1) Every day will be a new devotional. I have enough devotionals for every day for three years
2) Also as I can, I'll be posting on my new political blog (see bottom of page).
Some other housecleaning:
A) If you'd like to just get new postings sent to your email, just submit your address in the box on the left just below. There's just one possible downside, though. Occasionally I'll add a music video at the end that's relevant to the devotional, and you won't get them in the email sent to you. If I add a video though, I'll make sure to mention in the posting, so you'll know to come to the site to see it if you'd like.
B) I actually finished writing new blog posting for the TAWG at the end of 2016. So what I'm doing now is at the beginning of every month, I'll move the earliest month from 3 years ago ahead so that a "new" posting appears every day. That's why you won't find any postings for January 2014, for example.
C) When I started this Blog, I was using the 1984 edition of the NIV, and that’s what I linked to on the Biblegateway site. However, in 2011 Zondervan updated its edition and thus reworded a lot of the NIV translation. Therefore, all the links which went to the 1984 edition now redirect to the 2011 edition, which often has slightly different wording. Thus, part of my editing process has been to update my Scripture quotes in my postings. But I might have missed some, in which case you might see my quote in the posting as a little different from what comes up when you click on my citation link, since that redirects to the 2011 edition on the Biblegateway site. It's a good thing that we realize that the work of translation never ends, but it can be a kind of a pain on a site like this. If you see any difference in verbiage between my quote and what shows up as a link on the Biblegateway site, or if you hover over a link and it has "NIV1984" at the end of it, please notify me and I'll correct it.
D) I can't believe I have to say this, but here goes. At the end of every posting is a suggested short prayer that has to do with what we discussed. This is actually what I've prayed when I finished writing it. In no way am I asking you to pray the exact verbiage of my suggested prayer. It's just a springboard for your own prayer, nothing more. Quite frankly, I've never been a fan of praying rote prayers written by someone else. As with everything else I do here, to the degree it helps, great; to the degree it doesn't, chunk it.
As always, thank you so much for reading, even if it's to read one post. God bless.
I’m amazed sometimes that people doubt the doctrine of total depravity. I can understand if they differ with me about a literal reading of Genesis. I can even understand if they doubt the miracles recorded in the Scriptures (although I don't think they're taking the Bible seriously). I mean, it’s not like you see a miracle every day, right? But when it comes to the Bible’s declaration that we’re all sinners at heart, I mean come on! G.K. Chesterton once quipped that human sinfulness is the one biblical doctrine that you can prove with a daily newspaper.
The reason I bring that up is the sad fact that even redeemed people still have a sinful nature. I know that some well-meaning people deny that as well, but I think the Bible’s pretty clear about it. Yes, the Spirit’s at work in each of us, and hopefully we can see some improvement. We’re not what we once were, but we’re not what we should be, nor are we all that we will be. But the inconvenient truth is that within every church you can find people who can’t get along and threaten the unity therein. So what do we do about it?
Let me point out some things that Jesus didn't lay out as an option here. First and foremost, he didn't present the possibility that believers can—under any circumstances—bring their dispute into a secular court. Just to make it extra clear, Paul specifically forbade that in his letter to the Corinthians.
Second, nowhere in today’s reading does he say that it’s OK to complain about someone in front of other believers. I can’t believe I have to write this, but it seems like some of my siblings in Christ haven’t gotten the message yet. It's not alright for you to go to another believer and complain about someone else.
So what is the procedure? From the way some people act, you would think that this passage is esoteric and hard to comprehend like a passage in Revelation or Daniel. This isn’t rocket science or brain surgery.
First, you go to that person and try to resolve it between the two of you. You try to work it out between yourselves.
Second, if that doesn’t work, then you bring two or three witnesses to hash it out.
Third, as a last resort, you bring it before the assembled church. If the church determines that someone is in the wrong, then we can go from there.
I’d like to point something out here. He instructs that you treat the offending party (who doesn’t repent) like a tax collector or a nonbeliever. How are we supposed to treat someone like that? Well, how did Jesus treat someone like that? Like the scum of the earth? Like something you scrape off your shoe? By cutting off all contact? Of course not. We’re to treat them with love and compassion, always holding out the hope that they eventually will repent and there’ll be reconciliation. That doesn’t mean they continue to be treated like a member in good standing, naturally. But hopefully you get the idea.
Let’s spend just a moment on this phrase which has been the source of some misunderstanding: “Whatever you bind on earth. . .” That’s a possible reading of the Greek, but I don’t think it’s the best one. Do we determine what’s bound on earth, and Heaven goes along with it? Really?
No. there’s an equally good way to translate it, and it makes much more sense theologically. As the NIV footnote says, it could be rendered “Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in Heaven.” It’s Heaven (in other words, God) who determines what’s bound and loosed, and we second it. We—as God’s representatives—determine from God’s word what’s already been bound/loosed and we proclaim that truth to the world and the rest of the church.
There’s a reason why Jesus says this right after submitting his procedure for handling conflict in his church. When we follow his instructions, his Standard Operating Procedure (to use an Army term), we have his authority behind us. We’re not initiating the binding/loosing; we’re merely relaying to others what's already been bound/loosed by our Lord.
Waitaminute, it’s been waaaaaay too long before I reminded you of my favorite aphorism. You knew you were going to hear it again, didn’t you? No one in the history of mankind has ever done things God’s way who regretted it in the end. And the converse is true as well: If you do things your way instead of his, I guarantee that you’ll end up regretting it. Don’t fool yourself.
Lord Jesus, when someone lashes out at me, it’s so tempting to strike back in return. Please stay my hand. We’ll do things your way, by your grace and power.
Hopefully you know already that each of the four Gospels have a different set of emphases in their respective portraits of the Savior. To Mark he was the Suffering Servant, to Luke he was the Son of Man sent to save Jews and Gentiles alike. To John he’s the eternal Son of God sent from the Father to fulfill the mission the Father gave him. And to Matthew he’s the Jewish Messiah, the ultimate fulfillment of Moses and the Prophets.
That’s why it’s a little ironic that the first mention of the word “church” is found in Matthew’s Gospel. Of course Israel was the embodiment of God’s people on earth during the O.T. period, and in a broad sense they were the “church.” That's because literally the word means “called out ones” or assembly. The Greek word ekklesia was used of a rough equivalent of a “town hall” meeting when all the citizens of a city were “called out” to discuss issues. So Israel qualifies in that they were “called out” from the rest of the world to be his representatives to the rest of humanity.
So let's get our terms straight here. The word "church" sometimes refers 1) to a local collection of (professing) believers, such as the "the church of the Thessalonians." Quite often, however, the Bible refers to it as 2) the mystical collection of all true believers worldwide and throughout history (for example here). A local body of believers is the local expression of the universal Body of Christ. It is impossible for you to be a true believer--to be saved--and not to be part of the Church in the second sense. It is possible--and unfortunately happens sometimes in real life--for a person to be a believer in Jesus and yet be separated from the Church in sense #1. I'd also submit that it's virtually impossible for you to have a healthy relationship with your Savior and not be plugged into a local expression of his Body, but that's another issue.
And of course, while I understand the need for shorthand in daily usage, strictly speaking the term "church" is never used in Scripture for the building we happen to meet in. There really wasn't such a thing as what we'd call church buildings for about 300 years after the Church was born, so it'd be pretty anachronistic if the Bible ever referred to a building as such.
But really the concept of the “church” as we know it is something that God only revealed with Christ. That’s why Paul called it a “mystery” in Ephesians, because the idea of a universal body of believers—where Jew and Gentile are equal partners—was hinted at but not really fully revealed in the O.T. Jesus mentioned it a couple of times (in today's reading and here), and then it came into full bloom in the book of Acts. But in the Gospel expressly written first to a Jewish audience, it’s a little surprising that we find its first reference here. So what do we know about it from today’s reading?
• The Church is built by Christ: “I will build.” Yes, we have a part that God gives us in the endeavor. But ultimately the Church is being constructed by Jesus himself. Any evangelistic projects or outreach events or new ways of presenting the Good News are all well and good. I’m totally in favor of them. But anything that isn’t initiated by, and empowered by, and guided by the Lord Jesus? I want no part of it. I’d just be wasting my time anyway.
• The Church is owned by Jesus: “I will build my church.” My friend, you do not own your church. Some folks seem to think that by giving money and investing in the church they somehow have part ownership in it. Or maybe the pastor might call it “my church.” If you mean it in the sense of "the local collection of believers with whom I'm associated," then that's fine. But whether it comes implicitly or explicitly, the notion that the church in any sense belongs to you is a lie. She's completely claimed by Someone Else, and it's not you.
• The Church will—in the end—succeed. He said plainly that "the gates of Hades will not overcome it." You can invest in all sorts of things on earth, and none of them are a sure thing. As we've learned over the years, the stock market can implode while you watch. Land, bonds, or titles or any other investment can fail. But if you invest in Kingdom work, you’re investing in something that is sure to pay back a thousand-fold.
Now of course, our Lord is talking here about the Church in the sense of the universal Body of all true believers, not its local expression (like the First Methodist Church of Wherever). I've been a part of a local body of believers which eventually "failed" and had to be folded into another local body of believers. Just like in the individual Churches in the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Revelation, it's entirely possible for a local body of believers to fade away and eventually close down. But the Church universal carries on and will be quite alive and doing quite well when all her enemies are dead and have been roasting for a million years.
Influenced by our popular culture, people tend to think of God (or good) and Satan (or evil) as being in an eternal conflict, and they tend to envision it as a struggle between equal and opposite forces. It’s not. Jesus makes it clear: There are two kingdoms in conflict, but one is constantly gaining ground, and the other’s losing it. Please note: He said the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church. Have you ever been attacked by a gate? Of course not, because a gate is a means of defense. There is a kingdom under siege, and it’s not Jesus’. Every day, when someone gives their heart to the Savior, the Enemy’s kingdom shrinks a little bit more. And one day—hopefully soon—our Lord will say “OK, that’s enough!” and just crash the gates down once and for all.
So does any of this have a particular application to you? I urge you to go back over the three bullet points and ask yourself if you need a change of perspective. Do you?
Lord Jesus, when I look at the world today, pretty often it looks like the Church is losing ground. I know it’s not, but that’s how it looks. Please change my perspective. Let me see a little more of the big picture. I really need it sometimes.
Whoa whoa whoa! I thought we just read this passage a couple of days ago. Yes, we did. But we’re starting another short topical series on the Church, using today’s passage as a springboard. There’s some confusion about this subject, and we could all use some reminders about it.
The phrase I want to camp out on today is the fact that Paul said that the Lord “bought the church with his own blood.” Yes, every individual believer is bought with the blood of our Savior, but Paul is here focusing on the fact that the church as a whole has been as well. All of us, put together, constitute the Body of Christ.
Back in those days, when a young man wanted to take a wife, he went to her family and negotiated a “bride price.” Depending on how wealthy he was and how much the family thought they could expect, they worked all these details out months if not years prior to the wedding plans. Ostensibly this was so that if the man divorced his wife, she'd have something to live on. But the point is that the value the man placed on his bride could be determined by how much he “paid” for her. I mean, that’s a general rule in life, right? One of the easiest ways to determine how valuable something is to you is by seeing how much you’re willing to pay for it, whether in actual money or in time or in some other sacrifice.
My friend, the Church was not paid for with silver or gold or cash of any sort. She wasn’t purchased with land or titles or any other paltry price. The Lord Jesus left the glories of Heaven, the uninterrupted fellowship of the Trinity, and the worship of angels in order to claim his Bride. He endured the weakness of human flesh, the everyday frustrations and disappointments of life, the rejection of his family and nation, the betrayal of one of his closest followers, and the abandonment of his closest friends—all for his Bride. He went through a show-trial, torture, final rejection and death on a cross for his Beloved. And worst of all, he carried her faults, her transgressions, and the wrath of the Father on his back, all for his Bride. And then he bled out and died for her.
Why am I focusing on this? Yes, the Bible does speak about each person’s individual redemption. It’s not a concept completely foreign to Scripture. But just as frequently, God’s word speaks of our collective responsibility and the fact that he's redeemed (literally “bought back”) the Church.
Why is this important? Because as Americans we're so hung up on individuality. We hold up very highly the paradigm of individual rights before the government. And there’s good in that. But we tend to carry that over into our understanding of the church. We tend to think of Christianity as a bunch of individuals running around who happen to be saved.
Yes, Christ died for you. But there’s a very real sense in which he died for the Church as a Body as well. For the next few days we’re going to focus on that aspect of our Christian life. If Jesus died for the Church, then maybe she needs to be a little higher on our list of priorities. What do you think?
Lord Jesus, you bled and died for your Bride. That’s how much you love her. And I’m a part of that. Thank you. So how can I show that she’s important to me too?
OK, so we’re wrapping up Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders. These brothers were very dear to him, and he thought he'd never see them again this side of Glory. So he wanted to share with them what was on his heart and some last words of encouragement and admonishment before he said goodbye. We don’t tend to do small talk when we’re about to die, and Paul didn’t either. What was on his mind before he left them?
He wanted to point out to them the quality of his ministry. Why would he do this? Was he really that concerned about what people thought of him? Was he that vain? Did his self-esteem need a “pick me up”?
Um, no. He cared very little how he'd be judged in any human court, whether a literal one or in a court of opinion. He answered ultimately to his Lord, the One who called him and equipped him and to whom he would one day give an account. I can think of two very good reasons he would talk like this about his conduct in his ministry.
First and foremost in his mind was the preservation and proclamation of the Good News. Keep in mind that these verses come right after his stern warning about wolves who would come in to steal the flock. False teachers were going to come, and he anticipated their line of attack: The character of Paul. His reputation was permanently linked to the Message of Jesus, and he couldn’t allow the latter to be sullied in any way.
Second, he was holding himself and his associates as an example for others to follow. He wasn’t just doing this so that believers could look at him and say “Wow, that’s impressive!” Inasmuch as he was following Christ, he wanted them to follow him. Hear his words to the Thessalonians: “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.” Unlike a lot of (false) teachers, Paul--and his companions--were honest, hard-working, and self-supporting. He expected that to be the norm for believers. This is not to say that it’s wrong for ministers of the Good News to be supported by that work. But it’s the norm for believers to eat their own bread and pay their own bills.
The second point is related to the first although most don’t normally think in these terms. He wanted Christians to be self-supporting in order to help those are truly in need. To the degree that the Lord has blessed you financially, he's not blessed you primarily just so that you can be blessed, but that so you can bless others.
By the way, as a bit of trivia, this is the only authoritative saying of Jesus from his time on earth which is not recorded in the four Gospels. You won’t find “It’s more blessed to give than to receive” in any of the Gospels. But since Paul said it and the book of Acts is just as much Scripture as the Gospels, we can take it as authoritative.
So there you have it. This is what was essential to Paul: 1) The purity and proclamation of the Good News and the rest of God’s truth, 2) That Paul’s life and ministry would lead people closer to that Truth, 3) Paul’s responsibility before the Lord to proclaim everything in his commission, 4) Passing on that responsibility to the next generation. Nothing else really mattered.
Does any of that apply to me? Can I claim that?
Lord Jesus, I can’t claim that I’m anywhere close to this. But I thank you that although I’m not what I should be, I’m not what I once was and I’m not all that I shall be. Whatever I can do to cooperate, then please show me.
Now let’s continue with Paul’s final (or so he thought) address to the Ephesian elders. He was absolutely sure that he was never going to see these brothers in Christ again this side of Glory. As it turned out, he was released from prison and did visit Ephesus again, as noted in 1 Timothy. So in a way this was a false alarm, but that takes nothing from the insight this passage reveals about his character, priorities, and mission. I’d like to point out just a couple of things from today’s reading, since every word here is so meaningful to me.
First, Paul claimed very strongly that he was “innocent of the blood” of his hearers. Why would he claim this? Was he concerned that he accidentally killed someone and just forgot about it? No. The reason he could legitimately claim that he not guilty of anyone’s blood on his hands was that he had been faithful to proclaiming all of God’s message to them. If God told him to proclaim A, B, C, D, and E, that’s what he preached and taught. He didn’t leave out or obscure Point D if it offended someone. He had no problem telling Athenians that the resurrected Man from God would return to judge everyone who wouldn’t repent. He had no problem telling Jews that they had to abandon all attempts to be justified by observing the Law, and that their nation had been dead wrong in rejecting Yeshua as the Messiah.
My friend, this is a stern warning to every single vocational minister out there. There are a lot of ministers of the Gospel out there who know that everyone outside of Christ is heading towards an eternal Hell, and they don’t tell them that. And yes, God will hold them accountable for that. I’m well aware that our sins are covered and hidden by the blood of Christ. But that doesn’t change the fact that quite a few people--as far as God is concerned—have blood on their hands, and we’re not talking about the blood of the Savior. Even Solomon had a hint of this: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it?” You know that the person in front of you has an appointment with Judgment Day, and you haven’t taken any steps to let them know this?
Second, this passage tells us why Paul took theology so seriously. Despite what some people say, theology matters. To paraphrase Lewis, we need good theologians today, if only because of the bad theology being passed off to naïve people. If there weren’t wolves out there, we wouldn’t need to be quite so careful about this subject. But there are, and we do.
Please notice that Paul takes it as a certainty that false teachers would be coming in order to confuse, distract, and turn people away from the truth. That’s why it’s the job of every leader in the church to be on their guard. Yes, this applies to every Christian, but it doubly applies to every leader. God is holding you accountable. Don’t be found unfaithful.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about people disagreeing about minor issues or disputable matters. For example, I have no problem fellowshipping with people who disagree with me about the End Times schedule. But when it comes to nonnegotiables like the nature of Christ, or the way of salvation, or the veracity of the Bible, they’re, well, nonnegotiables.
Paul had spent three years warning, encouraging, teaching, rebuking, and training them in this. With tears. He obviously cared about this deeply. How’s about us?
Father God, I want your priorities to overwhelm my agenda. What you consider important, I want that to be reflected in me. What you consider trivial, shouldn’t take my attention. Change me, please.
OK, now we come to a little bit of controversy, probably one in theological circles you weren’t aware of. The question: Did God really want Paul to go to Jerusalem or not? You know me, that I always try to be fair with Evangelical scholars who disagree with me. And there are a few big names who claim that God emphatically did not want Paul to go there. They cite the fact that we are no longer under the Law of Moses, and Paul was giving into legalism (just like Peter did) by going up to the City of David to attend the Pentecost Festival. They also note that Paul had several warnings (from God) that if he went, he'd be arrested, and there’s no indication that the Lord promised him deliverance from imprisonment or death.
Having said that, I need to respectfully disagree with them. Just because the Lord warns us of bad things ahead of us doesn’t mean he doesn’t want us to go forward. For example, he “promised” Isaiah that most people wouldn’t listen to his message (and in that sense he would fail), but he sent him anyway. Apparently the Lord wanted Paul to understand very clearly what he was in for if he went to Jerusalem. Our Lord seems to put a premium on telling us the “bad” part without sugarcoating what’s ahead.
And no matter how I look at it, I just can’t get over the fact that in today's passage he specifically says the Spirit was the One who “compelled” him to go. I can’t square that with the supposition that he was acting on his own or was slipping into legalism.
Then comes one of my favorite verses in the Bible. Along with 1 Cor. 9:22, it’s one I’d tattoo on my forehead, if I was into that sort of thing (and if my wife wouldn't kill me). I’d like you to read vs. 24 slowly. Does the threat of imprisonment daunt him? Does the threat of torture fill him with dread? Does the prospect of dying a horrible, premature and painful death give him pause? No.
This is a man with focus. John Wesley once said that if he had a hundred men who loved nothing but God and hated nothing but sin he could change the face of the world. That’s the attitude expressed here.
Was Paul a sinner? Of course he was. The truth of 1 John 1:8, 10 applies to him as much as any other man. But just because a man stumbles badly doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to win the race, and this man wanted it badly. He considered his life nothing if only he could finish the race and complete the task his Lord had given him—to testify to a lost world about the Good News of God’s grace.
Is that me? Nope. But I want to want that. How badly? That’s a good question.
Lord Jesus, please change me to fit that. Give me focus. Make that verse mine.
If you thought you were about to die and had only a few days to live, who would you want to talk to? What would you want to say to them? What would be the topic of conversation? Pretty downbeat questions, I know. But I ask them in order to impress upon you just how important Paul considered this conversation with the elders of the church in Ephesus.
He had spent quite a bit time in that city, both evangelizing and discipling. He had a particularly affectionate relationship with the believers there, especially the elders. Now he was determined to go to Jerusalem for the Passover, even though the Spirit revealed to him and others that Paul would be arrested there. For him to be arrested and charged in a Jewish court was likely a foregone death sentence. Therefore, before he headed out he wanted to give some final words of encouragement and admonition, since he had no expectation of seeing any of them again this side of the Great Divide.
We’re going to spend the next four days examining this passage and seeing what we can glean from it. Why spend so much time on verses which aren’t nearly as famous as others? Because here we see a window into Paul’s soul as in few other places. He thought he was going to die soon, so he focused on what was essential to him. No time for small talk! As we look at his priorities, we should measure them against our own.
First, we see Paul reminding them of his bona fides. In the coming months and years they might have imposters come by who disparaged Paul and his ministry. Paul had to defend his calling and apostolic authority regularly; in fact, much of 1 Corinthians is made up of that. He shouldn’t have had to, but unfortunately he did. What does he remind them about himself?
Well, he brings to their minds his humility, his passion, and his perseverance. Despite being an apostle who'd personally been visited by the Lord Jesus, we never see an air of condescension. He was perfectly willing to work with his hands in order to provide for himself and his companions—This was no stranger to hard physical labor!
Despite the common notion of what a true man is like, this man was also no stranger to tears. He wept over those who didn’t know Christ, especially his fellow Jews. He wept over immature believers who should've known better. And he wept over the negative impact of false teachers. Yeah, I cry sometimes too, but if so it’s usually because of selfish reasons.
And of course we know about his perseverance. Despite all the setbacks, rejection and persecution, he never gave up. He did everything he could and trusted his Lord with the results.
Some teachers, especially today, tend to tell people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. Not Paul. In both public and in private, he unflinchingly proclaimed the entire message of Christ and how to live for him.
And what was the essence of his message? How easy it is for intellectuals to be sidetracked and distracted by minutiae! Yes, he had some pretty deep teachings, but the most important part was also the simplest: You “must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” I know I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating—Repentance is an essential part of the Good News. Any presentation of the Good News that doesn’t include the fact that you need to stop doing things your way and start doing things God’s way is incomplete at best and misleading at worst.
This is what was vitally important to Paul, so I think it’s worth taking a close look at it, don’t you? To be brutally frank, I’m a little uncomfortable examining this, because it entails examining me. How’s about you?
Lord Jesus, I know that Paul was a sinner like me, but I also know that you use his words and life to cut through my complacency, my comfort, and my self-righteousness. Whatever needs to change, let’s change it. By your grace and power.
I don’t know about you, but I’m really glad to hear that when Christopher Hitchens--the most prominent outspoken proponent of atheism--went on a tour, Christians were willing to debate him. And not only did they debate him, he himself has said that—with very few exceptions—the believers who engaged him were respectful, polite, and totally lacking in condescension. That thrills me to no end.
I’ve listened to Mr. Hitchens engage in debate on several radio programs, and I honestly wish I could say the same thing about him. He regularly came off as smarmy, condescending, arrogant, and insulting to his opponents. But to my knowledge, he never made personal threats or even insinuated that he wishes physical harm to those with whom he disagrees.
Quite frankly, by not threatening violence he actually stood out. Throughout history, the church’s enemies usually have only one form of debate: Argumentum ad baculum. For those of you not familiar with it, that’s “appeal to the stick.” It means “I win the argument because I have the bigger stick.” It’s the threat of physical violence in order to win a debate.
This is the typical way that enemies of the Truth argue. It’s the debating style of dictators, tyrants, and not a few kings. Why engage in a argument when you can shut your opponents down by force?
Most of the time, sadly, this is how people have tended to settle arguments. The idea of the free and open airing of different beliefs and opinions is actually a pretty new concept. The idea that you shouldn’t try to physically force another person to accept your beliefs is pretty radical. To me it would seem that by resorting to this, you’re admitting that deep down you're pretty insecure about what you believe. If someone’s religion (yes, I’m referring to a major religion in the world—guess which one!) has to threaten apostates with death, then I think you have a pretty weak faith in your system.
You see that in today’s reading, but it’s pretty typical in the N.T. Paul and his companions were making inroads in the city of Ephesus. Lots of people were becoming followers of Jesus, and of course were abandoning their idols. Did the proponents of polytheism try to engage Paul in open debate about who was right? Of course not! They gathered up some crowds and started a riot.
Why am I making a big deal over this? Because it’s the pattern of how the Enemy of humanity likes to present his case. He’s not interested in a free and open debate in order to see which side has the better appeal to truth . He’s only interested in keeping people away from salvation in Christ. That’s all he cares about. Add to that the fact that he hates us with every molecule of his being (as representatives/ambassadors of the Most High), and you can see why he does what he does.
But why am I pointing this out? Because we need to expect it. If you actually try to stand up for the Name, you shouldn’t be surprised if the other side plays dirty. This is the norm, not the exception. Christians in America can actually present the Good News without fear of government shut-down, but this is a tiny island in history. And if those freedoms are someday--maybe soon--taken away, it shouldn’t shock us. We should be pretty pessimistic about how the world treats us. After all, what did our Savior say? “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”
If the Lord continues to give us the incredible freedom we have in the country, then that’s wonderful. But if he decides to hand us over to some persecution, then we need to trust that he knows what he's doing. Makes sense, right?
Father God, whether you make us popular or not, we’re in your hands. I trust you. When times get tough, help me to trust you better. By your grace.
I remember a rather heated discussion I had with a dear sister in the Lord a few years ago. She had come from a Pentecostal background, and quite frankly took it to further extremes than most Pentecostals I’ve known. She and I got into a major disagreement about the “power in the name of Jesus.” I tried to steer her back to some clarity in what that term means: “Strictly speaking, there is no power 'in the name of Jesus.' The power is not in the letters that form J-E-S-U-S, but in the Person behind that name. There are people in the world who don’t pronounce it that way. They might call him 'Yeshua' (the way he was originally called) or 'Yesu' or any other way of pronouncing it. It’s not like those letters formed to pronounce 'Jee-zus' have special power on their own like a magical incantation.”
Boy, you’d have thought I'd said that I was in league with the Devil himself. She went off on me and angrily argued that there IS power in the name of Jesus, that if we pray in that Name that our prayers have more effect, if we preach in that Name that our sermons will change lives, and especially if we ask for healing or miracles in that Name then God is pretty much obligated to do what we request.
I couldn’t fault her passion or her purposes, but I had to disagree with her way of thinking. It took me a while to figure out where we parted ways, and I believe I figured it out: She was using the term “name” the same way we tend to use it and not how the Bible tends to. When you hear the word “name,” you first think in terms of its literal use—“My name is Keith.” But there are others uses, and the Bible’s meaning is a lot broader than its literal one. It might mean "reputation," like talking about someone's "good name." Or, and I believe this is the case here, it might refer to “authority” or “for the sake of.” This even bleeds over into English: When a press secretary stands in front of reporters and speaks on behalf of the President, he's speaking in the “name” of the President. He’s speaking as his representative, and in his interests, and on his authority.
That’s what we mean when we pray “in the name of Jesus.” It’s a lot more than simply tacking the name “Jesus” on the end of your prayers right before you say “amen.” It means you are invoking the authority of the Second Person of the Trinity. You're (supposedly) asking God to act in his (Jesus’) interests. You’re supposedly praying for things which Jesus would want. You’re supposedly praying for things which glorify the Person of Jesus. You’re asking for the Second Person to speak on behalf of your prayer before the Father.
What does that have to do with today’s story? Everything, because quite frankly they were making the same mistake my dear sister was making. They thought they could just tack on the literal “name of Jesus” at the end of an exorcism like a magical word. They learned the hard way just how bad their idea was. My friends, please don’t let anyone tell you that bad theology doesn’t matter. It can hurt and kill.
So what am I trying to see happen here? First and foremost, I want us to have a deeper understanding of what it means to pray “in the name of Jesus.” Do you feel confident asking your Savior to vouch for that prayer? Do you feel confident asking him to lend his authority to what you’re asking? Are you confident that it will glorify your Lord?
The other response I want to invoke is awe. The Savior has lent his “name” to us. He invites us to come into the presence of the Father under his umbrella of grace and in his authority. He's our representative in Heaven just as much as we are his on earth. If that doesn’t strike a holy and godly fear within you, I don’t know what will.
Lord Jesus, may I NEVER get over this. May I never take it for granted. May I never lose the awe of what this means. And please take my weak, self-centered, faithless prayers and turn them into something beautiful, as only you can.
Sometimes I wonder if Paul had any idea what he was getting into when he was called by his Savior. Of course, Ananias (the man who healed his blindness) undoubtedly relayed the message he got from Jesus when the Lord sent him to heal the Ex-Pharisee: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” So if he was listening at all, he had to know that his calling was not to an easy life.
He knew his Scriptures like we know our own name, so he surely remembered the treatment that most of the prophets got, like Jeremiah, Amos, and even Moses. But did he realize just how much opposition he'd get from his own people, the ones whom he surely expected to recognize the Messiah when presented to them? I mean, these people went from town to town, following Paul with the express purpose of opposing him every way they could.
You can hear the frustration in his voice in today’s passage. He'd finally had enough. Of course, quite a few of his converts were Jewish, but most Jews apparently rejected it, especially the more devout ones. After all this, he finally, officially, turned his ministry from Jews to Gentiles. Not that he was going to give up on his fellow Jews entirely, but the focus was going to change to a more fruitful field.
Why am I focused on this? Well, to be completely frank, I’m not really going to get into anything I haven’t said before. But I thought it bears repeating: Our Shepherd knows exactly what we need and gives us exactly what we need when we need it.
You can certainly sense Paul's disillusionment. Again and again and again he'd reached out to the Jews, and again and again and again they had not just rejected it, but had violently rejected it. He might have even been flirting with despair.
That’s when his Savior, his Shepherd, stepped in. He appeared to him and told him two things: 1) He (Jesus) was with him. No matter what, everything was under his Lord’s control, and he would always be closer than a heartbeat. 2) He (again, Jesus) had lots of servants in his city. It might not have looked like it, but the Lord had followers in the city that Paul didn’t know about. He had more kindred spirits than he knew.
You know what this reminds me of? It’s probably not at the same level, but it seems slightly similar to when Elijah was ready to call it quits. Do you remember that? He ran away from a queen’s threats, came to a spot in the wilderness, and prayed to die. The prophet was sure that he was the only faithful one left in Israel. The Lord appeared to him and told him. . . what? “I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”
We can’t seem to find a balance, can we? We either think that we’re unbeatable and that we’re invulnerable to Satan’s plans, or we think that we’re the only ones left on the losing side in a hopeless battle.
Have you ever felt alone like that? You feel like the entire world is against you. It seems like you’re the only one standing up for what’s right in your office or family. But just when you need it, right when it feels like you’ve hit rock bottom, our Shepherd—most of the time through his Body—appears and tells you that things are not as dark as they seem.
Whether it’s a kick in the seat of the pants or an embrace with whispers of comfort, he always knows exactly what we need. When we need it. And he always delivers.
Lord Jesus, thank you. You are so good to me.
Hopefully you know by now that I try very hard to be fair with views of Evangelicals who disagree with me. There are some biblical teachers whom I highly respect who part ways with me on this. My main theology professor in college, the one whom we teasingly referred to as “the fourth member of the Trinity” doesn’t agree with my assessment of this passage. Let me present their arguments, and then I’ll submit why I think they’re wrong.
Basically they view Paul’s speech in Athens as mostly a failure. They don’t see a lot of value in knowing about and quoting extra-biblical sources in trying to reach Post-moderns, and they don’t see Paul’s speech as a reason to do so. They have two main lines of argument, and I think they need to be heard:
• They point out that apparently Paul’s speech didn’t produce a huge amount of immediate converts. Today’s passage in Acts tells us that “some” outright rejected his message because of his proclamation of the Resurrection, which would completely contradict their philosophy. “Others” basically put off making a decision, telling him they wanted to hear more evidence or more arguments before they got off the fence. According to anti-Athens teachers, Luke is telling us that only “some” actually made a decision to listen to Paul and became followers of Christ.
• They also like to point to the Corinthian passage. Paul went to Corinth right after Athens, and in 1 Corinthians he describes what he did there. In these verses Paul supposedly “learned his lesson” and refused to use any more high-minded arguments and decided to just “stick to talking about Jesus.” The lesson he apparently learned was “Don’t talk about pagan philosophers or poets or statues to the Unknown God. Just tell them that they’re sinners with a rendezvous with Judgment Day, that Jesus died for their sins and rose again, and tell them that they need to place their faith in him.”
As you might have guessed, I respectfully but thoroughly disagree with their assessment. First off, there’s no indication that his response was really that bad. To say that the fact that “some” of them believed is somehow a bad thing I think really overstates their case. With one speech he broke through the barriers some had erected and led them to faith in Christ, which was certainly a better place than they were before. No, Paul didn’t see a stampede of converts from his one sermon. They weren’t ready to receive it yet. At worst Paul was planting a seed. Do people actually think they would have responded better to the Four Spiritual Laws? Do they actually think that if he'd started citing the Torah and the Prophets he would've had a better response? Really?
I respect the ones who disagree with me. I really do. But for them to jump from Acts to Corinth to try to make the case that Paul was talking about how great he was received in Corinth vs. how he was received in Athens? Quite frankly, I think they’re making too great a leap for me. The very same book that they use for their argument, just a few chapters later, tells us that Paul “became” a Jew to win over Jews, and “became” like a Gentile to win over Gentiles. This is a verse that I’ve (figuratively) stamped on my forehead: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” This was (to coin a phrase) his realistic ideal: To save some, since realistically we're never going to save all or even most. My friends, I submit that this is exactly what he was doing in Athens.
Do I think that every outreach effort needs to slavishly model after the speech in Athens? Of course not. Every situation is different. But as I’ve tried to make clear over the last few days, I think it’s extremely relevant in a Post-Christian, Post-Biblically literate, Post-Modern context. And if we’re going to reach this generation, we need to see what we can glean from it.
Lord Jesus, the message about your Truth never changes. Please give us Paul’s passion, to be all things to all people so that by all possible means we might save some. Our preferences, our way of doing things don’t matter. What matters is glorifying you by reaching the lost with the Good News. What part do I have in that?
I have a lot of respect and love for the “seeker sensitive” or “seeker driven” movement. There’s a lot to like about it, at least from where I’m standing. I was a member of a church with leanings in this direction for about ten years, and I saw how much the Lord used it in peoples' lives. That church made a sincere effort to make sure that if someone was offended by our church, they were offended for the right reasons. The preaching style, the musical style, the dress code—these are not good reasons for an outsider to turn away from a church. If he turns away because he’s offended by what the Bible actually teaches, then that’s between him and God.
I’ve actually had some teachers I respect tell me that the sermon in Athens is not something we need to emulate. Somehow Paul got off the subject of Christ alone as the center of the Good News, and he might have even “watered down” the truth in order to get a wider audience. We’ll get into their arguments tomorrow, but I’d like to address the proposition today.
I understand the arguments of those opposed to being seeker sensitive, I really do. There’s a real danger that while trying to be “all things to all people” we’ll forget that our message is inherently offensive. If I present the Good News, and the person isn’t offended, I need to make sure I presented it correctly. The Cross of Christ is offensive to sinful, prideful men who are in rebellion against God. It’s entirely possible to abolish its offensiveness, but that’s not a good thing.
So while we’re bending over backwards to present the Good News to people where they are, we have to remember to get to the Truth. That’s where we get to today. Paul started off the speech with a compliment, eagerly acknowleding that they were spiritual people and that their poets and philosophers had some of the truth. He started off with the Creator who’s revealed himself through creation and through the gropings of wise men who are trying to get to the truth.
What’s the purpose here? Why is Paul standing in front of them? Is it to arrive at a better mutual understanding, so that we can all bask in the glories of Greek religion and culture? No! He’s reaching out to them where they are (which a lot of traditional evangelists forget), but he’s reaching out to them with the purpose of bringing them to a saving knowledge of Jesus. That means you have to confront them with truth which will flatly contradict what they currently believe. If you don't do this, then you haven't presented the Good News of Jesus in its fullness.
What are Paul’s main points here?
• You must give up this goofy notion that the God who made us in his image can therefore be captured in an image of silver or gold. How can a man—made in God’s likeness—worship an idol made of silver or gold?
• In the past, God overlooked (to some degree) this ignorance. My friends, if all Paul cared about was keeping an audience, do you think he would have used the term “ignorance” when describing what they were doing right now?
• But now playtime is over. If God ever did overlook such practices, that time is past. He’s commanding all people everywhere to repent (another word we forget to use). Whatever else that word means, it says you have to quit doing things your way and start doing them God’s way.
• The time of Judgment (another word we need to regain) is at hand. You’ve been warned, and if you ignore the warning, then you can expect consequences. And God’s already appointed the Man he’s going to use to accomplish all this.
• And how do we know this Man is the One? Because he’s done something no other human in history has done: He’s raised himself from the dead.
That’s the balance we need to learn. There are two parts here, and everyone has their part which they have trouble with. We 1) need to reach out to people where they are, 2) in order to bring them over to where they need to be.
So which do you have trouble with?
Lord Jesus, I sometimes don’t speak your Truth when it’s obviously time to speak. Please give me boldness, give me wisdom, and give me love. I need to remember that to be silent when someone needs to hear is NOT love.
America has changed pretty radically over the last 30-40 years, in more ways than we could count. One of the major ways which we haven’t really discussed yet is the subject of biblical literacy. Read the founding documents of this nation, as well as the papers left behind by the people of that time period, and you’ll find them chock-full of allusions to biblical references. The very founding document of this nation—the Declaration of Independence—starts out with the supposedly self-evident proposition that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. You might be able to find a speech by Lincoln in which he didn’t reference the Bible, but you’d have to look for it. Up until around 30-40 years ago, it was assumed that pretty much everyone had at least a passing knowledge of the Bible.
Not any longer. My friends, if we’re going to reach this generation, we can’t assume that our audience knows anything about the Bible. Heck, most American Christians know less about the Bible today than a typical nonbelieving skeptic would have a hundred years ago.
That’s why this sermon/speech is so important. This is the first major speech (aside from the short one in chapter 14) in which an evangelist is trying to reach a completely pagan audience. These hearers know nothing about Moses or the prophets, and they couldn’t care less.
So where do we start? With creation. Now if you’re reading this today, you might miss the controversial elements of what Paul says in today’s reading. It all sounds pretty standard for us as Bible-believing Christians to know that God created everything. But this was very radical for these listeners to accept. I won’t bore you with the details, but let me summarize how this proposition would raise some eyebrows. The Epicureans believed that matter was eternal and that there was no Creator, and the Stoics were Pantheists and denied that God could be separate from the creation.
If we do believe in a divine Creator, then what can we know?
• He doesn’t live in a man-made temple. If he made the universe, how could he be contained thus?
• He doesn’t require any sacrifices (or anything else) from us, since he supplies us with life, breath, and everything else we need.
• All people are created by him, and thus we all are equal before him in our nature.
• All nations and kingdoms of men are under his sovereign control. He's the One who set up their times and places, and marked their boundaries according to his own wisdom.
Why did he do this? Is this some abstract concept? Is he just some god “up there” like Zeus, who really doesn’t care about what happens on earth? No! All this time, he set up the boundaries of kingdoms in certain times and places in order for them to reach out to him.
But this God that I’m talking about is not that far. He’s not just up in Heaven, directing the affairs of men like a chess player moving pieces on a board. He’s right here, right now. He’s reaching out to you.
And here comes the kicker. How do you know all this, Paul? Well, if he was like some well-meaning evangelists I’ve heard, he'd bring out a Bible verse that proves his point. But no. He quotes their own poets and philosophers. “In him we live and move and have our being” is a quote from the Cretan philosopher Epimenides. “We are his offspring” comes from the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus.
Now, did Paul believe that these poets and philosophers were 100% inspired like Isaiah or Moses? Of course not. But these pagans had some insightful truth that he could use as a connection point with this audience.
My friend, there is some truth in Islam. There’s some truth in Buddhism. There’s some truth in any other religion. We need to know the background of the people we’re trying to reach, and we need to know it in order to reach out to people where they are right now, not where we are.
Take it as you will.
Lord Jesus, you did that for us, didn’t you? You didn’t wait for us to reach you where you were. You stepped out of Heaven and came down to us, to where we were. Thank you.
Have you ever completely flubbed up a first impression? I’ve had some doosies in my day. I’ve been on sales calls after which I found out that I had bad breath the entire time. I’ve come up to visitors in our church, introduce myself, ask them their names, and then find out that they’ve given me their name several times. Oh how I wish it wasn’t true, but it is: “You can never make up for a bad first impression.”
It’s especially important to get this right when sharing the Good News of Christ for the first time. I know that the Holy Spirit is the One who makes people understand their need for Christ. I get that. I know that the Spirit can take a godawful presentation and bring people to the Savior through it. I get that. I've experienced that. But that in no way mitigates our responsibility to present the Good News as attractively as we can.
So Paul is brought in front of the Aeropagus, the main assembly of religious and philosophical leaders in the religious/philosophical center of the world. Not that there’s any pressure or anything. So what do you do? How do you start?
Well, if you’re as smart and Spirit-led as Paul, then you start by doing some homework on your audience. I know that some preachers make it a point of pride to “let the Spirit move them,” which translates to "I don't need to take the time to prepare." But please don’t try to tell me that Paul just walked into that situation without knowing something about the backgrounds of his hearers. Every word in this speech/sermon is carefully and intentionally designed to draw these pagans into saving faith in Christ, or at least closer to it, and each word displays an uncanny knowledge of their background.
Now, before we get to the speech itself, I have to submit a disclaimer. I don’t intend to promote the idea--nor do I think Paul or Luke meant to either—that this speech is supposed to always and forever be our unalterable pattern of witnessing to pagans. Every situation is different and every person is different. Having said that, I think there are some things we can learn from this example. To the degree it works, use it. To the degree it doesn’t apply, don’t.
Now let’s look at the opening statement. Please remember: These are not Jews or God-fearers. They neither know nor care about the Old Testament. Paul’s religious education, which he cites several times in the N.T., is not mentioned here because his audience wouldn’t be interested in it.
How does he start? Well, he could hardly have started better. He addresses them-“People of Athens!” and then gets to his opening statement. “I see that in all things you are very religious.” That’s the way the NIV translates it, but it could also mean “superstitious.” The word could be either a compliment or an insult, depending on the context of its use.
By using this phrase, he forced them to pay some attention. In order to find out whether he meant it in the good or bad sense, they'd have to listen to the rest of his speech.
So how can we apply this to a Post-Modern audience? First, I think it’s always good to lead with a compliment. Every person is created in God’s image, and that image will be expressed some way and somehow in every person.
For example, Post-Moderns love the term “spiritual.” Maybe some well-meaning evangelists avoid it, but why should we? It means the person acknowledges that there’s more to this universe than we can know about through our five senses. They understand, as Hamlet did, that “There are more things in heaven and earth. . . Than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.” A Post-Modern has no problem understanding that there are spiritual realities which science can’t reach. Why not compliment them on that?
Second, he pointed out to them his observation of a certain statue. He'd seen how they had hundreds of statues all over the city, all bearing witness to some god or goddess. But there was one in particular that caught his eye: The one to the “Unknown God.” The Athenians were so worried that they missed some god in setting up their statues and temples that they wanted to “hedge their bets.”
This God, Paul declared, would now be proclaimed to them. The God to whom they paid tribute without even knowing his name? “Well, let me tell you about him!”
Please don’t misunderstand the point here. Paul was not saying that by “worshiping” God without knowing his name the Athenians were saved. If they were, why would he be standing here? But he was using that statue as a point of connection.
This is also not to condone idol worship, or to say that idolaters are “really” worshiping the true God in disguise. But it is to say that behind whatever idol a person is serving, that’s a sign of a need they can find in the true God, a need that they’ll never satisfy outside him. That’s a great starting point, I would think.
That’s what this is all about. Yes, your goal should be to bring people to a saving faith in Christ. But you’re not going to do that without making a point of connection. We’ll discuss that more in a couple of days. But for now I want that truth to sink in. That Post-Modern is on the other side of a gulf. If you’re going to reach him with the Good News about Jesus, you have to find a bridge. I plead with you to look for it, and pray for it. If you want to, you’ll find it.
Father God, please give me open eyes for open bridges. All around me are people who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. How are we going to reach out to them?
Well, we finally reached the passage in Acts I’ve been waiting for with the most anticipation. We’ve seen lots of speeches/sermons in Acts, some to Jews and some to God-fearers. We’ve seen one made to pure pagans (chapter 14), but that was pretty short. I submit that the sermon/presentation in today's passage is incredibly relevant for us today if we want to have any hope of reaching the Post-Modern world.
Before we get to that, I need to provide a short primer on Modernism vs. Post-Modernism. If you’re already familiar with these terms, I apologize, but we really need to make sure we understand both the world we live in and how it got that way.
Modernism, as the term is commonly used, started around the middle to late 19th century. That was the time of the Industrial Revolution. Slavery was abolished in most of the western world (including the last major holdout, America), and both living standards and life expectancy were steadily rising. There was an explosion in technical innovation, and we made quantum-leap strides in chemistry, biology, mechanics, medicine, etc.
Modernists believed that we were on the verge of making our very own utopia. Science was going to lead the way into a Paradise on earth. Of course this would have to be preceded by a wholesale rejection of myths like Christianity which hold us back. If we could do that, then we could take steps to really evolve to new heights. Humanity could be tinkered with like a machine to eventually make the perfect man. We could, on our own, figure out how to rapidly improve our lot, and we certainly didn’t need any mythical “God” to help us.
Modernism took a body blow when World War I came on the scene. Sure we have wonderful advances in technology, and we used them to kill each other much more efficiently: poison gas, the machine gun, airplanes, etc. Then the death blow came with World War II: The indescribable inhumanity--not only in the battlefield but in death camps--should've shattered the notion that we’re basically good people who just need a little tweaking. The Nazis were everything the Modernist supposedly wanted. It looked like science couldn’t be our savior after all.
Out of the rubble of World War II came Post-Modernism. Of course, there are a lot of Modernists walking around, but the new zeitgeist became dominant in the West. Simply put, this was a wholesale abandonment of objective truth. It no longer matters what someone believes, as long as they don’t try to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else (usually which is another term for actually trying to convince someone of something). There's no objective truth, so whatever “works” for you is to be commended.
Let me illustrate the difference with a simple test case. Say you’re trying to share the Good News with someone who’s not disposed to accept it. A Modernist will try to convince you that the Bible is just full of myths and is incompatible with logic, reason, or science, like Christopher Hitchens or one of the other "New Atheists." A Post-Modernist will likely pat you on the back and tell you “That’s great that you’ve found your truth."Their slogan might well be “What’s true for you might not be true for me.” If someone loves to point out that they’re a “spiritual” person, that’s a clue.
That’s why this sermon is so important, because there are some parallels for us here. Athens was not only the capital of Greece but was considered the center of learning and philosophy. Please note two things which Luke mentions about the city.
First, it was full of idols. There were statues all over which depicted yet another god. And no one would mind adding another one to the mix. In fact, this is what eventually got Christianity officially in trouble with Rome. Not that Rome wanted to get rid of Jesus, but the exclusion of all other gods was just inconceivable to their minds. They'd be perfectly happy to provide a place for Jesus, as idol # 3443 right next to idol # 3442.
That’s in perfect sync with the Post-modern mind. If you claim that Jesus has made a huge change in your life, that’s fine. But when you get to the part about how everyone everywhere needs to believe in the same Jesus you do, then the sparks fly.
Second, the Athenians were supposedly the most open-minded people on earth. Note the last verse: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” They were always looking for something new, something fresh. Anyone spouting new ideas could get a hearing, at least in theory.
Again, this is eerily similar. Post-moderns pride themselves on having an open mind. And this theoretical openness was seen by Paul as an open door to the Good News about his Savior. And he was going to take advantage of it.
Lord Jesus, it gets really frustrating to talk to people like this. But I know you love them, and I should love them too. Help me to speak the truth in love, please.
So, let’s start another lesson on angels and demons—waitaminute!!!! That’s right, we’re actually doing a study on a book of the Bible. What was it again? That’s right! We were going through the book of Acts! We actually have a book in the Bible that we’re going through!
So, returning to Acts, we pick up where Paul and his company left Thessalonica and arrived in a town called Berea. Paul had to depart Thessalonica in hurry, as there were violent crowds who were gunning for him.
He came to Berea, and what a difference it was! It looks like he got a much more pleasant and positive reaction here than he did in the last town. Our Shepherd knows exactly what we need at any given moment, and he gives us just the right amount of hardship and (relatively) easy success. Paul wasn’t exactly on vacation, but he certainly had a easier time here.
Today I’d like to focus on Luke’s description of the Bereans. Of course we have to be careful in interpreting narratives: Most of the time they tell us what happened, not what should've happened. But here we have an inspired commentary on these people, and the author has a pretty high compliment for them, actually two.
First, they received Paul’s message with eagerness. They apparently had a good first impression of the apostle. They could tell right away that he wasn’t some type of religious huckster or con man. He was obviously teaching them out of the Hebrew Scriptures, and wasn’t adding anything that sounded “kooky” right off the bat.
Second—and this was even more important—they checked out what Paul was saying against what the Scripture said. He wasn't preaching something alien or foreign to what Moses and the prophets had said. From Moses to Malachi, men of God had been promising that the Lord would send his Chosen One to redeem and save us. They might have read in the prophets how the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, and that he'd be born of a virgin. They could read how the Messiah would be a descendant of David and would perform miracles. Most importantly, they might have read places like Isaiah 53 which lay out in black and white the terrible price the Messiah would pay in order to fulfill God’s plan to save us.
And lo and behold, they found out from Paul that they didn’t have to wait any more! The Messiah had come, and his name was Yeshua (Jesus).
I love the Bereans. They had juuuuuuuust the right amount of skepticism. As you might know, there were plenty of religious con men out there. They intently listened to what Paul was teaching, and their reaction was “That sounds good and right. But before we commit to this message about Jesus, let’s check for ourselves what God’s word has to say.”
And of course there still are plenty of con artists today. My friend, you've got to get to know your Bible. Maybe you’re a new Christian and haven’t had much of a chance to read the Scriptures all the way through yet. Find a plan, and get on it. January is fast approaching, and you're welcome to use any of the plans I have on the right side of the blog page. If you don’t want to be taken in, then knowing God’s word is not an optional thing.
And please notice that the process of checking out the teacher--at least in this passage—never stopped: They “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” When Paul said something, they checked it out. I’d like to think that even after they believed in Jesus, they still examined the Scriptures and continued to test whatever some teacher was spouting.
There’s a famous saying in journalism: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” It seems to me that this is a great principle concerning any Bible teaching that crosses your path. My friend, it’s your responsibility to check whatever your pastor says, whatever your church leader says, and whatever your small-group leader says against what God’s word says. And of course that includes your humble Blog poster.
Lord Jesus, please may my words lead others to study your word. To the degree they do that, I’ve succeeded. To the degree they don’t, not so much. Please use me to point them to your truth.
OK, we finally made it to the end of our study about angels and demons. All this time I’ve been trying to make the point that this subject is not the center of Christian theology, nor it is even a close second. I’m attempting to give it as much attention as the Bible does, no more and no less. I’ve also taken great pains—and I hope it’s obvious—to only say what the Bible says about them and to leave out speculation and nonessential points. If our Lord in his wisdom has chosen not to reveal the answer to a certain question we have about these creatures, then it does little good to speculate about anything more. To paraphrase Calvin, where the Bible is clear we must be dogmatic, and where the Bible is less clear we need to be charitable with those who disagree, and where the Bible is silent we should probably keep our traps shut.
Yesterday I wanted to make sure to correct our (completely natural) tendency to focus on these beings and pay them undue attention. Today I just want to hammer that home.
The main point of the book of Hebrews, or at least one of its main points, is to make clear the superiority of Jesus. His superiority to what? Well, the author has at least four answers to that question. He says that our Savior is superior to 1) Angels, 2) Moses, 3) the Old Testament priesthood, and 4) the Law of Moses.
He spends an entire chapter telling us why Jesus is superior to the angels. In fact, it’s the first chapter he writes, so apparently he considered it of highest importance for us to get this straight. Just like today, many people during that time were enticed into false religions which were fixated on angels and even worshiped them. To strongly correct this tendency, I’ve found at least nine reasons in these 14 verses as to why the Son is superior to angels:
1) God has made final revelation thru his Son. The prophets gave us glimpses of God’s truth and plan, but the Son is the complete and ultimate revelation of God’s communication to us. No angel could ever claim that!
2) Angels reflect God's glory, like the moon reflects the sun. Jesus is God's glory.
3) No angel could ever provide purification for my sin. The Son could and did.
4) The Son is sitting at the right hand of the Majesty in Heaven (a position of absolute authority), not angels
5) Jesus is God's Son, and angels aren’t.
6) Angels are called upon to worship the Son.
7) Angels are created as servants, while the Son, as God Incarnate, has an eternal Kingdom
8) God didn't say to any angels "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." This is a reference to fulfilling God’s ultimate plan for the human race. Angels have a part in that, just as we do, but Jesus is the center of that plan.
9) Angels are merely ministering (serving) spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation (us). Once again we have a “throw away” line which leaves many unanswered questions. How do angels serve us today? How often? We don’t know, and we’re not meant to, at least on this side of the Great Divide. But the practical point still stands: Angels serve us; we don’t serve them. On the other hand, we are to serve, honor, and worship the One who both created the angels and saved us.
So let’s not take our eyes off the ball. The Son is the One who should get the lion’s share of our attention, along with all our obedience, our loyalty, and our love.
Yes, Father, you are the Boss. You've exalted above every creature and every power and every authority the Son whom you love. I want to join in that exaltation.
I mentioned at the beginning of this study that there’s something in me that’s reluctant to delve into this topic. Why?
Several years ago, Billy Graham wrote a book on angels (which I’m sure is light-years ahead of anything you’ll read here). He’s mentioned before that this is by far his bestseller. People are fascinated by this stuff. There was a time when angels were all the rage and fashionable: the popularity of figurines, paintings, and statues testify to this. Add to that all the fiction that has this as a subject; there are tons of movies which show some portrayal of them. And of course one of the major religions of the world (with over a billion followers) claims to be based on the appearance of Gabriel to an alleged prophet.
That’s why it’s important for me to have this disclaimer near the end of the study. Angels are indeed fascinating creatures. All the biblical accounts describe them as awe-inspiring beings. Of course the typical first words out of an angel’s mouth in an encounter are “Don’t be afraid.” They are literally luminescent with God’s glory, and they’re bursting with power.
Therefore, I don’t blame John too much for his slip-up in today’s passage. He saw all these incredible things with an incredible tour-guide, and his natural instinct was to bow down before this being in worship. If I was in his situation, I'd likely do the same.
But although it was understandable, it was completely unacceptable to the angel. This being had seen with his own eyes what had happened when an angel started thinking that he was worthy of worship. He had a zero-tolerance policy concerning this.
What were his first words after he forbade John from continuing? “I am a fellow servant.” I assure you, that’s not the first thought that went through John’s mind here: “Yeah, this guy is just like me!”
But as awe-inspiring as angels are, they're fellow servants with us. We both serve the living God. They’re just creatures. They had a beginning, just like we do. They’re eternal, but so are we. They’re completely dependent on their Creator for their existence and for everything they need, no less than we.
They're not to be an object of worship. They're not to be prayed to.
We should be grateful to our Father for providing servants which sometimes protect us, strengthen us, and even provide for us. But to the extent they do that, they’re just the means by which our Father is gracious to us. There’s no precedent for thanking the angels themselves. Maybe someday, maybe we will. If we ever do, it’ll have to be after we’re past the point of being tempted to idolatry.
Now, are we really in danger of worshiping angels? In the same way John was? Well, considering the infrequency in which they make their presence known, not really. We don’t see enough of them to worry about that.
But there’s a broader sense in which it’s a real concern. That’s the sad irony about all the fascination with angels which has been on display. You can almost hear the angels screaming: “Quit paying attention to us!!!!!!! Pay attention to God alone! Worship him alone! Find salvation in him alone!”
I’m happy to study anything which the Bible teaches us. If the Bible tells us anything about any subject, it’s worth examining. But let’s not take our eyes off the more important aspects of Truth, what’s really essential. Please.
Father God, you alone are worthy of all praise, honor, glory and thanksgiving. I’m thankful for all the help you’ve ever given me through angels, both human and non. You are so good to your children, aren’t you?
Have you ever heard of Milton’s Paradise Lost? It’s a classic poetical rendering of what happened right after the Creation starting with the fall of Satan, his army’s rebellion against God, his being cast out of Heaven, then what’s described in Genesis 1-3. I’m not going to blow smoke at you and tell you that I’ve actually read the entire thing: It’s waaaaaaaay too long for my short attention span. However, I've read portions of it and am pretty familiar with it. Lots of school-kids are forced to read it every year, and probably are turned off to poetry forever as a result.
The reason I bring it up is because of a criticism which C.S. Lewis made about Milton’s word picture of Satan. Of course Lewis loved the work, but he found fault with the way that Satan is portrayed as a grand and glorious character. He speaks grandly, he has some of the most interesting lines in the book, and you can’t help but admire his bravery/courage. As an admirer of the American Revolution, I find an element in Milton’s Satan that’s actually admirable in his rebellious defiance of authority. We've always had a soft spot in our hearts for the plucky underdog who rebelliously thumbs his nose at his alleged Overlord. The most famous line in the entire work sums up the attitude quite well: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” Come on, admit it—There’s something in that which resonates within us.
That’s why Lewis found fault. The real Satan is not really admirable in his defiance. He’s a spoiled ingrate, and he’s not rebelling against some tyrant or bully. He picked a fight with the One Being who’s the essence (literally) of goodness, mercy, kindness, justice, and love. He saw God’s glory, and he wanted it for himself. There’s nothing to respect in that.
But it might surprise you to find that I’m going to find some positive lessons we can gain from our Enemy. Of course, I’ve said before that it’s always good to learn from negative examples of others: You see some doofus committing X in the Bible, he suffers from bad consequences, and you’re supposed to say “Wow! I sure don’t want to end up like that guy!” That’s not the case here. There are at least two ways in which we can improve ourselves by following Satan’s example. I’m not saying I admire him. I’m saying that I can learn some things from him.
First, we need to follow Satan’s example in his persistence. Today’s passage mentions it—he’s accusing us before God “day and night”--but it’s implicit all through Scripture. He’s been battling God’s plan for thousands of years. If one scheme doesn’t work, he’ll try another. In much of the world and throughout most of history, he’s tried to destroy the Church by means of frontal assault. Hostile governments have persecuted believers and continue to this day. But in the western world he’s tried another tactic: Lulling the Church to sleep. Why spend his time persecuting the Church when he can just as effectively shut it down by distracting it? I think we could profit by following that principle as well: Just because something doesn’t work immediately, you don’t simply give up. Maybe try another strategy!
Second, and this is even more meaningful to me today: Read the very last words of today’s reading. Read it slowly, please. Let it sink in. Satan in this passage is seen to redouble his efforts. If a subordinate demon came up to him and said “But master, we’re already at maximum effort! We’re already at 100%!!!” what would be his response? “Nonsense! Crank it up some more! We can put some more energy into this!”
Why is he redoubling his efforts here? Because he knows that his time is short! He’s under no illusions that he has all the time in the world. He doesn’t know how much time he has left to carry out his anti-God plans, but he knows he has less time today than he did yesterday.
My friends, it’s like the Church in America is suffering from narcolepsy. Isn’t that where you fall asleep at inappropriate times? I promise you, our Enemy doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t take vacation days and he never punches out on a time clock.
He knows that his time is short. Do you?
Lord Jesus, I’m so sorry for forgetting that the clock is ticking. I have less time to serve you today than I did yesterday. Please forgive me, and give me a stronger sense of the temporary nature of time and the eternal nature of eternity.
Remember what I said before about “throw away lines”? A Biblical writer will just “throw out there” a bit of information about the spiritual realm which we had no idea about and then move on without explanation or comment. My personal favorite of this is when Paul is castigating the Corinthian church for suing each other in secular court, and he just casually asks them “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” Uh, no Paul, we didn’t, but thanks for letting us know.
Here’s another bit of information we find out about demons, coming from the lips of the Lord Jesus himself. Hopefully you’re familiar with Jesus’ story about the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Our Savior was giving us some information about a Judgment to come, the criteria of which seems to be how we treat “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.” I feel the need to remind you that the main point of this story is not how to get saved. We're saved by grace through faith in him, not by charitable acts, no matter how noble. But one of the best ways to see that we are saved is by showing our concern for the “least of these”: the poor, the downtrodden, the nobodies and invisible people who are around us, especially if they’re our siblings in Christ. Our Lord takes it very personally how we treat them, literally. By literally I mean that he takes how we treat them as treating him the same.
So our Lord is passing final judgment on the “goats,” the ones who ignored the least among them and thus earned his wrath. And what’s their punishment? “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
My friend, no matter how bad you are and how much you deserve it, Hell was not designed for you. It was designed specifically with Satan and his minions in mind. The only reason why any human being goes there is because by rebelling against God, you’re effectively joining Satan on his side. By casting your lot with him, you share his punishment.
Yes, someone can go to Hell, but they’re going to have to step over the bleeding body of the Lord Jesus to do it. God doesn’t want you to go there. He’s not willing that anyone should perish but that everyone come to repentance. He wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. He makes it as plain as the nose on your face: “As surely as I live. . . I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” He doesn’t say “As surely as the sun will rise tomorrow,” because that’s not a 100% sure thing. He doesn’t say “As surely as water is wet,” or “As surely as the sky is blue,” because as sure as those things are, they could possibly change under the right circumstances. He says that as surely as he lives, he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. You can bank your life--your very soul--on that.
Please let me make a final note on this passage before we leave it. Jesus mentions that the fires of Hell are “eternal.” They burn forever. And if you’ll recall, fire only lasts as long as it has fuel. What's the fuel here? Souls in agony. Then the last verse of the story tells us that the Goats will go into “eternal punishment.” There’s no parole, no time off for good behavior from Hell. After a million years in Hell, the residents thereof will have no time less being punished than when they started. Scary stuff.
If you’re reading this, then ponder for a moment what your Savior actually saved you from. He didn’t have to, you know. But he took that for you, for your sake and in your place.
If you’re reading this and haven’t received Christ, then there’s no better time than right now to take care of that. You can’t do anything about yesterday, and tomorrow might be too late. If you have any questions, you can read my short summary of the main message of the Bible here. Please don’t put it off.
Lord Jesus, thank you. You want all people to be saved, and you certainly demonstrated that with me. Please use me to keep on proving that—with others.
As we discussed yesterday, the Gospels have a lot more instances of demonic possession than we see later in the N.T. I also should've pointed out that this phenomenon--with the possible exception of Saul--is never recorded in the O.T. either. And while it does occur today (mostly outside western culture), we don’t see it nearly as often as when our Lord walked the earth.
But in the Gospels they seem pretty frequent. And although we’re not likely to see one, I think those instances can give us insight into what we need to know regarding the spiritual realm.
First, we need to know that there’s no real spiritual battle, at least not between our Lord and the Enemy. If you get your theology from movies, then you might get the impression that there’s a war going on between equal and opposite forces. There’s not. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Satan is none of those things. We can see that in the “clash” described in today’s passage. I’m sure that demons are a lot more powerful than I am (in my own strength), but they’re positively cowering before Jesus of Nazareth. If you or I passed Jesus in the street while he was on earth, we probably wouldn’t give him a second glance. We'd just see a man, bearing the marks of a blue-collar worker (callused hands, well-muscled, probably not exactly smelling like a Bed Bath and Beyond, etc.).
But that’s not what the demons saw. They saw the Son of God, the One who created them and whose wrath they feared more than anything else in the entire universe. Seeing past the veil of humanity, they knew exactly who Jesus was. His very presence undoubtedly burned them like a magnifying glass on an ant on a summer day. They assumed that he was there to “torture” them in judgment, and they knew that the time for said judgment was coming. There’s no arrogance on display here, just abject begging. Quite frankly, maybe I should've put the vs. in the title in scare quotes.
Second, this narrative displays the nature and work of the Enemy’s servants. The Lord had commanded them to come out of the man, and they knew they had no choice to obey. No longer could they torment this poor man and use him as their puppet. So what did they do? They begged Jesus to send them out of the man and into a herd of pigs. As soon as they entered the swine, the demons drove them over a cliff to their death.
My friend, the Enemy and his cohorts hate God and everything about him. That includes his creation. If they can’t overthrow him in Heaven, then they’ll do their best to destroy men (made in God’s image). If they can’t destroy men, then they’ll destroy pigs. Whatever freedom God gives them, they use it to destroy whatever they can.
Finally, this story reminds us that there’s no neutral ground. Why did the townspeople ask Jesus to leave? Some of it might've been the financial loss from the pigs, but the Scriptures tell us they were "afraid," probably of such spiritual power on display in front of them. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t really matter. For so long they'd lived in fear because of this crazy man who lived in the tombs on the outskirts of town. They didn’t like the demoniac threatening them and their children, but they didn’t like Jesus staying too close either. So they turned out of town the only One who could save them, not just from the physical danger of a possessed man but from an eternity in darkness.
Thankfully, the Lord in his mercy didn’t leave himself without a witness to these ungrateful fools. The ex-demoniac begged to leave with Christ, but the Lord had a special job for him. Jesus himself wouldn’t be welcome in the town, but the redeemed man could be. He could tell others—starting with his family and working outwards—how the Savior had mercy on him and what he'd done for him.
So how’s about you? If you’re saved, then the Lord rescued you from the Enemy’s power no less than the man from the tombs. He’s brought peace and showered you with love, mercy and grace. Have you told anyone about it?
Lord Jesus, I’ll be your witness. I’ll be your ambassador. I’ll be your representative. I’ll tell everyone you send me to. By your power and grace.
OK, now we’re going to talk a little bit about the subject people seem to be fascinated with. Of course I’m talking about demonic possession. I guess it was inevitable ever since the movie The Exorcist came out several years ago. It’s time for some clarity and to see what the Bible actually says. And as always, theological truth should lead to practical application.
First, we should realize that the time of Christ’s ministry was unique in human history. There’s never been a time before or since when the Son of God walked among us as a man. That’s the best explanation I’ve heard as to why we see so much demonic possession in the Gospels and not much after that. We see a little bit in the book of Acts (a description of which was the springboard for this topical study), and then it quickly tapers off. The epistles don’t mention the phenomenon at all. The early Church fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries (to my knowledge) don’t talk about it much. So my explanation is that during the time of Christ’s invasion of earth (and right after) was a time of demonic activity which was specifically in opposition to his work. It was stirring up the hornet’s nest, so to speak.
Does it happen today? Yes, but it seems to be pretty rare, at least in American society. Once you step outside the western world and into cultures and societies where the Good News is less known, it’s a lot more common. Talk to a missionary sometime who’s ministered in an Animistic culture, and they’ll tell you stories which sound like something out of a horror movie.
Can a Christian be demonically possessed? No. The Holy Spirit lives inside us permanently, and we belong to him. His seal of ownership is upon us. I do believe that the Enemy’s servants can influence us and lead us into deception, but he doesn’t have any claim on us.
We’re going to discuss Jesus’ encounters with demons tomorrow, but today I just want to make a crucial point concerning this. Quite frankly, I think this subject can be distracting. Why? Well, for all its flash and drama, demonic possession is not all that important and somewhat overblown.
You see, the Bible tells us that every single person outside of Christ belongs to Satan. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that every person who’s not a Christian is an especially evil person, or consciously worships the Devil. That’s a tiny tiny tiny minority. My friend, you don’t need to draw a pentagram on a floor and sacrifice a goat to worship the Enemy of mankind.
Because of our sinful nature which we inherited from our first parents, we all start out belonging to the Evil One. That's our default setting as we exit the womb. As someone once told me, Satan is like a pawn-broker: He claims all the unredeemed.
I know that sounds radical, but it’s precisely what Jesus says. When Christ confronted the religious leaders, he said that they were children of Satan, and the only alternative was to be a child of God through faith in him. There’s no third option.
When Paul was describing our life before salvation, he said that we “followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air [Satan], the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” That’s the natural state of everyone before they come to Christ.
Quite frankly, that’s why I don’t like the message of The Exorcist and similar movies. It reinforces the lie that as long as someone hasn’t “sold their soul to the Devil” or isn’t spewing pea soup and twisting their heads 360 degrees, they’re fine. No, they’re not.
And the cure for this is pretty simple: Lead someone to place their faith in the Savior.
So instead of going out in some “power encounter” against Satan, the best way to really counter his power is through the Good News of Jesus Christ. That’s the solution. So have you done anything about it?
Lord Jesus, so many people I encounter every day need to hear and see the Good News. Will you love them through me today?