Acts 18: Paul had finally had it with them and gave it up as a bad job.
Paul spends a lot of time in Corinth, likely over two years. In the beginning he focuses his ministry on the Jews living there and has some success. However, others become more and more entrenched in their rejection of his message. At some point he decides there are more productive ways to minister in the Name of Jesus and ends up next door to the Jews’ meeting place at the home of Titius Justus. There Paul sets up shop for at least 18 months, preaching about Jesus and establishing a church in Corinth. After working primarily with the Jews Paul realizes that continuing to do so is not a profitable use of his time and energy. In his case, there’s a better place right next door. How often do we get so locked into a certain way and place that we continue to try to ride a horse that’s long dead? As the truism goes: “when the horse is dead it’s time to dismount.” Some churches are still trying to do things the way they were done in 1950 and they wonder why what worked so well then no longer packs any punch today. They blame others who aren’t on board for not being spiritual enough or yield to living in a defeated shadow of yesterday. Paul decides that continuing to do what he has been doing is no longer effective so he changes his approach, opening the way for a long and productive ministry. His message remains the same, but his method is upgraded. The mission is permanent but the method is fluid.
Take Away: We must not confuse the message with some transitory method.
The Unknown God
Acts 17: He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him.
Paul is speaking at the Areopagus in Athens. He’s disturbed by all the shrines to all the deities worshiped there. He’s even seen one shrine dedicated to the “unknown god.” The folks there don’t want to overlook some god and unintentionally get on the bad side of him! When Paul gets a chance to be heard, he uses that shrine as his launching point. He’s there to tell them about the God they’ve missed. His argument is right out of the Old Testament. The prophets of old often called their people to worship the God not made with human hands. Paul tells them that the God he serves is good and gracious, blessing their lives even though they haven’t acknowledged him. This God reaches out to them, inviting them to live in a relationship with him. However, there comes a time when the “unknown” becomes the “known.” It’s one thing to enjoy the blessings of God in ignorance. It’s something altogether different to know of this good God and to intentionally ignore him. In fact, God intends to divide people along that very line. He’s so serious about it that he’s already appointed a Judge over the people of the earth. To make it perfectly clear to the whole world that this is his chosen Judge, God has raised him from the dead. Many of Paul’s listeners, worshipers of a variety of gods, can’t swallow this “resurrection business.” They can’t imagine their gods having that kind of power. They walk away believing that they’ve just heard an impossible myth. Others, though, are drawn to this good God and his resurrected, appointed Judge. They want to know more. I know where I stand on this issue. Where do you stand?
Take Away: This “Unknown God” can, and wants to be known by all.
The question for the ages
Acts 16: Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved?
Obviously, the two prisoners are harmless men. They’ve arrived in his European city and made friends with some of the nicest people in town. They like to talk religion and have some unusual ideas, but talking religion and having unusual ideas isn’t especially uncommon or damning. Still, their growing popularity gets the attention of some people who stand for the status quo and some more powerful people in town have decided enough is enough. To teach these outsiders a lesson they’ve been beaten and thrown in jail for the night. Once they’re released they’ll waste no time getting out of town, that’s for sure. Now, bloody and bruised they’re chained up like common criminals. Their behavior, though, isn’t like criminals or even people who’ve been beaten up. They’re singing! The jailer thinks these nice men are probably crazy. Still, there’s something about them that disturbs him to the core. Who is this Jesus they sing about anyway? Suddenly, an earthquake shakes the neighborhood. The jailer runs to the gate of the jail to find it open, swinging on it hinges. He’ll be held accountable for any escapes and surely his prisoners are gone by now. To save himself the public execution he prepares to kill himself and is about to fall on his sword when Paul cries out for him to stop, they’re still there. There’s a second earthquake, this time in the man’s heart. Whatever it is that these two singing prisoners have is what he wants. He asks a question for the ages: Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved?
Take Away: The wonderful thing is that there’s an answer to this question…the answer is “Jesus!”
No yarmulke or “minor surgery” necessary
Acts 15: So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules.
This is a huge moment in the life of the church with far reaching implications. Some of the Jewish Christians want the Gentiles who convert to adopt Jewish rites, specifically circumcision. Peter, Barnabas, and Paul argue that it’s all about Jesus and that faith in him as Savior and Lord is all that’s necessary to be saved. Will Christianity be a branch of Judaism or will it be a religion of its own? It’s a tough decision for this group, made up of Jewish men who follow a Jewish Savior. However, the answer’s really easy. As Peter points out, the Holy Spirit has already ruled on the issue, earlier, as he preached at the house of Cornelius. Barnabas and Paul affirm this. They’ve been “out there” and seen what happens when Gentiles simply believe in Jesus. Now James weighs in, this time with Scripture that declares God’s intention to include the Gentiles who will, indeed, have a place at the table of his grace. If these new followers of Jesus will just avoid a few things that the Jewish followers of Jesus find especially objectionable there will be, not two flavors of Christianity, but one. Obviously, this new religion will be diverse but it will, never-the-less be united.
Take Away: Christianity is about the Christ and any focus elsewhere is mistaken.
Telling thankful people just who to thank
Acts 14: We don’t make God; he makes us, and all of this.
Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra and open their ministry there by performing a miracle, healing a lame man. The town goes wild and before they know it Barnabas and Paul are identified as the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. In the mythology of the day Hermes is the spokesman of the gods and since Paul does most of the talking they identify him as Hermes. Barnabas, though, gets the highest title. Maybe there’s a lesson here that if we keep our mouths shut people will think more of us than they would otherwise! Anyway, it takes some doing to calm the crowd down so that Paul can preach the Good News of the gospel to them. Since the theme of the day is already set, Paul focuses in on the true God and his good will toward all people. That good will, he says, is evident in the blessings that surround each of us. Here’s evangelism fueled by Creation. Even a person who’s secular to the core looks at the majesty of the Grand Canyon or some other natural wonder and feels a sense of gratitude. A good place to start a conversation about the Lord is to tell them who it is that we thank for it all.
Take Away: One of the ways the Lord has revealed himself to us is through his Creation.
Enjoy the moment but realize it may not be permanent
Acts 13: Take Barnabas and Saul and commission them for the work I have called them to do.
When Paul’s converted the Lord says “I have picked him as my personal representative to Gentiles and kings, and Jews.” From the beginning it’s clear that the Lord intends for this man to minister beyond the current reach of the Church. Now, years later we find Paul, along with his friend and mentor Barnabas working among the Gentile believers in Antioch. It’s reasonable to assume that Paul thinks he’s fulfilling that calling, living distant from Jerusalem, ministering across cultural lines. Then there’s an unexpected stirring in his heart. The Lord is moving him in a new, and somewhat unexpected, direction. Soon the church leaders receive word from the Holy Spirit on this matter. Paul and Barnabas are to be set apart to take the gospel into new territory. The move a few years earlier to Antioch may have felt as though it was the ultimate response to God’s call but now Paul sees that it was but a step in the direction the Lord had for him. The rest of his life will be lived “out there” proclaiming the gospel in new places, doing just what the Lord said years earlier in Damascus. To some extent we’re always on a journey. Even when we stay in the same place the circumstances around us change. However, at times the Lord tells us that what we took for a permanent assignment was merely a stepping stone to the next thing. Just because the Lord puts me in a place for a time or blesses me in a particular way as I do things in some specific manner doesn’t mean that I’m to institutionalize it and refuse to budge from there. I must not confuse a step for a permanent assignment.
Take Away: Don’t get too settled. The Lord may just be preparing you for the next step in your journey.
Sometimes God answers right now!
Acts 12: The house was packed with praying friends.
Herod decides it’s time to put the followers of Jesus in their place. He murders one of them, James, brother of John. Then he arrests Peter, intending to publicly execute him. However, Herod has heard some of the stories of miracles and he well remembers how the body of Jesus somehow escaped the tomb so he assigns sixteen guards to the fisherman. Two are actually chained to him. Meanwhile, the Church prays like it’s never prayed before. God hears and sends an angel to rescue Peter from the jail and the clutches of wicked Herod. Poor servant Rhonda gets the laugh line every time this story is told. She gets so excited that their prayers are answered that she leaves Peter standing in the street. I’m sure she laughed about it herself in the years to come. When God answers prayer like that, in such a surprising and timely way, even the most faith filled prayer warrior might get a bit confused. I can just imagine years later as various people who were present at that prayer meeting gather with friends for prayer. Someone brings a seeming impossible request, maybe with a bit of defeat already mixed in. That’s when one of those prayer warriors from this passage speaks up. “Don’t count God out. Why, I remember a time when Peter was being guarded by sixteen soldiers….” Everyone already knows the story but no one wants it to stop. Answered prayers feed faith. We need to cherish some of the really good answers and draw strength from them. In fact, we need to use them to encourage those who need a “faith-lift” as they pray over some difficult situation.
Take Away: Answered prayers feed faith.
Back at the beginning
Acts 11: As it sank in, they started praising God.
The event at the house of Cornelius sets the table for the next big thing from God. At first the Church in Jerusalem is skeptical. They’ve had trouble from the religious powerbase in Jerusalem before and if word spreads that these followers of Jesus are mixing it up with Gentiles there’s bound to be renewed opposition. However, when Peter tells what happened, especially how the Holy Spirit came to them even as he came to the 120 in the Upper Room those who have been critical of Peter can’t help but praise God. Their Messiah is, indeed, the Savior of the world! Such an eye opening and faith-expanding event has come just in time because even as the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are beginning to grasp the enormity of what Jesus has accomplished things are happening hundreds of miles north of them in Antioch. The Gospel is being proclaimed and non-Jews are coming to Christ by the hundreds and maybe thousands. Because of what happened at one house in Caesarea and with just one Apostle, Peter, the Church in Jerusalem is ready to respond to the big thing happening in Antioch. From a micro point of view, the event at Cornelius’ house is pretty cool, but not that big a deal. However, God is doing something much bigger, preparing the way for the Good News to spread like wildfire throughout the Mediterranean region. It is fun to be part of the big deal, but it’s pretty neat to be there when the “big deal” was still a relatively “little deal.”
Take Away: What a blessing it is to be in on the ground floor of some great movement of God!
Acts 10: No sooner were these words out of Peter’s mouth than the Holy Spirit came on the listeners.
The story of Cornelius is such a wonderful story. Here’s a good man, a Gentile, who cares for the needy and who makes time to pray. He’s such a good man that he gets the attention of the Lord who wants to do something more in his life. Then, miles away, we see another good man, a Jew, who loves the Lord and is a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus. God’s intention is to bring these two men together. Connecting this Gentile and Jew at the level the Lord wants takes some doing involving an angelic visitation and a vision from God. It works! As Cornelius gathers a house full of expectant friends Peter arrives and soon begins telling them the story of Jesus. The sermon has barely begun before it becomes unnecessary. This gathering of people are already on the verge of faith and all it takes is a gentle nudge from Peter to open the way for the Holy Spirit to take command of the service and their lives. How wonderful it is to experience such a move of God! It’s a blessing that both satisfies and causes hunger for more. Once we have such an experience we’re not likely to be fooled by some counterfeit!
Take Away: Sometimes the Lord has prepared the way for revival and all it takes is one or two acts of obedience to put that revival into full motion.
From persecutor to follower
Acts 9: Things calmed down after that and the church had smooth sailing for awhile.
From the Day of Pentecost on there’s tension between the followers of Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Obviously, the murder of Stephen is the primary example of that. Now, Saul, who was there as Stephen’s last words were addressed to Jesus, becomes the main enemy of the believers. He terrorizes them, showing no mercy. Then, on the way to Damascus to root out even more Jesus followers, he encounters Jesus, himself. It’s a dramatic turnaround. The greatest enemy of Jesus and his people is now one of them. Saul is as zealous for Jesus as he had been zealous against him. Following the martyred Stephen’s approach Saul debates the enemies of Jesus in Damascus. Then, when opposition is stirred to murderous proportions he returns to Jerusalem. Thanks to Barnabas, Saul is welcomed into the Church there. Soon he’s debating with the Hellenists of that city. Before long they decide to deal with Saul as they dealt with Stephen. Saul is hustled out of town and soon is sent to his distant home town, Tarsus. It’s only then that things calm down for the infant Church. As I read of these events, I once again wonder if debate is the best way to advance Christianity. It’s Stephen’s use of this approach that touches off the firestorm of opposition and it’s when Saul, with his debate style is moved from the mix that things calm down and the Church advances under a banner of peace. Also, I can’t help but wonder if Saul’s conversion doesn’t frighten the enemies of the Church. Saul was one of them, in fact, the most zealous of the lot. If attacking followers of Jesus can somehow make a person into one of “them” maybe it’s best to just leave them alone! No real application here but there’s plenty to think about as I consider this chain of events.
Take Away: Debate probably isn’t the best way to influence people for Jesus.