he has made himself known. Like David, we can look at the world he created and see his glory. And we can look in his Word and see his great love for us.

Through the world and his Word, God has made himself known. And he invites us to know him, to experience his unfailing love.

Guarding Friendships

pexels-photo-42504Good friends are hard to find. In a good friendship, we seek the best for each other and lovingly speak truth to each other. We are there for each other in difficult times. We sharpen each other as iron sharpens iron. This is how the Book of Proverbs describes a good friendship. Not just an acquaintance, but the kind of friend that sticks closer than a brother.

If we are fortunate enough to have a friends like this, we need to guard the friendship and protect it. We should be wise in what we do – and don’t do – to avoid a painful wedge severing a friendship. Three verses in Proverbs give direct advice for guarding friendships:

“Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.” Proverbs 17:9

To cover an offense means to “put a lid on it,” not allowing it to escalate. In doing so we deal with conflict and choose to forgive, with a goal of restored friendship. On the other hand, friendship is devastated by gossip. When offended, guard the friendship by dealing with it graciously, destroy your friendship by gossiping with others about the offense.

“Let your foot be seldom in your neighbor’s house, lest he have his fill of you and hate you.” Proverbs 25:17

We enjoy being with our friends. But if we’re not careful, we can smother them. This proverb challenges us to live with discernment. It’s a delicate balance to spend enough time together to develop the friendship, but also give friends time alone or with others. Appropriate time together is important, but guard your friendships by giving each other space as well.

“Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’ — when you have it with you.” Proverbs 3:28

Generous people make good friends. If you can help, then do so! Proverbs 6, however, warns against loaning money to friends and neighbors. Doing so can quickly jeopardize a friendship. In other words, the path of wisdom is to give generously to friends, but avoid loaning money to them. Generosity builds friendship, debt can destroy it. We should guard our friendships by giving, not loaning.

I found these to be practical, helpful tips for guarding and protecting friendships: cover offenses instead of gossip, enjoy time together but give each other space, and be quick to give and slow to loan. Quality friendships are a rare treasure — guard them!

 

Understanding the Book of Proverbs

WALK WITHWe recently began a series on the Book of Proverbs at Venture Church. In the introductory sermon, I gave a couple of insights on how to approach and understand Proverbs. I mentioned that the proverbs are (1) memorable (written to be remembered, not to thoroughly cover the topic), (2) descriptive (they describe the path of wisdom, they are not promises from God), and (3) poetic (often written in Hebrew parallels with vivid imagery).

This short summary captures a bit of the hermeneutics of Proverbs, but there are helpful sources available for a more complete understanding.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart give the following parameters in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth:

  1. Proverbs are often parabolic (i.e., figurative, pointing beyond themselves).
  2. Proverbs are intensely practical, not theoretically theological.
  3. Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not technically precise.
  4. Proverbs are not designed to support selfish behavior — just the opposite!
  5. Proverbs strongly reflecting ancient culture may need sensible “translation” so as not to lose their meaning.
  6. Proverbs are not guarantees from God but poetic guidelines for good behavior.
  7. Proverbs may use highly specific language, exaggeration, or any of a variety of literary techniques to make their point.
  8. Proverbs give good advice for wise approaches to certain aspects of life but are not exhaustive in their coverage.
  9. Wrongly used, proverbs may justify a crass, materialistic lifestyle. Rightly used, proverbs will provide practical advice for daily living.

Another helpful approach is included in Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard. They first remind us that “this literary form’s commands or prohibitions present absolute demands for obedience not tentative suggestions for consideration. Readers must  respond to them with seriousness.” It is easy to lose the force of the commands of Proverbs when appreciating its poetry. These are not just helpful sayings, they are divinely inspired as God’s Word.

They also point out the passion behind the proverbs. “The student must approach wisdom speeches as if listening to a woman passionately pleading with passing crowds to follow her advice. That very passion underscores the seriousness of her advice — how crucial for people to obey it, and how menacing is the danger that stalks those who do not.” They conclude by writing that we can capture the form and content of a proverb by completing this sentence: “This shouting woman urges me to….”

Also, if you’d like to dig a bit deeper, this journal article from Greg Parsons may be helpful.(shared with permission)

One more resource: “Read Scripture” has an informative and entertaining video overview of the Book of Proverbs. I have enjoyed their book overviews and their treatment of Proverbs does not disappoint.

At Venture, we have issued the “Proverbs Challenge.” Since there are 31 days in both July and August, we have encouraged everyone to read a chapter of Proverbs each day for two months. And in the spirit of pursuing wisdom, we are asking everyone to prioritize church attendance, where we will preach wisdom from the Book of Proverbs each Sunday in July and August. I pray God will use his Word in our church, and I invite you to join us on the journey as we “Walk with the Wise” through the Book of Proverbs.

Identity Theft?

Book_of_NehemiahLast Sunday we began our study of Nehemiah. The historical context is after the Babylonian exile. Some of the exiles have returned to Jerusalem, many others have stayed in foreign lands. Nehemiah is one that stayed. He served as the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, who reigned from around 465 BC until 424 BC. The Nehemiah story begins 20 years into his reign, so we can safely date the account at 445 BC.

If we rewind to the beginning of the exile, we run across Bible characters such as Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The last three are better recognized by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Catch that? Their names were changed to Babylonian names. They were to live as Babylonians, eat as Babylonians, and worship as Babylonians. They were exiled into a foreign land and expected to worship foreign gods. This was the first wave of captivity, occuring in 605 BC. It was an ancient “crime” of identity theft. Their addresses, names, and comforts were stolen from them.

Yet these four men refused to eat like Babylonians, refused to bow to their idols, and continued to pray to God. A fiery furnace and hungry lions served as testimony to their faith. Fast forward 160 years (605 to 445 BC) and we find Nehemiah. He has spent his life in a foreign land. He’s never experienced the worship of God at the temple. But he demonstrates how the Jewish people were able to hold onto their faith and effectively pass along their faith even while in exile.

The book of Nehemiah begins with a prayer. In this prayer, it is clear that Nehemiah has an accurate view of God. He prays to him as the “God of heaven, the great and awesome God” who was a covenant-keeping God that shows steadfast love to his people. Nehemiah also displays a good knowledge of Deuteronomy, as he reminds God of the promises once made to Moses. In other words, though Nehemiah spent his life in a foreign land, he was not a victim of identity theft. He maintained his identify as one of God’s chosen people.

It makes me think of my identity as one who is in Christ. I have been raised with Christ and seated with him in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). The righteousness of Christ has been credited to my account (2 Corinthians 5:21). I have been welcomed into the family of God as one of his children (1 John 3:1).

Many times, the culture around me tries to shape me into its mold (Romans 12:1). Also, difficult circumstances can tempt me to turn my back on God. And sometimes it’s just easy to drift apathetically away from my faith. But I don’t have to lose my identity. The more I see myself as deeply rooted in the grace of God, I can cling to my identity in Christ even though we are all “prone to wander”.

And we are given a great promise. Instead of turning to “Lifelock” to prevent identity theft, God has given Christ-followers the gift of the Holy Spirit to keep us in Christ. “In him you also, when you heard the work of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praiase of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14)

Notes from “The Carpool Lane” (Colossians 3:12-17)

47584210The Cutting Room is a series of thoughts from Scripture that I did not include in last week’s sermon. Hope it’s an encouragement and helps you think through God’s word.

Colossians is an intense book! Chapter 3 turns the corner from developing a high view of the Person and work of Christ to a focus on how we live out our faith. We quickly see that our faith is lived out in community. More specifically, we live out our faith in the context of a local church. People from all different ethnicities, religious backgrounds, social statuses, and education levels gather as one body at the feet of Jesus. There is beauty in this diversity. It is also easy to understand why much of the New Testament instructs us on how to love each other and get along as brothers and sisters in Christ. Carl George counted 59 times the New Testament uses “one another” to show us how to share life together. Thus, we should not be surprised when local churches are not always the perfect example of love, patience, humility, etc. We are a body of Christ-followers in process of becoming who Jesus wants us to be. God’s grace has been lavished on us, and we are learning how to extend grace to each other. Yet with all of the church’s imperfections, I resonate with Spurgeon’s sentiment that “it is the dearest place on earth to us…”

One of the assumptions of the New Testament is that those who follow Jesus do so in the context of a local church. Those who followed Jesus were closely identified with a local church. And this is the point I would have liked more time to develop on Sunday. Today, many have bought into the deception that Christianity is “just between God and me”. Granted, we respond as individuals to the grace God lavishes upon us. But our call is not just to follow Jesus. It’s to follow Jesus as part of his body, the church.

People often think of the New Testament church as unorganized groups that only met casually in homes. Scripture describes it quite differently. New Testament churches had organized leadership in the form of elders. A common thread is a plurality of leadership. Some of the elders were teachers. Some of the teachers were even compensated for teaching. A systematic plan was in place for the care of widow’s in need. Churches developed a “list” of widows needing help, and were organized in such as way as to allow the apostles to devote themselves to the study of Scripture and prayer while teams of people ensured that people with needs were being cared for. And Acts 2 describes a beautiful scene of believers selling their possessions in order to help others in the church with physical needs.

Also, elders were charged to look after the flock that was under their care. This assumes that specific people were assigned to the elders to shepherd. Scriptures speak of the church gathering, which implies that there were specifc people that made up the congregation. Basically, each Christ follower aligned wtih a specific church where they were known and shared life with other believers.

This is a far cry from those today who see a local church as a meaningful option for the Christ-follower, but more of a luxury than a necessity. Some can see it as merely a place to hear a sermon, which can be done online. Granted, I could give you a few links to far greater sermons than the one I preached this weekend. But the church experience is more than coming and listening to a sermon. It’s being part of a body. A family. It’s being known and loved, and caring for those around you. A word you don’t see in the New Testament is “membership”. But I think it’s clear that New Testament believers experienced a deep connection with a specific body of believers in a way that is consistent with our vernacular of joining a church. “Church” was not just the plural form of “Christian”, it was the place you lived out your faith with a community of people that shared life together.

So what does a church look like? This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully a helpful one:

Teaching of the word and prayer – It was a place where the word of Christ was to richly dwell. Scripture was taught and obeyed, and all was undergirded with prayer.

Discipline — Interesting that Jesus used the word “church” two times. Once it was in reference to building the church on the profession of Jesus, and the second was in reference to church discipline. Paul speaks of sending the immoral man out of the church in Corinth. Anyone teaching another gospel was to be accursed. Though not a popular idea in our context, the church is a place we can joyfully submit to godly leadership and authority.

Fellowship — church is a place to share life together. Acts speaks of believers sharing meals in homes, being together daily, and working to meet each others’ needs.

Worship — singing has always been an important part of worship. So has the teaching of God’s Word. Our worship also includes the ordinances prescribed by Christ – baptism and the Lord’s table.

Diversity — I like to include this on the list because I don’t think the church is designed to be comprised only of people that are like me. The gospel is bigger than that. The best experience of church includes people far different than me – probably even people that are difficult for me to love. That’s where we best see the love of Christ.

Mission — the Church does not exist for her own welfare. The clear mission from Jesus is to look beyond the walls of the physical building you gather in and take the good news of Jesus to your community and around the world.

So this is church. Not perfect, but loved dearly by the Father as the bride of Christ. Find a good one. Join it. Serve in it. Give to God’s work there. Be patient with her imperfections. Show grace as you have received grace. And I hope you find it to be “the dearest place on earth.”

Notes from “Begin the Journey” (Colossians 1:15-23)

6a00e5500a0b55883401310fab4402970c-500wiNote: One of the most difficult aspects of preaching is choosing what NOT to say. Writings from the “Cutting Room” are thoughts from a scripture passage that I did not include in a recent sermon. Hope they help you think, grow, and love Jesus more!

Colossians 1:15-23 is a theologically (better, Christologically) rich passage. It would be easy to preach a 3-4 hour sermon on it! And believe it or not, it might not be that difficult to listen to a 3-4 hour sermon on it. It’s that rich and intense. Since I did not preach for 3-4 hours this week, here are a few nuggets that were not included in the sermon – or mentioned briefly but not fully developed. By the way, my goal here is not to fully explain each point, but to give you a little more to think about.

Invisibility of God (1:15). Words like “invisibility” reminds me that we are on holy ground as we discuss God’s nature. He is invisible, spirit, unattainable and unapproachable. Paul writes (and we sing), “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. (1 Tim. 1:7) The New Testament teaches that no one has seen God. How are we then to think of Old Testament passages where God reveals himself? How could Moses see him face to face? The best answer is that God has shown glimpses of his glorious presence, but no one has fully seen God. In the end, what we see of God will be our final transformation. “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2) Until then, we see glimpses of him as he has revealed himself to us – as the heavens declare his glory, the created world reveals his invisible qualities, and his revelation of himself through his word and his Son. We cannot know him fully, but we can no him truly.

The Firstborn of all creation (1:15). The Arian heresy understands this verse to mean that Jesus was created by the Father, that there was a time when God the Father existed, but God the Son did not. This, of course, makes God the Father eternal, but not God the Son and is a denial of the Trinity. This issue was wrestled with in great detail in the early 300’s, with the Council of Nicaea being a step towards resolution. The best understanding, as reflected in the Nicene Creed, is that Jesus is of the same nature of God, even the same “substance” of God, and is co-preexistent with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. “Firstborn” does not necessarily mean “was born first”, but in a Jewish context also conveys the rights and authority entrusted to the firstborn. That’s why God told Moses that he would make Israel his firstborn (Ex. 4) and mentioned that David would be the firstborn of the kings (Ps. 89). It deals more with importance and supremacy rather than chronology. Final interesting note from Nicaea: a major topic of conversation was if Jesus was “homo-ousios” (same substance) or “homoi-ousios” (similar substance) to the Father. The only difference is the letter “i”, or in Greek, iota. Thus the phrase about not mattering one iota! In this case, however, the one iota significantly changes your understanding of Jesus and the Trinity.

Reconcile all things (1:20). Some may see universalism in this passage. Universalism is the thought that eventually all will be saved. The passage should be understood in two (some say three) sections. First it speaks of Jesus’ supremacy over all of creation. It then speaks of his headship over the new creation, the Church. The “all things” in verse 20 is in the context of the new creation. All things that are reconciled in the new creation are reconciled through Christ. For further insight, 1:23 instructs that those who are reconciled are the ones who continue in faith. This would read far differently if all were reconciled regardless of their faith in Christ. The work of Christ on the cross is applied to our lives through his grace as we respond in faith to him.

The blood and the cross (1:20). These words are startling in the context of this passage. The eternal Creator and Sustainer of all things should not have “blood” and “cross” used to describe him. As part of this conversation, we understand how these communicated shame, a curse, and ultimately victory. Part of this speaks to the nature of atonement. Theologically, we use the phrase “penal substitutionary atonement”. Meaning that there is a penalty for sin (penal) and that Jesus died as our substitute. He bore the consequences that our sin required. This is sometimes also called the “vicarious atonement” (“vicar” referring to someone who stands in place of someone else). There are other views of the atonement, but they tend to minimize the wrath of God that our sin merits. Some hold that the cross represents a moral influence that God wanted to establish. As such, it was the supreme expression of his love for us in that he now identifies with our suffering. Others hold to a theory that Christ died as our example, and that we should also endure hardships as he did. Obviously, the cross is a powerful expression of God’s love for us and in it Christ sets a beautiful example of how to endure hardship. These are wonderful but incomplete understandings of the cross. The cross stands at the intersection of God’s holy wrath and his boundless love. Our sin debt required a payment that was paid by God the Son. In this we find life, hope, and beauty.

I hope these thoughts were helpful as we journey through Scripture together. Not sure if I can post these each week, but I’ll share thoughts when I can. And I hope that God will use his word in our lives to bring glory to his Son, that in all things he might be preeminent! (1:18)