Tag Archives: Paul

Running Through "Acts"

This is a new type of blog post for me: the public note pad.

I spent this evening reading through the book of Acts (yeah, the whole thing) in preparation for my New Testament II class with Dr. Robert Brawley. In true twitter style, I thought I would just shout out the first thoughts that came into my head out of this reading, before giving myself, or my readers, the benefit of careful reflection.


• Reading books of the Bible in their entirety, in one sitting, is something I should do more often; so much is missed when we break up our readings — whether done in the interest of spiritual enlightenment or intellectual stimulation — into short pericopes. A lot is happening in Acts in a short amount of time, and most of it is very interconnected.
• Paul really knows how to get to the point. I could take a lesson or two from him in that discipline, and many others as well. He finds words that connect to people in their current contexts. He doesn’t waste time with flattery;* he doesn’t sugarcoat his messages; he doesn’t weigh people down by giving out more information than the present moment requires. And man does he know what to say when you want to put a room on edge. (Acts 23:6)
• Don’t fall asleep when the sermon get’s too long; you just might fall out of a window.
• Acts seems to make some strong differentiations between traditional baptism, such as the kind administered by John the Baptist, and the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit.” From Pentecost through the episode at Cornelius’ house, no one really seems to understand what’s going on with the Holy Spirit. Paul acts like he has a handle on it later on, but doesn’t really take the time to explain what is happening. What is the second baptism, and what relation does it have to the “baptism of repentance” that John called for? Why is it granted to some and not others? Was the fiery phenomena the early apostles experienced unique to that time in the life of the church, or is it something believers should be looking for today?
• Pentecost was apparently marked as a holiday of the church year early on; Paul was hurrying to get back to Jerusalem to celebrate pentecost after several years of missionary work, although he was still persecuting the church when the actual “Day of Pentecost” occurred.
• Apparently, in chapter 16 Paul is kept from going to Asia so that Luke, the author, can join the trip for a while. The only indication readers have of this, however, is the abrupt change from the third person “they” style of narration to the first person “we” and “us.” The perspective shifts back and forth at several points later in the account as the journey progresses from city to city, and year to year.
• Secular life and religious life seem very compartmentalized in Acts; i.e., even in the midst of intense religious controversy — such as dueling pharisees and sadducees debating the doctrine of immortality while simultaneously stoning a man to death — life goes on. The normal Roman citizen is completely oblivious, and, other than in the interest of pursuing an odd sense of curiosity, probably couldn’t care less. The exception, of course, is Paul’s life. He blends ministry, work and daily life together in a way that seems to either baffle or captivate everyone else.
• Apart from the sadducees, most of Paul’s opposition comes from people with financial interests at stake: the men exploiting the young prophetess, the magicians, rival philosophers and the silversmiths who sell idols to pagan worshipers. None of these people are confronted by Paul, but they all take offense to him and his work.
• Peter seems to step up and take control of the Jerusalem church right away. No one seems to question this, but how his leadership role came to be is not really spelled out either.
• Paul is the man.
• Barnabas seems to be the nicest guy ever.


Well, that turned out to be a little longer than I thought. In an effort to both write more blog posts and spend more time reading, I plan to begin doing more of these on-the-fly lists of thoughts. Dangerous, I know.

* In most of Paul’s letters, eloquent, theologically rich salutations seem to be the norm. In public speaking, however, at least within the narrative of Acts, he has little space for extraneous words.
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A Tale of Two Kings

This is a manuscript of the sermon I preached earlier tonight. As I said in an earlier post, one of my great challenges in sermon writing has been seeing the sermon as more of a conversation than an essay. With this goal in mind, most of my sermons have ended up being perhaps too colloquial in order to break away from the routine of essay recital. While I don’t want to tout this sermon as a wonderful example of homiletics, I do feel like it represents the best balance between the colloquial and the reverent that I have yet come up with.

Let me know what you think.


First Scripture Reading:

Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”

But Naboth replied, “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”
So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.

His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”
He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’ ”
Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. In those letters she wrote: “Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”

So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. Then they sent word to Jezebel: “Naboth has been stoned and is dead.”

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.” When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’ ”

Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”

“I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. …’”

I Kings 21:1-21a (NIV)


Second Scripture Reading:

When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.”

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'”

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the LORD, the son born to you will die.”

After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill.

II Samuel 11:26-12:10, 12:13-15 (NIV)


A Tale of Two Kings

We all love heroes. As children, our heroes are always the clear good guys — Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman. We look to our heroes to see what we like best about ourselves. Our fictional heroes often personify this goodness. When we see them on the streets fighting the good fight, living honest lives and helping others, it makes us feel better about ourselves because we see a little bit of our own desire in them.

From time to time, though, even the strongest heroes stumble. Every other movie or so, Spiderman seems to stray off the straight and narrow path for a bit, only to recognize he’s not really himself unless he’s there, fighting on the side of good. Every now and then the egotistical, slightly conceited Bruce Wayne leaks through into Batman’s persona.

We turn a blind eye to these flaws in our childhood heroes. Maybe it’s because we’re still so pleased with the overwhelming number of good things they do that we let them off the hook. Or maybe it’s because we see ourselves in their failures too; we understand what it’s like to be human.

Of all the shining heroes of the Bible, perhaps David is the brightest.

David, Israel’s best king, established the temple at Jerusalem, led the people to live within God’s law and brought prosperity to the nation. He would forever be known as “A man after God’s own heart.”

In contrast, Ahab, Israel’s worst king, disregarded the Lord and condoned the worship of Canaanite gods. Ahab ignored the law Yahweh had given to the people of Israel and oppressed the nation. “Indeed,” scripture says, “there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

At first glance, David and Ahab are polar opposites. Yet both of these men have committed grave sins — conspiracy to murder and steal

David’s story is a familiar Sunday school lesson. He has fallen into a trap of ever-increasing sin, beginning with his lust for Bathsheba and ending with the conspiracy to murder her husband, one of David’s own top warriors. The prophet Nathan tells David a story about a rich man who takes something that doesn’t belong to him. David regains his moral compass, his sense of what is right and what is wrong. He repents, and God forgives his sins. There are still consequences to his actions, but David’s humble confession allows the Lord’s grace to move into his life, washing away the sin. He will go on to be Israel’s greatest king.

Ahab’s plot to steal Naboth’s vineyard is the final episode in a long series of bad decisions and sinful acts. Honoring God was never a priority for Ahab. At the beginning of his reign, Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of a rival king. He built temples and altars to honor Baal, the god of Jezebel’s homeland, while neglecting the altar of Yahweh. He oppressed his people. Ahab valued building projects more than the lives of his citizens. At the request of the queen, he had the prophets of God murdered. Even when the Lord continued to bless Ahab, giving him a military victory in what seemed to be a hopeless situation, Ahab disregards God’s instructions about dealing with the enemy king in order to gain a little praise and flattery for himself. We have no trouble understanding how this corrupt king could stoop so low as to plot against an innocent man for a few acres of choice farmland — land the king doesn’t really need at all. It’s simply in his nature. He’s that kind of guy, and Elijah is ready to give him what he deserves.

In “The Message” Eugene Peterson provides a little bit of color in the dialogue between the corrupt king and faithful prophet. Ahab’s “greeting” — if it can be called that — is characteristic of his relationship with the prophet. “My enemy! So, you’ve run me down!” “Yes, I’ve found you out,” said Elijah. “And because you’ve bought into the business of evil, defying God. ‘I will most certainly bring doom upon you, make mincemeat of your descendants, kill off every sorry male wretch who’s even remotely connected with the name Ahab. And I’ll bring down on you the same fate that fell on Jeroboam and Baasha — you’ve made me that angry by making Israel sin.’”

Confronted with the harsh reality of his sin, of what his life has become, David says “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Ahab says “So you have found me, my enemy!”

David confesses his sins because he comes to recognize them as evil.

Ahab admits his sins because he knows he has been caught.

Without hesitation, Nathan offers history’s great king a word straight from heaven: “Your sins are forgiven. The Lord has taken them away.”

Your sins are forgiven.” Is it really that easy? For God it is. For Nathan it was. For David, it had to be.

Elijah’s answer to Ahab’s confession is just as quick, but not quite as comforting. “’I will destroy you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will bring disaster on you. I will consume you.’”

On second thought, maybe Elijah’s judgment is just as comforting as Nathan’s. Don’t we want a God who delivers swift justice to the evil ones? Don’t we want a God who can look into the hearts of men and separate the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the rebellious, the penitent from the insolent? Don’t men like Ahab — men who let selfish ambition and reckless greed — need to get what they have coming to them? It’s only fair.

David understood this. He knew what was fair and what wasn’t. His strong sense of right and wrong is what ushered Israel into its greatest period of prosperity.

David also understood that he couldn’t do it alone. David’s relationship to Nathan is one of the best prophet-king partnerships in scripture. David appreciates having someone he can trust hold him accountable. He is always willing to listen to what Nathan has to say and considers his advice.

Ahab’s relationship with Elijah is likely the worst prophet-king relationship in Israel’s history. Elijah’s confrontations with Ahab get more and more heated as time goes on, to the point that Ahab seeks to have the prophet killed. Why is it so hard for some people to take good advice, or even to listen to someone who may come from a different perspective?

David also understood that he needed God. Hear the good king’s own words, recorded in Psalm 5:1-8:

        Give ear to my words, O Lord;
                Give heed to my sighing.
        Listen to the sounds of my cry,
                my King and my God,
                for to you I pray.
        O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
                In the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

        For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
                Evil will not sojourn with you.
        The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
                you hate all evildoers.
        You destroy those who speak lies;
                The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty, and deceitful.

        But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
                will enter your house,
        I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
        Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
                because of my enemies;
                make your way straight before me.

NRSV

We may say we want a god of justice; a god who punishes evil and destroys liars. It’s true that God hates evil. David told us “The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.” But thank goodness he didn’t stop there. Our God is not a simple God.

In 1787, the Constitution of the United States marked the beginning of a new era in human society. It set a precedent for how government should be run and how justice should be administered. It has been replicated throughout the world and has withstood the test of time largely because of its revolutionary simplicity. For many people, justice and government, right and wrong, evil and righteousness, are simple things.

Fortunately for David, and for us, our God is not quite that simple. If he was, David would be right there with the worst of them. David’s sins put him in the same class as Ahab. Ahab conspired to murder a man because he wanted to steal his family farm. David conspired to murder a man because he wanted to steal his wife.

“The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.”

“But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
        will enter your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.”

History might record David as the great king, the righteous ruler of Israel, but David wasn’t quite so proud of himself. He knew that no matter how good he was, no matter how bad he was, it was ultimately God who had the power to save, and it was only through God that he, the king of Israel, could be redeemed.

From time to time, we may ask God for justice, but I for one am glad that what he offers is not justice, but grace; not judgment, but an abundance of steadfast love.

What, then, is to become of our friend King Ahab? How does he fit into God’s order of things? If there is a limit to this abundant love David spoke of, surely Ahab found it. Let’s go back and listen in a little more on this scene between Ahab and his “enemy,” the prophet Elijah. Elijah has pronounced his sentence on Ahab: total destruction. This is the justice man seeks. This is the justice Elijah cries out for with every ounce of mortal passion within him. This is the justice Ahab deserves.

“When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days, but in his son’s days I will bring disaster on his house.”

I Kings 21:27-29 (NRSV)

This business of the son being doomed for the father’s sin is confusing at first, but rest assured that Ahab’s son gets a fair chance as well. This line tells us more about how each person is responsible for their own choices before God, that is, each child has to seek out God’s grace on his own, not ride into heaven on the coattails of his parents. But that’s another sermon for another day.

What’s important here, is Ahab doesn’t get what he deserves any more than David got what he deserved. They are both helpless victims of God’s abundant, steadfast love. They are two of Israel’s most notorious kings — David is notorious for his general goodwill, his desire to serve his people and to please the Lord; Ahab is notorious for the way he oppressed his people and spent most of his life scorning Yahweh and all those who called on him. They are both great sinners. They are both helpless to save themselves, and, in the end, they both turn to the God of Creation, the God of Love, the God of Mercy, the God of Grace, to redeem them. And he does.

God is still able to redeem us today. He sent his son, Jesus Christ, to demonstrate his love for humanity. Confronted with this desperate need for salvation above and beyond the power of men, the world responded in much the same way Ahab responds to Elijah. “So, Jesus, you have found us out. “

Jesus was scorned, attacked and brutally murdered so that shameful men might not have to deal with their own shortcomings, with their own sins. Even this was not enough to test the limits of God’s abundant, steadfast love. To make his point once and for all, the Lord Jesus rose from the grave. He went back into the world of men — the world that had beaten him away in an effort to beat back it’s own sin. Jesus’ message to us is the same message Nathan took to David, the same message Elijah took to Ahab. “You can’t do it on your own. Admit it. Believe it. And then, once you’ve found your limit, believe in me. Believe in the God of all Creation. Believe in my power to save you. To wash away your sin and give you new life, abundant life, in me.”

This is the message everyone — humble fishermen, sun-burnt farmers toiling away at the family vineyard, and even the world’s mightiest kings — everyone, needs to understand.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes:

We ourselves are Jews by birth [you and I, we are already members of God’s family]¹ and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. … For through the law I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Galatians 2:15-16,19-21 (NRSV)

1. My interpretative addition.


Radically Simple

If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more. … But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ.

More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things — indeed, I regard them as dung! — that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness — a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness. My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians — 3:4, 7-11 (NET)

We have talked a lot about “call” during my first semester at Divinity School. At the beginning of my course with Dr. Michael Cogdill, we focused on the call of Paul, also called Saul.¹ Paul is often used as an example of a person who made a radical change of direction — a complete 180º — in his decision to follow Christ. The phrase “she had a ‘Damascus Road experience,'” referencing Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Messiah on his way to Syria, is common vernacular today. Indeed, considering Paul’s position when he left Jerusalem — “I do not believe Jesus is the Christ” — compared with his stance once he arrived in Damascus — “I do believe Jesus is the Christ” — it is fair to say that he made a total change.

A broader look at Paul’s life, however, shows that perhaps this change wasn’t as sharp as it initially appears to be. Paul had always had a deep desire to know more about God. Although he worked as a tent maker (Acts 18:1-3), not a religious professional, Paul devoted his time to studying the faith and the ancient scriptures. He became a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:1-3), the most accomplished teacher of his day. Saul wanted to do all he could to please God and serve him, so he joined the Pharisees — a religious-political sect of Jews that followed the rules of their faith, as they understood them, in the strictest sense possible, holding each other accountable along the way. Even among the Pharisees, Saul’s desire to follow the will of God and serve him was unsurpassed (Galatians 1:13-24).

Saul had spent his life studying the scriptures and prophets and knew them as well, or better, than anyone else of his generation. He was a Roman citizen² (Acts 22:22-29), but he had already decided that following God and serving him was more important than focusing on building a career and amassing money. He valued education, he paid attention to the secular philosophies of his day (Acts 17:16-31) and he valued a hard days work. Above all else, however, Saul was committed to serving God, although his understanding of God had been skewed by his narrow focus (Acts 7:51-8:3).

Clearly, Saul was the perfect person to lead the effort of spreading the message of Christ to the world. He had the knowledge, he had the credibility, he had the resources, and above all, his zeal for serving the Lord was unmatched. He just didn’t quite understand what it was God wanted from him.³ Meeting Christ has a way of bringing clarity to things.

In the same way, whenever we find ourselves at a point of conflicting values — when a dilemma of ethics seems to permeate a decision — studying the life of Christ is the best method for clearly judging a right course of action.

Understanding Paul’s life in this way — recognizing the fact that his love of God and his desire to live a life of service did not begin on the Damascus Road — poses a tough question for Christians today. How do we deal with fundamentalists from other faiths? Can we condemn them for holding fast to what they “know” to be true?

Caught in this situation, even as he was being stoned, “Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!'” (Acts 7:59-60).

Maybe Stephen was just as confused as Saul was. He seems pretty extreme himself. Again, for clarity, I turn to Jesus:

So when they came to the place that is called “The Skull,” they crucified him there, along with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. But Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
Luke 23:33-34 (NET)

Following Jesus isn’t easy, but as Paul found out, it’s worth the cost.

Notes:

1. Contrary to tradition, Saul’s name was not changed following his encounter with Christ. The biblical record shows that he continued to be called by both names after his profession of faith. Like many Jews at that time, Paul kept his Hebrew name (Saul) but used a Greco-Roman name (Paul) in common circles. Considering his zeal for Judaism, and the fact that accounts of his early life are generally concerned with his involvement in the faith, before his conversion to Christianity his Hebrew name was used most frequently.

2. Paul received his citizenship through inheritance, which was an unusual thing at a time when most people living under the rule of Caesar were not considered citizens. This indicates that Paul was likely from a wealthy family of considerable influence.

3. The fact that Paul condoned the killing of an innocent man is not lost on me. Clearly, this is not the kind of behavior God desires from anyone, but this gross misunderstanding of God’s very clear instructions (“Don’t kill. Period.”) has been a recurring issue among people throughout history who have thought they were enacting the will of God. Thankfully, Paul eventually came to recognize the wisdom in putting Christ first. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)