Browsed by
Category: Bible Books

But Did God Approve of That?

But Did God Approve of That?

Last night in my Tuesday night group we were discussing the story of Hezekiah in Isaiah 36 & 37, in which King Sennacherib of Assyria attacks Judah, and things get pretty dire. Following a sneering message from the Assyrian king, Hezekiah, at the beginning of chapter 37, tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and goes to the house of the Lord.

The first question we had was whether people liked this action. Here’s the king acting afraid, worried, and uncertain about this message. I found it pretty easy to discuss this from a sociological and political point of view. How is it that a king like Hezekiah, in a tiny kingdom such as Judah, manages to hold everything together when pretty much everything is in enemy hands except for three cities?

I’d suggest that part of the reasoning (ignoring God’s involvement for the moment) comes from the fact that unlike his father, King Ahaz (Isaiah 7), Hezekiah goes to the prophets. The prophets were a political force. We have more evidence for this from the northern kingdom than the southern one, but it seems a reasonable assumption to me.

Further, the priesthood of Jerusalem was another force in the nations politics, and Hezekiah was the one who centralized worship in Jerusalem. That would have endeared him to that group.

Thus I suspect Hezekiah had his political ducks in a row as far as powerful groups in the country were concerned. Which, of course, ignores the role of the God of Israel.

Someone in our group asked this: But was God pleased?

The background here is one of doubt. In a sense, both Hezekiah and his father Ahaz show doubt. Ahaz does this by ignoring the prophet, assuming that he has to do the necessary work to protect himself when Isaiah says God’s word is that the alliance against Ahaz will not prosper.

Hezekiah, rather than putting on the perfect performance of piety and trust in God, which might have involved getting up and dramatically announcing that the God of Israel was greater than all the gods of Assyria, tears his clothes.

This is one of the interesting—perhaps the most interesting—questions we can ask in reading a Bible story. The Bible, particular in the Hebrew scriptures, tells stories in a fairly sparse fashion and doesn’t spend a great deal of time explaining the details to us. We have to read the stories carefully and ask ourselves what moral lessons may apply. Sometimes our perspective can change over time.

In this case, I think I can answer quite definitively. I think God was very pleased with Hezekiah. I have a few reasons for that:

  • Hezekiah is honest. In the modern church we have a great deal of pretense, because we expect certain performance from our leaders. If the pastor expresses doubt, the foundations are shaken. This is an unrealistic expectation whether of a pastor or of a national leader. This is your Old Testament edition of 2 Corinthians 12:10 in two acts: Isaiah 7 has Ahaz strong, so God is, in effect, weak. In Isaiah 37 Hezekiah is weak, and God is strong!
  • God gets the glory. Because of Hezekiah’s honest, God gets the resulting glory. I back this up with the story in Isaiah 38 & 39. When Hezekiah is healed by divine action, messengers come to see him. He shows them everything. Now the story doesn’t say it directly, but it appears he shows them how strong he, Hezekiah, is, and neglects God’s glory.
  • Hezekiah seeks God immediately. While he is afraid, he nonetheless goes to God rather than seeking the answer himself.

These two stories in Isaiah 36-39 (I think some might make it three or even four stories, but I think of it as two parts, and effectively the acts completing what happened with Ahaz) open up a great deal of room for meditation and discussion on leadership, weakness, dependence on God, and action.

It’s said, however, that Hezekiah ends up on a very selfish note. In Isaiah 39:8 he tells himself everything is OK, because destruction and exile won’t come in his own lifetime.

Even the best of us, like Hezekiah, can fail!

(Featured image credit: Pixabay.)

Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

Symbols, Actions, and Idolatry

I encountered a question recently that I’d like to explore a bit. The question comes in three parts, or perhaps with three perspectives.

  • When God commanded the Israelites to look to the bronze serpent to be healed, was God commanding idolatry?
  • Why would God give this command?
  • Was this a good command?

It’s easy to dismiss the question by simply saying that it is God’s command, therefore good, and further cannot be a command to sin. But if we consider that, as Paul says, “these things are examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6), perhaps we might want to explore just why God would command such a thing.

Idolatry

Let me first note that idolatry is rather easy to fall into. We are very much idol-making people. I often use Paul Tillich’s vocabulary in this, that idolatry is making something that is not ultimate your ultimate concern. We can take a book, such as the Bible, from which we get God’s Word, and make the book, the thing, into the object of worship.

An example of this would be using the Bible as a sort of magical talisman. I have seen people who expect the possession and use of the physical book to accomplish miracles. Not so! The power of scripture is in revealing God who is the one who takes action. It is not minimizing or dismissing the book to realize that it is what conveys to us God’s will rather than being magical or an object of worship.

An unopened Bible sitting on the shelf in your home in a prominent place might well become your idol. You believe you are closer to God because of the object. A picture of Jesus might function in a similar way. It displays to others your faith. The question is, are you in Christ and Christ in you? That same picture on the wall might either be a reminder or it might be an idol.

I have three crosses over the door to my office. If I treat them as an object of worship, and forget what they symbolize, they could easily become an idol.

Some Objects and Commands

The ark of the covenant became a problem in this very way in scripture. It was commanded by God and built according to God’s instructions. It was supposed to be there in the temple. There was some critical symbolism involved in that under those cherubim, where there would have been an image of a god in a temple of another religion, there was empty space. Empty, at least, to human sight.

This was part of the ritual of Israel’s worship. It played a key role. But when the sons of Eli decided to take it from the tabernacle and to war, something else happened. Idolatry broke out! In 1 Samuel 4 we have the story, as Israel gives this triumphant shout, the Philistines hear it and decide that the gods have come into the camp of Israel.

Israel’s actions were idolatrous. They thought that God was confined to the thing. Now the thing was good. It was commanded by God, but it was being used in a way that was inappropriate. Idolatry is dangerous, because it disconnects us from God and connects us to, and limits us by, our own power.

As a public event, this idolatry also provided a false witness to the Philistines, who believed that God was again limited to the object.

So the question becomes, why did God want the ark built if it could be so misused?

In this case, we have considerable evidence to suggest why this should be. The ark provided an important symbol in Israel’s worship, and even an antidote to idolatry in what it symbolized.

At the same time we see one of the key sources of idolatry: We really like to have something to take hold of, something we can see, and a course of action that will let us take control. When Eli’s sons took the ark, they were trying to force God’s hand. If God wouldn’t save them from a distance, they’d bring God to where God could do what they wanted done.

We combine that with liking to repeat the action. If it works once, let’s do it again.

The Command to Worship

We have many rituals commanded in the Hebrew scriptures, yet the prophets tend to downplay these to some extent. I think a good place to look at this is Psalm 51. Here we have a prayer of repentance, which says that God doesn’t want sacrifice (v. 16), but then says that burnt offerings will be acceptable (v. 19). What’s the difference? Repentance!

The point of the sacrifice is a ritual that works with, reminds us of, and reinforces the actions that we need to take. It is a good ritual in that sense. But if we replace repentance with a ritual of repentance, the action itself becomes idolatry. It suggests that some action I take can box God in. “Oh well,” it says to God, “I may have sinned, but I offered a sacrifice so now you’re stuck with forgiving me.”

We have an idolatry of action, by placing the action in place of God. Only God forgives. Leviticus and Numbers are worded carefully to not suggest that forgiveness is accomplished by the sacrifice. Rather, forgiveness comes from God. The sacrifice is God’s command, and becomes a means of bringing us to repentance and keeping us there.

So here’s another command of God that can be abused, and in much the same way as the ark of the covenant was abused by Eli’s sons.

A Means of Healing

When Naaman comes to Elisha for healing he’s told to dip himself in the Jordan river seven times (2 Kings 5). Is there something particularly efficacious about the water of the Jordan river? Not at all! This is something God is commanding Naaman to do. The action doesn’t heal. God heals. God asks for that act of obedience before God heals.

Now we could make a cult out of Jordan river water, saying that it has special healing powers. Come to think of it, we do make quite a thing out of Jordan river water, being baptized in it, bringing back bottles of it from trips to Israel.

Now don’t get me wrong. Enjoying an experience isn’t idolatry. But if you for one moment think that being baptized in the Jordan river is better than being baptized elsewhere, that the water of that particular river has more power to cleanse from sin, you have fallen into idolatry.

The Idolatry of Places

When Jesus is transfigured, Peter wants to set up camp. It’s a sacred place. It’s a natural response (Matthew 17, see especially verse 4 for Peter’s response).

That response was also natural in both Jews and Samaritans. It’s better to worship on Mt. Gerizim. It’s better to worship in Jerusalem. All of which depends on what God has commanded. It is not the place that does it, though a place can help us. I like to pray in the church sanctuary. Is this idolatry? Only if I believe that it’s the only place God can reach me.

Jesus said that those who worship God will worship in spirit and truth, and not based on place (John 4:23).

Again, it’s easy to see how the command works. Gathering in a place is part of the human process of building community, so God commands a place. Making the place more sacred than God is our desire to bring things under our own control. A good command becomes an idolatry of the particular place.

About that Snake!

In the case of the snake on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9). Here we have a simple command of God that the Israelites are to look to the serpent and they will be healed.

Before I go to our three related questions, let’s look at two other scriptural points of reference. The first is 2 Kings 18:4. Hezekiah is reforming the land and destroying idols. He destroys the very serpent referenced in Numbers 21:4-9 at the time. Why? Because people were burning incense to the serpent and had even named it. This is idolatry. What God had once commanded and used for God has been turned to another purpose.

This is one of the best illustrations of the process of idolatry. We find something good, something that God commands or approves, and there are good results. Instead of realizing that it is God’s power in action, we make that set of actions, circumstances, things, or the very location the means of our receiving good. We are then worshiping the creature, rather than the creator (Romans 1:25).

In this case we have another scriptural reference point:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him can have eternal life.

John 3:14-15 (my translation)

Here we have a symbol by analogy, so again the serpent, destroyed by Hezekiah, serves God’s purpose. Never underestimate God’s power to redeem, whether that redemption is of a symbol or of a person!

A key here, as back in Numbers, is that the person looks up to the serpent but is healed by God, and there’s a fulfillment in a person looking up to Jesus and seeing God. The lesser symbol points to the greater/greatest.

The Questions

Is God commanding idolatry? No. God’s command is to look at, not to worship the snake. The healing comes from God. Idolatry would be to assume that the snake healed. But the text doesn’t say that.

Why does God command people to look at the snake? This one is harder. I don’t really know. By analogy, I assume it has something to do with teaching them other lessons. I can also look forward to the lifting up of Jesus. But how this act connected for the people I don’t know. I understand, however, that making a place of worship, providing an ark, and providing sacrifices each had an impact on the people, and I assume this did as well.

Was it a good command? God’s word doesn’t return empty. Just because I don’t know the reasoning, which is lost in history, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know. My guess is that Moses and the people understood this in a way I can’t, that it made sense in the situation. I have heard numerous explanations, and I can’t claim any one as definite. The fact that someone turned it into idolatry down the road doesn’t indicate that the command itself was bad. We are idol making machines. We make idols.

Was This a Good Question?

Perhaps I could word that differently. Should we ask this kind of question of God’s actions? Should we not just assume that God’s command is good?

I would suggest that this is an excellent question. If you don’t ask this kind of question of a story in scripture, you can’t really learn from it. Simply appending a moral that says, “God said it, so it’s good,” doesn’t involve much learning.

There are commands in scripture that are much more troubling, I think, and we need to be prepared to examine and see what we can learn.

Tonight in Romans

Tonight in Romans

This evening, at 6 pm at Chumuckla Community Church, we continue the study of Romans, just starting chapter 2. Here’s a quote from some of my reading today:

The Gospel is not just a matter for the mind, a message that must be understood. It is a way of being in the world that must be lived. The Gospel may reach the individual through the mind, and the mind has a task to do with it, considering its premises, judging its arguments, evaluating its goals. But the Gospel must find its home in the heart, the seat of being. It cannot get to the heart without passing through the mind, but it is not effective unless it settles in the heart, changing it in the process. As Paul puts it, the heart must be circumcised (Rom. 2:29). The power of sin in it must be expurgated. The Christian has a mind renewed from above and a circumcised heart. Paul’s promise to his converts is that “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). To keep the mind and the heart together is to live by faith and reason. The love of God that the Spirit pours into the heart does not dislodge the unity of the mind and the heart. It strengthens it. In the Christian, faith and reason abide as one. (Herold Weiss, Meditations on the Letters of Paul, pp. 59-60)

There are those who think we’re moving slowly. I think we’re moving at lightning speed! If you live in the area, come and join us for an exciting discussion.

The Sacred Scriptures of the Early Church

The Sacred Scriptures of the Early Church

I struggled with the title, as this is almost entirely links, and the issues raised cover so much ground. I’m posting these particularly for my Romans study on Wednesday nights.

In both the current class and my previous series on Hebrews I maintained that the New Testament was not intended to set aside the Old, or the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, I refer to the idea that Hebrews is doing that is an author climbing out on a limb and then cutting it off behind himself.

On the Charisma Magazine web site Dr. Michael Brown responds to a video by Andy Stanley.

I would suggest listening to Andy Stanley and see if you can hear some of the approaches to the Old Testament I mentioned. Michael Brown provides what I consider a good response. I’m glad to note he sent Andy Stanley a copy of his critique (see Brown’s article), but I do not accept that they are not that far apart, as Stanley says. Note that the majority of the issues are in the first five minutes of the video, but I think it then pervades the rest in more subtle ways, then comes out more strongly at the end.

Anyone who has heard me teach will know my view on this.

Here are a couple of related books I publish.

 


Grace and the Book of Hebrews

Grace and the Book of Hebrews

In my experience, Hebrews has provided a wealth of texts for sermons that call for works and human effort. Pride of place, perhaps, should be held by the Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection, for which one of the central texts is Hebrews 6:1. No matter how many times Wesley affirmed Christian perfection as a gift of grace, he was unable to prevent this becoming a basis for performance based salvation, judgment, and self-righteousness. (While I believe in sanctification, and will mention it below, I don’t accept the idea of perfection in this life.)

Hebrews 6:4-6 follows, which is often treated as teaching that if we commit some particular sin or other, we will lose our salvation for doing so. I’ve written about this recently, and I disagree, but I’ve heard it preached.

Then there’s Hebrews 10:26-31, starting with the warning against continuing in sin and ending with what a terrifying thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God.

Or Hebrews 11, so often preached as a litany of great accomplishments and presented against the lack of accomplishments in the congregation. We must, of course, become faithful like these heroes of ancient times and hold up our end of the deal. After all, God needs us and demands our service.

Hebrews 12 starts with the clouds of witnesses, which I’ve heard preached as the “encouragement” of having all these wonderful people watching you from heaven, so you had better not mess up. Don’t want all these holy people watching you mess up, do you?

Of course, you aim to accomplish all of this in fear of the God who is a devouring fire (12:29).

James may be seen as an epistle of works (not an accurate portrayal, in my view, but Hebrews may well have been the source of more sermons on performance righteousness.

But is this approach justified by the text of the letter itself? I don’t think so.

Let me make a couple of assertions that I’m not really going to justify. Knowing that I believe these may help you understand the rest of what I’m saying. The first is that there was never a plan for salvation presented in scripture that did not have as its goal the creation of a holy people. From the invitation to the first couple to walk in the garden with God, to the call in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy, to Jesus asking disciples to follow him, to Paul inviting everyone to put their faith in Jesus, the anointed one, all the plans are part of one plan aiming at that point. The second is that grace is one of the, of not the, most difficult things to accept, because if grace is true, we are not in control. We humans like to be in control.

Hebrews is a book about God making a holy people, and it’s a book about how none of us are in control.

Hebrews starts with the description of God’s gracious gift, himself, in the person of Jesus. Hebrews 1:1-4 lays out this presentation. The one who is sent is sufficient to the task. As we move through the book, we see Jesus presented as one of us, tested as we are, and sharing in our experience. I have been asked whether I see Hebrews as teaching substitutionary atonement. If this is a question of whether Jesus died for us and for our sins, then the answer is surely “yes.” But if we mean “penal substitutionary atonement,” as in Jesus taking our punishment in a judical context, I think the answer is “no.”

In Hebrews, Jesus is presented as becoming one of us. The necessary elements of the sacrifice is that it must be perfect, i.e., fully connected to God, and also fully ours. Then the form of “dying for” is incorporation. We are in Christ who is our king, our parent, and our priest, and we are incorporated in his death. He dies and we die “in him.” It is not a judicial substitution, but rather that the one dies for the nation (John 11:50) as one of the nation, indeed, as the king. The key here is that we become incorporated into that kingdom, that community, and are thus buried in his death and raised into his life (Romans 6). I think Hebrews is closely aligned with this Pauline theological presentation. Everything we are called to accomplish in the book is accomplished in Christ. That’s why Christ is presented first in the book and his superiority is established. (Refer again back to my post on Hebrews 6:4-6 for some backup for this idea.)

So when we are called to perfection, we are called to be carried on to perfection. This is not the perfection of a person who lives a perfect life, and certainly not something we accomplish on our own. That’s clear through the arguments on why Jesus is the perfect high priest. In order to make that argument, one must establish that we are not capable of this on our own. The perfection to which we are called and to which we are carried is not ours, but the perfection of Jesus (Hebrews 5:9). He, Christ, is the source of salvation.

Of course it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but we can instead be in the hands of the living God through the high priest who is sympathetic to our weaknesses. Of course, there is no more sacrifice for sin. If Jesus has opened a “new and living way” (Hebrews 10:19-20), then the only options are to go through it or not. If we are offered complete access to God and incorporation into his redemption and sanctification, what other option is needed? What other option could possible work?

Then there’s Hebrews 11, which I think provides the key to the view of the message of Hebrews I’m presenting here. Contrary to those who preach Hebrews 11 as a triumph of the saints, it is, in fact, a triumph of grace in action. We err if we read this without adequate consideration of the stories from the Hebrew scriptures of these great heroes. Moses doesn’t fear the wrath of the king in Hebrews 11, but he flees in terror in Exodus. Sarah is rewarded for faith, but in Genesis she laughs. These people were not those who tried to obtain perfection, but those who were carried on to perfection. In 11:40 we are told that God’s plan was that they should attain perfection “with us.”

That perfection, I believe is found in Jesus, and only in Jesus.

These are the witnesses of Hebrews 12. We are being watched as we are carried on by those who have been carried before us. The question is truly simply whether we will truly be carried on. We can miss this both by thinking that we are going to do it ourselves, or by missing that it needs to be done at all. I’ve used the metaphor of a train for the theme of Hebrews. Get on the right train and stay on it until it reaches its destination. You can equally fail by sitting at the train station by never getting on the train, or if you set out to run alongside the train on your own power. Neither one will work. But if you get on the train you’ll move forward. (As with all metaphors, this one has its weaknesses!)

In this view of grace, it is not put against faith. It is not faith vs. works, as though there were two approaches and one was better. It’s not a balance between faith and works. No amount of running, even combined with train-riding attempts, is adequate. But sitting in the station is also not a real option.

What I think Hebrews makes clear is that the grace is available. Jesus opens the way to God. This is grace in action. But rather than being the enemy of true works, works of faith, grace is what opens the door and makes any works, any holiness, and any approach to God possible. Sanctification occurs only on the train, i.e., only when we are being carried on toward perfection in Jesus, our brother, our sacrifice, our high priest, and our king.

That’s why I see grace as the critical key to the entire book of Hebrews, but I also see the book as providing a critical view of grace, a grace that is active, even more, that is God’s action taken in our lives.

In this post I have not provided nearly enough scripture and logic to back this up fully. This is just an introduction. My recommendation is that you consider these ideas while reading the entire book to see what you find.

(Feature image credit: Openclipart.org.)

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

A Brief Note on Hebrews and Structure

So NOT the Logic of Hebrews!

A weakness of a great deal of Bible study is in the failure to truly see the details. In our normal conversations we have multiple contextual clues including shared history and knowledge. When reading scripture, we have to be more careful, because it is not addressed directly to us, and we often don’t share those clues. In Old Testament studies, people get used to the idea that the culture was very different. But the New Testament reflects a time and culture also different from our own, though less blatantly so. Thus we need to pay close attention.

That in turn leads to the problem with serious, detailed Bible study. When digging out details, it’s very easy to forget the broader structure. This is particularly critical when reading Hebrews because the author signals upcoming topics, sometimes more than once, then discusses them, sometimes discusses them again in another way, and then looks back at them. You won’t understand a topic in this book unless you are paying attention to the larger structure of the book.

On Wednesday night I’ll be discussing Hebrews 6:4-6 with my class at church. In this, I’ll draw lines from Hebrews 5:9 to 6:1 to 6:4-6 to 10:26-27, from each of those to other connections, all building toward an understanding of this difficult passage. I’ll post about it when the class is over. I don’t really have time to do it justice today.

What I want to emphasize is that studying the structure of the literary work one is studying is critical, and is more critical when it comes from a time and place that is not yours.

Authorship of Hebrews Summary

Authorship of Hebrews Summary

Michael J. Kok summarizes the internal evidence on the authorship of Hebrews (HT: Dave Black Online).

As Dave Black notes, his argument is really not one of internal but of external evidence. Dr. Kok cites Dave’s book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul, which I publish. I do note the 2017 publication date, which suggests use of the new hardcover edition, which I link below. The more usual paperback is just $5.99 while the Kindle edition is just $2.99 for those who would like to check Dave’s arguments.

My own view on this is “author unknown.” After reading Dave’s work, I no longer say “anybody but Paul,” but I still find the differences in approach and style from Paul difficult to accept, and I find the absence of Paul’s salutation at the beginning odd, at a minimum. But I put greater emphasis on internal evidence, so this may be simply a difference in approach.


Acts: God Moves in Unexpected Ways

Acts: God Moves in Unexpected Ways

I’m currently reading the book of Acts for my morning devotions and today I read chapter 6. That’s a nice, short chapter!

The disciples find that there are complaints about distribution of charitable works and they decide they shouldn’t be distracted from the Word in order to wait at tables (and other such things). The result is the choice of seven deacons. Again, they pray, and then lay hands on them and commission them to this work. Other than the continuing spread of the message, we’re not told how this organizational structure worked.

As Acts proceeds (since I’ve read it before, I know how the story ends!), we’ll hear quite a bit about Stephen and Philip. It’s interesting to note, however, that we don’t hear about them serving at tables, which, ostensibly, they were chosen to do. In fact, we hear them proclaiming the Word themselves. In chapter 6, it starts with Stephen, and it promptly leads to his arrest.

Let me note a couple of things here:

  1. They don’t record any time of prayer before going out to choose these seven men. It appears they jump straight to the strategy.
  2. They don’t record any time of prayer or deliberation before choosing the seven.
  3. They do pray before commissioning the men by laying hands on them.
  4. We see no record of results of this activity that match the intent. Yes, results. Stephen and Philip are significant players in the story and they are introduced to us here, but there is no record that the issue with distribution of service (apparently particularly food) was resolved.

Now it may be that I’m reading too much into the white spaces here, but this is the second time I’ve noticed this during this pass through Acts. I’d noticed before that Matthias (chapter 1) is appointed as a new apostle and then disappears from history. Considering how much of this portion of early Christian history is recorded just in Acts, one wonders if this is accidental. (My sister Betty Rae pointed this out to me some years ago.) In my reading this time I noticed how the choice to replace the missing apostle is made based on Peter’s interpretation of scripture. There’s no effort made to seek God’s will for this particular instance. Then two people are chose according to criteria they select.

Let’s parallel the numbers:

  1. There is no prayer time as they choose the basic strategy. Unlike Acts 6, this strategy is apparently based on Peter’s reading of scripture.
  2. They choose two people again without any time of prayer.
  3. They now pray and ask God to choose between the two. The situation differs from Acts 6 in that the seven were chosen and then the prayer is offered as they commission them. “Please bless the ones we have chosen,” is the petition. Here it’s “choose one of the two options we’ve given you, Lord.”
  4. No results are recorded.

Now comes the fifth step, which is what’s hitting me on this pass through Acts. God immediately takes action to advance the kingdom, and it doesn’t fit with the human plans, even the plans by the apostles. In Acts 6, Stephen heads right out to proclaim the gospel and defend it. In the case of Acts 1 we have to wait until chapter 9 before we see God choosing someone as an apostle, one who doesn’t fit the list of criteria, but who certainly carries out the mission.

I wonder if Luke is telling us something here? I’m really not that acquainted with scholarship on Acts, so this may have been thoroughly ground to dust somewhere in the commentaries. Still, it’s something to think about.

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

Acts of the Apostles and 21st Century Action

I publish a couple of books that use Acts of the Apostles as a source for principles to guide the 21st century church. I publish such books with a certain amount of trepidation, as it’s very easy to apply material piecemeal, which results in discovering that the biblical book in question tells us to do what we wanted to do in any case.

Two books that deal with this issue in the Energion catalog are Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel by Bruce Epperly and Seven Marks of a New Testament Church by David Alan Black. Now considering that the authors of these two books are some distance apart on the theological spectrum—Bruce is United Church of Christ and Dave is Southern Baptist—one might suspect that there is a wide gulf between what they see as most important or applicable in the New Testament church. In actuality, I found myself more surprised by the level of agreement involved. There are certainly differences, and yet there are themes that are clear to both authors.

I suspect the level of agreement results from greater care in studying the text. No, I don’t believe careful study will make us agree on everything. Careful study tends to do two things: 1) It discovers clear themes, and 2) it clarifies and outlines differences and the reasons for them. I will repeat what I have said before: Most of the heat in arguments between Christians results from not understanding the way in which we’re using our sources. If we did understand the source of an opponent’s beliefs, that wouldn’t mean we’d agree, but it would reduce frustration. There’s nothing like having two people look at a text and clearly see different things. There is a strong temptation to assume the other person is stupid, obtuse, ignorant, or perhaps demonically deceived.

Yet Christianity is a faith that is built on studying sources. We may differ on what those sources are, whether it’s the biblical canon, writers in the theological tradition, or authoritative institutions. The point is not to eliminate the inputs because they might be misunderstood or misapplied. Rather, I would suggest it is to study these sources with an awareness of the differences.

One of the ways to do this is to actually study pieces of biblical literature as they were written. If I get to make a selection of texts, I can definitely bias the results. That doesn’t mean that I will find that everything there applies to my everyday life now, but I do need to be aware of the things I’m not applying and why I’m not applying them.

I started re-reading Acts of the Apostles the other day, and was immediately struck by some of these kinds of issues. Let me note just a few.

  1. Acts 1:2-3 – Jesus teaches the disciples for some time following the resurrection. We don’t have a formal record of this teaching. Is this a plug for apostolic tradition? If it is, note that Paul wasn’t in on this, yet has provided us with much of New Testament theology.
  2. Acts 1:4-5 – Awaiting the promise of the Spirit. Acts was most likely written before John, but here we have that continuing teaching of the Holy Spirit, and when the Spirit does come upon the disciples, it seems to come upon the whole group. Is this a foundation for the belief that revelation continues and can come to each one of us?
  3. Acts 1:21-26 – Choosing a successor to Judas by lot. This one presents some interesting issues. I enjoyed teaching this to a class in a church that had just completed a search for a new pastor. I asked them if their procedure, much different from the one here, was biblical, which resulted in an energetic discussion. It’s interesting to me that we have no evidence here of prayerful discussion. Peter presents his interpretation of scripture, then two people are chosen that fill the requirements (we don’t hear the source of those requirements), and then one of the two is chosen by lot. God is invoked, but God is invited to choose between the two candidates selected by the apostles. At which point the chosen person disappears into history. Most of the book is about Paul, a person who does not fulfill the requirements and is chosen by a completely different method. So is God’s way casting lots or should we wait for the lightning bolt?
  4. Skipping Acts 2 and going to 3:1-10 – Is this the sort of thing that should characterize a modern church? If so, we’re largely too tame. And we should, of course, consider chapter 5 with Ananias and Sapphira. Church discipline, anyone?

My purpose in making this truncated list is to show that there are things here we do (baptism, preaching, even healing [in some sense]), and others that we don’t (casting lots), and it’s worthwhile to realize that something more than just grabbing sentences or paragraphs and applying what they “clearly teach” is going on. I’m not complaining about that extra stuff going on. That’s part of life and yes, part of faith. The problem comes in when we try to pretend that we’ve dumped everything extra. (Note that there are churches who use a form of lots in selecting leadership, so that is a valid item to list.)

The next question to ask yourself is just why you do certain things and not others. Why would you preach, baptize, accept into membership, but not heal? Why do you find it appropriate to await the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but not to choose all church leadership by casting lots? (Notice how I slipped “all” in there when it’s not in the text?) Understanding how we get wherever we are can help us understand one another. It might even help us with course corrections.