November 14, 2017 Bible Study — The Believers Prayed For Boldness, and God Answered

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Acts 7-8.

    When Stephen was put on trial he did not answer the charges directly. Instead, he recounted an abridged version of the history of the Israelites. Stephen’s speech is an example of God fulfilling the believers’ prayer from a few chapters earlier. He was indeed bold in proclaiming the Gospel, and no more tactful than Peter had been in his earlier speeches. Stephen accused the Sanhedrin of betraying and murdering the Messiah, and further of having the Law but not obeying it. Then when Stephen looked up to Heaven and declared that he saw the Son of Man standing next to God they could take no more. They rushed Stephen, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Now, I have never experienced being stoned, but I have been hit by a rock thrown at me. Which makes Stephen’s reaction to being stoned remarkable. While he was being stoned Stephen prayed for God to forgive those who were in the act of killing him. Once more I am reminded of the shooting in Texas during the worship service. We should not seek armed guards to protect us from such an incident. Rather, we should pray to God that, if we find ourselves in such a situation, we have the strength to do as Stephen did. Luke’s mention of Saul standing there approving Stephen’s death was not just an interesting detail. He included that to tell us that Stephen’s reaction had far reaching influence.

    I have always paid close attention to the stories about Philip in the Bible (interesting side note, why does Luke not distinguish between Philip the Apostle and Philip the Deacon?) because I share the name. Actually, despite my fascination with my namesake I am more interested in Simon the Magician in the first of the two stories involving Philip. This Simon was celebrity in Samaria who had used his talents to set himself up as a kind of cult leader. Sometimes we get caught up in the folklore regarding Simon the Magician and miss what really happened. First, he immediately recognized the difference between the miracles which Philip performed and the tricks which he had done. Which led Simon to become a believer along with many others. Then when Peter and John arrived and the Holy Spirit came upon people, Simon wanted that ability. It seems clear to me that Simon wanted the ability to lay on hands and have people receive the Holy Spirit in order to return to the spotlight he had enjoyed before his conversion. However, when Peter reprimanded him for seeking to purchase God’s power, he was immediately contrite. He did not attempt to defend his actions, but instead begged Peter to pray for him.

    I really like the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. First, I like what it tells us about following God’s direction when it comes to winning people to Christ. When I read this account I always wonder if the angel who told Philip to go to that particular road was a supernatural being who appeared to Philip or if it was a more mundane seeming messenger whom Philip described as an angel (the word translated “angel” can also be translated as “messenger”). In either case, I imagine Philip heading along the road wondering what he was supposed to do now when he saw the Ethiopian sitting in his chariot reading a scroll. A little voice in his head told him to go over and see what the guy was reading. I can imagine that because I have had it happen to me, not with the same remarkable results as happened here but nevertheless with results which make it clear that God intended me to be at that place at that moment. However, the key thing about this passage is something to which I think we pay too little attention. When the Ethiopian understood what Philip was telling him, he immediately requested to be baptized in the first body of water they came upon and Philip did so. Philip did not say, “Well, you need to go through membership class first.” Or, “Well, we need to wait for one of the Apostles to do it.” No, Philip took the eunuch over to the water and baptized him. We should do the same.

November 13, 2017 Bible Study — Praying For Boldness, Not Safety

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Acts 4-6.

    I want to start today’s Bible Study by focusing on the believers’ response to the threats against them from the Sanhedrin. They prayed, but what did they pray for? First, take note of what they did NOT pray for; they did not pray for safety, for protection from those threats. Instead they prayed for boldness. Our prayers should be similar. Our first concern in our prayers should not be our safety. It should be our willingness to do God’s will and preach the Gospel in the face of danger. We need to remember the prayer of the early believers in light of incident’s such as the shooting during Sunday services in Texas the other week. Our prayers, and our actions, should not be primarily about safety in Sunday worship but rather the boldness to worship and serve God in the face of such risks.

    I did not originally think I was going to write much about the early Church sharing their possessions. However, when I finished the above in fewer words than I expected and began reading the rest of the passage I notices something I am not sure ever quite registered before. When we read the Acts of the Apostles we tend to separate Acts 4:32-37 from Acts 5:1-10 into two stories. I am convinced that Luke intended for them to be part of the same story. Verse 32 sounds as if all of the believers threw their money and possessions into one pot which people took from as they needed. It sounds a lot like Marxian Communism. However, Luke gives us an example about how it really worked in verses 34-37. Those who had assets would liquidate some of those assets and give them to the Apostles to distribute to those in need (I want to come back to this distribution a little later). Luke even gives as an example of how that worked with Barnabas.

As a side note, I find it interesting that here Luke calls him by his given name, “Joseph”, but mentions that he was known as Barnabas. Later, Luke only refers to him as Barnabas. I suspect that this reflects the way Luke’s sources for the story referred to Joseph/Barnabas and is intended to allow for more easy corroboration of his story from those sources.

We have a further example of how this worked in the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Now this second example of how it works has another point as well, but the part I want to focus on is what Peter told Ananias, “The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away.” It would have been perfectly acceptable for Ananias to keep the property. It would have been perfectly acceptable for him to have sold the property and kept the money, or to have given only part of it to the Church to help the needy. Ananias’ and Sapphira’s only sin was in trying to get the recognition for giving the entire amount while only giving part. So, there was no obligation for the wealthy to give to aid the needy. They did so, or not, out of the conviction of their own heart.

    I said I would get back to the distribution to the needy. Luke is not as explicit in explaining how the distribution to the needy went as he is on how the giving side worked, but we can see a bit of it. However, we get an idea about how it worked from the appointment of the Deacons. If it had just been a matter of giving money to those in need, it would not have been such an arduous task. Instead, the Apostles, initially, and later the Deacons, determined the need and supplied what was needed. They did not just give the needy widows money to buy food, they gave them food. I do not think that represents a hard and fast methodology. The key was that those distributing aid determined the need and supplied the actual need. It was not a pot of money shared willy-nilly to whoever asked. From here, and from things in Paul wrote in his letters, I think we see that the leaders of the Church worked with those in need to aid them in supplying their own needs as best they were able, then the Church picking up the slack to meet the needs of all of Its members.

November 12, 2017 Bible Study — Aftermath Of The Resurrection

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on Acts 1-3.

    The first thing I want to point out is that between His resurrection and His ascension, Jesus ate food on a regular basis (Luke mentions “Once when He was eating with them…”). That tells us that Jesus’ resurrected body was a physical body. When the disciples asked Jesus when He would overthrow the Roman Empire, He told them the dates and times for that were not for them to know. This clearly tells us that we cannot learn the date of Jesus’ return by studying prophecy. Another thing which Luke lets drop as if it was a minor point is that there were others among Jesus’ disciples aside from the Twelve, who had started following Jesus when He was baptized by John and were still among His followers after His resurrection. We do not know how many, but we know it was significantly more than two (if it had only been four or five, it seems to me that they would have just drawn lots between all of them rather than nominate two for selection between).

    I want to bring to your attention, and mine, that the disciples experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in a way which no one could miss. There were some who dismissed it a them being drunk, and I am sure there were those in the crowd who thought they were crazy, but the key thing is that people outside the room knew that something was happening. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, people notice.
    In this passage we have two speeches by Peter where he called on the people listening to repent. After each speech we are told that many people joined the disciples in worshiping Jesus. In both speeches Peter accused his listeners of being responsible for Jesus’ death. He does not sugar coat it. He makes no caveat that some of them were not present in the city at the time (although many of those present would not have been). In the second speech Peter allows that they acted in ignorance, but under Jewish Law ignorance was no excuse for sin. Peter was not afraid to call those he was calling to repentance sinners. He was not afraid that they would be offended. There is a time and a place for tact. When we are calling people to repentance is not that time or place.

November 11, 2017 Bible Study — He Is Alive!

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on John 19-21.

    Near the end of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, Pilate tried to find a reason to release Jesus (if for no other reason than that he did not like being used by the Jewish leaders to get rid of their enemies). As part of that he asked Jesus if He understood that Pilate had the power to either have Him crucified or released. Jesus’ answer applies to us as well. Pilate only had power over Jesus because it was given to him from God. The same is true for us, government authorities, or anyone else, will only have power over us in as much as God has given it to them. Then, in a final attempt to get out of sending Jesus to be crucified, Pilate asks the priests if he should crucify their king. Historically we know that the priests had been vehement about defending their symbolic independence from Rome (they had no actual independence, but they tried to pretend that the Roman authorities needed their cooperation), crucifying their king ran counter to that. Their response goes even further, becoming a rejection of God. When the priests stated that they had no king but Caesar they were denying God’s kingship over themselves. Today, many Christians do something similar when they rely on the government to do things which Jesus said were the job of the Church.

    I know that I can credit Don Francisco for this, but every time I read John’s account of the empty tomb through Peter’s profession of love I get choked up. That song allows me to feel the strong, confused emotions the disciples would have felt that morning. First, grief and fear, followed by a forlorn hope, and finally joy beyond their ability to express. I want to note that once again it is a woman who is first to see the risen Jesus and feel the joy which came with the realization. Then we have the story of Thomas. I think Thomas is the disciple with whom I most identify (both from here and other places he appears in the Gospels). When the other disciples told him they had seen Jesus he was not willing to believe. I think that is because he did not want to have his hopes smashed one more time. He was afraid the other disciples were believing an hallucination. He wanted to be sure that his desire to believe did not lead him to do the sames. Finally, when Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Him, you can just see how Peter is feeling, “Because I denied Him those three times when He needed support the most, Jesus won’t believe that I love Him now. He will never trust me again.” Yet, after the third time, Jesus makes it clear that these three professions of love were for Peter for him to profess his love once for each time he denied Jesus. The final thing is that after that third time Jesus tells Peter that the next time he is called to risk all for Jesus he will rise to the challenge.

November 10, 2017 Bible Study — What Is The Truth?

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on John 17-18.

    I really want to comment on Jesus’ prayer which John recounts here, but every time I start a chain of thought I get distracted and lose my train of thought (which I always take as an indication that God wanted me to go in a different direction). One of the key elements to this prayer is when Jesus states that this prayer is not just for and about the disciples who were there with Him, but for everyone who would believe in Him through their message, which includes us if we truly believe. I am going to touch on two other points among the many which Jesus makes in this prayer. Jesus prays that the world will hate us because we do not belong to it. Further, He does not pray for us to be taken out of the world, or even for our safety as the world understands it. He prays that we be kept safe from the evil one. This safety will be accomplished by our holding to God’s word. Jesus also prays that we will be one as He and the Father are one. That unity is accomplished by being in the Father and the Spirit being in us. It is worth noting that while Judas was not present when Jesus prayed this, those present would have considered him one of them at this time.

    Once again there are a lot of things in this passage which can be explored. Today the only other thing I am going to look at is John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. One thing I never noticed before in this account is that those who brought Jesus to Pilate for trial never specified charges against Him. Even when Pilate asks them the charge they just say that He is a criminal who must be executed. Pilate assumes, correctly, that the charge is sedition, claiming political power not derived from Rome, but when he asks Jesus about this, Jesus’ response confuses him and he asks why the Jewish leaders brought Him to Pilate. At which point Jesus says that His Kingdom is not of this world, which is why His followers do not fight for political power. Pilate seizes on this to ask Jesus if that means that He is a king. The first sentence of Jesus’ answer contains a double meaning. The first is that He is not challenging Rome’s political or military power. The second meaning to His answer is that “king” is the closest word we have to describing what Jesus is.
    However, the rest of Jesus’ answer is why I wanted to go over Jesus’ trial. The most important part of Jesus’ answer here, where he offers Pilate an opportunity to step out of the role which history gave him, is when He says that He came to speak the truth and that those who love the truth will listen to Him. Pilate hears the offer, but rejects it when he asks “What is truth?” When he says that Pilate is rejecting the idea that there is such a thing as truth. I could easily see Pilate saying, “The truth is different for different people.”

November 9, 2017 Bible Study — Grief and Joy, Hate and Love, Letting God Work Through Us

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on John 14-16.

    This passage begins with Jesus teaching His disciples, and through them, us, that He is the only way to God. I will expand on that by saying that I do believe that there are many paths to God…but they all lead to Christ. Jesus said that those who seek will find. A necessary corollary to that is that one must be willing to follow that search wherever it leads. Those who genuinely search for God will eventually be led to Jesus. One does not need to take the path which goes through the Church (although I do believe that the path will eventually lead them back to the Church in some form, because the Church is the Body of Christ). Unfortunately, some will refuse to follow their search through Jesus and turn away looking for a path which does not exist.

    There is another piece to this story which we should find challenging. Jesus tells His disciples that they should believe in Him, and His connection to the Father, because of the works He has done. Then He tells them that anyone who believes in Him will do the same works He has done. Not only that, Jesus says that we will do even greater works. So, when did you last give sight to the blind? Or cause the lame to walk? Raise someone from the dead? Or, even feed 5,000 people? When I started writing this paragraph, my thought was that the works Jesus was talking about were miraculous ones, and in part they are. However, as I wrote those questions I remembered that Jesus said, just before telling us that anyone who believed in Him would do similar works, that God worked through Him. So, while I still think we should expect God to do miraculous things through us, we are doing the same works as Jesus when we work together to teach subsistence farmers how to better feed themselves, set up programs to give out micro-loans so that the impoverished can work their way out of poverty, send well diggers to dig wells to provide clean drinking water in areas of the world that have not had it in recent memory, rebuild homes devastated by natural disasters. When we help those who are sick or suffering we are doing the works which Jesus did. When Jesus fed the 5,000 He took the small amount of food and started passing it out, having faith that God would make it be sufficient, and not only was it, there was more left over than what they started with.

    There is so much I want to write about from this passage, but I do not think I am going to have time. When Jesus promised the disciples the Holy Spirit, He told them that He would reveal Himself to those who love Him. He told us that we can know if we love Him, because those who love Him will follow His commands. When He said this, Judas clearly did not understand. I think that Judas’ response here reveals why he betrayed Jesus. Judas wanted to know why Jesus was not going to reveal Himself to the world at large. Judas was looking for the power which would come from being one of the twelve men closest to what he expected to be the next Alexander the Great. Part of Judas’ misunderstanding stemmed from a false dichotomy he held: the choice was either limiting His revelation to just those present or to the world at large. It never occurred to Judas that others might become part of Jesus’ inner circle. He wanted to be in the position of translating Jesus’ teachings to those on the outside. We can easily fall into the same mistake when we fail to recognize that others have as much to teach us as we do them.

    There is so much more here which could use expounding upon. There is a whole blog post in going over the meaning of Jesus’ vine metaphor and allowing God to prune us so that we can be more fruitful. Then Jesus reminds us that because the world hated and persecuted Him, it will hate and persecute us. Here Jesus also tells us that if He had physically stayed with us the Holy Spirit could not have come to live within us. Finally Jesus tells them that they will soon experience great grief, but that grief will be turned into even greater joy. We see how that indeed happened with His crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. As I read that today, I saw a link between what Jesus is saying here and the shooting in Texas this last Sunday morning. I do not have the time to make the connection, but perhaps you can see it for yourself by reading this article which talks about how Christians see that experience differently than the world.

November 8, 2017 Bible Study — Serving Others

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on John 12-13.

    In today’s passage John tells us a story of Mary, Martha’s sister, anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. It is not clear if this is the same story as told in the other Gospels, some of the details differ, but not in ways which are distinctly contradictory. I was initially not going to write about it today, but then I thought about Judas’ reaction. It made me realize that many times those who call on us to give to aid the poor are, like Judas here, not so much concerned with helping the poor as they are with gaining control over our money. You see that with politicians who develop programs to “help the poor” which fail to change anything for the poor. You see that with some people who run organizations which supposedly aid the poor. This is not to say that all such programs and organizations have ulterior motives, just that we need to examine them closely. It is never wrong to aid the poor, but there are times when serving those who minister to the poor is a better use of our resources. We should be cautious of those who attempt to make us feel guilty about how we choose to do good with our resources.

    The story of Jesus washing the disciples feet has long been one of great meaning to me. The first thing we notice, and the main focus of this story, is that Jesus, the Teacher, the most prominent person present, takes the role of servant and washes everyone else’s feet. Jesus makes it clear that if we want to be His followers we need to similarly serve others. However, there is another point in here which is easy to miss. If we want to be Jesus’ followers we also have to allow others to serve us. When Jesus went to wash Peter’s feet, Peter tried to demur, but Jesus insisted. So, this passage teaches us that greatness comes from serving others, but refusing to allow others to serve us puts us outside of the community.

November 7, 2017 Bible Study — Laying Down Our Lives For Others

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on John 10-11.

    When Jesus uses the metaphor about the sheep and the shepherd here there are many layers to the message He is communicating. When Jesus first explains His metaphor He tells His listeners that He is the gate and any leader who does not come through Him is a thief and a robber. We can recognize false teachers and leaders because they do not direct us to and through Jesus. Once we have become a part of Jesus’ flock we will know the voices of those shepherds whom God has sent to lead us. There is another piece to this metaphor. If we make our decisions through the thought of what pleases Jesus we will find freedom and good pastures.

    As I was writing the above I realized that it applies to conversations I have read today about response to the shooting in the church building in Texas on Sunday (November 5, 2017). Various people were asking what congregations were going to have to do in response to this shooting. Some suggested that they should hire armed security services. Others suggested that they encourage those members who hold concealed carry licenses to carry to the worship services. I am going to tell you that there is only one thing we as Christians need to do to ensure the safety of our meetings, pray that God’s will be done fervently and continuously. That prayer will not prevent shooters from coming into our meetings and killing people, but it will ensure that God’s will will be done. Safety is not one of the things which Jesus offered to us. At least, not safety as the world understands the term. There is something I have said before, but perhaps not in this forum.

If it is God’s will that I die today, there is nothing I can do to extend my life to tomorrow (and I should not desire to do so). If it is God’s will that I not die today, there is nothing you, or any other power anywhere, can do to end my life today.

This does not give us leeway to act recklessly (see Jesus’ response when He was tempted). If we are willing to put our faith in God, He will use us to frustrate the desires of those who wish only to steal and destroy.

    Once Jesus had completed His explanation of the previous metaphor He used the context to shift the metaphor to another message we need to hear. This extension of the metaphor tells us that Jesus was willing to die for His flock. Further His death was not something He could not avoid, it was something He chose. He sacrificed His life so that we might live. He did not sacrifice His life just for the Jews, He did so for everyone else who was willing to accept His sacrifice on their behalf. In many ways we are called to follow Jesus’ example here as well. We should strive to care for the flock the same way that He does and not be like the hired hand to which He contrasts Himself. We should be willing to lay our lives down for others in the same way in which Jesus did. If we do so, we will experience the resurrection of Christ for ourselves. Related to what I said about our response to the shooting on Sunday, when Devin Kelley comes to our service, are we willing to lay down our lives for him?

November 6, 2017 Bible Study — All I Know Is That I Was Blind But Now I See

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on John 8-9.

    The story of the woman caught in adultery is not in the earliest manuscripts we have of the Gospel of John, so it likely was a later addition. Nevertheless it is consistent with the other things written about Jesus’ teaching and can teach us some useful lessons. Really the two prime lessons are closely linked. On the one hand, he tells the woman’s accusers that they are only qualified to punish her if they are not guilty of something similar. I like to imagine that after He told them this Jesus wrote in the dust various sins and as each person realized that they had done things which by the letter of the Law would justify them being where the woman was they dropped their stones and walked away. On the other hand, Jesus did not tell the woman, “Well your accusers are gone, go back to what you were doing.” No, He told her, “Go and sin no more.” The love and tolerance which Jesus calls us to have for sinners does not include telling them that it is OK to sin.

    When Jesus tells the crowd, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” the crowds denies ever being anything but free. However, Jesus points out to them that when you sin you become a slave to sin. This is a basic truth which we all struggle with. When we sin we become addicted to sinning. The only way to overcome that addiction is to allow the power of the Holy Spirit into our lives where it will direct our behaviors away from that addiction. The Holy Spirit will fill our lives with good behaviors which will displace the sin. As we allow ourselves to become “addicted” to doing good we will have less and less time in our lives to be tempted.

    I cannot leave today’s passage without writing about the story of Jesus healing the man born blind. In particular the contrast between the way the religious leaders reacted to his healing and his reaction. I know I have talked about this before, often, but it is one of those lessons about the Bible which my father taught me which still greatly influences my thoughts about God. The religious leaders questioned the man in an attempt to find something in his story which they could use to diminish Jesus’ role in his healing. Finally, they right out told the man that Jesus should not get credit for the healing because they knew that Jesus was a sinner (notice, they did not give any specific examples of what sins Jesus had committed, just declared that He was a sinner). The man’s response was, “Well, I don’t know anything about that. All I know is, I was blind and now I see!” When the man insisted that Jesus must be from God, the religious leaders dismissed his judgment since the fact that he was born blind indicates that he “must be a terrible sinner”. They never considered that the same logic which said the man must have been born blind because he was a sinner suggests that he was given sight because he had become righteous (I do not agree with the logic here, but the second follows the first). The religious leaders were so caught up in their own belief about how God acts that they were blinded to God acting in their midst. Let us ask God to open our eyes to what He is doing in the world around us.

November 5, 2017 Bible Study — “Eat My Flesh And Drink My Blood” Or “Come And Drink”

I am using the daily Bible reading schedule from “The Bible.net” for my daily Bible reading.

Today, I am reading and commenting on John 6-7.

    John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand contains a piece of information the other Gospels do not mention: the crowd He fed was about to declare Him king and start a revolt against Rome (the latter is not stated, but is implicit in declaring Jesus their king). When the crowd caught up with Jesus the following day, He began teaching that He was the bread of life. Taking part in Communion (or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper) is a reminder of, and a dedication to, fulfilling Jesus’ teaching about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. What Jesus is teaching us here is twofold. One element is that we must be willing to suffer similar to the way He suffered when He was crucified. The other element is that we must imitate what He did by caring for the needs of those around us. Latter in today’s passage Jesus expresses some of this meaning by speaking of giving Living Water to drink to those who come to Him.

    I believe that Jesus intended to call to mind the River of Healing which Ezekiel spoke about. As a result, my understanding of what He means by a River of Living Water is that He is referring to the way in which experiencing the love of God causes us to show love to those around us and their experiencing our love causes them to show love to those around them. However, the important point in Jesus’ teaching here which is not presented in Ezekiel’s vision, is that for this river of Living Water to continue to flow each person in the chain must become connected to the Source. While it is true that the results of loving action will be multiplied by the actions of those who experience it, that “water” of love will also become diluted and polluted the further it is downstream from God. The only way for it to stay fresh and pure is for each person in the chain to have a direct connection to God. This is why it is important to preach the Gospel along with doing good for those in need. We do not do good for those in need so that they will listen to the Gospel. However, we preach the Gospel for the same reason that we do good for those in need, because they need the Gospel in order to experience the joy which God intends for them.

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