Bible study: Acts 19 – Magic

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

What’s wrong with ‘pretending’ to be a Christian?

I’m focusing in on just a few verses of chapter 19 today, because it seems particularly interesting. In this account, some “itinerant Jewish exorcists” try to use the name of Jesus to drive out an evil spirit, who proceeds to mock them, overpower them, and send them fleeing naked. It’s interesting because various disciples are recorded to have done exactly the same thing and successfully cast out the spirits, but it doesn’t appear to work the same for everybody.

It’s perhaps useful to remember that names were significant in their culture, more so than in ours today. I’m not convinced that there is anything scientifically special about the sound of the name – the sound waves themselves don’t do anything clever. It’s what is identified by the name that is important, which is why there is power in the name even after it’s been translated into a different language and sounds completely different. When Peter or Paul or any of the disciples called upon the name of Jesus to bring about a miracle, it was to make it clear to those listening that the source of the power was in Christ, not in themselves. It’s a public thing – it’s important because it is heard. I’m pretty sure that if Paul had prayed silently in his room, the miracle would still have happened, it doesn’t need to be audible.

And this is perhaps what the Jews missed. They thought that the power working through the Christians was some sort of magic, that by performing the same routine or combination of rituals that the same outcome would happen for them too. It was a power they sought to master, to control. They wanted the miracle, but without the relationship with the source.

I wonder if there are ‘pretenders’ in our churches, sometimes. People who come to church because they think that attendance will win them points, and if they rack up enough points then they’ll get into heaven. I certainly think that’s why some people only ever set foot in a church on so-called “high days a holidays” – they’re not interested in a relationship with God, but they want the benefits of eternal life nonetheless. There may even be people who attend church every Sunday for the same reason. Of course that’s not the case for everyone, I’m generalising here. But it seems such a shame. They’re missing the point. It’s like sex without love – selfish gratification that misses out on something even more wonderful. The challenge for us, I suppose, is identifying who these pretenders are, and working out how to show them what they’re missing.

Why were the people awestruck by the evil spirit?

That’s perhaps a misleading question. The events with the evil spirit and the Jewish exorcists leaves people in wonder, but it’s not actually the evil spirit they’re amazed by. I think there’s an understanding amongst the people that the Holy Spirit, and indeed all the power that is implied in the name of Jesus, is not something trivial, or something to be played with. It was a clear demonstration that Jesus is not a computer program – you can’t just put in a command and expect an answer. And I think that makes God more real, for me at least. God isn’t a series of rules and traditions, God isn’t something we can tame or control, God isn’t a magic spell that always produces the same effect if you do it right. God is wild, dangerous, unpredictable, spontaneous. Not in a vindictive way, of course, but just in the sense that the most real things in life are not formulaic.

I need to watch out that I don’t fall into this trap by accident, though. As much as I might like to think I have an awesome relationship with God, and a flawless understanding of his greatness, at the end of the day I’m only human, and a pretty rubbish one at that. I need to be careful that I don’t just expect God to turn up on a Sunday. I need to watch out that when I pray before preparing a service or a sermon, I’m doing it because I actually want to have a conversation with a friend, not just as a way of ensuring my preparation goes well. When I write these Bible study notes (which you’re reading), I need to be careful that I’m not just writing to show off my knowledge of the Bible, but that it helps me draw closer to my Saviour.

What prompted the people to give up magic?

Yes, magic is in the Bible. Which means that magic is real. Weird, unexplanable, mysterious things can indeed happen, without the power of God behind them. Miracles aren’t the sole reserve of Christians. The difference is the source of the power, and if it’s not coming from God then clearly it must be coming from somewhere else, somewhere similarly spiritual and powerful. And if verse 19 is anything to go by, those other powers are quite happy to be used programmatically, using spells to conjour an outcome rather than a personal relationship with a deity.

I met a witch once. He seemed like a nice enough chap. He helped me with my Mini. I told him I was a Christian, and he said that people like me didn’t like people like him. And I guess there’s an understandable conflict. For people like him, the success of a spell depends on how well he performs the ritual. For people like me, the success of a prayer depends entirely on the will of God – we actually have no direct control over the outcome. It’s easy to see why someone like him would feel like he’s on the winning side.

So to read that all those magic books were publicly burned is significant. Clearly those who practiced magic realised that there was something more important than mere power. Invoking the name of Jesus is meaningless unless you understand who is behind that name. And once you understand that Jesus isn’t confined to rituals and spells, you realise that there is so much more – relationship with the One True God puts everything else in the shade.

Today, magic comes in a different package. Spell books have been replaced by self-help paperbacks. Rituals have been replaced by diets. Magic words have been replaced by fashion. The witch’s hovel has been replaced by the local gym. I’m not saying all those modern examples are inherently wrong or evil or anything like that, but the way we sometimes use them is eerily similar to the way people used to use magic. We use various techniques to transform ourselves, to change the way people perceive us, to influence how people react to us, to empower us with confidence and self-esteem. I have a friend who ‘religiously’ goes to the gym, always striving to be fitter; she jokingly refers to it as her ‘church’. But it’s just magic. If we really want to understand the world we live in, if we really want to live our lives to the full, if we really want to be filled with strength and wisdom, we’ll find it in our relationship  with Jesus. Everything else is just a poor imitation, won’t last, and might as well be burned on a fire.

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Bible study: Acts 18 – Helpers

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Who are all these other people?

We’ve been hearing a lot about Paul in recent chapters of Acts. It’s the story of the beginning of the Church, as directed by one of its most famous missionaries. But here in chapter 18 it almost feels like Paul is taking a back seat, surrounded as he is by so many other Christians. Let’s just list them, shall we? In this chapter alone we hear about Aquila, Priscilla, Silas, Timothy, Titius Justus, Crispus, and Apollos. We don’t hear a huge amount about their individual stories, but we get a glimpse of them.

It struck me as I was reading all these names that something has fundamentally changed since the beginning of Acts. At first, it was all about the Apostles in Jerusalem. Then Paul comes along, along with a few hangers-on, and by the time we get to chapter 18 we’ve got influential and committed Christians all over the place. Paul may be one of the most famous, but he’s certainly not alone in his ministry.

Not too long ago, I felt quite like a lone Paul, weary from the solitary journey of service, feeling the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. I was leading worship almost every week, and if I wasn’t leading then I was providing the music, because we were very thin on the ground at church. Thankfully, that has all changed. New people have joined our congregation, and several have been musicians and worship leaders. The burden has been lifted, and I’m so grateful to God for them.

I feel a lot like Paul sometimes. When I came to the end of my time as a Chaplaincy Assistant a wise old friend prayed that I would have an “apostolic ministry” – I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but in recent years I’ve begun to understand. I start things. I may not see them through to completion, because I let other people join in and take it onwards, but my ministry is a catalyst in getting it going in the first place. I can’t really claim credit for where all those people and groups are now, or where they’ll end up in the future, but I’m overjoyed to have been able to be part of their beginning. But the most wonderful part of an apostolic ministry is seeing it grow after you’ve left; I imagine Paul had the same joy, seeing all those other Christian leaders popping up all over the place!

How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?

Now, at this point I must apologise to any Jews who might read my blog. Reading through Acts does generally cast Jews in a very negative light, which isn’t really fair because we rarely get their side of the story. In Acts 18 we have yet another instance of the Jewish leaders rising up against Paul, taking him before the authorities to get something done about him. I’ve lost track of how many times it’s happened so far, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time either. It seems that no matter how many Jews oppose Paul, they just can’t do anything about him.

Let’s take a moment to think about the story from their perspective. The Jewish community today thrives on tradition (granted, my understanding of this is largely based on the musical “Fiddler on the roof”), and that was true 2000 years ago too. The Jewish nation, Israel, had been chosen by God to be set apart, special, chosen, to live differently to the rest of the world. They had clear rules about what was expected of them, how they should tackle pretty much any situation, from atonement to mildew, and the very best Jews were the ones that followed the rules to the letter. That kind of society breeds a resistance to change. It must have been very hard for them to hear Jesus’ message of grace, which did away with the regulations and brought everyone (not just Jews) into a personal relationship with God. That’s massive. That would be like the Church of today having to suddenly figure out whether aliens from Mars could be made bishops.

So, as much as we may joke about how the Jews were completely ineffective at stopping Paul, and clearly didn’t understand what was going on, let’s take a moment to appreciate how hard it was for them. Paul, amongst others, made a concerted effort to reach out to the Jews with Jesus’ message of grace, and in some cases were successful. But it wasn’t easy, on either side. I’m pretty sure there are things that I struggle to accept sometimes, too. Change can be difficult.

At the moment I’m really struggling with the results of the US Presidential election, and all the comments about Donald Trump. I’m not a supporter, not even close, but at the same time I’m not comfortable with all the ridicule and abuse that is being thrown his way. He’s doing his best to do what he believes is the right thing, and I’m pretty confident he’s not finding that easy right now. And, at the end of the day, he is a person, just like me, and Jesus loves him as much as he loves me. I need to remember to be gracious with other people, and forgiving, and understanding, even if I don’t agree with them. I need to make a conscious decision not to get involved in mud-flinging. I don’t want to be on that band-wagon when it falls over. As with the conflict between the early Church and the established Jewish leaders, time will tell.

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Bible study: Acts 17 – Greek converts

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

If the city officials were disturbed, why did they let Jason go?

Jason was Paul’s host, putting him and Silas up while they were visiting Thessalonica. But as the jealous Jews searched in vain to bring Paul and Silas to ‘justice’ for causing civil unrest, they end up with Jason instead. Their claim: “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus”. It’s this that the city officials were disturbed about, which is understandable, because no one wants a rival king.What I find interesting here is that despite their concerns they let Jason go.

What I find interesting here is that despite their concerns they let Jason go. So were the officials concerned about Jason, or about the Jews? Jason hadn’t claimed anything, by the way, this was just what the Jews were claiming about them. Maybe the officials read between the lines, realised that the Jews were flustered, and were more concerned about the Jews than the Christians? It’s plausible, I think, because if you were genuinely concerned about what these Christians were preaching you wouldn’t immediately let them out on bail, you’d interrogate them a bit more and keep them locked away until you had some answers, if only to keep the peace. It sounds to me like the city officials were more concerned about the Jews’ reaction to the Christians, rather than the Christians themselves.

What’s the significance of the Greek converts?

I’ve noticed this a few times as I’ve been reading through Acts. Every now and then some people believe what Paul has been preaching and become followers, and amongst them are some Greeks. Why be so specific about their origin? What’s so important about people from Greece that the writer feels they must document it?

We see it perhaps more clearly later in the chapter when Paul is in the Areopagus, but I think it comes down to a national stereotype. The Greeks were known for their philosophy, for their deep thinking, for the way they used their brains. They were a society of thinkers. So the significance that the writer wants to convey is that even the cleverest and wisest of people are coming to faith; it’s not about blind acceptance, it’s not a religion for those who don’t know any better, it’s not the reserve of the unscientific mind.

In my lifetime I’ve met a lot of people who don’t believe in Jesus, and they give various different reasons for their unbelief. For some, they genuinely haven’t made up their mind, and aren’t in any hurry. But a lot will tell me that it just doesn’t make sense, that it’s illogical, that it’s impossible, that it’s unscientific and therefore can’t be trusted. Some even go as far as to say that all religion is a man-made construction to control primitive minds, using that as an explanation for why religions are currently growing in ‘developing’ countries and seemingly dying out in ‘developed’ societies. There’s a definite idea that intelligent people don’t need God, and that only fools would buy into something so ridiculous.

I think that’s one of the reasons the writer of Acts seems so persistent in including these references to the Greek converts. The Greeks are known for being thinkers, an intelligent society that seeks answers and truth. So for a Greek to believe in Jesus is a big deal. It shows us that faith in God is not silly, or weak, or illogical.

Who was Dionysius, and why is he mentioned?

This follows on quite nicely from my previous point about the Greeks. This guy Dionysius works (or possibly lives) in the Areopagus, which is like a discussion forum. He’s a professional debater, a dedicated deep-thinker, a proper full-time Greek. And there is something about that name that must be significant too (otherwise the writer wouldn’t have remembered it) – it’s almost certainly a reference to the Greek god Dionysus.

Right, a little history lesson here (taken from Wikipedia, so it must be right). Dionysus was the god of wine, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy. I won’t go into the details, but I see Dionysus as a slightly drunk but excitable youth, with questionable respect for his elders, who generally enjoys having fun. If you’re going to be named after this god, you’ll be expected to hang around in bars, shouting and laughing a lot.

Paul has been busy talking about the altar “to an unknown god”, and about how Jesus makes God known to us. The Greeks in the Areopagus love nothing more than to hear new ideas; they soak them up avidly, like a university student being offered free beer. But Dionysius, in some way representing the god Dionysus, ends up rejecting everything for Jesus. Instead of drunken melodrama, he chooses truth. Instead of the established multi-god Greek religion, he chooses to follow the (singular) God of all creation. The Areopagean representative of song and dance is now dancing to a different tune. If a Greek Areopagite called Dionysius can become a Christian, anyone can.

For me, this is great news. I like thinking. I like science. I like deep philosophical debates late at night. I like using my brain. And it seems that that is perfectly aligned with a faith in Jesus. It also means that we probably shouldn’t always try to dumb our message down for the unchurched; all too often we simplify the gospel so that non-Christians might stand a chance of understanding it, when in fact these people are no more or less intelligent than we Christians! I’m not saying intellectual debates are the answer to every evangelistic opportunity, but equally there is plenty of room for engaging with people intelligently.

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Who is Jesus?

Jesus IS NOT a lifestyle choice.

Jesus IS NOT a hobby.

Jesus IS NOT a mythical character.

Jesus IS NOT a bedtime story.

Jesus IS NOT just a name.

Jesus IS NOT irrelevant.

Jesus IS NOT one of many routes to salvation.

Jesus IS NOT distant and uncaring.

Jesus IS NOT an optional extra.

 

Jesus IS a genuine historical figure.

Jesus IS interested in you.

Jesus IS God.

Jesus IS the author of creation.

Jesus IS alive.

Jesus IS more important than anything else.

Jesus IS the reason you’re reading this.

Jesus IS willing to forgive you.

Jesus IS the only way you live forever.

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Bible study: Acts 16 – Paul and Silas in prison

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Why did Timothy need to be circumcised?

After everything that has happened, with so many Gentiles coming to faith, and with it being confirmed by God over and over that that was okay, why does Paul insist that Timothy is circumcised before joining them? It seems pretty redundant, especially against that backdrop. It’s pretty clear that circumcision, or indeed any aspect of religious background, doesn’t make someone a ‘better’ Christian.

The answer, I think, is in verse 3: “the Jews who were in those places… knew that his father was a Greek”. It wasn’t for Timothy’s benefit, but for everyone else’s. It was because of the doubt and lack of understanding of those around him that Timothy needed to be made ‘traditionally’ right with God. Without that, no matter how well respected he was, some would think less of him, or worse, disregard him. And of course that would have an impact on Paul and Silas too, and their mission. So I suppose it made sense, politically at least, for Timothy to take on part of the Jewish identity.

I can see some of that in me. I grew up a Baptist, but ended up being called into ministry in the Anglican church, and now I’m a Reader. As part of that journey I had to be baptised and confirmed, even though I had been dedicated and baptised by full immersion in the Baptist church many years before. Some would argue that once is enough, and that the Anglican church should have recognised by Baptist declaration of faith. I certainly don’t see my second baptism and confirmation as being any more significant than my previous baptism, and it doesn’t make me a better Christian having done it. And neither does having the title of ‘Reader’ automatically make me a better preacher or leader (although the training and experience that has accompanied it has certained helped!). But, like Timothy, it’s sometimes important to be seen to be ‘one of us’. To have the same label as those I’m ministering to. Because to some people that sort of thing matters more, and it would be wrong to deliberately put stumbling blocks in front of them. So now I’m a proper Anglican. And I’m admitting to it on my blog, so I can’t deny it. That doesn’t nullify my Baptist roots, of course, and neither denominational label really makes me better or worse for it. The important thing is that I’m where God needs me, doing what God needs me to be doing, amongst the people who need me to be there doing it.

Why would the Holy Spirit stop Paul and Silas from going to Asia and Bithynia?

This is another incident that seems to stand out, flying in the face of what we’ve heard earlier in Acts. The Word is for everyone, of all nations, no matter what background they’re from. And yet it would seem that the Holy Spirit specifically stops them from ministering to Asia and Bithynia. Why? Didn’t they deserve to hear the Word too?

I don’t know what the circumstances were there, and maybe a clever historian will be able to tell me what was going on in those places at the time. Maybe there was a plague or civil unrest or something that would have put Paul and his friends in danger. That certainly seems more likely than God simply not wanting those people to hear the good news! But it doesn’t seem like Paul got the reason either. He had to act on faith that God knew what he was doing.

I think sometimes I can demand too much explanation from God. He’ll point me in a particular direction, and I’ll stand firmly where I am until I’ve asked all the questions I can think of about why that’s a good idea, and how it’ll affect other things, and what it might look like when I get there, and what my family will think, and so on. I know God knows, and I just want to be reassured that I’ve heard correctly and that God has it all in hand. At the moment, I think God’s calling me towards some sort of full-time ministry, but I don’t know what, or where, or why. And I’m afraid to start looking in case I find an answer. I’ve only just got here, why would God be calling me to something else? Maybe I need to take a page out of Paul’s book (not literally, that’s bad for my Bible) and just trust God. Maybe I need to step out without knowing where I’m going. Maybe I need to stop asking questions and actually listen for once.

Why did Paul and Silas wait in their prison cells?

This isn’t the first prison escape we’ve seen in Acts. Peter escaped from similar circumstances, with the Holy Spirit breaking him out. This time, however, it’s all a bit more Hollywood. The doors didn’t just click open, there was an almighty earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison. So why didn’t everyone make a run for it? I mean, you could understand Paul and Silas staying where they were, that would make sense with the rest of the story, but what about the other prisoners?

I read an article the other day that was suggesting that the churches that are growing are the ones that actually believe what the Bible says. In those churches, the preachers made it absolutely clear that unbelievers needed to believe, that salvation wasn’t an optional extra, that Jesus really does matter. In other churches, where that message is softer, and unbelievers are gently encouraged to explore and see what they think, and there’s no urgency, the growth was slower, or non-existent, or they were in decline. I heard a similar thing on the radio too, where someone compared going to church with going to football training – if the coach tells you to give 110% on the pitch, but your vicar invites you to maybe start thinking about staying for coffee after the service, it’s going to give the impression that football is more important than faith. Clearly, people respond to clarity and passion.

I wonder if a similar thing happened in the prison with Paul and Silas. They had been singing hymns and praying while they were locked up, and were still at it at midnight. And when the earthquake came, all the prisoners stayed where they were. On any other night, if an earthquake had opened the cell doors, I’m quite sure everyone would have scarpered. But this time, they clearly made the connection between the God the Paul and Silas openly worshipped and their miraculous release. God cannot be ignored.

I’m too soft on my friends, it seems. I don’t tell them to believe. I live my life as a Christian quietly. I gently drop Jesus into conversation when I think it’ll cause a ripple of intrigue. I plant seeds and leave them to grow in their own time. I wait for opportunities. That’s not how Paul shared the gospel. If I want to see my friends come to faith (which I absolutely do), I need to be more vocal about it. I need to make opportunities, not wait for them. I need to make it absolutely unavoidably clear that they need Jesus, that faith isn’t an optional extra. I need to shout louder than the football coach. I need to start singing loudly, and expect the earthquake.

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Bible study: Acts 15 – church politics

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

What’s the big deal with circumcision?

Most of this chapter revolves around this theme. Some believers from Judea were insisting that Gentile believers first had to be circumcised, in accordance with the Law of Moses. This makes sense, to a certain extent, because the Jewish scriptures are still valid and important, and are still the Word of God. Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law, after all, so if God said it to the Israelites then surely it should still apply? This turned out to be quite a divisive issue, resulting in a hefty internal debate with the heaviweights of the Early Church.

I’m sure we’ve all come across church traditions than have lost their meaning over time. People sit in certain pews, and leave others empty. Notices are always given at a certain point in the service. Men take their hats off when then come into church, while the women always wear them. Okay, that last one is probably not the case in most churches these days, but you get the idea! There was probably good reason for them originally, but we’ve never got round to re-evaluating them. I think this is what was at the heart of these debates in Jerusalem.

Circumcision was originally an outward sign, something to physically mark the Jews out as being set apart for God. But with the New Covenant of grace, that sign wasn’t necessary any more. God had made it really clear that relationship with him wasn’t restricted to a certain group of people any more, it was open to everyone, which means a physical sign of inclusion wasn’t relevant any more. If anything, it flies in the face of an inclusive culture. I can understand why some people were trying to hang on to their old ways – we still do that today. The message here is that we shouldn’t let our traditions get in the way of what God is doing. Which makes me wonder what traditions I cling to that might be preventing the Gospel from going out as far as God wants it to…

Who decided to be lenient to the Gentiles – God or the Church?

From what we read in this chapter, the believers have a heavy debate, come to a conclusion, and then write a letter to the Gentiles saying “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”. Wait, where was the Holy Spirit in all those discussions? There was no mention of prayer, or waiting on God’s guidance, or of the Holy Spirit speaking to them in prophetic words of wisdom. They just talked about it, and claimed it was God’s decision.

I get quite frustrated sometimes when we have church meetings that don’t actively acknowledge or seek God’s input. I know how easily I fall back on my own understanding and my own ideas, so making any sort of decision in the church (or outside of it) without actively listening for God’s direction makes me feel like a fraud. And yet the disciples did it. And others in the church today do it. And, if I’m honest, I do it a lot too.

I think the key here is that God leads us from the inside as much as from the outside. He doesn’t always speak audibly. He doesn’t make a song and dance about leading us in the right direction. Often it’s about quietly nudging us towards something. Many times I’ve looked back and realised that the decision I thought I had made was actually a crucial part of God’s plan, and therefore probably wasn’t solely my idea after all. Sometimes we need to recognise that God is behind our decisions too, and that perhaps we shouldn’t be taking all the credit.

To take an example, at work this week I was publicly recognised for my excellent work during a security incident on our web server. My boss also mentioned it in my End of Year Review meeting, about how clear-headed I was under pressure, how the action plan was carefully and wisely put in place, and how proficient I was in the execution. As lovely as that was to hear, I have to acknowledge that I couldn’t have done all that on my own. I may not have prayed about every line of code I was writing, I may not have sought guidance from the Scriptures on what server configuration was applicable, I may not have waited on the voice of the Holy Spirit to instruct me on how to update DNS records. But, as with the Apostles in this meeting in Jerusalem, God worked through me, quietly making sure everything happened in accordance with his perfect will. I’m a fantastic Web Developer, but ultimately it’s God who takes the glory for that.

Why did Paul and Barnabus part company?

This seems like an odd way to finish chapter 15. After all the internal discussions and politics, after all the talk about unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians, after being reminded (again) that it is the grace of Jesus that is most important, Paul and Barnabus part ways because of a disagreement over staffing. It’s a poignant reminder that even these pillars of the Early Church weren’t perfect.

We heard about John in Acts 13: “Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. John, however, left them and returned to Jerusalem.” There’s no suggestion here of disagreement, or that he might have left under a dark cloud. It’s just a statement of fact – John returned to Jerusalem. It’s only here in chapter 15 that we find that perhaps the circumstances weren’t altogether straightforward. Paul considers that John had “deserted them in Pamphylia”, and seems to take it personally. So much so that he refuses to let John accompany him on their next journey. That seems a little extreme. What happened to grace? What happened to forgiveness? What happened to love?

It can be hard to go back on our decisions. It can be hard to admit we were wrong. And I guess this is especially so when you’re in a position of leadership, with people looking to you for direction; if you come across as indecisive it can negatively affect people’s trust in your leadership abilities. Imagine if UK Prime Minister Theresa May suddenly turned round and declared that actually Brexit was a bad idea, and that she wouldn’t be doing it any more – irrespective of whether the decision was right or wrong, we’d start questioning whether she knew how to lead at all. I wonder whether this kind of political struggle was happening with Paul and Barnabus; with hindsight, I’d almost certainly side with Barnabus and John, and maybe Paul would too, but “the disagreement became so sharp” that neither could afford to back down.

Humility is a hard lesson. I can’t honestly say I think Paul made the right decision here. And I can’t honestly say I’ve always made the right decisions either, though I might not admit to them all on my blog. Owning up to our faults can be embarrassing, and can cause people to distrust us or even hate us. But better that than live with guilt. Better that than failing to follow God’s path. Better that than letting disagreement drive friendships apart.

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Bible study: Acts 14 – Lystra

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Who was this lame man of faith?

It all started so promisingly. Paul and Barnabus come into Lystra and start preaching, and find this lame man who soaks up the teaching and quickly develops faith in Jesus. He is healed, and is able to walk. Quite a contrast with the rest of Lystra, who apparently hold more sway with Olympian (Greek) gods, and try to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabus, who they presume to be gods incarnate. Against such a dramatic backdrop, how does this lame man latch onto the truth so easily?

There’s a phrase that comes to mind – “the Lord works in mysterious ways”. Even in the most unlikely of places, or maybe especially in those places, God chooses to surprise us. We might have expected faith in Jerusalem. We might have thought it normal, commonplace even. This certainly isn’t the first person Paul has healed. But given the corporate response that follows, this lame man must have been unusual. God shows us that nothing is impossible with him.

I wonder sometimes whether my workplace is a bit like Lystra. It’s not somewhere I would expect to find people of faith. I still live my life demonstrably as a Christian, albeit less boldly than Paul did, but I’ve often found that when God helps me do the impossible people find worldly ways to explain it. They say I’m a good listener, that I’m really patient and kind, that I’m really clever and invaluable. They don’t see that it’s God working through me, even if I tell them. But, like this lame man, there are exceptions – there are a couple of other people who I now know to be Christians too, and occasionally I do have conversations with people and find that they are potentially open to the message of the Gospel. Yes, God can work miracles even at work.

If Paul and Barnabus had known the people would think them gods, would they have performed miracles there?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. When Paul and Barnabus discover that the people of Lystra think that they are Zeus and Hermes (Greek gods), they are understandably devastated. The people have completely missed the point. Maybe if they hadn’t healed that lame man, none of that confusion would have happened.

Then again, if they had limited the outpouring of grace depending on what other people thought of them, that man would have stayed lame. That’s no way to approach mission. What we’re reminded of here is that individuals matter, and preaching the Good News matters, and politics has to come second to that. Effective mission shouldn’t be bounded by our low expectations – God is bigger than that!

Did Paul die?

That’s a bit strong. Let me explain what I mean… After the people declared Paul and Barnabus to be gods, the Jews get wind of it and stone Paul, which is the normal response to heresy and blasphemy. If they knew who Paul was, they would surely have loved the fact that they’d done what Herod couldn’t. Killing Paul would have given them a mountain of brownie points! And yet, it seems they didn’t actually do a very good job, because “they dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead”. They didn’t actually make sure. Maybe their heart wasn’t in it. Maybe they didn’t know who he was after all.

Or maybe, just maybe, they did stone him to death. Hear me out. Look at what verse 20 says: “But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.” The details are curiously vague, but it sounds like the disciples all got together around what looked like Paul’s dead body, and he gets up. Now, if you’ve been stoned enough for people to think you’re dead, you’re not going to just get up, and you’re certainly not going to then walk back into the city and then continue your journey. You’d need time to rest, to heal, to mend broken bones, to stop the bleeding, to recover from concussion, and so on. Stoning is not a kind punishment. It sounds more like the disciples gathered round and witnessed another miracle. Maybe Paul wasn’t quite dead, just wounded enough that the Jews knew he only had a few gasps of breath left in him. Still, it’s an understated miracle that he was able to stand and carry on after that ordeal.

Was the mission a success?

The last few verses of chapter 14 chart the remaining stops on Paul’s journey, taking him to a few more towns before ending up back where he started, in Antioch. The writer summarises the entire mission with these words: “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God”. We can assume from that comment that there were other persecutions that aren’t documented. It was an uphill battle from start to finish. But despite the hardship, it was well worth it – Paul and Barnabus “had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles”, and left churches established in their wake.

Sometimes we try too hard to measure success. Sometimes we don’t even set out unless we know where we’re heading and have confidence in being able to reach our goals. But reading chapters 13 and 14, I don’t get the impression Paul and Barnabus had any idea what they were getting into when they started, nor any real plan around what they wanted to achieve through it. They just went where God told them, spoke the words he gave them, did what he laid before them. Did they have any understanding of the significance of what they were doing? Did they know that people like me would still be studying their mission nearly two thousand years later? No. They just did what God wanted. I want to do more of that. I want to step out in faith, without knowing where I’m going or whether it will work. I want to do what God wants me to do. Because if I do that, I have already succeeded.

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Bible study: Acts 13 – Paul’s mission begins

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

Why did God call Paul and Barnabus so publicly?

In verse 2 we read that God called Paul and Barnabus to their mission during a time of worship, and by the sounds of it he said it to everyone there, not just Paul and Barnabus. God could have just told Paul and Barnabus individually, but instead he makes it public.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I’d want God to work like that around me. If God was going to call me, I’d want it to be quietly (but clearly) just to me. I’d want it to be confirmed by others afterwards, but I’d want God to give me the choice first. I think if God interrupted our service on Sunday and told everyone that I was being called to some mission thing somewhere else, I’d be pretty freaked out. And actually I’d feel the same if it were someone else, too; if God suddenly declared that one of my friends needed to be sent on his way, I’d probably argue that we’d heard God’s message wrong.

But maybe that’s just the point. The way that I would WANT God to work is limited by my own expectations, my own preferences, my own ability to cope. I was licenced as a Reader earlier this year, but only after God had prodded me for several years. God had tried working my way, and I’d just pushed it aside, hoping God would come up with a different plan. In the end, God’s subtle hints got less subtle, and he confirmed his plan for me through other people too. So perhaps if God had interrupted a Sunday service a few years ago and told the whole congregation that I needed to train to be a Reader, maybe it would have happened more quickly! Maybe I shouldn’t put God in a box too much, and allow him to work in the way he knows to be best, rather than expect him to fit in with my diary.

Why did Sergius Paulus take so long to believe?

Sergius Paulus was an intelligent man. Interesting little detail, that. I don’t recall reading that about many people in the Bible. Intelligent. Some people are called wise, or powerful, or learned, but not intelligent. There’s a certain quality to that description that makes Sergius Paulus interesting to me – he’s someone who thinks. He’s someone who analyses things. He’s someone who wants answers. He’s someone who wouldn’t be blinded by theatrics or falsehood. And yet, despite that, he’s accompanied by a magician, a false prophet. And it would seem that despite his intelligence he was being swayed by this magician’s antics.

I like to rely on my intellect. I like to think things through and work out the answer. I look at the Bible and try to understand it, because I want to prove my intelligence. When I’m at work I love a challenge, I love coming up with a clever solution to a problem, I love the fact that I know more about my job than anyone else (by quite some margin, if I do say so myself). But this account in Acts 13 suggests that even the best intellect gets it wrong sometimes. Even the cleverest of us can be confused and distracted by things that shouldn’t. I know certain things are unhealthy, for instance, but I give in to temptation and do them anyway, despite the logic that says otherwise. I know the truth, yet I don’t always trust it. Maybe you can associate with that in some way, too.

It’s reassuring to know that God sees our struggles, sees our temptations, sees where our logic is being confounded, and is willing to step in and help. For Sergius Paulus, it was a visit from Paul and Barnabus that rid him of his magician, allowing him to embrace his intelligence properly and accept Paul’s teaching about Jesus. It’s my hope and prayer that God does similar things for us, freeing us from our distractions and allowing us to accept Jesus as Lord.

Is suffering necessary for mission?

Persecution is becoming a repeated theme as we read through Acts. It seems to come in waves – at first the message is received joyfully, but then the opposition starts up. So is suffering a sign that we’re actually doing a good job? And does it therefore follow that if we’re not being persecuted that actually we’re not acting boldly enough?

I’m not sure it’s always true – it surely is possible to do amazing things for God without being persecuted for it. But there’s definitely a strong correlation. I’ve often found that times of difficulty come when I’m trying to do God’s will. And I guess that makes sense; the enemy is only the enemy because we’re working against him. The more we work for God, the more Satan will notice us and try to stop us. And if we’re not being persecuted, in whatever form it might take, maybe it’s because Satan thinks we’re on his side…

Time to step out in faith, and be more bold. And pray for God’s protection, because we’re certainly going to need it.

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Bible study: Acts 11-12 – Peter’s arrest

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

What’s the significance of being called “Christians”?

In chapter 11, again, we have yet more people being taken aback by Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit.  The writer is certainly ramming it home with repetition!  I think part of the reason for this is to do with identity.  It seems to me that Jesus didn’t intend to create a new religion, but to transform what had already been set in motion.  That’s clearly what the first disciples thought too, which is why they focused their attention on preaching to the Jews – these are the people already set apart for a special relationship with God.  Jesus himself said that he didn’t come to replace the old traditions, but to fulfil them.

The change we begin to see in these early chapters of Acts show that in reality although ‘normal’ Jews were very receptive to the message, the Jewish leaders weren’t, and that meant that transforming Judaism into what God had planned just wasn’t going to work.  The Spirit was moving, and the only way to keep up was to move outside the Jews and into the Gentiles.  And so we see a new faction appear, a new identity, something distinct from the established Jewish religion, something called “Christianity”.  Only by becoming something separate could the news reach all those God wanted to speak to.

Maybe we need to step out and do something new.  Sometimes a sticking plaster turns out not to be enough.  Sometimes the change won’t happen fast enough in the current climate.  Sometimes the old really will hold us back, and a clean break is needed.  But if it is, God will instigate it and drive it, not our own impatience.

Why wasn’t Peter put to death immediately?

It seems like one of those rookie errors.  It reminds me of the opening scene of Star Wars IV, where the escape pod containing R2-D2 and C3PO gets ignored because it doesn’t contain any life forms – a mistake that, if avoided, would have immediately put a stop to everything that followed.  The same seems to happen here in Acts 12; we know Herod has already killed James, so it would seem logical to do away with Peter too.  Putting him in prison instead meant that Peter could escape.

Interestingly, this is the same Herod who appeared in Jesus’s own crucifixion account.  On that occasion, Pilate deferred to Herod’s authority, but Herod couldn’t find any fault in him so sent him back, and Pilate had him crucified.  Here in Acts 12, Herod seems to be stepping up to the plate a bit more, planning on bringing Peter out to the people after the Passover.  It seems to me that Herod saw how the problem had escalated after Jesus’s death, and that he needed to take action after all.  He wanted to make a public statement, making a spectacle of Peter to stop it spreading any further.  No wonder he was cross when Peter escaped!

Why did Peter think it was a vision?

In one sense, I can completely understand this.  The events are clearly so unlikely that it must have seemed much more like a dream than reality.  That’s what happens in a miracle – logic and normality fly out of the window.  On the other hand, I wonder whether God needed Peter to think it was a dream, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone along with it.  There are times when we need the wool pulling over our eyes, so that we can actually get on board with what God is doing; it’s only afterwards that we realise what was going on.

Was Herod really eaten by worms?

It reads like it all happened in a matter of moments, in some Hollywood-style CGI-enhanced gory visualisation, where in a matter of seconds he gets eaten up by thousands of ugly looking worms, leaving nothing but a skeleton standing on the podium.  Back in the real world, it’s more likely that he got an untreatable case of parasites, and over the course of several weeks he grew weak and died of his affliction.  Or maybe that’s me putting too much ‘reality’ onto it.

The point the writer is making is that Herod’s actions don’t go unnoticed by God.  As far as the writer is concerned, at least, God sent judgement on Herod, prompted by his boastfulness on stage.  If it were me, I’d have done that when he killed James, not waited for his speech.  I guess what we learn here is that God’s judgement is not the same as ours, we don’t know the full picture, and we’re not really in a position to tell God he’s wrong; we have to accept that God is just, even if it doesn’t make sense to us.

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Bible study: Acts 10 – Cornelius

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

How did Cornelius, a Gentile, know to fear God?

A Gentile is defined as someone who is not a Jew.  So if Cornelius wasn’t a Jew, how did he come to know God?  In fact, not only was he a believer, he had believers in his ranks too – one of those he sent to find Peter was “a devout soldier”.  Clearly at some point these men have been exposed to the message of the Jews, and have a firm belief in God, the same God the Jews worshipped.  It would have been stunted, perhaps, by the fact that they weren’t technically Jews, and wouldn’t have had access to the Synagogue in quite the same way.  They were outsiders, outcasts, not good enough for Jewish traditions.

To be honoured with a visit from one of God’s angels would surely have come as a surprise, if not to Cornelius then to any Jew who heard about it.  It would be like the Queen of England requesting a meeting with a random Frenchman, only on a much bigger scale of awesomeness.  Perhaps this is another indication that the hearts of the Gentiles were already yearning for their Saviour.

Why was Peter so reluctant to accept Gentiles?

You’d think Peter would have got the message by now.  Jesus had talked about it often enough, about how the good news was for all people, not just Jews.  The Great Commission, after all, was about preaching to Word to all nations.  And yet, when asked directly about it, Peter still reverts back to his own Jewish roots and takes the scriptural high ground.  It takes a pretty graphic vision, repeated no less than three times, for Peter to realise that when Jesus said the message was for everyone he really did mean it!

There are times when we too can perhaps get too possessive over our faith.  We like our cosy way of doing Church, and we wouldn’t want to have to change it too much to accomodate others.  We don’t want to offend others by telling them the truth of their need of salvation, so to avoid confrontation or embarrassment we keep it to ourselves, because that’s easier.  We think that people will probably figure it out for themselves in time, so for now we keep our faith and our belief hidden.  The message for us here is that everyone needs to know the message about Jesus, no matter what their background, or attitude, or personality, or interests, or intellect, or even belief – Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to preach to Christians of all nations, but to everyone, which has to include those of others faiths as well as those of none.  God welcomes everyone, and so should we.

What’s so special about receiving the Holy Spirit?

The believers who come with Peter are astonished that the Holy Spirit should be given out to these Gentiles.  It clearly wasn’t what they were expecting.  This, despite the fact that the Samaritans (also non-Jews) had already received the Holy Spirit.  Are they really that slow, or is there something else going on here?

I think there’s a difference between being baptised and receiving the Spirit.  In a previous chapter we met the Ethiopian whom Philip explained the scriptures too, and he was baptised, but it doesn’t say anything about receiving the Holy Spirit.  It’s as if being baptised is just something people did back then, like wearing a badge to show everyone you were in the club.  Peter’s friends don’t appear shocked that these Gentiles want to hear more about Jesus, and they clearly have no problem with them being baptised, but seeing the Holy Spirit being given to them seems like something on a different level.  Perhaps they thought that only the best believers, the truest believers, were good enough for that.  Like Peter, they needed to learn about the unbiased and unlimited love that God has for all people.

The Holy Spirit is fundamentally about personal relationship.  It is through the Holy Spirit that we can all come into relationship with our God, in a way that before Jesus was reserved only for ‘special’ people – the prophets.  Now the Spirit is given to everyone, indiscriminately, meaning that there is no heirarchy of ‘better’ believers – we are all equal.  A Bishop is no more or less entitled to a relationship with God than my kids.  It also shows that relationship is massively important to God; he doesn’t want mediators, he doesn’t want barriers, he doesn’t want pecking orders.  He wants to know you.

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