Monday, July 21, 2014

Revelation 12 - War

Monday, July 21, 2014 - 'Woman'
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; 2 and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth.

The 'first woe' was related to the fifth trumpet (Rev. 9:1-12), the 'second woe' was connected to the sixth trumpet (Rev. 9:13-11:14). The 'third woe', is the sounding of the seventh trumpet when every kingdom of this world falls and the eternal rule of the Lord begins (Rev. 11:15-19).

John has given us a sequence of events that lead up to 'the end'. But, as expected, his explanations of events also raised many questions.

How did our world get into this mess? What is the source of so much evil in our world? Why have the kingdoms of this world lasted so long? Is anyone in control? Is there anything that we can do to prepare for the final end? Why wasn't the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ 'the end'? The next chapters deal with these questions. Beginning with chapter 12, John presents a peak into the behind-the-scenes play and counter-play.

Verse 1 begins with Israel. She was 'clothed' with the sun in that she is the chosen people of God tasked with revealing the light of God to all the nations. It is because of God's promise to the twelve patriarchs - the twelve stars that form the crown on her head - that the Messiah (her child) will arise out of Israel. The Jewish religion, the 'moon', was supposed to reflect the 'Sun'. At times it did, but usually did not. John witnessed the religion of Israel as the 'moon' under the feet of 'true Israel' - that remnant within Judaism - who lived by faith and would receive the coming Messiah while the religious leaders would work to crucify him. This was indeed a 'painful' birth as the people of God transitioned from the old to the new covenant as the basis for their belief and practice in the world.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - 'Dragon'
3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. 4 And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child.

There is more going on in our world than the issues among the chosen people of God. While 'good' is at play, evil exists as 'counter-play'.

John described the force of evil as 'great', 'red', a 'dragon', with 'seven heads and ten horns', with 'seven diadems' on his seven heads, with a 'tail' that 'swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the the earth', and with a plan to 'devour' the child of the woman. Nothing about the 'dragon' is nice. It represents the antithesis of Christ, thus being 'anti-Christ'. Whatever works to obstruct Christ-likeness in our world is 'satan'. 

This vision establishes several beliefs that were part of John's theology. First, that the 'dragon' pre-existed the birth of Christ, which underscores the idea that these next visions take us back in time again, rather than being part of a forward progression of visions from what has come beforehand. Second, that the dragon hated Christ and everything represented by Christ. Third, that the dragon was powerful enough to create havoc in heaven as well as on earth. In other words, its presence should not be taken lightly or mindlessly dismissed. Evil exists and is symbolized in 'the dragon'.

Clearly, this 'dragon' is not an actual dragon, since there aren't any such entities. John's descriptions are metaphorical. So, unless John explains what each of these symbolic representations are meant to be, we are left to guess. We may safely conclude that the dragon is powerful, has had a destructive influence even in heaven, is deceptive, is a threat on earth, and works through earthly kings. We could also surmise that the dragon didn't take on these attributes after the birth, but before the birth of Jesus, since John saw all these things about the dragon before the incarnation and he saw the dragon waiting for the birth of Christ. Whatever was symbolized by the seven heads and ten horns of the dragon probably preexisted the birth of the Messiah.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014 - 'Child'
5 And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne. 6 Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

The Christ child was born despite the efforts of the dragon to destroy him at birth. John gave an OT description of Israel's expectation of their Messiah - that he would 'rule all the nations with a rod of iron' (Ps 2). This certainly fit Isaiah's picture of the New Creation (Is 65:17-25) - which, interestingly, is quite different from the New Creation picture that John would later present in his Revelation (Rev 21:1-9). Israel's skewed expectation of their coming Messiah set them up to reject the actual Messiah.

The woman, God's people, had held on to a belief about her 'child' that didn't include his death. She, including the disciples of Jesus, had also become so accustomed to the old covenant she was not ready for the new. At the death of Christ all hope seemed to dissipate. Messianic expectations did not match up with reality. No wonder the 'pain'. 

Consequently, the woman - rather than being led by the 'male child who would rule all the nations with a rod of iron' - found herself fleeing into the wilderness for 1260 days 'after' her child had ascended to heaven. We encountered this same number of days in the previous chapter where John saw God's 'two witnesses prophesying for 1260 days clothed in sackcloth' (Rev 11:3).   

Were these 1260 days literal days - i.e. about 3 1/2 years? Or, were they simply symbolic of a period of persecution? If in these verses John was still speaking of the past, was this the same 'time of tribulation' for the disciples of Christ that was spoken of by Christ (Mk 13:14-19)? Did the 1260 days refer to the time between when Jesus was crucified and when the first Christian was martyred - Stephen? Or was this pointing forward to a yet distant and longer period of time?

John placed his discussion of the two witnesses (Rev 11) between the 6th and 7th trumpet. Was this a flashback vision to the beginning of the church or was this chapter intended to be interpreted in chronological order? If in chronological order, and taking place sometime still future to us, then why was John sent to measure the 'temple' which no longer exists? If it was a vision that was riveted in John's own time, establishing the foundation for what would later come, then it would make more sense. But, was the temple John was sent to measure the earthly temple or the heavenly (Rev 11:19)? Wasn't the earthy temple made from a vision of the heavenly temple (Heb 8:5), [which, interestingly, would have been contrary to God's commandment (Ex. 20:4)]? Yet, why would John measure the heavenly? Wasn't it the earthly temple that didn't 'measure up'? It would almost seem that Rev 11:1-13 should have followed Rev.11:19 rather than have been placed before it. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014 - 'War'
7 And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war, 8 and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Heaven, that 'place' where we all want to end up - as opposed to hell - was not always a perfect place. It was obviously plagued with the same issues as we have here - selfishness. We will, as Jesus said, be like the angels (Mt. 22:30), yet we hope that God will have already remedied the 'selfish' issue so that we will not be like the 'fallen' angels (1 Cor 15:50-54; Rev 21:4).

In this war in heaven the combatants were angels, not humans. If we assume that the angels were all initially created perfect beings, then they must be 'fallen' angels. How did perfect angelic being fall into sin? The leader of the 'fallen' angels, is identified as 'the dragon'. The dragon is also known as 'the serpent', 'the devil', 'Satan', and is a 'deceiver'. 'He' and his angels lost the war in heaven and were thrown out. Up to this point the dragon had a 'place' that was 'up' in heaven - since they were thrown 'down' to the earth.

From this description we can assume that John pictured 'heaven' as some place up above the earth. That is rather consistent with most bible descriptions of heaven (Gen 28:12,17; 49:25; Mt 14:19; 28:2; Acts 2:34; Rev 21:10).

The one who successfully fought against the dragon was 'Michael'. He needed the help of an army of his own 'angels' - presumably 'unfallen' angels. Michael means 'one who is like God'. Who, though, is he?

The only other NT reference to Michael is in Jude 1:9 "Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, 'the Lord rebuke you!' An archangel is simply a leader of angels. Curiously, the word 'archangel' is used only one other place, in 1 Th 4:16 - "The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first."  The implication here is that the Lord is the archangel - the leader of the angels. Notice again that He 'descends' from heaven.

Michael is also spoken of in the OT. "But the prince of the kingdom of Persia was withstanding me for twenty-one days; then behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left there with the kings of Persia" (Dan. 10:13), "However, I will tell you what is inscribed in the writing of truth. Yet there is no one who stands firmly with me against these forces except Michael your prince: (Dan 10:21), and "Now at that time Michael, the great prince who stands guard over the sons of your people, will arise. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued" (Dan 12:1).

Michael was identified not only as the leader of angels, a chief prince, a great prince, as the one who stands guard over the sons of Israel, but also as the one who is called 'the Lord himself who descends from heaven to raise the dead'. So, who do you think 'Michael' must be? Is he the head angel or the Prince of peace (Is 9:6)? This is 'not' to suggest that Jesus was merely an angel, but the One who led the angels to victory over the fallen angel - the devil.

While this text may answer how the devil came into our world, it also raises many other questions such as how could sin develop in heaven, why did God send the devil to our world and not just eliminate him then and there, and if sin could arise in the perfection of heaven once why couldn't it happen again?

But, first, there are a couple of other essential questions to ask. 'When' did this war in heaven take place and thus 'when' did the dragon first get sent into our world? Verse 3 suggests that the dragon had an army of 'fallen' angels prior to the birth of the 'child', yet was finally cast out of heaven after the 'woman' ran into the wilderness (Lk 10:18). Then, how long had the dragon been in this world? John refers to him as the 'serpent', which would place the dragon in our world as a deceiver from the beginning (Gen 3:1) or even before the creation of man.

Friday, July 25, 2014 - 'Brethren'
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. 11 And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death. 12 For this reason, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.”

It would seem, at least from our context, that the dragon was 'thrown down' to the earth after the resurrection of Jesus. Prior to that he had access to heaven where he brought accusations against God's people (Job 1:6-12). When the new covenant was inaugurated at the cross, the 'blood of Lamb' covered all sins, for all people, for all time - which eliminated the dragon's heavenly role as chief prosecutor before the Judge of the earth. With no reason to be there, he was limited to earth - the place he has roamed since the beginning. Yet, according to scripture, the dragon (Satan/Devil) would 'soon' be taken from the earth and totally destroyed, along with his 'fallen' angels (Rev. 20:10).

So, how can we know that we are one of the 'brethren' and not one of Satan's deceived minions? John outline the characteristics of the 'elect'. They will have (1) faith in God's grace, (2) walk their talk, and (3) do not cling to anything but Christ - even when threatened with death. If that doesn't describe you, then maybe you need to sit down with God and think through your priorities.

Saturday, July 26, 2014 - 'Persecuted'
13 And when the dragon saw that he was thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child. 14 But the two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman, so that she could fly into the wilderness to her place, where she was nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent. 15 And the serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, so that he might cause her to be swept away with the flood. 16 But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and drank up the river which the dragon poured out of his mouth. 17 So the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

According to this scripture, who are the primary targets of the dragon? John says that they are those who claim to be Christians. Woe to those who are not 'genuine' Christians. But, if you claim to be a Christian, again, make sure you know Christ, not merely know 'about' him.

Jesus made it clear. If you follow him, you will suffer persecution (Mt 5:10-12). Be prepared. The dragon is determined to be at war with you. Your faith will be severely tested. There will, of course, be times when you feel safe, but don't let your guard down. There will also be times when you will be threatened with death if you don't surrender your faith in Christ. But, the 'brethren' fear nothing, because they know the One in whom they have believed and have securely placed their faith in.

The woman - the 'remnant' church - those who are true followers of Jesus, are known by two essential traits: (1) they know the voice of the Spirit (the commandments of God), and (2) they test each 'voice' by the teachings of Jesus (the testimony of Jesus).

Though many interpret 'keeping the commandments of God' to mean conforming to the letter of the law - the ten commandments. That would, of course, be contrary to the new testament teaching. The ten commandments are the old covenant (Dt. 4:13; 5:1-3). That covenant came to an end at the cross (Heb. 8:7-13; 10:1,19,20). The 'law was our tutor that led us to Christ..we are no longer under this tutor' (Gal. 3:23-27). Jesus taught that all the law and the prophets can be summed up by two great commandments - to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as our self (See Mt 22:40 and Gal 5:14).

If we interpret John's phrase, 'keep the commandments of God' as 'keeping the ten commandments', we unwittingly neglect the 'testimony of Jesus'. The 'testimony of Jesus' was all that Jesus taught. We judge all things by the 'testimony of Jesus'.  In his teachings he promised to send us the gift of the Spirit. Through the indwelling of the Spirit we are to be Spirit-led and thus enabled to know the voice of the good Shepherd and be able to follow him wherever he leads us (Jn 10:4). Surely this is what John meant in his Revelation. John alluded to this in chapter one with Christ's warning to the church at Ephesus, that they had left their first love. They had good deeds, but had forgotten Jesus. They had lived by the letter of the law, which had resulted in 'good' things, but hadn't done so through the indwelling Spirit of Christ. Then later, in Rev 14, he spoke of the 144,000 as those who 'follow the Lamb wherever He goes'. Sounds like John 10:4, right?

Hold on to the Person.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Romans 15 - 'Presuming'

Monday, July 7, 2014 - 'Selflessness'
1 Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. 2 Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. 3 For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” 4 For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, 6 so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is quickly obvious that the energies of Jesus were not self-directed. His primary objective was to please the Father in all that he did, but to please the Father meant to love his neighbor. We often get this confused. We think that the best way to please God is to not sin - to not break the commandments of God. Yet, since 'love' is the fulling of the law, if we don't love our neighbor, we have sinned and not pleased God. If a Christian truly wants to be 'right' before God, s/he will live a life of service to others.

The second quality about the life of Jesus is that in loving his neighbor he didn't merely love the lovely. He loved the weak, sinful, failing, and spiritually 'ugly' neighbor. The third quality we see in Christ is that he didn't just serve his neighbor out of his abundance. Rather he 'used himself up' in the service of others. He died for us.   

The 'self-protective' Christian may follow Christendom, but not Christ. As soon as we are secure by faith in our eternal acceptance with Christ, we are secure enough to no longer live to please ourselves, but to live for the good of others. We unashamedly (Rom 1:16) receive the disdain of others for our commitment to the way of Christ.

When we truly have the hope of eternal life, as promised by the scriptures, we will adopt the 'mind of Christ'. In fact, if the 'body of Christ' is following the 'Head of the church', it will act with 'one voice' within the world - serving those who are weak. Sadly, we often find the church primarily serving itself, making themselves comfortable and safe in the world. The operative word for the Christian life is self-sacrifice, to be living a selfless life as did Christ.

Paul 'presumed' that a Spirit-led life would be known for its 'selflessness'.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014 - 'Acceptance'
7 Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. 8 For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, 9 and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, “Therefore I will give praise to You among the Gentiles, And I will sing to Your name.” 10 Again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people.” 11 And again, “Praise the Lord all you Gentiles, And let all the peoples praise Him.” 12 Again Isaiah says, “There shall come the root of Jesse, And He who arises to rule over the Gentiles, In Him shall the Gentiles hope.” 13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we stop for a moment to remember what Christ accepted when he accepted us, we will be more inclined to 'pay forward' that same spirit of 'acceptance'. We have been accepted by God's grace, in our imperfections. Christ died for us even when we were his enemies. People - both good and bad - are still people Christ loves. As Christ looks past our 'bad' and sees what we may become when embraced by his love, so must we look at others and see beyond their 'sin' and treat them as if they were Christ himself.

Do you want to be 'filled with all joy'? Love others as Christ loves you. Do you want to be 'filled with all peace'? Love others as Christ loves you. Do you want to 'abound in hope'? Again, love others as Christ loves you. All these things are possible when we walk in the Spirit.

Paul 'presumed' that a Spirit-led life would be known for its 'acceptance' of others - just as they are.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014 - 'Spirit Empowered'
14 And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another. 15 But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God, 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 Therefore in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. 18 For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed, 19 in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit; so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.

An assumption is a belief that is based on very little, if any, evidence. A presumption is a belief that is founded upon evidence-based probabilities. Paul didn't mindlessly 'assume' that the 'brethren' in Rome would be 'good'. He 'presumed' they would be 'good' for a valid reason. If a person is Spirit-led, then something 'good' will be created in them by the power of God (Gal. 5:22). He knew God. He knew how the Spirit worked.

He also 'presumed' that he would find them 'filled with all knowledge'. Why? Because he knew that if they were Spirit-led, that the Spirit would continuously be 'teaching them all things' (Jn 14:26).

Paul was confident that God had called him to be a minister to the Gentiles. He knew that he was called to be a minister 'of Christ' to them. In other words, he was not sent to the Gentiles as a minister of Paul, but as a minister of Christ Jesus. He was only to preach Jesus to them. But what did that mean to Paul?

For Paul, to be a minister of Christ to the Gentiles, meant that his job was to help them become Spirit-filled people. He was not merely to teach them 'about' Jesus. He was to lead them 'to' Jesus - the resurrected, living, gift-giving Christ. The gospel isn't merely a story that we tell others. Paul, in the beginning of his epistle to the Romans, wrote that the gospel is the 'power of God'..' (Rom 1:16). How can that be so? Jesus promised that he, the Father, and the Spirit would come to live within us (Jn 14:23). God living in us 'does His works' (Jn 14:10-12).

Paul 'presumed' that a Spirit-led life would be known for its God enabled 'goodness'. Additionally, he 'presumed' that a Spirit-led person would always be growing in knowledge - seeking to be an intelligent, Spirit taught follower of Christ.

Thursday, July 10, 2014 - 'God's Will'
20 And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation; 21 but as it is written, “They who had no news of Him shall see, And they who have not heard shall understand.” 22 For this reason I have often been prevented from coming to you; 23 but now, with no further place for me in these regions, and since I have had for many years a longing to come to you 24 whenever I go to Spain—for I hope to see you in passing, and to be helped on my way there by you, when I have first enjoyed your company for a while— 25 but now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints.

Sometimes I wonder if Paul was an adrenaline junkie. He most certainly had a little 'gypsy' in him. He always found 'good' reasons to move on to a new place. In this case his reason was, so that he 'would not build on another man's foundation'. I found that to be a bit odd, since that is the whole point of faith, we are blessed by the fresh perspectives of others. We grow stronger through the strengths of others. We build up one another.

The better explanation was that Paul wanted everyone to not only 'hear' his gospel, but to 'see' its transforming power in his life - to see Christ in him. The gospel had changed his life and he deeply desired to 'pay it forward'. He couldn't imagine not bringing the light of Jesus to those who still hadn't heard about Jesus - or, at least, Jesus as Paul knew Him. He even had Spain on his heart with a hope to visit Rome along the way. If our God is that 'good' to us, how can we not want to tell others, unless we haven't yet experienced the power of God in our own life yet?

Here's some questions. Were these all of Paul's travels God-led destinations? If so, how did Paul discern that it was God leading him from one place to another? How did he know God wanted him in one particular city at one specific point in time, and not another? Did he receive explicit visions for each of his travel plans? Or, did he hear the voice of God speaking to him - specifying exactly where and when to go someplace new? Or, did Paul, having once received clarity on his mission - to preach the gospel to the Gentiles - just went forward whenever and wherever a door happened to be open? Did he believe that whenever an opportunity to preach the gospel was made possible that it was because of the behind the scenes, providential workings of God?

Paul presumed that a Spirit-led believer would feel compelled to share the good news with others and that God would prepare the way for him.

Friday, July 11, 2014 - 'Generosity'
26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things. 28 Therefore, when I have finished this, and have put my seal on this fruit of theirs, I will go on by way of you to Spain. 29 I know that when I come to you, I will come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.

Are you 'pleased to have an opportunity to help the poor'? Which poor? Did Paul believe that Christian generosity should be limited to only the poor within the church or for anyone who lived in poverty? Or, was there a larger principle at play here?

Gratitude requires that we both notice and remember those who have blessed us. Sometimes that takes a bit of work. Each of us have benefited from the efforts of others, yet we often take these blessings for granted. Sometimes we even feel entitled to receive them, therefore not inclined to even express thanks.

Paul's thinking was somewhat different. He took in the larger picture. He thought more globally rather than locally. The Gentiles would not have received the spiritual blessings God was now sending to them through him, had it not been for the Jews. Paul encouraged the Gentiles to stop and 'wonder' about 'what is' (ontology), why they believe what they believe about 'what is' (epistemology), and how 'what is' came to be (etiology). 

How often do you stop and think about the many blessings you have and how they originated? Do you feel a sense of 'indebtedness' to those who gave you what you now enjoy? How, then, do you respond? How do you express gratitude?

Paul presumed that a Spirit-led person would be generous when it came to helping the less fortunate. He also presumed that those who lived in the Spirit would be appreciative of the source of all their blessings - both from God and man.

Saturday, July 12, 2014 - 'Prayers'
30 Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, 31 that I may be rescued from those who are disobedient in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints; 32 so that I may come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing rest in your company. 33 Now the God of peace be with you all. Amen.

There is a lot here in Paul's request for prayer.

First, he urged the brethren to 'strive in prayer' on his behalf, along with his own prayers for himself. 

Second, to pray that he be rescued from 'believers' who sought to harm him - regardless of whether they were naively or intentionally doing so. In other words, pray that God would protect him from his enemies within the church.

Third, to pray that candidly minded believers within the 'mother church' would be able to discern that that God had directed him and that he was not a rogue operator.

Fourth, to pray that God would send him to Rome in joy - having had his work accepted by the brethren.

Fifth, to pray that if he arrived in Rome that he would find it a refreshing visit.

How do you pray? Have you ever asked others to prayer for you in very specific terms? Have you ever prayed for you enemies to be foiled, so that your that your work for God would be known and accepted?

Paul presumed that his calling was one that was worthy of prayer from other believers and that God would answer prayer.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Acts 14 - Speaking God

Monday, June 30, 2014 - 'Encoding'
1 In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. 2 But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren. 3 Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands. 4 But the people of the city were divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. 5 And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them, 6 they became aware of it and fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe, and the surrounding region; 7 and there they continued to preach the gospel. 

(It would be well to read the parable of the sower before reading this chapter in Mt. 13)

We all have different beliefs. We naturally interpret what we see and hear as best we can based on what we already believe is 'right'. If what we see and hear is not in harmony with our current set of beliefs, we will easily and quickly conclude that what we see and hear is wrong. If our beliefs lead us to conclude that what we are seeing and hearing is actually immoral, we will do whatever is in our power to get the perpetrators of this 'evil' to cease and desist.

In this story, there were Jews who accepted the gospel that had been presented by the apostles and those who didn't. The problem was not so much what the apostles believed, but the beliefs among those who were listening. For those who had a distinctly different belief system than what the apostles were presenting, many could not (or would not) reconcile Paul's 'new' with their 'old'. Others were open to the 'new' teaching - maybe because they were already dissatisfied with the 'old' or because that which Paul taught instantly resonated better with them than what they had been taught.

The apostles were not shy about the fact that they were attempting to persuade fellow Jews to shift from their 'old' belief system to the 'new'. The 'old' covenant had become obsolete. There had been, according to Hebrews 10:20, a 'new' covenant inaugurated at the cross of Christ. Though it was 'new' it wasn't completely unrelated to the 'old'. The 'old' had itself predicted the 'new'. The 'new' was where the 'old' had been leading the Jews.

Of course, those who were the teachers and gate-keepers of the traditional belief system were angered to discover the influence upon the people in Iconium. It was their duty to protect what they believed to be true. Sadly, what they believed as truth had only been partially understood. Because of their incomplete grasp of the purpose for the 'old' covenant they reacted wrongly to the 'new'. They went far beyond merely arguing for their traditional beliefs.

What seemed missing from the Jewish leadership was a willingness to give a fair hearing to an alternative viewpoint. Rather than listening, the traditionalists only reacted. Their methods of response included lies, manipulations, threats, and violence. However sincere one's beliefs, when coercive methods are used to eliminate alternative beliefs, the beliefs of those who use coercion immediately become suspect. Yet, to be clear, sometimes bad people hold correct beliefs. A bad reaction may only reveal a selfish heart, not necessarily an erroneous belief system.

The apostles had spoken 'boldly', depending upon the Lord to open the hearts of the people through His miraculous works. Their message was 'right', but was it encoded appropriately? In other words, had the apostles over-relied upon the witness of miracles, assuming that if a person witnessed a genuine miracle that their hearts couldn't help but be opened to the message? Despite the presence of miracles, doesn't the message giver have a responsibility to communicate (encode) in a manner that others can understand (decode)?

Did the apostles naively believe that the people would accept their message, whether or not it made any sense to them, simply because they had worked miracles? Isn't this the way that many sleight-of-hand deceivers have worked throughout history (Acts 8:9-24; 13:6-12)?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - 'Decoding'
8 At Lystra a man was sitting who had no strength in his feet, lame from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. 9 This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who, when he had fixed his gaze on him and had seen that he had faith to be made well, 10 said with a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he leaped up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” 12 And they began calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 

Paul 'saw faith' in the face of this person. Faith has an 'expression'? Well, maybe. We can certainly 'read' disdain in the face of a scoffer and doubt in the countenance of someone who is still not convinced, right? So, what does 'faith' look like as a facial expression?

The response to this healing was greater faith in God...well, to be specific, 'the gods'. We can only interpret the unexplainable through the beliefs we currently hold, unless the unexplainable totally blows away our whole belief system. The people of Lystra believed in the gods and thus attributed the miracle to the gods of their belief. The miracle did not automatically create belief in the Christian God or in Jesus. It merely reinforced their current belief in the gods.

We too easily assume that another's belief in God is belief in the same attributes of the God of our belief. Yet, even two Christians within the same denomination can have two very different 'pictures' of God. Unless we discuss our beliefs with one another we may never come to realize that each time we speak of God, others are thinking something quite different than we are. The word 'god' is a language symbol. Those who hear us use that symbol will decode it based on how they have defined it.

Paul said 'God'. Barnabus decoded that as the Christian God and his Son Jesus. The people of Lystra decoded the same word as Zeus. Same word, different decoding results. If we don't stop and make sure that even our most basic terms are defined similarly, then we might as well be speaking a different language to others.  

It is curious that they said, 'the gods have become like men and have come down to us.' That is bascially the foundation of Christian belief - that God became man and dwelt among us. Notice the next thing that happened. Having assumed that their gods had become men, they attempted to make a sacrifice to their gods. True faith in 'god' elicits submission to that 'god'. This seems to have always been the natural response of humanity. Yet, both of these basic 'truths' were erroneously applied due to different systems of belief. There was a 'decoding' error.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 'Educate'
14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out 15 and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; 17 and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” 18 Even saying these things, with difficulty they restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them

Oops. How did the people come to 'that' conclusion based on what the apostles had said and done? God had worked genuine miracles. The apostles had spoken the truth. Surely 2 plus 2 should always result in 4, not 17! The apostles were dumbfounded, taken by surprise. They hadn't anticipated that outcome. Hadn't they done everything correctly? How, then, could there have been an 'incorrect' response?

The apostles had, erroneously, assumed that if something was logical to them, it must be understood as logical to others. They did not grasp the fact that the 'decoding' ability of others had to be first addressed. We all interpret what we hear and see differently, based on how we have learned to interpret. Teachers and preachers need to first understand how their 'students' have been taught to interpret what they see and hear.

Paul chastised the people as if they were at fault. But the problem was Paul. He had effectively began teaching 'calculus' before he had taught the people basic 'arithmetic'. To have interpreted the apostles actions and words in an unexpected manner did not mean that the people of Lystra were rebellious in heart, it only meant that they did not have the correct tools to decode Paul's words. Rebuking them was inappropriate. Instead, he should have said, 'I'm sorry. Let me back up and give you some necessary background information about the nature of my God vs the gods you have been taught to believe in. Let me define my terms more precisely. Allow me some time to understand who you are and how you see the world.'

The apostles had depended upon the 'shock and awe' approach to evangelism imagining that if they amazed the people with miracles, they would naturally accept Christ. They had not anticipated that their signs and wonders would, instead, deepen belief in the traditional 'gods' of their culture, rather than in God of the Jews. Unless we take the time to 'prepare the soil' by educating people, we can't expect them to accurately decode what we are saying. No matter how true our words and/or compassionate and genuine our actions, we can and will be misinterpreted by those who view the world very differently than we do.

Thursday, July 3, 2014 - 'Resistance'
19 But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. 20 But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city. The next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe

Curiously, when the Jews arrived from Antioch and Iconium they were quickly able to 'win over the crowds'. Why? Obviously, they spoke to the crowd in a manner that the crowd could easily understand. The apostles got the attention of the crowd by 'wowing' them. The Jews regained the crowds attention by speaking their language. What good is the 'truth' if it is proclaimed in an unintelligible dialect? If the right foundation isn't first established, everything built on top won't survive the storm.

Even today, when the gospel is preached, people interpret it wrongly. Unless the preacher is willing and able to competently unravel current, erroneous beliefs, any new belief will naturally be interpreted through the eyes of the old belief system that has been left in place. As Jesus said, 'new wine must be placed into new wine skins. If the new wine is poured into the old wine skins the skins will burst.' Paul and Barnabas were 'bursting' old wine skins with their 'new wine'. The result? They got 'stoned', seemingly to death.

If the 'preacher' doesn't take the time to 'prepare the soil', people will feel maliciously misled rather than spiritually fed. In their anger they will 'kill the messenger'. People can't see what they can't see. Describe it however you like, but until you give folks the appropriate corrective lens so that they can see what you see, your descriptions of 'something better' will remain suspect. Many a politician has learned this the hard way.

We resist what we don't and/or can't understand.

Friday, July 4, 2014 - 'Without Narrative'
21 After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” 
 
One of the many flaws of new movements is that they seldom have the time or take the time to build a solid foundation. As a result, the leaders are often required to return and repeatedly rallying their followers. If we can keep people excited, we can keep them diverted - or so the thinking goes. It is kind of like keeping someone drunk so that they don't care about what we are doing around them or even to them.

Success breeds success, but then what? A following built upon 'shock and awe' must still endure daily realities. An eloquent and passionate presentation may appeal to the hearts of the people initially, but that doesn't plow deep enough to go the necessary distance.

Jesus taught that believers must worship God with all their heart and mind. Having the heart moved to action is wonderfully essential, but unless the mind holds on to undeniable reasons for faith, that faith quickly withers away.

Thus Paul had to return to various cities to 'strengthen the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith..' Unfortunately, because of persecution, he could not remain in many locations long enough to under gird their faith with solid reasons for belief. Instead, as have many leaders, he appealed to their emotions, saying, 'through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God'. In other words, hang on to this explanation which will compel you to keep the faith. We are suffering for what we preach, therefore you must continue to believe and spend your time praying for us. 

If Paul had had the time, he would have begun at the beginning. He would have explained carefully, step by step, the history of Judaism and why what he taught about Christ had always been God's plan. He would have given them a complete story and shown them how they 'fit' into that story of God. Appealing to the things that Jesus 'did' and to the persecution that Christ's disciples were facing as 'reasons' to continue in belief, had short term influence in their decision making. Every day real life naturally undermines any belief that does not hang together well - that is not a reasonable narrative that we can see ourselves within. It becomes, as Jesus said, a seed that falls within the thorns. At first it grows nicely, but it is then choked out.

Good 'seed' needs to be sown in good 'soil'. But how can a preacher/teacher 'make' good soil?

Saturday, July 5, 2014 - 'Settled In'
23 When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. 24 They passed through Pisidia and came into Pamphylia. 25 When they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. 26 From there they sailed to Antioch, from which they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had accomplished. 27 When they had arrived and gathered the church together, they began to report all things that God had done with them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they spent a long time with the disciples.

This week we have been discussing how to 'speak God'. People are, for the most part, the mouth of God on earth, as we are His hands. This is not to say that the Spirit isn't speaking directly to people, because that is the constant work of the Spirit of God with every soul. Yet, because of the second great commandment, it seems that God has structured His work on earth so that man must communicate God to his fellow man - his neighbor(s). The question is, how can we best 'speak God'?

One of the issues noted in Acts 14 is the need to 'prepare the soil'. In other words, if we truly want our neighbors to understand what we are saying rather than to misinterpret what we are trying to communicate, we have to give them, as it were, the appropriate 'decoder ring'.

First, we can't bring someone along with us unless we begin where 'they' are. Not very profound, right? Of course, they may have already brought themselves to where 'we' are, but even so, just because they are physically present and listening to what we are saying doesn't mean that they understand where we are or how we got to where we are. If we want others to clearly understand our idea, we must present (encode) it to fit their ability to decode it. We can't know what their decoding ability is until we get to really know them. This requires time, patience, and compassion.

Second, once we are encoding in a manner that is appropriate to another's ability and desire to decode, then we are truly communicating and can lead them, step by step, to see where we are in 'our' thinking. It is important not to get the proverbial cart before the horse. It is also necessary to make sure that questions are answered so that no one gets lost along the way. Folks can begin with us, but fall away if they can't keep up with us.

No wonder that Paul 'spent a long time with the disciples' in Antioch.

Third, the apostles first presented 'all the things that God had done'. This awakened interest. But then they had to take the time to educate. This is, of course, a risky first approach. Initial impressions can either awaken interest or prejudice, depending upon the group you are speaking to. If the group is already 'on board' with your 'gospel', then telling success stories is an approach that will usually elicits the next question, 'what did you do to achieve that success?' If, however, the group is new to what you believe, they may immediately dismiss your report as either heresy or simply as foolishness (1 Cor 1:17-31).

Fourth, in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, he made it clear that his success in preaching the gospel was not due to his cleverness (Gk. 'sophia', wisdom) of speech, but because the Spirit had prepared the hearts of those who received his gospel. Those who had rejected his gospel as heresy (the Jews) or as foolishness (the Greeks) were simply, in his mind, not open to the Spirit. While this may be true, it can also be a lazy man's excuse. Where is the balance between trusting God to prepare the hearts of listeners and doing the work of preparing others to understand our teachings?

Jesus promised to give wisdom (Gk. 'sophia') to his disciples. He Himself was praised for his wisdom (Lk 2:52) in both his teaching (Mt 13:54; Mk 6:2) and in confounding his opponents. Had Paul, then, misspoken? Had he expected God to do all the hard work of opening hearts so that all he had to do was to present the gospel?

Even when we take the time to 'prepare the soil' before we share the novelty of the good news, it will still be rejected by many. Jesus' life was a testimony to that fact. Every teacher has learned that no matter how carefully s/he meets a student where they are and attempts to lead them forward, some will simply refuse to follow. Such is the mystery of human nature.