An experiment for Christians who are iffy about speaking up – Acts 14, Part 5

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I was watching news reports this week as they filmed protests against racial injustice in the days following the murder of George Floyd. One protestor was holding a sign that said, “Silence is violence.” I wonder how you feel about that. I agree with the message on that sign. Yet I know that I have been silent too often. Speaking up can be hard for me. As we learned this week in our study of Acts 14 (starting here), though, we Christians are called to speak up. Paul and Barnabas gave us an excellent example to follow. We should not be silent.

So I am wondering if you might try an experiment with me.  Try bringing Jesus into as many of your conversations as possible for the next few weeks, and watch what happens.  See how people respond. 

Seriously.  I invite you to try speaking up.  First because we should be people who speak up for the ways of Jesus.  We Christians believe that Jesus’ way is absolutely the best possible life, right?  Jesus himself called it abundant life.  And on top of that we believe that true disciples of Jesus also have the hope of eternal life in heaven with him.  So shouldn’t we be speaking up all the time anyway?  We speak up because we believe that He brings good news!

But also, it is important that we speak up about Jesus so we can learn how people might respond.  Of course, when you talk about Jesus, do so with words, tone and body language consistent with the fruit of the Spirit: lovingly, joyously, graciously, with patience, kindness and gentleness.  It’s like what communication scientists have been telling us for ages.   How you say something is far more important than what you say. 

As you consider your practice of speaking up, I also want to ask you to evaluate how you have been communicating already.  For example, how have you handled quarantine?  Yes, it has been long and difficult in many ways.  But given how you have handled it, based on your public statements, whether in person or social media, would people think that the fruit of Spirit is flowing from you?  Would they think, “Wow, that Christian stuff is the real deal.  Look at the difference it makes to be a Jesus-follower during a difficult time”?  Or has something negative and dispiriting been flowing from you?  Hear me on this, we should be honest about our struggles, but even in that struggle we can choose to be thankful and look for good.

Christians, let us be people who speak up. 

Tell your story.  Talk about the beautiful way that Jesus has impacted you and changed you.  Talk about the love Jesus has for all.  When you see injustice and evil, then, too, speak up, confronting it, but with love and kindness. 

Show the world around you who Jesus is, what his heart cares about, and then give him credit for why you care about that too. Are you bothered by what you are seeing in the news, the way other human beings (people who loved by God and fellow bearers of the image of God) are being treated? Why does it bother you? Is it because you know it is wrong and that it also hurts God’s heart?  Speak up!  Say it is wrong and say you know it also hurts God’s heart.  Bring God into the conversations about why you believe what you do.  When you speak up against injustice, talk about how Jesus is opposed to injustice.

Ask God to show you what breaks his heart, and be willing to effectively, persistent and boldly share God and his heart with others. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the words to say and to fill you more and more with the fruit of the Spirit. Knowing that even that act of working to see the world the way God does, and of doing the work to be filled more and more with the fruit of the Spirit, could bring hardships along with it.  But keep speaking up.  He is good and his ways are so good.  They are the best ways and bring joy and abundant living along with them.

“Christians must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Really?) – Acts 14, Part 4

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How do you like the quote in the title? Agree? Disagree? Let’s talk about it.

In the previous post we looked at the question of whether or not Jesus is okay with various levels of commitment to him. As we study Acts, it seems that a guy like the Apostle Paul was radically committed to Jesus. Paul was nearly stoned to death one day, and the next day he is back out there preaching. But is that radical? Or is it normal? Today we continue studying Acts 14, as Paul and Barnabas address this very question. Let’s take a close look at this loaded sentence in Acts 14, verse 22, which is in the title of this post: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”  What does it mean?

First the apostles say, “We MUST go through many hardships.”  Really?  Does this statement come with a guarantee? Must Christians go through hardship?  Isn’t it at least theoretically possible that a Christian could go through their whole life without being persecuted for Christ?  Or are Paul and Barnabas saying that if we don’t face persecution, then we’re not true Christians?  Did the apostles mean that if Christians had true faith, bold faith, like Paul and Barnabas, we would be persecuted in some way or another?  How are we American Christians to understand this, as we live in relative wealth and peace?  Hang on, as we look at the rest of the sentence, we’ll try to answer this.

Next they say that the Christians will “go through MANY hardships.”  Not just a few, but many.  Is this just Paul and Barnabas speaking from their experience?  If Paul and Barnabas could have seen American Christianity in the last couple hundred years would they say, “Oh…okay…you live in a wealthy country where there is freedom of religion, so you won’t suffer, and you’ll be able to experience a wonderful, peaceful life and still enter the kingdom of heaven”?  Would they say that?  Would they affirm the ease of what many of us see as American Christianity?  Don’t you wish you could ask them?  Let’s keep looking at this phrase. 

It concludes with, “to enter the kingdom of God”.  Wait…I thought that entering the kingdom of God was about believing in Jesus.  So how do we enter the Kingdom of God?  By believing in Jesus?  OR as Paul & Barnabas say here, by going “through many hardships”? 

It is both.  Becoming and living as a disciple of Jesus includes both the simplicity of believing him, and the complexity of giving up our lives to follow his ways, to chase after the things that are important to him, as we see Paul and Barnabas doing in this passage.

Therefore Acts 14 is an example of how faithfully following the way of Jesus might bring you into conflict with people who disagree with you.  Following the way of Jesus is not always a popular or desirable pattern of life to everyone in the world. Truth be told, following the way of Jesus might not be agreeable to all Christians, considering what Jesus meant when he talked about what it means to be his disciple, which he described as taking up your cross daily, dying to yourself and following him.  Speaking up for the way of Jesus can get you in trouble in the community and in the church. 

What I am getting at is that Paul and Barnabas’ statement in verse 22, that we must go through hardships to enter the kingdom of God, is a true statement.  Our good news is not good news to everyone.  But that doesn’t mean we should keep quiet about it  The opposite is true.  I am concerned that the statement in verse 22 is so true, and that we implicitly know it is true, that we might not share the story of Jesus as frequently as we could, because we don’t want to face hardships.

Sometimes those hardships might come from others who don’t know Jesus, and sometimes those hardships might come from those who claim to know Jesus but don’t have the same understanding of what Jesus stood for.  Because of that, speaking up for the mission of Jesus (in a way that is flowing with the fruit of the Spirit) can cause hardship here in America.  We do not at this point in time face persecution, and we should not characterize the hardships we face here the same as persecution that so many around the world do face.

But still I ask you to evaluate your interaction with people.  How close are you to level of Paul and Barnabas in how they spoke up?  Do you need to speak up more about the story of Jesus and who He is and what he stood for? 

If you’d like, read how the story finishes in Acts 14, verses 23-28. To summarize, Paul and Barnabas travel back to each city they’ve visited, where they establish leaders in each of the churches, and then they finally return to their home base in Antioch.  They gather the church together, reporting all God has done through them.  Hear that?  All God did through them.  It was a work of co-creative partnership between both God and them.  God opened the door of faith to the Gentiles, and Paul and Barnabas also spoke up! 

This means the speaking up we do is not something that God expects us to do all alone.  Instead when we speak up and tell the story of Jesus and who he is and what his heart cares about, it is a speaking up that is in partnership with him.  Jesus once said that the Spirit would give us words to say.  We can pray for the Spirit to give us those words, to help us be creatively, lovingly, graciously bold. 

And let’s remember, we can be passionate about telling the story, because the story of Jesus is the one true story.  That means it is a better story than any other story out there.  It is the true story of hope and healing and restoration with God and humanity. In saying this, I recognize the exclusivity of these claims, and that may cause some to wince. I mean no disrespect to adherents of other stories or religions, and I recognize that those other stories or religions have many wonderful doctrines and followers of those doctrines. So how can I say that the story of Jesus, otherwise known as the Christian gospel, is the one true story or the best story? To answer that, I would like to defer to a talk by Ravi Zacharias who passed away recently. You can listen here. I would be glad to talk further.

For Christians reading my blog post, I conclude by asking you to check back in to the next post, as I’ll talk further about how we can implement the principles we’ve learned from Acts 14.

Is it okay to be a mediocre follower of Jesus? (or is there something more) – Acts 14, Part 3

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Is it okay to be a mediocre follower of Jesus? What does Jesus really want from his followers? Have you ever wondered if you are following Jesus in a way that is in line with his desires for his followers? Is it enough to believe in him, and attend church sometimes? Or is there something more? Today we try to begin to answer that.

In the previous post in our study through Acts 14, Paul had just been stoned to the point where the crowd thinks he is dead.  They drag him outside the city and leave him there.  Eventually some Christians show up, gather around him, and Paul gets up.  What?  Is this a miracle?  We don’t know.  Does he need medical attention?  What does he do? 

Paul goes right back into the city where the crowd was from, the crowd that just stoned him!  Is he out of his mind?  Or was he doing this in hiding, under cover of night?  Likely.  He was probably trying to find Barnabas.   We read that Paul did not preach that next day in Lystra.  Instead he and Barnabas leave Lystra, and they head to the city of Derbe. There they do speak up about the good news and as a result, a large number of people became disciples of Jesus. 

Wait.  Did you hear that?  One day Paul is stoned nearly to death.  The next day he is out there preaching again, as if the stoning never happened!  As if he didn’t just lose his life the day before.  What?  We should pause and think about that for a minute, and it should raise a question in the hearts and minds of every Christian reading this story.

Here’s the question: Is Paul a Christian superhero, or is he normal?  Should we consider what Paul did as radical and over-the-top? To get stoned one day, and then keep preaching the next?  Is Paul in a different category that we shouldn’t think is attainable for the common Christian?  Is it okay if we aren’t as passionate or dedicated as he was?  I’m not saying that we get stoned, abused or persecuted, our faith isn’t genuine. But what am I saying?  Hang in there, as the apostles are going to comment on this in just a few verses.

What we see next is another astounding choice by the apostles. After a great response in Derbe, in verses 21b-26, Paul and Barnabas retrace their journey, including visiting places like Lystra where Paul had just been stoned, Iconium where the Jews threatened to stone them, and Antioch (Pisidian Antioch, not their home base of Syrian Antioch) where the Jews also gave them big trouble. 

Again, we need to stop and notice this.  They go back to places where they had serious trouble.  It seems to me the apostles could easily make an argument that they needed to preach the Gospel in new places, and thus avoid those towns where they nearly lost their lives. 

But what did they do, in spite of the danger to their lives?  They went back to those very towns!  Why?

We learn why in verse 22a.  They strengthened the disciples, encouraging them to remain true to the faith. Paul and Barnabas cared about the people enough to risk their lives and visit the new disciples again, to see how they are doing, to strengthen them in the faith.  The apostles were the real deal.  They came back.  Such amazing care for people and for the mission of Jesus! But again I ask, is this amazing?  Or should it be considered normal? Are Paul and Barnabas a standard all Christians should aspire to, or are they radical, meaning that we can consider them anomalies we don’t need to compare ourselves to?

I mentioned above that Paul was going to talk about this.  He and Barnabas do so next in verse 22b where we read that the apostles teach the disciples that, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” 

What does that mean?  I don’t want to hear that.  Do you?  We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom?  No, not what I want to hear.  And yet, this was Paul and Barnabas’ experience on that mission trip.  They had been through many hardships.  I suspect that the apostles feared the new disciples in those towns might suffer too.  Because of that, Paul and Barnabas didn’t want the Christians to have a false expectation about a life of ease. 

So we’ll need to take a close look at this loaded sentence in verse 22.  What does it mean? Check back in to the next post as we’ll try to understand what the apostles were thinking.

Christians, are we seeing the needs? Are we listening? – Acts 14, Part 2

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Christian people, I have a question for you: when people think of you do they think, “there is a person who listens, who sees, who has empathy, who cares”? Or do they think, “there is a person who won’t stop talking, who is so focused on themselves”? What kind of Christian should we be?

We’ve been following the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas through Acts chapters 13 and 14. Their next stop, in Acts 14, verses 8-13, is the city of Lystra, and there Paul notices that a crippled man “had faith to be healed.” How did Paul notice this?  What did he notice?  Just an eager look on the man’s face?  Or perhaps the Holy Spirit gave Paul insight?  We don’t know.  Paul is clearly paying attention to needs, which is very instructive for us.  Paul is not just concerned about getting content out to the crowsd.  The story of good news is not just words or ideas to be believed.  The story of good news makes a difference in the real lives of people.  This is exactly the same way that Jesus ministered!  He preached good news and healed to demonstrate the good news.  Paul is doing the same. Speaking good news in both word and deed. Paul’s eyes are open to the needs around him.

Paul heals the man, and the crowds in this Greco-Roman city of Lystra are shell-shocked.  Paul and Barnabas were not preaching in a synagogue to Jews.  Instead they are out in the regular streets of the city, where Paul heals the man, and the Gentile crowds love it, declaring that the apostles must be the Greco-Roman gods Zeus and Hermes having come to earth as humans!  Even the priest of Zeus from a nearby temple comes with gifts and sacrifices for them. 

In what is shaping up to be a somewhat comical situation, for Paul and Barnabas, this is no laughing matter.  In verses 14-18 we read that they tear their clothes (and ancient custom of grief) and rush into right into the crowd, and guess what Paul does?  Paul speaks up! 

He says that he and Barnabas are regular men, just like them.  But he and Barnabas have a message of good news of the living God, and the people should turn away from “worthless things,” which are the false gods and idols of their society.  Notice that while Paul is not afraid to speak up to confront their false religion, this time he doesn’t mention Jesus or repentance at all.  Is Paul having a moment of fear?

No. Paul is wisely pointing the people to see God’s provision for them, which Paul says should be obvious to see in the food they eat and the joy of life.  In other words, Paul’s method of communication here is very appropriate for the people in that Greco-Roman town.  When Paul is with Jews, he speaks in a way Jews would understand, talking about Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah.  But here in Lystra, he speaks about God in a way these Greco-Roman people could understand.

We can learn much this. We should not assume that the people we are talking to know the Bible, or that they know about Jesus.  Instead, our speaking up about Jesus can start with getting to know people, with caring about them.  This is communication that looks outward, that has the other person in mind.  It means we practice listening. Only then should we introduce the treasure we have found in Jesus, inviting others to consider that his way of life is the best way to live.

Back in Lystra, even after Paul tried to bring the crowd’s attention to the one true and livign God, the people still wanted to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas. They were convinced that the apostles were gods who had come down in human form.  At that moment, as we read in verses 19-21a, Jews show up from two towns Paul and Barnabas had recently visited: Pisidian Antioch (which we read about in chapter 13 and different from Syrian Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas’ sending church was located) and Iconium.  In each of those two towns, there were Jews that were very unreceptive to the apostles’ message.

Apparently those Jews had been conspiring together, and they traveled to Lystra, where they argue so strongly against Paul and Barnabas that they win the crowd over.  They likely told the crowd that the apostles were liars or false teachers, or something like that. In a swift and dramatic turnaround, the crowd responds by stoning Paul to the point where they think he is dead! 

Did he play dead?  Was he so badly beaten that he barely had a pulse?  Knocked unconscious?  They drag him outside the city.  Then disciples show up, gather around him, and Paul gets up.  What?  Is this a miracle?  We don’t know.  Does he need medical attention?  What does he do? Check back in to the next post to learn the surprising move Paul makes next.

Until then, I encourage you to ask yourself if your eyes are open to the needs of people. Are you listening to them? Let’s not allow eager to share the content of the story of good news in Jesus blind us to the needs of people around us. Instead, let us follow the example of Jesus and the apostles, with eyes open, ears at the ready to listen, so that our story of good news might be matched with deeds of good news. Both are vital.

Christians need to speak up – Acts 14, Part 1

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Did you see the recent video of the white woman in New York City’s Central Park, yelling at an African-American man who had requested that she leash her dog, as they were in an area of the park that required dogs be on leashes?  He started recording her because she became so belligerent, while he remained calm and composed.  She retaliated by calling 911, lying to 911 that the man was threatening her.  She later apologized, but eventually lost her job.

Then in Minneapolis, there was black man, George Floyd, arrested by white police officers who restrained him on the ground by placing a knee on his neck, despite his repeated attempts to tell them he couldn’t breathe.  He died later that day.  Just a few weeks ago the killing of Ahmad Arbury was in the news.

There has been a renewed public outcry for people to speak about not only these injustices, but also specifically for whites to speak up about injustice toward minorities.  Should we speak up? Many are concerned about drawing attention to ourselves, or we don’t like public speaking, or we don’t want to be in the spotlight and face the examination it might bring.  Maybe we hate conflict and we are concerned that speaking up might bring us in conflict with people.  It probably will.  So we stay silent.

And yet, Christians are called to be people who speak up.  Have we been silent?  And isn’t silence a form of communication?  Silence communicates, doesn’t it?  What does silence communicate?  Apathy?  When we are silent about something, what are we saying about it?

Last week in Acts 13 and again in Acts 14, we have been following Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journey, and they have not been silent.  In fact, their speaking up got them into conflict.  In the previous series of posts on Acts 13 we learned that Paul and Barnabas spread the word of God on the island of Cyprus, confronting the false prophet and sorcerer, Bar-Jesus.  Then they preached in Pisidian Antioch, and the Jews were not happy with them.  Now their story continues.

Their next stop is the city of Iconium. In verse 1 we read that they went, as usual, into the Jewish synagogue, and they “spoke effectively.”  A great number of Jews and Gentiles became followers of Jesus because Paul & Barnabas spoke up. Unfortunately, in verse 2 we read that some Jews refused to believe, and worse, those Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.  Keep note of this.  There is trouble brewing for Paul and Barnabas.

How do Paul and Barnabas respond to the opposition? Leave? Head to a new town, hoping for a more positive reception? In verse 3 we read that Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time in Iconium, even after the Jews were so negative!  They are not deterred, and in fact they just keeping speak up boldly for the Lord. 

It is important that we take notice of how Paul & Barnabas’ communication has been described so far? First, we read that their speaking was effective (verse 1). Second, it was persistent (beginning of verse 3) and, thirdly, it was bold (end of verse 3).  Their pattern of speaking up for the Lord is an example for us: when they speak up, it is effective, persistent and bold.

Then God confirms the message by enabling the apostles to do miracles.  Sadly even the miracles do not convince the Jews, who remain opposed to the message of Jesus.  In verses 4-7, we read that the people of the city are divided, some siding with the Jews, some for the apostles.  Those opposed to Paul and Barnabas start a plot to mistreat and stone the apostles.  If you were threatened with your life, how would you feel?  The apostles find out about the plot and leave, but as we will see in the next post, they are undeterred from their mission to preach the good news.  Their speaking up was effective, persistent and bold, and it got them in trouble, but they kept at it anyway!

What will it look like for you to speak up effectively, persistently and boldly? Each of the remaining posts in this series will examine this further as the apostles continue their journey.

How bamboo can help you understand your role in the mission of God – Acts 13, Part 5

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Right about this time every year in my family’s backyard, we have bamboo that grows like mad.  In a matter of just a few days, a stalk can grow a couple feet.  It’s so fast, I sometimes wonder if I stare at it if I’ll see the motion of the growth!  Bamboo is also persistent and hardy, sometimes growing up through our piles of stacked firewood.  It is so invasive, I’ve toyed with the idea of getting rid of it.  Because that would be a major undertaking (quite literally), and it is an effective natural fence-row, we keep it, even though it is a lot of work to maintain.  Bamboo sends out roots under the grass, so we mostly stifle its growth by mowing our lawn each week.  Still, I usually have to trim it a couple times each growing season to keep it at bay.

As we conclude our study in this 5-part series through Acts 13, in verse 49 we read another description of how the word of the Lord spread throughout the whole region.  The spread reminds me of the bamboo in our yard.  Bamboo roots spread underground, sending up shoots as the roots grow.  Likewise, the word of God spreads as each one of us grows and sends out roots to more people.  Yes, Paul and Barnabas took the word of God to new places, but once people received it, those people participated in spreading the good news as well.  That reminds us that we all have a role to play.  We participate with God as his Kingdom is advancing over the forces of darkness.

But those forces of darkness are still fighting, as we see in verse 50. The Jews incite the leading people of the city, men and women, to a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, who are expelled from the region. 

In verses 51-52, Paul and Barnabas shake off the dust (an ancient ritual saying, “We’re done with you”) in protest and head to Iconium, the next stop on their journey which we’ll hear about in our next series of posts.  At the end of chapter 13, the author gives a concluding description of the disciples. They are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit, more evidence that word of God was taking root, spreading and changes lives. 

The Holy Spirit is still at work empowering us to spread the word of God.  The Kingdom of God is still at work waging war against the forces of darkness.  And each of us has the joyous privilege to participate in that. 

God invites us to participate in spreading the word, his heart and his purposes, even while we are at home on quarantine.  What are some ways you can do that?  How about inviting your neighbors and friends to join your church online?  How about sharing a daily prayer or encouraging Bible verse with them?  Or if you aren’t sure how they might receive them, how about asking them if they have any needs you could supply, or if they have any prayer requests. 

How about asking God, “Where can I be sharing your heart, your purposes more during this time?”  Maybe this is a time where you can also sit with your Bible, sit in prayer, maybe even spend time fasting from something (food, social media, TV) for the purpose of learning more about God’s heart, purposes and his word, so that you can learn better how to align yourself with those things.

Check with nonprofits that need a hand, that need help. Meals on Wheels put out a call for volunteer drivers. Parents, as school finishes up, how can you involve your kids in serving.

Allow the Holy Spirit to flow through you in love to the people around you.  Share that love with them in both word and deed.  Share the truth, with love, about who God is as you interact in texts, Zoom calls, grocery stores, social media, in your yard, or in parks.  What is in your heart will overflow in all those areas. During this time of quarantine, my prayer for myself and readers of this blog is for our hearts to be filled more and more with His Spirit.

Two correct ways (and one wrong way) to respond to preaching – Acts 13, Part 4

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Do you do a good job in how you respond to preaching and teaching? If you are a Christian, you likely hear preachers and teachers from time to time. Maybe you are a part of a church family, and you attend worship services which include sermons. Maybe you participate in classes or small groups with teachers and lessons. Or you might read books or listen to podcasts that include teaching of some kind. How you do interact with those various kinds of teaching? Do you listen closely? Do you think deeply about what you’ve heard? Do you attempt to make practical application of biblical principles to your life?

In this series of posts about Acts 13, we have seen that the word of God is spreading. There is much teaching and preaching to people who respond in a variety of ways. As their mission trip continues, we read in verse 13 Paul and Barnabas set sail to the mainland (modern day Turkey), eventually arriving at the city of Pisidian Antioch.  Verses 14-15 tell us that on the Sabbath Day, the Jewish day of rest and worship, Paul and Barnabas go to the synagogue in town, and the synagogue rulers invite them to speak.  Paul preaches a sermon, and it seems to have three parts:

Verses 16-22 are part 1, a recap of the history of Israel, in which Paul establishes Jesus’ Jewish heritage, important for this Jewish audience to hear.

In part 2, verses 23-31, Paul now teaches the story of Jesus, saying Jesus is the Messiah, a claim which Paul suggests is validated by his resurrection.

Paul concludes in verses 32-41, quoting Hebrew scriptures, claiming Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecies. 

Do you see what Paul has done in this sermon?  He has laid out a strong case for Jesus to be the fulfillment of the promised Messiah.  The question, though, is what will these Jews think?  Paul’s message has not always done well with Jewish audiences.

Look at verses 42-43; the Jews say they want to hear more next week, and some stay and talk further with Paul and Barnabas who urge them to continue in the grace of God, which is a curious piece of advice. Continue in the grace of God?  Does this mean they had become followers of Jesus?  We’re not sure.  But they are inquiring.  Their interest is piqued; they want to learn more.  Paul encourages them to continue in the grace of God. 

Unfortunately, the good reception is short-lived.  In verses 44-45 we read that on the next Sabbath almost the whole city shows up to hear them, which makes the Jews jealous (apparently large crowds didn’t show up for the Jews’ gatherings!), so the Jews talk abusively against what Paul was saying.

How will Paul and Barnabas respond?  Look at verses 46-47.  They start by explaining to the Jews, “We had to speak the word of God to you first,” as they were all part of the Jewish family and heritage. 

Paul and Barnabas then make a bold statement against the Jews, as we read in verse 46: “Since you are rejecting the word, and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life… (geesh…really sounds sarcastic, doesn’t it?)…We now turn to the Gentiles.”  For biblical support for their decision, they quote Isaiah 49:6 “I have made you a light to the Gentiles”.

You can imagine the Gentiles response to this.  Look Verses 48-49.  They hear, were glad, honored the word of the Lord, and some believed.  The phrase, “they honored the word of the Lord,” might sound odd.  We don’t talk like that.  What could it mean, to honor the word of the Lord?

“Honor,” here, is the word where we get our English word “doxology.”  The Doxology is a song that emphasizes the word, “praise,”:

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below, praise him above, ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” 

So the Gentiles were praising God for the message of the Gospel, that they, too, are included in the good news of hope.  When you give honor to something you are respectful of it, you realize the importance, the weight that it carries.  They honored the word of the Lord.  They held what was going on in high regard.  They were joyful, they were glad and they had an understanding of the importance of what was happening.

Can it be said of you that you honor the word of the Lord?

While the Gentiles are elated to be included in the spread of good news, there are others who are quite unhappy about this. In the next post we’ll find out who that group is and how they respond.

How to have victory over darkness – Acts 13, Part 3

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Do you ever sense the battle of light versus dark, good versus evil? Do sense that there might be a spiritual war going on? Do you ever feel defeated? It is possible to have victory over darkness.

In our study through Acts we’ve see that battle numerous times. In chapter 8 Philip faced off against a sorcerer, and now in Barnabas and Saul confront a sorcerer as well! It is a battle of the kingdom of light versus the kingdom of darkness.

In Acts 13, verses 6-12, Barnabas and Saul are on a mission trip, and their first stop was the island of Cyprus, where we learned in the previous post that they were telling the story of Jesus. In one town, they met a sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus.  When we think of the name Jesus, we think of Jesus Christ.  For Jews, however, that name Jesus (in their language pronounced “Yeshua”) is the name Joshua, a highly common name of them and us.  “Bar” means “son of,” so this prophet was simply son of a guy named Joshua. We also read he was called Elymas, which was the common word for sorcerer or magician.

What was not common about this guy was that he was a “sorcerer” and a “false prophet,” and he was also an attendant to the proconsul Sergius Paulus.  A proconsul was a governor of a region, appointed by the Roman emperor.  Thus Bar-Jesus, as an attendant to the governor, is in a highly influential role, but because he is a false prophet and sorcerer, he is opposed to the Kingdom of God. 

Bar-Jesus uses his influence to hinder the spread of the word of God. This is the power of darkness at war with the power of light. 

In verse 8, we read that Saul was also called Paul.  Why the name change? Saul is a Hebrew, Jewish name and Paul is a Greek, Roman name.  From Acts 7, when we first met him, Saul has been called Saul. Now from this point in chapter 13 to the end of the book he will now be referred to as Paul.  Why?

It could be simply that when Saul was in a Jewish setting he used his Hebrew name, and now that he is starting to minister in more Greco-Roman settings, he is going to use his Greek name.  It makes sense for the mission.  When I was a summer missionary in Guyana for 3 months and when we lived in Kingston, Jamaica, people called “Brother Jo – El.”  I always thought “Joelle” was a girl’s name, because here in America it is mostly used for girls. But in those countries, to add the syllabic pause in the middle of the name, Jo-el, was a cultural way to distinguish my name from the name “Joe.” Paul is likely being culturally appropriate, missional, helping him to identify with the community in which he ministered.

The change might also be symbolic on the author’s part, signifying the changing mission focus from the Jewish world to the Greco-Roman world. We’ve been seeing that transition bit by bit in chapters 8-12.  It will only move further in that direction, as God’s heart is to see his word, heart and purposes continue to spread throughout the whole world. 

From this point, Paul takes the lead in the narrative.  Rarely will the author of Acts refer to them as “Barnabas and Paul” anymore, but instead he calls them “Paul and Barnabas,” or as we will see in the next post, in verse 13 they are called, “Paul and his companions,” and Barnabas isn’t even mentioned.

Back to the battle.  It is Paul and Barnabas verses Bar-Jesus.  The power of God verses the power of Satan.  We read in verse 9 that Paul is filled with the Spirit. 

Have you noticed that we have heard a lot about the Holy Spirit in this story so far?  The Spirit speaks, guides, fills, and empowers.  The Spirit is clearly vital to the mission of the Kingdom.  This means that the mission of Jesus is not solely on our shoulders.  He once said to his disciples, “I will not leave you alone.  I will send the Spirit.”  And he did, which we read in Acts 2, when the Spirit came and indwelled the apostles on the day of Pentecost.  I have written previously about the difference between indwelling and filling of the Spirit.  We can be indwelled, where the Spirit is living in us, but at the same time, we are not filled, meaning that we are not giving the Spirit control of our lives. 

Paul is filled with the Spirit. He is giving the Spirit control, and thus the Spirit’s power is at work in Paul in this battle with Bar-Jesus.  First, Paul condemns Bar-Jesus in very colorful language.  He says in verse 10 that Bar-Jesus is “a child of the devil.”  Paul might be making a bit a dark joke here.  Remember that Bar-Jesus means “son of Joshua,” and the first thing Paul says is, “you are a son of the devil”!

Paul is just getting started!  He says Bar-Jesus is an, “enemy of everything that is right, full of all kinds of deceit and trickery, and perverting the right ways of the Lord.”  Yikes. 

Paul proclaims that the hand of the Lord is against Bar-Jesus.  Blindness comes over Bar-Jesus, a very symbolic miracle as Bar-Jesus had been blinding the people with his lies, deceiving them.  Where God wants his word to spread, Bar-Jesus has been hindering that.  So Paul’s proclamation takes effect, Bar-Jesus is blinded, and word, heart and purposes of God spreads.

Notice the effect this situation has on the proconsul:  He sees!  While Bar-Jesus is blinded, the proconsul sees the truth.  He believed and was amazed at the teaching about the Lord. This is a fascinating example of the victory of Jesus over the forces of darkness.  The Kingdom of Jesus is many things, and one of them is victory of light over darkness.  In this story we also see the Kingdom of Jesus as the victory of truth over lies.  Notice again how the word of God is spreading.  Truth is spreading.

To have victory over darkness, be filled with the Spirit, and see the truth of Jesus! Not sure how to be filled with the Spirit? Read here for more or comment below.

You are needed on the team! – Acts 13, Part 2

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

How do you feel about group projects? Do they excite you, or do they frustrate you? Do you think, “These people energize me, and our connection is producing something creative and innovative,” or do you think, “These people are slowing me down. My work is suffering because of them”?

I was assigned a group project in a seminary class this spring, and it was one of most profound educational experiences I’ve ever encountered. The four of us are very different people, with unique life experiences, perspectives and abilities. I will admit that when I first learned about the group project, I felt some of what I mentioned above, wondering if it would be better if I could work alone. As the months went by, my feelings changed to deep gratefulness for the other three. It was a pleasure to work together, as I not only learned so much about our topic, but we also put together an interactive educational presentation for the rest of our class, a project I was extremely proud of. It took a lot of work, and many hours on Zoom together, discussing the topic, praying, laughing, and exchanging ideas.

As we continue our study through Acts 13, we see the Christians in Antioch utilizing some teamwork of their own. If you’d like to read for yourself, open a Bible to Acts 13, verses 1-3.

Luke writes that, “while they were worshiping and fasting,” the Spirit communicates to them.  How did the Spirit speak?  Luke does not say.  The word used for “speak” is the standard word to describe when someone speaks in an audible voice, but because of the mention of prophets among them, and the fact that in the Bible, prophets hear and communicate the word of God, it is most likely that the Spirit spoke through one of the prophets. 

The Spirit tells them first to, “Set apart for me Barnabas & Saul.” 

I wonder how Barnabas and Saul reacted to this.  Were they surprised?  Were they excited?  We obviously don’t know, but we do know that Barnabas and Saul have developed quite a ministry track record by this time.  We have read about them in chapter 9, chapter 11 and the end of 12, and they seem to be quite a wonderful team.  This is a wise move to send them out together.  They are friends.  They work well together.  Barnabas is the loving encourager, and Paul is the bold teacher.  Together their gifts complement well.

This reminds us that it is not wise to have lone rangers in the church.  Teams are vital.  Especially teams that show they work well together and have complementary gifts. 

The Spirit also says that he is setting apart Barnabas and Saul for, “the work to which I have called them.” What work?  We don’t know yet.  That word, “work,” is a generic term for work, not referring to anything specific, but we know that the work of the Spirit is going to be in line with the mission of God’s Kingdom, which is the work of spreading the heart and love and purposes of God as we saw in Acts chapter 12:24.  Weren’t Barnabas and Saul already doing that work?  Yes they were, but clearly the Spirit is setting this team apart for a new reason, of which we are about to find out. 

After the fasting and praying, the church placed hands on Barnabas and Saul, the typical method of commissioning someone for ministry.  We continue this practice to this day when we ordain ministers, missionaries, and many others for all kinds of tasks in the Kingdom, as well as when we pray for people.  It is not a magic conferring of power.  Laying on of hands is a symbolic gesture saying that, “we are with you, we support you.”  It is a physical act of “standing together with you.” It is not just Barnabas and Saul that are a team, but they are part of the larger team of the church. The laying on of hands reminds them that they will always be part of that team, though they are about to venture away from the home base.

The church then, sent them off.  I love the brevity of that phrase.  Sent them off to where, to what?  We don’t know yet, but it is a sending off to pursue the mission of the Kingdom, to spread the word, which we talked about in the previous post.  I have had the privilege and pleasure of experiencing this sending many times, first as a my wife and I served as missionaries in Kingston, Jamaica, and then as my congregation, Faith Church, sent teams on short-term mission trips, and also as we sent two families to full-time missionary service in recent years.

In this process of sending that we read about in Acts 13, notice that there are three parties in this venture:  the Spirit of God initiating the move, the people serving as missionaries, and the church sending them out.  All are vital for the mission of the Kingdom.  The missionaries are Barnabas and Saul, who are following the lead of the Spirit, with one task: spread the word.  The church is sending them, supporting them, and praying for them.  What an amazing description of the teamwork that God establishes for the mission of his Kingdom.

This reminds me of when missionaries from our church spent their first year in Kenya.  And when another missionary from our church moved to serve in another country. They had all volunteered faithfully on church committees and ministries. While we were so excited to send them out, we were also thinking about all the ways we would miss them.  It would have been the same for Barnabas and Saul, two integral leaders in the church.  To send them out, the church is losing a gifted teacher and a loving encourager.  It took sacrifice on the part of the missionaries to go, and it was a sacrifice on the part of the church to send them.  As so very often is the case, sacrifice and new roles and lessons are needed when God moves, and sometimes that is uncomfortable, but the Spirit was leading, and they were obedient.  

In verses 4-5, we read that Barnabas and Saul are “sent on their way by the Holy Spirit” to Cyprus, a huge island in the Mediterranean Sea.  In Acts 4, when we first met Barnabas, the author of Acts told us that Barnabas was from Cyprus, so perhaps there is some advantage to Barnabas visiting relatives. Or maybe not, as talking about religion with family can be very difficult, especially when we are telling them that we have changed our minds about the faith of our fathers. And that’s exactly what Barnabas and Saul are doing. In fact, we read that they proclaim the word of God in Jewish synagogues in various towns. These two Jews are proclaiming that Jesus is the promised Jewish messiah. How would the Jews react? To give you a hint, in the next post a major conflict erupts.

For now, I ask you to consider what teams you are a part of. Do you view yourself as part of the team that is your church family? You are a vital team member! The mission of Jesus is accomplished through teamwork. You have an important contribution to make as a team member. Your gifts, abilities and perspective are needed on the team. If you aren’t feeling part of the team, I encourage you to talk with the leaders in your church family, asking them how you can become more connected to the team!

How God wants to change the world (& one practice that can help you hear the Spirit speak) – Acts 13, Part 1

Starting a backyard berry patch in eastern Idaho | East Idaho News

Are you a gardener? Maybe you have some potted plants bringing life to your home. Maybe you have a flower bed? A vegetable garden? We have a vegetable garden with a berry patch, and a few weeks ago that berry patch was in serious need of weeding.  So a couple weeks ago, I weeded it, trimmed branches and we put grass clippings around the plants.  Those weeds were out of control!

We often use weeds as a spiritual metaphor for the fast growth of sin in our lives and in our society. But not all fast-growing things are bad.  Turn with me to Acts 12:24-25, where we read that “the word of God continued to increase and spread.”

“The word of God” is described here almost like a living breathing organism that is growing and spreading.  It reminds me of films where there is darkness and rot across a land, but good triumphs over evil, and light starts to break through the darkness, and where the light shines, green growth of grass, trees, and flowers bloom, and clean water flows and animals return.  The power of light is victorious over the power of darkness. 

When we think about the word of God increasing and spreading, we will see, in a very real sense, the evidence of the power of light having victory over the power of darkness.  The word of God spreads as more and more people believe in and trust the story of Jesus as the true story of life.  It is when they understand the goodness of God, making their heart and minds more like his.  Shifting their priorities more in line with his.  In the first century Roman Empire, people were turning away from the story of “the way things are” and turning to the story of Jesus which not only provides hope of eternal life in the future, but redefines the world now.

No longer is “the way things are” acceptable.  The Kingdom of God enters the picture and tells the story of a new way, the true way, a life that is believed in our hearts and minds, but also, flowing from that belief, it is lived out in our actual real lives.  Here’s how it works: as the word of God spreads, what that means in down to earth, real-life terms, then, is that more and more people were filled with the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit then changed them, so that what emanated from their lives, in their thoughts, words and actions, was called the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control, and that brings a new way of life into the real world.  That bring justice and righteousness to what is broken.  It heals, it repairs, it restores.  When the word of God spreads, lives are changed for the good. That’s what was going on.

Acts 12:25 reminds us of a beautiful example of the spread of the transformative word of God when the church, through the financial gift that the daughter church in Antioch (located in modern-day Turkey, very close to Syria) collected and sent to the mother church in Judea, back in Israel.  We read that Barnabas and Saul brought the gift (first mentioned in 11:27-30) to Jerusalem.  The word was spreading.  Now Barnabas and Saul returned to the church in Antioch, and that brings us to chapter 13.

In 13 verses 1-3, we read that there are prophets and teachers in the church in Antioch, and five are mentioned by name including Barnabas and Saul.

What role did Prophets and Teachers play in the life of the church?  They are very similar in that they are communicating the word of God. The difference is that, a prophet is one through whom revelation is given, while a teacher is one who explains revelation, helping people apply it to their lives.  Both are gifts used by God. 

We read in verse 2 that the Christians in the church in Antioch were worshiping and fasting.  More than likely they gathered in homes, like many contemporary Christian small groups, and they prayed together, singing, encouraging one another, hearing what the teachers and prophets had to say, discussing it together, all probably taking place around a table meal, that included communion. 

Except that in this case, they were fasting.  Fasting is the practice of abstaining, primarily from food, for the purpose of heightened dependence on God, usually connected to prayer.  Have you practiced fasting? Fasting is an important spiritual practice that we would do well to include as a regular habit in our lives. At the end of this five-part series on Acts 13, we’ll return to some practical suggestions, or you can learn more now, as I write about how to practice fasting here.

Luke writes that, “while they were worshiping and fasting,” the Spirit communicates to them! What did the Spirit sound like? And what did the Spirit say? Check back in to the next post to find out!