Tag Archives: Paul

God’s People, part 266: Crispus

Read Acts 18:4-8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius…” (1 Corinthians 1:14, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 266: Crispus. It is at this point in Acts that we see Paul begin to change his focus from Jews and then Gentiles, to just Gentiles. Paul’s model, which he learned from Barnabas, was to go into the cities and immediately enter the synagogue. Why? Because he was trying to spread the Good News to his fellow Jews. Of course, there were Gentiles who met in the synagogue as well and many of them converted; however, this caused much resentment from the synagogue leaders for obvious reasons. It’s never kosher for a religious leader to go into another house of worship and poach members, so-to-speak.

Again, this approach was the approach of Barnabas mentored Paul to begin with; yet, it became clear that this approach was no longer working. All Paul was doing was causing more conflict than it was worth. His preaching about Jesus Christ at synagogue was enraging the synagogue leaders as much as it was bringing in Gentile converts. Thus Paul had an important decision to make: would he stay the course, or change his approach and focus in ministry.

As someone who saw himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul knew what the answer was. He needed to change his approach and focus on bringing the Good News the to the Gentiles, and that is exactly what he did. Luke wrote of his response polemically where, in vs. 6,  Paul said, “…Paul shook the dust from his clothes and said, ‘Your blood is upon your own heads—I am innocent. From now on I will go preach to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6, NLT).

Perhaps, flabbergasted, Paul did put it this way; however, his choice was in direct obedience to the instructions Jesus gave his 72 disciples when he sent them to the towns around Galilee, “But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near’” (Luke 10:10-11).

In essence, that is what Paul did and it had a pretty surprising result. Once he made this decision he went to stay with a Gentile named, Titius Justus who, consequently, lived right next door to the Synagogue. As a result of investing himself in Titius, God was able to reach the leader of the synagogue, named Crispus. Crispus ended up believing in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and his whole household was baptized into the faith. What’s more, Crispus ended up becoming the Bishop of Chalcedon before eventually being martyred.

This should give us pause as there is a lesson to learn here. Too often, we try to force our views on people who just are not ready, and maybe not willing, to listen. Yet, the Biblical approach is to show those people grace and move on to others who will. It is hard letting people go when you love and care for them; however, it is often the BEST EXPRESSION of love.

What’s more, when we give up control to God and move on to more receptive people, it is amazing how powerfully God can work in and through that. Paul could not convert Crispus, but God certainly could and did. So, let us remember that and always choose the path of grace. All we need do is plant seeds, God will take care of the rest.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
One must remember that the most common form of idolatry is self-idolatry. Humility has us know our place, step out of the way, and let God take control.

PRAYER
Lord, help me to show the kind of love that lets go so that you can work on the hearts of the unreceptive. Amen.

God’s People, part 261: Jailer

Read Acts 16:16-39

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”  (Matthew 5:43-44, NRSV)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

James Faulkner stars as Paul in a scene from in the film “Paul, Apostle of Christ.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (CNS photo/Sony Pictures) See MOVIE-REVIEW-PAUL-APOSTLE-OF-CHRIST March 22, 2018.

Part 261: Jailer. We live in such a polemical time where we often being strongly encouraged to take one side or the other. For instance, in America, one is either a Republican or a Democrat. One is either for Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter. One is either antiracist or racist. The list goes on and on and on. It would be easy for me to say that we are about as divided as I have ever seen in my lifetime; however, these are not the only, nor the most, divisive times in world history.

Paul lived in a very divisive time himself. The Roman Empire eventually crumbled because of political divisiveness and, truth be told, the there was much divisiveness in the church as well. Read 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy, 1, 2, & 3 John and other writings in the New Testament. In those epistles (aka letters) you will see that Paul, John and others were dealing with the polemics in the church as well.

Before I move forward with the jailer, I want to be clear that I am not making a moral judgment about any particular stance above. I am merely mentioning them because they have been the sharpest sides drawn as of the writing of this devotion. Nor am I saying that people should not stand up for what they truly believe in and are passionate about. The point of this piece is to show how the Gospel can and DOES change hearts and minds.

In our Scripture today, Paul and Silas find themselves in prison in Philippi, where they had spent time bringing the Good News to the gentiles in that city, nurturing and growing a nascent gentile church that they planted.  What happened was that Paul had cast out a demon out of a local slave girl who was being used by profiteers to make money. Due to her deliverance, she was not longer profitable for them and this caused them to grow enraged. They made legal complaints against both Paul and Silas, who were then locked up in prison.

While in prison, under the watch of a jailer, there was a great earthquake and the doors and bars were knocked a part and opened, leaving plenty of opportunitiy for Paul and Silas to escape. Instead, Paul and Silas urged all of the prisoners to stay put and not escape. This, action, may have you scratching your heads. Why not take the opportunity and get out of dodge? Well, it had the jailer scratching his head to and he was beyond thrilled that everyone was accounted for because, had they not been, he would have certainly been executed for a dereliction of duty.

We don’t know much about the jailer at all. He was most likely a local Philippian beholden to the local government there. More than likely he was a Greek gentile. No doubt, he could have cared less (initially) that Paul and Silas were in jail. They were rabble-rousing troublemakers and, besides, he had a single job to do: make sure they did not escape. Failure to do that job would have costed him his life.

By staying instead of fleeing, that caused Paul and Silas to penetrate the man’s heart. Who would do such a thing given such an opportunity. Who wouldn’t think of theselves first over a stranger, let alone an enemy. Clearly, these gentlemen thought of the jailer, valued the jailer’s life and were not the “lawless” men they had been accused of being.

Because of that, the jailer opened his heart up to the Good News of Jesus Christ that Paul and Silas shared with him. What GREAT news! They witnessed to this man and he and his whole family converted to being Christ-followers as a result! This man went from being a jailer to being a brother! This is the power of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

Now, back to my preface above, this does not mean that people should not be standing up for what they believe in. I have marched and will continue to march for Black Lives, for equity, and for justice as long as I have legs and life to do so. I will stand up for the Good News of Jesus Christ, for the fact that we are all image bearers of God, and that for people to be treated equally with dignity, compassion, justice, mercy and respect. Paul and Silas were in jail for standing up for what they believe in despite the risks in doing so. That is what our Lord calls us to do as his followers.

With that said, we should also be careful that we are truly representing the Gospel when we do so. It is so easy to get sucked into the polemics, to get sucked into viewing the other as “evil” or “less than” and dehumanizing them. God is the judge of who is evil and who is not. We, on the other hand, are called to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and hold each other accountable to it out of love.

While there are many people who are jailers out there who may be on the wrong side of things, God still loves them and calls us to invite them into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Not all will accept that and we must stand our ground for Jesus regardless; however, we also might find discover Jesus Christ ACTUALLY has the power to transform hearts and minds and our faithfulness to HIM leads others such a place of transformation. In other words, while we stand against the oppressers of the world, let us still find room in our hearts to LOVE them like Christ does.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Hating an evil person is still hate and will lead us to evil; however, LOVE would have us oppose the evil of people and protect people from evil.

PRAYER
Lord, help me a bold and loving warrior for justice without losing myself to blind hate. Increase your love in my heart. Amen.

God’s People, part 258: Silas

Read Acts 15:40-41

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For Jesus Christ, the Son of God, does not waver between ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ He is the one whom Silas, Timothy, and I preached to you, and as God’s ultimate ‘Yes,’ he always does what he says.”  (2 Corinthians 1:19, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 258: Silas. As with many of these people mentioned in Acts and in Paul’s epistles (letters), there is not a whole lot that is historically known about the life of Silas. We are not told who he was, where he came from, what his trade was, or anything apart from his association as being a fellow missionary with Paul. In fact, even Silas’ name is uncertain. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, he is exclusively referred to by the Greek name, Silas. In Paul’s epistles, and in the first Epistle of Peter, he is named Sylvanus.

There is little doubt among scholars that Sylvanus and Silas are the same person. It could be that Sylvanus was the Romanized version of the Greek name Silas. Or it could be that Silas was a Greek nickname for Sylvanus. Regardless of what name he actually went by, Silas was a Christian who, along with Judas Barsabbas, was considered highly as a leader and a prophet.

After Paul and Barnabas separated, Paul chose Silas to be his partner and fellow missionary. While Barnabas traveled to Cyprus with John Mark, Paul and Silase embarked on Paul’s second missionary journey, which started off by traveling and ministering to churches in Syria and Cilicia. The account in Acts says that they strengthened churches in those areas.

Of course, that was where their missionary journey began, not where it ended. Paul’s association with Silas begins in Acts 15 and continues through Acts 18. In those chapters, we learn of the successes they had as well as the trials and tribulations. It was on this missionary journey that they met and converted Lydia who housed them during their stay in Philippi. Because she was located in what is now considered Europe, she is often referred to as the first European convert. Whether she was the first or not, she certainly was the first documented European convert.

Of course, Paul and Silas were both imprisoned while in Philippi and Lydia offered them to stay at her house following they were released. While in jail, though, an earthquake broke their cell doors open; however, they did not try to escape. As such, they became a powerful witness to the jailer who also converted to Christianity. They traveled and were met with resistance in Thessalonica, they convereted many more people in the more receptive city of Berea, and they debated with philosophers in the Areopagus in Athens, Greece.

From there Silas traveled with Paul to Corinth. Corinth was not an easy place for Paul to win converts or to establish a church. As his two existing epistles to the Corinthians indicate, Paul was deeply troubled and perplexed by that church. Acts records that after a while of preaching in this city, Paul “kicked the dust off of his sandals” and left Corinth. It appears that Silas may have stayed behind to continue ministering to the Corinthians; however, this cannot be certain. What is certain is that after Acts 18:5, Silas is never mentioned again. I do not think there was a rift between him and Paul, but his staying behind may have been planned and intentional.

The acts of Silas, friend and fellow missionary with Paul, should inspire us all. Here was another person of God who was willing to lay aside his life and place in society, and follow Jesus Christ at great cost to himself. He was imprisoned, threatened, and nearly lynched; however, his faithfulness led him to, along with Paul, establish the beginnings of the church in what is now modern day Europe!  We too can be just like Silas. The challenge for us is to open our hearts to Christ and to follow him where he leads. Are you willing to do this?

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“By faithfulness we are collected and wound up into unity within ourselves, whereas we had been scattered abroad in multiplicity.” – St. Augustine of Hippo

PRAYER
Lord, Help me to remain faithful like Silas, even when it is hard to do so. Amen.

God’s People, part 257: Judas Barsabbas

Read Acts 15:22-35

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”  (Galatians 2:16, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 257: Judas Barsabbas. There isn’t too much known about Judas (also known as Barsabbas), other than that he seen as a prophet and that was chosen along with Silas to accompany Paul on a trip to churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia to read a letter that came out of the Council of Jerusalem. Clearly, Judas must have been someone who was known and respected by the Council as well as churches, and so they chose him along with Silas to carry out this important mission.

Since there isn’t much known about Judas himself, let’s discuss the council first, and then it will be clear what Judas’ mission and role was. Up to this point, Paul had been preaching an unrestricted Gospel to the Gentiles. What does this mean? It means that Paul felt that the Gentiles should not be bound to or restricted by a Law that they were not born under.

Therefore, Paul reasoned, a Gentile could enter God’s covenant through faith in Christ. For him, the Law all pointed to being in right relationship with God; however, none of us, not even Jews, follow the Law perfectly. Christ is the only answer to that problem, for he did follow it perfectly and became the sacrificial Lamb of God for us all. Christ is the One who saves, not circumcision. Thus, while Paul was an observant Jew, he put aside such traditions when it came to the Gentiles. This became a MAJOR controversy among Jewish Christians, who felt Paul was abandoning the Torah and the very faith of Christ himself.

Some of these Jewish Christians took it upon themselves to oppose and counter Paul’s teachings in the communities he had established Gentile churches. They were telling the Gentiles that they HAD to get circumcised if they were to have any part in Christ. This enraged Paul and the controversy grew to the point that the Apostles and Elders of the church called together a Council to weigh in on the matter. In the end, according to Luke in Acts, the council agreed with Paul and wrote a letter to be read to the churches. This letter stated that the Apostles had no part in countering Paul’s ministry and that, officially, Gentiles DID NOT have to adhere to circumcision.

This was a MAJOR win for Paul who had been advocating for this from the beginning. Judas and Silas were to accompany him to read this letter to the churches. As for Judas, he was also known as a prophet. In other words, he was someone who was known to have been gifted with the ability to prophesy by the Holy Spirit. His being one of the ones to deliver the message would only lend credibility that this decision was not just that of the Council, but of Christ.

As we can see, the earliest Church was not always a cohesive group. They had quarrels, disagreements, cliques, and even backstabbers. We often look back to “old time religion” as if they were on a higher pedastal than where we find ourselves today; however, that is not the case. The only real difference between then and now is that they TRULY looked to God to guide them in their decisions and, when push came to shove, they humbled themselves and opened up to the possibility of change. We should be challenged to model ourselves after that approach to the Christian witness. Holy compromise and the middle way (via media) are essential in the Body of Christ.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.” – Rev. John Wesley

PRAYER
Lord, though we be of different mind on different issues, help us to be of one heart and to live in LOVE with our sisters and our brothers. Amen.

God’s People, part 256: Missionaries and Friends

Read Acts 13:14-52; 14:1-28; 15:1-41

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”  (Galatians 2:13, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 256: Missionaries and Friends: Barnabas and Paul are two names that should be known; however, people who are not Biblically literate have most definitely heard of Paul, but may not have heard of Barnabas. This is because, truthfully, Paul wrote almost half of the New Testament and Barnabas did not. Paul’s name is synonymous with early Christian theology, almost as much so as Jesus’.

Obviously, the entire New Testament is centered on Jesus and, rightfully so, that makes him the MOST known and certainly Christianity comes from his title, the Christ. With that said, Paul is the second most known person. Sure there’s Peter, James, John, Andrew, Mark, and Luke; however, it is Paul who is second most known in the New Testament. Even if people don’t know his name, you can bet that they will choose his passages for celebration of life services and for weddings. It is Paul who is quoted (whose quoting Jesus) when we celebrate Eucharist (aka Holy Communion).

Barnabas, on the other hand, is less known on the broad scale. If people have heard of him, they more than likely know him as Paul’s trusty sidekick; however, that is only slightly true at best. In fact, as has been mentioned before, Barnabas started off as Paul’s mentor. Paul was his trusty sidekick. That did change over time; however, the majority of time that Barnabas is seen with Paul, he was leading Paul and not the other way around.

With that said, these two were also very close and became more than just missionary partners. They were friends; they were brothers in Christ. This can be seen in Paul’s horror, expressed in Galatians, when he finds out that Barnabas was choosing James and Peter’s side on the issue of Gentile inclusion. He wrote, “even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” It’s as if Paul is crying out, “not Barnabas too!”

It is there that we see the first sign of a split between the two. Clearly, Barnabas disagreed with how far Paul was willing to take his mission to the Gentiles. Sure, they could become followers of Christ; however, could we really eat and drink with them if they were breaking Jewish kosher rules? Wouldn’t that be to forsake the Law given to Moses by God for the Jews to follow? While Acts says the split was over John Mark, and I have no doubt that was the final straw for Barnabas, this rift over Gentile inclusion clearly went unanswered and Paul presents no winning conclusion to it in Galatians.

What is sad is that Barnabas and Paul had been inseparable partners and friends for years and, because of theological and personal differences, they ended up going separate ways. As such, Barnabas falls out of the pages of Acts and all we learn about is Paul and ministry to the Gentiles. What did Barnabas do? What miracles did he perform, how many did he bring to Christ? All of that is lost beyond his association with Paul. We can be assured he continued to be a missionary and, he no doubt continued to nurture his cousin John Mark; however, we know no details.

This should challenge us because we have a sort of hindsight that Paul and Barnabas did not. We can see the real tragedy in the separation of these two faithful apostles, missionaries and friends. I am not saying they should or should not have parted ways. Perhaps it was for the best. I am also not saying that Christians today shouldn’t part ways when there are severe disagreements; however, we should be challenged to have enough humility to see the tragedy in that, for such severe separation has consequences beyond our control.

We can still express Christian love through it and, Paul and Barnabas did so. Paul never besmirched his former partner. He went his separate way and so did Barnabas. Still, we as Christians need to be cautious in how we approach one another and, if separation is inevitable and necessary, we need to still show a love for the other that witnesses to the power of Christ in both parties’ lives. Let us, consider all of this and begin to grow in Christ’s grace and love.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
They will know we are Christians by our love.

PRAYER
Lord, help me be a great witness of your love and your grace. Amen.

God’s People, part 244: Discrepancies

Read Acts 9:19-31

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.”  (Galatians 1:17, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

applesOrangesPart 244: Discrepancies. One of the things that atheists and anti-theists (there is a difference between the two) like to point out is that the Bible is “full of contradictions”. For instance, in the Synoptic Gospels, the writers tell us that Jesus’ was in and around Galilee for the majority of his ministry. It wasn’t until the end of his ministry that he went to Jerusalem and, as a result of going there and cleansing of the Temple, he was betrayed, arrested, and crucified; however, the Gospel of John has Jesus in Jerusalem at the beginning of his ministry. What’s more, According to John he “cleansed the Temple” at the very beginning of his ministry and went back and forth to Jerusalem frequently.

The question for many is how can those two things be simultaneously true? If they are not simultaneously true, then doesn’t that mean that one must be true while the other account is false? Furthermore, if that is the case, doesn’t that mean the Bible is unreliable at best? I am sure one can easily see how these questions cascade down a slippery slope from there.

Another great example of a supposed “contradiction” is in Acts regarding Saul of Tarsus. In our suggested reading today, Luke recounts what happened to Saul (aka Paul the Apostle) following his transformative experience with Christ on the road to Damascus. According to Luke, Paul was healed of his blindness, was baptized and began preaching and teaching about Jesus. This, of course, rubbed the city officials the wrong way and Paul narrowly escaped from Damascus by being lowered down the city walls in a basket.

From there, according to Luke, Paul went to see the Jerusalem to meet the believers there, many of whom would not meet with him for obvious reasons. Luke tells us that Barnabas then brought him to meet the Apostles as a way of proving Paul’s conversion to be real. In other words, he got their blessing to preach in and around Jerusalem. Their seal of approval obviously had weight with the other believers.

There’s just a slight problem, so it seems, with Luke’s account. What is that problem, you might be asking? The problem is that Paul seems to completely contradict this account in his own letter to the Galatians. In that letter he wrote:

“But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace. Then it pleased him to reveal his Son to me so that I would proclaim the Good News about Jesus to the Gentiles. When this happened, I did not rush out to consult with any human being. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was. Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus. Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. The only other apostle I met at that time was James, the Lord’s brother. I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie.”  (Galatians 1:15-20, NLT)

So, which was it? Did Paul go straight from Damascus to meet the Apostles, or did he go first to Arabia for three years before visiting with the Apostles? Obviously, we should put more weight into Paul’s account of it, since he recounting his own story; however, does that mean we should completely write off Luke as an unreliable witness? Does Luke’s account completely contradict Paul’s?

The answer to this may be surprising to fact-loving Westerners, but the answer is no. While there may be discrepancies between Luke’s and Paul’s accounts, they do not contradict each other. These essential facts remain true in both accounts, Saul became a Jesus follower and preacher. Paul did make his way to Jerusalem and met hesitant believers due to his former penchant for persecuting the church. Paul did, in fact, end up meeting with Peter, John and James and they did seemingly recognize his authority as a Christian preacher and apostle to the Gentiles.

The discrepancies are more to do with timing than they are to do with the essential facts. What’s more, Luke did not say Paul went “immediately” to see the apostles. He simply transitioned from the escape from Damascus to Paul’s visit to Jerusalem. It could be that Luke was aware of Arabia, but chose to leave that out due to relevance in what he was writing. Why waste any space recounting three years of reflection and training time in Arabia, when one can cut to the chase?

So, one can easily see that the discrepancies are really not as big as some might like. In this account of Paul, actually, they are rather insignificant. This should challenge us. Will we miss forest for the trees when it comes to reading the Bible? Will we get hung up on the small, insignificant details, only to miss the larger picture? Or will we approach Scripture with an open mind and heart? The former will cause us to abandon the Bible, while the latter is the way we ought to go for it will lead us closer to Biblical truth!  The path of wisdom leads us to not miss the forest for the trees.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
There are more perspectives to an account than just one.

PRAYER
Lord, help me to be open to truth amid discrepancies, for while facts are absolutely dependent upon truth, truth is not merely dependent on facts. Amen.

God’s People, part 243: Paul

Read Acts 9:1-18

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”  (Galatians 1:14, NRSV)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

PaulPart 243: Paul. We often look at Saul of Tarsus’ journey to Damascus as his big “conversion” experience. Most who grew up going to Sunday School know the story:

Saul of Tarsus was this really, really mean, bad guy who hated Christians so much that he hunted them down, arrested some and had others killed. One day, while traveling on the road to Damascus to arrest and kill more Christians, Saul saw a great, blinding light. It was so bright that it stopped him in his tracks and he fell off of his horse.

A voice cried out, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul answered, “who are you Lord?”

“It is I, Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice answered back.

From that point on, Saul was blind and Jesus told him to continue to Damascus and await someone to meet him there. Three days later a Christian came, laid hands on Saul, prayed over him and he could see once more.” From that point on Saul became Paul and converted from being a Jew to a Christian.

This summary, while it may sound familiar and seem accurate, is actually significantly different from what actually happened. Sure, some of the details are the same; however, the subtle difference add up and significantly change the trajectory of our understanding. It is true that Saul of Tarsus detested Christians and persecuted them. It is also true that he traveled to Damascus to persecute more Christians and encountered the risen Lord along the way. Even more, it is true that his encounter with Christ brought from being an opponent of Christ to being his greatest proponent.

So, you might be wondering, what is different? First, Saul was not a “bad guy”. He was a Pharisee who believed in strict adherence to the Torah in order to live holy lives set apart from God. Anything that contradicted that understanding was false and needed to be shown to be false. It was Saul’s religious and moral duty, as a Pharisee, to counter false teachings that went against the Scriptures.

Second, while it is true that Saul encountered Christ on the Road to Damascus and that encounter dramatically changed the course of his life, he did not convert to Christianity. This may throw you for a loop and shock you. Some of you might think I am going against Scripture and falling into heterodoxical claims; however, if you read Scripture closely and understand the context, Saul never converted from Judaism to Christianity.

How do I know this? Simple, Paul wrote it. In Philippians 3:5-6, he wrote that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-8, NRSV). Though he came to accept Christ, Paul never, ever denounced his being Jewish. In fact, he saw his newfound faith in Christ as the perfect expression of his Jewishness.

Even still, the term Christian did not even exist at the time of Saul’s “conversion”; rather, Christians were actually a new sect of Judaism known as “The Way”. Thus, it is silly to refer to Saul’s Damascus Road experience as a conversion as all, as if he went from one religion to the other. Instead, it was a transformative encounter that illuminated his understanding of what it meant to be Jewish!

The third and final point is this, Saul did not initially change his name to Paul. In Acts, we see Saul still using his Hebrew name in Jerusalem and the people there were afraid to come and hear him preach for fear that he was the “same ol’ Saul”. At some point, during his missionary journeys through Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Greece and Rome, he began using his Roman name, Paul. This was no doubt done to make his evangelism efforts among Gentiles more effective.

What does all of this mean for us today? It means that God is not looking to bring us into a “new religion”, but is rather calling us to be transformed and brought into a NEW RELATIONSHIP with God. If Saul of Tarsus can be transformed into Paul the Apostle, we can too. Not all of us will have Damascus Road encounters, but God will reach us in the way that is best suited for us to receive and respond. Be open to transforming power of God through Jesus Christ and you will find that God can and will recreate you in powerfully miraculous ways.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more…”  (Romans 5:20, NRSV)

PRAYER
Lord, open my heart and purge me from my unwillingness to be transformed by your grace through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

The Problem with Modern Love

Read 1 Corinthians 13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7 NLT)

loveAs a Christian pastor in the United Methodist Church, I have officiated in plenty of weddings and funerals. That just goes with the territory and, quite honestly, I am always honored when people seek me out to celebrate in their mutual love, or when people request that I be with them in their times of loss and grief. After all, did not the Lord Jesus Christ do such things?

As any pastor can tell you, one of the most requested (if not THE MOST requested) Scriptures for weddings is 1 Corinthians 13. Because that scripture talks about an enduring love, people automatically link it to the marital union between two loving partners. I think that this, unfortunately, does a disservice to what the Apostle Paul was actually writing about. I can assure you that, as a self-imposed, celibate man, Paul of Tarsus was not thinking about marriage when he penned those immortal words.

As such, whenever I am asked to utilize that particular passage at a wedding, I make a point of bringing the true meaning of the text into my message before tying it into the marital covenant. This is is important because there is huge problem with modern love. What I mean by this is that the modern understanding of love is shallow at best. It is all about peaches and cream, fuzzy bunnies and puppie dogs, kisses and hugs, compliments and unconditional affinity.

This modern understanding has been propagated by enless jewelry advertisements, happily ever-after romance novels/films, motivational speakers, prosperity preachers, societal pressures, and new age and/or civic theology that renders love into an emotional experience to be had within oneself. In a nutshell, love is rendered into a feel-good, warm and fuzzy experience centered around our over-inflated egos.

We tend to see love in those who make us feel good ourselves and in those who tell us how beautiful, great, smart, and awesome we are. Conversely, we tend to not see love in anyone who disagrees with us, calls us out for being wrong, encourages us to change course, or stands in our way from getting we want. After all, how could someone possibly love us and disagree with how great we are,    right?

Let me really clear about this: LOVE IS NOT ABOUT SELF-WORSHIP! It is not about us at all. LOVE IS ABOUT GOD. In fact, GOD IS LOVE. When Paul is writing about the characteristics of love, he is actually writing the characteristics of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In other words, despite our often misconceptions of God, Jesus revealed to us that God was patient and kind, forgiving, slow to anger, and keeps no record of being wronged. God does not rejoice at injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out. God never gives up, never stops being faithful, is always hopeful, and endures through all things.

God loved us so much that, in order to redeem us in that love, God became a human being and lived among us. As that human being, God taught us what TRUE LOVE is all about. Love is sacrificial, it is in service of others, it holds people accountable to who they were created to be as opposed to who they are, and it is persistent in being present with others even when to do so comes at a great cost. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God, who is love. As Christians, we ough to be the embodiment of Christ, who is Lord, and bear that LOVE out into the world.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Love is not just a verb, but a noun that calls us be verbs.

PRAYER
Lord, you loved me even when I have not loved you back. Help me to model that love in my life and act it out in the world. Amen.

The Unknown God

Read Acts 17:16-34

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)

img_0775One of my favorite accounts of Paul is in Acts, where he traveled to Athens, Greece. There he walked among the temples and the markets, marveling at all of the different sights that he saw. Just think of a large city you’ve yet to visit and imagine what it would be like to go there for the first time. The towering buildings, the crowds of people bustling by, the bright lights and the busy roads. Paul would have been equally amazed upon arriving at Athens, the epicenter of western philosophy and cultural significance.

While walking through the temples, he saw the great statue of Zeus, as well as the statue of Athena, the patron goddess of the city of Athens. Paul even saw an altar that had inscribed on it: “to the unknown god”. Paul was taken back by that. These people had a god for everything and for every god they had a statue; however, they didn’t just stop there, they also alotted for gods they might not know. I can imagine the excitement welled up in Paul, who was a deeply educated person. I imagine that the creative wheels began to churn in his philosophical mind.

Before going on with this story, before I tell you what Paul did in response to this experience he had, I would like to tell you what Paul did not do. He did not scoff at or reject the Greek culture. He did not storm out of Athens in order to get far away from “those heathens” or “those pagans.” He did not march up to the town center and begin to tell the people there that they had it ALL WRONG. He did not tell them things in a language foreign to them, nor did he expect them to come to him to learn about what he believed in.

I raise up what he DID NOT DO because I find that those are the exact things many Christians and many churches are doing. We scoff and/or reject the culture. I have seen churches collect “secular” CDs and DVDs from their youth and destroy them so that they purge their youth of the secular culture. We  often look at non-Christians and/or those who do not attend church judgmentally, we approach people with different beliefs and let them know how right we are and how they should see things our way. What’s more, we also speak to them using church language if we speak to them at all. That leads me to my final observation, churches often expect people to walk through their doors seeking “the truth” rather than the church seeking to bring the truth out to others.

Paul did none of the above; rather, what Paul did was brilliant. He took something from their own culture and religion (the altar to the unknown god) and used it to spark a conversation that led people to a conversation about Jesus Christ. He did not scoff at them, but praised “how religious” they were. He did not judge them, but praised them for having such devotion that they would leave room for an god not known to them. He did not tell them what imbiciles they were and that they should listen to him and he spoke to them using their own language and their own culture as points of reference. Finally, he did not wait for them to find him, but he found them and intitiated the conversation.

This sort of ministry model is the one that the church needs to begin to master if it is going to reach those who are desperately in need of the hope, the healing, and the wholeness that Christ has to offer. The church needs to get off of its pedastal and humble itself so that it can effectively engage with people at THEIR  level. The church needs to heed Christ’s warning to “judge not” and start recognizing the good in people who are different from them. It needs to listen as much as it speaks and it needs to speak in a language that makes sense to the people it is speaking to.

Most importantly, the church needs to realize that it is NOT SOMETHING SPECIAL for spectators to come and see. The church, to the contrary, is the body of Christ and is called to be out where the people are. The church is called to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ out into the world. The building should be nothing more than a resource to help in that mission. I pray that you will read today’s Scripture and reflect on Paul’s ministry model. I pray that we all will be challenged to see the wisdom in it, so that we can all become better witnesses of God’s unconditional, inviting, and transformational love.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Evangelism is not an option for the Christian life.” – Luis Palau

PRAYER
Lord, help me to reach people where they are, with words and deeds that they understand, so that I may effectively witness to the Gospel. Amen.

Itinerant

Read Romans 15:14-33

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’” (Acts 9:15-16 NLT)

pauloftarsusJust last night I was watching the film, “Paul the Apostle”. I am imagining you can tell who the film was about just by looking at the title. It is basically the Acts of the Apostles (aka the Book of Acts) acted out on the screen. It follows Saul, a young Pharisee who is determined to zealously follow God at all costs. Even as Peter and the disciples are receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and preaching to the masses about their risen Lord Jesus Christ, Saul is looking to zealously serve God by putting an end to the Jesus movement. This Saul eventually ends up approving of, and aiding in, the martyrdom of Stephen.

From there, Saul goes on to wage a bloody and violent campaign of persecution, hunting down all who would call themselves followers of the Christ. Yet, Saul was about to have a transformation unlike any of the other Apostles had ever gone through, let alone hoped it would happen to their fiercest of enemies. On the road to Damascus, Paul was blinded by a bright light and he heard the voice of Christ, whom he was persecuting, telling him to go to Damascus and wait there for Ananias to come and heal him. Of course, this does happen three days later and, upon receiving his sight back, he is told by Ananias that God has called him to be an Apostle to the Gentiles and that he (Paul) will learn how he will suffer for the Gospel.

I will now fast forward to the end of the movie, which is also where the Acts of the Apostles ends. Saul, who now goes by his Roman name Paul, is about to board a ship as a prisoner being sent to Rome. In between Paul’s awakening to the truth of Jesus the Christ and the end of his story in Acts, Paul had been on three missionary trips around the known world at the time. He had traveled throughout Judaea, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and back again. Now, he would be traveling to Rome to appeal his case before the Emperor. As we all know it, Paul would never return home again.

Paul had practiced an itinerant ministry, meaning that he didn’t just stay in one church community but moved from place to place as the Holy Spirit led him. His ministry was not to just one person, or one church community, but to all people. As John Wesley once said, the world was Paul’s parish and he had all intentions of going to Rome (albeit he was not intending to go as a prisoner) and even up to Spain should God will it. Itineracy was a reality for the Apostles and the early Christians.

In the film, as Paul was about to board the ship, his former mission partner, Barnabas, said to him, “The Lord is a hard taskmaster, too hard for me today.” Indeed, Barnabas knew he would never see his friend, his brother in Christ, ever again. He knew that Paul would go to Rome, preach to the people there and eventually find himself on the wrong side of Caesar. He knew that his beloved Paul, the one he had shared so many journeys, trials and tribulations with would become another martyr for the faith. “The Lord is a hard taskmaster, too hard for me today.”

As I sit here reflecting on the ministry of the early church, as well as my ministry, I can relate with that. I can relate with the human need for keeping things the same, for keeping things familiar, for keeping things comfortable. I have been serving in my current church for the past 5 years. During that time, I have come to love this community and I am honored to be the pastor of such a great church with a great Spirit. Yet, God does not call me to stay in one place, but to be itinerant and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Now, after five years of awesome ministry here at my current church, I am being called to serve in another one.

This is, of course, bittersweet for me. I will miss serving alongside my current church family; however, I also look forward to what God is calling me to in the future. One thing that I have learned, and something that I would like to impart to all of you who read these devotions (I will keep writing the devotions no matter where God sends me), is that God never promises us easy or comfortable. What God promises to us, if we are faithful, is that God will be with us through thick and thin. I trust that to be true, and I have experienced its truth.

The challenge for all of us is to develop that kind of trust. God is calling you somewhere too. For church members, unlike itinerant ministers, it does not mean God is calling you to leave your church family to go elsewhere (though some in the church do get called to be missionaries in other lands); however, like Ananias, God is calling you to move within your community and to go and spread the Good News. Whether that is at work, at school, at the diner, or in other places around your community, God is calling you to be willing to be moved by the Holy Spirit and to go outside your church walls and into the community around you. I pray we all answer that call.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
PRAYER
Lord, open my heart up to your movement and send me to the places in my community you need me the most. Amen.