God on the Move: “Standing on the Promises” – Acts 18

repellingIt is no secret that I am not fond of cliffs, and aside from a single moment of insanity when I agreed to go repelling, my height sensitivity and general gravity based insecurities have kept me safely from the edges of high places. From time to time, I find myself sweating at the sight of someone on television that appears to be clinging to the side of a massive mountain with a sheer drop beneath them. I wonder what part of the brain has been sufficiently dulled to allow such insanity which is termed by some as bravery and courage. I get weak at the sight of such raw fearlessness.

Let me offer a brief example: Edward Michael “Bear” Grylls is a British adventurer who has shown his survival talents on shows like “Man vs. Wild” on TV. A few weeks ago, I was waiting to get my hair cut, and on the television above the reception area I found myself watching as Bear was teaching another man how to survive on a mountainside with few helps of the modern world. He showed the man how to eat incredibly gross looking things I could not really identify, and how to scale a sheer cliff with almost no tools. Why one would deliberately place their body in such danger is a complete mystery to me, but I admit that I was spellbound as I watched the men pick clean the remains of a little rodent they had just cooked on a tiny fire along a cliff on the side of the mountain to which they were clinging… and then make their way down the steep slope with almost nothing in their hands. Bear kept saying, “When you don’t have much, you find out that you don’t really need much! At first I thought that sounded profound, then I thought about it.. and it didn’t. When I don’t have much, I end up wondering who packed for the trip! Nevertheless, that saying stuck with me as I began to study for this lesson in Paul’s ongoing journey to follow God.

We have been studying Paul’s life, and for the last few lessons, we examined Paul’s arrival in Corinth and took the time to examine his writing of the first and second letters to the Thessalonian church. We noted they were written as he was recuperating from a tough set of setbacks during the “second mission journey” in the end of Acts 15 to chapter 18. God seemed to have left Paul for a time – but the harsh circumstances were actually God sculpting the Apostle into the man of God he was to become for God’s glory and use. Tough times do that – they tear away the rough edges and reshape the way we think. Paul experienced pain and trouble, but God hadn’t left – He was very much at work. Paul learned a critical lesson in Corinth that is worth stopping to recall today…we’ll call it the “Bear Grylls minimalist” lesson….

Key Principle: When everything seems to be falling apart and the promises of God are all you have, you will find they are all you need.

The promise of God didn’t become clear until everything else fell away:

Sometimes in busyness and noise of our lives, we can learn to cope with issues of life without really turning much to God at all. We can, it seems, make it on our own for a bit. We place our lives on “cruise control” and let everything slide. We don’t DEFECT from our faith, we just don’t ENGAGE LIFE through our faith. Things move along, plans come to fruition, and life keeps moving ahead… until trouble comes and we find ourselves reeling back in pain.
The truth is we can never know for sure how another person is coping with troubles and changes, but the Bible story of the second mission journey is clearly a record of a period in Paul’s ministry that was rife with trouble, and the probability that it played into the team’s attitudes and progress is not all that uncertain. Take, for instance, the troubles the mission team has passed through on the way to Corinth:

• The disputes of the past left their mark (the breakup with Barnabas). Why didn’t God show Barnie how wrong he was?

• The untested team left an uncertainty in their interactions (adding Timothy). Is this new recruit going to be better than John Mark was?

• The lack of clear direction left doubts in the team (the Macedonian man vision). Why isn’t God letting us move forward?

• The physical pain of beating and emotional pain of unlawful imprisonment lurked in the background (Philippi and the jail). Why does God let evil men get away with hurting us?

• The constant haranguing of the team and the pressure on Paul’s extended family made the victories seem more uncertain and soured a sense of progress (Jason at Thessalonica). Why doesn’t God protect our family while we are doing a work for Him?

• The “singling out” at Berea could easily have made Paul feel like the attack was very personal (left alone). Why won’t God step in and defend me?

• The stirring in Athens seemed less a response from prayer and mission and more a reaction to what he saw in the square, and it didn’t go well (Mar’s Hill). Doesn’t God see that I am fully invested here?

Admittedly, some things went well along the journey. Lydia, a jailer, Damaris and others were added to the family of followers of Jesus. That is no small thing. These were lives moved from darkness to light! Yet, the cost per soul was incredibly high, and the story seems to pose a discouraged and beaten up Apostle – not a victorious soldier arriving in Corinth on the shoulders of his championship team… Look at the setting for God’s promise revealed…

Acts 18:1 After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, 3 and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working, for by trade they were tent-makers. 4 And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5 But when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul began devoting himself completely to the word, solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. 6 But when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” 7 Then he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized. 9 And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; 10 for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” 11 And he settled there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

Paul kept going: “went to Corinth” (18:1) – no one finds God’s promises true when they quit on God. Paul’s experiences weren’t victorious, but he was following God and delivering the message he had been given. To the man who journeys through the troubles and pains, there is the moment when he can look back and see God’s guiding hand. To the quitter, they can only see the failure. Paul didn’t quit when the team broke up. He didn’t quit when he wasn’t sure why God wasn’t leading him as clearly as before. He didn’t lay down the task when he was physically attacked. He kept going, kept hoping, kept trusting that God’s plan was playing out and his life was accomplishing God’s ends.

In 1972, NASA launched the exploratory space probe Pioneer 10. The satellite’s primary mission was to reach Jupiter, photograph it and its moons, and beam data it collected about this giant planet back to earth. Scientists regarded this as a bold plan, because up until then no satellites had gone beyond Mars, and they feared the asteroid belt would destroy the satellite before it would ever get to Jupiter. But Pioneer 10 accomplished its mission and much, much more. Flying past Jupiter in November 1973, the space probe continued its incredible journey toward the edge of our solar system. At one billion miles from the sun, Pioneer 10 passed Saturn. At some two billion miles, it hurtled past the planet Uranus, then past Neptune, at nearly three billion miles, and Pluto, at almost four billion miles. By 1997, 25 years after its launch, Pioneer 10 was more than six billion miles from the sun… still going…Commenting on the Pioneer 10 in Time magazine Leon Jaroff says, “Perhaps most remarkable, is the fact that those signals emanate from an eight-watt transmitter, which radiates about as much power as a bedroom night-light, and take more than nine hours to reach Earth.” “The Little Satellite That Could” was not qualified to do what it did. Engineers designed Pioneer 10 with a useful life of only three years. But it has kept going and going and going. By simple longevity, its tiny eight-watt transmitter radio accomplished more than anyone thought possible. So it is when we offer ourselves to serve the Lord. God can work even through someone with only eight-watt abilities. God cannot work, however, through someone who gives up and quits. (Craig Brian Larson, Pastoral Grit: The Strength to Stand and to Stay; Bethany House, 1998).

Let me ask you something. Would you have blamed Paul if he threw in the towel and headed back to Tarsus for a break? Isn’t it reasonable that he had been through many troubles, and a good rest would have worked well…Don’t you think? Yet, God picked a man with a tough shell and a tender heart – and he kept going.

Don’t quit if you want to understand what God is doing with you…just don’t. God will be there at the end on the last day…don’t quit following, don’t quit working, don’t quit blessing others with the life God has given you. Don’t stop ministering because others aren’t opening their arms to you. They aren’t lost – they are lost right now… and you don’t know about tomorrow. Not only that, but…

Paul got strengthened: The text reminds he “found a Jew” (18:2-3) – sometimes it is two weakened people that build one another to strength. In Paul’s case, God out three together to make each one whole. Aquila and Prisca were both new to the place, moved by God’s hand to be waiting for a hurting Paul. When Claudius ordered them to leave their home and business, they probably had no idea why – but God was at work through the difficulties of their lives as well. They were Jews, and they were tentmakers – a perfect match for Paul at that moment. Sometimes we need people who are LIKE US in some ways, to help us get things together. At the same time, we need people who are ABOUT what we are about. Paul needed a couple that wouldn’t miss a synagogue service on any Sabbath – new in town or not. Finding someone who will encourage you begins with finding someone who shares your values. Someone has said: “Until we walk in agreement nothing can be done”. I like the old African proverb that makes me smile: “The man who tries to walk two roads, splits his pants.” God brought like people together, and paired the couple with the beaten Apostle at a key moment in all their lives. Finding a friend to share with is always a key to gaining balance in tough situations, and God opened the way for Paul to have just what he needed. Often the best place to find a friend is to look for another person in need.

Paul eased in: He taught and reasoned “every Sabbath” (18:4) – he didn’t dedicate all the time he had to preaching yet. Though growing in strength, Paul needed to work during the week to make ends meet. That doesn’t sound very exciting, but it was probably emotionally helpful and spiritually very important. God did not drop a big giver in his life and enable Paul to handle the full need of those days in advance – neither financially nor physically and spiritually. Paul’s needs were not his weakness – they represented his healing time as he depended on God to meet his needs through hard work with his hands For a man, that can be a great blessing – to use your hands to meet your needs. I love the fact that God took him to something familiar, something he could have a measure of control over and gain a predictable outcome. The “reasoning” and “debating” that took place in the services would drain some men and women, but after a week of heavy sewing and leather work, they were a recharging point for Paul. He could work all week, meditate on God’s Word and pray – and on Sabbath he could offer a passionate defense of truth. The process was helpful to the expansion of the kingdom, but also to Paul’s inner healing. When you get knocked down hard – don’t be overanxious to get back in the ring…wait on the Lord’s timing and heal a bit.

Paul read the signals: He waited to more heavily invest in the teaching and preaching “when Silas and Timothy came” (18:5). After the arrival of the full team, Paul found it possible to press forward with the Gospel in the synagogue and have at his back a team to help support the work. He seemed more healed; he was more assured – and he saw that it was time to press ahead in full. Healing is necessary, and scars are real – but we mustn’t pick at the past so much that the scars become scabs. Counseling may be necessary for your healing, but there comes a time to graduate and move on. I have observed a number of people who receive a label in counseling, and then allow their problem to name them – and limit all the things God can do in their life. Get healed, but let God send the signals when it is time to move ahead anew. Sometimes forgetting the things that are behind includes setting aside the old hurts so that God can take you in a new direction.

Paul handled new opposition: He got to the place where “he shook out his garments” (18:6). He tried to reason with people, but recognized there was a time to move on. He came back to his former confident self, and knew that God’s closing of one door was the opening of another. He was able to meet the challenge directly, and knew how to keep his balance in the face of opposition. Earlier he would not have been ready – now he was. Believers must prepare to meet opposition – especially in the days we live in now. The rising tide of unyielding naturalism is moving people back to old animism. On television the hunter will bow over the prey and thank the dead animal for “giving its life” when in fact the animal gave nothing. The hunter took, but the segment sounds more and more like something from an old native American ritual. It is the revival of animism – the sense that the earth is sacred and we are merely a part of the “circle of life”.

Opposition to Jesus and the Scriptures will turn otherwise smart people into a series of contradictions that make no sense.

• We live in a time when some seem more morally indignant about contaminating the environment with a plastic trash bag but they are utterly unconcerned with the destroyed parts of the unborn baby the bag contains.

• We now have doctors that will swear to us that one’s sexual identity is a mere social construct that can be changed at will, unless they desire the same sex – and then it is morally wrong to attempt to alter that desire, even if the person seeks treatment to change it.

• We are invited to hear critics charge that believers are waging a “war on science”, while they quickly hide behind the notion that scientists cannot determine exactly when life begins.

• We are preached to that campus feminism is designed to free women to have it all, as long as raising children, being a monogamous marriage partner and providing a stable home are not their idea of what they want to become. Those choices are considered demeaning – and have been summarily stricken from the list of acceptable goals.

• Our own government will insist today that teens and preteens are sufficiently responsible to decide whether to have sexual relationships, but are not mature enough to be expected to pay for their own health insurance until they are 26 years old.

• We live in a time where people will be quick to say it is wrong to harbor prejudice against anyone because of their race, sex, religion, or ideology while they are calling a believer an ignorant, closed-minded, sexist, homophobic Christian. They see no contradiction in their freedom to swallow our freedom. (Ben Johnson of Lifesite News produced a much fuller list, I have liberally paraphrased these points).

I am not grousing, I am trying to make a point. The pilgrims arrived here to escape the very persecution that is now being mandated by some of the northeastern states they first landed on to settle…and more is coming. Naturalism, animism, pluralism that applauds every spiritual concept in the public square except that which comes from the Bible – this is on our horizon. For that we will suit up, armor up, joy up, celebrate each other and walk with Jesus into the fire if that is where He calls us. We will not be sullen, because that would bring God’s enemy joy. We also need not be surprised when logic is reduced to name calling and sarcasm in place of rational argument. There is no consistent rationale for morality without God. Extract Him from the picture, and all the great arguments are reduced to ashes, and we fight about mere petty technique instead of grand reason.

Paul opposed false thinking. He stood up to the resistance to the truth of God –and we must raise a generation that are ready to do that as well.

Paul sensed the problems growing: The text recorded that Jesus told him to “go on speaking” (18:7-9). Paul was tempted to back away and shut down when new troubles appeared on the horizon. He was aware of the new converts and the growing sense of trouble in the city, Paul was fighting within a decision to pull back. The team was there, but the pains of the past were overshadowing the gains of the present. Didn’t that make sense? Cool down. Don’t get too political Paul. Haven’t you seen the stats – things are going in a different direction. People aren’t following what you are saying…only a few are on board.

Just remember that in the history of man, the many were often on the wrong side of the equation:

“Isaac’s Storm” is a very interesting book about the hurricane that wiped out Galveston in 1900. One of the main plot lines of the book is about how everyone was convinced that a hurricane could never strike Galveston, even as one approached. The author vividly describes how as the streets began to flood people went about their business as if nothing was wrong. Children played in the water, men gathered for breakfast at the local diner, and no one fled from the storm that was about to strike. Some didn’t worry because Issac Cline, the national weather service officer in Galveston, assured them it would not be a severe storm. Other’s simply believed that Galveston was invincible. Some thought that since they had never seen a hurricane strike Galveston one never would. So for a number of reasons, people assured themselves nothing bad would happen. And as a result over 6,000 people died one September day in 1900. Today we can see storm clouds forming on the horizon. There is a moral and spiritual decline that continues to erode our national life. The warning signs are there for us to see–the signs that Jesus is coming soon. They beckon us to return to the Lord and seek refuge in Him. How will history look back on what we did as the storm approached? SOURCE: Steve Hanchet. Citation: “Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History,” by Erik Larson and Isaac Monroe Cline. Vintage Books; ISBN: 0375708278; (July 11, 2000).

God met Paul at the point of his withdrawal (18:10-11). Note that the Holy One made it plain: “Stay here and do what I told you to do!” Could we do that in the face of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria if God met us in that place? Our brothers and sisters in Christ have been called to do so. God will keep them until He has used their lives to His glory – and then they will be in His comforting arms forever. They have no lustful vision of virgins in the afterlife – they have the promise that their God will wipe every tear from their eyes and show them into an eternal home that will offer comfort beyond compare.

In Paul’s case, God told him the needed protection would be provided, for God had a work He wanted completed in that place. Paul’s job was to trust God and take His Word seriously – and so is every believers job.

Remember the principle of the lesson? When everything seems to be falling apart and the promises of God are all you have, you will find they are all you need.

Paul withstood a beating, and now trouble was coming anew. The critical lesson for Paul and his mission team was this: no amount of strength, no amount of physical comfort, no amount of provision would make them feel completely secure. Our real sense of protection comes from deep within when the promise of God becomes our foundation. Security doesn’t come from distance from troubles – but from closeness to the Savior. Life is too hard, troubles too strong, hurts too deep to live only with physical and human comforts as our prize. Real security comes from walking with God Himself. It is offered in His promises – the greatest of which is His close presence. To the promise of God’s protection, Paul’s response was to remain in the city for one and one half years – probably the remainder of the term of the consul Gallio. It seems God made clear to Paul that he was under a protective Roman hand while operating in the city of Corinth. He also saved on his bill at the local barber during that time… it looks like he vowed to stay, but not cut his hair!

The promises of God didn’t mean troubles would cease, only that His work would persist.

Don’t miss that God was at work, but the bullet flew close to Paul in the midst of his obedience. That is important…

Acts 18:12 But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat, 13 saying, “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.” 14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrong or of vicious crime, O Jews, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you; 15 but if there are questions about words and names and your own law, look after it yourselves; I am unwilling to be a judge of these matters.” 16 And he drove them away from the judgment seat. 17 And they all took hold of Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and began beating him in front of the judgment seat. But Gallio was not concerned about any of these things. 18 Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren and put out to sea for Syria, and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow. 19 They came to Ephesus, and he left them there. Now he himself entered the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. 20 When they asked him to stay for a longer time, he did not consent, 21 but taking leave of them and saying, “I will return to you again if God wills,” he set sail from Ephesus. 22 When he had landed at Caesarea, he went up and greeted the church, and went down to Antioch.

In short order the troubles revisited (18:12-13), but Paul was protected by God through means Paul could not have seen available. God has an arsenal much larger than we can imagine. Did you notice the way Dr. Luke recorded the story? He said that Paul was ready to speak (obeyed) but God stepped in (and kept His promise – cp. 18:14-17).

Paul completed the vow he made to trust God’s promises because Paul knew that God is faithful (18:18). He began a work in us, and He will complete every project He ever started.

You can find hope in your darkest hour through the faithfulness of God. Harry Teuchert knows this is true. For years Harry had been a successful publisher of materials for churches. Everything in his life seemed to be perfect: A lovely home, a family, a solid future; but all this suddenly collapsed. Harry’s wife told him she was leaving him. She was in love with someone else. Devastated, Harry tried to cope, work, continue with his life, but this tragedy was too overwhelming. Despite all the other good things in his life, Harry felt like a complete failure with nothing to live for. He was on the road to meet with a church about their anniversary publication. Arriving early, Harry sat down in the fellowship hall. Suddenly, he began to think about suicide. His life was over. All was finished. As he sat at a table, he began to cry intensely, holding his head in his hands. The more Harry wept, the more he was convinced that his life had ended. He would continue no more. He was beaten. It would be so easy to end it all. In total despair he looked up, and noticed a faded poster on the far wall. In that picture was the image of a man in the same despair Harry was going through — Head in his hands in complete anguish. Then, as Harry studied the poster further, he noticed a smaller image in the lower right corner of the poster: Three crosses, on a hill, surrounded by a dark sky. Beneath the center cross these simple words were inscribed, “I know how you feel; I’ve been there myself.” While staring at those words, Harry fell to his knees and prayed, “God, help me.” Suddenly God touched Harry with a new flood of hope. He got up telling himself, “I’m going to beat this thing. I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” Harry got on with his life. And today he is serving the God who came to him in his moment of greatest trial. (Original source unknown – found in christianglobe.com sermon “Help Me Make It Through The Night” by King Duncan – John 3:1-21 – 2005). When Pastor Rick Crandall told the story, he commented: “The Lord used a faded poster to remind Harry of God’s great faithfulness. And I hope He uses Harry’s story to remind you.” (taken from sermon central.com).

God not only protected the Apostle, but offered Paul one more chance to see him at work: “Paul left them [the team] there and walked into the synagogue to reason with the local Jews” (18:19-22). It is obvious that being alone – without the team – was no longer a problem for Paul – because he saw God’s hand of protection in His promises. He knew a new level of God’s presence, and that gave him a new bravery.

Men and women, in the last 100 years we have split the atom, and made a household industry out of the movement of electrons that were only discovered at the dawn of the twentieth century…we have reached to the stars and left footprints on the moon. We have eradicated many diseases that plagued mankind for centuries and raised the number of years we expect to live by a substantial margin. We have made having a baby a routine experience, no longer the perilous danger women experienced for generations. We have created pain relief in cheap capsule form. We can place you on an operating table and in seconds move you to unconsciousness, allowing us to probe deeply into your anatomy to solve once intractable defects and wounds. We have gathered humanity in massive aid projects. We have broken the back of some huge slavery rings. We have made clear that every child should have clean water to drink and sufficient food to eat. We have gained ground in science, technology, economy and medicine. We live in a world of fast jets and pocket computerized connections.

Yet, in all of these things, man’s deepest problems have not evaporated. Savage men behead servicemen and media reporters, while groups march through London and Paris in support of their right to wield a sword against foes. We save whales and seals but exterminate inconvenient children – we have lost an entire generation of more than 50 million American babies to a ruthless and barbaric industry. We watch in horror as our streets are filled with rampaging and angry men and women who believe injustices against them have justified uncivil behavior and looting. We marvel at how the world’s most famous atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, claimed it was “immoral” to allow unborn babies with Down’s syndrome to reach natural birth. The Oxford professor told would-be parents who learn their child has the condition they have an ethical responsibility to “abort it and try again” since in his words “foetuses do not have human feelings”.

In the face of incredible advances, it seems the savagery of our past lay just beneath the surface. Are you ready to trust science for your future? Do you believe educators will lead us to peace and happiness? Will technology solve the ultimate issues and conquer the inner human sickness? I don’t think so. What’s more, the Bible makes clear that will not happen. Man lives by the promises of God – Jesus said that. It isn’t food, fun and fellowship that makes life worth living – it is the integrity of a God that has loved us and promised us a certain future. It doesn’t matter what life brings your way. It doesn’t matter if it seems fair, or if God seems to be “on top” of all that hurts you. You have His promise for how life will change for you when this body is finished its journey – if you know Him.

When everything seems to be falling apart and the promises of God are all you have, you will find they are all you need.

God on the Move: “The Long Hot Summer” – Acts 15:35 – 18:23

long hotSome movie buffs will recall that all the way back in 1958, actor Paul Newman (before he was making terrific jars of spaghetti sauce for our local supermarkets) played a role in a film based on William Faulkner’s short stories called: “The long hot summer”. I confess I didn’t see the film – but I read the series of Faulkner’s short stories that were connected to the film, and a summary of how the screenwriter wove them together, and I was fascinated. Apparently, in the movie a drifter named Ben Quick (played by Newman) entered a small Mississippi town where his father had a bad reputation as an arsonist. A town leader played by Orson Welles held a grudge against Ben’s dad, and went after the young man to make life difficult for him. Over time, that harsh community leader developed a muted respect for Ben’s tenacity in the face of countless obstacles, especially in light of that town leader’s own flighty and over privileged son. Eventually the town leader tried to fix Ben up with his own daughter, but his wicked son began to fear he would lose his place as heir and trapped his father in a barn, lighting a fire and planting evidence implicating Ben. The movie was called “the long hot summer” because it reflected a tough time in young Ben’s life – and showed his tenacity and ability to rebound in spite of setbacks.

Americans love these kinds of stories. We love self-made, self-repairing men supermen. We have a mild contempt for defeat, and if not overtly, we secretly love a guy who can get off the canvas when knocked down and go on to win the fight. The problem is, sometimes you can’t win. Sometimes the forces against you are too strong to make it through by “toughing it out”. Even in our spiritual life, times will come when we need help if we are going to have victory. We were not designed to take on life’s obstacles in the spiritual realm without each other, without God’s Word, and without times of rest and protection from the buffeting of the spiritual elements.

Some people are surprised when they read the section found in Acts 15:36-18:23 – what is dubbed the “Second Mission Journey of Paul” – because a close reading doesn’t reveal the “spotless” and “Teflon” version of Paul they have been taught to imagine. Paul gets beaten worse than Rocky Balboa in a boxing ring. Dr. Luke took the time to remind us, fully under the direction of God’s Spirit; of the time when Paul probably considered quitting because the work wasn’t going well at all. It got so bad he despaired and couldn’t continue to function normally. The record of this journey reveals that God was faithful and moved him from pain to power. It is certainly a process we should investigate!

Key Principle: When life pummels even the strongest believer with defeats, there is a process God can use to rebuild them – but that believer must take advantage of the provision.

Instead of reading every verse for nearly three chapters, I will need to select the ones that help move the story. I am not suggesting that every word is not important, and in other lessons we have studied each chapter, line by line. For this lesson, however, what we want to look at requires an overview – a look at the forest and not the individual trees on the landscape. Start with the end of the Jerusalem Council, where we left off in the last lesson:

Acts 15:36 After some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brethren in every city in which we proclaimed the word of the Lord, [and see] how they are.” 37 Barnabas wanted to take John, called Mark, along with them also. 38 But Paul kept insisting that they should not take him along who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39 And there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus. 40 But Paul chose Silas and left, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord. 41 And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Put yourself in Paul’s toga and sandals. After a mammoth wrestling match at the council, the Spirit gave direction. The men embraced and the air was sweet with unity…but it didn’t last.

Division in the Team

Did you ever have an argument with someone you love, but you feel like they were DEAD WRONG about what they said. Tell the truth: “Did you not go over the conversation scores of times in your head?” If you answered “Yes!”, you are able to think like Paul as he and Silas boarded the ship and sailed off on the journey. Jesus was raised about twenty years before, and the church had just dodged its first nearly fatal division, and now the mission team is breaking up. I am certain they put a good face on it with the classic: “God is simply leading us in different directions” theme – but I do not for a moment believe both Barney and Paul were leaving unscathed by the altercation. Pain clings and pain stings… and it isn’t easy to shake it off…

Off they went, Silas and Paul. For a bit, things looked like they were turning around…

Acts 16:1 Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, 2 and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. 5 So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.

There’s a bit of encouragement – the team got back to full strength. Tim joined and seemed teachable. Paul was anxious to have him join in, and wanted to invest in his life. He knew his momma was a Jew, and he took the place of his father and had the boy circumcised, because people knew he hadn’t been with a Greek dad. They delivered the message of the council and people were enthusiastic! What a great moment… but wait for it… things were about to get hazy.

Disorientation of the Team

It seems that Paul and Silas wanted to go on to Galatia, but that wasn’t God’s plan. Look at Acts 16:

Acts 16:6 They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; 7 and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; 8 and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas.

The mission team came with a brochure hot off the Jerusalem press. It worked well in Iconium and Lystra – but now…dead stop. God’s Spirit said “NO!” to the journey north and east. No problem, how about “due north”? “No way!” Can you hear Tim saying: “Hey guys, um… is it always this confusing? Do you USUALLY have a plan?” Without direction, they decided it was nap time…so they turned in for the night.

Direction was renewed when Paul had a vision of a Macedonian man (Acts 16:9-10) and that set the agenda to head for a boat and cross over to Neapolis, bound for Philippi up the road (Acts 16:11-12). The place was thoroughly pagan and the Jewish community was so small it didn’t have a synagogue, so every Jew in town naturally headed for the nearest stream to have what is called a “Taschlich” ceremony – and begin worship. Paul headed that direction as well. Acts 16 says:

Acts 16:13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside…14 A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. 15 And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

Wow, now things are turning around! People are coming to Jesus, right? Not so fast…

Draining of the Team:

Acts 16 shared that they no sooner got the home invitation, and the enemy slid into the scene in the form of a possessed slave girl (Acts 16:16).

Acts 16:17 Following after Paul and us, she kept crying out, saying, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.” 18 She continued doing this for many days. But Paul was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out at that very moment.

Just as the hope of a new mission point was dawning, there was an incessant disruption to the ministry. If you read that Paul got ANNOYED you read the passage correctly. He couldn’t take the constant haranguing. Out came the spirit, and down on Paul and Silas came the law! They were seized by the authorities (Acts 16:19-21). They were hastily and unlawfully beaten with rods (Acts 16:22) and put in prison with their feet in stocks (Acts 16:23-24).

What do you do when you have been unlawfully arrested and beaten… Paul and Silas thought it was a good time for a song service! Acts 16:25-34 tells of the marvelous way that Paul and Silas rocked the house with their praise band… ok, that was a bad way to say it. Seriously, they worshipped and God worked. An earthquake opened the door of the cell, but the testimony of Paul and Silas opened the door of a jailer’s heart – and God saved the Philippian jailer and his house. By the end of the chapter, our missionaries were escorted out of town, but the bruises were still on their bodies. Every sneeze made Silas’ eyes well up with tears.

When the body gets beaten, the heart gets weak. Paul and Silas knew God was at work. They knew God used their heating to save Joe the Jailer (or whatever his name was). At the same time, that didn’t mean that the beating didn’t take its toll on them. It surely did. They went through a physically draining time, and left feeling like an elephant sat on them in the night.

Dried Out Hearts for the Dynamic Duo

They walked westward on the Via Egnatia, a well-built Roman highway constructed two hundred years before and kept very well by Rome. They passed Amphipolis and Apollonia, but stopped at Thessalonica, where Paul had family. The response was initially good in Acts 17:1-4, but you know you can hear a “but” coming in the story…

Acts 17:5 But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people. 6 When they did not find them, they [began] dragging Jason and some brethren before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have upset the world have come here also; 7 and Jason has welcomed them, and they all act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” 8 They stirred up the crowd and the city authorities who heard these things. 9 And when they had received a pledge from Jason and the others, they released them.

Only a brief time of growing ministry was pounced upon by enemies of the Gospel, and Paul’s cousin Jason was arrested and held on bond to force Paul to move out of town (Acts 17:5-9). This was no doubt an emotionally draining time. By the time Paul and Silas left town, their bodies were healing some, but their hearts couldn’t have been at peace. The trip began with a split. Philippi left them with split lips, and Thessalonica left them with a split up family. If we were keeping track, I am not sure we would call this a “winning time” in the mission quest.

Distorted by the Personal Attack

Slipping away from Thessalonica so that Jason wouldn’t grow old in jail, Paul and Silas left in the night to the city of Berea, and hoped for a better reception ahead (Acts 17:10). Berea had a good reputation for a great synagogue crowd (Acts 17:11) and the mission team got a good start. The problem was, that soon the same rabble rousers that bothered them in Thessalonica heard they were gaining ground in Berea, so in came the guys with the pitch-forks and placards, and the whole thing deteriorated. Look at Acts 17:13-15:

Acts 17:13 But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well, agitating and stirring up the crowds. 14 Then immediately the brethren sent Paul out to go as far as the sea; and Silas and Timothy remained there. 15 Now those who escorted Paul brought him as far as Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they left.

Paul was not only getting chased by the same band, they picked HIM as the object of their derision. The TEAM was able to stay at Berea… but PAUL had to find the nearest boat at the nearby Dion harbor. Paul was clearly singled out and told to leave, while his companions would remain and sure up the work. The personal nature of the attack just as his gifts were igniting into results certainly left a mark on his feelings.

Ok, now put yourself on the boat with Paul. Travel alone for a bit. Your old team partner stormed off. You went through a down time and couldn’t get God’s direction. Your body hurts from rod beating. Your family has been attacked. You have been singled out as the central problem… and you have been doing your best to follow Jesus… but it doesn’t seem to be working well…

Disillusioned and Alone

In the modern mythology of the church, some will be offended that I picture “St. Paul” as, well, a regular guy. I have walked every place he ministered, and I have been impressed with how Dr. Luke didn’t exactly try to pretty up the story. Paul made his way to Athens… we don’t know exactly how, but we do know what happened when he got there. The loneliness and idle time appeared to make Paul a bit anxious, and he was stirred as he saw the pagan centers of Athens. (Acts 17:16-18). Paul reasoned with the men from their own poetry, but did not use Scripture (Acts 17:28) – the only time he did this on record. His audience laughed and scorned him (though a few were saved – Acts 17:32-34). Listen to the end of Acts 17 and see if you can read Paul’s feeling into the mix:

Acts 17:32 “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some [began] to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” 33 So Paul went out of their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. 18:1 After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth.”

Did you notice how Acts 18:1 was short and to the point. It is as though Luke wanted us to know only this: “It didn’t go so well, and he left, period.”

Have you had enough? I hope so, because God doesn’t leave His servants chewing dust and binding wounds without a purpose. God was about to open the air conditioned encouragement door, and Paul was in the blazing hot parking lot for as long as he could possible stand it. Remember this: God is always on time. He knows what we need, and He knows when we need it. Here comes restoration…

Devastated to Restored

Some scholar point out that Paul recalled to the Corinthians later the low point of entry to them:

2 Corinthians 1:8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came [to us] in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead…

Paul admitted he was whipped when he got there. He was despairing, physically mentally and emotionally wiped out. Yet, God moved in to rescue him. In Acts 18:2-11 Luke offered a window on how God restored him:

First, God provided him a team to weave into (18:1-3)

Acts 18:2 And [Paul] he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, 3 and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working, for by trade they were tent-makers.

God brought into Paul’s life, at the critical hour, people with natural connection to his life. They were both Jews, and both heavy cloth workers. The enemy’s move to expel the Jews in Rome became Paul’s opportunity to begin to heal. God has the ability to move people about in order to rebuild, restore and renew His people.

Second, God restored him to a work in a place he was strongest (18:4).

Acts 18:4 And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

Paul went back to the place where his strengths could best be used – the place of debate in the synagogue. He had seen success there in the past, and it was a “natural habitat” for him.

Third, God added back the balance of his team, with exciting reports of God at work (18:5). When he faced opposition, he was surrounded by others who knew he was right (18:6).

Acts 18:5 But when Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul [began] devoting himself completely to the word, solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. 6 But when they resisted and blasphemed, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood [be] on your own heads! I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”

At long last, God sent back Silas and Tim – the team was reunited. Paul sent the men back and forth with some letters, but he took solace in their time together. There is NOTHING like familiar friends and family to help healing advance.

Fourth, God added new believers and new successes that helped him see God still at work in him (18:7-8).

Acts 18:7 Then he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God, whose house was next to the synagogue. 8 Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.

Paul didn’t gauge his life by numbers and success, but it was encouraging to have people respond to the message of Jesus, and grow in that ministry. God brought some key people to faith, and that lifted Paul’s spirit!

Fifth, God spoke directly to his pain, and assured him that he had protection from God for his work (18:9-11)

Acts 18:9 And the Lord said to Paul in the night by a vision, “Do not be afraid [any longer], but go on speaking and do not be silent; 10 for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.” 11 And he settled [there] a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.

Nothing helped more than hearing from God directly. Jesus told him not to be afraid, recognizing the horrible stretch of ministry he had passed through. God gave Paul three very important gifts when he was beaten, but Paul had to recognize them:

• Still time: healing by working on known and waiting on unknown
• Special friends: healing by team strengthening
• Safe places: God put a hedge on him to heal him

The end of the journey contained a simple word that helps us know what really happened. In the face of the trouble, Paul made a vow to obey God. That consecration is tucked into a little detail of the Word in Acts 18:18 Paul, having remained many days longer, took leave of the brethren and put out to sea for Syria, and with him were Priscilla and Aquila. In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow.

A strengthened Paul recommitted himself to God’s work, no matter the cost.
When we strip away all the stories and drama – our lives come down to this: some things really hurt because we are trying to do right and things go very wrong. It hurts to put your trust in God and then have the rug pulled from beneath of us… but we must recognize that God hasn’t left even when all seems to have fallen apart. He has given us resource in Him the world cannot understand because it does not possess.

There is an old story of a man who was shipwrecked on an island. He found no other people on the small island, but he did find a hut and much evidence that another had lived in the place before him. Beneath the hut was a store room full of food. In the hut there were many fine conveniences, but the man would not use the place or eat the food. The man kept a diary and wanted to survive without the help of anyone else – be they alive or not. His last entry in his diary revealed that he died exhausted and surrounded by the very provisions that would have saved his life…but he made his point. He didn’t need anyone else. The only trouble is that the choice killed him.

Paul needed friends. He needed team members. He needed the reassurance of God’s own words. He needed to use the provisions God made – and not fuss because things didn’t seem to work out. It was his own weakness that allowed God to strongly use him.

When life pummels even the strongest believer with defeats, there is a process God can use to rebuild them – but that believer must take advantage of the provision.

God on the Move: “Fight Rules”- Acts 15:1-35

fight rules1We have been investigating the Biblical record on the life and mission of Paul, the famous first century Apostle to the Gentile world. In this lesson, I want to talk about how something tough to deal with. The text of Acts now moves into the hard subject of fighting and interpersonal disagreements between believers – but the approach we are taking will not leave us cynical or angry. In fact, even dissension and division can become a positive stage from which we can learn critical lessons about our walk with God. To be fair, our subject was not CHOSEN by me, it is the subject recorded as the next major hurdle Paul had to pass over in becoming effective as a church planter. This was the situation: Acts 15 recorded the minutes of a tough meeting of the elders of the early church as they came together to settle a critical dispute in a divided room of the early church. This became one of the most important learning settings for Paul in his early missionary days. Why? Because handling conflict is a critical function of any good leader – and Paul was being shaped by God. The record of this shaping is found in the account of an argument by men of God who were struggling to discern God’s direction during the infancy of the church movement. Though I am certain there were many disagreements and disputes among followers of Jesus in that time, this one was preserved for our understanding because it was deemed by God to be critical to the growth of the church and its leaders.

fight rules4Let’s face it, men have been fighting since Cain killed Abel, but it took many centuries for them to apply actual “rules” to physical conflict and call it a “sport”. What the Greeks first called “pygmachia” (now called “boxing”) can probably be traced back to the seventh century BCE (during the period of the divided kingdom in Israel and Judah) when the combat sport made its debut in the Olympic games. The idea was to place two people in a cordoned area and allow them to strike one another with blows using leather strapped fists (which were eventually replaced by gloves). As a “sport”, this prize fighting grew and became more organized over the centuries, but became largely popularized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries first in Britain, then in the US. As its popularity increased, so did formalization of the rules around which a sanctioned fight took place. Today, the Olympian boxers learn a great number of rules that specify when and where a punch can be thrown. Even beyond physical fighting, the Greeks also left the west a legacy of a type of verbal sparring now referred to simply as “debate”. It also has come of age with many rules, though in its political and social media forms such rules are hard to discern. I mention these forms of “fighting” because they illustrate the idea of sparring with rules.

Here is the truth: Believers must come to recognize that not everyone who follows Jesus agrees with one another on a host of issues – so conflict isn’t unnatural. In fact, I believe the text will show that God uses even conflict between believers to sharpen each other in truth – though I readily admit the process is difficult, painful and often distracting to other ministry objectives. It is essential that we learn how to handle disagreement in a godly way, and for that God gave us the record of a model dispute. He intended us to know how to successfully navigate even intense disagreements between believers, including those on the most sensitive of issues. How can we pass through these disputes successfully? Is there a key? Yes…

Key Principle: The key to settling disputes is not the agreement to the debated issue, but agreement to the contract that both sides will follow the system set up for arbitration, and ultimately support the decision of the designated leadership.

That’s a lot of verbiage. The point is simple: in order for a dispute to be settled and peace restored to a divided situation, people have to agree on the METHOD of settling the dispute and the AUTHORITIES that should do so. If such an agreement is not made, the issue will leave the church fractured. Let’s look at the model, and see what God taught Paul (and will teach us) from the struggle:

Division on the field

The passage opened with a visit from some Jewish men of the Jerusalem area:

Acts 15:1 Some men came down from Judea and [began] teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, [the brethren] determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. 3 Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. 4 When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. 5 But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” 6 The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.

First, note the issue was raised by Judean visitors (better explained in verse 5). They argued (paraphrasing): “To be saved, Gentiles must become Jewish proselytes – beginning with circumcision and moving into the instruction of the Torah” (15:1,5). They represented the accepted norm in Judaism, and there was little reason to believe that God had changed the situation based on what THEY knew of the issues. What they were saying had been said for centuries – and in the past it was both Biblically accurate and (of course) ethically sound.

Next, we should take note that even in the most critical areas of the faith, there was disagreement. In a tolerance laden culture we must remember that not everyone can be right, but disagreement doesn’t need to lead to destruction – there is a way to deal with differences. How do we bring a serious and divisive issue to agreement and peace? The model offers help:

We must recognize the division and define the issues. This is a critical beginning to the solution. We cannot solve an issue we cannot define. Look at the model…

Initially it caused two parties to develop, opening debate and confusing the core of the Gospel message (15:2): The issue was defined as whether salvation came to anyone simply by God’s grace through the respondent’s faith. Did the message of the Gospel mean an end to the need for atonement (replacing it with justification)? If that was true, than a man or woman’s participation in attaining cleansing was greatly curtailed. They didn’t need to raise a sacrificial animal, nor did they need to stand in the long lines for slaughter of that animal. They didn’t need to make the trip to Jerusalem at times of sacrifice. Any Jew would recognize the startling implications for the center of the faith’s observance! In this way, the fear of losing the center played into the theology of the people of Judea. Seeking the critical issues will force us to think clearly about our positions and their implications- but it will also help us define our fears.

If we follow their example, we should get the best minds available and most informed people to offer evidence. These weren’t just smart people in the room, but people who KNEW GOD and had a walk with God. Stop for a second and look at what the men did to gather information, because it is a critical part of the Acts record (cp. 15:2). I am going to camp here for a few minutes, because this part gets overlooked too often…

In the model, the church sent men to gain clarification with evidence of what was being presented. Paul and Barnabas could testify to the idea that God was at work among the Gentiles without their participation in the atonement system of Temple Judaism. As a result, the team was allowed to share their experiences from their travels and what God appeared to be doing from what they experienced (15:3-4). Yet, their experience NEEDED TO BE CHECKED AGAINST OTHER ISSUES.

Don’t skip this part! The “testimony gathering” stage was not inconsequential for Jerusalem’s council, nor was the hearing small to Paul and Barnabas. Leaders make decisions based on facts – not simply voiced fears. By getting first hand testimony, Jerusalem properly collected anecdotes that would help them make the right decision – but by seeking Jerusalem’s counsel on the experience, Paul and Barnabas showed respect for a proper decision making process for the churches.

Stop for a moment and see if you can recognize one of the great issues of our day at this point in our study. For many in the modern church, personal experience too often dictates the determination of truth. If you are younger than 30 years of age, there are two critical lies that have been subtly introduced into many serious discussions of moral behavior. They have often been introduced by educators and further reinforced by modern entertainers.

• First is the idea that moral premises can be decided on the basis of your personal feelings alone.

• Second is the notion that your life experience is the best guide for truth. True Christian thinking, i.e. Biblical thinking stands opposed to both ideas.

To the first, a Christian acknowledges that how I feel about things needs to be subjected to how GOD feels about them, and that is clear only when I understand what the Bible truly says about the issue at the center of my decision. I cannot be “taking up a cross daily and following Jesus” while openly opposing God’s right to set the standard of behavior for His Creation.

To the second, followers of Jesus must reckon that our grasp of experience is grossly limited because we only perceive PART of what is truly happening. We are passing through an experience that we will only truly understand much later.

Here is the key: Decisions about truth and reckoning of moral behavior are not reliably decided based on feeling and experience apart from the Biblical record. Such standards of behavior are not Christian, they are pagan, ungodly and strongly applauded by a fallen world. When the whole fallen world is for your “boldly tolerant” decision, you should not be impressed. Open your Bible, therein is the standard for the follower of Jesus.

The fact is that Bible believers, when living Biblically, confound the modern way of thinking because they can both love the person they see as living in an immoral way and yet reject their life behavior as wrong. I don’t hate people who oppose the Biblical view; I see them as victims of the Fall of man, held in the embrace of a fallen prince doomed to destruction. They aren’t the problem to be solved; they are the sinner to be loved. At the same time, I will not embrace their standard of behavior no matter how bigoted they evaluate my faith to be. Why? Because if there is a God (as the Bible purports) and if this IS His standard (in the Bible), how they feel about my evaluation of their life is not more compelling to me than what HE has said about their behavior. If I surrender that ground, I have surrendered the Bible to the modern sense of toleration, and I have no message for the sinner but this: “God loves you, but do what you want, or what seems good to you.” That isn’t Biblical at all, and it robs the church of a message that God will save you from your fallen state.

Increasingly, as the culture changes to make what the Bible defines as wrong into a “civil right”, we are forced to do this. Let me be clear: Our experiences with people must not determine our standard of behavior – that is offered by our Creator in His Word. That is one of the things that makes a Christian a follower of Christ. We do NOT simply follow some vaguely formed “love and tolerance” Jesus message – we read the whole of the book and seek to recognize the actual textual principles of it – which are considerably detailed in the 1189 chapters of the Bible. Some in our society boil the message of Jesus into a tolerance that accepts all behaviors – but that doesn’t match the text at all.

For older believers who engage this lesson, you may not understand why I am slowing down to examine this part of the story…but this is critical to our young. I strongly believe we are living in a day of delusion -even within the community of the Christian faith. Many begin with the flawed foundational idea that God’s chief interest is their happiness (not holiness). Because of that, anything that would curtail their ability to express their inner desires and feelings could not be commanded by this “reshaped” god they now follow. If they feel they were “made with certain desires”, they cannot imagine a god that would tell them to deny their feelings – because their true god is their appetite. We live in a time where even believers have been subtly convinced that the center of the universe is how they feel, not Who they serve – and that separates the modern church from the message of its past.

The point is simple: How I feel about things needs to be subjected to how GOD feels about them:

• Do I feel sex outside of marriage is right or wrong? The Christian answer is “Who cares what you feel about that?” The believer may feel it is perfectly acceptable in their heart (“because I really love them”) – but the Bible makes it clear that it is NOT God’s standard. When weighing the deciding factor, Christian thinking dictates that God’s Word is the standard of both my faith and my behavior.

• Do I feel that because someone says: “I have always felt this way”, that acting on that feeling is ok with God? The Biblical answer is “Your feelings are from a fallen heart that will deceive you.” That is what the Bible teaches.

In the problem in Acts, anecdotal experience was presented, but it wasn’t the deciding factor. A thousand experiences from the testimony of the internet may be a tool for clarity, but only if we know how to filter properly the critical issues of the debate. Let me be pointed here:

A young woman I know well says she is a believer in Jesus. She decided to walk away from both her family and Biblical teaching given to her in her spiritual walk early in life. She wanted to be loved, and decided to sleep with a boyfriend outside of marriage and ended up living with him in a home with a whole group of others. She got pregnant – not once, but several times. The babies came one after another – but her boyfriend’s sense of responsibility didn’t keep a roof over her head, and her sexual escapades in those years didn’t protect her from HIV. Now she is sick and frustrated because she is unable to offer her children any of her buried Biblical ideals in that deconstructed and immoral environment. As she has grown sicker, she realizes that her feelings that she “loved him” were not enough to make life work. She recognizes her limited life experience didn’t anticipate the outcomes. Now she needs those who love her unconditionally– the family she walked away from – but the feelings that led her decisions did not take into account the rest of the people in her life who were passing through profound heartbreak because of each of her choices. They knew God’s Word, and they saw it all coming. Don’t be deceived – ungodly living leads to destroyed lives. With each of her ungodly, immoral and destructive decisions she sank deeper, but the modern world applauded, until the results came due. Her inexperience and her heart-led choices have created a mess for her child – but she couldn’t see that when she decided on her lifestyle. Now, it is very probable that the state will have more children to raise for parents that “followed their heart” instead of their Bible.

Go back to the Jerusalem Council. Look at the third way they worked to solve the issue. They defined the issue, they gathered the facts… what was next? Since they knew the problems could not be settled by people on the scene, they sought help. Third, they took the problem to those who are experts and authorities in the issue.

At Jerusalem, some Pharisees objected (15:5) so the council came to consider the issue (15:6). Nothing is served by shutting out one view before the hearing. They let those who objected speak, even if they are not in the majority.

Debate among the delegates

Listen for a moment to the debate in the room:

Acts 15:7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 “And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; 9 and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 “But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” 12 All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

First, people got the chance to speak from their experiences, their feelings and their best understandings. No one knows everything, so the debate probably changed some positions in the room. This wasn’t the modern form of yelling and sarcasm that debate has become – this was scholarly determination, with pliable and teachable hearts of men who respected one another and cared deeply for one another. When people don’t care about one another, the debate degrades quickly into a shouting match.

After some debate, Peter took the floor and began to share his experiences that seemed inexplicable apart from a “God at work” moment. He noted the time he stood before Cornelius and made clear he didn’t see God’s move coming. He made clear that God didn’t seem to distinguish between Jew and Gentile in the move of the Spirit’s gifts. He also made clear that he didn’t want to press the Gentiles into the atonement system – because keeping one’s eternal state was a heavy business that often led to failure. After that testimony came the moment that probably swayed a number of hearts. Peter said: “Either we believe that justification apart from any human work is the Gospel, or we don’t.”

There is was: the clear choice was made plain. The Gospel would either be that Gentiles could become Jews (a message that had been around for centuries), or the Gospel was that justification (total repair of the formerly broken relationship with God) was available to anyone who would believe that Jesus paid it all for them. Paul and Barnabas sided with the latter notion, and gave testimony as to how that was clearly working in the Gentile world.

Determination of the council

It was time to decide. James (who headed the council) spoke to the issue:

Acts 15:13 After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 14 “Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 “With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, 16 AFTER THESE THINGS I will return, AND I WILL REBUILD THE TABERNACLE OF DAVID WHICH HAS FALLEN, AND I WILL REBUILD ITS RUINS, AND I WILL RESTORE IT, 17 SO THAT THE REST OF MANKIND MAY SEEK THE LORD, AND ALL THE GENTILES WHO ARE CALLED BY MY NAME,’ 18 SAYS THE LORD, WHO MAKES THESE THINGS KNOWN FROM LONG AGO. 19 “Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, 20 but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. 21 “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” 22 Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas– Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, 23 and they sent this letter by them…” The rest of the passage is about the letter repeating the words of James, and the men moving out with the letter that contained the words…

Obviously, the church needed clarity, and there was a system for caring for the problem. What was key in these verses is the line of reasoning used to solve the issue:

James cited the testimony of the trusted men about their experience (Acts 15:14) – but that was not the deciding factor. His decision, as our decision in any moral or doctrinal issue, was based on the how the idea or behavior fit the Scriptural frame already exposed by God in His Word.

James showed sensitivity to all sides of the debate, but he took a stand. In our modern culture of tolerance, that may sound JUDGY, but not everyone is right when two moral or behavioral codes run in opposite directions. James made clear the teaching in four statements:

• They must set aside life in the pagan temple – no small affair for an ingrained Roman citizen.
• They must not eat blood.
• They must not eat animals that have been killed by strangulation nor participate in the pagan services that do such things.
• They must forsake sexual sin and walk in purity (something associated with pagan ritual as well as standard Roman practice).

James recognized the differences that God maintained – not everyone was going to be doing the same thing to be in obedience to God’s call for them. Many Christians lose track of the issues in this passage. James was NOT telling Jews not to circumcise nor keep Sabbath – that wasn’t his point. He made the decision “Concerning Gentiles” not changing anything for the Jewish people at that point. Much later in Acts 21:20, it will become clear that Jews keeping the Law was not in view in the decision making process at all.

It is NOT Biblical to think that any distinction in the functions of people fundamentally demeans people. The Bible made clear that men and women were given differing roles by God – but both are equally valued by God. Jews and Gentiles were given differing standards of food and drink, dress and celebration by God – but that doesn’t mean that one was viewed as superior to the other. Modern thinking has assaulted this value system, claiming that anything that distinguished one person from another demeans people.

Telling women they are not to Pastor a church is not the same thing as making an African-American sit in the back of a bus. One was the action of people who made another subservient to them out of a misguided and evil sense of superiority; the other is a statement based on overwhelming evidence from the Bible itself. Believers can disagree on the meaning of those passages (though I believe they are quite clear), but we must recognize that adherence to that standard is not intended to be mean spirited.

It is always Biblically immoral to demean anyone’s value (since that value is tied up in their creation by a Majestic God), but it is NOT wrong to limit one’s desired behaviors based on what the Bible expressly teaches. That was part of the POINT of God’s reveal truth – to transform us and change our behaviors from their fallen desires.

The issue was solved, and the council sorted out the complex arguments and boiled down the action steps for the group, showing public agreement.

Delivery to the perplexed

The letter was carried, and the small house churches were completely informed on the issue and the decision.

Acts 15:30 So when they were sent away, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter…”

Here is my question: “Why did this work?”

I believe the answer is this: “Some vital points of agreement were understood at the beginning. They LOVED one another, and respected men of God that showed His leading in their lives listened to one another carefully. Yet, there was something more: Both sides accepted the process and showed respect for their leaders, when those leaders lived and taught in a way that reflected God’s Word.

Our text dealt with three basic questions about disagreements in the body:

When was contention necessary? (15:1) It must come when the issue is essential to the core message of the group, there must be agreement (15:1). These were not contentions over style or preference – but essential truths that made fellowship impossible without agreement.

What was the process of dealing with serious disagreements? (15:2-5) In a “face to face” meeting, people presented their understandings to the other (15:2a), set aside their ego, and met with congeniality and care.

How did the council decide the truth concerning the opposing views? (15:6-35). First, they accepted evidence that God was at work. Though experiential, that evidence was one of the ways the church could see the hand of God in their lives. (15:7-12). Then they related any experiences to the filter of the Word of God (15:13-18). Finally, when the decision was made, they publicly supported it.

The key to settling disputes is not the agreement to the debated issue, but agreement to the contract that both sides will follow the system set up for arbitration, and ultimately support the decision of the designated leadership.

Paul, like all of the men in the room, walked away refreshed with God’s work through the whole room. He learned a pattern that would serve him well – because conflict would occur more than he could possibly know in the days ahead.

God on the Move: “What do you expect?” – Acts 13 and 14

what to expectFor any thoughtful young woman, expecting their first baby can be very exciting, but also a little scary. How do I know that is true? Well, for one thing, I am a dad. But even if I weren’t, all I would have to know is that “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” is a perennial New York Times bestseller and was rated by “USA Today” as one of the twenty-five most “influential books of the past quarter century”. Some authorities report that more than 90% of pregnant American women have picked up this book for a look, with over 14.5 million copies in print in its four editions. It has spun off a website and a whole genre of other works in the subject area. Obviously, the author struck a nerve with child bearing women, and that nerve was apprehension and uncertain expectation.

What we expect from an experience has much to do with how we pass through that experience. I mention the book because the author obviously felt that explaining the birthing process and offering insights and testimony from those who have passed through the process would be incredibly helpful to one who is facing the experience. What is true in the process of birthing a child is also true in the process of birthing a church and a Gospel movement in a pagan world. The book of Acts offers the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting New Births in the Kingdom” – and has been a bestseller for centuries! The book includes a record of “men on a mission from God” to reach into a pagan world, armed with God’s Spirit and power, effectively fighting against God’s adversary, the Devil. It isn’t just a “nuts and bolts” look at outreach and church planting; it is a very personal, sometimes remarkably painful reflection of frail men on an exalted mission. It isn’t the men you should be impressed with – but the gains God makes through, and always in spite of, these men as the Gospel powerfully changed lives.

If we are to see paganism again pressed by the power of God – we must know what we are “up against” in the spiritual world. We must know what to anticipate and how to prepare. We must be ready as individual believers for Satan’s counterattack to the Gospel in our personal lives (where temptation can derail us), in the privacy of our own homes (where interpersonal strife can easily develop), in the ministry of our churches (where a group of natural hypocrites must come together and be transformed by renewing of our minds and hearts) and in our communities (where the Gospel is generally ignored, except when it is attacked). I am convinced that is why God gave to us the Book of Acts.

Key Principle: God’s Word can help us reset expectations so that we can navigate life thoughtfully and positively as individuals and as a Gospel movement.

In this lesson we move from the early steps and preparations of the Apostle Paul to his first team ministry outreach – sent by the Spirit of God to unbelieving people who did not yet have any local church witness. That was the essence of Barnabas and Paul’s job – to establish the church in new places by preaching the Gospel. They were to arrive, get an audience with local people (which began in the local synagogue of each town) and present the truth that Jesus replaced the atonement system of the Hebrew Scriptures – the killing of animals in sacrifices and the need to continually maintain one’s right standing before God by regular participation in the sacrificial ceremonies. God had done a new thing that was GOOD NEWS, called “the Gospel”. The message of the Gospel was that a full, complete and everlasting JUSTIFICATION (a permanent declaration of full payment for sin) before God could now be obtained by the surrender of one’s heart and life to Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Himself bore the payment for all of our sins, Jesus could cancel the debt anyone had with God. As a perfect sacrifice, Jesus offered a “one size fits all” payment that need not be repeated in any further installments, nor amended in any way.

The Good News was, and still IS this: When a man, woman or child recognizes they are in need of a relationship with a Holy God, but are not righteous in and of themselves, they are able to ask Jesus to take His perfect payment (made in His own blood) to wash away their sin. All the remains of the breach between God and their heart is erased, and God willingly dwells within the life surrendered. When one asks for this, Jesus has promised in the Bible He would apply the payment and cancel their “rebellion caused” debt – and God acknowledged His agreement with His Son’s sacrifice by raising Jesus from the dead. That was the essence of the Good News, and is the same Gospel that true followers of Jesus offer to a lost world today. It isn’t a “get out of jail free” card – because the Gospel is costly – but not to the sinner. The good news of the Gospel is that I cannot pay, but Jesus already DID PAY.

The Prayer Room Pre-launch

Go back in the room where the first declared and intention outreach mission began in the first century. The record of what happened should help us set our expectations as people who follow God. I warn you, the record isn’t what some are saying. It isn’t the story of how people came to Jesus and everything got easy… not at all. Let’s look at the beginning of Acts 13…

Acts 13:1 Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was [there], prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. 4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus.

The mission started with the leadership of a local church body in a prayer meeting. These were mature men. They were dedicated, reputable followers of Jesus that knew the source of spiritual power – from God’s throne. Look at the names of the other men kneeling beside Paul:

• Barnabas was a Levitical Jew from Cyprus (Acts 4:36) who was actually named Joseph, but was more known as “Mr. Encouragement” than his family name!

• Simeon (Shim’on) was a Jew who was likely a black man from North African descent, and may have been the Cyrenian who carried the Cross of Jesus (though this is not certain). What we can assume is that he was a traveler in the Empire, and used his Latin name “Niger”.

• Lucius of Cyrene may have been another black man, but many Cyrenians were transplants from the Italic peninsula, so we aren’t sure.

• Manaen is a man we believe we know more about. The text reminds us that he was “brought up with Herod the Tetrarch (called Herod Antipas in the Gospels). He appears to have been raised by the mother of Archelaus and Antipas, both of whom were schooled in Rome as children. By the time of this prayer meeting, both “princes” were in exile to the Rhone region, banished from their former post. If Manaen were here, he’d be able to tell us some very interesting things about the Herodian dynasty. The fact is, though, he was a man of background and means, and now he was following Christ.

These were men of prayer. I cannot say it loud and long enough… no church and no Christian will ever become effective in the battle without prayer. It isn’t a distraction and it isn’t a luxury. When troubles come, prayer meetings fill… but in times we perceive “success” we become lax about the spiritual wrestling that happens from the knees.

These were also men of service. They didn’t just “come to church to get something out of it” – they came, that day, to “minister to the Lord”. They fasted and fixed their gaze on Heaven. There were no forms and programs – there was prayer and fasting. The forms may now be necessary, and the programs may attract the less fervent – but none of it replaces the prayer of godly people.

These were obedient men. They heard from God, and they followed God’s Word. When God told them who to send and where, they fasted more, prayed more (in case God had more to add), and after some time they publicly placed on Barnabas and Saul (Paul) the responsibility and public symbol of a call to a specific ministry.

Let’s stop for a moment and ask what we can learn from their experience. Could it be that our expectation for ministry ought to be like their experience? When serious believers seek God in fixed times of prayer and fasting might we be assured that God would direct the movement forward? Can we expect that God will move because we ASK Him to direct? Did not Jesus tell His disciples in the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7) that their Father knew what they needed and would not give them something else when they took the time to ask Him? Let’s say it directly…

Expectation One: We should expect to need direction and supply from God. We will not always know what to do next in life or ministry – but God gave us prayer and our solution.

Salamis Proclamation

Acts 13:5 When they reached Salamis, they [began] to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews; and they also had John as their helper.

Barnabas and Saul left Antioch and walked the fifteen miles to board a ship docked in nearby Seleucia that was bound for Barnabas’ native island – Cyprus. They sailed about 100 miles, and harbored in at Salamis. For their time in that city, Luke (the author) offers only one verse – but it is not unimportant to our understanding. Look closely, and we can see three important details:

• When they arrived, the script they followed was the Word of God.

• They began in the synagogue, because that is where people with a background in atonement would be gathered, and the Gospel would make more sense in that audience. They didn’t start at the pagan end of town – but at the place where people had some comprehension of the God of Abraham and His Word.

• They went as a team, but they added a younger helper. We have no information that leads us to conclude that God told them to seek out John Mark, but when they got to Cyprus, they added him to their team (probably at the behest of his uncle Barnabas).

Can you recognize how that informs our expectations of ministry? Let me suggest that we would be wisest to stay on script by preaching and teaching God’s Word and not our political thoughts and practical musings. We all love a good story, and often they are helpful to illustrate a truth – but no church can survive on a Christian “Mark Twain” that offers a sermon of stories with little of God’s Word. It may keep the crowd emotionally happy, but it will not grow them to be spiritually strong.

Expectation Two: We must anticipate building a team, seeking the spiritually sensitive, and giving a message from the Word of God.

Paphos Public Distractions

Barnabas, Paul and John Mark didn’t stay long in Salamis, but made the more than 100 mile journey by Roman road to Paphos, where Luke pauses to add a story of the conversion of the Roman Proconsul Lucius Sergius Paulus:

Acts 13:6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they found a magician, a Jewish false prophet whose name was Bar-Jesus, 7 who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence. This man summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for so his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also [known as] Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on him, 10 and said, “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord? 11 “Now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and not see the sun for a time.” And immediately a mist and a darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking those who would lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord.

Barnabas, Paul and John Mark came for the expressed purpose to share the Gospel and build discipleship circles that would initiate local churches. God sent them – that was clear in the text. Yet, the enemy didn’t LEAVE because he heard the message of the Gospel was about to pour in – he set up confusion and conflict ahead of their arrival. That isn’t unusual, it is the norm.

Expectation Three: We should anticipate the confusing words of the deceiver to try to “douse” those we attempt to reach. Sometimes outreach will include direct answers to those who are deliberately being deceptive.

Some Christians believe that one can only “play nicely” with others in their presentation – and certainly believers are to strive for peace. At the same time, failing to contend for the hearts of those who are lost is surrender to deception.

When our schools insist on representing naturalism as the only truth, and wrap it in a scientific lab coat – we will respond. We will tell them that they are betraying the foundation of the country in which we have enjoyed mutual blessing. Our fathers knew that our rights didn’t come from government, but we God given an inalienable – they said so. “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor,” said George Washington. Yet that won’t be at the core of our argument – the Bible will. We will continue to press for the truth of the Gospel and the place of the Word in the lives of students. Teaching Western history while ignoring the influence of the Scriptures is a rouse strategically planned in modern education. We don’t want conflict, but we won’t surrender the Word for a peace that damns those without the truth. Expecting no conflict in sharing truth ignores the story God presented in the Book of Acts.

Perga Disappointments

From Paphos, the men set sail almost due north for a distance of about 175 miles to the landing near Perga, and then made their way into the town:

Acts 13:13 Now Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia; but John left them and returned to Jerusalem.

Yet, later Paul recalled the first entry to the region of greater Galatia as one in which he struggled physically (some scholars believe the Galatian letter embraced the entire area of central Anatolia, and there is ample evidence that he named the region but meant a broader territory):

Galatians 4:13 but you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; 14 and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus [Himself]. 15 Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.

The mission team went through a time of division, and (it appears) physical weakness. I believe that John Mark didn’t simply leave because he got home sick. I don’t think he was simply young and inexperienced and unaccustomed to the size of the Taurus mountains the team was about to embark on crossing. Those things may have been true, but I don’t think any of them were the deciding factor for why John left a hole in the team that later ruptured into an argument that broke the team up.

What was his problem? I think Paul said tough things to Elymas, and that surprised John Mark, and may have rattled him a bit. I think that Paul got sick and wasn’t doing well, and that eroded the confidence in the team that John began with. That may be why Paul reacted so strongly later, just as a team for the second mission journey was coming together. Coming inland, Barnabas and Paul were hurt by the loss of John Mark – and it got between their relationship.

Expectation Four: We shouldn’t anticipate a team without disappointment and conflict – that is part of God’s story from the first journey.

People on the team will let us down, and we must be ready for it. Our hope is in the Lord and His Word, not in the vessels that transport it to the world.

Pisidian Preaching

Moving inland, Barnabas and Paul made their way to Pisidian Antioch, gained a large audience, and began to preach to the Jews of that town. The account is long, so we will offer an overview of Paul’s six point message:

Acts 13:14 But going on from Perga, they arrived at Pisidian Antioch, and on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading of the Law and the Prophets the synagogue officials sent to them, saying “Brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say it.” 16 Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen:

1: God was at work in our collective Jewish past (13:17-22)

• He chose us and set us free from Egypt (17)
• He brought us through the wilderness (18)
• He cleared Canaanites off the land of our inheritance (19)
• He provided Judges until Samuel (20)
• He provided Kings – including Saul and David (21-22a)
• He gave a promise to King David (22b)

2: God is at work in our day (13:23-26)

• He sent His promised Savior – raising Him from the dead (23)
• He sent the announcer before Him – John the Baptizer (24-25)
• He sent US to YOU – to announce the message of salvation (26)

3: You cannot look to Jerusalem for the answer (13:27-32)

• They refused Him and rejected Him (27)
• They gave Him to Romans for execution (28)
• He was killed, but He was raised (29)!
• God was at work in that tomb (30)
• Many people witnessed Him risen and walking among us (31)
• We declare HE was the delivered of the promise of God (32)

4: You can confirm our message in the Scriptures (13:33-37)

5: The message is the total forgiveness of sins to those who believe – atonement has been replaced by justification (13:38-39)

6: Don’t walk past your opportunity to respond to God’s message (13:40-41).

From the moment of the delivery of their message, response and reaction began. Gentile proselytes (followers of Judaism who were not born Jews) begged for more information and kept following Paul and Barnabas (13:42-43). Unbelieving Jews resisted, became jealous and argumentative (13:45) and pushed Paul and Barnabas to spend more time with Gentile converts until they were pushed out of the area (13:46-51). The missionaries left behind in the region followers of Jesus who were joyful in spite of the pressures (13:52).

Expectation Five: We should not measure the work too early. Some of our engagements are to plant seed and will not bear the fruit we anticipate quickly. Our work is faithfulness, God’s work is found in the results.

Iconium Plots

They pushed on to Iconium:

Acts 14:1 In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. 2 But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren. 3 Therefore they spent a long time [there] speaking boldly [with reliance] upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. 4 But the people of the city were divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. 5 And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, 6 they became aware of it and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; 7 and there they continued to preach the gospel.

Just when they were getting real response by a larger crowd, the opposition rose and became personal and dangerous. God empowered them with signs and wonders, but they knew when a plot was uncovered they should get out of town.

Expectation Six: Just because we carry God’s Word doesn’t mean we go in unwise of the atmosphere.

Boldness is not stupidity. We must be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. There is no real ministry without conflict – because the enemy will not surrender the field of battle without a fight.

Lystra Confusion and Anger

The went on from Iconium to Lystra and Derbe. Luke picked up one anecdote from the trip that summarized the problems encountered:

Acts 14:8 At Lystra a man was sitting who had no strength in his feet, lame from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. 9 This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who, when he had fixed his gaze on him and had seen that he had faith to be made well, 10 said with a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he leaped up and [began] to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” 12 And they [began] calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose [temple] was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out 15 and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, WHO MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM. 16 “In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; 17 and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” 18 [Even] saying these things, with difficulty they restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them. 19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. 20 But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city. The next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe.

No sooner had Paul brought the truth of Jesus which was validated by a sign miracle, the people were led into a “side street” of faith. They became fixated on the power, and dropped the message of Jesus into the end of their paganism.

Expectation Seven: People will always be tempted to add Jesus to their pagan lifestyle and modify the message of surrender.

They want eternal life and a relationship with God – but they want to keep their old ways of seeing the world. That defines the battle line of the message – surrender is what God is looking for from people. Jesus won’t be added to a formula of other answers to life.

Derbe Calm and the Return Pass

The end of the passage tells of the return and offers a very important detail…

Acts 14:21 After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and [saying], “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” 23 When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. 24 They passed through Pisidia and came into Pamphylia. 25 When they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. 26 From there they sailed to Antioch, from which they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had accomplished. 27 When they had arrived and gathered the church together, they [began] to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they spent a long time with the disciples.

Groups of believers were revisited. They were encouraged, but not with the fluff of some guarantee of peace, prosperity and safety. They were told that it would be TOUGH to follow God. Not left to flounder around, leadership was appointed and churches were formed. Before they had a Bible study – with leadership and accountability structure it became a church.

Expectation Eight: Sustainable ministry isn’t just about sharing the Gospel or promising people Heaven – it is about building accountability structures in the body of Christ that can help people navigate the hard times we face in this world.

Let me close this lesson on expectations by reminding you of something that, by now, may be incredibly obvious. People are going to fail us because fallen people hurt each other. We must construct in our lives the proper mechanisms to forgive them. Yet, real forgiveness doesn’t begin with focusing on the people who hurt me. I must first deal in my heart with God – and my deep desire to hold on to the wrong until I feel the satisfaction of justice. Bitterness is a reflection that I don’t trust God to make things right in His time. When I release the wrong committed against me into God’s hands, I begin to gain the ability to forgive the one who wounded me. My forgiveness then, starts between me and God, and the healing between me and another is the effect of that – it is not the primary focus.

God’s Word can help us reset expectations so that we can navigate life thoughtfully and positively as individuals and as a Gospel movement.

God on the Move: “Making Connection" – Acts 9-11; 1 Cor. 12

Telstar1It was fifty-two years ago this summer that President John F. Kennedy announced the launch of the Telstar Communications Satellite that connected in near “real time” the European continent to the USA by way of microwave signal. This was the first “instant wireless signal”, that allowed for both dynamic two-way communication and live picture broadcast. That first television broadcast was, in fact, the press conference that “linked” the western world together, and bridged the ocean without the physical constraints of tethering wires. In a real way, this was the beginning of wireless connection that has connected much of the world together without wires. You may be interested to know that there are now just over 7 billion people on the planet, and 6.8 billion cell phones. It is true, not every area of our globe is covered, and some people have multiple phones, but I doubt President Kennedy could have envisioned that a single satellite would begin connections that would put whole computers in purses and pockets of people around the globe in the form of cell phones… We live in the connected world, and most of us don’t even think about it.

Hold that thought about connection, because it is extremely relevant to our lesson from the Word… For a few moments, I want us to take another step together in our studies on the “Life and Ministry of Saul of Tarsus”, better known to believers as the Apostle Paul – and look at how the important lesson of connection was forged in his life…

We met Saul at the stoning of Stephen recorded in Acts 7, and took a quick overview of his life and ministry – just to get our “feet wet” in the details of his life. In the second study, we watched as Jesus broke the proud stride of the “Pharisee on a mission” and cast him to the ground in a blinding light. He met Jesus there, and Jesus took away his physical sight for three days, to give him spiritual insight that would change his eternity. Though well-educated and erudite before meeting the Savior in a vision, we noted that Saul wasn’t ready until he relearned the basics of life, and then had intense training for an extended period under the work of the Spirit’s transformation and Jesus’ discipleship in the desert. We watched Saul take his “first steps” in his new faith – and then celebrated the work of God in him over seven years of reshaping.

In this lesson, we want to bridge the gap between his time of early learning and his first mission journey, by looking at the Scripture for the next move of God in his life. Let’s summarize where we are this way:

• First, we can observe the thirty plus years of life of a Pharisee who loved the Law – but didn’t have a personal relationship with God.

• Second, the Word offered an excellent picture of the meeting place between the Savior and the would-be servant.

• Third, the early training and reshaping took place in initial success in Damascus and a hiatus in the desert to learn from the Savior, followed by an attempt on his life. Escaping Damascus, he met some key leaders of the faith but got a vision to from God to leave Jewish ministry and head for the diaspora – back to Tarsus. The temptation to “jump ahead of God’s call” was overcome, and Saul got busy ministering in small places, and learned faithfulness long after the newness wore off.

• Now we see the one lacking piece that will make or break the rest of his ministry – the careful making of connection to the other believers in the body of Christ (the church). With this, we see an important principle…

Key Principle: The believer was not called to follow Jesus alone, but to work in vital connection to the body of Christ.

The Apostle Paul carried the weight of the believers of his day – there is no doubt about it. He felt it when they turned on one another, hurt one another, or acted sinfully and brought derision on the name of the Savior. He constantly urged the believers to see themselves as connected together – all ONE in Christ. In one discussion, as Paul was writing about spiritual gifts – those special enabling powers given by God at the time of our salvation – he told the believers at Corinth that they were joined together… they were part of one another. He wrote:

1 Corinthians 12:12 For even as the body is one and [yet] has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not [a part] of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less [a part] of the body. … 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. … 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” … 24 … But God has [so] composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that [member] which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but [that] the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if [one] member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. (NASB)

When we read that passage, there are five things that become very clear:

• First, any differences between believers (in terms of their exercise of gifts) must not suggest a different body connection, only a different function within the body. We are all pulling together in Christ – even if we are doing it differently than our best Christian friend.

• Second, our backgrounds aren’t supposed to be a dividing factor. Our race, our past and our status in society are melted away as we join with one another.

• Third, every role in the body is important – though not all are as “visible” to the whole.

• Fourth, individuals may find a cause to rejoice or cry – and we are to be able to it together. We are joined to each other in grief, sorrow, joy and celebration!

• Fifth, connection is the key to healthy activity. A body that loses a part loses health and wholeness. In the same way, we are to grow into our need of one another – caring about the absenting of one from the others.

Here is my question: “How did Paul come to that conclusion?” I know, you and I recognize the words were not merely Paul’s own – but he was moved by God’s Spirit to write what he did. At the same time, he agreed with the words. How did he grow from the rugged individualist leader type to one who was so very connected to others? I suspect God taught him through the incredible benefits of connection. In the early stages of his ministry, just as he was learning to be faithful in the small assignments, God was sculpting Paul. He was learning the value of connection.

Five Advantages of Connection:

I have been finishing the work on my upstairs bathroom, and have been putting the cabinetry on the walls, and finishing the wiring of the bathroom. To help me get the look Dottie wanted, we went to IKEA. Someone has quipped that IKEA is Swedish for “puzzle maker” – and if you have ever bought their products you know why that is both funny and painful. I admit it – I love their cabinets and rooms, but have never seen so many parts simply to hang a door! In the thousands of little pieces they give you as part of the pack, I have only one warning… be careful to keep everything together and organized. You will need every little Swedish “do-dad” they give you to put their furnishings together! Those little connectors are essential!

While we are thinking about those little connectors, let’s think about the “body connectors” that we have for the body of Christ. We get together in tons of little meetings. Many of them are not very important on the face of them – but people who pray and play together learn to stay together. When you know people well, it is harder to begin to believe bad things shared with you about them. You KNOW them… and that happened because of countless meals together, meetings, little tasks – time spent together! There are INCREDIBLE ADVANTAGES TO CONNECTION. I want to mention five of them that Paul learned at this stage of his walk – just before God called him into mission service along dusty roads, on wind-whipped ships, and surrounded by the smell of cooking pig meat.

Connection offers protection (Acts 9:29-30)

First, connection offers protection when the enemy attacks – and he WILL attack. Look in Acts 9:29-30:

9:29 And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic [Jews]; but they were attempting to put him to death. 30 But when the brethren learned [of it], they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus.

In our last lesson we breezed by the death threat against Paul. It was an important lesson to the young Christian – that walking with God was not going to be without it enemies and hazards. In fact, when you gave your life to Christ, the enemy of Jesus became YOUR enemy as well. As an unbeliever, Satan had no reason to get too far into your life. Most of the damage in terms of sin came from the influence of the world (where Satan has a hand) and the works of the flesh (which are bent toward evil since the Fall of man). Yet, when you surrendered your life to Jesus to follow Him and trust Him – you got a target on your back. If you move forward with your witness – you should expect the wicked one to pay attention to you in a whole new way!

Though other believers cannot put on all the spiritual armor God called the believer to wear – your brothers and sisters in Christ DO have a role to play when you are under attack. Do you remember where Paul wrote about the connection that offers protection? Ephesians 6 reminded the believers at Ephesus of the common Roman armor they saw everyday as soldiers passed through the city. Paul took inventory and assessed the implements for a fight – then applied those pieces of armor to the spiritual war. He urged the believers of Ephesus to be strengthened in God’s power (10). How?

1) By using the resources God gave them (Eph. 6:11);
2) By identifying the real enemy (Eph. 6:11b-12);
3) By deliberately putting on all the protection provided by God (Eph. 6:13).

Paul wrote of two types of armor:

The FIRST TYPE was that armor which must always be at the ready. If there was a lull in the battle, the fighter was not to remove the first three implements. He indicated that in the verb form “always having” the:

a. Belt of truthfulness: (alethia: truth as content) vulnerable area, carefully protected (14); Paul was not addressing the truth of salvation (as in v. 17 and the sword, Word), but rather the commitment to truthfulness of the believer!
b. Breastplate of righteousness (holy choices): covering heart, able to take direct blows when positioned correctly (14b), breaks your heart when not maintained. In the Hebrew world, the “heart” is the mind! (Prov. 23:7; Mark 7:21). Paul does not refer to self-righteousness (Eph. 2:8-9), nor of imputed righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21), but of a life practice of righteousness, or holy living.
c. Sandal guard straps fixed in position to provide a firm stand with the Gospel: metal tabs that protected the surface of the foot with cletes to hold the soldier in place. Paul refers to the unmovable faith in the Gospel to bring peace in the life of the lost.

The SECOND TYPE of armor was indicated in the poor translation of “Above all” (v.16). The grammar was NOT indicating the shield is more important, but is linked to the verb form of all of the next three items. They were to appropriate at the time necessary the:

d. Blocking shield of faith (theuron; large shield to block arrows; 4.5 feet by 2.5 feet., cp. Psalm 18:30). His reference is not to “belief” as such, but to “trust” that changes our view of ourselves and the world around us. When the battle rages, use the shield. 1) they were effective when locked together; 2) they were effective when held tightly and trusted and all remained in place.
e. Helmet of salvation (refers to the protection of the transformed mind) when we understand that our salvation has a PAST aspect: justification; a PRESENT aspect: sanctification; and a FUTURE aspect, our eventual glorification. We must see things through God’s eyes and learn to call the battle by His Word!
f. Sword of the Spirit: the WORD (RAMA: From the word “to pour, an utterance”) of God. The “machaira” dagger is not the broad sword, rhomphaia). A specific Word from God that He gives to take a direct shot at the enemy!

It is the blocking shield that reminds us of the protection from connection. Only a wall of shields would block, intimidate and cause advance. Alone, the soldier was just a guy with a leather covered device. Together, the wall of soldiers was ghastly if they were advancing on your line!

Let’s be clear: the enemy always looks for the believer that thinks they can stand alone. Without accountability, without engagement of others, without placing ourselves deliberately under the spiritual authority of godly men – we are like the wandering wildebeest on the prairie – we look much like “supper” to a hungry lion.

Connection offers inspection (Acts 11:19-24)

Deliberate connection to the body also offers something else – it offers the opportunity to have our life inspected by another. That isn’t the negative that some may hear. Listen to the passage that helped shape the early church’s sense of inspection:

Acts 11:19 So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that occurred in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and [began] speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. 23 Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and [began] to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain [true] to the Lord; 24 for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.

God was doing something in Antioch that wasn’t happening in Jerusalem. In fact, Jerusalem had no desire for it to happen. God was opening the door to the Gentile world – a blessing that became the most disturbing problem to the early church of the first century. Many of the epistles, letters written from church leaders to local churches and other leaders, addressed that very issue.

The text related that most believers were sharing the message of Jesus WITHIN Judaism, even after they began to scatter with rising persecution (Acts 11:19). A few began to speak to Greeks – whether they were proselytes to Judaism or not we do not know – but they clearly went outside the normal frame of practiced ministry. Remember, the whole “church thing” was still new. Remember also that Jesus promised the Apostles they would be called upon to “bind” (forbid) and “loose” (allow) things as they sought the Spirit’s direction (Matthew 18:18).

When believers heard about the ministry to the Gentiles, they dispatched a godly and encouraging man to look carefully into the matter. What he found shocked, and then delighted him. God was doing something no one foresaw! He encouraged them to continue, and many came to Christ (Acts 11:23-24). The connection between the groups made inspection possible, and allowed the believers to share even greater joy – instead of one group hiding what they were doing from another out of fear. Why? Connection tears down fear. It bridges differences. It allows us to explain ourselves to a caring ear, so that we are challenged if wrong, and strengthened if correct. The group felt affirmed, understood and even more interconnected as a result of Barnie’s visit!

Connection offers endorsement (Acts 11:25-26)

Paul probably heard about what happened in Antioch later, but he also personally experienced it a short time after the first Greeks were coming to Jesus. Follow the story as Dr. Luke offered it…

Acts 11:25 And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

What incredible verses! Saul was about seven years old in Messiah, and he was faithfully serving God while making tents. He was part of the fellowship of churches – teaching and sharing –but he was “nobody particularly important” at that time. It was the connection that Barnabas made to him that changed all that.
Barnie knew what Saul had to offer. He recognized the need for a critical thinker, as well as a careful learner of the Word. Barnie was convinced that God was at work, but he knew that his evaluation needed to be examined in light of the Word of God. Who better than that tough minded Pharisee from Tarsus? Saul followed because Saul felt connected. They met for a year with believers in Antioch because they knew they were connected to one Savior, fighting one battle, working for one cause.

Did you note the outcome? Of course there were some great Bible studies, and yes… there were no doubt more added to the Lord… but look at the end of what we read…Christians got their name! They first LOOKED LIKE a body of Christ – sounding like the Savior and acting in that familiar loving yet decisive way. They got called “Christians” because they acted like “little Christs” – followers in DEED. Connection offered the opportunity for Saul to be endorsed by Barnabas, and it offered the opportunity for the whole body to be commended as walking like Jesus!

Connection offers context (2 Corinthians 12:2-7)

It would be easy to skip an important event that appears to have happened right at this time. About fourteen years after the events of Acts 11, Paul was writing to the church at Corinth, and he mentioned an event that probably fit the time we are studying – so it is worth mentioning. Saul was not ONLY learning how to walk with Jesus and serve Him from other leaders, he was learning from the Master Himself. Once again, a vision assisted Saul’s growth – and it will help us to see how God used connection to set the vision in a context of ministry to people. First, the record:

2 Corinthians 12:2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago– whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows– such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know how such a man– whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—4 was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to [my] weaknesses. 6 For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain [from] [this], so that no one will credit me with more than he sees [in] me or hears from me. 7 Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me– to keep me from exalting myself!

Paul was in the midst of a letter that offered three basic statements. 2 Corinthians offered an explanation in chapters 1-7 as to why Paul told the church at Corinth he was coming, but then did not show up. In chapter 8-9, Paul renewed his expectation that the people of Corinth would complete the collection for the believers at Jerusalem. In the end of the letter, Paul exhorted the believers of Corinth to follow proper leadership and behave well (2 Cor. 10-13). While the letter had a somewhat defensive tone in places, it was clear that some believers in Corinth were “bad mouthing” the Apostle in his absence. Some thought they were “just as qualified” to offer God’s direction as Paul – and they said so! They were arrogant in his absence, and his connection to them would help them get back in line.

The passage we read was about Paul’s own opportunity to visit Heaven in a vision. God used that, as he did long before with Ezekiel, to secure Paul through difficult days. His glimpse at the majesty of our God bolstered him through troubled times. Yet it was very personal. The things he saw were not to be shared – they were for him alone.

Did he get a “big head” and walk arrogantly because of the vision – not really. He got along with God’s deep and abiding encouragement something else. He got a “thorn in the flesh”. He got a weakness. God didn’t just want to him to be strong and privileged – but dependent and weak. The GREAT APOSTLE PAUL would need others to do the late night writing and correspondence – because his eyes evidently were not always working. Connection offers us a way to be real, to place all our blessing in a context of real life – and to walk with others as ONE OF THEM. Paul was connected to Christ by his incredible spiritual vision – and connected more deeply to other believers because of his faulty physical vision. Paul could set his blessings in the context of his needs, and be a balanced and loving follower of Jesus.

Connection offers expanded vision (Acts 11:27-30; 12:25-13:3)

Just as Barnabas found that God was expanding the vision of ministry, so Paul learned that in the body were some attuned to needs he would not have sensed. Luke offered:

Acts 11:27 Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up and [began] to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the [reign] of Claudius. 29 And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send [a contribution] for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. 30 And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders.

Then later Luke offered:

Acts 12:25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, taking along with [them] John, who was also called Mark. Acts 13:1 Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was [there], prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.

Look at both of these scenes and you cannot help but notice that God worked through the body of Messiah – as one part of the body was called on to assist the other part. Agabus made the room aware that trouble was coming. Others devised a plan to assist the fledgling church at Jerusalem and the Judean villages. Together they could tackle what no one could do alone. Together they could see what they could not see alone.

Later, after Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch, it was in the prayer meeting of the body that God set aside Barnabas and Saul for the work they were to do for Him. It was from their knees that God spoke to the ROOM, so that no one could later claim the men were self-appointed. A prayer meeting of the body yielded the first piercing into the darkness of the Roman world beyond the “drift” of the Gospel.

James Montgomery Boice told a story back in the days he pastored in Philadelphia. He spoke of Lawrence of Arabia visiting Paris after World War I with some Arab friends. He showed them around Paris, but what fascinated them most was the faucet in their hotel room. They spent hours turning it on and off; they thought it was wonderful. All they had to do was turn the handle, and they could get all the water they wanted. When time came to leave, Lawrence found them in the bathroom trying to detach the faucet. They explained, “It is very dry in Arabia. What we need are faucets. If we have them, we will have all the water we want.” Lawrence had to explain that the effectiveness of the faucets lay in their connection to the pipeline.

I am living in a time when believers don’t seem to realize that our power is not only from connection to the Spirit and to the Word – but also to each other. We were called to live, to walk and to serve in the context of community. The body of Christ has far too many parts that are proudly disconnecting themselves – and they are losing strength in the process. When the Spirit sent Barnabas and Saul out, it was not in disconnection – but in extension.

I want you to think for a moment about some men traveling in a river on a small raft. They didn’t realize until too late they were close to waterfalls and rapids, and the small raft was being tugged more and more swiftly by the sweeping current into the rocks of the rapids. The men began to panic. Knocked from the raft, one man after another struggled as they were pulled toward the falls, and toward a certain death. One man spotted a tree limb growing from the shore and glanced off a rock in the direction of the shore, grabbing the limb and working his way slowly toward the shore. The limb was small and weak, but with patience and struggle – that man was safe on shore. In the meantime, another man saw a large log – it looked strong and stable. He grabbed the log as it moved by, and that choice led him to the falls and to his death. Though the log looked stronger, it was unattached to the shore. It was unconnected. It didn’t lead to safety or strength. It led to death. (RS).

Believers must learn to connect and work at connection. That connection provides protection, inspection, endorsement, context and expanding vision. The believer was not called to follow Jesus alone, but to work in vital connection to the body of Christ.

God on the Move: “Learning for the First Time, All over again!” – Acts 9

hospital 2When I walked into her room, I knew she was changed from the woman I had come to know over the years. The first sign was the missing smile from her face, and the second the lack of her unusually boisterous voice saying, “Well if it isn’t the preacher man!” No, this time she sat in silence, with barely the ability to move her face at all. The stroke attacked all her functions, but left her in the frustrating state of full-minded imprisonment. She could think, but not speak; she could process but not deliver. In the months that followed, one by one, her brain was retrained to learn things all over again – things we don’t even think about doing anymore. She once told me that she was “learning things for the first time all over again!” – I knew exactly what she meant as I watched her do each…

I mention my old friend because her story illustrates in the physical realm what happened long ago to Saul of Tarsus in the spiritual realm. In fact, and many of us went through in our first “growing steps” of faith in Christ learning life all over again. Though his story was nearly two thousand years ago, his conversion was not dissimilar to many people I know. They may not have been “struck down on the road to Damascus”, but God cut deeply into their broken lives – and they weren’t ready for what God wanted to change. Let me see if by looking at Saul’s early steps, we can see more clearly the struggle, and then allow God to make sense of His solution to the issue.

Go back in our story and observe Saul the day BEFORE he met Jesus on the road. He was a competent and capable student of the Word of God, and he was a zealous follower of Temple politics. He had gained the confidence of his fellows early, and used that to build a reputation that was formidable. He exhibited neither laziness nor dull minded slowness – but none of those attributes made him a re-born child of God. He was enthusiastic and zealous, but lost in self-moved and self-measured religion. At the moment of the apogee of his human influence, Jesus cut him down on the roadway, and his life was forever changed. By the end of that conversion story (where we left him in our last lesson) he was blind, hungry and separated from those who understood his past or could perceive his incredible destiny. What happened next is the story of this lesson – the “first steps” of new faith…Yet there is a single principle underlying the text that we must bear in mind…

Key Principles: Some of the initial lessons of faith are the hardest simply because they set the expectation for the rest of our time of service to the King.

Seven Lessons for the “New Beginning”

Paul faced an entire change in his life – one that moved him from an enemy of the Cross to a follower of the Savior. Few men in recorded history have such a radical transformative event, and yet literally millions understand what happened to Paul. They may not have had their lives documented, but they understand the radical changes that come into a life interrupted by God’s grace. Having lived a dramatic life before his Christ encounter, Acts 9 opens up eight critical lessons that Paul needed to learn to help set the tone and expectation for his life “in Christ”. Don’t skip by these lessons, for they are not mere “place holders” in the story. Our expectations weigh heavily in our walk – for those who don’t learn what to expect can easily be drawn off course in discouragement when their false ideas are not confirmed.

Lesson One: God doesn’t always remove troubles instantly – because He works through difficult circumstances (Acts 9:8-9).

The first lesson that Saul needed to confront is found in these two simple verses:

Acts 9:8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Ironically, God blinded Saul so that he could get him to see the truth about life. God had an incredible plan for Saul’s life, but a man so competent couldn’t simply bound his way into that plan on his own power and with his own abilities. In fact, God could only get Saul to move forward by forcing him to a “dead stop”.

God didn’t just make him helpless… He left him in that state for three long days and nights. On the back side of the narrative that may not sound like a long time, but in the midst of it, Saul had no idea that this wasn’t going to be his “new normal” – and his whole life wasn’t about to unravel. There is no way Saul could be happy in darkness – but in the midst of the trouble, Saul could learn the meaning of JOY. Happiness is about what I am going through, while joy is about Who I am trusting as I pass through it.

Dwight L. Moody said it well, “Happiness is caused by things that happen around me, and circumstances will mar it; but joy flows right on through trouble; joy flows on through the dark; joy flows in the night as well as in the day; joy flows all through persecution and opposition. It is an unceasing fountain bubbling up in the heart; a secret spring the world can’t see and doesn’t know anything about.” [SOURCE: Dwight Lyman Moody as quoted by Edythe Draper, Draper’s Book of Quotations for the Christian World (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1992).

Saul needed to learn to trust God and not the circumstances – but he needed something even DEEPER – a lesson many have forgotten. God is not cruel when He delays respite from trouble. He has a purpose that is perfectly timed and properly placed into your life. You may not think so, but that is one way we can learn that we are not God. He is not a genie in our bottle, but a Creator, Sustainer and Master. I am the needy, He is the Knowing One. Trust will always be an issue if I don’t learn early that God does not use my watch to operate His Kingdom. That was the point of the three days and nights…

Here is the point: Either God gets to be God or He doesn’t. Either He chooses my path and I follow His lead, or I am faking the Christian life and trying to lead the dance of life. Saul needed that lesson – but so do we all.

Lesson Two: Your mission from God will require the involvement of others – because God works through teams (Acts 9:10-12).

A second lesson was also in order:

Acts 9:10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord [said] to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.”

It is easy for gifted, talented and capable Christians to miss the need for others – and it is a deep lesson we all need to take to heart. A few years ago, Galen Clark wrote this commentary about team members that I clipped out: “Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin had every reason as teammates to be friends, but they were not. Incognito harassed and bullied Martin. He called him a racial slur in a voicemail played by every media outlet in the country. He threatened to kill him and his family. Incognito claimed all of this was just locker room talk. It is the way the guys talk to one another in the NFL. Apparently, Martin didn’t get the memo. Martin left his lucrative job citing emotional issues and fearing for his life. Though we don’t know all the details, it appears as if Martin has some culpability, as well. He was far too passive in dealing with Incognito’s threatening behavior. As a teammate, it appears, he should have expressed how troubling Incognito’s threats were to him. These two men had many more reasons to get along than to have a toxic relationship. Consider all the reasons they had to be friends. They were both football players. On the same team. Had the same coach. Both were offensive linemen. Both played on the same side of the line. Both were starters. Both wanted to win. Both are big dudes. Both were millionaires. Yet somewhere along the way one or both of them forgot they played for the same team and began to treat the other like a New England Patriot. They forgot the enemy was in another city. They forgot enemy is on another team.” How often I have heard Christian conversation that seemed like brothers forgot where the battle truly can be found. Strong leaders need to be especially careful of the way they learn their need for others.

This past week I participated in a forum on doctrine for the fellowship of churches to which I belong. Men came together from across the country, and hours of discussions produced a newly affirmed doctrinal framework for our churches as we face the emerging issues of our time with renewed vigor and hope. It was a lively discussion with men who love Jesus and yet found themselves quite different from one another. All of us were called by One Lord, but we all felt drawn to specific issues and emphases in ministry – based on the path Jesus placed before us. Gathering together in one room, the energy of team and the gentle reasonableness of maturity overcame what could have been a very negative experience. I will not soon forget how positive this experience was for all of us.

One of the men that impressed me deeply was a long-time friend and fellow Pastor from a Pennsylvania church that tried (sometimes in vain) to “chair” the meeting. He was kind to all of us, careful in his speech, and affirming in his words. Yet, he had conviction in his voice and firmness in his words. I was encouraged by the combination.

Saul needed to learn to temper his voice with those God would place on his team. It isn’t always easy – especially when we are used to being the leading voice in the room. At the same time, it is an absolutely essential lesson – we cannot, we will not and we must not work alone in the Kingdom. Sometimes we have to go a long way to help people know we understand where they are coming from, and that we love them in spite of our differences.

Fred Parsons wrote many years ago a little story that makes the point: A grandfather found his grandson, jumping up and down in his playpen, crying at the top of his voice. When Johnnie saw his grandfather, he reached up his little chubby hands and said, “Out, Gramp, out.” It was only natural for Grandfather to reach down to lift the little fellow out of his predicament; but as he did, the mother of the child stepped up and said, “No, Johnnie, you are being punished, so you must stay in.” The grandfather was at a loss to know what to do. The child’s tears and chubby hands reached deep into his heart, but the mother’s firmness in correcting her son for misbehavior must not be lightly taken. Here was a problem of love versus law, but love found a way. The grandfather could not take the youngster out of the playpen, so he crawled in with him.

Sometimes the best way to show love is identify with the plight of another. It doesn’t rescue them, but it does give them comradery in the trouble! Seriously, Saul needed to learn the value of the team.

Lesson Three: Though your sin is forgiven, some troubles will still follow you – because God uses even our weakness to grow us to full stature in Christ (Acts 9:13-14).

A third lesson was just as essential:

Acts 9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.”

The verses are clear – Saul was a known quantity in Ananias’ life, and not a desired one. The fact is that our reputation is forged over the long haul, and God’s forgiveness doesn’t automatically equal man’s forgiveness. If we were poor parents before we came to Christ, our adult children may not greet our new faith with open arms. We sinned against THEM as well, and that will take time to repair – if it can be this side of heaven. I doubt that Saul would have been fully embraced by Stephen’s family the first week of his new faith.

We all WANT to forgive people – but we have to admit it isn’t all that easy to do when the hurt was deep. Don’t take Ananias’ words too lightly. He wrestled with God because he didn’t KNOW if Saul was sincere in a change of heart.

Look at his words. “Lord, I know about this guy!” Was he implying that God didn’t? I don’t think so. I believe what he was doing was making clear something that Luke included in the text for a specific lesson to the church – When “all things become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17) for the believer the reference primarily concerns our state before God. The mortgage company doesn’t forgive our debts and our waist line doesn’t automatically shrink to a manageable and healthy level. Things that took a long time to break will take a long time to fix – unless God decides to chop into the norm with a miracle. He can – but often He chooses to let us learn to work our way back out of the problem. It is in working through our problems that God builds our strength, and teaches us patience for one another. After all, all the believers around you have their own dragons of the past to slay.

We make a terrible mistake when we try to apply the benefits of our “new life in Christ” to some guarantee that repairs to injured relationships and physical damage from poor habits will be either immediately healed or easily righted. God didn’t say that – poorly educated televangelists did. Real healing takes real work and real time. God can do it instantly, but that shouldn’t be our expectation – or we may set ourselves up for deep disappointment.

Lesson Four: God’s choice of you trumps any deficiencies you bring to the mission – because God chose the best vessel for the work He called you to (Acts 9:15).

Fortunately, for the last lesson, there is a balancing truth, found in the next verse…

Acts 9:15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel;

Take a deep breath… God chose you. He knew what He was getting better than you knew what you were giving Him. He made you. You are genetically perfect for God’s call in your life. You aren’t from the wrong side of the tracks – but from exactly where you needed to be from to help you think the way you do. God has a chosen path for His children – and your job isn’t to invent it, it is to FIND IT.

It is ironic that Saul wasn’t the one learning this lesson in the text… Ananias was! Saul, like many great leaders, likely sensed God’s hand in his life. At the same time, Dr. Luke (the writer of the account) made clear that is what God told Ananias. God essentially said: “I’ve got BIG PLANS for Saul!” Go wanted to march him into places of power and give him the task to speaking truth to powerful men and women. His job wasn’t going to be easy.

Not to step off this lesson at all, but consider this: God is preparing in our midst some of the children and youths that will tackle the next great challenge of the Kingdom. We dare not take nursery duty lightly! Sunday School must be prepared well. Children’s ministry must include Godly models! Youth must be drawn into the study of God’s Word at the deepest level we are able to give them. The days ahead will require confidence and knowledge of the Word of God, and we must train them – for they also are chosen instruments of our Master.

Lesson Five: God’s plan for you may include living through times that are very uncomfortable for you – because God’s plan is set in a battle to redeem a fallen world (Acts 9:16).

A fifth lesson is both powerful, and in some ways, troublesome…

Acts 9:16 …for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.

Consider how clear God was on the coming troubles for Saul of Tarsus. Why? Why didn’t God clear the path of trouble if He loved Saul and wanted his mission to succeed? Those are loaded questions. The truth is that there are a number of reasons – but one of them is that Saul needed to learn to trust God THROUGH the troubles, not just recognize that God was greater than his troubles. Let me illustrate what I mean with the words of a woman writer:

[My daughter], Allison, came home for the weekend. She opened the door, didn’t speak, and dropped her duffel bag. Smudges of mascara circled her eyes. I whispered a “God-please-no” prayer. “Come tell me about your classes.” I patted the sofa. She muttered, “Gotta take a shower.” As she clomped upstairs, I analyzed the recent changes in her: complaints of not having any money, rarely answers the phone, weight loss, pinpoint pupils, and a “who gives a rip” [facade]. I searched her purse and found a leopard-colored pipe and the unmistakable sweet odor of pot. My heart fluttered wildly like a bird stuck inside my chest. She plodded down the stairs, hair in a towel, wearing the same wrinkled clothes. Be still and talk in a sweet voice, I told myself. You must convince her to stop. “We need to talk, honey.” “Not now. I’m tired.” “I found your pipe.” She stared at me with death-row eyes. “Chill, it’s not that big of a deal.” The tightness in the den suffocated me. I needed air. “Want to walk?” I asked brightly. “Like we used to?” “Whatever.” I knew I could talk some sense into her. “Honey, please. You’ve gotta stop.” I grabbed her hand. “Mom!” She jerked away. “We have a strong family history. You don’t want to…” I never got to finish the sentence. Allison stormed out of the room and within minutes was headed back to college. I knew what I had to do–abandon everything in my life and start to worry/fix/control full-time. I began spending most days by the phone. I evaluated Allison’s reactions, gestures, and comments. Thoughts circled my mind like buzzards: What if she never stops? What if I never see her again? What if she overdoses? Or goes to jail? I lured Allison into therapy by promising we’d go to an Italian restaurant before visits. Her first appointment day arrived. She played with her spaghetti, and I couldn’t eat. “So, what do you plan to say to the counselor?” I asked. “How should I know?” When they called her name at the office, I hurried in to make sure the counselor understood. Allison refused to sign for me to have any information. I considered eavesdropping, but too many people were around. An hour later, she walked past me as I paid. “What’d you talk about?” “Just stuff.” Our therapy/lunch charade continued that way for a few weeks. Then Allison’s sister informed me she was still using. She denied it, refused to see the counselor, dropped out of college, and stopped answering my calls. I was convinced if I forgot about Allison, even for a second, or enjoyed anything, something bad might happen. Several months later, after another night of little sleep, I glanced in the mirror. I could have passed for the addict: dark circles under hopeless eyes. I called my friend Linda. Her son, also an addict, had been sentenced to state prison. “You can’t imagine all that’s going on here,” I said. “Come over for coffee,” she urged. I wanted to stand guard at home but knew she’d listen and understand. “Hey, girlfriend.” Linda hugged me. I didn’t touch my coffee as I blurted the saga. Linda didn’t sweet-talk. “You need help.” “You haven’t heard the whole story,” I argued. “I’m fine–my daughter, she needs help.” “You’re addicted to worry and control,” Linda said. “I’ve been where you are.” She stretched out on the sofa. “The only one you can control is yourself.” The possibility that she might be right terrified me. “It took me years to realize that I’m not in charge. God is,” Linda admitted. “By worrying, you’re telling God he can’t handle things. Go to Al-Anon with me.” I’d heard of Al-Anon but didn’t see how it applied to me. But I agreed because I was in awe of Linda. I didn’t open my mouth during the meeting. Every word spoken sounded like my own thoughts: “I worried myself sick about my alcoholic husband.” “My peace comes only when I let go and let God.” Then the speaker said, “To change, you’ll have to leave behind some familiar lifelong habits.” But how? This is who I am–what I do. “An alcoholic can’t drink, and those of us in this room can’t allow an ounce of worry. For us, it’s every bit as dangerous and addictive. Worry robs our serenity.” I didn’t think change was possible. Not for me. But I knew one thing for sure–I was destroying my life. That night at home I got real. “Help me, God. I can’t do this without you.” I began to ask God for help each morning. I whispered, “Not my job,” as worry, fear, or control tried to needle back in. Two years after that first Al-Anon meeting, Allison and I met for an impromptu lunch. She’d gone back to the same therapist. On her own. “You can’t imagine how easy it is to study when you’re not high,” she laughed. “Nope, I guess not.” I blinked back happy tears. “Thanks, Mom.” “For what?” “When you didn’t fix my problems, it scared me. A few times I had to dig change out of the seat of my car for gas money. Some days,” she paused, “I didn’t have food.” My throat felt warm with pride. She’d done it on her own. “I’m making A’s. And look,” she handed me her checkbook. “I have money again.” Recovery defies logic. It means doing the opposite of what feels natural. When I took care of myself and my addictions, Allison did the same.” Citation: Condensed from our sister publication Today’s Christian,© 2008 Christianity Today International Julie W., “Not My Job,” Today’s Christian (July/August 2008)

Here is the bottom line of this lesson: we live in a fallen world, and the influence of the enemy is all over the place – but God is at work. He is not at work only in the GOOD THINGS of life – God is at work everywhere. The question isn’t: “How do I get out of the pain and trouble?” as much as it is: “God, how can you use me in the pain and trouble? What do I need to learn from you today?”

Lesson Six: All the preparation and talent in the world isn’t enough to fulfill your mission – because God’s power is vested in God’s Spirit (Acts 9:17).

Saul was incredibly gifted, and excelled early in life. He needed the lesson of the next two verses…

Acts 9:17 So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Saul needed God’s Spirit more than he needed the restoration of his physical eyesight. God was about to give him both – but the Spirit became the secret to really being able to see. God wanted Saul to see as few others could. He wanted him to evaluate things in a spiritual way. He wanted him to recognize the truth articulated well by C.S. Lewis: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body!” No believer is truly mature until they see the physical world as many times smaller than the spiritual world that entirely engulfs the cosmos.

In January, 1995, according to an article written by Gary Thomas, J. Robert Ashcroft had fewer than forty-eight hours to live, but he was holding on to life, hoping to see his son, John Ashcroft, sworn into the U.S. Senate the following day. [John Ashcroft, as we all know by now, is in the process of being confirmed as our next Attorney General]. As family and friends gathered in Washington for a small reception, J. Robert Ashcroft asked his son to play the piano while everyone sang, ‘We Are Standing On Holy Ground.’” “After the song, the frail old man spoke some powerful words: ‘John, I want you to know that even Washington can be holy ground. Wherever you hear the voice of God, that ground is sanctified. It’s a place where God can call you to the highest and best.’” “Wherever we are in our vocation, if Jesus is Lord of our lives, that place is a holy place of service for Him” (Thomas, “Working for All It’s Worth,” Moody, July/August 1998, p. 13, as quoted in Morgan, p. 796).

There was a man who knew that WHERE was not the question – but IN WHOSE POWER was the ultimate query. Work done by the talented will wash quickly away. Work done by the Spirit of God cannot be undone by mere mortals.

Lesson Seven: Though conversion is a spiritual act, not everything about you is spiritual – because God works through the frailty of earthen vessels (Acts 9:18).

One final lesson from our text…

Acts 9:18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; 19 and he took food and was strengthened.

Here is the great truth that we are but men and women. We who know God and proclaim His love, do so in earthen vessels… in cracked pots. Our bodies are not indestructible, and they need tending. We need not baby them – they also need discipline. I am heartened by this story:

One of God’s faithful missionaries, Allen Gardiner, experienced many physical difficulties and hardships throughout his service to the Savior. Despite his troubles, he said, “While God gives me strength, failure will not deter me.” In 1851, at the age of 57, he died of disease and starvation while serving on Picton Island at the southern tip of South America. When his body was found, his diary lay nearby. It bore the record of hunger, thirst, wounds, and loneliness. The last entry in his little book showed the struggle of his shaking hand as he tried to write legibly. It read, “I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God.” Allen Gardiner. (from sermon central).

Allen didn’t LOSE to a broken body, he WON to a good God. He was called home after doing all he could for Jesus. Like Epaphroditus of old, he was sick from his call – and gave all he could.

At the same time, Saul was needed for the long haul, and had to learn to eat right, hydrate well, and rest when the time was given by God. He couldn’t be DRIVEN by ministry, he needed to be DIRECTED by Jesus. Elijah learned that long before… A walk with God may need more prayer time, or it may be time to take a day and rest before God. We need to learn to pace ourselves in our ministries…These were some beginning lessons that helped flavor Saul’s expectations and temper his steps… and they should ours as well.

Some of the initial lessons of faith are the hardest simply because they set the expectation for the rest of our time of service to the King.

God on the Move: “We Interrupt this Program!” – Life of Paul (1)

skepticGod doesn’t look at people the way we do, and that is a good thing. When we look at people, we are culturally trained to judge them, more or less, by a set of ingrained values, many of which we may not even be consciously aware. If we see a very large person, we may immediately judge them to be undisciplined and even slovenly adorned – though the truth may be that they have a genetic disorder or a disease causing gross inflammation. We may write them off if we are looking for a “high energy go-getter type”. If we see someone who is dressed in a disheveled manner, or even mismatched in their clothing, we may judge them to be a “have not” from society’s lowest place – though they may actually be quite well off and just a person who does not care about fashion a whit. When we see someone exceptionally pretty or handsome by whatever the fleeting standard of our day, we are culturally cued to draw near to them and want them to approve of us or accept us. These things are ingrained from a very young age, and they are at work in virtually every interaction of your life. Some sociologists term this “cultural value stamping”.

Fortunately, God is not from where I grew up. He doesn’t reside in one culture, and His evaluations are not all based on my appearance, nor my past performance, but rather He relies on His ability to know what I will become with His transforming hand. God is at work in people that want Him to be – but so much more. He is working in the backdrop of the scenery of your life even before you are aware of Him… Such a truth can be dramatically illustrated in the life of the church history hero – Saul of Tarsus. God saw what few others could see – and God used him dramatically… but only after God forcibly interrupted Saul’s life with a flash of blinding light.

Key Principle: The biggest factor that determines our life’s destination is not our past or even our personality – but our willingness to embrace God’s change in us and control over us.

A few years ago I picked up a book entitled When People are Big and God is Small by Edward Welch. I didn’t read the book, because I was so struck by its title. I began to think about that and put the book back on the rack. What a great title! Have you gone through a time in your life when you made God too small in your eyes, and made people too important? That seems to summarize the setting of the beginning of the story of a companion I have been sharing my life with over the past thirty years. In my obsessive desire to know the Bible, I traveled through almost all the places identified by church historians as part of the life of the Apostle Paul. In this series of lessons, I want to walk through that journey with you.

Meet Saul of Tarsus

I want you to meet my friend back where he began. He was a good guy, well educated, properly spoken and sharply adorned. He came from a good family, and got a first-class education. He was a free Roman and a Jew. He had a Latin mind for organization, a Greek tongue for the study of human wisdom, and a Hebrew heart to know God – the perfect combination for the task that God outlined for his life. Though this story is about him, and not you, it is worth remembering that you are, in fact, genetically perfect for the task God has assigned to you. He knows what He needs and He made you because you are needed in the intricate tapestry of God’s full plan to make Himself known.

The first time we meet my friend, he was standing with his university friends in Jerusalem and listening to a speaker that was systematically alienating and aggravating the crowd surrounding him. The speaker’s name was Stephen, and the subject of his prolonged lecture was the defense of God’s work through Jesus of Nazareth – a life changing influence that was changing people in Jerusalem’s Jewish community by the thousands, and was becoming a source of profound aggravation to the Judean aristocracy in general, and the Temple leadership in particular. The scene was recorded in Acts 7, and it was quite tense, the air filled with a combination of hot, dry dust and bitter-tasting anger:

Acts 7:54 Now when they heard this, (referring to Stephen’s apologetic preaching) they were cut to the quick, and they [began] gnashing their teeth at him. 55 But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they [began] stoning [him]; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Freeze the movie frame there. Here was the auspicious beginning scene for Saul who would become the most accomplished writer among the Apostles. Could you see it? Of course not! He was one of the crowd – nothing more outstanding could be said of him than the fact that people trusted him with their robes while the stoned a man to death. But wait… that isn’t NOTHING. Saul was a man in whom others placed confidence. They left their valuables with him. They may have sounded like radicals, and certainly they were – but Saul was a trusted radical in their midst. He served them, and that made him both notable and trusted. Don’t forget the way to importance is always by serving the needs of others – it was an early lesson Saul seemed to get. Let’s move back into the scene…

Acts 7:59 They went on stoning Stephen as he called on [the Lord] and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. Acts 8:1 Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 [Some] devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul [began] ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. 4 Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word

The text shifted quickly, as the storm against the Jerusalem church seemed to grow to a “flash point” in almost a moment. A trusted young man was holding the coats in one scene, and was leading the charge into the home of unsuspecting followers of Jesus in the next. Who was this man? We are fortunate, because we have an answer. Because he wrote thirteen letters of the New Testament that are specifically accepted by scholars as from his quill (or his traveling secretarial companions), we know a good bit about the man. I want to introduce him the way he later introduced himself in many scriptures.

The Uniqueness of Saul

I think it is fair to say that Saul fo Tarsus was a unique man, chosen for a very special mission. In fact, Acts 1:23 shares the details of how the Apostles chose a successor to Judas Iscariot. Essentially the choice came down to two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (surnamed Justus) and a follower of Jesus known as Matthais. The latter (Matthais) was chosen, but was never heard about again in the writings of the Christian Scriptures. Some argue the leaders may have been “out of step with God” (though the narrative does not appear to be a statement of disobedience). One thing is certain, waiting in the wings for a Divine meeting was “Shaul of Tarsus” whose conversion and writings would powerfully impact the Disciples from the first century until now (as we will see in our study of Acts 9 and beyond). Scholars have argued that Paul was unique in the record in five ways.

• First, Paul was the most controversial man among the early leaders. The record of Church History reveals that he was called an “illegitimate charlatan” by Pseudo Clement, but highly regarded by others. He was widely followed and bitterly disputed all at the same time. In other words, he was a dynamic leader!

• Second was the noted and incredible “expansive view” of Paul – he was a visionary in many ways unique to his time and place. Though Jesus spoke mainly to Jews and called on them to follow their King, Paul (by the direction of the Holy Spirit) recognized the expanded definition of “spiritual kingdom” – stretching that definition even into the Gentile world. He recognized the shifted pattern of God’s work, and followed after the movement of the Spirit. His chief argument with the other leaders was that the Spirit indicated a change in the direction of the outreach (Gal. 3:2), and the church must follow that direction. He saw it well before most of his peers (cp. Acts 15) and argued when he saw a conflict in the leadership over the new direction (Gal. 2:1ff).

• A third uniqueness of the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (as he called himself in Rom. 11:13) can be seen in the way God used him to communicate revolutionary new ideas to the young churches. Paul “broke ground” on a number issues: divorce, inter-ethnic marriage, acceptable styles of dress in worship, the public behavior of women particularly in ministry, family issues and eschatology (particularly issues like our “resurrection bodies”, etc). His use of the holy principles of the Hebrew Scriptures and the revelation offered to the church by the Spirit through his pen offered the window not only into the Roman world and its problems, but into the method and principles of problem solving for the church of every age!

• Though often thought of as a domineering leader (perhaps because of some very hard words to the Corinthian Church), a fourth uniqueness of Paul was that he was actually extremely relational and caring. He openly praised the good in others (Phil. 1) and thought of the people of God as related in every way. It is no accident that the Spirit of God used Paul to explain the “body concept” of the church, with Messiah as the Head (1 Cor. 12:12ff). He obviously felt that his life was an example to believers everywhere (Phil. 3:4ff) and expressed deep emotion in his dealings with their sin and troubles (2 Cor. 2:4; Phil. 4:1). The closing words from his quill were all about the people in his life, not simply a sterile list of accomplishments (2 Timothy 4).

• Finally, a fifth way Paul was unique in the early leadership of the church – he was uniquely exposed. Though we have other records about the foundations of the church and its leaders, we have nothing so complete as the record of and by Paul. Though the Gospels offer a reasonably complete picture of Jesus, we have no physical writings of Jesus. In the case of Paul, we have both the writings about him (i.e. the Book of Acts) and the letters written by him to the young churches and leaders.

Saul’s Background

The essential facts about Saul/Paul’s life are, for the most part, documented in the Christian Scriptures by the man’s own letters. At the same time, these facts are but a shadow of the man that stood the test of brutal beatings, shipwrecks, homeless wanderings and many rejections for the cause of proclaiming Jesus. Let’s set up our series of lessons with some significant things about Paul that we know.

First, we know something about his various names. He was named at his circumcision after the first king of Israel (‘Shaul’). Bible students recall that King Saul was selected by his peers in part because of his physical stature. He was known as the king that stood “a head above” other men of his day, and that appealed to the insecure Israelite tribal leaders. In contrast, the Apostle Paul was short in stature. A possible reference to this was his Gentile name “Paulus” which loosely has been translated as “short, stubby one”. Though some writers and Bible teachers unfamiliar with Jewish customs offer the notion that Saul was the “unregenerate” name of the Apostle, Paul did not exchange one name for another after his conversion. On the contrary, every Jew of the diaspora was traditionally named according the formula, “And his name shall be named among the Jews as ___, but among the Gentiles he shall be called ____.” Saul possessed both names from the time of his parent’s naming ceremony. We have become accustomed to calling him by the “name among the Gentiles” because most of the ministry record we have comes from the time of his service outside the land of Israel, among the Gentiles that came to faith. It is worth noting that his size and name left little restriction on his impact. John Chrysostom, (c. 345-407) a leader of the Byzantine Church is quoted as saying, “He was barely five feet tall, with a reach that touched the stars.”

In addition to the knowledge concerning his names, we surmise the birth date of Paul to be about 5 CE, during the end of the reign of Caesar Augustus (who ruled until the year 14 CE). It is certain that he was born during the first decade of the first century, making him a younger contemporary to Jesus. By the Scriptural record we know that Paul never met Jesus before the Savior’s Resurrection and he was still “a young man” (Acts 7:58, a reference to his early thirties) at the time he was “holding the cloaks” at the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem.

Paul’s hometown was the city of Tarsus, and he seemed quite proud of that fact. He apparently liked his “home teams”, and mentioned his home – the place of the third largest “university city” in the Empire (behind Alexandria and Rome) whenever he got the chance. (Acts 7:58; 9:11, 30; 11:25; 21:39; 22:3; 22:28; 26:9-10; Rom. 11:1; 2 Cor. 11:22; Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:4-7; 2 Tim. 3:14ff). Some scholars speculate that Paul may be a descendant of some of those who were promised free citizenship if they moved to the Cilician city in 171 BCE. Another claim for the citizenship ancestry of Paul can be found in some who raise the possibility that Paul’s father or grandfather helped Marc Antony (and thus Rome) during Cleopatra’s renowned visit to Tarsus in 41 BCE. The historian Strabo mentions the splendor of the event, as Cleopatra sailed her gilded barge in the Cyndus River into the city. In addition, there is reason to believe that Antony and Octavian used some resources of the city in their struggle against Brutus and Cassius, who they later defeated at Philippi in Macedonia. Some have even suggested that a tent maker’s gift could have been repaid in citizenship (cp. Acts 18:3), though this is mere speculation. In addition to being the hometown of Paul (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3), it was also the city Paul returned to after his escape from Jerusalem (Acts 9:30). Barnabas found Paul in the city and enlisted him to service at Antioch (Acts 11:25ff). Paul may well have visited on the Second and Third Mission Journeys (Acts 15:41; 18:22-23). Paul was proud of this important city (Acts 21:39) and his free citizenry, a sentiment common to Roman citizens who often had significant rivalries between cities in athletics, etc.

Paul’s occupation was also recorded in the Bible (Acts 18:3, 20:34; 1 Cor. 4:12) as that of a tentmaker or leather worker. The Greek term “Skenopoios” was used to refer to a variety of binding and weaving crafts. The area of Cilicia, the region of Tarsus, was noted in antiquity for the quality goat hair tents (called “cilicum”). Some scholars even suggest that Paul’s family may have secured citizenship by providing tents to the Roman army during the transition from Republic to Empire.

Students of the Bible can also reasonably identify the key elements to the education of the Apostle Paul. His early life in Tarsus was no doubt impacted by the university in town that was legendary in the time. When he moved to Jerusalem and out of the shadow of the university, Paul studied under the moderate Pharisaic instructor Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He was learned enough to become a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). His quotations of the Hebrew Scriptures are usually from the Septuagint version (250 BCE), a possible sign that his memorization of the Word was done from the Greek translation. He apparently could speak the Hebrew language (Phil. 3:5; Acts 21:40) and Greek (Acts 21:37) and perhaps Latin (though this is not certain).

Near to the heart of any Jew of antiquity was his tribe affiliation. Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin, the ancient possessors of the heartland of Israel. The area of the hill country is north of Jerusalem and is centered on the ridge route of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The territory was the dwelling of King Saul of old, and included such important Biblical places as Gibeon, Bethel, Ai, Mizpah and Shiloh (the place the Tabernacle was placed for much of the pre-Temple times.

We know only a few things about Paul’s family. By his own admission he was brought up by observant Jewish parents in the diaspora (i.e. “son of a Pharisee”- Acts 23:6). He no doubt had a number of brothers and sisters, but only mentions one sister indirectly in Acts 23:16. He alluded to his father on a few occasions, but never made any mention of his mother in any of his Epistles (see Rom. 16).

Paul’s contributions and successes are also well known. He has been called a fanatic (defined as “he can’t change his mind, and he can’t change the subject!). He was usually followed by a riot or a revival! Yet, one third of the Christian Scriptures were written at his hand. We know of fourteen and possess now thirteen letters to young churches and Pastors, but there were no doubt others. His style was sometimes complex enough to draw the observation by Peter “some of Paul’s words are hard to understand!” (2 Peter 3:15-16). In addition to his writings, his energetic travel schedule took him to more on journeys totaling more than 10,000 miles.

His travels were often met by troubles (Acts 16:22) and he was asked to leave on a number of occasions (as in Acts 16:39). We have only a traditional record of his death. The “Apocryphal Acts of Paul” (a dubious source in many respects) offers the detail that Paul was beheaded along a main shopping district on the west side of Rome at the hand of the executioners of Emperor Nero in 67 CE.

The broad view

Step back for moment and look at a quick overview of an important man God used in all our lives. He was saved in 36 CE at about age 31 or 32, and died in the year 67 or 68 CE at age 62 or 63. Half his life he followed a zealous religious life, and then he met God’s Son. His was a life interrupted by God’s grace. With only half of his life left – he accomplished more than any other of his day. How? The answer is found again in the Scriptures, back in the record of the Book of Acts, chapter 9.

9:1 Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” 5 And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He [said], “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6 but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” 7 The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus.

In 9:1 we begin the paragraph with Saul looking powerful and menacing – but all this suddenly changed. A flash of light, a voice from on high, and the youthful and ardent stride of Saul was broken forever. He started the passage looking ahead at life, but when he met Jesus, he found out that he couldn’t really see at all. The journey that began with him in the lead, ended with him being led by the hand, unable to see the turns in the bumpy road.

As we study the life and ministry of Saul or Tarsus, don’t venerate the man. He was as frail as any other, and as subject to the sin nature as all of us. Yet, from the encounter with Jesus onward, the man learned a secret… The interruption of his life became his greatest blessing. The unexpected call of God became the driving force of his life. Saul FELL INTO GOD’S GRACE, and that was a powerful place to be.

Saul’s Secret

Saul’s greatest power lay not in his ability, but in his surrender of all his life choices to serve his King, his Lord – his Master. Falling into grace was God’s work of introduction, but growing in grace (as he later told Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2:1) required the deliberate withdrawal of control of life’s choices to the direction of God’s Spirit under the Lordship or mastery of Jesus Christ. Philippians 3 says it in his own words: “…beware of the false circumcision; 3 …and put no confidence in the flesh, 4 … If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. 7 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…

Saul didn’t consider Jesus simply as his Friend, or his Helpful Guide – but rather as his “KURIOS” – his Master. Jesus called the shots on Saul’s life. When we move ahead in the story, Jesus will be at every turn in the road of Saul’s life, directing him, guiding him and commanding him. It started with Jesus’ appearance to Ananias in Damascus to accept Saul and help him grow… but it goes on and on in the story. In every story we will see God at work directing… but that isn’t the key to the story. God is doing that in all of us. He isn’t silent… He just isn’t finding many that are willing to listen and surrender.

The secret of Saul was his decision – his final determination that his life was not his own – period. Because he didn’t see his life as his own, God could direct him and use him.

He didn’t find it in religion – he found it when he met and surrendered his life to Jesus on a roadway. GK Chesterton was right when he wrote: “The mark of faith is not tradition, but conversion. It is the miracle by which men find truth in spite of tradition and often with the rending of all the roots of humanity.”

His secret was that he met God, and took God’s mastery of his life seriously. The same can be said of you. The biggest factor that determines our life’s destination is not our past or even our personality – but our willingness to embrace God’s change in us and control over us.

Places in Acts – Chios – Acts 20:15

 The island of Chios (in the Aegean Sea) is only five miles (8 km.) off the western Turkish coast south of the island of Lesbos. The island measures near thirty kilometers in length (north to south), and varies between ten and twenty kilometers in width. It is about twelve miles west of Smyrna across the narrow channel. Formed by volcanic flow, the highest point in the island is in the north at Mt. Pelineo (ASL +1297 meters; 4255 feet). The island is well watered, with sufficient winter rains to produce the celebrated harvests of citrus fruit, mulberries, grapes, cotton, tobacco, vegetables and lentisk (also called mastic tree). The lentisk is used in the production of the alcoholic “mastika”, and is the base of a resin used in chewing gum, cakes, oriental syrups and deserts.


The island was settled by Ionians in antiquity, and field excavation has yielded evidence of some settlement activity extending to the C19th BCE. In C8th BCE, the island joined the Ioanian confederacy (with Samos and several Asia Minor cities). By the C6th BCE, the island enjoyed prosperity and was the first to engage in the slave trade. The Persian onslaught of 493 BCE ended the prosperity, and the island periodically changed “masters” from Athens to Macedonia and eventually to Rome.


Though under Roman government, the port was quite independent for much of the Roman period. Paul sailed by Chios on his way to address the Ephesian elders at Miletus (and eventually Jerusalem for the beginning of Pentecost – Acts 20:15). This reference to the journey should probably be translated “along the channel of Chios” rather than “against Chios”. This particular journey included stops where he strengthened, instructed and warned the believers in different places as well as bidding them farewell, sensing that he would not see them again (cp. 20: 25).


Chios lost many inhabitants during the Early Byzantine period, as pirates ran much of the legitimate trade of the eastern Aegean away. The once prosperous island farms broke down until the Byzantine rulers discovered its value in agriculture. Eventually the island revived. It became a holding of the Venetians by 1172 CE and a centerpiece of the maritime “empire” of the Genoese from 1346 to 1566.

Places in Acts – Cenchrea – Acts 18:18; Rom. 16:1

Cenchrea was visited by Paul and his companions after nearly eighteen months of ministry in Corinth, during the Second Mission Journey. The city was a small port located more than two miles south of Isthmia and about six miles east of Corinth. It was constructed along the road from Isthmia that leads south to the so-called “Baths of Helen” of antiquity. Cenchrea functioned as the eastern harbor of the Corinthians for shipping on the Saronic Gulf. Corinth also had another port, Lechaeum, to the west of Corinth on the Corinthian Gulf. Ships were safely guided between the two harbors to avoid the danger of sailing around Cape Malea. As a town frequented by seafarers, Cenchrea was also a sacred town to Poseidon.

Excavations were begun in 1963 by the American School, University of Chicago and Indiana University under the auspices of Professors Scranton and Ramage. The city had not been excavated because it had been a military area until that time. Though extensive excavations still need to be carried on at the site, the port was positively identified by coinage. The coinage depicts the harbor as surrounded by porticoes with a significant storage capacity. Above the site was a Roman period Temple thought to be of Tyche (fortune). On the wide pier that stretched about five hundred feet into the sea, a Temple of Isis and a Piscinae (fish tank) were located. Further away, about half a mile from the harbor was the monument for a “Tomb of Regulus”, the chief patron of the city and first president of the Isthmian games. The tomb was about 20 years old when Paul visited here.


The port has some important New Testament connections, as it was the site of Paul’s completion of a vow, as well as the home of Phoebe (Rom. 16:1,2). Since vows among Jews were often completed with a shaving of the head, it appears that Paul had completed a private vow. Some scholars believe the vow was to remain in Corinth (despite the pagan and degraded surroundings) until God indicated that he should leave.

Excavations also reveal a thriving Byzantine presence. A complex of that period was located including at least two churches. The site appears to have been completely destroyed by two devastating earthquakes, in 365 CE and 375 CE. A small dock and a partially submerged Basilica are all that are easily seen today, though other remains are exposed in bulks on the hill just north of the harbor area.

Commentary: Acts 5

Chapter Five Outline:

I. Witness in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7)
<A-J in Chapters One through Four>
K. Ananias and Sapphira’s Lie (5:1-11)
L. Acts from Above (5:12-16)
M. Actions of Angry Leaders (5:17-42)

Summary [Chapter 5]:

The Messianic believers still worshipped in the courts of the Temple (mostly associated with Solomon’s Porch on the east side of the Temple plaza) and shared what they had with each other. Some sold property and then gave the proceeds to the apostles to distribute it as there was a need. These heartfelt acts of giving became marks of the followers of Jesus, and others began to mimic the giving, though not always for honest reasons, or with an honest heart. One such couple, Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of land but kept some of the money back for themselves. When presenting the money to the disciples they evidently lied about the amount they were giving, making a show of the gift. Ananias died on the spot before the apostles. When his wife came shortly after, she also lied about the amount of money and fell over dead and was buried alongside her husband. News of the event made all of the believers carefully consider their hearts, and began a long journey of the need to constantly renew their walk with God. This internal situation was but the first challenge or test to the fledgling movement. Because the group continued to gain in strength, the Temple leadership decided they needed to take action and imprison some of the Messianic leaders. While awaiting the hearing, an angel opened the cell and told the Messianic leaders to go back and preach in the Temple courts, so they left the cell and returned to the work. The High Priest was informed about the “escape” and had them brought into the council chamber for an immediate hearing. The Messianic leaders explained their message, and refused to refrain from preaching it. Fearing the response of the crowds and listening to some of the more moderate voices in the chamber, the Temple leadership allowed them to leave, and they continued to spread the message daily.

Chapter Five

5:18 “common prison” or in Greek, demosiosis refers to public, or belonging to the people. “Prison” or in Greek Teresis, refers to a place of keeping. Jewish prisons in the book of acts were used to keep persons awaiting trial or execution (Acts 4:3; Acts 5:18,21,23). Acts 22:19 shows prisons being used for imprisonment and some forms of punishment. Paul himself testifies in Acts 22:4, “ And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.” Roman prisons were used to control behavior by imprisoning the offender (Matthew 18:30). They were used as punishment for minor lawbreakers (Matthew 11:2 Acts 16:26). Acts 23:25; 24:27 indicates that prisons were part of government main offices. The Caesarea prison in Herod’s judgment hall is an example of a prison where Paul was kept for two years. For more about prisons, see note on Acts 16:23. 5:21 “senate”: literally the Sanhedrin chamber. The location of the chamber during this period (when construction on the Temple precincts was ongoing) is uncertain. During an examination of the area beneath the southern end of the Ancient Temple mount in Jerusalem (below the present Al Aqsa Mosque) an inscription was found that contained the Hebrew term “zaqenim” (Elders). As a result, many scholars believe the Sanhedrin council was located between the two sets of Hulda Gates in the base of the southern porch of the Temple by the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. It is possible the council was not yet meeting there in this case, and may have been nearer the Temple building proper adjacent to the Chamber of the Hearth.