Acts 1-5

 

Drawing above: When the day of Pentecost came. Mark A Hewitt, Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.

Things to watch for as you read these chapters.

Monday, February 10, Chapter 1

Writing sometime around 390 AD, John Chrysostom remarked, “To many people this book, both its content and its author, is so little known that they are not even aware it exists.”  He then did his best to bring the Acts of the Apostles to light.  Remember that he was writing only about 200 years after the last Apostle died and before the books of the New Testament were agreed upon.  Many did not accept Acts as scripture, only as an interesting read.

We will find it more than just interesting.  Luke, having written a Gospel, now describes events of the early church.  Beginning in verse 2, he stresses the importance of the Holy Spirit in that experience.

When we read the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts, we find no contradictions.  The Gospel account is a quick summary, expanded in Acts.  Now we see Jesus rising into a cloud, but not just any cloud, He rose into the Cloud of God, the Cloud that led the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land.

In verse 14 we read that the 120 apostles met every day in prayer.  In the Gospel, Luke adds that they met continually in the Temple.  There was no other place indoors where that many people could gather, not even in Herod’s palace.

Since Jesus chose the Twelve to represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel and since Judas killed himself, the Eleven suggested two men to replace Judas: Joseph and Matthias.  We can speculate that Jesus treated both men with special favor, but we do not know anything about them.  Lots were cast and Matthias became an Apostle, much the way we decide which goal a team will defend.  Neither man appears again in the Bible.

Tuesday, February 11, Chapter 2

Pentecost deserves some explanation.  The word is Greek, meaning 50, because it took place 50 days after the Saturday following Passover.  In Hebrew it was, and is, called the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), also sometimes Feast of Harvest or First Fruits.  On the first day of the festival, priest harvested wheat, ground it, made it into bread, and offered it at the Temple as the first fruit of the harvest.  An earlier first fruit harvest of barley took place earlier on the first Sunday after Passover.  We as Christians should celebrate it because Jesus rose from the grave that very day, becoming the First Fruit of the Eternal Harvest.

Forth-nine days later, the Holy Spirit filled 120 followers with a power that must have felt like fire.  Peter preached his best sermon and thousands of lives were changed forever.  All of the followers spread throughout the city like a flood, preaching and teaching through the power of the Holy Spirit.  They could speak Aramaic but be understood by a Greek speaker as speaking in Greek and a Syrian in his language at the same time.  The Holy Spirit became a universal translator.

In the days that followed, only the Twelve did the miracles, but all joined together in complete trust, sharing all that they had.  The phrase, ‘breaking bread’, simply means they ate together.  Spreading the Word all started just as Jesus said it would, in Jerusalem, then Judah, Samaria, Galilee, and the world.  It is fitting that the Romans aided the rapid spread of the Way, as it was first called.  Their transportation system was one of the best known before modern times.

Wednesday, February 12, Chapter 3

Peter and John healed a crippled man, well, not really.  Jesus through the Holy Spirit healed a man, a man who accepted the power of God on faith.  The message of this chapter is that everyone is crippled and in need of the healing power of Jesus.  Peter said, ‘Repent, then and turn to God that your sins may be wiped out.’  It is sin that cripples us; it is sin that we need to repent.  Understand though that God forgives sin and we are healed in that, but we still live in a world with worldly bodies that decay and die.  Asking God to cure a disease will only postpone the death all Christians look forward to.

Thursday, February 13, Chapter 4

Remember that the Apostles and disciples were preaching and teaching in the Temple and in the synagogues to Jews almost exclusively.  They were not peddling a new religion, but rather claiming that Jesus was the Messiah promised by the Scriptures and that he rose from the grave.  The religious leaders believed they were rid of the problem when they had Jesus killed, but his followers continued to spread the same message, adding the resurrection to what the leaders perceived as blasphemy.  When Peter and John healed the crippled man, the leaders decided to go on the attack once again.

A note on the high priest.  In the days of Jewish kings, the high priest was the second most powerful person in the land because the nation was ruled by the religion, somewhat like Iran today.  In the time of Jesus, the political rulers were Roman, so the high priest was the most powerful Jewish leader.  Annas had been appointed to the position at the time of Jesus birth and held it for 21 years when the Romans forced his removal.

However, Annas was rich and powerful and able to control the office through the next six office holders, five of whom where his sons and one his son-in-law.  In the years of Jesus ministry and the beginnings of the church, the high priest was the son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas.

The Captain of the Temple Guard was the highest ranking officer of the small Jewish army, small because the Romans kept it that way.  He, none-the-less, held a powerful position, in part because he worked closely with both the high priest and the Roman legions.

Notice in verse seven the leaders get right to the issue of blasphemy.  The scriptures say that only God can heal, so it they claimed they did it or that Jesus did it, they would be guilty of blasphemy.  Peter threw it in their faces, ‘it is by Jesus the Messiah, the one you murdered.’  The leaders had a problem: healing comes from God and the man was clearly healed.  He was a man they had all seen before.  To claim it was faked was absurd.  In the end they warned Peter and John to stop preaching and let them go.

The response of Peter and John was to pray for even more of the Holy Spirit to speak the bold words they knew angered the authorities and put their own lives in jeopardy.

Luke reminds us of how the Followers of the Way lived.  It was a true commune, each sharing what they had as it was needed.  We are introduced to Barnabas who will later become one of Paul’s closest associates.

Friday, February 14, Chapter 5

What was the sin of Ananias and Sapphira?  The answer takes us back to Luke’s first book when Jesus spoke with the rich young ruler.

18:24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!  18:25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  18:26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” 18:27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”  

 

Note that in verses 4:35, 4:37, and 5:2, Luke uses the same phrase, ‘put it at the apostles’ feet.’  An important Greek word is used here, nosphizein, meaning to misappropriate. The difference is that Ananias tried to pass it off as the full amount.  All he had to do was announce, ‘Here is part of the sale. I can give you more as needed.’  Keep in mind what Jesus said in Matt 6:2-4.  Ananias was being a hypocrite.

The Greek word translated ‘died’ was used in ancient times only to describe a person struck down by God.  Why was the penalty so heavy?  Ananias and his wife were no longer controlled by the Holy Spirit but by Satan, by greed.  The Holy Spirit is Life, Satan is death.

In verse 11, the Greek word, ekklesia, is used for the first time.  In English it is church.

Solomon’s Colonnade or Portico, located along the eastern wall of the Court of the Gentiles, was used by many groups for teaching and meetings.  The followers of the Way seem to have taken control of a portion of it.

Verse 17 starts the first great escape.  We see the leaders filled with jealousy.  That tells us much about the true nature of their attacks on the still tiny Messianic movement.  Nothing is said about the jailers here, but remember that if a prisoner escaped, the jailer was killed.  Later, we are told they were still at their posts.

In verse 20, the angel tells the Twelve to ‘stand firm’ in the Temple.  They had to wait for sunrise when the gates were opened again.  While they were teaching, the captain took his men to bring them, carefully, to the Sanhedrin to be questioned.

Notice in verse 28 the leaders will not even speak the name ‘Jesus’, perhaps out of fear the very name contains powers they cannot control.  Peter speaks for the group and claims Jesus to be the Prince of God and the Savior of man.  The word for savior is used in the Old Testament only of God and of those defeating evil.

Gamaliel was important because he is still considered the greatest teacher of the Law.  He is important to the early church because Saul who became Paul was his student.  Later, in Acts 22:3, Paul claimed he was well trained by Gamaliel.  Here in chapter 5, Gamaliel, perhaps with Saul standing beside him, suggests that the Sanhedrin allow Peter and crew to destroy themselves as did all the other would be Messiahs.

Pay special attention to verse 39 and compare it to Deut 18:20-22.

They were flogged according to Deut 25:2-3.  We do not know how many lashes their ‘crime’ required.  It did not matter to the Twelve, they rejoiced for their bloody backs.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Temptation

 

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11
Psalm 32

Sin is now the human condition.  It is fruitless to speculate about what life in the Garden would have been like had Adam and Eve not sinned.  We live in sin.

Because of the destructiveness of sin, it is imperative that we learn to control it.  History shows us the folly of our attempts.

A close look at Adam and Eve can help us.  When the sin occurred, they were away from God, not looking at Him, not paying attention to Him.  Rather, they saw what looked scrumptious and reached for it, they fell to temptation.

Solutions?  We can study the problem and learn ways to avoid many sins.  Often, that involves the approach of alcoholics, avoid that which tempts.   Pharisee men used to walk on the other side of the street if a woman was coming toward them.  Stay away from the Christmas fudge eating contest.

In the end, all we can ever hope is to reduce sin in our lives, never to eliminate it.  We must take the approach of King David and ask God to cover our sins.  My sins are too numerous for me to keep track, mostly because I sin without knowing it.  I meet a female friend and say, “You look nice today.”  She thinks I am flirting.  I meet a female friend and say nothing.  She thinks I am stuck up.  Sin on my part?  Perhaps, but not intended.

How does God cover over our sins?  We Christians are fond of saying, “Jesus.”  But God has a whole tool shed filled with ways to cover our sins, mercy being high on the list.  It is not for us to know all of the whats and ways, He just does it.

Jesus is the main tool in the shed.  He met the Evil One head on, but kept himself focused on his Father.  The account of his temptations is helpful for us in our own puny efforts to defend against the temptations of the Evil One, but we can also study how Jesus reacted throughout his ministry.

When he healed, he told them not to advertise.  When the crowds became too large, he went in hiding.  When temptation came on strongly, he went into prayer.  Jesus did everything he could do to avoid becoming impressed with himself.

When Jesus went back home, the people who had known him as a child could not believe all the talk about miracles and his being an extraordinary teacher.  He was too ordinary.  He looked just like his brothers.  Remember, he was such a sickly kid.  His brother James is the one to watch, he’s a go-getter.  Jesus is just a flash in the pan.

Jesus needed to hear all that.  It reminded him he was one of us.  He was capable of sin.  Do not give him too much Godly power in your thinking.  He was a human.  He was Adam.  Unlike Adam, Jesus made smart decisions.  He never did anything without consulting God.

That is the solution, but we are not up doing it.  So?  Ask God to cover your sin.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Why Have We Fasted?

Isaiah 58:1-9a
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20
Psalm 112

Fasting is not something Americans do willingly nor is it common outside of a few religious orders.  Religious fasting has a long history in most religions, including Christianity.  The purpose is to draw closer to God.  At best, by fasting a person gives up worldly demands and concentrates on God and the Word of God.

Traditionally, food is the center of fasting, but we may fast just about any material items.  Americans could consider fasting from TV and/or all electronic media.  Park the car for a week and walk everywhere.  Buy nothing for a week.  You get the idea.  Whatever you spend the most time on is probably worth considering for a fast, including the JOB.

There is no magic time period for a fast; a day, three, week, month.  You can even do a ten-hour fast each day for a week.

So, what problem was Isaiah concerned with?  Fasting for the wrong reasons.  If I stop eating for five days, taking only water and a few supplements to stay healthy, and I spend all my time complaining about being hungry, I will end up, ‘exploiting my workers, quarreling and striking them with wicked fists.’   The purpose is to get right with God; anything that detracts from that is not fasting.

“You are the salt of the earth.  But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”  Perhaps by fasting.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Matthew 24-28

The picture above is borrowed from Ruth Schwenk’s blog, The Better Mom. October 12, 2011

This is an ancient oil lamp from several thousand years ago.  It is small, barely covering one palm. As I hold it, I imagine walking in the darkness with only a small flicker coming out of the tip, barely penetrating the darkness. I have to hold it close to the ground, and sometimes close to me, to even see where I am going.  This is likely what the Psalmist had in mind when he penned the words “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”  It is not a lot of light.  It is just enough light to take that next step.  Though the darkness around me can feel great, and the questions remain unanswered, God’s Word is enough for me to continue on the path.  His Word illuminates our path, sheds light on His character, His promises, and His plans.

Things to watch for as you read these chapters.

Monday, February 3, Chapter 24

The Temple destroyed in 70 AD; the gold and jewels taken to Rome, along with thousands of captured slaves.  The wealth used to construct the Coliseum.  The walls of the Temple pushed over the edge of the massive platform.  The stones were not seen again until 1968.

When the disciples asked about the end times, the most important words Jesus gave them were, ‘watch out that no one deceives you.’

The abomination referred to in verse 15 comes from Daniel 9:25-27.  In 168 BC Antiochus Epiphanes placed a pagan altar to Zeus on the Altar of God in the Temple.  Jesus is telling us that Daniel tells us about events in the end times, including a new desecration of the Altar.  Anyone caught in that time will need to flee to the hills.  But Jesus may also have the events of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 in mind.

Verse 29 quotes Isa. 3:10 & 34:4.  In verses 30-31, if we had any doubts before, the angels and trumpets will end them.

In verse 32 Jesus returns to the lesson of the fig tree, using it as a symbol of signs of the coming of the end times.  When Jesus says, ‘this generation will not pass away’, he is not talking about the end, but rather the beginnings of the events leading to the end times.  From our stand point, 2,000 years later, it is easy to assume that there are many thousands more years to come.

Jesus does make clear that even he does not know when all these things will happen.  Consider with suspicion anyone who claims to know.

The image of ‘one taken and one left’ may simply refer to normal death.  We do not know when it will happen.  All I know is that I have a 50/50 chance of living to age 86 and I have a one chance in 99 of reaching the century mark.  I could also die before I finish this sentence.  Whee, made it.  What Jesus expects of us is to live as though the end is here.  We cannot get so involved with living our own lives that we forget God.

Tuesday, February 4, Chapter 25

The three parables that make up this chapter deal with the end times, so continue the ideas of the preceding chapter.  As to the first parable, allow me to paraphrase shamelessly from Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes.

In the traditional wedding, the groom walks with family and friends to the house of the bride and returns to his house for the festivities.  But, the walk back winds through as many streets as possible so that everyone gets a chance to meet and greet.  Meanwhile, the main wedding guests are waiting at the groom’s house.

The 10 young women have their small lamps to show everyone who they are.  It is indecent for a woman to be out at night without such a light, even today.  Also, the light is not used to light the path but to show the face.  It is all about maintaining a good reputation.

As the night wears on, the girls snooze.  When the announcement comes that the groom and his bride are coming down the street, the 10 women pick up their lamps which are nearly out of oil.  They are too small to hold more than a few ounces, so 5 women refill their lamps as the others beg for some of the oil.  Getting no help, the 5 rush away to borrow oil from people they know and return to find the door closed.

This message is for Christians.  We may come to church every Sunday.  We may give large amounts of money.  But if we are not ready when the Groom arrives, the door may be slammed in our faces.

How do we keep ourselves ready?  Reread Matt 11:4-6.  More than that, consider that the Bible (NIV) uses the word ‘Justice’ 132 times, 30 of them in Isaiah alone.  When the Bible speaks of justice, it is talking about treating people as equals; making sure people have clothing, food, shelter, education, and medical care.

The Parable of the Talents follows the Ten Women in its content and context.  Being ready for the Return of the Messiah includes working hard in the meantime.  We do not just take a long nap as the ten women did, we need to use our talents to bring justice into the world.  We cannot worry that we do not have the talents of others.  God has given each of us a skill for love and he expects us to use it.

If the Parable of the Ten Women is about being ready for the heavenly party, the parable of the sheep and goats is about judgment.  This has always been my first image of God’s judgment and I often consider which side I am on.  Pay close attention to the items God uses to pass judgment.  Will the Groom (Jesus) open the door?

Paul Tillich was a theologian at Union Theological Seminary until his move to Chicago Divinity in 1955.  In that same year a collection of his sermons given at the Union Chapel was published, called The New Being.  The following is a direct quote from one of those sermons.

Let me tell you the story of a woman who died a few years ago and whose life was spent abiding in love, although she rarely, if ever, used the name of God, and though she would have been surprised had someone told her that she belonged to Him who judges all men, because He is love and love is the only criterion of His judgment.

Her name was Elsa Brandström the daughter of a former Swedish ambassador to Russia.  But her name in the mouths and hearts of hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war during the First World War was the Angel of Siberia.  She was an irrefutable, living witness to the truth that love is the ultimate power of Being, even in a century which belongs to the darkest, most destructive and cruel of all centuries since the dawn of mankind.

At the beginning of the First World War, when Elisa Brandström was twenty-four yers old, she looked out of the window of the Swedish Embassy in what was then St. Petersburg and saw the German prisoners of war being driven through the streets on their way to Siberia.  From that moment on she could no longer endure the splendor of the diplomatic life of which, up to then, she had been a beautiful and vigorous center.  She became a nurse and began visiting the prison camps.  There she saw unspeakable horrors and she, a girl of twenty-four, began, almost alone, the fight of love against cruelty, and she prevailed.  She had to fight against the resistance and suspicion of the authorities and she prevailed.  She had to fight against the brutality and lawlessness of the prison guards and she prevailed.  She had to fight against cold, hunger, dirt and illness, against the conditions of an underdeveloped country and a destructive war, and she prevailed.  Love gave her wisdom with innocence, and daring with foresight.  And whenever she appeared despair was conquered and sorrow healed.  She visited the hungry and gave them food.  She saw the thirsty and gave them to drink.  She welcomed the strangers, clothed the naked and strengthened the sick.  She herself fell ill and was imprisoned, but God was abiding in her.  The irresistible power of love was with her.

And she never ceased to be driven by this power.  After the war she initiated a great work for the orphans of German and Russian prisoners of war.  The sight of her among these children whose sole ever-shining sun she was, must have been a decisive religious impression for many people.  With the coming of the Nazis, she and her husband were forced to leave Germany and came to this country.  Here she became the helper of innumerable European refugees, and for ten years I was able personally to observe the creative genius of her love.  We never had a theological conversation.  It was unnecessary.  She made God transparent in every moment.

Wednesday, February 5, Chapter 26

Have you been keeping track of how many times Jesus tells his followers he is to be killed?  Early on, he speaks of Jonah (12:38 & 16:4), treatment of the son (21:38), and rejecting the stone (21:42), all of which are indirect references and might be over looked.  However, 16:21, 17:9, 20:18, 20:28, & 26:2 are direct statements that Jesus would die.  Yet, no matter how often he repeated the words, his disciples failed to understand, as we also fail to understand.

Jesus did not have to die.  God did not order him to his death.  Jesus found that he loved everyone he met and he wanted to help everyone of them, and us, get into Heaven.  He knew the only way to do that was to defeat death.  But because of the nature of our physical universe the only way to defeat death was to die.  Not just to die, but to take on my sins and die in my place.

We live in a scientific age which cannot possibly explain how that works because it is outside the rules of the physical universe; it is a God Thing.  There is a non-Biblical story of Jesus spending the three days after his death preaching the Gospel in Hell.  I like that image because Jesus was, and is, willing to reach out to even the worst of sinners.

Please stop and reread verse 12.  That is the importance of the anointment. The remainder of the chapter could be discussed for days.  Read with reverence.

Thursday, February 6, Chapter 27

Think on Judas.  So many church members are like him.  We want to follow Jesus as long as he says what we want to hear.  We are willing to give money and help others when we can.  Judas decided to take God’s mission into his own hands.  He decided he knew better than his master, Jesus.  Like Peter, Judas failed his master.  Unlike Peter, he did not seek forgiveness.  I fail every day, but I continue because I know I am forgiven.  One step forward, two back, with practice becomes two steps forward and one back.

There is little to add to the powerful story Matthew has given us concerning the death of Jesus.  The details are not necessary to grasp the emotion of it all.  Jesus said to each person on earth, ‘For your sins, you have been sentenced to death.  I am going to die in your place.’

Friday, February 7. Chapter 28

This is it, the single most important event in the Bible; the event promised from Genesis onward.  For Jesus to die is a good and noble act, but it would leave us in our same state of sinfulness.  Only by defeating death and walking out of the grave can we be truly changed.

I will die to this earth, but be truly born again to the life that God intended for me in the New Jerusalem.  The best day I have ever lived on earth will be worse than the worst day I will live in Heaven.  What a promise.

Let me quote from a sermon by Dietrich Bonhoeffer based on the text, ‘I am with you always.’

What can we possibly mean by saying that Jesus is with us?  Isn’t that merely an approximate, undefined feeling?

Not at all.  It is completely clear.  Jesus is with us in his words, and that means clearly and unequivocally that he is in that which he wants and in that which he thinks about us.  He is with us with his will, in his words, and only in our dealings with Jesus’ words do we sense his presence….  If we have a person’s word, then we know that person’s will; indeed, we know the whole person….  It tells us:  You are standing under God’s love, God is holy, and you should also be holy; God wants to give you the Holy Spirit that you might also be holy.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence