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Monday, April 30, 2012

Big Enough to Save

Big Enough to Save

"Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people." Acts 6:8 (ESV)

In our modern, commercialized minds, Stephen does not fit the image of "Table Server". Rather than function as a mild committee member, helping to make food distribution fair, he lives a life "full of grace and power", "doing great wonders and signs among the people." The apostles were right to view ministry leaders, leaders of any Christian ministry, as reflectors of Christ Himself, requiring hearts of honesty, full of God's Spirit and wisdom.

GRACE: pistis (persuasion, credence, conviction, reliance, constancy and truth); from peitho (to convince, pacify, conciliate, assent or rely)

The ESV translation uses "grace", but the original word is better translated as faith. Stephen was full of faith. Faith in Christ provided the motivation for all that Stephen wanted and all that he did. Stephen was completely convinced of the truth that Jesus was Lord and Savior, all-powerful and all-wise and all-good.

The faith that filled the heart of Stephen moved him to act with power.

POWER: dynamis (force); from dynamai (to be able or possible)

Faith convinced Stephen that all things were possible with Christ. God orchestrated people, places and things in such a way that His power was seen and felt in wonderful, miraculous ways in and through Stephen.

GREAT: megas (big); related to megistos (greatest or very great) and meizon (larger)

The miracles were big. The power of God was unmistakeable, huge and undeniable.

WONDERS: teras (a prodigy or omen); "prodigy" refers to someone endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities, from the Latin word, prodigium, "portent", something considered to be an omen.

Wonders provided authenticity or fulfilment of prophecy.

"You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Joel 2:27-32 (ESV)

Confidence in God's willingness and power to save people in trouble comes through seeing God controlling dreams, visions, sky, earth, sun, moon and more. When God's power exceeds human ability, we gain trust in Him as all-sufficient.

Peter quoted this prophecy from Joel and immediately connected it to Jesus:

"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know." Acts 2:22 (ESV)

The immediate result of seeing wonders is fear, followed quickly by faith, joy, generosity, worship and community:

"Awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." Acts 2:43-47 (ESV)

Stephen's faith and power resulted in wonders and miracles, fulfilling the prophecy that God would save His people.

Being named as a committee member, one of several people assigned to lead the Table Serving Ministry, was the launch-pad for a larger ministry that made God's mega-power obvious to all.

And it began with simple prayer:

"These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them." Acts 6:6 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What simple prayer would express your desire to be completely convinced of the goodness and power of Jesus, convinced to the point of being available to God for whatever would glorify Him as big enough to save people in trouble, even to the point of wonders and miracles?

Image provided by Casey Reed/NASA. An artist depicts the incredibly powerful flare that erupted from the red dwarf star EV Lacertae. Image is in the public domain.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Devoted to Prayer and Preaching

Devoted to Prayer and Preaching

"But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." Acts 6:4 (ESV)

DEVOTE: proskartereo (to be earnest towards, to persevere, be constantly diligent, to attend, to adhere closely to); from pros (forward to, toward) and kartereo (to be strong, steadfast or patient); from kratos (vigor)

The English word "devote" comes from a Latin word meaning "from a vow", to be dedicated by a solemn act. The English word tends to be used to describe emotions of compassion and selfless love for others. It has a quality of softness, with tones of tenderness. "The woman devoted herself to the unending care of her ailing husband."

The Greek word used by Paul is as similar to that our our English word, devote, as an M1 Abrams battle tank is similar to an XTS Cadillac luxury vehicle. The apostles declared that they would make prayer and preaching their M1 battle tank: unstoppably strong and steadfast.

The fundamental attitude in the word translated here as "devote" is dependable strength. Jesus used the same word to describe a boat. An enthusiastic crowd had surrounded Jesus on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, threatening to crush Him in their excitement as He healed and spoke:

"When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him." Mark 3:8-10 (ESV)

The Greek word translated as "ready for" is the same word Paul used, proskartereo, translated in Acts as "devote". A boat cannot express emotions such as compassion or tenderness, but it can be dependable and strong.

Most commmonly this word is translated as "continue" or "constantly". The apostles devoted themselves to prayer and preaching constantly, steadfastly, as a matter of high priority.

It is obvious that devotion to prayer and preaching as matters of extreme importance did not mean that the apostles did nothing but pray and preach. As important as prayer and preaching was for them, they still reserved time and attention to other matters: eating, drinking, sleeping, resting, discussing, problem-solving, arranging for transportation, paying bills, laundry, and more...all the daily requirements of all humans, since Adam and Eve to now.

The element that distinguishes "high priority" from "low priority" seems to be how often something is done and what things are postponed so it can be done instead.

Food, water and sleep were important to the disciples, but were important only because they allowed them to pray and preach. They refused to eat, drink and sleep instead of praying and preaching. Rather, they ate, drank and slept in order to pray and preach as often as they could.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How would you answer the question, "Why do you eat, drink and sleep?" Is praying and preaching a part of your answer? Should it be? What things in your life are you resolved to do every day, even if it means postponing things like eating, drinking or sleeping?

The church in Jerusalem selected from among themselves seven men, appointed supervisors of the Table Serving Ministry.

  • Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit
  • Philip
  • Prochorus
  • Nicanor
  • Timon
  • Parmenas
  • Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch

Stephen will figure prominently in the next section as a bold witness for Jesus. Philip also is described later as the Evangelist, preaching and baptizing.

Prochorus must have grown up surrounded by music...his name means "before the dance". Nicanor, "victorious", Timon, "valuable", Parmenas, "constant", and Nicolaus, "victorious over the people", all are mentioned only this one time in the New Testament, so we know little about them. Nicanor, perhaps, was named after a Jewish general who led troops in revolt against Rome a century earlier. Tradition holds that Parmenas suffered martyrdom under a later Roman Emperor, Trajan.

Nicolaus is described as a proselyte of Antioch.

PROSELYTE: proselytos (an arriver from a foreign region, a convert to Judaism); from proserchomai (to approach, come near, visit, worship, assent to); from pros (forward to) and erchomai (to come or go)

The Jewish religious leaders were persistent missionaries. Jesus declared that they would "travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte," (Matthew 23:15). Jesus rebuked their efforts because they made the convert "twice as much a child of hell as yourselves."

It was a huge influx of proselytes which swarmed around the house of the apostles on the day of Pentecost, amazed to hear simple Galilean Christians proclaiming the mighty works of God in dozens of languages: Parthian, Median, Elamite, Mosopotamian, Judean, Cappadocian, Pontian, Asian, Phrygian, Pamphylian, Egyptian, Libyan, Cyrene, Roman and Arabian (Acts 2:8-11).

It seems likely that Nicolaus was one of the three thousand foreignors in Jerusalem that day who repented of their sin and were baptized in the name of Jesus, gaining forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus...these were the men considered by the Christians in Jerusalem to be "men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom," (Acts 6:3). The apostles confirmed the church's selection, praying for the men and publicly appointing them to the ministry by laying their hands on them.

Luke's summary of this tale of conflict-resolution within the church is simple:

"The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith." Acts 6:7 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Identify from within this passage at least three principles of leadership that could apply to any organization or business.

  • Communication: leaders listened to, and acted upon, serious complaints
  • Vision: leaders identified, and remained committed to, their mission
  • Integrity: leaders held themselves and others to godly standards of thought and behavior

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What is the one principle described in this passage that can apply only to the church?

Faith: leaders "hear under", or listen attentively to, the truth revealed by God in His Holy Word, relying utterly upon Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, delighting constantly in His grace and mercy, honoring and thanking God in every thought and act.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What do you think the church in Jerusalem saw that convinced them of the spiritual health of these seven men chosen to lead the Table Serving Ministry? Do you believe that the leaders of our church...pastor, elders, teachers and ministry leaders...are "devoted to prayer and to the ministry of the word"? What do you see, or fail to see, that indicates the spiritual health of the leaders of our church?

Image provided by Leland Francisco, www.flickriver.com/photos/lel4nd, Creative Commons License

Monday, April 16, 2012

Serving Tables: Leadership Qualities

Serving Tables: Leadership Qualities

Conflict divided the early church in Jerusalem. On one side, the Hellenists, preferring an intellectual emphasis in worship. On the other, the Hebrews, preferring a cultural, genealogical emphasis in worship.

The apostles, as leaders of the church, directed the assembly to create a committee:

"Brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty." Acts 6:3 (ESV)

The apostles required the "Table Serving Ministry" leaders to excel in three qualities:

  • Good repute
  • Full of the Spirit
  • Full of wisdom

First we will examine "good repute".

GOOD REPORT: martyreo (to be a witness, to testify, give evidence, bear record, be well reported of, testify); from martys (a witness, or a "martyr")

"Good report" is translated from a single Greek word that means "witness", whether of one telling what he has seen and heard, or of one which others report as being a reliable witness.

Becoming a reliable witness requires that a person to witness reliably. In other words, there must be evidence that the person has repeatedly told the truth in a variety of details. The evidence must be seen by other reliable witnesses, people able and willing to endorse another's honesty.

Having a reputation of honesty requires community. A recognized witness of "good report" must have lived among many people...talking, working, playing, trading, or praying...for time enough to gain that reputation.

A citizen must undergo questioning by the court before being allowed to serve as a juror. The citizen must have evidence of living in the community, and the person's work, recreation and philosophy are open to public question. The defendant, prosecutor and judge all have direct control over the decision to name a juror, because a juror will be a witness of the trial, and the juror will judge others who claim to be witnesses of the truth.

The apostles saw the ministry of serving tables as being essential and influential. They understood that the "Serving Table Ministry" leaders must be honest, and they must be known for their honesty.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Who in our church functions as a ministry leader? How do we determine the honesty of prospective leaders? Why would the "Serving Table Ministry" leaders be required to be scrupulously honest?

It is easily apparent that "good report" goes hand in hand with witnessing of Jesus. Christians in Jerusalem could hardly desire leaders who were not honest about Jesus, or leaders who were unwilling to be open and enthusiastic about telling the truth of Jesus. The apostles understood that serving tables was a direct obedience of the command to be witnesses of Jesus.

"When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning." John 15:26-27 (ESV)

"You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." Acts 1:8 (ESV)

Being a witness of Jesus is far removed from the emotionless statement of fact given by a witness in a trial. Christians are to witness with love and compassion, emotion and enthusiasm:

"You know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory." 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 (ESV)

"Charged" is translated from the same word as "good report": martyreo (to be a witness).

The ones who benefited from the table ministry, as well as the leaders of the ministry, required a "good report" of being a faithful witness as well.

"Honor widows who are truly widows...She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day...Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work." 1 Timothy 5:3,5,9-10 (ESV)

"Reputation" is from the same Greek word as "good report" and "witness".

Dishonest leaders, or leaders who are unwilling to be openly honest, will tend to encourage followers who are dishonest or unwilling to be openly honest. Several years after the Christians in Jerusalem had organized the "Serving Table Ministry", Paul urged Pastor Timothy to be careful to follow the same requirements for honesty and good report.

Children and grandchildren who are able should support their parents, rather than expecting their community or church to provide food and shelter for them. People who withhold or hide their ability to help their parents fail to be honest...they fail to be reliable witnesses.

"She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives." 1 Timothy 5:5-6 (ESV)

Paul described a widow who is self-indulgent (King James Version: "she that liveth in pleasure", to be voluptuous, to make luxury and sensual appetite one's greatest desire). Paul said the self-indulgent person is dead even while they live. The Greek word for "dead" means "to die", a literal or figurative death.

In contrast, having a reputation for good works is evidence of a person who sets God as her greatest desire, a "Christian hedonist", one who treasures the pleasure of knowing God above all else.

Having a "good report", a reputation for honesty and being a reliable witness is solidly based upon one's faith.

"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation." Hebrews 11:1-2 (ESV)

"Commendation" is the same word as "good report".

The writer of the Book of Hebrews described the faithful lives of several people, as recorded in the Old Testament. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and more are all examples of people living according to their faith, people who honestly and openly gave evidence of the truth, risking their lives for the sake of truth, refusing to conceal or distort the truth.

Eternal life depends upon our having a "good report":

"Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life." 1 John 5:10-12 (ESV)

Faith in Jesus as the Son of God is evidence that God is true, that God gives eternal life, and that eternal life is in Jesus. Those who are reliable witnesses of Jesus as the Son of God and Giver of Life will have life...life that extends beyond and above physical death of our earthly bodies.

Seemingly mundane ministries, work that perhaps appears to be lowly, even bureaucratic or minor, are in reality opportunities to be reliable witnesses of Jesus. Every moment of our lives, in fact, whether in daily routine or life-changing drama, serves as platform for praise, worship and appreciation for the grace of God shown to us through Jesus.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What work is done in our church, with and for other believers, that could be described as "unspiritual" or "non-religious"? In what way can we proclaim the sanctity and importance of even mundane labor and the "witness-status" of every believer and every work?

The leader of a ministry must be full of the Spirit and wisdom, as well as having good repute as a reliable, honest witness of truth.

"Brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty." Acts 6:3 (ESV)

FULL OF: pleres (replete, covered over or complete); from pimplemi or pleo (to fill, imbue, influence, supply or fulfil)

SPIRIT: hagios (sacred, pure, blameless, religious or consecrated) and pneuma (a current of air, a breath or breeze; a spirit, soul, angel, daemon, God); from hagos (an awful thing)

WISDOM: sophia (wisdom); from sophos (wise); akin to saphes (clear)

"Full of the Spirit" or "Full of the Holy Spirit" is found 19 times in the New Testament.

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness." Luke 4:1 (ESV)

Stephen, chosen by the church in Jerusalem to be part of the Table Serving Ministry, was specifically described as "...a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit..." Acts 6:5 (ESV)

Later, Stephen did great wonders and signs, "full of grace and power", speaking with "wisdom and the Spirit". (Acts 6:8)

Stephen was also "full of the Holy Spirit" at the moment of his death from stoning. The experience allowed him to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God in heaven. (Acts 7:55)

The church sent Barnabas, "full of the Holy Spirit and of faith", to preach in Antioch.

Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit when he rebuked Elymas the magician, calling upon the Lord to blind Elymas temporarily. (Acts 13:9)

Being filled with God's Holy Spirit is not a common phenomena. The biblical references to being filled with the Spirit are to specific people, implying that it is not a universal human experience.

Being filled with the Spirit is not under human control or will. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment of conception in his mother's womb (Luke 1:15).

Without warning or willing desire, John's mother was filled with the Holy Spirit, prophetically blessing Mary, the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:41-45).

John's father experienced the same thing, suddenly given words of blessing and prophecy regarding his son being the herald of the Lord, the "horn of salvation" (Luke 1:67-80).

The apostles first experienced the filling of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, overwhelming them with crushing sound, glorifying them with fire, amazing the city with miraculous words of praise of God in foreign languages (Acts 2:4).

Peter confronted the religious rulers who had arrested him, exalting boldly the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Peter was released from prison and reported what had happened, and the whole church exploded in prophetical song, filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8-31).

Most of the instances appear to be spontaneous, without conscious effort or will of the person experiencing the filling of the Spirit. However, a disciple at Damascus, Ananias, responded to a dream that directed him to lay hands on Saul of Tarsus, later to be named Paul the Apostle. Ananias, although frightened by the violent reputation of Saul, obeyed. He layed hands on blind Saul, and specifically told him "be filled with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 9:13).

Whether suddenly surprised by the experience, or sobbing with great desire for it, the filling of the Holy Spirit is always under the direct control of God Almighty, and it is allowed only for the purpose of showing the mercy and grace, the holiness and righteousness, and the power and wisdom of God.

Paul described the filling the Spirit as being overwhelmed with God's power:

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." Romans 15:13 (ESV)

Paul understood that the power of the Holy Spirit fills a person in order to overwhelm them with hope: confident expectation based upon faith in God. This filling of the Holy Spirit's power brings immeasureable joy and peace: cheerfulness and calm delight, happiness, well-being, and spiritual prosperity, being completely reconciled to our Creator.

Being filled with the Spirit is to be filled with the fullness of God. All that God is, His glory, power and love, begin working in us:

"I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith-that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen." Ephesians 3:14-21 (ESV)

We can recognize the phenomenon of being filled with a spirit, whether good or bad, by examining the emotions and behaviors that a person expresses, whether of one's own self, or of others.

Being filled with the spirit of humanity results in a person controlling others, exalting personal power and pleasure, outward beauty with inward ugliness, injustice, unforgiving, untrusting, greed, self-indulgence, uncleanness, hypocrisy and lawlessness, murder, poisonous, cruelty and persecution (Matthew 23). Refusing God's Holy Spirit brings ungratefulness, futility, foolishness, idolatry, impurity, lies, unnatural relations, consumed with dishonorable passion, error, debasement, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, hate, insolence, haughtiness, boasting, disobedience, faithless, heartless and ruthless (Romans 1).

Being filled with the spirit of divinity results in a person expressing cleanness, fruitfulness, joy, knowledge, truth, boldness, repentance, righteousness, justice, godly worship, peace, reconciliation, glory (John 15-16-17). Gladly treasuring God's Spirit brings freedom, life, adoption by God as His sons and daughters, heirs of glory, redemption, hope, goodness and victory(Romans 8). Spirit-filled believers experience every spiritual blessing, lavish wisdom and insight, a purpose for living, unity with God, wisdom, revelation and knowledge, enlightened hearts: the immeasureable greatness of his power (Ephesians 1). Christians are strengthened, rooted and grounded in love that surpasses human knowledge, singing and making melody, giving thanks and caring for others. (Ephesians 3-5).

Paul summed up nicely the wonderful experience of being filled with God's Spirit:

"We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father." Colossians 1:9-12 (ESV)

The leaders of the church in Jerusalem understood that the conflict between the Hellenists and Hebrews, on the surface, was a lack of adequate organization. Assigning a small group of men to be responsible for fair distribution of food to needy families was the first, initial solution to the surface problem.

However, the apostles wisely realized that the root issue that caused the conflict in the first place was not lack of organization. Rather, the deeper cause of conflict was the lack of knowledge of God as revealed by Scripture. The apostles made biblical knowledge the ultimate solution. They insisted that the Table Serving Ministry leaders be filled with God's Spirit, as demonstrated by their reputation as reliable, bold witnesses and wisdom in words and behavior. This would immediately increase the number of leaders who were obviously filled with God's Spirit, men who were allowing God's power to control their words and actions.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Imagine attempting to write a brief, one-page application form for prospective ministry leaders. What three, simple questions would you suggest for the application form? What key words would you look for to support someone's claim that they were "filled with God's Spirit"?

Image provided by Stephen Oung, https://sites.google.com/site/stephenoung/, Creative Commons License.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Hellenist versus Hebrew: Conflict in the Church

Hellenist versus Hebrew: Conflict in the Church

"Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, - It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables." Acts 6:1-2 (ESV)

Who were the disciples?

DISCIPLES: mathetes (a learner or pupil); from manthano or matheo (to learn, in any way)

Mathetes (disciples or brothers) appears in the Book of Acts only once before this (Acts 1:15), yet it ends up being one of the most frequently used descriptions of Christians in the Book of Acts, with 30 occurrences. It can be found 268 times in all of the New Testament.

The word translated as disciple or brother, with four other words found in the Book of Acts, appears to be the most frequent descriptors of "Christian":

MATHETES (a learner or pupil, as in Acts 1:15, used 30 times in Acts, 268 in NT)

ADELPHOS (brothers, of the same womb, as in Acts 1:16, used 57 times in Acts, 346 times in NT)

PISTEUO (those having faith, as in Acts 2:44, used 40 times in Acts, 248 times in NT)

EKKLESIA (the called out ones, as in Acts 5:11, used 24 times in Acts, 118 times in NT)

LAOS (a people, as in Acts 5:12, used 48 times in Acts, 143 times in NT)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Can these five descriptors of "Christian" be ordered in some way? Perhaps by origin or importance or frequency?

  •  
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Who were the Hellenists?

HELLENISTS: Hellenistes (a Greek-speaking Jew); from Hellen (an inhabitant of Hellas, a non-Jew); from Hellas (Greece, a country of Europe)

Hellas, or Greece, was probably first peopled by descendents of Javan, a grandson of Noah.

"These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood. The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras." Genesis 10:1-2 (ESV)

JAVAN: yawan (effervescing, hot and active; Ionians, the Greeks); from yayin (to effervesce; wine or intoxication)

"The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations." Genesis 10:4-5 (ESV)

"As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. And the goat is the king of Greece." Daniel 8:20-21 (ESV)

In Daniel 8:21, "Greece" is the same word used for "Javan": yawan.

Although Jerusalem was home to a group of Christian Hellenists, the apostle Paul would later find himself at odds with them:

"[Paul] went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him." Acts 9:28-29 (ESV)

Paul would later write a strong rebuke of both Greek philosophy:

"Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." 1 Corinthians 1:20-25 (ESV)

Evidently, Hellenists tended to exalt human wisdom above the simple gospel message of Christ and the cross. A Greek-speaking Jew would find it difficult listening to the wisdom of God spoken through the Prophets. Christian Hellenists would probably also incline toward measuring all truth with the standard of human wisdom.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you know someone who exalts human wisdom and intelligence, someone who finds it difficult to understand or accept the gospel? At what point would you "give up" on them, giving them over to God?

Away from Jerusalem the gospel spread, especially because of the persecution that arose when Stephen was killed. Hellenists in Antioch listened to the preaching and responded in faith:

"There were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord." Acts 11:20-21 (ESV)

Paul and Silas were able to effectively communicate the gospel to Hellenists, probably by emphasizing biblical consistency and accuracy:

"When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, - This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ. - And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women." Acts 17:1-4 (ESV)

Paul took advantage of beliefs held in common by Christians and Greeks, arguing persuasively for the truth of Christ:

"In him we live and move and have our being - as even some of your own poets have said, - For we are indeed his offspring. - Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man." Acts 17:28-29 (ESV)

On this particular occasion, Paul received a mixed response:

"When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, - We will hear you again about this." Acts 17:32 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? The conflict between Hellenists and Hebrews is set in the context of a shortage of staff. The apostles suggested that a group of volunteers, dedicated to the meal ministry, would bring peace. What ministry in our church might benefit from the same solution? What conflicts are you aware of between different groups in our church?

Who were the Hebrews?

HEBREWS: Hebraios (a Hebraean, a Jew); from Eber (Eber, a Hebrew patriarch); from eber (a region across, on the opposite side, the east side of the Jordan); from abar (to cross over, to make a transition; to cover, as in copulation)

Paul used defined "Hebrews" in three ways:

"Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I." 2 Corinthians 11:22 (ESV)

HEBREWS: Hebraios (one from across)

ISRAELITES: Israelites (a descendent of Israel, previously named Jacob; literally, "he will rule as God); from sara (to prevail)

OFFSPRING OF ABRAHAM: sperma (something sown, seed or sperm; offspring or remnant) and Abraam (Abraham, literally, "father of a multitude")

The Hebrews were a people defined by their bloodline. To be a Hebrew meant you could trace your lineage back to Jacob (Israel) and Abraham.

The early Christian church in Jerusalem found itself quickly mired in conflict between two different groups of Christians: the Hellenists and Hebrews. The Christian Hellenists identified themselves as ones belonging to Christ, with a dependence upon personal faith, based upon reason and knowledge. The Christian Hebrews identified themselves as ones belonging to Christ, with a dependence upon God's calling, based upon the writings of prophets and leaders descended by birth from Abraham.

  • Christian Hellenists: Christians by virtue of human knowledge
  • Christian Hebrews: Christians by virtue of divine prophecy

Both groups agreed upon the lordship and sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Both groups recognized each other as belonging to Jesus by faith in Jesus. Both groups preferred only their own "kind".

The apostles did not address the root of this conflict. There is no rebuke given to either group. No accusation of hate or discrimination or neglect is leveled against the Hebrews by the apostles. No accusation of dishonesty or slander is leveled against the Hellenists by the apostles.

The apostles responded to this conflict indirectly. Instead of publicly exposing sin and demanding repentence from either group, the apostles simply coordinated the selection of a group of men who would devote themselves toward distributing food in a fair and effective way.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Were the apostles being soft? Were they avoiding the hard part of leadership: calling others out on their sin? What has your experience with other churches or organizations taught you regarding conflict resolution?

The apostles attempted to resolve this conflict indirectly. They saw the need for preaching to be of a higher priority than immediate rebuke and repentence.

"The twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, - It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables." Acts 6:2 (ESV)

The church had been divided from the start: Hellenists preferred human knowledge and wisdom; Hebrews preferred divine prophecy and genealogy. Neither group were wrong...just different. But human nature tends to make us prefer others who are more like ourselves, and our sinful human nature will make differences into a trigger for competition and conflict.

On the surface, the problem was simple logistics: "We need an effective method of distributing food." Underlying that surface problem is the root problem: "We lack knowledge of God."

The apostles dealt with the surface problem immediately: "Create a committee." But they saw this solution as merely a tool towards gaining the ultimate solution: "Dig deep into God's Word."

WHAT DO YOU THINK: What surface problems are we as a church facing right now? Into what parts of God's Word should we consider digging deep for the coming year?

Image provided by Alpha, Greedy Gourmets. Creative Commons License.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Cross of Christ: Humiliation of Sin

The Cross of Christ: Humiliation of Sin

Matthew 27:31

Listen: The Cross of Christ (mp3)

Watch: The Cross of Christ - Slide Presentation(wmv)

Every mention, every reminder, of the cross of Christ should bring a vivid image of the suffering of Jesus on our behalf.

In our safe, modern world...living in a country at the heights of affluence, luxury and technology, the dirty, messy, gory death of crucifixion is easy to minimize.

The cross of Christ for us is often a lovely pendant on expensive jewelry, a silk-screened logo at the side of a business sign, a brand for buildings in which worshipers gather.

It was not so for Peter and Andrew, Jewish fishermen in Galilee. They and James and John and all the disciples that first followed Jesus all lived under direct control of a harsh government that daily crucified criminals and political rebels.

"When they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him." Matthew 27:31 (ESV)

CRUCIFY: stauroo (to impale on a cross); from stauros (a stake or post, set upright); from stao (to stand)

Death by crucifixion was excruciating, a word that literally means "out of crucifying": slow, painful, gruesome, humiliating and public. The stake or post was not high, perhaps only six to eight feet off the ground. Victims were nailed or tied, completely nude. Artists modestly dress images of Jesus on the cross with a loincloth...that is not likely. (Wikipedia 2012)

"As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross." Matthew 27:32 (ESV)

The Romans established permanent killing fields for crucifixion, with sturdy posts already prepared and standing, usually along the side of busy roadways. Jesus was probably forced to carry the crossbeam that would fit atop the post. After being scourged, whipped bloody with sharp flogs, stripped of clothing, mocked and beaten, Jesus could manage to carry the heavy timber only part of the way.

Depending upon the method of crucifixion and the health of the victim, death could require hours to days. Punishing the victim with flogging and beating, withholding food and water and hanging on a cross would end in certain death...eventually. Usually, after allowing a measure of suffering, the executioner ended the victim's life quickly, using a sword or spear...or breaking the legs with a club.

The disciples of Jesus understood clearly, and probably feared desperately, what the simple word "cross" meant.

Days before, Jesus told his disciples, his closest friends, that he would soon suffer violent assault and be killed, but that he would be raised back to life three days later.

Peter rejected the pessimistic, dark words of Jesus, rebuking him sternly for saying things so obviously ridiculous and horrifying.

Jesus regarded Peter's rebuke as evil, and he spoke not to Peter, but to Satan, saying "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man". Matthew 16:23 (ESV)

In the next moment, Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." Matthew 16:24-25 (ESV)

The purpose of crucifixion was not death, else the Romans would simply behead the criminal and be done with it. The purpose of crucifixion was a triumphant, humiliating defeat over a hated enemy.

The first thought of the disciples after hearing Jesus command them to take up their cross, would be to imagine themselves publicly humiliated. They saw themselves nailed to a T-shaped post, perhaps six-feet tall, erected near a busy road, exposed to hours of painful, scornful humiliation.

The cross led to death, but the humiliation made the death unbearable to contemplate.

Jesus said, "Let him deny himself..." In this word picture that Jesus created, he's causing us to imagine that we are being crucified, placed in an utterly humiliating and painful position, and the executioner, the one who has placed us on the cross is...ourselves!

Jesus is painting a picture of me as both the crucified and the crucifier! The only way to reconcile this absurd image is to remember our fallen, human condition.

Paul wrote of the dual nature of a Christian:

"We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

"For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

"So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" Romans 7:14-24 (ESV)

Paul describes two natures, two controlling influences: the first, the nature of flesh, the sinful nature that hates God's rule; the second, the nature of spirit, the inner person that delights in God's rule.

The two natures fight a deadly, violent, costly war with each other.

Paul concludes this graphic description of the warring human natures of spirit and flesh with these stirring words:

"Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Romans 7:24-25 (ESV)

The cross represents God's trimphant, humiliating defeat over a hated enemy: sin. For that dark, terrible day, Jesus willingly took upon Himself the sin of the world. From the moment that Jesus said to His Father, "Thy will be done," God heaped burning coal after burning coal of sin-identity onto the Son. Every sin impulse from every man, woman, boy and girl...from beginning to end of time...was nailed onto the frame of Jesus Christ.

Sin hung on a cross, naked, beaten, scorned and humiliated. God's wrath poured out on His hated enemy: sin.

All people deserved this torture...except One. Jesus, alone of all the world, did not deserve to be crucified. His innocent, pure, obedient, faithful, clean heart stood bravely before God after the fire of torture and crucifixion, after the terrible wrath of God upon sin had been spent. Death could not hold him, and He rose again alive, restored to the throne of God as Lord and Savior.

The cross, the horrifying, bloody, painful and humiliating death of crucifixion, was one of the "things of God" for Jesus. "Life" meant something much more to Him than the short, physical existence understood by His disciples. Jesus expected to die, and thus gain true life, although the death would be violently shameful.

Jesus told His disciples to expect the same thing.

Jesus promises us that our spiritual life, the inner person who delights in God's rule, will live...will truly live, eternally and wonderfully, if we are willing to utterly humiliate our sinful, fleshly nature that hates God's rule. Taking up our cross means to utterly humiliate and reign supreme over our sinful desires.

To deny what our sinful nature greatly desires is hard. It causes real pain, real struggle. Our sinful nature will cry and weep and plead and bargain and threaten and scream.

The humilating death of our sinful nature will end quicker as we use a sword, the Sword of the Word of God.

"In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication." Ephesians 6:16-18 (ESV)

We must utterly depend upon the death of Christ as the basis of our complete forgiveness by God. We must utterly depend upon His words of promise and hope in eternal life with him. We must utterly depend at all times upon Him in prayer. Jesus is our only source of power to endure the painful, humiliating, difficult crucifixion of our old, sinful nature.

"Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, - I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." 1 Corinthians 1:17-19 (ESV)

Our old, sinful fleshly nature considers itself to be very wise and very discerning. Our sinful nature believes that its desires are very good, much better than anything anyone else could recommend. Our sinful nature regards any mention of self-denial to be foolish. It utterly rejects the notion that it is doomed to death.

Place your sinful nature on a cross and glory in the humiliating defeat it has suffered through the power of God in Jesus.

"Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." Galatians 6:14 (ESV)

Reference to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion

Image provided by Alan Dean, Creative Commons License

Monday, April 2, 2012

Earthen Vessels

Earthen Vessels

A friend, Jeremy, lives in Israel. He was in a small village, inspecting some earthen pots which traditionally were used to store drinking water. His hosts told him that they were considered the best for the task since the water would actually become cooler once placed inside of them without any modern refrigeration – an incredible advantage for inhabitants of arid lands. The very idea seemed too good to be true, but it turns out that the villagers were not making this story up and that this is common knowledge in some parts of the world.

While swallowing this bit of information my friend was reminded of a verse written by Paul regarding the ministry of reconciliation between God and man. His thoughts encourage me:

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." 2 Corinthians 4:7 (ESV)

Paul was describing how God committed his greatest work into the hands of men formed from the dust – in spite of their lowly state and their natural tendency to be shattered. What Paul does not specifically mention is one aspect of an earthen pot that every desert dweller would have known: its ability to cool water down so that anyone who drinks would be refreshed.

In spite of our fragility as vessels of earth, we have an advantage that vessels made out of gold and silver lack. We can give a "cup of cold water" (Matthew 10:42) to a thirsty world. Countless believers today seek the glitter of a miracle or the epiphany of some angelic being (or God himself) as proof of God’s nearness, but it is no less a miracle when God uses a simple earthen pot to supply a thirsty man with a drink of cool water.

Jesus himself became an earthen vessel, so it should be no surprise that God uses jars of clay to speak into our lives and even give us the guidance we request. Indeed, we should rejoice in the privilege of being served in that way. The encouragement that comes from hearing the victorious testimony of someone who came to know God through weakness and suffering is also a cup of cool water poured from a fragile earthen pot keenly aware of its limitations.

I by no means reject miracles and other supernatural wonders, but hearing the story of the earthen vessel has caused me to become all the more thankful for the miracle of God using vessels of clay to pour out the water of life in cool and refreshing abundance to a dry and thirsty world.

As a side note to today's post, the image at the top was provided by Roel Wielinga. Tracing the links needed to properly credit the photograph led me to Roels Story, a website dedicated to documenting the story and art of Roel, as he undergoes treatment for leukemia.

You can read Roels Story: http://roels-story.net/blog/.

Image provided by Roel Wielinga, http://roels-story.net/blog, Creative Commons Licence. Modified by the author using GIMP.