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Monday, November 5, 2012

Reaching Out

Reaching Out

Christians in Jerusalem have been ravaged. Jewish religious enforcer, Saul, has entered house after house, dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.

The Christian church in Jerusalem is scattered to far corners of the Roman Empire.

Except the apostles.

"Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ." Acts 8:5 (ESV)

PHILIP: Philippos (fond of horses); from philos (dear, a friend, fond, friendly; an associate or neighbor) and hippos (a horse)

Evidently, Philip's parents loved horses, or they wanted Philip to love horses. More likely, the name is a reference to the power of horses. Most of the biblical references to horses are connected to armies, conquest and power.

Philip was the name of one of the twelve apostles called by Jesus (Matthew 10:3). Philip was the brother of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:3). He was from Bethsaida, a town in the region of Galilee, the same birthplace as Andrew and Peter (John 1:44)

Philip was an evangelist from the very moment he met Jesus, immediately finding a friend, Nathanael, and bringing him to Jesus (John 1:45). It was to Philip that many came first to learn more about Jesus (John 12:21).

Philip was chosen by the Christians in Jerusalem to join with Stephen, and five other men, to the "table-serving ministry" (Acts 6:5).

It was Philip who first saw the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem as an opportunity to reach people for Christ, people outside of the mainstream, the less-than-affluent, the marginalized ones.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Many Christians do not regard themselves as active evangelists. Many are aware of their own timidness and hesitancy to risk boldly witnessing to others about Jesus. Does the personality of Philip seem greatly different than that of yours? Is Philip motivated by a specially-given spiritual gift, or is his attitude one that we should all be pursuing? What factor most often hinders you from speaking boldly to others about Jesus?

SAMARIA: Samareia (a city and region of Palestine); from Hebrew shomeron (watch-station); from shamar (to hedge about, as with thorns; to guard, protect, attend to)

Samaria is about 30 miles north of Jerusalem, built upon a hill in the center of a wide, basin-shaped valley. The city was named by Israelite king Omri after the owner of the hill: "Samaria of Shemer". (1 Kings 16:23,24)

It was in Samaria that Jesus confronted, lovingly, a woman drawing water at the well.

"A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, - Give me a drink. - (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, - How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria? - ( For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, - If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, Give me a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." John 4:7-10 (ESV)

Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. Some desired to insult and scorn Jesus, calling Him a Samaritan, and thus, demon-possessed:

"The Jews answered him [Jesus], - Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?" John 8:48 (ESV)

The animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans grew from the results of foreign conquest. The Babylonian King crushed the the nation of Israel, as well as numerous other people groups throughout the Middle East. The Babylonian plan for reconstruction and reorganization included the deportation into Samaria a mixed population of people conquered, no matter what religion or nationality.

"Persians, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnappar deported and settled in the cities of Samaria and in the rest of the province Beyond the River." Ezra 4:9-10 (ESV)

Samaria became a bizarre conglomeration of cultures and commercialism, heavily influenced by religions from all over the world. Orthodox, self-righteous Jews would regard Samaria as rife with backslidden Israelites and pagan idol worship, given to immorality and devilish desires.

Even before the Babylonian conquest, Samaria was at the center of contention. The people of Israel were divided in two. Half followed one king, half the other, calling the northern half, "Israel", and the southern half, "Judah". Samaria became the royal capital for Israel, Jerusalem the rule over Judah. (1 Kings 16:24).

One of the most wicked of kings, and there were many, was Ahab, king of Israel. He erected an altar for the god Baal, building it in Samaria (1 Kings 16:32). Worship of Baal continued for generations in Samaria (2 Kings 1:3), as well as worship of Astarte or Asherah, a Phoenician goddess, also named Ashtoreth, the goddess of love (2 Kings 13:6).

WHAT DO YOU THINK? For us, what city in our country would compare to Samaria? What city would compare to Jerusalem? What current issues are often in the news, describing things that are dividing our country and marginalizing people? What is your response to people who describe wars, revolutions, and national violence as God's punishment for sin?

Samaria was besieged and conquered by Assyria.

The king of Assyria deported almost the entire Israelite population, exiling them to Assyria. The writer of the Book of Second Kings connects the conquest and deportation directly to Samaritan Israel's failure to obey all that God had commanded through Moses (2 Kings 18:12).

In his conquest speech, the king of Assyria listed all the gods and goddesses worshipped by the Samaritan Israelites, scorning their worthless religious trust in powerless deities:

"Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the lands have delivered their lands out of my hand?" 2 Kings 18:33-35 (ESV)

The southern kingdom, Judah, fared no better, adopting idol worship and sinful excess just as easily as their hated brothers and sisters in Samaria.

"The Lord said by his servants the prophets,- Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day." 2 Kings 21:10-15 (ESV)

God again used the king of Assyria as a rod of His anger, stirring the king's heart against Judah, the home of the self-righteous, "true Jews", the ones filled with scorn for their northern siblings. The Assyrian king cackled with pride as he assembled his armies against Judah, citing examples of nations he's crushed:

"Are not my commanders all kings? Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad? Is not Samaria like Damascus? As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols, whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols as I have done to Samaria and her images?" Isaiah 10:8-11 (ESV)

God's heart was broken over both halves of His chosen people's condition:

"In the prophets of Samaria I saw an unsavory thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray. But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah." Jeremiah 23:13-14 (ESV)

Yet God planned a day of redemption and unity. Micah the prophet wrote of God's revelation to him concerning the "latter days".

"It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: - Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." Micah 4:1-2 (ESV)

The "mountain of the house of the Lord" would not be Samaria or Jerusalem, no longer would there be "Israel" and "Judah", "us" and "them".

God's "mountain" would be a Person.

"He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever." Micah 4:3-5 (ESV)

God's Redeemer would be a Shepherd-King:

"He shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth." Micah 5:4 (ESV)

Micah ends his passionate letter with worship for God Almighty:

"Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. 19 He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." Micah 7:18-19 (ESV)

Philip went to Samaria to preach to his brothers and sisters about God's Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Does this story have direct connections with your family history? Do you have brothers or sisters, parents or cousins with whom you now have little or no contact, with anger and disappointment felt and expressed on both sides, for long years? Perhaps with brothers and sisters in Christ or other churches? Would sharing with them what you've experienced in Jesus be seen as a peaceful gesture, or an attack? What risks did Philip face in going to Samaria? What risks do you face in telling others about Jesus?

The Kindness of Strangers, by Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons License