God on the Move: “Postcards from the Edge” – 1 Thessalonians

postcards edge 1Carrie Fisher wrote a screenplay based on her own life in 1987 and by 1990 it was on the silver screen as a comedy movie called “Postcards from the Edge”. In the year that followed, the movie was acclaimed at the Academy awards… The story was about an actress who was a recovering drug addict and her attempts to re-start her career and her life after leaving the treatment center. She was forced to move in with a “responsible adult” in order to keep her insurance, and she returned to take residence with a famous musical comedy star of the 1950s and ’60s – her own mother. The title of the movie tells how “out of control” the scenes within the screenplay became – and I can only imagine on the big screen it was even more off the wall. I mention the screenplay because the title popped into my mind as soon as I began thinking through the letters to the Thessalonians…they were letters written from the edge of pain and during a season of recovery for Paul- and that often is forgotten in the teaching of the epistles to Thessalonica. Our next two lessons in the life of the Apostle will be about the substance of these letters.

You will recall that in our last study we saw that Paul was passing through a difficult time on that second mission journey, in part because the trip began with an argument that broke the Paul and Barnabas team over the issue of John Mark. Next, they found themselves confounded on God’s direction for forward progress, being stopped from heading toward Bithynia. God redirected the team with a dream of the Macedonian man, but Paul had no sooner seen his first converts there in Philippi, when he and Silas were beaten and imprisoned. After a dramatic release by God’s intervention and then His providence, they passed through to Thessalonica – only to have Paul’s family member assaulted (Jason) and held until Paul left town. On to Berea, and Paul saw success until a rabble had HIM singled out to depart alone for Athens. His Athenian trip was “off script” for Paul’s normal venture, and as he continued to Corinth – he did so extremely discouraged and beaten down. It was during that short visit in Athens that Paul made the decision to dispatch Timothy to Thessalonica – delaying their reunion but offering Paul a window on the progress of the Gospel. As God helped Paul pick up the pieces he wrote the two letters to the Thessalonians help us grasp the mindset of Paul in recovery, and explore what was on his heart as God put him back together in Corinth. Paul showed that when wounded, a believer’s values surface without “make up”. People can see what we truly care about when we have no energy left to mask our broken heart.

Key Principle: A mature believer lives his values and follows under pressure, recognizing God is at work even when times are tough.

In these two lessons, we want to sweep quickly through the two letters Paul wrote and capture what was exposed of his heart by the letters. We know their context; now we need their content. The question we are seeking to answer is this: “What was exposed from the Apostle’s heart as it was torn open by pain and tribulation over the rejection of the Gospel?” Let’s focus on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians. The letter can be divided into two parts:

First, Paul opened the letter with six declarations that recapped the context of the writing:

Paul exposed some important things by sharing simple declarations. Let’s consider what we learn of him in each of the six:

1. Paul Hurt: Paul and his team was praying for the believers at Thessalonica constantly, thanking God for them, longing to return to them – but was hindered from going there (1:1-2; 2:17-20; 3:9-11).

Look at the phrases from 1 Thessalonians 1:2 “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers.” Similar sentiments are expressed in 2:17 “But we, brethren, having been taken away from you for a short while—in person, not in spirit—were all the more eager with great desire to see your face. 18 For we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, more than once—and yet Satan hindered us.” Later in 3:9 we read: “For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account, 10 as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, and may complete what is lacking in your faith?

It is clear that when Paul’s heart was torn open, what spilled out was his love for those other believers. Mature Christians care for younger believers – not to sit in judgment over them – but to see them progress. They communicate care for younger followers of Jesus, because the heart of the missionary isn’t about self-affirmation but of love for lost men and women. That love doesn’t end when they follow Christ – it morphs into a deeper and more permanent hope for their growth and life ahead.

2. Paul Remembered: Paul saw God’s choice of them and their dramatic life changes by the power of the Spirit as they became followers of Jesus – the Gospel was obviously powerful among them (1:3-5; 2:13).

It is not difficult to see in places like 1 Thessalonians 1:3ff that Paul saw God at work in them. He wrote: “…5 for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.” He affirmed that again in 2:13 “For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.”

How exciting to see God’s hand touch lives. One of the rich assurances we have as we look back on ministry where we have been fortunate enough to participate is those times when we saw God heal a broken marriage that we couldn’t fix with counsel. We stood amazed as God took a certain young man bent on self-destruction, and broke his life-hardened heart to lead him into his Creator’s arms. It is one thing to know from God’s Word that our God and His message is powerful – it is another to experience God on the move. When it happened, Paul was deeply thankful God gave him a place in the room to watch what God was doing! The Apostle knew that excitement. Even in the brokenness of rejection by many in his present place, his heart remembered God at work in the past – and that kept him going.

3. Paul Promised: Paul pledged that trouble would come, and it did quickly upon them as it had in his team’s lives. They were afflicted and walking with God under fire, becoming witnesses to the world as they suffered injustice (1:6-8; 2:1-2; 3:4).

Paul apparently never pulled his punches when he came to them initially. Perhaps preaching to people just after you have been beaten and jailed he figured, no sense trying to “pretty things up” – it was going to get tough quickly and he warned them. Note in 1 Thessalonians 1:6, he commended them when he wrote: ”You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.” He made clear the troubles of the mission team again in 1 Thessalonians 2:1-2, and reminded them in 3:4 “For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.”

I am continually amazed at how modern marketing has affected the presentation of the Gospel. Paul delivered a message that offered suffering and persecution from the outset. Where was the “how to have a happy and meaningful life” section? Paul’s Gospel was about salvation from sin and a secure walk with God for eternity – not about a better bank account and other temporal perks. I recognize that our presentation needs to be culturally sensitive, but that cannot mean changing the substance of the truth because we want people to accept our message. I simply argue that when we change the message so drastically to grab our culture, what feed their self-focus, and betray the core of the message we were given to represent by God.

I personally think Paul marveled at how quickly they were “under the gun” in 1 Thessalonians 2:14 “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, 15 who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out.” What makes us think that we should preach to people prosperity with the signs of the times we see all about us? Why do we not accept the coming troubles as PART of our faith – after a long line of others have passed through similar things? Paul promised troubles with their belief, whether that hindered people from coming forward in the meeting or not. At least when trouble came, he could remind them of that promise. Will our churches be able to make the same claim if we preach a message of personal advancement?

4. Paul Clarified: Lest anyone attempt to charge that Paul’s outreach was self-benefitting manipulation, Paul reminded them of how they offered truth in gentleness and love while working to be no burden to them (2:3-11).

Attacks on Paul’s preaching were evident from the start in the Book of Acts, and here Paul reinforced the content of some of those false charges. In 1 Thessalonians 2:3, Paul didn’t defend himself beyond making clear the truth. He wrote: “For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. 5 For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness— 6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. 7 But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. … 11 just as you know how we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children.

Paul established in the short time he was in Thessalonica that he did not want to burden them with his expense, he was not a lazy man, and he did not work among them as some kind of ancient huckster or salesman. He worked hard, paid his way, and cared for them personally as he preached Biblically. The bottom line was this: He could call upon his TESTIMONY of life to back up his MESSAGE. Words are far more effective when they are rooted in a measured life that endeavors to live truth. If you are living in sexual sin, it is hard to correct a son or daughter who is about to make such a choice. They know you – and your life doesn’t match your lofty words. If you cheat on your taxes, it won’t be long until your voice cracks when you tell your teen not to cheat on their upcoming exam. Paul made clear that his life backed his message. He was not perfect, but he was no huckster, either. Words to the contrary may have been floating about – but Paul would have none of that left unanswered. We can be harmless in our response, but we need not flinch from clarifying attacks that are based on lies. If we represent truth, we must do so without apology – popular affirmation or not.

5. Paul Exhorted: From the beginning, the message was not only to come to Christ, but to be changed in their daily walk to a manner worthy of Jesus’ payment for them (2:12; 3:12-13).

He encouraged the believers to walk with God, not simply look at the Gospel as a “get out of Hell free” card. In 1 Thessalonians 2:12 he wrote: “…so that you would walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory.” He affirmed that as a core value in 3:12 when he wrote: “…and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; 13 so that He may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.”

We made the point that Paul promised trouble rather than fill his presentation with personal benefit, but it is worth remembering that Paul also demanded surrender to Jesus in areas of behavior rather than emphasizing only the benefits of Heaven and security in our eternal state. Paul connected the message of the Gospel and the foundation of the church to a call to HOLY LIVING. Is that message what we hear proclaimed about us today? Paul’s heart was exposed. He wanted believers to live like they were God’s people – not self-indulgent princes and princesses that allowed their “felt needs” to direct their decisions. This will be even clearer in the second part of his letter, so we will reserve the discussion until then.

6. Paul Celebrated: When Paul couldn’t wait to hear from the new believers and know of their progress in Christ any longer, he sent Timothy – who eventually returned with a joyful report (3:1-3, 5-8).

In the opening three chapters of the book, Paul communicated excitement over the people that he received from the report Timothy brought back to him. In 1 Thessalonians 3:1, Paul wrote: “Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, … 6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, 7 for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; 8 for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.”

Who can mistake Paul’s note of anxiousness concerning the people? He prayed and prayed, because like all of us, he was tempted to worry and worry. Paul was an Apostle, not a demi-god that wasn’t afflicted with a sin nature and a desire to control what he could not. Don’t make him such a good guy that you no longer see him as a regular Christian – struggling to trust God when things are falling apart. Remember what he had been suffering along the journey? Sometimes it seems God hides His control – when, in fact, what He is doing is working beyond our sight and in matters beyond our grasp. Paul heard back from Timothy, and celebration and joy flooded, tears flowed, and his prayer journal got some exclamation points scratched beside old requests!

The opening three chapters of the letter then, seem to offer a description the permeation of the Gospel to the Thessalonians during the three weeks of the mission team’s tireless sharing and caring ministry, another verified account of their forced exit from the believers under duress and a record of Timothy’s dispatched trip to check in. Apparently Paul agreed to have Timothy go while he was still alone in Athens during his darkest time of ministry. That left the Apostle without his team longer, but in the end it provided word from the fledgling church in Macedonia that so richly encouraged Paul. It’s nice to end the section on a note of happy celebration, but Paul’s letter had a second part as well.

Second, Paul wrote specific commands to the people to follow:

This section includes the last two chapters of the letter as the Epistle is divided for us in our modern Bibles. Paul made clear that the commands were a continuation of his earlier “live” teaching, and that he expected the people to continue to grow in obedience and submission to the teachings as from God. In classic fashion, Paul made that clear at the very beginning of the section, found in 1 Thessalonians 4:1 when he wrote: “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. 2 For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.”

Paul wasn’t unsure of what he taught, nor the source of the revealed truth – and he made that clear. A church that surrenders parts of their Bible in fear of looking un-scientific or a dread over charges of a text lacking historical integrity will also surrender moral precepts in the face of social pressure – it is inevitable. Paul asserted vigorously that his words were from God. If they weren’t, he was lying. If he was telling a lie (or some editor inserted this idea later) than the Bible is not a good book, but a book of lies. It won’t lead you to Heaven – if such a place exists. It cannot tell you about your Creator – if there is one. My point is that the surrender of the text is a BIG DEAL to our faith – because our faith is rooted completely within it. The earlier church used phrases like: “The Bible is our only rule for faith and practice.” In modern churches where that idea has been surrendered, it is but a matter of time when they lose all coherence and consistency in their practice, and become a lump of clay molded not by a Heavenly potter, but by earthly pressures to allow the mold its influence.

What were these essential commands to which the Apostle pointed them? Let me suggest the three that seem to “stick out” more than others:

First, there was the command to live a life of sexual purity (4:3-8).

1 Thessalonians 4:3 states: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, 5 not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; 6 and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. 7 For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. 8 So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.”

Paul flatly stated sexual purity as a core value of the early church, and a revealed truth from God above. He called us to “sanctification” a word that means “to be set apart”. Lest that not be clear, he followed with another restatement in verses four and five, that a believer is NOT to be like the world around them in this area. As he developed the thought, he told them in verse six that relationships between them were to be held as a high value, and that sensual behaviors would “defraud” others in the family of God. He made clear that God intended distinction in this area, and that rejecting the cause of purity was not an option as a believer.

Here again I find myself wondering if Paul would recognize the modern church as “Christian” in its value system.

Purity is encouraged when we carefully delineate how attraction is not the same as action. God placed desires within us – we were created with some intrinsic desires. At the same time, we live in a fallen state. As a result, we must be very careful not to see those desires as something “naturally good”. Man is broken inside, and his desires reflect that brokenness. We must continually make clear a Biblical truth – wanting something is not the same as acting on a desire. The Bible begins with simple restriction of action – but eventually calls the maturing believer to surrender the very desires themselves. When we “grow up” in our faith, we won’t excuse our sin by claiming desire had the determining place in our decision making process. We will see God’s will, not our want, as the most important factor.

Purity is encouraged when we help young women understand the value of developing their inner spirit as well as keeping a healthy body. With a fashion world designed to pry money from your wallet and promising to make you look “hot” – it has become even more important for the church to carefully help young women to see that the body will not retain its God-given youthful beauty forever. We get older or we die on the path. The fact is, we are on the planet for a short time compared to eternity. If the Christian message is true, our submission to Jesus is based on two things: first we acknowledge that Jesus is our Lord and we offer Him our whole self. Second, we submit because we know that our Savior knows what is best. He knows what we do not about the plan, the future and our best life in His presence in eternity. Purity is encouraged when we teach men and women to see eternal things as more important than temporal ones.

Purity is encouraged when we place safeguards on our young men at home and restrict their unlimited access to websites and media that encourage immoral sexual pursuits. Because we have redefined the word “adult” in the context of sexuality as “removal of restraint” in our society, the church must clearly mark out that ADULT truly means “under control”. It is a CHILD that throws a tantrum when unhappy. An adult should know better. We must apply that same logic to other urges. Children punch and punch back. Adults should have better control of their hands. We must make the case that guardrails and restrictions aren’t to stop young people from growing – they are to provide sufficient time for that young person to grow the necessary disciplines before thrown to predators that lurk across the wireless signals.

After commanding purity, a second command was offered – to work hard and stay out of other people’s business (4:9-12).

1 Thessalonians 4:9 Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you… 10 …But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, 12 so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

It may astound modern Christians to know that Paul intended believers to get a job, work in that job and avoid making other people pay their way. In fact, the Apostle made the point that a believer’s ability to take care of others and live quietly at work was very much a part of their Christian faith. We need not meddle from the pulpit, we have Scripture before us that challenges any who would see a way around work as God’s plan. There are disabilities that need to be taken into account – but I suggest this is an extreme much less frequent than claimed – even by believers. We cannot enshrine laziness in some kind of reward system and expect anything less than an increasing number of unproductive people. When there is a true need, a believer is not wrong to access the provision for that need – but we must be very wary here of expecting others to pay our way through life. Some people are simply unsure of a truth: Life is hard. Work is not always fun. Since the expulsion from the garden every job was given its weeds. We must be careful to check any thinking that would argue that everyone has is easier than we do. In many, if not most cases, some of our difficulty was added by our own earlier life choices.

After purity and focused work, there was a third command – to comfort one another with the truth concerning death and life (4:13-5:11).

It seems from reading 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 that some believers felt those who died in Christ were somehow penalized – a notion the Apostle quickly dismissed in the letter. Paul wanted to make sure the “uninformed” were made to understand that those believers who died actually have a better place in line of the resurrection of the dead. The timing of that resurrection are as follows:

1 Thessalonians 4:16 “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a [m]shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.

Paul wanted to make it clear that when Jesus returned to the earth to take His own, He would do so in the order of those who died BEFORE those who are alive. To the believer, death is no penalty, but a mere illustration that the fallen world has not yet been fully redeemed. When Christ makes all things new, death will be forever banished to the hole of the fiery pit. The rest of the section in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 reminded the believers that the world would not believe that Jesus would return, but would focus all their attention on THIS world. Beleivers should be awake and alert in their times, and comforting one another with the truth that (as Martin Luther long ago wrote): “the body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still – His kingdom is forever!”

Missions Instructor Gregory Fisher of Victory Bible College wrote of his earlier times in West Africa: “What will he say when he shouts?” The question took me by surprise. I had already found that West African Bible College students can ask some of the most penetrating questions about minute details of Scripture. “Reverend, I Thess. 4:16 says that Christ will descend from heaven with a loud command. I would like to know what that command will be.” I wanted to leave the question unanswered, to tell him that we must not go past what Scripture has revealed, but my mind wandered to an encounter I had earlier in the day with a refugee from the Liberian civil war. The man, a high school principal, told me how he was apprehended by a two-man death squad. After several hours of terror, as the men described how they would torture and kill him, he narrowly escaped. After hiding in the bush for two days, he was able to find his family and escape to a neighboring country. The escape cost him dearly: two of his children lost their lives. The stark cruelty unleashed on an unsuspecting, undeserving population had touched me deeply. I also saw flashbacks of the beggars that I pass each morning on my way to the office. Every day I see how poverty destroys dignity, robs men of the best of what it means to be human, and sometimes substitutes the worst of what it means to be an animal. I am haunted by the vacant eyes of people who have lost all hope. “Reverend, you have not given me an answer. What will he say?” The question hadn’t gone away. “Enough’” I said. “He will shout, ’Enough’ when he returns.” A look of surprise opened the face of the student. “What do you mean, ’Enough’?” “Enough suffering. Enough starvation. Enough terror. Enough death. Enough indignity. Enough lives trapped in hopelessness. Enough sickness and disease. Enough time. Enough”.

I don’t know if the missionary is correct about that, but I wouldn’t be surprised! Life here is broken, but God is working a plan – and Paul showed that plan to be at work in him as he shared a short “Postcard from the edge” with the Thessalonians. He was hurt, but he was healing. He was beaten up, but he was not quitting. A mature believer lives his values and follows under pressure, recognizing God is at work even when times are tough.

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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.

Following His Footsteps: “Exposing the Secret” – John 2

closetThere are English expressions that are used by various movements in different times in history, and along the way they adapt in meaning. The phrase “out of the closet” was used by advertisers long before it was adopted by modern social action groups. More recently, as a surprise to virtually no one, this phrase has become the mantle of those who see themselves as “bravely stepping forth on issues of sexual preference orientation”. Yet, the phrase actually denotes exposing a long held secret. It was historically linked to the idea of “skeletons in the closet” – and denoted potentially embarrassing things kept hidden from view out of potential shame. I want to go in a different direction with the phrase as we tackle the next part of the ongoing series to follow the footsteps of our Master as we study the record of His life in the Gospels. I want to talk about how a secret identity of Jesus became publicly exposed.

Jesus’ miracle at Cana was like the moment Clark Kent went into the phone booth to shed his suit and emerge exposed as the super hero of the classic comic books.(I know, that is a terrible comparison, but the image might actually stick with you!)

Think of it this way… Jesus had a secret identity. His mother Mary knew what it was because an angel named Gabriel told her thirty years before. His stepfather Joseph knew it, because God told him in dreams thirty years before our story. The angels knew it, because they made the announcement at His birth. The enemy knew it, because he faced Jesus in a “temptation sparring match” in the Wilderness of Judea a short time before the events of today’s lesson took place. Yet the truth is that although many BEINGS in Heavenly places knew Who Jesus was – the Eternal Son of God living in human flesh –few PEOPLE who lived near Him knew the truth of Jesus’ identity. This lesson is about how Jesus stepped out of the shadows and showed Himself to be the fulfillment of God’s promise from centuries before… man’s Redeemer was eating breakfast next door to someone who was clueless of His presence!

The problem is that Jesus’ identity also led to a problem. If He is Master, then I have someone in charge of me… and no one likes that – now or then.

The passage for study is John 2, and it offers two essential lessons that set up the first steps of Jesus’ public ministry after His baptism by John in the Jordan River and after the temptation wrestling match was completed in the nearby Judean Wilderness. Jesus picked up His first five “would be” disciples, and then two stories unfolded:

• The first public miracle of Jesus (John 2:1-11). Jesus turned water into wine at a Cana wedding feast and showed that the ordinary could become the extraordinary – if it received the touch of the Master.

• The first public challenge by Jesus (John 2:12-25). Jesus walked into His Father’s Temple distracted by the commercial barkers and turn a bazaar into chaos while He showed that much becomes little – when God “weighs in” on religious nonsense.

Key Principle: Jesus knew His place, and revealed it from the very beginning of His public ministry. What He met was resistance, because people want a Rescuer, but not a Master.

It is important that we recognize this truth – because among those who do not both carefully study the narrative and believe it is historically valid – a common notion is that Jesus “slowly discovered” His place as the Son of God. Some “scholars” even express the notion that Jesus was never fully aware of it until after the Resurrection. In the more liberal circles of “Christian” thought, that is not even a debated concept – it has been accepted.

Not to pluck a phrase from our current political Benghazi discussion of our current news cycles, but here is the question of our lesson: “What did Jesus know and when did He know it?” We are not entertaining the debate that Jesus was NOT the Savior – that debate is simply answered by a faithful study of the Gospel accounts that were NOT fuzzy on such things…Our thoughts concern the challenge that Jesus was a benevolent and hapless rabbi that was unaware of some greater position He had. Does the Gospel reveal that? Not at all…

It is true that the Bible does not overtly state the moment at which Jesus knew that He was the Eternal Son of God sent to die as the “Spotless Lamb” for man’s sin. It is also true that He DID know those things. We read that later in His ministry Jesus fully expressed Who He was from eternity past, declaring: “Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58). Later, John recorded Jesus praying this way: “And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” (John 17:5). Clearly, if the Gospel record is true – Jesus knew His place. Our question is when did Jesus fully grasp that truth?

Some believers want to believe that He was consciously spinning planets while lying in a manger in Bethlehem – a view that I do not hold. Scripture does express that as a young child He was fully aware of His work, but He did feel an early need to be preparing as a boy to complete a work His Father in Heaven sent Him to complete by age 13. On a boyhood trip to the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions.” (Luke 2:46). When his parents discovered Him there, He offered this question: “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?’ But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.” (Luke 2:49-50). Luke made sure that in reading the account and reader would know that Jesus possessed information beyond what His parents could grasp. After the recorded incident, Luke noted: ”And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Let me suggest that though Jesus may well have known Who He was, his physical immaturity still lacked the completed ability to make all things clear to those around Him. He needed to grow physically, emotionally and mentally. Though He was cognizant by that time that He was fully God, He needed to become fully a man. Over the early centuries of Christianity, this subject was explored deeply and hotly debated by Church Fathers who were trying to understand the theology of the God-man.

Let’s accept the Biblical record that Jesus knew years and years before everyone else understood His mission and move forward with the story. What happened at the early stage of His ministry, then, concerned exposing the truth to those both near to Him and those in charge of the God’s people. The two episodes found in John 2 effectively do just that – and then they expose the way people responded to the message that God wanted to both SAVE then and RULE their lives. The first message is preached, loved and celebrated. The second truth (that of the rule of Jesus) is taught seldom and loved little – even by people who profess to follow Jesus. Somehow we have invented in modern Christianity a Sovereign Lord that leads us by following after our desires. That Jesus isn’t the one pictured in the Gospels.

First Miracle at Cana

We open the chapter with our first look at the miracle ministry of Jesus:

John 2:1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; 2 and both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” 6 Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the waterpots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim. 8 And He said to them, “Draw [some] out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it [to him]. 9 When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, 10 and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when [the people] have drunk freely, [then he serves] the poorer [wine]; [but] you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This beginning of [His] signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.

John made clear:

• On the third day there had been a wedding at Cana, and Jesus’ mother was there (2:1).
• Jesus and His first five followers were invited (2:2) apparently arriving at the end of the feast.
• When the wine ran out, Mary called upon Jesus to address the problem (2:3), explaining they had run out of wine. She was evidently confident that Jesus was able to meet the need in some incredible way.
• Over Jesus’ initial objections (2:4), she left Him with the servants and instructed them to follow all His directions (2:5).
• Jesus told the servants to take the six stone pots that held twenty to thirty gallons each and fill them with water (a stunning violation of their purpose of ritual purity collection – 2:6-7).
• Jesus then told them to draw out from the stone jars a cup and take it to the head cupbearer of the feast and have him sample it for the guests (2:8).
• The cupbearer was shocked and complimented the groom on his surprising stash of excellent wine (2:9-10).

While it is nice to know that Jesus liked weddings, and that Jesus would make a good vintner, why would such an event become important enough to record for posterity?

First, it is important that we understand that Jesus wasn’t so “other worldly” that He wouldn’t celebrate a wedding with two people starting a new family – His earth ministry wasn’t just about lofty theological debates and Satan hunting… it was about loving people and celebrating the stages of their lives with them. Though life is PRIMARILY about the eternal things – life here is a gift from God to be enjoyed, celebrated… it is to be lived. God is nowhere more present than in the room of people who love Him and each other and are falling on the floor laughing hysterically over something that won’t let go of their funny bone. God isn’t a prude. Anything you have ever enjoyed – He thought of. Any flavor you have ever savored – He created. Any beauty that has ever taken your breath away – He pulled out the brush an painted on the landscape. God is not just powerful and Majestic – He is personal and creative. He knows good coffee and can delight in the swirls of freshly stirred caramel sauce. Don’t you DARE make Him into some monastic prior with itchy clothing eating bread and water! There is no pleasure without the Creator of all things. Even in our fallen state, God’s joys still shine through. Let’s say it clearly: Jesus knows how to party!

Beyond that truth, we observe in the passage the truth that Jesus speaks, and the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. God isn’t into the light adjustment business – He is a total and complete transformer! When Jesus spoke forgiveness over your life, you began a transformation that is ongoing. You know the problems, and you encounter your own resistance – but let’s be honest… YOU KNOW YOU ARE BEING CHANGED. You don’t want all the things of the world you once did. Your tastes buds are already starting to salivate when you smell the fresh baked bread of Heaven. When people are really in a walk with Jesus – they don’t have to be convinced of transforming power – they are living it. Here is the really neat thing: someday soon the Heaven’s will open, the trumpet will sound, and the very molecules of my body will be transformed from earth’s smell of slow decay to Heaven’s fresh, new aroma of purity and life.

Jesus told the servants to bring the water pots – but He didn’t use water from a nearby well. He used water DEDICATED TO PURIFICATION in pots beside the house. He used something that was set aside for God’s holy purposes already. It was never “just a pot of water”, but a “purification pot” set aside for God to use.

Here is the truth: God uses what we give to Him to use. What is kept for us to use as we please is not surrendered, so it doesn’t get used in the marvelous display of transformation – because we don’t want to give it up. Some believers aren’t changing, simply because they are keeping the pots of water for themselves and not surrendering them to Jesus as He told them. They have their own religious pots, neat and clean, and their water is still just ….water. If we want transformation, we are required to surrender what we have to Jesus to get it. When they gave it to Jesus, He dramatically transformed into something outlandishly exquisite.

Don’t miss the story in the water pot. God’s intention for you is not that you become a raging and angry separatist – trying to whine your way into people’s ears. What pleases Him isn’t that you HATE, PROTEST and COMPLAIN. At the same time, God isn’t looking for you to become a tolerant conformist who measures what is TRUE by what is POPULAR. God wants ONE THING that will mark your life… He wants you to deliberately yield your life choices to Him, so that He can TRANSFORM YOUR LIFE in front of all the people in your life. Don’t worry – when he does – they won’t mistake the exquisite wine for bland water. When God gets hold of a life, people smell the aroma of life and taste the spice of truth. You don’t need a t-shirt, a bumper sticker or a campaign. Transformed lives are the best evangelism program any church will ever have.

While we are studying the story, let’s not pass over a problem that often occurs when Jesus is at work among His followers. Don’t forget that when Jesus arrived in Cana there was a problem. It seems like it was his mother’s problem, or at least she felt responsible for some reason… What happened next is a common problem believer’s will understand…she thrust HER PLAN for the problem on Jesus. It is surely true that Jesus was, at least from an earthly perspective, her son. Bu the truth is, many believers act exactly this way toward Jesus when they get into trouble. Do you see it? The text doesn’t say Mary “dropped to her knees and sought God concerning the difficulty”. She didn’t consult Jesus on what should be done. MARY HAD A LITTLE PLAN and she wanted her plan cared for by Jesus. Can you identify with that? Did your prayer life ever sound like you were offering God sage counsel on how to fix things?

We need to be careful: We cannot tack Jesus on the plans we have already made and call that a surrendered life… it isn’t. Jesus is our Master, not our Holy errand boy. I love that Jesus honored her request, but I don’t want that to become my pattern in life.

First Challenge at Jerusalem

The story of the Cana miracle is always thrilling, because I want to be transformed and I love that God shows He can do it in dramatic ways! At the same time, the second story – the “First Cleansing of the Temple” (John 2:13-25) always changes the temperature in the room when I am passing through the study of John chapter two. It isn’t a happy time, but a serious time of challenge.

John 2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated [at their tables]. 15 And He made a scourge of cords, and drove [them] all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; 16 and to those who were selling the doves He said, “Take these things away; stop making My Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME.” 18 The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21 But He was speaking of the temple of His body. 22 So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken. 23 Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. 24 But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, 25 and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.

The time came for the feast of Pesach (Passover) and He went to Jerusalem to celebrate it. He journeyed south to Jerusalem (about 80 miles as the crow flies – cp.2:13). “Passover” was so important we have some record of authorities that would repair the roads for the great influx of people … and whitewash the tombs so nobody would accidentally touch them and accidently defile themselves. Homes were cleaned, cooking utensils cleansed, and houses were removed of all leaven. Those living in Jerusalem were expected to put up out of town guests, so “dust bunnies” in every corner were removed. Fortunately, most homes were a simple plan and not very large.

• Jews celebrated deliverance from bondage in Egypt and Jews from all over would come to the Temple in Jerusalem to present their offerings. Animals were slaughtered, fat was burned, and blood was sprinkled on the altar. Meat was taken home, and eaten by the family in a stew. People stood in line to pay the “Temple tax” of a silver ½ shekel coin to pay for daily sacrifices through the year.

• This was the biggest event of the year. Jesus stood on to the south porch of the Temple, observing merchants selling animals and money changers hawking the crowds as the best rate providers. (2:14).

• It seems like the place sounded more like a Middle eastern open market than a place of worship and prayer, and that got under Jesus’ skin because it wasn’t what God wanted at all. He responded with open rebuke. (2:15).

• Some reports tell us that the High Priest’s family auctioned concession stands to the various merchants and money-changers … to the highest bidder. Merchants charged inflated prices for sacrifice animals, and inequitable rates of exchange for Temple bound coins.

When you read the account, don’t get the mistaken impression that Jesus “lost it” in a heat of the moment reaction. He didn’t fly off the handle. While He was walking around, observing the chaos, He carefully picked up some of the leather cords that were laying around … used to tie up the animals that had now been sold. While He was walking, He formed into a small whip.

Stop for a second and ask what Jesus would do on the set of the televangelist that is pleading for more money for a third of their airtime. I wonder if it is not worth asking if our generation has gotten off the path that He marked for us to follow. I wonder about the many Bible belt churches that look more like social halls and town clubs than hospitals for the spiritually wounded. Someone has said: “We worship our work … work at our play … and play at our worship.” I am not sure they are off base at all.

Jesus knew that God’s plan was for His House to be a house of prayer … a special place … a place of worship and praise. He called it: “My Father’s house” (2:16). He saw the people’s attitudes and actions – just like he sees ours. Did we sing that solo to get people to notice US, or to call them to worship HIM? Did we come because we wanted to seek Jesus, or because we thought the girl we want to date might be here?

The sadness is this: Jesus saw all the decorations of worship, but not the focus of worship! He called for UN-DISTRACTED worship of God. He plead for no ulterior motive – money, career, advancement, attention, affirmation…

Here is my simple question: Do we have Jesus’ zeal of heart (2:17)? Do we say, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord”? (cp. Psalm 69:9).

Jesus’ zeal was literally “eating Him up inside”. He had a PASSION for the things of God… We are passionate about our sports … our eating … music…our work. Are we that passionate about worship and prayer? He did, and He wanted others to have it as well. The authorities didn’t ask about the nature of His dispute, that wasn’t their issue. They wanted to know: “Who do you think you are to be doing this?” (2:18).

Their objection was John’s point in the narrative – that very question…”Who was Jesus anyway?” Jesus as God’s Son, was not willing for people to PLAY AT WORSHIP and feign a surrendered life before His Father!

Why didn’t they stand up to Jesus and kick Him out? There were certainly more of them than Jesus and his few disciples. That would come later in the story of the Gospel of John. For now, Jesus was operating with an authority that could be felt, and that made them hesitant! They knew this was not simply some mad man…. Emerging was a fuller picture of Who Jesus is.

He is loving, and He is tenderhearted. He is merciful and He is kind…. But that isn’t all He is. He is holy. He is just… and He doesn’t like people playing religious games and substituting them for a serious passion for God. When the situation called for assertive leadership He did not shrink back from the task. He didn’t “let it go.” HE answered with clarity and force.

Maybe a story will help:

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis were set in a mythical world. That world was inhabited by centaurs, dwarves, talking wolves and beavers, fawns, and all kinds of creatures more familiar to ancient Greek mythology than modern reading books. In one installment Narnia was covered in an endless winter as the result of a cruel White Witch – a world desperately waiting for a terribly cold winter to finally end. The central character of this book, a talking lion named Aslan (who the author said represented Christ). He was both a ruler and a Savior-type.

Four children – Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter – ended up in Narnia and were educated by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who told them about Aslan. They learned that Aslan was the true King and the son of the “Emperor-Beyond-The-Sea.” They learned that Aslan was a lion – not a man. When that truth was made plain, Susan said: “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mr. Beaver replied, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just quite silly.” Then the youngest of the children, little Lucy, says, “Then he isn’t safe?” Mr. Beaver replied, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he’s not safe. But he’s good.”

I remember that quote, because I think it says it all! Jesus is not who people think He is, and He breaks the molds we make for Him! He is not safe – He is Sovereign… and our reaction to His place in our lives determines if we really are Christians, or just religious church tourists that are self-deluded. Jesus knew His place, and revealed it from the very beginning of His public ministry. What He met was resistance, because people want a Rescuer, but not a Master.

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.

Following His Footsteps: “Starting Block” – Matthew 3-4; John 1

sprinterI am no sprinter, and I have never won a foot race on any track, anywhere – at least that I can recall. Like most of you, I am a sports fan – but I am no sports man. As such, I watch the athleticism of younger men and women, and feel the absolute right to comment on their technique as I watch – though I couldn’t begin to fathom the sacrifice involved in their preparation, nor would my body be able to do any of my suggested moves were I in their place. As a fan of many sports and a master of exactly none – I offer this amateur observation that I have observed: The race is often determined in the moment after the starting gun. The right positioning on the “starting block” often proves to be a supreme advantage. Getting started with strength and stability seems, at least from the view from my cushioned recliner (watching on television) an essential step toward winning. It seems that beginning well is important. It isn’t everything, but it is significant. Yet, I am not thinking primarily about sports…In our lesson I am thinking about how the earth ministry of Jesus began.

The earthly ministry of our Savior as recorded in the Gospels took place over two thousand years ago, and lasted a mere three to four years long. During that time, Jesus became popular and selected His disciples. I marvel that God’s invasion of His fallen planet was pressed into a few short years and took place in one small area of the globe – on a planet in one corner of one galaxy – yet His work is transforming the whole cosmos. What began as a work of human rescue and salvation, will not see its completion until the final transformation when all things that are made new. Our question to consider is this: “How did Jesus begin His ministry?” What were the very first moments of God’s reclamation of creation like? How did that beginning offer a portent of the whole ministry? In the simplest terms, the early record of Jesus’ ministry emphasized three aspects of ministry that would dominate the whole work…

Key Principle: The work of ministry is about three things: God’s call – selecting us for His work, the enemy’s obstruction – attempting to distract us from the assignment and the prime objective of building disciples in the midst of the battle.

Yes, we are referring to the opening of the ministry of Jesus. At the same time, the ministry we have been given is a continuation of the same priorities. We need not redeem man, but the message of that completed redemption IS in our hands, empowered by His Spirit. The record of the opening of Jesus’ ministry will help us define three issues:

• What is required to begin a work for God?
• What resistance should we expect when we begin to work out our ministry?
• What is the chief focus of ministry?

When I use the term “ministry”, I am not thinking in some professional sense, but in this way: “Ministry is using God’s power to accomplish God’s purpose in God’s way, according to God’s stated priorities.” Ministry is the LIFE of the follower of Jesus. We have the incredible privilege to live in service to Jesus – and to serve Him by serving others. Let’s look into the passages that share how Jesus began the work.

The Presentation of Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11 and Lk. 3:21-23)

In the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He was announced as the Deliverer at His baptism in the Jordan by His cousin John. As we look at the scene, ask yourself this question: “What is required to begin a life of service to our Father in Heaven?” In the case of Jesus, His ministry began with a CALL that acted in His case as a public endorsement – so that a handful of those who would follow Jesus had a stunning awakening to His presence. It was a shocking, verbal affirmation from Heaven:

Matthew 3:13 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan [coming] to John, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” 15 But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit [it] at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. 16 After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove [and] lighting on Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

It is clear in the text that the baptism by John was God the Father’s announcement that Jesus had prepared well for the work to come, and that He was ready to commence His redemptive work. Yet, that was admittedly a unique feature that was designed for Jesus. Should I anticipate that God will open Heaven and make such a display for me as I begin to serve Him? No! Yet, there is an example here we should observe that is instructive for us…

First, notice in Matthew 3:13 that Jesus recognized the work God was already doing, and went to John’s baptism site. He didn’t forge off on His own, but began with a place that God was already moving in hearts, and where God’s Word was already being represented. Ministry and service for God isn’t about you “doing it all right on a path of your own”. Your call to ministry adds you to a team that has already been at work. You are JOINING A TEAM, not establishing the beginning of God’s work on earth. I am concerned about those who view themselves as so self-important they cannot place themselves in a position of “team” at all.

Second, John’s response to Jesus in Matthew 3:14 reminds us of the kind of ministry we should seek out when we want to be a part of God’s work on a team – a ministry that acknowledges the supremacy of Jesus. We need to expect ministry to do more than good works for helpless people. Pagans can fill soup bowls. We need to recognize that real ministry exalts Jesus, and recognizes His unique position as the Eternal Son of God. Good works are important but proper worship at the center of any ministry is essential for those works to have the right meaning.

Third, Matthew 3:15 reminds us that a proper ministry follows the Word of God. John’s thoughts were reverent but Jesus’ commands were Biblical. Jesus called the play, and John executed it as called – because that is what ministry is supposed to do. We go where Jesus points.

Finally, an essential point for our call to ministry is this: God sets us aside to do the work He gives us. It begins with His affirmation. Because Matthew 3:16-17 are so unique to Jesus, it is easy to obscure this point. I am not suggesting that God will open Heaven for us before a host of our friends and exclaim that we are called to do a work for Him. What I am saying is this: God will affirm your careful preparation, and God will call you to accomplish things for Him if you open yourself to His desires. The most frustrated believer is one who has a sense of duty without knowledge of God’s calling. God waits to be asked, and waits to be wanted.

Jesus began by going to where God was already working – a place where the Word of God was being explained and the priority of God was being fleshed out. He stood in the water and God affirmed the beginning of His earth ministry in a formal way. You may not see a light from Heaven, but if you yield the balance of your life to your Heavenly Father – He will acknowledge that in your life. He will show it to others. He will affirm that you are following His call.

The story is told of a time when Henry Ford was riding through the Michigan countryside and happened upon a man who was beside the road trying to get his “Model T” working again. The problem was not severe, but the man had no earthly idea how to get it working properly. Ford pulled over his car and jumped out of the driver’s seat. He asked the man if he could help. The man was very open to assistance, and Ford had the car purring in minutes. “What a miracle worker you are!” exclaimed the man. “Not really”, said Ford. “I am the designer of the automobile, so I know how it works.”

That makes obvious sense to anyone who hears of the story. Yet, think about it: People spend their lives searching for answers to make life work, but won’t take their broken lives to the Designer of life. If you do – expect more than restoration – expect a mission. Expect a call. God starts at the point that we surrender to Him – and then He moves us into things we NEVER could have imagined.

Ministry (“using God’s power to accomplish God’s purpose in God’s way, according to God’s stated priorities”) begins with our surrender and God’s affirming call… but that is just the beginning.

By the way, was God’s affirmation from Heaven recognized as an important event years after? Yes, indeed! Hebrews 1 opened with the argument of Jesus’ position based on that day:

Hebrews 1:1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world…5 For to which of the angels did He ever say, “YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU”? And again, “I WILL BE A FATHER TO HIM AND HE SHALL BE A SON TO ME”?

Jesus went to the right place with the right heart and right preparation – but God exalted Him and marked His life. You are not the Redeemer – but God will do the same for you. If you offer Him your life, He will affirm your choice, empower your work and attract others to you. That is the beginning place for your work to accomplish His purposes. When you do that, however, be warned… the complications of life are about to hit you…

The Problem for Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11; Mk. 1:12-13 and Lk. 4:1-13)

Affirmation and accomplishment are exciting to talk about, but they come at a price. God affirms and Satan attacks. If you have walked with God, I need say little about this to you. Let me address the one who is at the beginning of their road of surrendered heart and accomplished ministry. Look carefully at the words that mark out the work of TEMPTATION in our lives:

Matthew 4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE, BUT ON EVERY WORD THAT PROCEEDS OUT OF THE MOUTH OF GOD.'” 5 Then the devil took Him into the holy city and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down; for it is written, HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU’; and ‘ON [their] HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'” 7 Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'” 8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, YOU SHALL WORSHIP THE LORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.'” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and [began] to minister to Him.

Look at the pattern – because it will become familiar if you follow God:

First, don’t ignore that temptation came while Jesus was led by the Spirit – it cannot be avoided by a walk with God because it is part of the walk (4:1a). We will pass into tempting situations and experiences. God will not forsake us, but He will not block all temptation from coming our way. He will do so at strategic times to protect us – and then expect we will use the armor He provided (Eph. 6:10-20) for the other times. God expects a believer to be wise, prepared and disciplined in areas of temptation.

Second, though not all temptation is directly from the enemy, it all originates with him and can be linked to his person and attitude of rebellion (4:1b). The devil isn’t interested in rebelling alone. He wants a degraded audience, destroying their lives beside him. He is at work in our day, “the prince of the power of the air” warping our world’s sense of justice to defend perversion as a right and convenience killing as a social necessity. He is laughing as we indulge in entertainments that enrich our rebellion while proclaiming Jesus as our Savior. He is very much behind the things tugging you away from a surrendered heart before God.

Third, temptation is most effective when we are at a position of need and in a state of dormancy (4:2). Matthew recorded in some detail the specific instance of the temptation of Jesus by His enemy – so that we would learn the pattern:

• The tempter began by questioning truth (“if you are the Son of God”) and raising Jesus’ attentiveness to His own hungry desires (“turn these stones to bread”). This was a call to self-absorbed thinking – focusing more on a desire or need than on careful obedience to His Father.

Here is the great tragedy of America. When the post mortem is done on how the west fell, it will show, I am confident, that a paganization of education was at the core of the fall. Instead of using God’s Word as the foundation of truth – we have deliberately replaced the truth with unending questions and bold assertions that such truths do not really exist. As we quadruple our social services budgets and clog the system with an unending number of dysfunctional people, we will see the error of that way. People cannot get life together when they don’t have a truth foundation to put it on. When any nation is taught to focus on fulfilling their desires without the balancing truth of taking joy from wholly serving their Creator – they lose their way.

• The second phase of the tempter’s work attempted to draw the Master into “proving” to the enemy His rightful position while using “half-truths” and “partial quotes” of the Word to do so. This was a call to self-reliant thinking – focusing more on one’s position and ability than on the pleasure of our Heavenly Father with our lives.

Here the enemy didn’t want to change WHO Jesus was, but rather try to focus Jesus on Himself rather than on His Father – for Whom the whole mission was conceived. Jesus was here for His Father’s joy – and focus on Who He is was a distraction from that chief end. Satan is a master at pulling our eyes from the MOST IMPORTANT to the LESSER THINGS – and once our eyes are following his prompting, he will pull our attention into rebellion. Jesus would have none of it. Even as the Eternal Son of God – He knew His call was to serve His Father, and keep His attention on that as His chief joy.

I wonder how many believers have been trained to think this way. Have we really instilled in those we disciple that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him in the process? The message of modern Christianity often sounds like the tempter’s voice: “Come to Jesus and YOU will find fulfillment and happiness.” Even though the words are true, can we not see that they beckon us to get Jesus for our own purposes – and not to surrender our lives to HIS? We must be careful about this, for how we motivate people will show up later in the discipleship process.

• The third phase of the temptation was all about exaltation and glory (“cast Yourself down from here”) – the enemy offering promised results. When Satan cannot get us to succumb to some warped version of self-desire, when he cannot delude our thinking with half-truths – he will beckon to a deep desire within us to be important and famous. He will summon us to do something that calls for the obvious recognition of our own importance. This is a call to our self-important thinking – focusing on glory for self and not glory for our Father.

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.

This can sound harsh, but I truly mean every word of it in love, and it is a pleading question, not to the world, but to my friends who claim to follow Jesus: “What difference does it make “what you feel attracted to” if it conflicts with the Word of God?” Why would I spend my time trying to carefully dissect and discern my feelings instead of simply asking what the Master has said will please Him? Is not greater sacrifice the platform for greater joy in the time of reward? Are we not told to be like Jesus Who surrendered His desires, blessings and comforts to serve His Father’s end? With that in mind…Does not God have the right to call you to celibacy if he chooses? Can He not call you to childlessness – regardless of what you feel you desire? When did God give up being in charge of His own plan? Self-centered Christianity isn’t Christianity at all – it is a religion cloaked immature selfishness – and we need to see it for the bankruptcy it is.

The attempt Satan used has been a successful method against many. While ineffective against Jesus, the record offers us an ability to know in advance the enemy’s way of pulling us off track. It is a model… and we must watch for appeals to self-absorption, self-reliance and self-importance. On each are the fingerprints of a fallen angel.

Jesus answered the tempter’s melody with three responses from God’s revealed Word:

• In Matthew 4:4 Jesus faced the tempter and made the simple point that it is God’s Word – not man’s hunger – that is supreme. What a statement! Jesus literally said that what was more important than what He wanted at that moment (something to eat and drink) was subservient to the Word of God. That is Christian thinking put succinctly and powerfully. His Word moves me to place second my desires. My life here is about sowing; my life to come in Heaven is about reaping. When I get that truth confused I expect people here to be fair, and circumstances here to work out to my benefit. Sometimes they do, and that confuses my focus all the more. Yet, when I live for the eventual applause of Heaven, I gain peace amid the problems on earth. I drop my need for things to please ME, because I want ultimately to please HIM.

• Jesus made clear the issue wasn’t simply what we DO, but for WHOSE GLORY we do it (Mt. 4:7). A man who lives to make himself happy doesn’t live for God’s glory… period. When I live for my Master, I can and WILL enjoy life – but that cannot become the goal or I am changing the essential message and purpose of my faith.

• In the last retort of Jesus to His enemy (Mt. 4:10) the Master made clear that there comes a time when the best we can do is dismiss temptation with the Word and move on – reasoning with deception is often a lost cause.

The attack of the enemy was activated when God acknowledged that Jesus’ work of redemption was underway. We should expect nothing less. When we move ahead, the enemy dispatches those who push us back. They may come in the form of temptation to do wrong, or simply temptation to lose focus on the goal.

Here is the point: If we surrender we will be called. When we are called, we will face attack. Yet, there is more. We must understand the priority of ministry or we will spend our lives on the wrong effort – a great many have over the years!

The Priority of Jesus (John 1:29-51)

John 1:29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! … 35 Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. 38 And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” They said to Him, “Rabbi (which translated means Teacher), where are You staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they came and saw where He was staying; and they stayed with Him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John [speak] and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which translated means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)…”

Jesus left the tempter behind and fully fixed his gaze on the mission ahead. It was clear that mission was not simply about the crowds – though it included public ministry. His was a ministry of DISCIPLE MAKING. This was His initial priority, and based on the record of His final hours before the Cross – it was His CENTRAL priority. We must recognize this! The church is not primarily about preserving the culture – it is about replicating disciples that can live truth REGARDLESS of what the culture does.

Disciples came to Jesus because another follower (John) pointed out Jesus to them (John 1:29). If John was concerned with his own fame, he may have hid Jesus from his own followers – and many so called “Christian” leaders do that. They make disciples increasingly dependent upon them – not equipping them and encouraging them to carry the work. They will create ministry based on paid staff, instead of igniting and encouraging the work of the Spirit from the church pew. They will not bring people to MATURITY, but to DEPENDENCE. We must make every effort to do the work of equipping, and keep pointing people to God and His Word – and not to us.

How do you know when disciples are grown? When they are reproducing – when they are calling others to Jesus they are BEGINNING the process. That isn’t the end. Having babies doesn’t make you a parent – just a biologically functioning adult. Raising children is what makes one a parent. Don’t see John 1 as the END, but the beginning of making disciples that make disciples – a subject we will handle more deeply in coming lessons…

Here is the truth of our lesson: The work of ministry is about three things: God’s call – selecting us for His work, the enemy’s obstruction – attempting to distract us from the assignment and the prime objective of building disciples in the midst of the battle.

According to Mike Neifert in his writing called “Light and Life” (February 1997), staff members from the Bridger Wilderness Area in Wyoming reported receiving comment cards from visitors to their rustic wilderness park:

• Trails need to be reconstructed. Please avoid building trails that go uphill.
• Too many bugs and leeches and spiders and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the areas of these pests.
• Please pave the trails…Chair lifts need to be in some places so that we can get to wonderful views without having to hike to them.
• The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake. Please eradicate these annoying animals.
• A small deer came into my camp and stole my jar of pickles. Is there a way I can get reimbursed? Please call…
• Escalators would help on steep uphill sections.
• A MacDonald’s would be nice at the trailhead.
• Too many rocks in the mountains.

Larry Sarver wrote a sermon that is included in the Sermon Central library on the subject of discipleship and he cited these complaints. I appreciated his insight, so I close with his words:

These comments and complaints indicate that the people who made them do not really understand what it means to stay in a “wilderness area.” They were looking for something convenient and comfortable, but not truly a wilderness experience. In a similar way, many people today do not understand what it means to be a genuine Christian. There are multitudes that often follow Jesus or claim to be a Christian but they do so on their terms and not his. They do not truly comprehend the biblical definition of discipleship. Because of this ignorance there are many who consider themselves to be followers of Jesus who are not, even though in many ways they do look like followers of Jesus. They go to church, have a profession of faith, read their Bibles, pray, even give in the offering, but they are not the real deal or at least are not living and thinking like the real deal. … there is no reason for anybody to be ignorant or self-deceived… To be a disciple of Jesus you must be committed to him above everything else… In our hearts Jesus must come before our loved ones, self-interest, possessions, careers, hobbies, goals in life, and even our very lives. In practice this commitment to Jesus will be tested and sometimes, in a moment of weakness, Jesus will not come first in our choices, but genuine disciples have made a sincere commitment in their hearts and will not continue to put other things before Jesus.” (Sermon Central illustrations).