2 Peter 1:1-11 – A chain of support

In this, the first in a series of personaly Bible studies in the book of 2 Peter, we begin with a list of qualities that Peter encourages his readers to have, chained together one after the other. I figured it might be interesting to examine what the connection is between these qualities, and how they support each other.

“You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.” 2 Peter 1:5-7

But before we get into that, a note about context. This is a letter, and follows the usual pattern for letters of that time. Peter introduces himself and states who he’s writing to, and then gives a bit of a general introduction to the letter before diving into the real meaty stuff. So this first passage probably isn’t what the rest of the letter is going to be about, but serves to encourage his readers to keep reading. That said, it seems very deliberate, so I don’t think we can just pass it off as introductory waffle – it deserves careful analysis. Peter won’t have linked together qualities like this without thinking about it first.

Faith supported by goodness

Faith is what differentiates believers from non-believers. Faith in Jesus is our personal acceptance of Jesus’s gift of forgiveness. It’s more than just accepting something is true, it’s trusting in it even though it’s more wonderful and more mysterious than we could ever understand. But, it would seem, faith on its own can be fragile.

I can remember being a teenager, and struggling a little with faith. All my life I had been taken to church, and I knew all the right answers, and believed in God, and had faith in Jesus’s promise of salvation. But it very rarely seemed to affect my daily life. I would go to school, do my work, have a laugh with my friends, come home, go to bed. Faith didn’t seem particularly relevant all the time. If I’m honest, that’s still true today, to a certain extent, only I’ve swapped school for work!

What Peter is telling us here is that our unquantifiable faith needs to show itself practically as well. It needs to be more than just a warm, comfy feeling on the inside. It needs to go beyond just an inward acceptance of Jesus. Goodness is something other people can see and experience, and it is by definition something active – goodness is ‘done’ to others. If we want our faith to have an impact on our daily life, it needs to be backed up by acts of goodness. It’s no good believing one thing and then doing another. Our faith needs to show itself through our actions, and actively being ‘good’ can strengthen the faith that prompted it.

Goodness supported by knowledge

What is ‘good’, anyway? In today’s age of post-modernity, anything goes, right? What’s right and true for me isn’t necessarily right and true for everyone. And given that Peter was talking about it nearly two thousand years ago, I’m betting this isn’t as new a problem as we might like to think. Goodness is contextual as well, which complicates matters further – what seems right today might be wrong tomorrow. Code that I wrote a few years ago may well have been perfectly accurate and fine at the time, but if I was writing it again today I’d probably do it differently. Words of advice that I gave last year might have been great at the time, but if I said the same thing today I’d get punched in the face. Being good it harder than it sounds.

The key, Peter tells us, is knowledge. Our acts of goodness can only be truly good if we know what we’re doing. And that means we need to make a conscious effort to understand the world around us, to keep ourselves informed, to listen to what people are saying. It’s only by understanding the need that we can work goodness into it.

Knowledge supported by self-control

I’m reminded of Solomon, here. Remember that time when two women came to him claiming a baby was theirs? Solomon’s knowledge of mothers, interpreted through the filter of wisdom, led him to a solution – cut the baby in half, and each woman could have half the baby. But it was self-control that stopped him from actually enacting that solution. He could have made the proclamation as king and had the baby chopped up, to make the point more clearly. But knowledge itself isn’t everything.

I think ego comes into this as well, to an extent. I love to learn new things, and I have to admit there are times when I’ll act as if I know the answer even if I don’t, because I like the feeling of knowing stuff. Sometimes I need to remind myself to keep some self-control, to know when sharing my ‘knowledge’ is useful, and when it might be better to keep quiet! Knowledge without self-control has the potential to be quite damaging.

Self-control supported by endurance

We’re in the middle of the list now, and it’s feeling a little more tenuous, as if Peter is trying desperately to steer his way through these qualities to end up at the right point! Nonetheless, there is something to learn from this connection. Self-control isn’t easy. As a musician, it’s wonderful to be able to hear myself, to hear the contribution that I’m making to the band/orchestra/group I’m playing with. It takes self-control to keep myself humble and not unbalance the whole sound. But it takes endurance to keep that going from start to finish. Endurance means that we can keep that self-control going until its completion. Lacking endurance means that whatever endeavour we were trying to have self-control about would be completely undone.

Endurance supported by godliness

Without this bit, the list of qualities could appear in any self-help book; it’s been about how we can live better lives, be more effective, avoid pitfalls. But what Peter tells us here is that endurance needs to be bolstered by godliness – being like Jesus.

The trouble with endurance is that it’s hard work. Ask any marathon runner and they’ll tell you that you have to push through the pain, drawing on reserves of strength and energy deep within you, to last until the end. But endurance isn’t just about sport. Endurance means staying patient with people even though they wind you up time after time. Endurance means sticking to your principles when you’re being told to do something that isn’t right. But perfect endurance demands more from us than we can give. And this is why being Christ-like is so important.

Jesus, part of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, never acted on his own. For all that he was the Saviour, he drew his strength from that relationship with the triune God. And it’s that strength that Jesus offers to us, too. The Holy Spirit fills us, guides us, reassures us, and helps us to endure what we wouldn’t otherwise be able to bear. It’s only by submitting to God in humility that we can endure all things.

Godliness supported by mutual affection

You can’t love God and hate your neighbour. That’s something Jesus taught us, and there’s good reason for that. The Pharisees loved God, but that love didn’t extend to the people they were meant to be leading, and that’s one of the reasons Jesus laid into them so often! We should love God, yes, but not at the expense of others. We shouldn’t be so wrapped up in our church commitments that we haven’t got time to have a coffee with a lonely friend. We shouldn’t be so concerned about blogging about a Bible study that we forget to spend the evening with our spouse (note to self: finish this quick and go downstairs…). Other people matter. They matter to God, so they should matter to us too. And if Jesus’s message to the Pharisees is anything to go by, our love for God cannot be complete unless we also love the people around us.

Mutual affection supported by love

Finally, Peter tells us that mere ‘affection’ isn’t enough. Love transforms an acquaintance into a friend. Love transforms idle chit-chat into a meaningful conversation. Love transforms sexual attraction into genuine relationship. Love transforms a little into a lot. We can have a lot of great qualities (see above), but if we don’t have love, it all falls apart. If we want to strengthen our faith, Peter tells us that what we need as our foundation is love.


At the beginning of this post I took an excerpt from the passage, specifically verses 5 to 7. But verse 5 actually starts “For this very reason”. It’s linked to the verses before, where it talks about how Jesus brought us into relationship with God, and has promised us eternal life. That’s what all this is about – eternal life. We know that faith is needed for us to be saved, but through this chain of supporting characteristics Peter reminds us that faith is only possible through love. And that’s quite wonderful, because perfect love is found in Jesus himself, bring us nicely back where we started!

Bible study: Acts 28 – The need for God

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

Why did the Maltese natives think Paul was a god?

This has to be one of my favourite bits of the Bible. Paul is shipwrecked off the coast of Malta, but survives. Then he gets bitten by a snake, so the natives assume he must be a murderer, and fate has not allowed him to survive after all. But Paul suffers no ill effects, so they assume instead that he must be a god. Now that’s what I call a change of direction!

It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions, isn’t it? Even in today’s age, where information is everywhere and the internet provides us with more data than we know what to do with, we still rely so heavily on gut instinct and presumption. We conclude before we have all the facts needed to properly form the conclusion. We judge people before we know them. We condemn people’s actions before we hear the full story. I’m reminded of the various celebrities and important people who have been accused of sexual assault in recent years, some of whom have turned out to be completely innocent. We see the headline, but we don’t read the full article to find out what actually happened. This passage in Acts is a good reminder to take time to form our opinions, and not to rush into a conclusion too soon.

But there’s something deeper, too. These Maltese natives had a concept of God. And in fact most places on earth do, whether they’ve been in contact with the rest of the world or not. No matter how advanced or primitive a society is, they will have a faith structure of some sort. It’s hard-wired into our very being, a God-space in each of us. Some of us try to fill that need with earthly things, but ultimately only God can fill a God-shaped hole.

What happened to all the other Apostles?

We’re at the end of Acts now. Last chapter. The end of the story of the Acts of the Apostles. But wait – what happened to the rest of them? It started off with the Eleven, who became the Twelve (again), and then Paul came on the scene as well, and then the Twelve were forgotten in the wake of all the other faithful believers doing great stuff, and then we ended up just following Paul. The book ends with Paul in house-arrest in Rome. Hardly an ending at all. Where is everyone else?

In fact, this is the last chronological account in the New Testament; the rest are letters (apart from Revelation, which is kind of in a category of its own). Thankfully, we can piece some of the rest of the story together from those letters, along with what we learn in other historical documents of the time, other letters and gospels that are not included in the official canon, and generally-accepted stories passed down by tradition (and that last one is understandably the most contentious of the lot). We know that all the Apostles died, in various ways, most of them killed for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. We know that the other believers scattered through the region all went on believing, and spreading the message of Jesus, and that his followers are still doing that today in every corner of the world. So, in some ways, there is technically no ‘right’ place to finish the book of the Acts of the Apostles, because that story is still being written today. Right now, I’m writing this blog article; that could arguably be in Acts too. It’s a story that includes all of us. No one is too obscure, or too unimportant, or too [insert adjective here] to appear in the story. And that’s what makes the book of Acts so fantastic – it’s OUR story. Yes, it had to have an end, picked somewhat arbitrarily perhaps, because otherwise it would be the longest book in history and impossible to print. But the story it tells includes you. It’s not just the Acts of the Apostles, but the Acts of the Believers around the world and throughout history. It’s the ongoing story of how the amazing message of grace is passed from person to person, embracing people with love and drawing them into relationship with God. And that’s a story worth being part of.

Bible study: Acts 27 – Shipwrecked

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

Why didn’t the centuiron listen to Paul’s sailing advice?

Paul, the zealous Pharisee. Paul, the man who met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul, the travelling preacher. Paul, the tent-maker. Paul, the letter-writer. Paul, the prisoner. But no, despite all these things, Paul was not an expert sailor.

When advice comes, we all tend to filter it slightly depending on who has said it. If we trust their opinion, or know their reputation, or have seen their credentials, we’re probably more likely to accept their advice. But all too often we’ll ignore advice from people who clearly know nothing about the matter. At work today someone was having trouble with a website I had made, and told me that it was not working and that I should fix it immediately. Of course, I’m a professional web developer, and they struggle to use a keyboard, so my immediate reaction was to ignore them, because they were almost certainly using it wrong. Only after a bit of back-and-forth did we eventually confirm that the website was indeed broken, and I needed to fix it.

But that’s the way it usually works, and most of the time it’s a perfectly valid way of approaching problems – you trust the person with the most experience. So how do we learn to recognise those moments when the inexperienced opinion is right? How was the centurion to know that Paul’s advice would have saved them from shipwreck? How can we be expected to know whether a stranger’s advice is worth taking seriously, just in case it’s God speaking through them?

I don’t really have a clear answer to this one. I want to say that we should prayerfully consider the advice and try to descern whether the advice is Godly or earthly. But from my experience that’s easier said than done. I make the centurion’s mistake all too often. I think I know best. I think I’ll know God’s voice when I hear it. I think I know the Bible well enough to know what it says about anything. Maybe I need yet more humility. As long as that doesn’t jeopardise my own confidence and experience. There’s a careful balance to strive for, it seems, somewhere between our competency and our humility.

How did Paul have so much faith in his safety, even in the face of danger?

In some ways it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise; after all, Paul has been in danger before. He’s had mobs of angry Jews shouting at him, and in some cases stoning him to within an inch of his life. But there’s something about the sea that is particularly scary. It’s big – reallyt big. And deep. And uncontrollable. And some scary things live in it too. People can be stopped; the depth of the ocean can’t. It’s cold and unforgiving and relentless, and when a storm starts brewing it can be a terrifying experience.

And yet Paul is confident in God, even in this situation. It all rested on the vision he’d been given, the promise that he would present his case to the emperor, and so this couldn’t be the end for him. Paul had confidence that God kept his promises, even if it looked as if nature was about to get in the way.

Do we have that confidence in God’s promises? When I was putting my kids to bed this evening we read a bit from Isaiah 40, about how God looks after us and strengthens us and protects us, holding us in his loving arms. And I could relate to that a little, because I need that reassurance – my job is less than secure right now, and there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the future looks like. What Acts 27 and Isaiah 40 remind me of is that God has promised to look after me, so I have nothing to fear. God is bigger than my employer. And Jesus has promised that each of us is important to him, that no one is forgotten, that no one slips under the radar. Even if I have to face my own shipwreck in the form of redundancy, I know that God’s promise endures, and that his strength sustains me.

“And so it was that all were brought safely to land.” Praise God!

Bible study: Acts 25-26 – Too much learning is driving you insane

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

Paul is not mad

After hearing Paul’s testimony, Festus exclaimed “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!” I think that’s become one of my favourite verses in Acts! However, humour aside, it’s soon very clear that Paul is not mad at all. Paul takes great pains (again) to explain his upbringing, showing that he is not some radical thinker who has always been a trouble-maker, and that in fact everything that he is doing as a Christian is consistent with his character before his conversion. He has not suddenly become a different person. What has changed is his perspective and understanding.

I have sometimes wondered where I would be without God. I gave my life to Jesus when I was six years old, at a kids’ holiday club during a February half term holiday. Ever since then (and arguably before, too) I have tried to live my life in step with Jesus’ teaching, to love other people even if they don’t love me, to forgive them when they hurt me, to try to follow God’s rules, to go where he leads me, and to tell others about him. Because of my faith I have met certain people, done certain things, got certain jobs, learnt certain lessons, that I might not have done otherwise. If it wasn’t for God I wouldn’t have met my wife, I wouldn’t have got any of the jobs I’ve had, I wouldn’t have the same network of friends. But would I have been a different person? Would my character have been different? Am I persistently positive and peaceful because of God, or would I have had that character anyway?

Paul’s testimony reveals that he always had zeal for God. If it weren’t for his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus he would have been imprisoning Christians left right and centre. What becomes apparent to those listening to his defence is that Paul hasn’t had a mid-life crisis or lost his mind; he’s still as rational as ‘normal’ as he ever was, it’s just pointing in a different direction now. And we, like Paul, are invited by God to change direction. Jesus wants to mold us to his plan, because his plan is better than ours, but that doesn’t mean making us into completely different people. God made us, and knows us, and that was deliberate; even if we don’t follow him, we are who he intended us to be. So it’s likely that even if I hadn’t given my life to Jesus when I was six I would still be peaceful and forgiving, I would still love Lego and cars and computers and music, I would still be me. Following Jesus doesn’t invalidate who I am.

The tricky bit for us is working out which bits of ourselves we can keep and which bits need redirecting. And that’s where knowing the Bible is useful. Like Paul, we do need to read the scriptures (yes, even the boring bits in Deuteronomy), because they are still important. We may not be bound by the Law in the same way as the Jews, because we have a personaly relationship with Jesus which is even more important, but those laws were given for a reason and we need to understand why if we are to understand the God we worship. Through the scriptures, God will show us which parts of our life are exactly the way he wanted them, and which parts we’ve distorted. Being a Christian isn’t about madness, or irrationality; it’s about becoming more and more the person we were originally made to be.

Bible study: Acts 21-24 – Freewill and predestination

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

Why didn’t Paul listen to the prophecy not to go to Jerusalem?

The observant of you will notice that I’ve read more than one chapter tonight. The story has really got some pace now, and I just didn’t want to stop reading!

Anyway, at the beginning of chapter 21 we have two instances of people telling Paul through the Holy Spirit not to go on to Jerusalem, warning him that he would be imprisoned if he did so. In both cases, Paul ignores the warning from God and goes to Jerusalem anyway. And, lo and behold, he almost immediately gets into trouble and is arrested. It’s quite an exciting story, actually, what with crowds, false accusations, court room scenes, relevations about connections with Rome, and an escape from a trap.

But the bit that puzzles me is Acts 23:11: “That night the Lord stood near [Paul] and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.'” Nothing wrong with that in itself, except that previously God had told Paul not to go to Jerusalem at all! So did those other Christians get the prophecy wrong? Was it God’s plan that Paul went to Jerusalem or not?

When I was at university there was a running joke about never mentioning “freewill” or “predestination” because they were too divisive and you’d never get people to stop debating about it. Personally, I thought that was a bit of a shame, because I like meaty discussions! At the root of the joke, though, was the understanding that you either accepted the concept of freewill OR you accepted the concept of predestination – the two were mutually exclusive. I never quite bought that, and following those uni years I thought more about it, and concluded that actually we need both. God allows us to have freewill because he knows the outcome; put another way, God knowing the outcome doesn’t stop us from having freewill.

Apologies if that sounds a little tangental, but it links back into the reading because Paul had freewill. God’s plan, by the sounds of it, was that Paul should bear witness in Rome. When Paul decided to ignore God’s plan and go to Jerusalem, events transpired that meant that Paul would go to Rome after all. Same destination, different route. God’s plan is perfect, but it’s more than just a carefully crafted Gantt chart or a colourful spreadsheet – God’s plan is achieved even when we have the freewill to change parts of it.

That’s both humbling and terrifying. On the one hand, I’m blown away by the grace in God’s plan, that even if we mess up and go our own way, God doesn’t give up on us. God’s plan is too big and too important to be derailed by my decisions, and yet he allows me to choose my own actions anyway. What love he has for us, that he would trust us so much, despite our track record. At the same time, I feel the weight of responsibility to listen to God more closely, knowing that he has graciously given me responsibility for my part in his plan, and I don’t want to mess it up. It’s freewill AND predestination, both at work together. And yes, that fries my brain sometimes.

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.

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.

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.

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.