The first revival (and could revival happen again?) – Acts 2, Part 3

Revival. What is it? We sometimes talk about a revival of a old musical production. Or a person that stops breathing, but is revived through CPR. Revival is the breathing of new life into something that is dead or dying. And while there is physical revival, as we continue studying Acts 2, we’ve come to a story of spiritual revival. After being filled with the Holy Spirit, one of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, stands up with the rest of the disciples around him, and he raises his voice and begins to preach to the crowds in the city of Jerusalem.  You can read his sermon in Acts 2:14-36.

Do you see what Peter is doing in his sermon?  Witnessing!  He is sharing the good news that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophets, that though he died, he was resurrected. Peter’s witnessing led people to receive this good news with gladness.  In verse 37 we read that the people were cut/pierced to the heart.  People asked, “What shall we do?”

Peter’s response?  “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus.”  Repent is an inward and outward turning away from self-focused lives toward a God-focused life.  Repentance of head, heart and hands.  This is the same message that John the Baptist and Jesus preached.  Repent!  This concept of turning away from a life that does not honor God, and turning toward the God-honoring life is essential for a person to be a follower of Jesus.  And that day, 3000 repented and were baptized and joined the church. 

Let’s take a few minutes and talk about revival.  Peter preached a revival message!

Revival on this scale does not occur again in the Bible, which covers roughly the next 60-70 years.  That’s not to say that in that time period revival like that didn’t happen again.  The writers of the New Testament just don’t record anything like it.  As we think about the church throughout the centuries, this kind of revival does occur again, many times.  Often revival is preceded by prayer, just as the Acts 2 revival was preceded by prayer in Acts 1.   The same thing has happened many times in history, including here in the United States, especially through the Great Awakening in the 1700s and the Second Great Awakening that went into the 1800s.

In 1805-6, revival broke out here in central Pennsylvania through the ministry of Jacob Albright and George Miller, two Evangelical pastors.  Albright started the Evangelical Association that is the predecessor denomination to my own denomination, the Evangelical Congregational Church

George Miller wrote this about Albright, when Albright was preaching in a meeting that took place in a home: “Indeed even his bearing, countenance and movements often betrayed the presence of God’s Spirit in his chest, so that the hearers were deeply moved without his saying many words. And there were times in which he so entirely forgot his humanness and even himself—when such a high rapture worked on and in him—that he was driven from his position as far as halfway through the house in which he spoke without he himself even being aware of it. And after such a shaking of his spirit, one then saw on his face a special joy and the praise of God poured from his lips, and one saw him so moved that all his limbs were in motion.”

Miller remembered when he first came under the conviction of the Spirit while hearing Albright preach: “I was touched in such a manner by his powerful sermon, that if I had not taken hold of a table, I should have sunk to the floor.”  Only a few years later, after Miller had become a preacher himself, this powerful experience would continue through his ministry as well.  In 1805 while preaching right here in Lancaster County in a home, Miller notes that, “The Lord gave me grace to preach his word with feeling and power so that nearly all were melted.”  On October 25, 1806, a revival broke out in Union County. George Miller delivered the opening sermon at a “Big Meeting” and “the power of the Lord came upon the congregation with such force that many fell on their knees, and with tears in their eyes, besought the Lord to save them.”  In the ensuing months, as the revival progressed, the Holy Spirit continued to be poured out, this time under Albright’s preaching so that “a great commotion resulted with many falling on their knees and crying aloud for mercy.”

My question to you is this, could this happen again?  YES!  And I believe we are right to pray for it.  Often in our Wednesday evening prayer meeting, we pray for revival.  Let’s keep praying for the Spirit to work!

The moment that changed everything (also the Spirit as wind, fire…and speaking in tongues)- Acts 2, Part 2

This is the moment everything changed. Have you experienced one of those in your life? A 9/11 moment where you say, “Before that day life was one way, and now after that day, everything seems different.” It could be a job loss, a death of a loved one, a serious illness, or very positive events, like marriage, the birth of a child, or the beginning of a new career. In our ongoing series through Acts, the disciples and followers of Jesus have just watched him ascend to heaven, and now they have been waiting together in prayer…for ten days! He told them to wait in Jerusalem because he was sending the Spirit to them.

And then it happens.  Look at the description of verse 2.  Imagine what you would have seen, heard and felt if you had been there?

Verse two says there was a “sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house.” Is this what the disciples expected would happen when Jesus said the Spirit would come?  Would you have expected a violent wind from heaven to fill the house?

My house is situated with farmer’s fields to our east and west, so most days a breeze is blowing, and sometimes it is gale force wind.  A few weeks ago in the middle of the night, the winds were particularly strong, lifting our glass-top picnic table off our deck, sending it sailing down the deck steps and crashing into the yard where the glass splintered into thousands of pieces.  I literally had to vacuum the grass.  Who knows what my neighbors were thinking if they were watching me.  Weeks later I’m still finding glass, and probably will be for years.  Laying in bed that night, the sound of that wind woke us, like a freight train going by.  Maybe that was what the disciples heard. 

In both the Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek, the word for Spirit means “wind” or “breath.”  I love the Keith Green song, “Rushing Wind” which talks about how the Holy Spirit can enliven and revive us.  In that day, the first indwelling of the Spirit, this was all new.

And then there is another surprise in verses 3. Tongues of fire?  What is going on with that?

There are many times in the Bible when flames or fire is a symbol of the divine presence, like the burning bush Moses saw in Exodus 3:2. Or when God led the nation of Israel in the pillar of fire during the Exodus.  Now the Holy Spirit shows up in what the writer tells us seemed to be tongues of fire.

The description of the flame as a tongue is both real and symbolic.  It is real because flames do look like tongues flashing up, but it was also symbolic because of what would happen next.  In verse four we read: “All were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in other tongues.”

The implication of the passage is that the Spirit filled them all through what appeared to be flaming tongues, and thus enabled them to speak real languages that they didn’t previously know.  Read verses 5-13 to see what happened when they spoke in other tongues.

What is going on with this speaking in tongues?  When we think of speaking in tongues in our day, we think of ecstatic speech.  But notice that the people heard the preaching about Jesus in words from their real languages that they could understand.  Some scholars wonder if that is actually the miracle here, that the people could understand what the disciples were saying. 

They prayed, were filled, and it led to mission.  We read that a crowd forms because they were hearing the followers of Jesus talking in their own languages, and this amazed the crowd because these disciples from the area in northern Israel called Galilee should not have known all those foreign languages.  Verses 9-11 list all kinds of places in the known world that people in the crowd were from.  They were in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration, and now they are hearing the story of Jesus in their home languages.  Some in the crowd were so confounded, they said, “These guys are just drunk.”  It must have been quite a scene!

The important point is not what it sounded like.  The important point is that when the Spirit came, he empowered the disciples for outreach!  For mission! 

Let me say that again, the Holy Spirit empowers the church for mission.  Filled with the Spirit, the disciples were engaging in mission by witnessing.  A witness is one who tells what they see.  What had the disciples seen?  They had seen Jesus, the Messiah, who lived, died and rose again.  Thus they told the story of Jesus.  Jesus said in Acts 1:8 that the disciples would be his witnesses.  Now the Spirit empowers them, and they start witnessing, telling the story of Jesus. How are you telling the story of Jesus in your community?

How would you start a church? – Acts 2, Part 1

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What would you do if you were starting a church from scratch?  Would you dream up a creative architectural design for a building that would draw attention from the community?  Would you focus on the gathering for worship and put together a certain kind of musical or artistic program?  Would it be multi-cultural?  What doctrines would the church hold to?  The possibilities are endless, especially when you consider all the expressions of church out there.

When it comes to starting a church, the reality, though, is that we don’t start from scratch.  Instead we believe God, through his Word, has given us some guidelines for what a church should be.  In Acts 2, which we’re studying in this week’s series of posts, we get to observe the beginning of the first church.  How did the disciples and other followers of Jesus, the ones who walked with him for three years, start the church?  Most importantly, can we learn from them how to be the church?  I think we can. 

Last week I started a new blog series about how to live as Christians in the world, and we are studying the book of Acts to learn how the first Christians lived out their faith.  I think it will be very obvious how this passage of Scripture can relate not only to each one of us individually, but also to our identity as Christians who are part of a church family.

If you want, you can follow along by opening a Bible to Acts 2:1-4.

Verse 1 starts by mentioning Pentecost.  This was a Jewish holiday that took place 50 days after the Sabbath of Passover.  It was an ancient feast the God asked the people of Israel to observe to celebrate harvest.  Because Jews were spread out around the known world in the First Century, thousands of them would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. 

On that day, we read that the 120 remaining followers of Jesus “were all together in one place”

Remember what we read last week in Acts 1?  Look at chapter 1, verse 4.  In some of his final instructions to them, Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem for a few days when they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.  Soon after that he ascended back to his father in heaven, and what did they do

Now look at chapter 1, verse 14.  They waited by “joining together constantly in prayer.”  That short phrase is amazing.  First I want to point out that they were all together.  This was a group effort.  Next they joined, they were like-minded.  There was unity.  Finally, they gave themselves to constant prayer.  That’s quite a prayer meeting, right?  And it reminds us of the importance of church families gathering together for prayer. 

But I have to ask, how long were they doing this?  Jesus had said they would have to wait, “a few days,” until the Spirit would arrive.  As chapter 1 ends, they’ve been praying and waiting.  We don’t know how much time passes between the end of chapter 1 and the Day of Pentecost which we read about in chapter 2 verse 1.  Some scholars believe they might have waited together in prayer as many as 10 days.  But on day 10 right in the middle of their gathering, everything changes. 

There were many times when Jesus told the disciples the Spirit was coming.  When the Spirit came he wanted them to be ready!

What would they have been expecting?  They knew from their nation’s history that the Holy Spirit sometimes filled and empowered leaders, and those stories would have been all they had to try to understand what Jesus might have meant.  When the Holy Spirit filled people in the Hebrew Bible, things got a little crazy.  There was wild, ecstatic prophesying, as they called it.  Or there was Samson killing thousands of Philistines.  Or there was David dancing with all his might as the Ark of God came into Jerusalem.  But as we saw in the story of Samson, that filling of the Spirit was temporary. Who knows what the disciples were thinking was going to happen! And then it happens.

Check back in to the next post as we’ll learn what happens!

Two vital things churches need to do (Are you doing them?) – Acts 1, Part 5

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If you had to narrow it down to only two things, what would they be? I’m asking in regard to the title of this post: two vital things the church needs to do. What do you think? Before you read on to my suggested answer, take a minute and consider how you might answer.

I’d like to suggest that the two vital things are included in Jesus’ last words to his disciples. We’ve been studying Acts 1 this week, and there Jesus last words are: Wait and Witness. From this we have learned in Acts 1 that we can and should wait for the Spirit’s empowerment, and especially do so by a commitment to prayer. Next we witness, which is telling others the story of God’s work in our lives.

So how do we live out our identity in the world?  The first Christians show us that we are to be a people of prayer, waiting for the empowerment of the Spirit.  As we learned in the Identity sermon on the Spirit (first of five posts starting here) a few weeks ago, we are indwelled with the Spirit when we give our lives to Jesus, but that indwelling is different from filling.  This is why prayer is vital. Prayer is one of the primary ways that we abide in the Spirit, showing him that we are depending on him. 

If you think about it, prayer is strange if you are looking at it from a nonspiritual point of view.  You are talking to thin air.  You are listening for God to speak.  You have a relationship with an invisible spirit, and you are talking with that spirit?  Really?

Yes, really! By faith we believe that God is not only real, but desires to be in real relationship with us.  And not just as individuals, he also desires to be with us as a group.  Jesus once said, “When two or three are gathered, there am I with them.”  There is something uniquely important, then, about Christians who gather for prayer, just as the first Christians did, to wait on the Lord.

This is why we have formal church prayer meetings, and it is why Christians gather for prayer in many other places and ways.  Let us be a people committed to prayer.

This is also why we commit ourselves to a high percentage of gathering for worship.  We need each other.

Finally, let us be a people who tell our story.  To whom can you tell the story of how God has been at work in your life?  I think it is best to tell the recent stories. 

How has God provided for you recently?  How has God revealed himself to you lately? What are you learning about God? Who are you telling the story to?

How to wait – Acts 1, Part 4

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What are you waiting for? Waiting is hard. Are you waiting well? Or are you waiting poorly? What does waiting well look like? As we continue studying Acts 1, we’ve arrived at verses 12-14, where the disciples are waiting, and they show us how to wait well.

After Jesus left them, we read that they returned to Jerusalem, worshiping God, and that “they all joined together constantly in prayer.”  Who is the “they” doing the waiting in this passage? The writer mentions the remaining 11 disciples by name, as well as the women and brothers of Jesus.  Verse 15 says that group is about 120 people.  That’s all the first church started with. And how did they start?  They worshiped (as we read in Luke 24:50), and they prayed as they waited.  The witnessing would soon come.

I have so many questions about the waiting.  Did they start to doubt?  Did they wonder, whatever this baptism of the Spirit was that Jesus told them to wait for, why was it taking so long?

Or were they totally changed by Jesus by this point, through his teaching, his miracles, and especially his resurrection, and ascension, that their faith was strong?  Even if they were changed, don’t you think that after day 2 or 3, constantly in prayer, at least some of them would start to wonder how long this should take? Earlier in verse 5 Jesus said it would be “a few days.” Well, what does that mean? 2 days? 5 days? More?  Or am I just speaking out my American impatience? Also, think about the logistics and finances as each day passed. Don’t you think there had to be conversations about how they were paying to feed everyone?  Were they all paying to stay in rented rooms?  Think about all the normal human emotions in the mix!  Did they argue with one another about what to do?

And yet it seems that they were changed and trusting in him.  Why do I say that? 

Because they do what Jesus said in Luke 18.  Remember that story?  You can read my post about it, but here I’ll summarize it: Jesus tells a parable teaching the disciples to pray and not give up!  We Christians should have lives marked by consistent and persistent prayer. 

We do read that they did one other thing as they were waiting. There is a leadership vacancy they have to fill.  You can read the account in Acts 1:15-26, as Peter stands up and leads the group in a discernment process to fill the open 12th slot, left vacant by Judas, on the team of disciples.

In this story there a few unique elements that are never mentioned again in the New Testament. First, the two candidates to fill the slot: Matthias and Joseph called Justus. Never mentioned again. Second, the final method of selection, which was the casting of lots.  Also never mentioned again.

But there are some other aspects of this story that will become very common as we keep studying Acts. First, Peter’s leadership.  We’re going to hear a lot more from him.  Second, notice that he uses the Old Testament to guide them.  They are people of the Bible, which was for them the Hebrew Bible we call the Old Testament.  And almost certainly, he wasn’t reading, but quoting from memory, because it was very expensive to own a copy of even one scroll.  Third, they used a criteria for who could become leaders.  They did not just allow anyone to be a leader.  Instead, only people who were with them from the beginning, and had seen Jesus resurrected, could be candidates.  In the rest of Acts they won’t use these same two criteria again, but they will have standards for leaders.  Finally, they pray, giving the decision over to God.  Matthias is selected to be the new 12th disciple, and Acts 1 ends with a promise yet to be fulfilled.  The Spirit has not yet come.

And they are still waiting. But they are praying as they wait. How are you waiting? Even when the waiting seems long, even when God seems distant, will you pray and not give up? Just as the disciples and community of followers of Jesus were together, it is best to surround yourself with a similar community as you wait. It could be your church family, your small group, or loving friends and family. As you wait and pray, do so in community.

The disciples’ strange reaction when Jesus leaves them – Acts 1, Part 3

Have you ever felt like God is distant from you? No where to be found? Jesus’ disciples felt like that one day because he actually left them.

As we continue studying Acts 1, we have arrived at the momentous event described in verses 9-11. I encourage you to open a Bible and read what happens. Maybe you already guessed by looking at the picture above.

Jesus ascends to his father, which is what he said he would do. What must that have looked like?  It’s mind-blowing.  Was he flying? I wonder how the disciples felt about this. Why did Jesus leave?

Jesus had prepared them that this day was coming. In fact he said it was good.  In John 16:7, back at the Last Supper, he said, “I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” 

If I am the disciples, I am not thinking this is good.  Jesus gone?  No way.  I want him to stay.  As I mentioned when we studied the Holy Spirit a few weeks ago, I struggle with this still.  It seems to me that it would be better to have Jesus still here! 

But the disciples, if they were sad or disappointed, and I imagine it would have only been natural to feel those emotions, they were able to make a turn toward accepting Jesus’ intentions for them.  How do we know this?

We know this because Luke tells us. Turn to Luke 24:50, which is the conclusion of Luke’s Book 1. There he mentions Jesus’ ascension as well, though briefly.  What’s more, Luke includes the reaction of the disciples as they leave the Mount of Olives after Jesus is gone, and the disciples, Luke says, are not showing any signs of sadness. What are they showing?

They worship!  In Acts we learn some additional info, that angels were there explaining what was happening, and declaring that one day Jesus would return.  I am glad that the Gospel of Luke also mentions that they worshiped.  It tells me they are starting to understand who Jesus was and what his Kingdom was all about.  Rather than disappointment and despair, they are correct in their response.  The Ascension of Jesus is cause for worship.  Jesus had completed his part of the mission through his life, death and resurrection.  Now he was turning that mission over to his followers, just as God intended all along.

This is helpful for us when we think God seems distant or quiet. 

Consider the three words we’ve seen thus far: wait, witness, worship.  When God seems far away, wait for his Spirit’s power, witness (tell the story) of his work in your life, and worship him.  But the question is how?  I think the waiting part is the most confusing.  We get the idea of telling the story, the witnessing.  And we get the idea of worshiping God.  Not that those two are easy or that we do them perfectly, but at least we can understand them conceptually.  But waiting? What will we do as we wait?  And for how long?

As we’ll see in the next post, the disciples show us how!

Jesus’ surprising instructions: Wait and Witness (what is that???) – Acts 1, Part 2

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Yesterday I started what a series studying the book of Acts, and the central question we’ll be asking each week is this: How did the first Christians live as followers of Jesus, in their world? This week we are working through Acts 1. In the first three verses, we learned that, over the 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus spent time with his followers, proving he was alive and talking with them about the Kingdom of God. Wouldn’t you want to know more about those conversations? The author of Acts, Luke, does give us one brief story, and we read about that next in Acts 1, verses 4-5.

In this brief story, Jesus and his followers are eating together, and he has some specific instructions for them. The disciples are to wait for a few days in Jerusalem for the empowerment of the Spirit.  He had talked about this before.  This is not new news.  In John’s Gospel account, in chapters 13-17, which is a long teaching section that took place at the last supper before he was arrested, Jesus mentioned the coming of the Holy Spirit numerous times.  Think about the timing of this.  That teaching in John 13-17 was perhaps only 3-5 weeks before this dinner meeting described in Acts 1.  Did they remember what he had said at the Last Supper about the Spirit?  Did they understand what was about to happen?  We don’t know for sure, but as we’ll in the next few verses, it seems like they still didn’t quite get what Jesus was talking about.  

I do want to point out that the Holy Spirit is mentioned 3 times in Acts 1 verses 2-8.   (Verses 2, 5, and 8.)  In fact the Spirit is mentioned more than 50 times in the book of Acts.  Though the official title of the book is the Acts of the Apostles, some believe it is better titled the Acts of the Holy Spirit.  We’re about to find out why.  For now, though, Jesus says wait. 

They don’t need to understand what he means about the Spirit empowering them, or this idea of baptism with the Spirit that he talks about in verse 5.  All they need to understand is Wait.  And that is easy. Or is it?  It is easy to understand.  But how many of you love waiting?  As the saying goes, “Waiting is the hardest part.”  How long would they have to wait?  He said, “a few days,” but what does that mean? Two or ten or twenty? What would they do as they waited?  These kinds of questions are why waiting is difficult.  We want answers…now!  The disciples will find out that there is an extremely good reason that Jesus wants them to wait. 

But for now, they still have Jesus with them.  So they are happy, they are elated.  All that talk of him leaving them, and then the arrest and beating and crucifixion and horrible pain and emptiness that we reviewed in yesterday’s post?  All that is over because he is alive again and he is with them.  They don’t need to worry about waiting.

So one day, as we read in verse 6, they take a hike together.  The disciples ask Jesus a very curious question in verse 6: Is he going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?  I wonder what was going on in their minds.  Restore the Kingdom to Israel?  What gave them that idea?  Did Jesus ever teach this or talk like this?  No.  Well, he talked a lot about the Kingdom of God, as we just read in verse 3, but he did not talk about the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel.  So why would the disciples ask this?

I think location is key.  Where were they in verse 6?  Luke tells us in verse 12 that they were on Mt. of Olives.  Why does that matter?  They had been there with Jesus probably a bunch of times before.  But this day was different.  Never before had he been crucified and resurrected, and proved to them that he was alive and talked with them about the Kingdom of God. 

At that moment, it seems to me that a bunch of ideas were coming together in the minds of the disciples.  They were convinced that he was the Messiah, as predicted in the Old Testament.  These men were steeped in the Old Testament mindset, with a typical Jewish desire for an earthly kingdom and restoration to the glory days of David and Solomon. That mindset was still inside them.  So they remembered a prophecy of the Messiah. 

Turn to the Old Testament book of Zechariah, chapter 14. This prophecy in Zechariah predicts a future day when the Messiah comes to the Mount of Olives to restore the Kingdom.  Perhaps this prophecy is in the minds of the disciples when they ask in verse 6 if Jesus is going to restore the kingdom.  They’re thinking, “This is it! Jesus is about to usher in the salvation and restoration of Israel!”  I think they were crackling with excitement.  They’re thinking, “Finally, our Roman occupiers are about to get what’s coming to them.” They eagerly ask Jesus,” Are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” In other words, is this the moment we’ve all been waiting for, Jesus? Now does the fighting begin to free Israel, defeat the Romans, and install you as King?

Jesus says, “Nope!”  Then he repeats what he basically always taught, “no one knows the day, time or hour.”  Instead there is a new mission for the disciples, a greater mission.  God didn’t just want to restore the Kingdom to Israel, he wanted to bring restoration to the whole world!  And it was starting with them.  They would be his witnesses. 

Witness?  Over the centuries we Christians have loaded up that word with all kinds of meanings.  What do you think of when you think of Christian witnessing?  What I am referring to is the idea of a Christian sharing a plan of salvation, usually with pamphlets that they hand out.  There is nothing wrong with that, if done in the right way with the right heart.  But that’s not the witnessing Jesus is talking about here.

What was he talking about?  To find out, let’s go back to the meaning of the word, “witness.”  A witness is a person who has seen something.  In a court of law, a witness is called upon to tell the truth about what they saw or about what they know. 

What did the disciples see?  Jump ahead to Acts 1 verse 22.  There we read that they were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.  They had a story to tell of this Jesus who was put to death, but is now alive!

Notice what Jesus did not say: “Witness if you feel like it, or if you are good at telling stories, or if you are an extrovert, or if you have a good sense of humor, or if you are the pastor, or a missionary.”  No, he simply made a blanket statement as he gave them a new mission.  The mission is for all of his followers.  Tell your story.  Witness.  You have a story to tell about how God has worked in your life.  It doesn’t have to be a story with high drama or radical life change.  You have your story.  What have you seen of God?  What do you know about God? 

In a court of law, this is called providing testimony.  That’s why Christians call their story of faith in Jesus their testimony. 

It also important to tell your story without words.  What I mean is that how we choose to live our lives tells a story too.  The choices we make show what we believe and how God has been at work in our lives.  When we are being transformed by God’s Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit will flow out of us.  That evidence of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, and self-control is a story of God at work.

Jesus, in Acts 1:8, says a bit more about witnessing.  He says it is to happen in Jerusalem, Judea/Samaria, and the ends of the earth, which we will see is the outline of the book of Acts. 

  • Acts 1-5 – Jerusalem
  • Acts 6-9 – Judea & Samaria
  • Acts 10-28 – The ends of the world

There will be a geographical movement.  And what do you notice about this direction of this movement?  It’s outward.  They are located in Jerusalem, but Jesus doesn’t want their telling of his story to stay there. The good news about Jesus, rather, is to be told beyond the borders of the nation of Israel and quite literally to the whole world. Jesus wants all to know the hope found in him.

Let’s put together what we have read thus far.  Jesus tells them to wait for the power of the Spirit, and after that they are to witness, which is to share the story, and it is to have an outward movement.  We will see this Spirit-led movement through the entire book.  And it remains in effect for us today. But how do we wait and witness? We’ll return to these concepts later this week. So check back in to tomorrow’s post as the disciples will face some shocking news.

How Should Christians Live in the World (Introducing Acts) – Acts 1, Part 1

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How should Christians live in the world?  Do the Republicans have it right?  Should we follow the Democrats?  Is American life the way to go?  What about some other country, like England, that has a Christian heritage?  What about Spain or France or Italy which are predominantly Catholic nations.  Should we follow the Catholic way?  Here in Lancaster, of course, we have the Amish.  They are living out their unique form of Christianity in the world.  Do they have it right?  How should Christians live in the world?  Do you and I have it figured out?  And wouldn’t want to know if we didn’t?

Remember that we have a certain identity.  Our recent Identity series had four parts to it.  Put together, those four parts summarize our Christian identity.  What were the four parts?  The first three parts relate to the three persons of the Trinitarian expression of God.  We are children of God, adopted into his family.  We are given new life in Christ.  Third, we are temples of the Holy Spirit.  And then, fourth, we said that we live out this identity in the world as citizens of the Kingdom of God.  This is partly why I wanted to start a current events series, the first of which was last week, so that we can try to think Christianly about issues occurring in our world.    

It is also why we are beginning a study of the book of Acts.   In this book we get to observe how the earliest followers of Jesus began to apply his teachings to their lives as they lived in their world.  As we watch how the first Christians lived in their world, maybe we, too, can learn how to live in ours! 

Let’s get started! If you’d like to follow along, please open a Bible to Acts 1:1 and read verses 1-3. There are some important introductory points we need to discuss.

First, ancient historians report that Acts was written by Luke, who was a traveling companion of the apostle Paul, as we will read about later in the book.  Based on the info in verse 1 we also read that this was Luke’s second book.  To see for yourselves, turn to Luke 1:1, and there you’ll see the writer talking about investigating and writing an orderly account of the life of Jesus.  So the Gospel of Luke, we believe, was part 1 of a two-volume series.  Part 1 was all about Jesus, and the book of Acts was book 2, all about the first Christians.  Flip back to Acts 1, and notice that he says in verse 1 that in his former book he was writing about all that Jesus began to do.  I like that detail of the word, “began.”  Book 2 is all about what Jesus will continue to do!  Why is that important?  Because as we’ll see right here in this first chapter, Luke reviews the story of Jesus’ Ascension, when he returned to his father in heaven.  How can Jesus continue to do anything if he is gone?  We’re about to find out, but we’ll save that for next week, though Jesus will give his disciples a major hint in the passage today, which we’ll discuss in a later post this week.

Second, when was Luke writing this?  It seems that Luke was writing 35 or so years after Jesus ascended, so likely soon before 70 AD.

Third, who was the book for? In the introduction to both books, did you notice that he mentioned a name, Theophilus?  We don’t know for certain who Theophilus was, but it is possible that he was a wealthy Christian who was a patron, providing the finances for Luke to research, write and publish the book. Was the book just for Theophilus?  No.  The audience was much wider as the book would be copied and distributed, and it seems that Luke was writing to a potentially higher level audience because of the more educated Greek he uses. 

Now let’s take a look at this introduction a bit further. In verses 1-3 Luke gives a really brief summary of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and the 40 days since.  I want to expand on that a bit, because I think it is very important that we remember who Jesus is and what he did.  You could read all of book 1, the entire Gospel of Luke, if you want to really remember who Jesus was and what he did, and I highly recommend that.  But for now, let me summarize. 

It is impossible for us to fully understand what it must have been like to be there in the final days of Jesus’ life on earth.  Think about what his followers might have been feeling.  I’m talking about the 12 disciples, for sure, but there were many other men and women who remained faithful to him.  As the book of Acts begins, those followers have just experienced a wild month and a half.  But really we need to go back further than that, because those followers had actually experienced an amazing three-year-long ride with Jesus.  So let’s go back to when they first met.

To do that we need to travel back in time three years.  Three years prior to Acts 1, in the nation of Israel, people across the land began hearing about a prophetic teacher who spoke with great authority and who was baptizing people in the Jordan River, calling the people to repentance.  So they went to see the prophet, a guy named John the Baptist, and some became John’s followers.  One day John had a powerful reaction when a particular man came to be baptized.  John said this man was special, and that he was the lamb of God who was going to take away the sins of the world.  That man was Jesus, and some of John’s disciples began following Jesus.

Jesus began preaching, calling more disciples to follow him.  He also did something that John didn’t do.  He demonstrated power.  Miracles, healings, exorcisms, control over the weather, multiplication of food, and even bringing dead people to life.  John had been a national sensation; Jesus was even more so.  The crowds clamoring to get near him ballooned into the tens of thousands as the months went by.  He taught that the Kingdom of God was near, often illustrating this through parables. He railed against the hypocrisy of the religious elite.  His message of God’s Kingdom was to believe in him, which people could demonstrate by full commitment to his way.  What was his way?  It was a way of a transformed heart, one that beats for justice and righteousness and mercy and love for all, and especially for the most vulnerable.  It was a message of radical selflessness, trusting that God would provide.  He taught that Kingdom way led not just to eternal life but equally importantly to abundant life for those who were his true disciples.  The months went by, and Jesus gradually trained up his 12 disciples, sending them out on a mission trip, and then he gathered 70 around him, sending them out on a second round of mission work.  He was preparing them for ministry, at the same as his ministry was growing.  More and more people felt that he was the promised Messiah, the savior who was going to free the nation of Israel from its Roman occupiers and restore the Kingdom to Israel like it had been in the days of Israel’s history when great kings like David and Solomon ruled a powerful nation.  But not everyone was thrilled about Jesus.  Jesus increasingly made the religious elite nervous and jealous, and they often tried to confront and trap him, to no avail. 

In year three of his ministry, he and his followers walked to Jerusalem in the days before the Jewish holiday of Passover, and as Jesus entered the city riding on a donkey, the crowds called out for him to become king.  The leaders were seething, angry that Jesus wasn’t following their pathway.  So they plotted to kill him, enlisting one of his followers, Judas, to spring a trap.  In the city Jesus preached to the crowds, until Thursday night when he had one final meal with his disciples.  Jesus’ tone was ominous and mysterious.  He talked about being arrested, beaten and killed, but that he would rise again.  He talked about leaving them, and giving them the Spirit to empower them, but they didn’t understand.  In the cool of the night, they walked out to a nearby garden to pray, when suddenly Judas showed up, bringing with him a company of soldiers.  Jesus, rather than fighting, gave himself up, and his disciples scattered in fear. 

The next morning, Jesus was beaten, falsely tried by both the Jews and Romans, who sentenced him to carry a wooden cross outside the city, where the Romans nailed him to the wood, and hanged him on the cross.  One of his disciples and a few of the women were his only followers who came to the cross to hear his last words.  When he breathed his last, the hope of the previous three years seemed dead.  Some followers collected and prepared his body, burying him a grave, and sealed it. 

Try to put yourself in the place of those followers of Jesus.  Imagine the profound confusion, loss, and disappointment you’d be feeling at this moment.  Imagine feeling like you had just wasted three years of your life for what now seemed to be a lie.  Imagine wracking your brain about this because you saw the miracles.  There was no way they were just illusions or sleight of hand.  He had actually given you power too on those mission trips, when you had the authority to cast our demons.  What you saw was real.  What you heard him teach was true.  There was no one like him.  He truly had a vision for the kingdom of God that was the epitome of love and kindness and joy and goodness. 

There was no other conclusion than that he was actually the Messiah.  He even said he was.  And yet, now he was dead?  How could this be?  Perhaps some of his followers remembered his words.  He had predicted this would happen.  He talked about rising again.  He talked about sending his Spirit.  What should his followers do now?  It was Saturday, the Sabbath, so there was nothing to do.  Maybe they talked about returning to Galilee, their home area, and get away from the Jewish and Romans leaders who might want to kill them too.  Maybe they talked about hiding in Jerusalem, because he said after three days he would rise.  But could he have been serious?  Was he being literal?  He was absolutely dead.  They saw his body.  They buried him.  Sealed the body in a tomb.  What should they do?  That Saturday must have been long and awful.

Early Sunday morning, some of the women walked to the grave hoping to get in and place spices on the body, an ancient burial tradition.  I wonder if any of them were curious, even if in the smallest degree, about this idea of him rising on the third day. 

Their curiosity was answered, because the tomb was empty.  Jesus was alive! Throughout the rest of the day, their deepest fears were turned to joy and elation as Jesus appeared to many of his followers, confirming that he was alive.  What he had told them was true.  All of it. He was God, the Messiah, and he was victorious!

Over the next 40 days, Luke tells us in Acts 1, verse 3, Jesus spent time showing himself to his followers, convincing them he was alive and speaking to them about the Kingdom of God.  We have precious little information about those 40 days.  Wouldn’t you love to know more about their time together after his resurrection? Luke does give us one brief story, and we read about that next in verses 4-5, which we’ll look at in tomorrow’s post.

How to bring justice and mercy to those in your community struggling with affordable housing – Current Events 2020 Q1: Affordable Housing, Part 5

Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash

How should we Christians think about affordable housing?  What started this discussion of affordable housing was a situation in my community in which a boardinghouse providing affordable housing for 14 people might be shut down due to zoning law. You can review the story here. What could it look like to apply Amos 5:11-12 to that story, and the many others like it, such that people are not deprived of justice in the courts. One way to apply justice and mercy would be that our local zoning board could have given a variance to the boardinghouse, thus helping 14 low-income people maintain stable housing.  Another way is that during the appeals process, our courts could have over-ruled the zoning board.  I certainly understand the idea of upholding precedents and trying to avoid exceptions to the rule.  If you start granting exceptions, then everyone wants an exception, but society must have standards and consistency.  There is no doubt that the issues around affordable housing are complex. 

But when we think of justice and mercy, and especially when we think of developing God’s heart for justice and mercy, what have we seen in Micah and Amos?  We have seen that God has a heart to bring justice and mercy to the poor and oppressed.  

This is perhaps why we need people who have a heart for mercy and justice for the poor and oppressed to serve on these kinds of local government boards.  Does your school board have openings? How about the local zoning board, sewer authority or other local governance boards?  Will you consider being a part of a local board, seeking to bring God’s mercy and justice to the many decisions those kinds of boards face?

Another practical application is to support local orgs who strive to bring justice and mercy to your community. This is why my congregation supports our local Homes of Hope.  Perhaps there is a similar ministry near you. Homes of Hope is a transitional housing ministry that brings justice and mercy to those facing homelessness. Evicted people who have an income source can stay in the Home of Hope for a very affordable program fee. While staying in the home for 3-6 months, they are required to meet with mentors and budget coaches, helping them break the cycle of poor financial decisions, pay off debt, boost credit, and make new habits, thus laying the groundwork for them to not only enter stable housing, but also thrive in it.

Of course some people don’t want to submit to that kind of accountability or make changes. I recently heard of a local resident living in nearby Section 8 housing.  As ten years went by they allowed the home and property to deteriorate.  Kind, loving neighbors reached out to them, but they didn’t want to change their ways.  Sadly, rather than receive help, they committed welfare fraud, were caught and forced to move.  They were capable of change, but they wouldn’t do the hard work to amend their ways.  We certainly can’t force people to change.  But there are many who long for a combination of mercy and justice, many who would do the hard work to change their lives.

So how can we support families in crisis?  Our school district could use many more homes of hope, as well as people like us willing to love people through the sometimes messy, nitty-gritty of their lives. 

Consider a single mom who needs people to give 30 minutes each morning to sit with her kids until they get on bus, thus freeing up the mom to get to work on time.  One person in my congregation said that a former employer allowed her to bring her girls to work, and then her boss’ daughter babysat her kids for free! She said she would not have been able to maintain her housing otherwise. Can you support people like this, helping them avoid the risk of eviction and homelessness?

Communities need more affordable housing.  I’ve dreamed of building a tiny house community on our church’s back lot, like this church did.  Or what if our local townships created ordinances whereby developers are required to allot a certain percentage of new homes as low-income?  New condos went in last year across the street from our church starting at $1395/month, a rent that has become the norm in our area. Some of you might think that is exceptionally low. Others might think it high.  In Lancaster County, that rent is simply not considered affordable housing.  What could help many people is for laws to change, requiring affordable housing.  How can we see that kind of change take place?  We could advocate on behalf of low-income people.  We could bring these concerns to our local townships.

Our local school district, every year, has about 100 kids that are considered homeless.  And while it is wonderful that we have mercy ministries like our local food and clothing ministry, we also need to have hearts that beat for justice.  What would it look like for you and I to bring justice to our locales, in the need for affordable housing?

I don’t know why the zoning board decided to make an issue of the boardinghouse.  Perhaps they had good reason.  They were certainly within their legal rights.  But I wonder what God thinks about that.  There are 14 people who might be homeless.  Reading Amos and Micah, it sure seems his heart is concerned about the poor and oppressed.

Do Americans need to repent? – Current Events 2020 Q1 – Affordable Housing, Part 4

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Are Americans like the Israelites in Amos’ day?  Are we wealthy?  Are we a religious people?  And yet are we oppressing others?

First, let’s consider our wealth. The Israelites in Amos day were riding a wave of wealth. When you compare Americans with so many places around the world, we are wealthy.  For the most part we are better off than many.

Wealth in and of itself is not wrong, but wealth can quickly take us to a place of arrogant thinking, “I worked hard, I earned it, and it’s mine to spend.”  In effect we don’t have to trust in the Lord, because most of us have so much money to care for us.  And though we wouldn’t say this, that self-reliance can become our outlook, and worse we can view the poor as below us. 

So we need to ask, in our wealth, do we oppress the poor?  America is consistently ranked as one of the most generous countries in the world.  But let this passage be a warning to us.  Wealth has a strong tendency to cloud our vision, and thus we should remember what Micah said, and walk humbly with our God.  In particular we Americans need to grapple with our history of racism, slavery and how that continues to this day.

Americans, we are wealthy, we are also religious.  Consider all the churches in our country.  Where I live in Lancaster County, we are one of the so-called Bible belts in the USA because there are not only tons of churches but loads of other religious organizations here. 

But we need to examine our religiosity just like Amos was examining Israel.  Is ours a religion of the heart, or is it just ritualistic?  God told Israel he hated their worship services because though they looked good going to worship, deep down inside their hearts were filled with hypocrisy.  It was as if all they thought God cared about was that the people practiced the rituals.  For Israel this was Sabbath-keeping, primarily on Saturdays, going to temple or synagogue and attending a worship service, giving sacrifices.  Is that what God really wants?  No.  Especially when you consider that the rest of the days of their lives were filled with selfishness, focusing on wealth, treating people with injustice. 

For us Americans, it would be a pattern of living Monday through Saturday as angry, greedy, oppressive people.  If that sounds extreme, or nothing like you, then it could be a pattern such that throughout Monday to Saturday we give little attention to our relationship with God.  We could watch a lot of television, but spend little time in prayer.  We might give a lot of time and money to hobbies and eating food, but little studying Scripture to know God better.  We might have a lot of conversation about sports with the neighbors, but no mention of our relationship with God.  Then we come to church on Sunday, maybe place money in the offering, and sing with a smile.  Perhaps we even stay for Sunday School, maybe even mentioning a prayer request. We look like Christians on Sunday, but the rest of week we’re totally different.

God says he hates worship services like that.  He would rather us live lives of mercy and justice the rest of the week, as we walk humbly with him.

Israel looked at their wealth and concluded that God had blessed them, that they were his chosen people, and all they needed to do was keep doing the religious rituals, and they would be wealthy, and could just keep living life, including oppressing the poor, and not have a heart for the Lord. 

How do we avoid arrogance that comes from wealth?  How do we avoid just religious ritual? How can we have a heart that is on fire for the Lord? 

The Lord answers these vital questions in the central passage of the prophecy, Amos 5:1-17.  He says that if we want a heart on fire for the Lord, we should start by repenting. Notice in verse 1 that this section is a lament.  So often in Scripture, it is the people, especially in the psalms, who lament, asking God to rescue them.  Here in Amos 5, however, it is God who laments about his people.  A lament is a crying out, deeply emotional, expressing pain and longing for the situation to change.  That’s what God is doing in this section.  In this lament, God longs for his people to repent. How?

First of all notice the repetition of the phrase “seek the Lord and live” in verses 4, 6, and 14.  When something is repeated three times, you know that is important. What does “seek” mean?  “Looking deeply.  To seek with care, to inquire about, to investigate.”  This is not an apathetic seeking.  My mom used to say that at times, “I looked with my eyes closed.”  She would ask me to get something out of a closet, and I would open the closet, not quickly or easily see the item, and say, “I can’t find it.” My eyes were open, but she was right, I wasn’t seeking intently. What she wanted to find was there in the closet, of course, but it would take some effort to look for it. I might have to move some things around to uncover it. That’s what God is talking about, an intent seeking.

Second, this repentance is a seeking for what?  The Lord.  Think about what it means to seek the Lord.  Do you come to worship on Sunday hoping to make up for being distant from God the rest of the week?  Worship him with all your heart!  Seek him and live. We need to be a people who seek God, and that means pursuing justice and righteousness, not religious ritual.  Seek him together as a church family, and seek him individually.  In the previous series on identity.  We are children of God, made alive in Christ, and God’s Spirit lives in us.  Seek the one in whose image you are made, who loves you and wants to be close to you. That means learning what God’s heart beats for.

What does God’s heart beat for? Amos tells us: true worshipers who lives are marked by mercy and justice.  In Amos 5:1-17, for example, the prophet says in verse 7 that the people turned justice in bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground.  Likewise in verse 10 he says that they hate the one who reproves in court and despise the one who tells the truth.   That word “reproves” is the idea of an arbitrator, or one who upholds justice in a court.  God says they hate that. 

As he continues in verses 11 and 12, we read a phrase that brings us back to our current events topic this week’s series of posts seeks to address: “You deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”  Does that apply to the issue of affordable housing? Is certainly does. In our next post, we’ll attempt to apply what we have learned about mercy and justice to the concern about affordable housing.