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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.

Mounce on Translating Every Word

Mounce on Translating Every Word

I used to use Bill Mounce’s introductory grammar in teaching Greek, and I appreciated his attention to linguistics, though I generally wanted more. (I’ve switched to Dave Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek for those rare occasions when I have the opportunity to teach Greek. I’m probably prejudiced as Dave is a friend and I publish the Spanish translation of that book, Aprenda a leer el Griego del Nuevo Testamento.)

In a blog post, Mounce discusses the question of whether one needs to translate every word of the Greek text into English to be faithful to get inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. As one who doesn’t believe “inerrancy” is a good word to describe scripture, I find the question especially interesting. It illustrates the reason why I don’t like the inerrancy debate. So often, despite any efforts by scholars who use the word carefully, inerrancy leads to this sort of distorted question. Mounce correctly points out that the word is not necessarily the correct bearer of meaning to try to translate. Mounce suggests the meaning is found “more at the phrase level,” though I would say that meaning is found at a variety of levels, and that the ideal translator would convey the meaning expressed.

In this case, however, the “ideal” translator is more “ideal” in the sense of being “not real.” No translator can convey everything. If a truly master translator, for example, conveys the precise emotional feel of a Psalm, he or she is very likely to obscure the history. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, does an outstanding job of getting the punch of a parable’s message, and the result is beautiful, almost ideal. Well, until you realize that you’re losing both the historical connection, and also in some ways the possibilities inherent in the story form itself. This is not a criticism of The Message. I love it. I like to read it. But by accomplishing some things, the translator of necessity fails to accomplish some others. Therein lies the value of multiple translations.

Therein also lies the value of sharing one’s thoughts. It is imagined that someone like me, who reads the text in the original language, has somehow truly attained and truly understands. But over and over, I read and translate a passage for myself, and then I read it in other translations and find enrichment because those translators chose different options than I did. Sometimes I’ll say, “No, I think my way is better,” while at others I might correct what I did. Sometimes I just find that the other ways of expressing the meaning round out my understanding, while I can’t really find a translation that conveys the whole.

You can check out some books from Energion Publications on inspiration here.


When God Ordains a Change

When God Ordains a Change

We’ve had some discussion of Romans 13 over on the Energion Discussion Network, with contributions from David Alan Black, Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., and Steve Kindle (via comments). The question is just what it means to be subject to the “higher powers,” and when or whether a Christian can ever be involved in a revolutionary movement. I commented on some of my own view on this in a post some time ago, but today I want to look at another passage. I think it’s an excellent illustration of why we should refrain from the phrase “the Bible clearly teaches” as much as possible.

So what about when God ordains a change? A fun example of this occurs in 2 Kings 9. Actually, this starts with 1 Kings 19:26 when Elijah is told to anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi as king of Israel. This doesn’t happen until 2 Kings 9:

Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophet and told him, “Get yourself ready and take this vial of oil in your hand and go to Ramoth Gilead. You’ll go there and you’ll see Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi, and you’ll take him from among his brethren and take him to another room. You’ll take the vial of oil and pour it out on his head, and you’ll say, “This is what YHWH says, ‘I have anointed you king over Israel.’ Then you’ll open the door, flee, and you won’t hesitate.”

You can read the rest of the story that follows in 2 Kings 9. It makes for some very interesting reading. It was probably a rather good idea for the prophet to flee!

There are a number of very obvious differences between the situation faced by Elijah, Elisha, and the sons of the prophets and that faced by Paul when writing the letter to the Romans. Israel was being treated as at least a sort of theocracy. In this case, God’s people were a nation, not people living within a nation. Further, in this case we have a direct order recorded from God via a prophet to be the catalyst for this change of government. The situation is complicated by the fact that God’s people are divided into two nations, Israel and Judah (the result of another case of God ordaining a change, 1 Kings 11:26-40), and that all of the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel are rated as evil.

It points to the complexity that arises when one views all government as ordained by God. Almost definition, all government is permitted by God. The difference between “permitted” and “ordained” when one speaks in consideration of divine power are fairly close in meaning.

Many modern readers would assume that the key difference is that God was able to order this via the prophets. That is not an explanation that I find useful. God directs in many ways. In fact, I believe God can direct through simple moral choice, i.e., if the government forces one to do something that is immoral, one ought to obey God rather than human authority. In the case of Elisha, God was willing, according to the story, to order revolution against a government that had become intolerable. Interestingly enough, Jehu’s dynasty was not that much better, though it does get a slightly better report than the dynasty of Omri.

It strikes me that it’s dangerous to make too much theology out of one passage.

James and a Living Gospel

James and a Living Gospel

Our pastor at Chumuckla Community Church started a sermon series on the book of James. This provoked me to look again at Bruce Epperly’s little book Holistic Spirituality: Life Transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James. Here’s a sample:

Despite Martin Luther’s misguided dismissal of James as “an epistle of straw,” due to James’ emphasis on agency and lifestyle rather than receptive grace as central to Christian experience, James is good news for congregants and seekers. It is the gospel lived out in everyday life, not by words alone or doctrinal requirements, but by actions that transform the world. This is the good news of Jesus Christ who shows us the pathway to abundant life, and not a dead letter or a soul-deadening creed or abstract doctrines about the divinity of Jesus unrelated to daily life. James invites us to be companions on the pathway of the living Christ. (p. 4)

Dave Black quoted today from Gordon Fee’s commentary on the epistles to the Thessalonians, discussing the connection between believing and living. I’m going to link to Dave’s post again tomorrow, when I briefly discuss Bible commentaries, but Dave’s post is worth reading in this connection as well.

Bruce Epperly comments again on the supposed contrast between James and Paul:

While Paul’s theology is often contrasted with the Letter of James, both Christian leaders believed that faith without works is dead (James 5:17).8 Paul affirms “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). (Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, p. xxvii)

I think we frequently see contrasts when we should see differences in emphasis and even in circumstances.


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Paul and the Law Tangle

Paul and the Law Tangle

I’m working through key elements of Galatians 3 & 4 tonight and drawing in some material from Romans and elsewhere. My main topic will be to look at Paul’s use of the word “law” in these passages. My main references other than the Bible text will be Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide pp. 43-47 and Meditations on the Letters of Paul, Chapter VIII, pp. 89-97

Here’s a sample:

No Jew would deny the wisdom of Torah, or disavow its validity. Neither did Paul. When arguing for the universality of God’s promise to Abraham, and that all those who like Abraham have faith in God are justified before God, Paul asks rhetorically, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom. 3:31). For that to be the case, Paul must have in mind more than one way of seeing the authority of the law, or the way it functions. (p. 92)

The chapter in Herold Weiss’s book (Meditations) is one of the most helpful presentations I’ve found on this subject.

No Paul Study Tonight

No Paul Study Tonight

Due to scheduling conflicts, or more precisely a wall-to-wall day, I will not be doing my video Bible study tonight. I’ll resume next week. In the meantime, you might enjoy my interview with Thomas Hudgins. You can read a text interview here (not a transcript, but a text version of the interview), or watch:

Of Hermeneutics and Annoyance

Of Hermeneutics and Annoyance

I tend to harp on hermeneutics. Sometimes that’s precisely what people want me to do. Groups that have me back to speak twice, at least, are generally happy with that topic. But others find it annoying, pedantic, and perhaps intellectually snobbish! “Why can’t we just read our Bibles and get on with it?” they ask. Or “Quit making it so complicated!”

I understand their frustration, but without a great deal of sympathy. Christians have been “just getting on with it” for centuries, and the result is that we’re scattered all over the map in terms of how we understand scripture. I don’t consider having a variety of interpretations to be a problem in itself. To those who yearn for the magisterium, I would say that this simply means choosing one probably wrong option and then sticking with it.

To a certain extent, just getting on and reading the Bible is a workable devotional approach. But even so, such a devotional approach requires a filter. Just try reading Numbers 31 devotionally and you may see the problem. Now there are many approaches to handling Numbers 31, though the most common one seems to be to pretend it’s not there as long as possible. Pretending that less enlightening (or apparently so) passages aren’t there is an approach to interpretation and application.

This approach can even be made explicit. I’m embedding a clip from The West Wing, in which Toby Ziegler discusses the death penalty with his Rabbi. In this discussion the fictional rabbi expresses explicitly an approach many take implicitly. (To those annoying people who like to point out that various quotes/clips/etc come from fiction, I’m aware of it. I find fiction an excellent source for launching thinking.)

Relatively few people (though there are some) would state this quite as explicitly as the rabbi does at the end, “wrong by any modern standard.” But it’s a common hermeneutic in practice.

And as long as you’re prepared to argue modern standards or what seems, to you, to be spiritually enlightening, and to do so with other people who share your view of “enlightening,” that approach will work. It works quite well on the more conservative side as well, just with different definitions applied to what to keep and what not to.

The Bible is susceptible to this sort of thing because it does reflect a long time period and lets us see a variety of experiences in different times and places. It doesn’t codify that much, and where it does, it is often under circumstances that don’t apply. In a post yesterday I used Leviticus 18:22 and 19:34. Those each evoke extremely controversial topics. Here’s another text I used in the same Sunday School class:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbor, or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby— when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found, or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt. And you shall bring to the priest, as your guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without blemish from the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering. The priest shall make atonement on your behalf before the Lord, and you shall be forgiven for any of the things that one may do and incur guilt thereby. (Leviticus 6:1-7, NRSV, from

In this passage the class largely came to the same conclusion about what applied and what didn’t with some variation. Feeling guilt, accepting responsibility, making restitution—these all seemed very applicable. Not so much bringing a ram without blemish.

That doesn’t reflect a bad hermeneutic. In this case, most people were distinguishing lasting principles from temporary requirements. Both Judaism and Christianity have theology that removes the need for animal sacrifices in the present.

The problem comes in when we try to discuss, and more particularly when we try to enforce our view of scripture on someone else. I’m fond of a quote from one of the books I publish, Philosophy for Believers. On page 119 of that book he says:

Philosophers sometimes appear to talk in obscure ways. They do so because they take into consideration what people often overlook.

In this case, I’m not simply looking for considerations that are overlooked, though they are, but for the underlying approach that results in a particular view. Quite frequently the way someone understands a scripture is simply locked into the tradition so thoroughly that an individual doesn’t even think about why. A single tradition might function well that way, but when you then discuss the text with someone else, the argument gets immediately heated.

The reason these arguments get heated quickly is both that we often have a great deal of emotion (way too much, I believe) invested in our religious views and spiritual practices, and also that the other person seems obtuse and perhaps bullheaded not to see the obviously correct and plainly clear meaning of the passage presented. But you may have grown up and studied in a tradition that sees that passage completely differently. The difference may be in what applies and doesn’t, but it can also be in just what it means and how it applies. (I discuss this more in my essay Facing the Proof-Text Method.)

Let me give an example. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says a number of things, but I had a debate that dealt with two of them. It started with this one:

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5:33-37, NRSV, from

Now it happens that I believe that this is an intensified command that we should conduct all of our dealings with others truthfully and with integrity, and thus it would negate the need for an oath. I would go so far as to consider “I swear to you” in conversations or business dealings to be at least unnecessary, and probably more so, it reflects the idea that some of my conversation can be a lie. I don’t think it forbids me from taking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in court, though I consider “so help me God” to be questionable for the same reason as “I swear to you.” I speak always with God’s help, not being able to take my next breath without it. The words I would utter in court should be no more and can be no less with the help of God than any others.

Now you can disagree with me on my interpretation. That’s part of my point. I’m not even fully explaining my approach, though many will see how I’m reading the passage. I’m certainly, in this case, allowing Jesus some hyperbole. For example, I would identify “anything more than this comes from the evil one” as hyperbole. Am I right? That would be an excellent point for discussion.

Which, in this exchange, my correspondent and I did. I asked him how he interpreted it. He told me that it should be taken in the plain sense. I asked him to define that further. He said it should be taken as it would be understood by any high school student in the U. S. Having dealt with not a few high school students, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, but I then brought my counter-example.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. (Matthew 5:27-30, NRSV, from

My question here was (and is) just how an American high school student would undersand “tear it out and throw it away” or “cut it off and throw it away.” I see these as hyperbole, emphasizing the need to avoid lust, to get in ahead of the cause of adultery and not just stop before one crosses the threshold.

My correspondent said that this passage should be understood as one’s willingness to stand up for one’s principles even to physical assault or martyrdom. I have great doubts that this is the way the average high school student would read the passage.

Now for me, further discussion of the applicability of the passages would require that we first address our points of interpretation. Is it possible that Jesus used hyperbole? If not, just what does the second passage mean? If he does use it, is the first passage actually using hyperbole or is that just my literary excuse to get out of obeying the command of Jesus?

All of those are great questions to discuss, but to discuss them profitably, we need to ask the questions under the question. In this case my correspondent was willing to do that. Some think I tell this story to denigrate my correspondent. In fact, the discussion was quite profitable and enjoyable. Yes, we disagreed profoundly in the end, but I certainly learned.

There is one further layer worth mentioning and that’s to ask why a particular hermeneutic is chosen. We’re not actually stuck with our hermeneutic. We had to delay my discussion with Dr. Alden Thompson (Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? and Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers), but it will be rescheduled. That’s where we discuss the inspiration of the Bible, and how one understands that will impact what hermeneutic one will use. Back when I was an extremely arrogant undergraduate, Alden is the one who set me to thinking about this more seriously.