Would Jesus say Christianity is polluted or pure? – Matthew 21:1-17, Part 3

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Have you ever wondered if Christianity in our day and age is polluted? Or is it pure? These are wide statements, and Christianity is so diverse that one word, like “polluted” or “pure” cannot possibly describe the whole of it. But take a look at trends in the faith. Consider the larger movements within the faith in our day. And when you do that you can apply words like “polluted” and “pure,” and a great many other words, to how we contemporary Christians practice the faith. Of course these designations will not apply to all Christians, and that is not the purpose of this thought project. Instead, I raise these questions to help us envision how Jesus evaluate us, and if he might take action against us, like he did against the religious practitioners of his day. The faith of his day was polluted.

This week we have been reflecting on the story of Jesus’ Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as told in Matthew 21:1-17. After arriving in the city to the cheers of the crowds who wanted to crown him king, Jesus heads to the temple, and he was not happy. Instead of a place of worship, in the temple courtyard designed for Gentiles to worship, he found a market. The leaders of the temple allowed two specific businesses to set up shop there.

The first business was Money-changing.  If that seems like an odd business to set up at a temple, there was a reason.  Money-changing was necessary because Jerusalem was the Jews’ holy city, precisely because the Temple was there, and Jews from all over the world would regularly make pilgrimage to worship there.  On their journeys, of course they brought currencies from their homelands.  At the temple, Jews all had to pay a tax to worship, but there was only one kind of currency that the priests allowed for payment of the temple tax.  Jews with different currencies from their homelands had to exchange their money for temple tax money.

While money-changers operated throughout in the city, it was very convenient to set up money changers right there in the temple.  In our day and age, we can use credit cards very easily internationally, but if you’ve ever had to exchange money in another country, you know how handy it can be to have an exchange right there in the airport. So on one level, the priests just wanted to make worship more accessible, except that’s not all they were doing.  Scholars tell us that they were profiting off of this business, as were the money-changers.  Commerce and greed infringed upon the purposes of the temple.

What about the Sellers of Doves?  This, too, can be viewed as a necessary and helpful business because some people came from long distances to worship at the temple, and it would have been very inconvenient for them to bring their animal sacrifices from far away.  So the priests invited merchants into the temple to make it easier for people to worship.  Like the money-changers, these merchants were helping people worship.  Sadly, this business also had a dark side.  The priests and merchants were making handsome profits off people, selling animals at premium prices.  Unless you go to dollar dog nights at the stadium, you know that your food and beverages are going to be astronomically priced at the stadium concessions stand, right?  The same thing was happening at the temple.

The rates the money-changers offered were terrible, and the prices of sacrificial animals were way inflated. All this was happening right in the temple courtyards. Instead of facilitating worship, the priests had allowed commercial enterprise to fleece the people as they came to meet God.

Jesus wasn’t having it.  He drove them out, over-turning their tables and benches.  This is not the normal picture of Jesus, right?  He wasn’t saying, “Excuse me, sir, will you please leave the premises? And allow me to just remove your items from your table top and stack them neatly on the ground here while I just gently tip your table over.”

No way.  One of the other gospels tell us he made a whip!  We can see Jesus, filled with righteous anger, getting a bit wild. 

And why does he do this?  Thus far it might be obvious, but just to make sure there is no doubt about his motivation, Jesus himself declares to the people there the reason for his actions.

Look at verse 13 where he quotes two passages from the Old Testament prophets that explain his motivation.  First, Isaiah 56:7, “my house will be a house of prayer for all the nations.”  Matthew doesn’t depict Jesus as adding that last bit in italics, but Mark does.  Jesus’ use of this quote insinuates something very insightful.  God’s heart desire was that the Court of Gentiles was supposed to be a place where non-Jews could worship, but the leaders of the temple had made a mockery of that.  The Gentiles couldn’t worship and pray in a courtyard that had been repurposed into a noisy, concession stand. 

We also learn Jesus’ motivation in his quote of Jeremiah 7:11 which even further indicts the leaders, because that prophecy refers the temple as a den of robbers.  That’s exactly what the leaders were, as they allowed the money-changers and sellers of sacrifices to rip the people off, profiting off worship in the process. Jeremiah 7:11 concludes with a warning to temple leaders: “The Lord is watching.”  Jesus was watching that day in the temple, and his heart for the Lord and for the people, moves him to action.

Jesus steps into the priestly role.  He does what the priests should have done.  He cleanses the temple, recapturing the essence of what the court of Gentiles was always supposed to be, a place of prayer for the nations.    

By telling us this story about Jesus, Matthew is now not only declaring that Jesus is Prophet and King, but Prophet, Priest and King.

Verses 14-16 put an exclamation point on this whole episode.  Right there in the temple, Jesus heals many, clearly displaying the victory of the Kingdom of Light over the Kingdom of Darkness.   

Have commerce and greed corrupted our practice of faith in Jesus in our day? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. How would Jesus view American Christianity? Are we at all like the religious leaders, allowing consumerism to infect our discipleship to Jesus, perhaps more than realize?

Jesus’ first kingly act? He goes to the market! – Matthew 21:1-17, Part 2

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In my county, we have many farmers’ markets and bazaars, places where people can rent space, set up a stand and sell their produce or wares. The three most popular and busy are probably Central Market in the city, Green Dragon in Ephrata, and Root’s in Manheim, though there are others. They are incredibly fun places, filled with people walking the aisles of stalls, looking for meats and vegetables, and antiques, crafts, and delicious food. If you visit Lancaster County, these three markets are stops you’ll want on your intinerary.

One time Jesus visited a place like these, and it made him react in a way that was quite surprising. If you want, you can open your Bible and turn to Matthew 21, one of the chapters that tells this story. We’re studying Matthew 21 this week because, as we saw in the previous post, it describes what is traditionally called Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into the city of Jerusalem. Riding on a lowly donkey, the crowds that day proclaim Jesus as the embodiment of the messianic king, of the line of the great Israelite king David.

We read in verse 10 that news of this momentous event spread like an earthquake through the city. Everyone was talking about it.

It is interesting that in verse 11 Jesus is also identified as a prophet.  God, through Moses, in Deuteronomy 18, had predicted that a great Prophet would one day come to Israel.  Over the years, of course, many prophets did minister the word of the Lord in Israel, and Jesus was by far the epitome of them all.  So both designations are correct, as he is Prophet and King. What would this prophet king do?

In verse 12 we read that Jesus enters the temple.  The temple area Matthew refers to is an outer court that was used almost like a concessions area in a stadium.  Imagine you’re going to a baseball game when the virus is finally past us.  You enter the stadium and all around the field is the seating area, but underneath or behind the seating areas are concessions where you can buy food and memorabilia.  It was very similar at the temple in Jerusalem.

The temple complex was massive.  It had various courtyards around the main temple building, and these courtyards were restricted based on who you were.  Almost like security clearances.

If you were the high priest, you had access to every part of the temple complex.  If you were a regular priest you could go everywhere but the holiest place deep inside the temple building itself.  If you were a Jewish male, you could go to all the courtyards.   If you were a Jewish woman, you could only go to the women’s courtyard.  If you were non-Jewish, you could only go to a place called the Court of Gentiles. 

The heart behind all this, even though it is culturally different from the “open to all” approach of the New Testament church, was still that there would be a place for all to worship. But in that Court of Gentiles, the priests had set up a kind of concessions area, and people would come to buy and sell there.  What did it look like?  Think of a farmer’s market, with many different stands, busyness and business all around, with lots of noise and hustle and bustle.  As we’ll see, there was especially lots of hustle going on.  

Why did they set up a concessions area in the temple? The priests weren’t just outright saying, “Guys, we have all this space, let’s set up a market and make cash.”  No, in that area they allowed two kinds of businesses specifically supporting to the sacrificial system of the temple. Check back in to the next post as we learn what these businesses were about, and why Jesus reacted so strongly against them.

The UNtriumphal entry of the unexpected king – Matthew 21:1-17, Part 1

Picture an inauguration or coronation ceremony. What images come to mind? Grand balls. Flashy banners and decor. Lavish parties with bountiful plates of food and dignitaries dressed to impress. The goal is a display of power, wealth, and victory. Today I want to give you a totally different picture of a coronation that would ultimately have far greater influence and meaning, one that features, believe it or not, a donkey.

Travel with me 2000 years backwards in time, and nearly halfway around the world to a dusty corner of the Roman Empire.  The time is right around 30 AD in the nation of Israel.

For about three years, Jesus has been ministering all over the nation of Israel.  His public ministry is marked by miracles and authoritative teaching, with a special focus on parables.  Huge crowds gather around him, both because of his miracles and his teaching.  He regularly confronts the religious leaders who suspiciously watch his every move, pointing out their hypocrisy and fraud, and how they took advantage of the general populace.  Finally, he spends plenty of time with a smaller group of followers, comprised of men and women, but it is his 12 disciples that are his closest companions. He mentors and trains them to live like he lived, so that one day they be ready to take over for him.

Toward the end of the three years, the tension between Jesus and the religious elite is like static in winter, sparking every time you make contact with metal.  These priest and bible teachers regularly attempt to undermine his teaching, seeking to trap him theologically.  But Jesus’ wisdom is unparalleled, his responses revealing errors in their thinking. Often he reveals the flaws in their arguments, trapping them!  Anger and jealousy grow inside them, and they secretly plot to eliminate him. 

Also at end of his third year in ministry, Jesus starts traveling toward Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.  Passing through town after town along the way, burgeoning crowds join him, as Jesus continues healing and teaching.  The days pass, his entourage gradually winds their way closer and closer to Jerusalem, and the week of Passover arrives.

Passover is a major Jewish celebration, marking the events of the nation of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt.  Jewish families gather to tell the story of how God protected them from the plague of death, and how God launched them, under the leadership of Moses, into the desert, through the Red Sea, and on a journey back to the Promised Land of Canaan, the land of their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Every year many Jews would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, just as Jesus as his followers were doing. 

That brings us to Matthew 21.

Verses 1-3 simply set up the story. Jesus, the disciples and crowds walk toward Jerusalem, arriving just outside the city on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus instructs the disciples to go into the nearby village of Bethpage and bring a donkey and her colt to him.

Matthew tells us in verses 4-5 that what is about to happen next fulfills Zechariah 9:9, a Messianic prophecy about the entrance of the Messianic King riding into the city on a donkey.  This is the first reference in this account to Jesus as King.  But the kind of king revealed that day in Jerusalem is quite unexpected.  Everything about this king is humble, which is symbolized through his choice of a donkey.  He’s not riding a warhorse, decked out in armor and weapons, like a victorious king.  Instead he is riding a humble donkey.  Scholars tell us that in the Triumphal Entry Jesus finally reveals to all that he is the Messianic King long ago promised in their people’s prophetic writings.  Prior to this he had often told people to keep quiet about him.  But now, notice how he reveals himself: with humility.  He is the humble king.

In fact, it hard to see what is triumphal about this king.  It seems UNtriumphal.  And that is on purpose.  Jesus wasn’t a warlord king, he was a king who had come to serve, to give his life. In contrast to the narcissistic, power-hungry rulers so prevalent in their day and ours, the one true king shows us that godly leadership is humble.

The untriumphal entry into the city transpires just as Jesus directs, and as the prophecy foretells.  We read in verses 6-11 that a very large crowd gathers, shouting of “Hosanna,” which means “save!” and was a shout of praise, and quoting Psalm 118:26 which mentions the coming of a future messianic king in the line of David, thus making a connection between Jesus as the son of David.  This is the second reference to Jesus as King.

The untriumphal entry of the humble king. In our world that lauds brash, arrogant leadership, Jesus shows us a very different way. How does Jesus challenge your view of leaders and leadership?

White evangelical church, it’s time to get woke – Acts 8:4-40, Part 5

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This week we’ve watched the Holy Spirit help the first Christians get woke. What is “woke”? Is it “awake”? If this is the first post you’re reading in this five-part series, I encourage you to pause and start with the first one here.

As we studied the amazing events of Acts 8:4-40, which tell the story of the ministry of Philip, we saw what the Spirit of God did in Samaria and with the Ethiopian Eunuch. What did we learn?

1stWe need to be aware of our relationship with God. Are we in the kind of relationship where we are just talking to him?  Or are we digging into his words, are we sitting still and learning his voice?  Are we able to see where he is moving within our lives, our families, our communities?

2ndHow well do you know your community?  At a time like this do you know who around you might be in need?  Who might need encouragement?  Who might need to see Jesus and his love for them?

3rd –  We aren’t all going to go out and move across the globe, especially now when we can’t really leave our homes because of the virus. But do you know what is going on in different countries?  In different cultures?  Even in ones that we might consider our “enemies.”  Are you “woke” to those things? 

4th – Pray for God’s love and mercy to be with them just as much as you want it for yourself.  He loves deeply, across all cultural, ethnic, and economic barriers.  Ask God to grow that in you.  During this time when you are a bit more “stuck,” use it to study his heart in this and to ask him to grow your heart to be more and more like his in this area.  The more we look like him the more beautiful and hopeful the world will be.  Certainly not without trial and struggle, but with hope, joy, and the movement of God. Here are some suggestions for further study:

Read Eric Mason, Woke Church. Read James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Listen to the “Seeing White” episodes of the podcast Scene on Radio. Listen the the podcast 1619.

When it comes to the Kingdom of God, all are welcome – Acts 8:4-40, Part 4

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Does your church welcome all ethnicities? All races? Does your church’s ethnic demographic resemble that of the community around you? If not, why not?

This week we’ve been reading Acts 8:4-40, learning how the Spirit has been pushing the church to get woke. So far the Spirit, through the ministry of Philip, has taken the good news of Jesus to a new ethnic group, the Samaritans. But the Spirit is not done. When it comes to helping the early church get woke, the Spirit is only just getting started. 

We see this in verses 26-40, as the story returns to the ministry of Philip.  First, in verses 26-29, an angel directs Philip travel to southwest on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.  I want to give you a sense of what kind of travel we’re reading about. When Philip first went north to Samaria, he might have traveled 20-30 miles.  Now he is heading south.  First he has to backtrack the 20-30 miles to get to Jerusalem, and then he’ll get on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.  Based on what we read here, it seems that Philip is somewhere southwest of Jerusalem when he has another fascinating encounter.

Heading toward Gaza, Philip comes upon an Ethiopian eunuch who had been in Jerusalem to worship, but was now on the long journey back to Ethiopia.  Think about what the Spirit has done here.  We’ve been talking all along about the outward movement of the Spirit, pushing the earliest Christians to spread the good news about Jesus.  And now Philip meets an Ethiopian.

Do you know where Ethiopia is?  It is in East Africa, right above Kenya.  We don’t know how much territory the Ethiopian kingdom covered in the first century.  The boundaries were very different from what they are today.  Some scholars believe that this man was from an area in modern day Sudan which is immediately to the west of Ethiopia. My point is that this man is African.  He’s not Jewish.  He’s not Middle Eastern or Arabic, but African.  Consider the skin color of this man.

You might think, “Wait a minute, Joel…aren’t we supposed to be colorblind?”  We are not to be colorblind.  I know the idea of colorblindness is out there in our culture, but the reality is that there are different skin tones and God creatively wonderfully made them that way.  This man’s skin was likely a shade of brown, and God specifically sends Philip to him. 

The man was also a eunuch, meaning that he had likely been castrated in order to serve the Ethiopian Queen without fear for any indiscretion.  He could be trusted and was an important official, in charge of the Queen’s treasury.  At this time the Ethiopian kingdom was powerful.  So not only is the Spirit leading Philip to a diverse audience, but to one that could take the Gospel to a center of power in the ancient world. 

The Ethiopian official, because he was a eunuch, would have been barred from worship in the temple, with its regulations against those who had some kind of mutilation. Having just attempted to worship in Jerusalem, the man is reading Isaiah, but not understanding. The Spirit directs Philip to talk with the Ethiopian.  Side note here: do you see how much the Spirit is talking with Philip?  And Philip is listening.  He is attentive and aware of what Holy Spirit is asking him to do and it is 100% in line with the heart of God and he is obedient.

What happens?  In verses 30-38, Philip and the Ethiopian discuss Isaiah 53:7-8, and Philip shares the Gospel, explaining that the passage in Isaiah was fulfilled by Jesus, the Messiah.  While we don’t read the words, “the Eunuch believed,” we can assume so because he asks Philip to baptize him.  Not only is this an instance of the Spirit reaching one who is of a different ethnicity, but also one who was not allowed access to worship at the temple. The message in Acts 8:4-40 is clear: when it comes to the Kingdom of God, all are welcome!

Once again, through the Spirit leading outward, the Kingdom of God is expanding across ethnic boundaries, across international boundaries, giving us an illustration of the outward, missional mindset we too must have.

This wonderful story concludes in verses 39-40 as the Spirit miraculously takes Philip away to Azotus, which is just north of Gaza on the Mediterranean coastline, and Philip preaches the Gospel in all the towns, continuing north, until he arrives in Caesarea which is about halfway up the coastline of Israel.

Again and again in this passage, what have we seen?  We have seen Spirit guiding Philip to preach the Gospel to those of non-Jewish descent.  The Spirit is pushing the outward movement of the Gospel, fulfilling the words of Jesus that the disciples were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  The Spirit continues to lead us today to include all people of all races and ethnicities.  We need to think outwardly about the mission of God’s Kingdom.

Tomorrow we conclude this week’s study of Acts 8:4-40 with some practical ideas of how to apply this outward principle, that we, the church of 2020, might follow the Spirit’s lead in getting woke.

Simon the Sorcerer vs the Holy Spirit – Acts 8:4-40, Part 3

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There was a powerful man in Samaria. Simon the Sorcerer!  All week long we’ve been studying Acts 8:4-40, learning about how Christians should get woke like the early church. One of those earliest Christians, Philip, had traveled to Samaria and started demonstrating the power of the Holy Spirit. But there was already a man with great power in Samaria, Simon. Are we about to have a showdown? Simon the Sorcerer vs the power of the Holy Spirit?

If you’re reading verse 9 in the ancient Greek language Acts was originally written in, the word for sorcery is “mageo.” I mention that because you can see that this is where we get our English word “magic.”  Simon was a mage, one who practiced magic.  His magic, or sorcery, could involve both magic tricks like sleight of hand, and possibly supernatural ability like witchcraft.  As you can see in verse 10, he was very well respected by the people in Samaria because he had impressed them for many years with his abilities.  But that is all about to change when Philip shows up.  Let me ask you this: how does it often go when one person in power is upstaged by a new guy?  Not well.  This is a classic human story, so keep reading to see how it unfolds.

In verses 12-13 we read that the response of the people to Philip’s ministry is that “they believe and are baptized.”  I suspect Simon was even more astonished than the average person in Samaria because he knew that the miracles Philip was performing, he, Simon, was unable to replicate.  Simon had some cool tricks, but nothing like the power of the Holy Spirit that was flowing through Philip. Simon believes too, and is baptized, and starts following Philip everywhere. 

I wonder what Philip thought about that.  Did Philip respond by entering into a discipling relationship with Simon?  Or is Simon just a consumer here, asking Philip to “do more tricks”?  What is Simon’s motive?  No doubt he is entranced by the miracles Philip is doing.  But stay with the story because it’s about to get even more interesting.

In verses 14-17 the apostles who were still in Jerusalem hear that people in Samaria have become followers of Jesus, so they send Peter and John to Samaria to lay hands on the converts and give them the Spirit.  It is fascinating to me that through Philip’s ministry the power of the Spirit is clearly evident, but though the people of Samaria have believed in the Gospel and been baptized, the Spirit had not been given to the Samaritans.  Some apostles had to come, pray for them, and lay hands on them before those Samaritans received the Spirit.

What we will see in the book of Acts is that there is a varying order of the process of salvation in different accounts.  The writers of the New Testament don’t clearly explain why this is the case.  You might remember a few months ago in the Identity sermon on the Holy Spirit, we talked about we are temples of the Holy Spirit, and we receive the Spirit at the moment of our salvation.  We call that the indwelling of the Spirit.  The Spirit is living with us.  But that is different from the filling of the Spirit.  I know those terms are very similar, but there is a difference.  While we are indwelt with the Spirit at the moment of our salvation, that does not mean we are always filled with the Spirit, giving him control of our lives.

It seems that at least in this instance, the apostles needed to be present to pray for and lay hands on the Samaritans so they might experience the indwelling of the Spirit.  Here’s a key question: does the racial and ethnic animosity between the Jews and Samaritans give the apostles pause? They could have concluded that the Spirit didn’t indwell the Samaritans because God was disapproving of the Samaritans. Those apostles could have perpetuated the segregation that was already deeply entrenched in the Jewish mindset. In fact, they did the opposite. They traveled to Samaria, breaking down the wall of injustice, proclaiming that all are equal in God’s eyes, just as Jesus had taught them and demonstrated for them. The apostles finally got woke.

That day in the Samaritan city, as the Apostles pray and lay on hands on the Samaritans, the Spirit of God indwells the Samaritans, and someone is watching them very intently. Was it Saul or his henchman, spying on them? Nope.

It’s Simon the Sorcerer.  And he is blown away.  The guy with a decades-long reputation for impressing people with acts of power is watching as a whole new power, a very real power, is just being given away.  Is he threatened?  Is his position and financial income about to be eroded?  Or does he just want more power? 

Look at Verses 18-24.  He wants this power so bad, he offers to pay the apostles money to receive the Spirit.  His explanation to them is that he just wants to be able to give the Spirit like Peter and John were doing.  It seems, though, that Simon might’ve had some ulterior motives.  Peter knows this and rebukes Simon.  When Peter reveals the truth about Simon’s true motivation, Simon changes his tune quickly.  Maybe his is a genuine confession and repentance in verse 24.  Notice how he changes from wanting power, to humbly submitting to those in whom God’s power resides, asking Peter to pray for him.  But is Simon at this point still focused on himself, saying that he doesn’t want anything to happen to him?  It seems so.

This is a wonderful reminder to us that the mission of the Kingdom is not about our prestige, not about getting ahead.  The mission of the Kingdom is about Jesus, about being disciples to him, and living like he said his disciples would live, denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following him.  It is all about Jesus.  Sadly, we don’t know if Simon the Sorcerer ever made that turn away from himself toward Jesus. 

As we know, the disciples had made that turn, and they wanted everyone to join them. They can’t stop talking about Jesus! The story of Simon and the Samaritans concludes in verse 25 as Peter and John return to Jerusalem preaching the Gospel to many more Samaritan villages along the way, again showing their new commitment to follow the method and message of Jesus to invite all ethnicities into the Kingdom.

But the Spirit is not done. When it comes to helping the early church get woke, the Spirit is only just getting started.  Check back tomorrow to see the surprise that the Spirit has in store for Philip!

Jesus’ example of wokeness – Acts 8:4-40, Part 2

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The church should be woke because Jesus was woke.

As I mentioned in the previous post, in the section of Acts we’re studying this week, Acts 8:4-40, we meet a man who had some fascinating encounters as he preached Jesus along the way, and his name was Philip. Today we’re going to learn how Jesus’ example and teaching of wokeness impacted Philip.

There was also a disciple of Jesus named Philip, but the Philip we read about here in Acts 8 is not one of the disciples. The Philip is Acts 8 a different man with the same name. He is Philip the deacon, sometimes called Philip the evangelist.  Look back at Acts 6:5, and you’ll see that this Philip was one of the seven men chosen as a deacon or servant to help with the food distribution problem.  Just as Stephen, who we studied last week, was not chosen because he was certified for handling food distribution, but for his maturity in Christ, Philip was also chosen because of his character, wisdom and example.  Also just like Stephen, we’re going to see that Philip declared the good news about Jesus in word and deed.  We’re also going to see how the Holy Spirit helped Philip get woke! (What is “wokeness”? Pause here and read the previous post to learn more.)

If you’d like, read Acts 8:5-8. To summarize it for you, Philip goes to an unnamed city in Samaria, proclaiming the good news about Jesus and doing miracles (exorcisms and healings), and a crowd formed. 

There is so much of interest in these first few verses.  First of all, Philip goes to Samaria, which was a major step, considering the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans.  Jesus had not only told the disciples that they were to be his witnesses in Samaria, but also Jesus himself had gone there to minister many times, which was a radical move showing God’s heart.

This was such a radical move because the Jews and Samaritans hated each other for centuries.  The history of their ethnic segregation goes back to the time when the nation of Israel had been divided in two, with the Kingdom of Israel in the north, and the Kingdom of Judah in the south.  Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom, and Jerusalem was the capital of the southern Kingdom.  As time went by, some Jews from the North intermarried with people from surrounding nations, creating a new ethnic group, the Samaritans, and by the time of Jesus and the early church, Samaria was a large territory right in the middle of the nation.  Through the years, the Jews considered Samaritans impure and, because the Samaritans practiced an altered version of the OT Law, which the Jews considered a polluted version, they discriminated against the Samaritans.

Jews and Samaritans even led guerrilla or terrorist attacks against each other’s holy places over the years.  They hated each other.  So when Jesus ministered in Samaritan towns, it was a radical move toward ethnic and racial integration – towards love being shown to all people.  His parable of the Good Samaritan was another example of how Jesus showed us God’s heart for all people.  Now a few years later, Philip went to Samaria, and once again we learn that Christians are called to break racial, ethnic, and culture barriers for the mission of the Kingdom.  God loves all.  All are made in his image.  Just as Jesus had been woke, embracing racial or ethnic diversity, so Philip was as well.

Keep that thought in mind, and take notice of the flow of activity through Philip’s combo of preaching the Gospel in both word and deed. The people: 1. Saw his miracles, 2. Paid close attention to what he said, 3. Many were healed, and 4. There was great joy. 

The miracles caused people to pay attention to what Philip said, and gave them great joy, as of course there would be when people are getting healed and freed from oppression.  What we see thus far from Philip was clearly a demonstration of the deeds of the gospel.  Healings and exorcisms are signs of the Kingdom of God having victory over the forces of darkness.  God’s Kingdom was at work here.  Obviously through Philip’s ministry we see the deeds of the Gospel, but what about the words of the Gospel?  Did the people decide to choose Christ as the one they wanted to live their lives following?

The author, Luke, doesn’t tell us just yet. Instead he reveals to us that someone in those crowds in Samaria has been watching Philip’s ministry very intently. Was it Saul, who had been rounding up the Christians and throwing them in jail? No. Was it one of Saul’s henchmen, there to spy on the Christian movement? No. It was a guy named Simon, who was a sorcerer!  It is not often in the Bible that something like sorcery occurs, especially in the New Testament, so what is going on here?

Check back to the next post to learn more!

Should the church be woke? – Acts 8:4-40, Part 1

I am starting to get woke.  Are you “woke”?  Not awake, but woke.  Maybe you’ve heard that word, as it become popular in recent years.  I recently read the book Woke Church by Eric Mason, and in the book he describes “woke” as “to utilize the mind of Christ and to be fully awake to the issues of race and injustice in this country.” (25) In society, to be woke is essentially to be socially conscious.  It is not a Christian term, but there is much about being woke that is right in line with the mission of God’s Kingdom.  For example, in the book Woke Church, Mason quotes a commentator who describes wokeness, and as I read this, I want you to think in your minds how this description of wokeness might have a connection to the mission of God’s Kingdom:

“To me staying woke means making sure you’re tuned in to your community.  That you are doing everything that you can to not only educate yourself but to bring someone else along.  To ensure that we all have the same information.  It’s not enough to be woke on your own; you need to help someone else along to also get woke. Woke is about a state of mind.”

Like I said, I’m starting to get woke.  I think I have a long way to go. 

Today we’re going to see how the early church gets woke.  And maybe their story will help us too.

We have been studying the book of Acts, which tells the story of the first Christians, and how they lived out their faith in Jesus in the world.  The outline of the book is established in Acts 1:8 where Jesus gives the disciples their new mission saying, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea & Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

So far in chapters 1-7, we have watched how the church was formed and developed, pursuing that mission, but only to Jews living in the city of Jerusalem.  They have not looked outward, and yet Jesus clearly directed them to look outward.  As we saw last week through the life and ministry, and sadly also through the death, of Stephen, the church was pushed through that first wall, just like the wall around the city of Jerusalem.  When Stephen was killed, we read in Acts 8:3 that a great persecution broke out against the church, led by a guy a named Saul who seems to have been a young, but very aggressive Jewish leader. 

For now, open your Bibles to Acts 8 verse 3.  If you have been following along with the story of the early church through chapters 1-7, you might get the idea that these very first Christians were living in an ideal situation, led the by apostles who were empowered by the Holy Spirit to do miracles and deliver powerful teaching, and everyone loved one another, and the church just grew and grew uninhibited.  That’s just not the case, though.

While there are certainly some wonderful descriptions of that kind of experience in the early church, as we saw last week there is a larger context that is far more ominous.  By the time we reach Acts 8, the church is somewhere in the vicinity of 2-3 years old.  But by chapter 7, we have seen this relatively young church experience the threat of violence and destruction from the Jewish religious elite in the city of Jerusalem.  Twice some or all of the apostles have been arrested and jailed, brought up on trial, and once the religious leaders ordered them flogged, which was a severe beating.  Then last week we saw how Stephen, one of the seven deacons listed in Acts 6, was also arrested, falsely accused, and then stoned to death, which sparked the great persecution we read about in Acts 8:1-3, where this guy Saul is hell-bent on destroying the church, which he believed was a cult. 

Only the apostles remain in Jerusalem, and the other Christians, fearing for their lives, scatter.  How will the Christians handle this? Did some of them give up the faith?  Did some think, “This is crazy…my family and I could get killed for this?  This is not what I signed up for.  I’m out.”?  Maybe some did think like that.  We don’t know.  The author doesn’t say anything like that though.  Instead, in this uncertainty, this threat, this great danger, we arrive at Acts 8, verse 4, which says:

“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”

The author gives us a brief summary statement about how the persecution, instead of destroying them, spread the church beyond Jerusalem, and the Christians preached the word wherever they went.  It’s an amazing statement.  Though their location changed, though their situation had changed, they made sure their mission remained their mission.  Their world was anything but rosy and happy.  It was exactly the opposite. 

Imagine fleeing for your lives because your faith in Jesus could get you killed or thrown in prison?  Think about what they would realistically be like.  It would probably be a very quick, anxiety-filled moment of gathering up a few precious belongings you can carry on your back, making sure you have some food and water, and hightailing it out of the city as fast as you can, hoping that the authorities do not see you or your family, or your friends in the church.  I imagine people hiding in wagons, covered with tarps, trying to get beyond the walls of the city unseen, maybe under cover of night.  This is what many current refugees who flee persecution go through.  I imagine people looking out for this guy Saul and his minions, trying to alert people that he was coming.  I imagine Christians wondering if their non-Christian neighbors and friends were going to rat them out to Saul.  I imagine them wondering if they would have enough money, enough food, and when this crisis would end.  Does that last line feel at all familiar?  Read it again.  See if it sounds familiar.

It would be super easy to give up the faith, to be very quiet about Jesus, not wanting to tip off anyone about the fact that you were part of this group of people who were Jesus-followers.  It would be very easy to take the church underground and wait until the fire passed. 

But that is not what the Christians did!  First of all the apostles stayed in Jerusalem, which amazes me.  Think about that. The most visible, well-known people in the church stayed in the place that was the most dangerous for them.  Second, the Christians who fled the persecution were not quiet, but preached about Jesus everywhere they went!  What we see from the earliest Christians is amazing courage and boldness, flowing from their faith in Christ, even during a crisis.  They knew the real God, they knew his heart and they wanted others to be a part of the beautiful mission he was about. That is very instructive for us.  Do we know God?  Do we know his heart?  It is such a part of our lives we can’t help but to show it to others? 

Tomorrow we’re going to meet one of those courageous first Christians who had some fascinating encounters as he preached Jesus along the way. Through this man, it seems like the Holy Spirit wants the church to get woke!

How to be Christian during a crisis (such as global pandemic) – Acts 6:8-8:3, Part 5

Photo by Harry Cunningham on Unsplash

How should Christians live in a liminal moment such as our current global health crisis? All week long we have been studying the life and ministry of Stephen, one of the earliest followers of Jesus, attempting to answer that question. If you want to learn more about Stephen, start by reading the first post here. What we have seen in Stephen is a wonderful example of courage and trust in God. Are you willing to be like Stephen? Do you have his heart?  It doesn’t mean that we need to be in people’s faces with accusation, though it might mean speaking truth to power like Stephen did.  Instead look at Stephen’s heart.  His heart was sold out for Christ. 100% in. Willing to sacrifice. Focused on others’ betterment rather than his own.

Or are we quiet about Jesus because we are afraid of some kind of negative response?  In many places in the world, this is a very real possibility. In most countries, though, like the USA from where I write, it is highly unlikely that we are going to be arrested and brought up on trial like Stephen was.  It is also doubtful that we are going to be physically assaulted like Stephen was. 

Perhaps if we are appropriately bold about Jesus, we might get a negative response from some.

For example, a friend of mine described a colleague who accused my friend, “You wear your faith on your sleeve.”  What the guy was insinuating was that my friend should have been quieter about his faith.

Another friend who is a retired teacher told me the story about her principal who requested her to remove a silhouette of the Nativity scene she had displayed on a window in her classroom. Rather than wait for her response, she walked into her classroom one morning to discover that the principal had maintenance throw the Nativity scene in the trash. While that is not persecution like we read about it in Acts 6:8-8:3, it is abrupt and can cause offense.

What other such feedback might we be scared of?

Fearful of being rejected.

Fearful of saying the wrong thing and being a poor messenger of Jesus.

We can feel inwardly upset or guilty when we stay quiet in what might be an appropriate moment to share Christ with others.

Another person told the story of playing music at work, and a Christian song came on.  He was wondering what the other workers would think.  “Are they judging me?  Should I turn down the volume?  Should I skip the Christian song?” These are normal thoughts we can have. Rather than allow those thoughts to lead you down a road of quiet disengagement, think through what could be the most healthy way to share the hope, love and good news of Jesus.

In the liminal moments we are living in, such as our world now in these days of virus, let us stand clearly for Christ, just like Stephen did, in both word and deed.  Let us take necessary precautions so as not to spread the virus, and thus endanger vulnerable people.

Those of you have not lost your jobs or wages during this time, how can you be Christ/have the heart of Stephen and be all in and sacrificial for those struggling, letting them know you are showing the heart of Christ.  What will it look like for you to bring his goodness to them? I’m not just talking financially, though that might be an option for some.  If you do find yourself “stuck at home”, how can you reach out to others? Have the mind of Christ and show goodness as you share encouragement.  How would Christ be?  Be all in for him.  Be sacrificial with your desires for the betterment of others, be people who regularly call and check on others.  Mention your faith in Jesus, talk about it openly.  Look for the goodness of God in the midst of struggle and difficulties. 

This is our liminal moment!  Let’s embrace God and his mission in the midst of it, just like Stephen did.

One suggestion for surviving fear and pain: look outward – Acts 6:8-8:3, Part 4

Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

If you are feeling scared, anxious or even downright terrified by the news of the spread of the coronavirus, what should you do? I feel the weight of it myself. As a pastor of a small church, we’re having to rethink how we do everything, and it can feel like a heavy burden. We’re all wondering, “Will we survive? Will we lose loved ones? Will our economy be destroyed? What will life be like on the other side of this?” Today, as we continue to follow the life of Stephen, I believe we have an answer to how we can think and act when we are confronted by a life-changing situation that has us scared.

In this week’s series of posts on Acts 6:8-8:3, we’ve been learning about the ministry of one of the first Christians, a guy named Stephen. In his final hours, he preaches a bold sermon accusing the ruling elite in Jerusalem of being fraudulent leaders, pointing them to Jesus as the Messiah. They respond in anger, stoning Stephen to death. We noticed the many parallels the author of Acts describes between the deaths of Stephen and Jesus. But Stephen is not like Jesus in a significant way. Stephen was not perfect and did not give his life for the sins of all humanity, and thus Stephen did not rise again. But similar to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, what happened immediately after Stephen’s death brought new life to many.  Read Acts 8:1-3 to see what I mean.  What happens?

Persecution.  And not just any persecution.  A great persecution. Wait…how does that bring new life to many? Doesn’t it seem like a persecution would bring pain and death to many? Yes, it does seem like that. Did you notice who is behind the persecution? That guy named Saul we mentioned in the previous post.  He is a young man, but a powerful leader who started destroying the church, putting people in prison.  He’d had enough of this movement of Jesus-followers.  Again, think about how this is a liminal moment for the church! It doesn’t seem like there has been anything good that has come from Stephen’s death.

Interestingly, though awful, this becomes a major turning point for the church.  Go back to Acts 1:8.  Remember that?  There Jesus says to his disciples that they were to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth.  It is an outline of sorts for the whole book of Acts.  In chapters 1-7 we have watched as the church started and grew in Jerusalem.  To this point in Acts, though, up to chapter 8 the church has never left Jerusalem.  But that was not God’s desire, was it?  Jesus clearly said that he had the whole world in view.  So far the early church is 100% Jewish and located only in Jerusalem, with maybe some followers coming in from the nearby towns around the city.  What does that mean?  The church is not yet thinking outward like Jesus wanted them to!

That is a problem.  Go back to Genesis 12 and study God’s covenant with Abraham where he said he was going to make Abraham’s family into a nation that would bless the world.  Then trace that promise to Abraham’s son, Isaac, and his son, Jacob, who was renamed Israel, the father of 12 sons, who pretty much would become the 12 tribes of the nation of Israel.  Notice how that promise continues to Moses, and through David, under whose leadership the nation of Israel finally reached prominence where it could bless the world.  But Israel didn’t bless the whole world.  Instead after David, the nation slowly devolved into sin and rebellion and was exiled.  Until Jesus came, and there was a new day, a new hope that through Israel the whole world actually could be blessed.  This is exactly what Peter refers to in his sermon in Acts 3:24-26. I encourage you to read that.  Peter is saying a new day was upon the people of Israel, that through Jesus this promise to Abraham thousands of years before was finally coming true.  Through Jesus God was going to bless the whole world.

And yet, what have seen from the early Christians?  The Gospel, which was supposed to be good news for the world, the Christians contained behind the walls of the city of Jerusalem.  They were vibrantly preaching the good news to Jews in the city, but they had gone no further. Until now.  Acts 8:1 is a turning point.  A breakthrough.  It is horrible that it had to come through a martyrdom and a persecution.  But the breakthrough happened as this evil guy Saul was rounding up the Christians in Jerusalem and throwing them in jail, and thus the Christians fled the city, scattering to Judea and Samaria, the territories to the north and around Jerusalem.  The apostles, however, stay in Jerusalem, which I take as an act of courage, but many Christians are scattered.  At the end of Acts 8:3, it seems like the church is in a very precarious position.  In the coming weeks we’re going to find out is that the opposite is true.  But for now, we need to talk about persecution.

I don’t believe God ever wants persecution.  It is awful.  We should pray against it, and we should advocate for international policy against it.  Some people say, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” meaning that when people like Stephen are martyred the church grows, as if there is a silver lining to martyrdom or that God somehow blesses it.  I want to say that is categorically false.  Martyrdom is always awful and wrong, and God does not approve of it. There are plenty of martyrdom stories where the church is exterminated.  Gone.  Read the book or watch the movie Silence by Shusako Endo about Catholic missionaries in Japan in the 1600s.  They are brutally destroyed.  It is a hard read or watch.  Or read the book The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins.  Another hard read, it details the destruction of the church in the Middle East, which was historically the Christian birthplace and stronghold.  No longer, though. 

In Stephen’s case, his martyrdom and the resulting persecution will have the effect of pushing the disciples, probably fearing for their lives, to do what Jesus said they were supposed to do, be his witnesses in Judea and Samaria and everywhere in the world.  I don’t think Stephen intended any of this. He didn’t know that he would be arrested, stoned, and the result would be that the church would finally obey Jesus.  He was just proclaiming what he believed in.  Who knows…he may have even lost his cool in that sermon.  But God redeemed it, as we will see in the coming weeks.  Take a peek at Acts 8, verse 4: “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.”  Though they were in a liminal moment, unsure of what the future held, unsure if they would be thrown in prison or lose their lives, they carried the same heart as Stephen. They looked outward. They looked to serve. They looked beyond themselves.

How do we do this during the coronavirus? We’ll talk more about this in the next post!