He Gives Life and Breath

As Paul traveled from one place to the next, he not only entered the synagogues to show the Jews that the Messiah had come, but he was also working against the prevailing religion at the time, Hellenism, where they worshiped the Greek gods and practiced animism, the idea that inanimate objects would have souls.

When Paul arrived in Athens, he found himself in the center, the very heart, of Hellenism. This is the place that housed the Areopagus and temples dedicated to the various Hellenistic gods. I can only imagine that, as he walked around the city and the various marketplaces, Paul was aghast at the worship of these other gods and all of the various symbols that he found there.

Paul is invited to come to speak at the Areopagus, so he goes and speaks of One God. One God who is the one who is unknown to the Greeks. They don’t know Him, but now Paul is going to introduce them. He is the one who made everything. Heaven and earth. They thought that Zeus and Artemis and Athena were great, but they are nothing more than images that have been fashioned by man out of gold, silver, or stone. Instead, God is the one God who made all things. There aren’t many gods, Paul says. There is One. One God, and only one God.

The practice of the Greeks was to build these “gods” with their hands and then build large temples to worship them. But Paul notes an important difference with the God that he is speaking about. This God does not need a temple.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

Acts 17:24-25

It is silly to think that God could be contained by a temple. The Jews tried it – in fact, they still, even today, go to a rock wall to pray to God. The Greeks were trying it. They built massive temples to each of the gods that they were serving.

But there is an important implication to what Paul is saying here. If God is not in the temple, and if God cannot be contained by the temple, we should understand and practice that God is worshiped and served not only in the temple but also everywhere else that we live and move, and do anything that we are doing.

Today, if you say this to a group of people, I think you would have almost universal agreement. “Yes, of course,” we would all say. Of course God isn’t just in the temple. God is universal. He is anywhere and everywhere that He wants to be. Everyone agrees.

But that is not at all what we practice, is it? Our practice is that we go to church. Our practice is that we go to religious places to do religious things. Our practice is that we go to our modern day “temples” to meet with God.

That practice limits us. In fact, it limits us severely. I would go so far as to say that it is preventing us from doing what Jesus has commanded us to do. We go to the place where the religious things happen and we watch the people who are leading the religious activities, and we somehow think that this is what God has called us to do.

That couldn’t be further from the truth, though. We are called, all of us, to belong to the royal priesthood. We are called, all of us, to serve God by day and by night. We are called to serve Him in the church, but we are called to serve Him also outside of the church. And how? By making disciples, just as Jesus told us to do. In connection with the church but also just as we go. Not by simply taking more people to the “temple”, into the church where the religious things happen. No, but each day, and that will have practical implications as we belong to the church where we are, and we make disciples amongst the people where are moving and living and working, seeing new churches continue to form where we are going.

It is God who gives life and breath and everything else. It is God who moves us. Not a place. Not a special people. God Himself. He is not served by human hands in a special place. He is served by human hands in every place. Let us live and move and work in this way, obeying Christ and being the royal priests that we are called to be within the Kingdom to which Jesus purchased each of us.


The Crowds Are Fickle

If you have a crowd, or even a large group, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all in agreement with what you are saying. It certainly doesn’t mean that they will continue in the same way that you had planned or hoped.

Paul and Barnabas were traveling around on their first missionary journey, preaching that Jesus was the Christ and trying to help the Gentiles know the true God. While they were in Lystra, Paul was preaching and performed a miracle to make a man who had been lame and unable to walk to stand and begin walking. Having seen this, the people start to call out worship to Paul and Barnabas, saying that they believed them to be Hermes and Zeus, respectively. They even started bringing bulls to begin to sacrifice to them, despite the apostles’ protests.

So we see this incredible scene of adulation and adoration of Paul and Barnabas, and then comes the next sentence:

Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.

Acts 14:19

What in the world? Wasn’t this crowd just praising and worshiping Paul and Barnabas? And now they’re stoning him and leaving him outside of the city?

A crowd of people isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but neither is it a confirmation that they are all in agreement nor are sold out to what is being taught or led. You might, in this case, say that they were very much on Paul and Barnabas’s side given that they were even sacrificing to them, but what they were doing had nothing to do with their devotion to Christ.

I see this as a warning to the churches today that have crowds coming to their church services. You may, or may not have disciples. You may, or may not, have people that are truly following Christ and sold out to the Gospel. Maybe. But maybe not. The number of people means nothing.

This week, we had more people in our church meeting than usual. More than we had previously. And that was encouraging. Afterward, I was encouraged and excited about it.

But we’ve also had the opportunity to encourage a brother in Christ about making a good decision that reflects the character of Jesus in his life. Despite the hard situation that he finds himself in, he is trying to follow Christ and do what will honor Jesus.

This is the real work. Yes, we want more people to hear the Gospel, but we are looking for the people who truly want to follow Christ, and that is where we need to invest our time. In those people, God will do His greatest work. Through those people we will reach many others. It won’t be through the crowds who could easily turn. It will be through the individuals who make the hard decisions to follow Jesus even when it hurts.


They Sent Them

There are a few times that we see the Holy Spirit speak to individuals in the New Testament. The Spirit reveals to Simeon at the temple that he has now seen the Messiah. The Spirit speaks to Philip and tells him to go over by the chariot where the Ethiopian eunuch was reading the book of Isaiah, setting up the first presentation of the Gospel to an African that we’re aware of.

But Acts 13 is a unique scene. This is the first and only time that we see the Spirit speak to a church, and specifically the leaders of a church. And what does the Holy Spirit say?

“Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”

Acts 13:2

That is exactly what the church does. There are five leaders in the church at Antioch at this time, and now they are about to send two of them. So from my perspective, this leads me to some questions that I think are worthy of consideration:

First, are we hearing the Holy Spirit today? Does he ever say that we should be sending people? I remember when we left our home church in Colorado to come to Catania, one of the leaders brought this issue up to me. He was saying that they felt that it was a sacrifice to send us, which was humbling to hear, but that the sacrifice was worth it for the Kingdom.

I hadn’t necessarily considered it in this way, but it is important that we do so. It is important that we send our best. It is important that we send out those who are the most prepared and most ready to take the Gospel to the rest of the world.

Or are we trying to manage and control the people? Very rarely would anyone ever admit that this is what is happening, but frankly it is difficult for me to imagine otherwise at times. Why else do we rarely talk about going? Why else do we rarely speak of a strategy to see more disciples made? Why else do we rarely speak of a strategy to see more churches planted? My belief is that we try to control the movement of the Holy Spirit instead of equipping and sending. Which leads me to the third question:

Are we equipping people to send them? Are they ready to go? Have they been prepared to make disciples and plant churches? I hear leaders complain of the situation where people want to leave the church to go, and they complain that they aren’t prepared to go. But whose fault is that? Have these people ever been encouraged to go? Have they ever been encouraged to practice? Have they ever been trained to share with someone else or to make a disciple? Have we ever had a conversation with them about what God is calling them to do? Or have we instead simply assumed that they should just sit in our church Sunday after Sunday? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that someone decides to leave to go. And we shouldn’t be upset about that. It should be expected that they want to go, and it should happen in the context of a community that is dynamically praying, seeking, thinking, and planning to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to see the expansion of the Kingdom.

Let us be amongst the churches that listen to the Holy Spirit and send people to make disciples and plant new churches. God help us to lead like this.


Death with the sword

Herod had seen how the church was growing. They not only had, in fact, the numbers of people, but they also had a higher-profile convert in Saul as he was no longer persecuting the church, but was now instead speaking for Jesus as the Christ.

Herod was the feudal king over the area for Rome, and he wasn’t ignorant of all that was going on. These Jesus-followers were preaching another King, and he couldn’t continue to do nothing. He needed to act, so he had James executed and Peter put in prison.

It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. When he saw that this met with approval among the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread.

Acts 12:1-3

The church is now on the defensive. Its leaders are being arrested and thrown in prison. In fact, they are being killed because of their faith. There isn’t an escape, unless the Lord acts.

In Peter’s case, Jesus moves and brings Peter out of prison. In James’ case, he is killed. When it says that James was put to death with the sword, it means that he was probably beheaded, similar to what happened with John the Baptist.

We can’t explain why God would allow Peter to continue on in the body and why He would allow James to be killed. We can’t say that one was better than the other. We can simply say that this is how God decided to use each of these men, because through both of the cases, we see a familiar refrain to what we had seen previously. Following the death of James, the jailing and release of Peter, and ultimately Herod’s death, the familiar refrain is: But the word of God continued to spread and flourish, which is verse 24, the last verse in chapter 12.

God will use all of these circumstances. He uses the death of two people and the internment of Peter for His good and His glory. He uses each of these circumstances for Himself. Not for James or Peter to feel good about themselves. Not for the church to feel great about the wonderful victories that God is accomplishing on their behalf. But even through the pain and sorrow of losing people and terrible things happening to them, God’s word continues to spread. God receives more glory even through these situations.

We shouldn’t imagine, therefore, that the life of a Christian should be rosy and great. Instead, we should understand that God wants to use each of us for His good and His glory.


Confirmation by the Holy Spirit

As Peter returned to Jerusalem from Cornelius’s house, he began to face criticism. He had gone into the house of a Gentile, and had even eaten with them. That is definitely unlawful, according to the Jewish customs.

But Peter had a story that they hadn’t heard. They thought they knew all that they needed to know, but in truth, God was doing something different. He was doing something new. Peter told them of his vision and about the angel that had appeared to Cornelius. He told them of the other witnesses that had gone with him to Cornelius’s house. He told them that the Holy Spirit had told him not to fear going with the men that Cornelius had sent to find him.

But the closer to the conversation was that Peter told them that they had received the Holy Spirit. As he was preaching, the Holy Spirit came upon all of the people in Cornelius’s house, and this is a definite confirmation that God has accepted these people. Even the Gentiles, whom had never been God’s people, were now accepted into God’s family. Even they are now saved and given eternal life.

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Acts 11:18

The Holy Spirit is the confirmation. Someone might be able to be baptized, but only the Spirit of God can confirm the work that God has done in that person’s life. If the person has received the Holy Spirit, that person has now been made to be a new creation and is fully and wholly accepted by God. Otherwise, they are not. Otherwise, they haven’t entered into God’s grace and mercy.

Peter said that he remembered what Jesus had told them: John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Man will baptize with water, but God will give His Holy Spirit. Jesus himself is the one who will give his Spirit to his people.


To the Ends of the Earth

Jesus’s words were playing out right in front of their eyes. He had told the disciples, just before leaving and returning to heaven that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In Acts 10, the ends of the earth are opening up to them right before their eyes.

We had seen another time, when Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch on the southern road out of Israel, that there was a Gentile who was receiving Christ. Here in this scene in Acts 10, though, we see Peter, who is the de facto leader of the Apostles, have the experience of having a vision, and have the experience of seeing multiple Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit. This was a story that he will be able to tell everyone to confirm that the Gentiles, indeed, can now come to God through Christ. God has opened the way for the rest of the world to be reconciled to Him!

We had seen thousands of people come to Christ in Jerusalem, even on the first day that the Holy Spirit had been poured out at Pentacost.

Then we saw that the movement was beginning to spread throughout Judea as believers begin to show up outside of Jerusalem and we see it spread throughout the area.

Then in Acts 8, as the church was persecuted and scattered, we see Philip followed by Peter and John in Samaria, and new disciples begin to be made in that area as well.

Now, as Peter is summoned to go to Caesarea, he comes to the house of a centurion, a Roman, the very people that represent the political oppression of the Jewish people. These are the people that would never be able to enter the Kingdom of God, and yet that is exactly what happens. An angel speaks to Cornelius, the centurion. Jesus and the Holy Spirit speak to Peter. Then they speak to one another and the Holy Spirit comes upon these Gentiles and they are baptized.

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.

Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”

Acts 10:44-47

And this story sets off an incredible series of events. Peter goes back to the rest of the apostles to tell them what has happened, making it now acceptable for the believers to speak to the Gentiles and see them come to faith in Christ. In the meantime, Jesus has also called Saul who will be Christ’s chosen instrument to take the message to the rest of the Gentile world. Jesus is moving aggressively through his disciples – now apostles – to make the Kingdom of God known to the ends of the earth, just as he had said.

We should do no less. The ends of the earth are available to us at this time in history unlike any other time. Whether we think about the internet or our ability to travel to any part of the earth within a few hours, we have reach to the ends of the earth. This movement, to see Christ proclaimed and see the Kingdom of God expand to the ends of the earth, began to have fulfillment at Cornelius’s house, but continues with us even today.


Doing What Jesus Did

The narrative of the book of Acts takes a pause and moves away from what was happening through Peter for a few chapters, but as he comes back into focus at the end of Acts 9, we see a great miracle that Peter does as nearly a complete imitation of an experience that he had with Jesus.

Peter had been traveling, something that we hadn’t seen much before the persecution had broken out, but now he had gone to Lydda and had healed a man named Aeneas there. While in Lydda, two men come to get him to take him to Joppa, which is today at the coast, at the old port in modern-day Tel Aviv.

When Peter arrived, he found that a disciple there named Tabitha had died. Her body had already been washed and was being prepared for burial. They had placed her in an upper room.

But just as Jesus had done in the case of Jairus’s daughter, he sent everyone out of the room except for Peter, James, and John, and the daughter’s parents, then called the little girl to stand up, which is exactly what she had done.

In Peter’s case, he did very similarly. He had been called from another city and he came. As he arrived, he sent everyone out of the room. In this case, he took a moment to pray, presumably asking Jesus to work on his behalf, and then told Tabitha to stand up. And she did, to the amazement of everyone!

Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.

Acts 9:40-42

I think that we see here an imitation of what Jesus had done. Peter didn’t have any specific recipes in his own mind for what he should do in the case of someone who had died. He was simply following the example of what he had seen Jesus do. He had walked with Jesus and seen his actions, and so now he simply did the same.

And what about us? We can not only read the teachings of Jesus, but we can imitate his actions too, can’t we? Can’t we also do as our master did? This might include miracles, but there are many other ways that we can learn from what Jesus did. What was his strategy in getting his message, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, out? Should we do the same? What did he both do and teach his disciples to do in the face of danger? Should we do the same? How did he live, and move, and work among various peoples and nations with whom he came in contact. Should we do the same?

Peter imitated Jesus in his actions. We must not only know the theology of Christ, but we must know his actions, his practice, and do the same.


The Gospel in a Language They Can Understand

Stephen tried. He had been seized and accused of blasphemy by the synagogue of the Freedmen. The name of the synagogue has some interesting irony given the story that Stephen is about to tell them…

Anyway, as they took him before the Sanhedrin, the high priest ask Stephen to explain himself, simply asking him whether the charges were true. Instead of responding Yes or No, Stephen begins to tell them the Gospel story, but using the story of Moses, in a way that they should be able to understand.

He speaks of Abraham, then goes to Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, and explains how the Israelites ended up in captivity in Egypt. My sense is that Stephen is showing the long march into slavery so as to show the deliverance that God gave to his people through Moses.

Moses comes onto the scene and is called by God to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt, which, through a process, he does. This is an important part of the Gospel message, that God has seen us in our slavery to sin (represented by Egypt in this case) and then sets His people free through a messianic figure (Moses in this story). In the same way, we have been slaves to sin and have been set free by the true Messiah, Jesus Christ!

Stephen turns the tables at this point and begins to teach. He says:

Moses spoke of one, a prophet, who was to come. Moses said that they must listen to him! This is the same Prophet that the Jews asked about when they spoke to John the Baptist, as recorded in John 1:21. Stephen is starting to lay the groundwork. Jesus is this Prophet that they were supposed to listen to!

“This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.

Acts 7:37-38

Stephen goes on to talk about sin and sacrifices. The Israelites wouldn’t obey God, so God gave them a way to atone for sin through sacrifices. But their hearts don’t, and won’t change. They prefer their sin. They prefer the idols and gods from the other nations around them. They have rejected God as their God, so God will punish them through the nations such as Babylon which will come to destroy them.

Now Stephen is on a roll. Time to go for the jugular. Time to speak about the temple. The temple is the place where God’s presence is supposed to be found. But Stephen points out that God has even told them that they can’t build a house for him. God made it all. He isn’t held by anything that a human would make!

And then he lands the final blow:

Jesus is the Messiah and you killed him!

And what is more, Stephen looks up to heaven and says that he sees Jesus, the Son of Man, standing there at the right hand of God.

Any more questions? It seems clear where Stephen stands. And he is stoned for it. Just like Jesus, who had told almost the exact same story to the Jews, Stephen follows in his Master’s footsteps and is killed for blasphemy because the Jews wouldn’t believe in Jesus as the Christ.

Stephen was attempting to speak to them in a way that they should be able to understand. The Israelites know their history. It is written down. It is celebrated. It is passed on from one generation to the next and is known. But unfortunately, even in the midst of the story that they know, they couldn’t see what God was doing, that God was repeating Himself, foreshadowing the story of Christ through the story of Moses. Let us not make the same mistake, but instead see God working through history to save his people and reestablish His Kingdom here amongst us, even today.


The Word of God Spread

There are a few times that we see Luke say this in the book of Acts, that the word of God was spreading across an area. Following the initial “explosion” onto the scene, when Peter preached and 3,000 people believed, the church had been growing on a daily basis.

But Luke specifically notes here in Acts 6 that the word of God was spreading:

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:7

The apostles had faced a situation in which some of the Greek-background widows were being overlooked in the distribution of foods. They considered how they could be involved, but decided that it would be best if they continued to lead prayer and the “ministering of the word”, essentially meaning the teaching and preaching of God’s word.

It wasn’t as if these other men who were chosen to manage the food distribution were second-rate guys. Instead, the qualifications were that they were men known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. There were seven that they chose and they became the first deacons, responsible to manage some of the physical work of the church.

We can even see that Stephen, one of the seven that was chosen, was targeted by the Jews of one of the synagogues because he had been performing signs and was proficient in speaking about his faith. So he wasn’t limited by any means in what he was being asked to do. His “ministry” wasn’t just to give food to the widows. Stephen was working also in speaking and preaching the word of God. He was also performing signs and wonders to confirm the words that he was preaching. Stephen was not only a man who was at work in the physical ministry but also at work in telling others about Christ.

But it was immediately after this division of labor and the caring for the issues of the business of the church while not neglecting the word that Luke notes that the word of God was continuing to spread. Bringing more workers into the fold allowed God to use each of the individuals for the greater purpose that He was unfolding in their midst.


Worthy of Disgrace

That’s a strange thing to say. I was worthy of suffering disgrace. Odd.

It would be even more strange to be happy that you were worthy to suffer disgrace. To rejoice that you had been disgraced.

But what would make the difference, and what did make the difference in the case of the disciples – now Apostles as they lead the church – is the reason that they were happy, the reason that they were rejoicing for the disgrace that they had been given. They were disgraced because of the Name, the Name of Christ.

The apostles were thrown in prison because of the jealousy of the high priest and his associates. The people were flocking to the apostles in droves because they were speaking and teaching of Jesus as the Messiah and performing healing miracles everywhere that they went. So the people wanted to come to them and this had made the Jewish leaders jealous.

An angel let the apostles out of prison and sent them back out into the temple courts to teach the people, which of course angered the high priest even more. They arrested the apostles yet again and were trying to decide what to do with them when Peter explained that they can’t be quiet as they wanted them to do. Instead, this Jesus that the leaders had crucified had now been raised up to heaven and was sitting at the right hand of God.

The story was getting worse! Previously, the chief priests had understood that Jesus was saying that he was the son of God. Now, his disciples were saying and teaching that he had been lifted up to heaven and was seated at his right hand! In their minds, that of the high priests who wouldn’t believe, it was as if the blasphemy would never end.

Thankfully, the sanity of Gamaliel won the day as he told the others that they would only be fighting against God (they already were!) if they were to try to detain or kill these men, the apostles. So the apostles were flogged and released and that is where we get these verses:

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Acts 5:41-42

It is interesting to me the difference between the experience of this early church and that of today’s church, especially in the west. There are many aspects in which we could draw contrasts, but if I focus on these couple of verses, I see that the apostles expected disgrace and were happy to have received it. They expected that, because of their association with Jesus, because they preached and taught about Jesus, they would run against the culture. They weren’t trying to be arrested. They were simply trying to speak the truth of what they saw and what they experienced. They spoke of who Jesus is, and for this they were beaten and disgraced.

Do we speak of Jesus in the same way? Do we run against the prevailing culture in the same way? Or do we instead seek for safety and security? Are we OK with being disgraced for the Name of Christ? Is this a norm that we expect? Questions that are worth considering, I think…