Archive for the ‘ Gospels and Acts’ Category

Question Mark (1)

Wednesday March 28, 2007

I’ve had the privilege of going through Mark with a group of guys from the CU. In the process I’ve heard answers (or partial answers) to some of the obvious questions that arise from the text. Before my brain forgets them all I’m going to try to whack some of the good stuff up here.

Part 1 — Part 2 — Part 3 — Part 4 — Part 5 — Part 6

The first chunk we looked at was 1:1-3:6. In the first verse, Mark begins by giving the whole game away – he tells us that the Jesus he will be talking about is the “Christ” and the “Son of God”. The characters in the story don’t realise these two facts until much later (the first in 8:29, the second in 15:39) and the moments when they do are key to the way Mark unfolds his gospel. But Mark lets his readers in on the secret from the very beginning, and then proceeds to prove the importance of Jesus by showing again and again his power and authority. In these first chapters, then, we see Jesus mightier that John (1:750 ), endorsed by God in heaven (1:11), with authority to teach (1:22), authority over demons (1:27), power to heal (1:34), authority to forgive sins (2:5) and authority as lord of the Sabbath (2:28). Clearly this Jesus is a remarkable man. Let’s get into it…

1:2-3 Where in Isaiah can I find this? Verse 2 is actually quoted from Malachi 3:1. I don’t think it’s a big problem that Mark labels it as Isaiah (though I guess this is why some manuscripts have “in the prophets” – see ESV footnote) and Isaiah was the first of the prophetic books and so often used as a title for all of them. Further, Mark then does quote from Isaiah 40:3 and strings the two quotes together as was apparently common practice. It is hard to see what problem this could cause anyway – it can’t be used as evidence the Bible is prone to error, for then we would have to believe that Mark was an idiot who hadn’t read the OT, which after reading the gospel we clearly can’t accept.

1:6 Why mention John’s dress sense? It paints a picture of the OT prophets (particularly Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8) so begins to prepare the reader to understand that John is the fulfillment of the promise that Elijah would return (9:13).

1:8 What does it mean “baptise you with the Holy Spirit”? This is, of course, controversial and is not a primary (ie. central) issue of the faith. My take, though, is that here John refers to the gift of the Holy Spirit to all believers from the moment of first faith, not a subsequent event or experience. To justify this, I would point out that John directly compares his baptism and Jesus’ in 1:8 (“I have baptised…he will baptise…”) so it seems reasonable to suppose that Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit is also “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). Since repentance is required to become a Christian and forgiveness is immediately granted, I believe that this baptism must also be an expression for conversion. Secondly, John seems to point to this as a central ministry of Jesus (it’s the only thing he says about what Jesus will do!) whose purpose was to “give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Again, I think this more naturally refers to the moment of conversion than a later stage.

1:14 Why was John arrested? Mark will tell us later (6:17-18) but for now refers to it to set the context of Jesus’ time of ministry. It perhaps also serves to warn the reader that Jesus’ preaching that we must be forgiven and then turn from sin will often be badly received.

1:15 What was the message of Jesus? This is more something that I would ask if I were leading a Bible study here, as it’s often suggested that it was “”love your neighbour as yourself”, a new morality or a message of love from God. Some of these are truer than others, but Mark won’t let us have them as Jesus’ chief message. He tells us that Jesus preached: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”.

1:22 Why didn’t the other teachers have “authority”? As I understand it (and I could well be wrong) the scribes would simply quote other Rabbis, so they never had any authority of their own but relied on that of other scholars. Jesus, by contrast, had authority to teach without being backed up by other humans – though of course he had the authority of the Scriptures to back him up as he was fully in line with them.

1:25 Why wouldn’t he let the unclean spirits (or even people, see v44) talk about him – isn’t it good publicity? We see in verse 37-38 that his aim wasn’t popularity. All the people were looking for him but he didn’t head for the crowd but wanted to go and preach in other towns for “this is what I came for”. The more people heard about him the more they turned up wanting to see (or receive) a miracle, and the harder it became to preach – as we see in v45.

2:5-12 Why doesn’t Jesus heal the man? Firstly it’s worth noting that in the end he did (v11-12)! Secondly, Mark doesn’t actually tell us why the four men brought their friend (nor do Matthew or Luke) – it could have been so that he could hear Jesus, rather than hoping for a healing. Whatever the details, Jesus knew that the man’s most pressing need was forgiveness from God (see his mission statement in 1:14-15) and provided it. The scribes were furious as only God can forgive sins, so Jesus was claiming to be God. To vindicate himself Jesus offers a visible miracle, so they can see whether he is successful or not – and he is. The logic should run like this: healings come from God, God wouldn’t work with a blasphemer, therefore Jesus isn’t a blasphemer. But Jesus did claim to be God so if he’s not lying then he must be telling the truth and must be God. The scribes wouldn’t have liked that, though, and presumably weren’t among those who “”glorified God” at the end.

2:17 Are there people who are righteous enough that they don’t need Jesus? No. Jesus reveals that we are all “sick” and sinners, primarily by living out in his own life what the moral standard is and letting us see how far we fall short. He also has some very harsh words, especially for the religious leaders (for example 7:6-8, 12:24, 12:38-40). But, as a sick man who won’t admit that he is ill can’t go to a doctor for help, the “righteous” that he speaks of are the self-righteous who won’t admit they are sinful so can’t go to Jesus for help.

2:18-20 What is Jesus saying about fasting? I’ll let Rico Tice take this one, as he’s answered it neatly in the ‘Study Guide Leader’s Edition’ of the manual for the Christianity Explored course. Between p10 and p11 (the numbering is weird!) he says:

Jesus is making the point that, for the disciples, fasting is totally inappropriate in his presence, just as it would be for wedding guests to mourn at a wedding. Jesus is identifying himself as the bridegroom of God’s people, promised by the Old Testament (Isaiah 54:5; 62:4-5; Hosea 2:16-20).

Clearly, Jesus does expect that once he’s returned to heaven, his followers “will fast”.

2:21-22 What’s with the garments and the wineskins? This seems to be further explanation of the previous teaching on fasting, but honestly the details confuse me! The consensus seems to be that he is teaching that the current system of following rules (including prescribed fasts) isn’t compatible with the genuine, personal worship of God that he wants. This also helps us to understand the teaching on the Sabbath in 2:23-3:6, where nit-picking observance of rules is not the point.

2:23-3:6 Were Jesus or his disciples breaking the Sabbath? Yes and no! No, they certainly weren’t breaking God’s law by plucking some corn or healing a man’s hand. But yes, they were breaking the religious rules that people had built around God’s command – a rigorous check list of things which could and could not be done. This seems to be the chief point, that the Pharisees are more concerned with their own rules than God’s standard. As an example he cites the case of David – who the leaders’ rules would have condemned though God surely didn’t. Moreover, the Son of Man (the most important of men, for whom the Sabbath was made) is lord of the Sabbath and has authority over it and over the rules surrounding it.

Heavenly Father, I thank you that in Jesus you sent your promised Christ and your promised Son. I praise you for the authority that he demonstrated on earth – to teach, to forgive sins, and over sickness, spirits, nature and death. Please help me to submit to his authority, and to always remember his message to the world: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel”. Amen.

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Question Mark (4)

Wednesday February 21, 2007

I’ve had the privilege of going through Mark with a group of guys from the CU. In the process I’ve heard answers (or partial answers) to some of the obvious questions that arise from the text. Before my brain forgets them all I’m going to try to whack some of the good stuff up here.

Part 1 — Part 2 — Part 3 — Part 4 — Part 5 — Part 6

We’ve now finished the first half of Mark’s gospel which was all about who Jesus is and climaxed with Peter realising that he’s the Christ. The rest of Mark is concerned with what Jesus came to do and what he requires from his followers (what it means that he is the Christ). We were looking at 8:30-10:52. This does seem to be a block as at the beginning of ch11 Jesus enters Jerusalem – a new stage in the gospel. Moreover, here we see the three predictions of Jesus that he will die and rise again (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34) which set the context for all his teaching here.

8:34-38 seem to act as a summary of the whole section. The disciples are to follow Jesus even to death, and they are to give up their lives for him. What that means will be expanded in the next couple of chapters, and it’s helpful to keep these thoughts in mind as we read.

9:1 What is the kingdom of God come with power? Some people suggested it’s the Spirit coming at Pentecost and 36 hours ago I’d have said the same (or the resurrection, but the two are closely linked). I think I’ve been persuaded, though, that it’s talking about the transfiguration (9:2-8). Few of Jesus’ followers would have died before Pentecost so it’s an odd thing to say if that’s what he means. At the transfiguration Peter, James and John physically saw Jesus in glory with Moses and Elijah and physically heard the Father speak – just as we will see and hear them in heaven. Almost all of those there (except Peter, James, John and possibly a handful of others) wouldn’t see that until after they died, but those three saw it before they “tasted death”. Similarly we shouldn’t expect to see the power of the kingdom until we die (unless Jesus comes before then!) but we know it’s real and we will see it because those three apostles are eye witnesses.

9:11-13 When has Elijah come? The parallel account is in Matthew 17, where v13 makes it plain that John the Baptist was, metaphorically, the second Elijah – preparing the way for Jesus as promised in Malachi 4:5-6. (See also Matthew 11:1-19, esp v13-14)

9:13 Where is John the Baptist’s suffering written about? Good question, I don’t know.

9:14-29 Why is this here? This is something I was wondering about – Mark’s already shown us that Jesus has power over spirits so what does this add, and specifically what is it doing in a section about the right response to Jesus’ death and resurrection? I’m not entirely sure, but the distinctive part of this story is that the disciples had tried and failed to doing it themselves (note that they were given authority over spirits in 6:7). It seems the reason they’d failed is that they were self- rather than God-reliant (v29). Part of giving up our life is giving up our pride – we need God’s help and we need to humbly ask for it. (Of course it’s also chronological, but we know that Mark didn’t include everything Jesus did – there aren’t enough books in the world! – so it’s worth asking why he selected this healing.)

9:38-41 What’s going on?! Jesus has said (3:22-27) that only he can cast out unclean spirits – Satan wouldn’t! This man, then, had to be ‘on Jesus’ side’ so shouldn’t be stopped by the apostles. While not saying that all who call themselves Christians are working for Jesus (or even all those who do exorcisms, Matthew 7:21-23) or that theological differences are insignificant, I guess we take from this that genuine followers of Jesus shouldn’t be opposed whatever ‘camp’ they’re in.

9:42-50 Should we be getting out the saws? This is hyperbole – overstatement for dramatic effect. If going to the pub with my friends on Friday causes me to get drunk I shouldn’t go to the pub. It’s better to enter life with no pub trips than with a handful of pork scratchings be thrown into hell. This is part of giving up our life for Jesus. Interestingly, since what actually causes us to sin isn’t our hand or foot or eye but is our heart (7:14-23) in order to enter life we need our heart cut out. Praise God that that’s exactly what he does when he gives us the Holy Spirit and our heart is ‘circumcised’ – the sinful flesh is cut away.

9:49-50 Again, what’s going on? Between us we came up with this, and aren’t sure it’s all the way there. Salt is a symbol of distinctiveness so one facet of v50 could be that if I get drunk every Friday night I’ll become indistinguishable from them. Once it’s lost, it’s very hard to get back to a point where I stand out from unbelievers as they will remember the ways I’ve acted exactly the same as them. In v49 we were trying to decide whether fire was symbolising judgement or refining/purity (or even the Spirit who makes us distinct) but settled with refining. So, in v49, it is God refining us which makes us distinct and, in v50, we are to remain distinct (and have peace with each other – but I’m not sure how that fits in).

10:2-12 How should a Christian treat the OT law? That’s a big question with lots of different places to go, but what we can say for sure from this passage is that the Mosaic law was less than God’s moral standard (which is no divorce – the law was changed to accommodate our “hardness of hearts”). Of course, we can’t keep the Mosaic law even with its accommodations so thank God for Jesus!

10:13-15 What’s so good about children? Think about children at Christmas time – they don’t have to be told twice to open their presents, they’re straight in there! That eagerness and single-mindedness is all part of giving up our lives for Jesus.

10:17-18 Is Jesus saying that he isn’t God? Hm. I meant to ask someone about this but forgot. A couple of possibles, though. Is he saying that the fact he’s being recognised as good means people should think about whether he’s also God? Or is he setting the context for what he’s about to say, that no one can “inherit eternal life” by anything they do? The man thinks that being good (following the commandments) will earn him eternal life, Jesus replies that that’s stupid – no one is good! This man’s morality was ticking boxes (“all these I have kept from my youth”) rather than honouring God (Jesus leaves out the commandments to do with God).

10:17-22 Did the man have to earn his salvation by giving away his money? Jesus isn’t pointing out the one rule that this guy hasn’t been following, instead he’s pointing to the man’s heart problem. If he wasn’t willing (we don’t know what he did) to sell everything he had it would be proof that he wasn’t giving up his life for Jesus – he was still trying to save his life so would lose it. The “one thing” he lacked, then, wasn’t an extra ‘to do’ item, but a childlike eagerness and joy for the kingdom.

10:29-30 What lands do Christians receive in this world? I take it that most of the things we receive hundredfold “in this time” are the relationships we have with Christian brothers and sisters in the church but I’m not sure about the lands. These verses show, though, that Christianity isn’t all about waiting for heaven (indeed, the reference to eternal life almost seems an afterthought here). Rather, despite the persecution which is clearly a normal part of Christian life, it’s far better for us even during our lives on earth to be a Christian than not.

10:46-52 Why is this here? Again, this is a question that I was asking. It is striking that this big chunk of Mark is sandwiched between two miracles where Jesus healed blind men. We know that the first of those miracles was a picture of how Jesus opened the spiritual eyes of his apostles, so I’m wondering whether this miracle also has special significance. The difference here is that the blind man started following Jesus as soon as he was healed. It could be that Mark is showing us an example of what Jesus has been telling the apostles – I’ve opened your eyes to see who I am, now you have to give everything up and follow me. Furthermore, it’s a direct contrast with James and John in the preceding passage. James and John arrogantly want “whatever we ask”, Bartimaeus wants only “mercy”. Both are asked “what do you want me to do for you?”, and again Bartimaeus is humble so receives his sight rather than a rebuke. He then immediately follows Jesus on the road – we know from 10:32 – to his death in Jerusalem. Who, Mark seems to be asking, has understood Jesus’ teaching that he was here to die, and that we must take up our cross, follow him and be slave to all?

Heavenly Father, I thank you that by your Spirit you make your word clear to us. I thank you for godly Christians who have thought deeply about these things and have shared their thinking. I praise you that Jesus knew he was going to die and rise – indeed, he’s known it since the beginning of time. Please help me not just to rely on his death as my Saviour, but because of his death to give up my life and follow him as my Lord. Forgive me for my hard, worldly heart and please transform it to follow Jesus. Amen.

Acts~8:5-25

Tuesday September 26, 2006

Luke has told us in general that as the dispersed Christians went about, they took the chance to preach the word. Here we see a specific example of that happening in Philip, one of the seven who were chosen to be in charge of distributing food.

He had an amazing ministry in “the city of Samaria”, performing healings and exorcisms to back up what he was saying. The response was “great joy”, though it seems that thus far (v8) the joy was over the miracles themselves rather than Philip’s message. Before he records their conversion, Luke cuts to Simon, “But [cf 5:1] there was a man…”. Simon was already in town and he was also able to perform supernatural tricks and amaze everyone. Luke seems to introduce Simon here to set up a contest and emphasise the power of the gospel – will the people stick with Simon or turn to Philip’s message? But, despite the appeal of Simon, the people believed and were baptised. Even Simon followed them, but there is more on him later.

First, though, Peter and John were dispatched from the apostles to Samaria, to pray “that they might receive the Holy Spirit”. The separation of belief and receiving the Holy Spirit is not normal in Acts, or the Bible. It may be that the faith of the Samaritans was defective, perhaps intellectual belief rather than commitment. In this case, the apostles’ prayer would have been that they would come to genuine saving faith at which point the Holy Spirit would be given to them. I think it more likely, though, that this was in recognition of the significance of this event – it was the first time that the gospel had spread into Samaria (the next step of the road map of 1:8). “Search the Scriptures” says, “as this was the first extension of the church beyond the borders of the Jewish people, it was fitting that the seal of the Spirit should be given through Peter and John, as representatives of the apostles. In a similar way Peter was chosen to go to Cornelius (10:5), though Philip was probably in Caesarea at the time [8:40, 21:8]”.

The gift of the Spirit may have been accompanied by charasmatic gifts (v18 gives that impression) but again this would have been because this was a landmark event. The church needed assurance that the Spirit could really be given to Samaritans, and this was it.

Apparantly the literal translation of v20 is “to hell with you and your money” (Tyndale, “Acts” p159) showing that Simon’s sinful attitude in desiring to control God for his own ends will leave him cut off from God. This, says Peter in v21, prooves that Simon has not believed the gospel (you have no lot in this matter) and the appropriate response is to repent. The “if possible” in v22 is tricky – it may be a warning that God’s mercy is not to be taken for granted, or that true repentance can only be granted by God, or something else entirely. The event seems to reflect God’s warning in Deuteronomy 29:16-20 about pretending to serve him but really walking in the “stubbornness of my heart” (note “bitter” again in v18) and again, “The LORD will not be willing to forgive him”. I don’t know enough about the Bible’s teaching on these areas to comment well but certainly Simon’s sin was serious, and he was to repent.

The apostles returned to Jerusalem, and as they went, they preached the gospel to the villages they passed through. This seems reminiscent of 8:4, every oppertunity is taken to preach.

Heavenly Father, I thank you that your kingdom extended beyond Jerusalem to Samaria, and eventually to “the ends of the earth”. I thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and ask that you keep me mindful of the privaledge and responsibility of having that gift. I’m sorry for any times when I have sought for you to serve me and not the other way round, and I pray that you will weed that tendency from my life. Thank you for your forgiveness and mercy. Amen.

Acts~7:54-Acts~8:4

Wednesday September 20, 2006

I can’t tell whether Stephen meant to finish his speech where he did or whether the council was so “enraged” that they cut him off early, but he delivered some very stinging criticisms and there were consequences for him and the church.

Luke reminds us of the Spirit’s presence in Stephen allowing him to see God’s glory and Jesus’ presence with him. When he related his vision, the reaction wasn’t surprising – the religious leaders would not have been able to listen to the ‘blasphemy’ that any person (“Son of Man”) would be able to be near God, despite the fact that it was foreseen in Daniel 7:13. As the Jews had tried to stone Jesus for blasphemy (John 8:58-59), here they managed to stone Stephen for the same crime. Indeed, Luke seems to emphasise the similarities between the death of Jesus and that of the first Christian to die for him by recording that Stephen asked Jesus to “receive my spirit” (cf. Luke 23:46) and prayed that those who killed him would be forgiven (cf. Luke 23:34). And then, Stephen died.

Here we are first introduced to Saul, and all we know is that he approved the murder of a man whose only crime was talking about Jesus. Not a prime candidate to become a major player for the good guys in this book, but nothing is impossible with God as we see again in 8:1. This killing and the “great persecution” which it begun should have caused problems for the church and for God, but Luke shows that God used it for his own plans. The disciples were scattered throughout “the regions of Judea and Samaria” – just where Jesus promised in 1:8 that the gospel would spread to after Jerusalem had heard the news.

After mentioning the persecution, Luke jumps back to the “devout men” who buried Stephen, as if to emphasise the risk that they were taking in the midst of this turmoil. He then goes back to the details of Saul “ravaging the church” which makes depressing reading. But them he looks at the scattered disciples and that as they went they were “preaching the word”. Not only have Christians been forced into Judea and Samaria, but by trying to destroy the church the Jews have forced the gospel to spread around the country. God wins again.

Heavenly Father, I praise you that you are able to work through the darkest situations for your glory and the salvation of many. I pray that I will follow Stephen’s example, as he followed Jesus’, in persecution and that I would use every chance to go about preaching the word. Amen.

Acts~6:8-15

Tuesday September 19, 2006

Here begins a new section of Acts, in which the believers and the gospel first move out of Jerusalem. As it begins the action is still in Jerusalem, but the narrative moves quickly and seamlessly to the beginning of chapter 8 where the news heads out.

Stephen had just been appointed and comissioned by the apostles, and his role wasn’t limited to sorting food. The seven were chosen as men who are full of the Spirit (which as we have seen before is almost synonymous in Acts with being a witness of Jesus: 1:8, 2:4, 4:8, 4:31) so it is hardly surprising that the next time Luke mentions Stephen he was telling people about Jesus. This was the first time that anyone other than the apostles performed miracles (“great wonders and signs”), so it is clear that the seven were to play a significant role in the church.

I don’t know anything about the people who disputed with Stephen, but they didn’t have a chance against the Spirit of God so they resorted to underhand tactics. Once they had stirred up the people, Stephen found himself in front of the same council that the apostles have been in. Again, false witnesses were brought forwards to lie about Stephen’s words with two charges. Firstly, he spoke against “this holy place” by saying that Jesus would destroy it and, secondly, he spoke against “the law” by saying that Jesus would “change the customes that Moses delivered” to the Jews. The first of these charges is reminiscent (as is the whole trial) of Jesus’ own appearance before the council – see Matthew 26:61. Jesus did also prophecy the destruction of the temple (Luke 21:5-6) and even the whole of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). It could be that Stephen had been repeating these teachings and the ‘witnesses’ were deliberately misrepresenting what he said. It is easy to see where the second charge came from – Jesus taught a new interpretation of the law of Moses than the religious leaders of the day did, and they probably saw their version of being what Moses intended. It was, of course, false to suggest that what Jesus said and Stephen presumably repeated was speaking “against” the law.

Once the charges had been brought, everyone turned to Stephen to see what would happen next, and his face “was like the face of an angel” – the very mediators who had brought God’s law to Moses. It can’t have been a great moment for those who were trying to silence him.

Heavenly Father, I thank you that you showed faithful to your promises again. You were clearly with Stephen, showed him exactly what to say and gave him the boldness to say it. I pray that all Christians who are having lies told against them will be inspired by your Spirit to stand firm and stand for you. Amen.

Acts~6:1-7

Tuesday September 12, 2006

It seems that the Jewish-speaking, Palestinian Jews were failing to meet the needs of the Greek-speaking, foreign Jews. The matter was brought to the attention of the apostles who summoned everyone together to address them. It doesn’t seem that there was malicious intent – it may just have been an oversight, or that the apostles who were in charge of distributing food were over-worked (see 4:33-35). The apostles didn’t want to lose any more of their time, so they asked the people to pick seven men who will look after the matter. The qualifications seem to be a godly character, someone who is clearly full of the Holy Spirit and someone who is wise (the first and last of which will be a result of the Spirit’s action). It might seem odd that these things are needed to distribute food, but the New Testament principal is that those in any leadership must be good examples to believers and non-believers alike. The apostles saw their calling as being prayer and the “ministry of the word”, ie. preaching and teaching.

Everyone liked the idea and they picked out seven men. I would guess that Steven is given the most intention in the list because he will quickly become an important character in Acts, not to suggest that the other six were not full of faith or the Spirit. He may, though, have been the leader of these seven as Peter was the leader of the twelve. The apostles prayed for the new leaders and “laid their hands on them”. To be honest, I’m not sure what laying of hands actually signifies, but it seems here to be a blessing by the apostles of the new ministry of the seven and to signify that these men will have a special gifting and role in the church. From 8:1-5, though, we can see that these men (Philip in particular) did not become apostles. It seems that appointing the new leaders was successful – the next verse talks about continued growth of the “word of God”.

And with that, this section of Acts closes. There is still more action in Jerusalem, but from now on the focus is not just on the one city. The reader has been prepared for this by Luke’s first reference to non-Hebrew believers in 6:1, so the jump to non-Jewish believers is less surprising. In Luke’s summary of the section since 3:1, he emphasises the work in Jerusalem once more by referring to the city by name and referring to the “great many” priests who “became obedient to the faith”.

Heavenly Father, as I look over the work of your apostles and your Spirit in Jerusalem from Pentecost to here, it’s amazing the boldness and the growth and the faithfulness and the generosity which you gave to your church. I pray that by the same Spirit, I will grow to act in the same way with my life, and will be full of the Spirit and of faith. Amen.

Acts~5:12-42

Monday September 11, 2006

Verses 12-16 of this section are another summary of the church, as we have seen through Acts. This one seems placed to explain the reasons for the jealousy of the high priest which is the back drop of the rest of the chapter. The apostles were “regularly” doing “many” miracles in Jesus’ name. It seems the fear of God at the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira had spread to non-believers who would not join them in the temple, yet they were held in high esteem. Their numbers were growing. And certainly, the power of the miracles drew many people to the apostles so that they could be healed. It is no surprise that the religious establishment were jealous of the attention that was being taken from them to these new messengers of God and new workers of his power.

The religious leaders moved in quickly to break up what the apostles were doing and threw them in prison. After a very embarassing incident for them which showed God’s power and caused the minimum delay to teaching about “the words of this Life”, they brought the apostles before the council. They reminded the apostles of the charge they made to stop teaching about Jesus, and added that they are being blamed for the death of Jesus. That seems like an odd complaint, since it’s true, but it’s easy to see why they weren’t happy about it.

Peter reiterated that they must obey God, not men, that God raised Jesus and that these leaders killed him. He repeated that repentance and forgiveness of sins was now possible, and that the apostles werewitnesses to all these things. For the first time he said that the Holy Spirit is also a witness, and that God gave him to those that obey him. Whether it was this ‘blasphemy’ that God lives inside people which finally enraged the council is uncertain, but they were certainly livid that these men would not stop talking about Jesus.

Gamaliel – the saviour of the apostles – spoke wisely and also correctly. The fact that the church is still alive today is, as he said, evidence that it is from God and not a human invention. The council agreed to let the apostles go so that they wouldn’t find themselves fighting a losing war against God. First they beat them – which only seems to have delighted the apostles who would have remembered Jesus’ beatings – and again told them not to talk about Jesus – but they did not cease to teach or preach him. The clear presence of God and fresh filling of his Spirit which accompanied the first arrest of the apostles did not occur here (see comment on 4:31), but they remembered that event and knew God was the same.

Heavenly Father, it shouldn’t be surprising that the authorities relentlessly hounded your church because that’s what Jesus said would happen. There will always be those who see your power and yet deny you but I pray that like the apostles I would never give up on anyone or ever give up teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Amen.

Acts~4:32-Acts~5:11

Monday September 11, 2006

This is a game of two halves, and the description of the good in the church in the first half makes the deception of Ananias and his wife all the more stark and surprising. But we start with the good.

v32, 34-5 show the general generosity of those in the church. 5:4 makes it clear that this giving was entirely voluntary, and the scope of it is impressive. Verse 33 seems a little out of place in this account of how things were shared, but the reference to the apostles’ teaching ministry immediately before the extra work required of them to distribute the wealth sets the stage for the beginning of chapter 6 where the apostles were overstreched. In v36-7, Luke singles out Barnabas – whether to further paint the contrast with Ananias, or to introduce one of the major characters of this book, or because he was exceptionally generous is unclear.

TNTC: “The ancient law forbidding Levites to own land (Numbers 18:20, Deuteronomy 10:9) seems to have been a dead letter (Jeremiah 32:6 onwards)” Here Jeremiah – a Levite (Jeremiah 1:1) bought a field at God’s prompting.

At the chapter break, the “but” in 5:1 introduces us to Ananias and Sapphira and warns us that they didn’t follow the pattern set by the church. Their crime wasn’t keeping some of the money – 5:4 makes it clear that they could have kept it all – but lying to the Holy Spirit (v3) (synonymous with lying to God, v4). Peter was given insight that this is what he had done and condemned him with the same language as Luke used to describe Satan’s control of Judas (Luke 22:3). Though Peter didn’t pronounce death Ananias died instantly, and the suggestion that it was just of natural shock at being discovered seems overruled by the fear which it brought to those present. God had punished the deception.

A similar event unfolded with Sapphira when she came in, but there were differences. Peter asked her how much they sold the field for. We don’t know the sum that Peter said – it could be that he said the amount which the apostles received, in which case Sapphira lied, or it could be that he knew how much the field had cost and Sapphira is now confessing the previous lie. Either way, we know from verse 4 that the crime wasn’t lying to Peter, and Sapphira also died for her previous attemp to lie to God. Again these events increased the believers’ awe and reverence for God, which is probably why they happened. There have been people since who have lied to God and survived, but at this critical time in the church’s growth it was essential for everyone to grasp the awesomeness of God.

This is the first time that Luke used the word church to describe the disciples. Whether they used it at this time or not is uncertain, but it seems Luke felt that from this time on there was enough organisation and unity to use the term – possibly since the sharing of goods began.

Heavenly Father, I praise you that your Spirit can prompt and inspire people to acts selflessly and like you. I know that there have been times I have lied to those around me and to you about my actions and intentions. Please forgive me. Please fill me with fear and reverence by your Spirit and let me follow your example in Jesus. Amen.

Acts~4:23-31

Sunday September 10, 2006

As soon as they could, Peter and John went back to their friends and told them everything. And then they prayed together. It’s a great first reaction. It is very unlikely that they all said these words together – though they may have been written or pre-learned. It seems more likely that one person lead the group, but that the prayer represented the thoughts of all present.

This prayer doesn’t think that God was out of control and that’s how the leaders were allowed to persecute the apostles. In fact, the entire prayer from the first word to v28 seems to simply be acknowledging God’s sovereignty. There are two proofs given for this, marked by the two “who”s which refer to God. Firstly, God created everything. Secondly, God said (through David) the words of Psalm 2. Why does that show God’s control? “For truly…” shows that these disciples believed this was a prophecy of God about Jesus which had come true – the events didn’t catch God by surprise. Looking at the rest of the Psalm, even as the people plot against God he is laughing at them and waiting until the moment when his anger will terrify them – they will never beat him and the disciples would have remembered that part of the Psalm as well. Finally, in case it was just that God knew what was going to happen but couldn’t actively do anything about it, it is made clear in v28 that the death of Jesus is what God’s hand and “plan had predestined”.

Yet the prayer doesn’t complain to God or blame him. Jesus had promised persecutions, so the disciples weren’t being short-changed.  Instead, once they have realised that God is completely in control, and it must have been a huge comfort to know that he couldn’t be beaten by the human authorities who were causing them problems, they simply come to God and ask him to get them through whatever the council – and ultimately God himself – has coming. They don’t ask for protection or even success, but that they will continue to speak God’s word and for a continuation of the miracles God has sent. Since Jesus promised they would be witnesses (1:8) and that they would be able to heal the sick (eg, Luke 10:9), they are on fairly safe ground.

It is an astounding prayer. In many prayers, people bring their suggestions to put in God’s inbox and demand he does things our way. From the point of view of suggesting things to God, this prayer was entirely useless. Essentially it reads “God, you are in control of everything. Everything you say, happens. Do what you said you would.” It could be argued that this is useless as it doesn’t tell God anything new or suggest anything new. (I am, in fact, exaggerating to make a point. I don’t think I know anyone who would say that.) God certainly approved of this prayer – he instantly did the two things which they asked for. The building was miraculously shaken, and the disciples received a fresh filling of the Spirit which gave them the boldness to speak God’s word.

v31 – a couple of theological notes, while I’m here. Firstly, the inseparable relation of the Spirit of God and the word of God – as seen in many other passages. Secondly, the Spirit seems to act in big ways at big moments. In the next chapter, similar events to the apostles’ imprisonment occur, with no subsequent filling of the Spirit. God provided assurance the first time that they needed it, and then wanted them to remember and to trust.

Sovereign Lord, I praise you that are in control, that you created everything and run it, that your promises and plans can’t be thwarted and that you know what is best. I ask that you will help me trust you and submit only to your will. Please give me boldness to speak about you, and cause me to grow closer to you and more like your Son. Amen.

Acts~4:1-22

Sunday September 10, 2006

Do you want the good news first, or the bad news? The bad news is that the authorities don’t like what Peter and John have been doing, and have arrested them. The Sadducees in particular would have been annoyed that the teaching of Jesus about the resurrection with which he embarassed them (Luke 20:27-40) had gotten louder since they put him to death. The good news is that many people believed the message of Peter and the church swelled.

In the courtroom, Peter and John are set in the midst of an intimidating group of people, and asked about what happened. Luke refers to Peter as being full of the Holy Spirit. This is surely a reference to Jesus’ promise that when his disciples were brought before “the rulers and the authorities” the Spirit would teach them “in that very hour” what to say, which Luke records in Luke 12:11-12. Luke takes the chance while recording this story to assure Theophilus that while he was in front of the leaders, the Spirit was indeed guiding him. It seems unlikely that Peter had a fresh experience of God at this point, Luke is simply refering to Peter’s continual state of being filled.

Peter reminds everyone that they are being tried purely for a good deed, and then repeats that they cucified Jesus and God raised him from the dead. As before, he goes on to make an evangelistic appeal – that there is no other way for salvation than through Jesus Christ.

The council was in an obvious tough spot, and had no real choice other than to let the apostles go and tell them to stop talking about this. It is interesting that they accept that a “notable sign” has been performed, but they still won’t believe in Jesus’ power. The apostles could have left silently, but before they left they made it clear that they would not submit to the will of the council. They were threatened more, but the people were so amazed by what God had done that threats were all they could do.

Heavenly Father, I thank you that your Holy Spirit is such an amazing source of boldness and wisdom, and that you gave him to the apostles and to me. I pray that I would trust in him and so be bold when I am under attack and that you would teach me in every situation what you want me to say. Amen.