Monday, September 29, 2014

Paul was a hypocrite...or was he? Acts 16:3

Original picture by Wikimedia user RĂ©mi Jouan and obtained from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The rest of this passage in 1 Corinthians may be a little more familiar to you. It goes on to say:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (emph. mine)                  - 1 Corinthians 9:20-23
You may be wondering why I'm posting a passage from 1 Corinthians instead of from Acts this week. And there's a very simple answer for that. The passage I am scheduled to write about today is Acts 16:3 which says, "Paul wanted to take him [Timothy] along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek."

And let's be honest...that's just not a typical verse we think about to memorize! But I do believe the principles and the decisions represented in the passage are extremely important and worthy of looking at and thinking about. Let me give the background information and I think you will understand what I'm talking about and you will see the relevance for today as well.

We learn from the first few verses of Acts 16 that Timothy was the son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father. We also learn that he had a great reputation among the believers. We've discussed the last couple of weeks the broader context. In Acts 15, there was a vigorous debate about whether or not Gentile converts had to be circumcised and keep the ceremonial Old Testament law in order to really join the church. In fact, Paul was preparing Timothy to travel around with him to the infant gentile churches delivering the good news reached at Jerusalem. That news was that they were not obligated to keep the Old Testament law. Paul had been vehement in his arguments against requiring anyone to be circumcised as a condition of salvation. Together with Peter's account of Cornelius' conversion and James's recount of the prophecies, the Jerusalem council made the wise and correct decision not to burden new converts with laws that never had the power to save anyone anyway. The question, then, when you get to chapter 16 and Paul's having Timothy circumcised, is what in the world happened to change Paul's mind!?

And the answer is nothing at all. In fact, Luke records in the verse after telling of Timothy's circumcision that he and Paul traveled around to the churches telling of the decision in Jerusalem! (Acts 16:4) How could Paul joyfully tell others they were not required to be circumcised while standing next to Timothy whom he had asked to be circumcised!? Were they being hypocritical? Were they being wishy-washy? Were they being politically correct and trying to please everyone?

Absolutely not! They were being all things to all people so that by all means they might save some!

Here's the deal as far as I can see it. They were very different circumstances. By no means would Paul stand by quietly and let someone add requirements to salvation. He would not keep quiet while Judaizers tried to pervert the gospel of God with man-made requirements and restrictions for younger believers or new converts. But in the case of Timothy, he did not ask Timothy to be circumcised as a requirement for salvation. He asked Timothy to be circumcised in order to remove a stumbling block for Jews who did not already believe! Paul knew that Timothy's effectiveness as a missionary would be severely dampened any time they went into a city. Think about it. The first place they usually went was to a synagogue. Why? Because God-fearing Jews met there. It was a great place to start preaching. But if they had to fight a battle about Timothy's heritage and lack of circumcision every time they walked into a city, when would they have time to talk about Christ!

I think this passage and context that it comes in is an incredibly illuminating example of what it means to be all things to all people and to not lay stumbling blocks in front of others. Let's be honest when we are talking about stumbling block issues. Stumbling blocks are things that keep young Christians or those who have not converted yet from being able to see Christ. They are never issues that are about placating mature Christians in order to keep the peace. They never involve adding requirements to those who come from a different background before we can grant them salvation or consider them a brother. Paul and Jesus both fought tooth an nail against those types of things.

On the other hand, let's be honest about how far we are willing to go to bring others to the God who loves us infinitely. What barriers exist between you and your unsaved neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family? Is it a style of dress? Is it a matter of comfort? Is it a political stance? Is there anything that is worth maintaining comfort and self over accommodating someone's limited perception of me so they can quit seeing the differences between us and start seeing Christ?

I'm not saying that we fake who we are. I'm not saying we are disingenuous. I'm saying we seek out and remain vigilant about any non-Biblical barriers that stand between us and anyone else that hinders them from seeing and hearing the message of Christ in us...and we destroy them.

Let's become all things to all people so that by all means we may save some. May God give us the wisdom and discernment of Paul so we may know when to fight the slavery of extra-biblical religious requirements and when to accommodate the sensitivities of non-believers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The problem with teens- Acts 15:37-39

Ever been frustrated by the lack of follow through in a teenager? You give them a chore and they "forget" to get it done. You entrust them with a responsibility and they drop the ball. You celebrate their commitment to Christ only to be frustrated with their seeming apathy about carrying out that commitment.

You don't have to get a group of adults together long with "kids these days" as the subject matter before someone will inevitably start bemoaning their lack of work ethic, lack of motivation, and lack of maturity.

Why do I bring this up? Because in all likelihood, we get a glimpse of a 1st century conversation in Acts 15 about those exact problems.

Here are some things you need to know about Mark:
  • He was a cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10)
  • He was the son of Mary whose home had been one of the meeting places of the early church (Acts 12:12)
  • He was probably in his teens when Jesus was killed and was a young man when he deserted Paul and Barnabas (Mark 14:51-52; 1 Peter 5:13)
  • As inferred from the passage above and as recorded in Acts 13:13, Mark had accompanied Paul and Barnabas of the first missionary journey but had deserted them. And that was the rub.
(These passages all assume that the John Mark spoken about is the same Mark as the one in question. There are different theories about that, but it seems that since he was referred to several times in the New Testament and no further description was given to clarify which John Mark was being referred to, then the church would have known to think about this Mark in particular.)

When Paul was ready to set out again and revisit the churches they had established the first go around, he was simply unwilling to let Mark have another chance. I'm sure he was weighing the pros and cons of trying to help an individual at the expense of the mission. Barnabas on the other hand was trying to give Mark a second chance and believed in his ability to follow through. Both men were so insistent on their well-reasoned and good intentioned points, that they eventually parted company.

I want you to think about Mark as a person a little more. Since the church was meeting in his mom's home (Acts 12:12), it was likely that they had a large home in Jerusalem. He was probably a fairly wealthy kid and was very devoted to his mother who was a Godly woman. I have to think that was part of his reasons for desertion on the first trip. Perhaps he wasn't used to the rigors of travel. Perhaps he missed the comforts of home. Maybe he was simply not emotionally able to handle life away from his mother and home yet. We don't know exactly what led to his decision.

Get another earlier glimpse of Mark's personality from the gospel that is likely from his hand. Mark 14 tells the story of a "young man"  wearing only a linen sheet who was following Jesus after he was arrested in the garden. His following turned to fleeing very quickly, however, when the soldier tried to grab him as well. He let them keep the sheet and he ran away completely naked! Most people think the evangelist was referring to himself in this story. Let's think through this . The young man must have been asleep in bed when he got the news of Jesus' arrest. He must have jumped up impulsively to find out what was going on. He didn't even take time to get dressed! He was a young man that was so timid, he would rather run away naked than claim allegiance to His arrested Lord.

Why do I want you to think about Mark as a person? Because he reminds me a lot of the kids that fill our churches. They are impulsive. They are fearful. They often fail on their commitments and give every indication that they cannot be counted on. They are often more concerned for comfort than for Kingdom work. They quit when the going gets tough. But deep down they love the Lord!

I am so thankful that Mark had a friend and mentor in Barnabas. Someone who was willing to give him another chance. Someone who was willing to bring him alongside him in his own ministry. Someone who was willing to stand up for him in spite of his failure. Paul, himself, was thankful for it. He would later ask for Mark personally because Mark had become someone that was very useful in ministry (2 Timothy 4:11).

But would Mark have become useful for ministry...would he have become Mark the evangelist whose words we still read today, if Barnabas had not first been Barnabas the encourager?

What if Barnabas had let Paul convince him not to give Mark a second chance? What if Mark had felt the sting of rejection because of his past failures and never recovered from it?

I ask you about Mark, because I want you to think about the teens you see in the auditorium. Some of them seem more concerned about the girl sitting next to them than the Lord sitting in their midst. Some of them are currently more committed to their sport's team than to their body of Christ. Some of them treasure their cell phone more than the word of God. But I believe from the bottom of my heart that some of them LOVE THE LORD!

The question is whether or not there will be a Barnabas who will vouch for them in spite of these weaknesses of youth. Who will include them in their own ministry? Who will give them space to fail and then shove the responsibility right back on them giving them absolute proof that people still believe and count on them? Who will wrap their arms around them and teach them how to praise and how to serve?

Of course, having someone to do all of that for a teen requires first of all that we adults have a work and a worship to include them in ourselves!

Who will you be a Barnabas for? I'm not asking you to take all of the teens in your congregation under your wing. But I am asking you to be intentional about taking at least one of them under your wing. Let them know you believe in them. Let them see your work and your relationship with God. Challenge them to be true. Challenge them to live with purpose and not just comfort. And then praise God that they have become useful for ministry. Who knows what they will leave behind them that people will still be reading in another 2,000 years!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Removing the yoke- Acts 15:10-11

Original picture by Gveret Tered and obtained from Wikimedia under GNU Free Documentation License
Did you know that the Restoration movement began with the intent of rejecting man-made creeds and determining to live solely based on what was written in the Bible? If you are a descendant in the Restoration heritage, then you are undoubtedly familiar with the phrase "speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent." You may have heard another one; "In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love."

I wonder if the Restoration fathers didn't think about this passage in Acts 15 when they were considering these principles and determining to teach them to others.

I want to be careful in applying Acts 15 to our context because there is one notable difference between the immediate context and today. In Acts 15, the debate was very narrowly and very clearly defined to the issue of whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity were also required to be circumcised and to keep the Old Testament Law of Moses. Of course, many of the Jewish Christians were already circumcised before faith in Christ and simply continued to keep the Old Testament laws of purity, fasting, and spiritual cleanliness. When Christianity was expanded to the rest of the non-Jewish world, i.e.- the Gentiles, all sorts of questions began to pop up. How could a Jewish Christian fellowship with a Gentile Christian if the Gentile were ceremonially unclean? How could a Gentile Christian actually be acceptable to God if they were not keeping the law that was known to be from God? That was the essence of the debate that brought Paul and Barnabas back to Jerusalem from Antioch.

And of course, the end result of the conference in Jerusalem was the truth that God's intent as expressed through OT prophecies, through His pouring out of His Spirit on Gentile converts, and through His blessing of Paul's work among the Gentiles was that it was not right to bind the Old Testament law on anyone because "we believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."

For most of us, the issue of observance of Old Testament laws- and specifically of circumcision- is no longer an issue. We understand that Jesus completed the law of Moses. As Paul says, He has "wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it our of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (Colossians 2:14). So what is the relevance of this passage today in our churches?

I think it is still incumbent upon us to be sure that we do not "put God to the test" by "putting on the necks of gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear." The yoke that Paul was talking about was the yoke of slavery to the Old Testament law. One could only be right with God under the Old Testament by following it exactly. Paul affirms that not one person throughout history had done that except Jesus. Law-keeping is simply not a feasible route to heaven. Only the grace of Jesus could secure that entrance. And grace is a free gift.

Fast forward to today and the yoke that we sometimes wear and try to put on other's necks is the yoke of having to be absolutely right in our beliefs and interpretation of scripture. Christians today do not claim that we must keep the Old Testament law in order to be saved, but we do occasionally fall in the trap of thinking that if someone honestly misinterprets a scripture then their salvation is in jeopardy! If that were the case, then Paul would have had to sever fellowship with Peter and Barnabas because of their misunderstanding of God's plans before the Jerusalem council ever happened! (See Galatians 2:11-14). He certainly never would have written Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8, in which he addresses differences of opinion about what constitutes righteousness and sinfulness and teaches that love should govern interactions where it is neither wrong nor right to do something unless it offends your conscience.

Is it important to follow God's word and be obedient to it? Absolutely! Jesus said very plainly, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). The fact of the matter is that I am just being downright dishonest with myself and with God if I say that I love Him yet willfully disobey Him and His word. But what if I miss something? What if I misinterpret something? What if I was taught something incorrectly? What if I spend my entire life searching honestly and sincerely for God because I have fallen absolutely in love with the risen Christ whose death paid for my righteousness...what if I do my best through whatever time God give me on this earth to both discern His will from scripture and to obey it to the best of my ability and yet, in the end, there is still some piece of the Bible that I do not understand? Or even worse, what if I think I understand it and I apply it in the way that I think it is supposed to be understood but I have misinterpreted it? Does Jesus pronouncement of blessing on those who are pure in heart and will therefore see God not count for me (Matthew 5:8)? Does His promise that those who ask will receive and those who seek will find and those who knock will have the door opened to them knock apply to me at any point in my life if I have not yet found all the correct answers (Matthew 7:7-8)? Does James' assurance that God will draw near to those who draw near to Him (James 4:8) only count if I have already drawn near enough that I have already filtered out 2,000 years worth of false doctrine and misapplied and misinterpreted scriptures?

I pray that I will never place the yoke of "keeping the New Testament law" on someone else because it is without a doubt a yoke that I am unable to carry myself. And neither can anyone else. In fact, if at any time we come to a point that we think we have everything perfectly figured out, I think we had better heed Paul's warning to "let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Do we teach doctrine? Absolutely. Do we discuss differences of interpretation with hopes of arriving at the same belief? Without a doubt. Do we make matters that the New Testament is suspiciously quiet about a test of fellowship and condemn each other when we find a point of disagreement? I pray God that the answer is no. And I thank him that "we believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." Because as much as I will try the rest of my life to do everything in a manner that is pleasing to Him...I have to humbly admit that I am 100% confident that my human error will occasionally slip in and botch those good intentions. And I am therefore also 100% confident that someone else's human error will also slip in and botch their equally good intentions.

Let us speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.
In essentials, unity; in opinion, liberty; in all things, love.

I say "Amen" to that.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

God's PR plan- Acts 14:22

Image retrieved from
Jeremiah was beaten and mocked. Elijah was threatened and hunted. James was imprisoned and beheaded. Peter was whipped and imprisoned. Paul was stalked, beaten, whipped, imprisoned, slandered, snake-bitten, and shipwrecked. Jesus was ridiculed, mocked, beaten, and crucified. These are just the names that come immediately to mind. If we really studied, we could probably come up with an unending list of people who went through tribulations...serious tribulations...because of their faith in and obedience to God.

The context of this verse in Acts is immediately following a ridiculous swing in the mob mentality that saw the people of Lystra and Derbe trying to worship Paul and Barnabas on one day following a miraculous healing and then stoning Paul and dragging him out of the city thinking he was dead the next! (Acts 14) And yet we seem to think that we are being treated unfairly compared to God's people throughout history when courts rule against us, media mocks us, or laws are passed that contradict our values.

Don't get me wrong, I am thankful for our religious freedom. I pray that we will not lose it. But I do pray that we will lose our sense of entitlement about it. Let me explain what I mean about that by sharing a conversation I overheard.

I am in nursing school right now and it has put me in contexts and conversations that I have never had the privilege to be in before. I've been a minister for the past 9 years, and you wouldn't believe how differently people act around ministers! Well...maybe you would. I'm just finding out! I'm finding out because for the first time in my adult life, I am not being introduced as "this is our youth minister." On one particular day, I was in a hospital observing surgeries for my clinical assignment. No one there knew me from Adam, much less knew that I am a minister. When the OR nurses were standing around the desk waiting for the next surgery, a couple of them began to talk about their church and another said that she wanted to find a church...but she didn't want to be bothered and she didn't want to have to do anything! She was very emphatic about that. To my astonishment, the other two began describing their congregation in a way to convince her to come check it out. All three of these women had used less than wholesome language throughout the day and had joked about several things that made me blush. And the biggest selling point in trying to bring someone to a lifestyle of following Jesus was that you could slip in and out and enjoy a lively and spirited service with minimal interaction with people.

How different is that style of recruitment into the body of Christ compared to Jesus saying, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34)!!??

I'm not saying we should go looking for persecution. I'm not saying we should intentionally antagonize people about their sin in a way that brings their wrath. I'm not even saying that we should feel guilty if we are not being persecuted the way most of the followers of God throughout history have been persecuted. What I am saying, is that Jesus described the road to heaven as narrow and difficult and said few would find it compared to the broad and easy way that leads to destruction. He said there would be denial and a cross involved in following him. His earliest followers understood that very well. They, like Paul, echoed that truth in places like Acts 14:22. Maybe we do a disservice by trying to make the Way seem easier than it is. All of our problems will not go away in Christ. But we will have Christ in us through our problems. No we do not earn our way to the kingdom of heaven and that is why it is difficult. We are given free entrance into the kingdom of heaven through the blood of Christ, but that is when the battle begins! 

May we start rejoicing in our tribulations as the early Christians did. May we recognize that while God's grace is free, the way is still filled with denial and with difficulties. But may we realize that it is infinitely worth it!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"FREEDOM!!!"- Acts 13:38-39


Of course that one-word line as screamed from the lips of the nearly dead William Wallace as played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart, is one of the most powerful lines in a movie. Of course that's just my opinion, but if you disagree, then you either haven't seen the movie or you are just plain wrong;) (I guess I should go back and re-read the definition of an opinion, shouldn't I?)

Whatever your favorite line, I think if you've ever seen this one, you would agree at least that it is a pretty powerful moment. It's powerful, not because it was such a clever line- it's only one word- but because it sums up the entire motivation for the movie...and really for all of life. It resonates with every person who has ever struggled under anything that they desired desperately to be free of. It's powerful because the mangled body of William Wallace is on display for everyone to see. You can see his torture and almost feel his pain. And as you are worried that his torturers have finally convinced him to lose his resolve, everything gets quiet as he gathers his strength to say something. And then he yells, "FREEDOM!!!"

You could watch any number of epic movies and most of them will be centered somehow around the theme of freedom. We are proud to be Americans because we are so proud of our freedom. We believe every individual has the right to be free so we try to spread our belief systems around the world. But no matter how many battles are fought, no matter how many people sacrifice their lives, no matter how many people stay the course and remain true to their cause of freedom from...whatever or whomever, there is only ONE who has ever granted true freedom. There is only ONE freedom that really matters in the end. And there is only one path to that freedom.

Of course, the freedom that I'm talking about is the freedom from sin. And as Paul is wrapping up his Old Testament history lesson about all the ways God had worked for and through his people, the Israelites, he states in no uncertain terms, that the law of Moses was never able to obtain the freedom that is found only in Christ.

The truth is that if Paul were preaching today to us, he might point out a lot of other ways people try to find justification and through that justification, forgiveness of and freedom from sin. He might say that wealth was never able to justify. Or popularity. Or behaving children. Or a good job. Or financial stability. Or whatever else we search in vain to find "freedom" in. There is NOTHING that can make us able to stand in front of the all-righteous God...nothing to justify us. Because there is nothing that can completely take away our sins so we are able to stand in His presence. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

But in Him, in His blood, we can be freed! We can be forgiven! We can be justified! We can finally realize the only freedom that will actually matter 5 seconds after we quit breathing.

Would to God that the world would be moved by the picture of the tortured body of Jesus as he uttered one of His last remarks before he died. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." In the movie, William Wallace inspired a revolution because of his life and the way he died. In real life, Jesus inspired a revolution because of the way he lived, and died, AND ROSE FROM THE DEAD! But the revolution he inspired was not so we could be free from other people. It was so we could be freed from the eternal consequences of the taskmaster Sin.

Do you really believe that? Do you live like you believe it? May we realize that freedom from sin does not just mean forgiveness from consequences. It means freedom from sin! And may we fight on God's victorious side to claim the victory that he has already given us with his death and his resurrection! May we join the revolution!