Today’s Bible post just needed a bit of tightening up here and there–click to read about how the disciples had to deal with suffering, and how trials in our lives can yield positive results!
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Luke begins the Book of Acts right where his Gospel leaves off–describing the last instructions Jesus gave the apostles as well as His ascension into heaven. Jesus didn’t just get resurrected and leave His disciples completely to themselves; He stayed around “over a period of forty days” (v. 3), speaking with them about the kingdom of God and giving them a few last things for them to remember as they carried forth His teachings and established the early Christian church. (Not only that, He was proving He had truly risen from the dead, appearing all over the local region to many different people, speaking with them, eating with them, etc.)
Two important things Jesus mentioned are the arrival of the Holy Spirit, bringing a “gift” for them (v. 4-5), and where the disciples should take His message after they receive said gift (v. 7-8). They are supposed to stay in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes; the gift mentioned arrives in chapter 2, and (at least from my reading) seems to be the gift of languages (speaking in tongues). This will be very handy for the disciples, since they are to travel to distant lands to speak of Jesus, to fulfill the Great Commission.
Jesus’ last two pieces of advice are short but full of meaning:
- The Holy Spirit will equip them with every ability they need to witness. How many times have I found myself making excuses that I don’t know “how to witness right,” that I’m inexperienced, that I stutter and make a fool of myself? Jesus first reassures the disciples (and us modern believers) that the Holy Spirit, the third personage of God, will be with them as they go forth and speak to others about Jesus. Believers then and now can rely on that strength–you’d be surprised how the right words just seem to come forth when you witness!
- They are to witness not only to their own communities, but to everyone, because everyone can be included in the kingdom of God. Christianity was not merely for the Jews and the Jewish lands they had all grown up in–Christ’s message was (and still is) meant for anyone to hear, and open for anyone to accept no matter what their background, language, culture, etc. This would be greatly important for the disciples to remember, as the early church struggles with people saying that to be a Christian you have to be a Jew first, etc. (It’s also important for us today, as we struggle with churches increasingly treating themselves like a members-only club rather than an open place of worship for all.)
With Jesus’ first instruction, it’s no wonder that the disciples begin to think the kingdom of God is already coming (v. 6)–if this “Holy Spirit” is coming, then doesn’t that mean the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament foretold? But Jesus makes it clear in His second instruction that they will go out witnessing to everyone, and the kingdom of God will arrive when God wills. Once Jesus has said that, then He is taken up to heaven…and the work of the early church begins with these 11 people.
24 At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”
25 “I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26 The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it ws not done in a corner. 27 King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
28 Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
29 Paul replied, “Short time or long–I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
After Paul has given quite a testimony of what happened to him to change his faith, Festus, the governor, interrupts him; he believes that Paul’s long hours of study on the Scriptures has led him into a manic state. But Paul counters with calm reasoning–everything Paul has said so far can be vetted and researched for its truth, and indeed King Agrippa would know most if not all of the details anyway.
Then Paul asks the king directly (and bravely), “Do you believe the prophets? I know you do.” (Most Jews of the day believed that the Old Testament prophets spoke true when they claimed a coming Messiah–they just didn’t think that Messiah was Jesus.) Now, if Agrippa answers either “Yes” or “No,” he would either be forced to admit Paul was right, or to risk angering the devout Jews of his court by saying he didn’t believe in the prophets. Agrippa chooses to evade the question, answering with some dubiousness, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
Paul’s answer is an example to all Christians–he prays for those listening to receive the kind of blessing that he has experienced through Christ.
When we witness to others, it is not about showing that we’re the best Christians ever, or acting like we’re better than everyone else. It’s about sincerely wanting others to experience the fulfillment and spiritual peace of knowing Jesus. Paul’s life had been changed for the better after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, and he wanted others’ lives to be changed this wonderfully as well.
As Christians, let’s resolve not only to witness to others about Jesus, but to pray for them to receive the peace we enjoy, too. After all, someone else prayerfully shared the gospel with us once, otherwise we would not be Christians ourselves.
27 Talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. 28 He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”
In this passage, Peter is addressing the large group of people that have gathered at the house of a man named Cornelius, who is “God-fearing” yet not Jewish–in other words, a Gentile. In this time period, Gentiles and Jews just didn’t mix, for cultural and traditional reasons such as the one Peter mentions here. In fact, many Jews of the day considered Gentiles just as heathen as complete nonbelievers. So it was no wonder, when Cornelius sent for Peter to come, that people came to see what would happen–it was quite a spectacle indeed.
But Peter by this time is not a Jew any longer himself, but a Christian–a follower of Christ, who has died and risen again. And he’s experienced so much, not only walking with Jesus but preaching Jesus’ message; he knows now that Jesus is the Savior of all, not just the Jews. In short, he knows that the cultural and traditional divide between Jews and Gentiles is merely human law, and not God’s. Tradition dictates that Peter can only visit, help, and witness to certain folk; Jesus showed him that everyone could be visited, helped, and witnessed to.
This passage is a teaching moment for the whole crowd–no longer is religion just for a few privileged people, but for anyone who believes. This inclusiveness and accessibility by all was what set Christianity apart from Judaism and other established religions right from the start. Yet even today, the modern Christian church struggles with accepting quite all of the curious and the faithful. Certain people are deemed “not good enough to go to OUR church,” and so they are never witnessed to. Or, sometimes believers are discouraged from coming back to a church because they get the message “you’re not OUR kind of people.”
These are messages we must eradicate from our minds if we are to serve God purely. God made clear that as long as a person believes in Him and accepts Jesus’ sacrifice, they are saved; who then are we to judge them “unfit” to attend our churches, or “not good enough” to visit us or for us to visit them? We humans divide ourselves up like this all the time, often for reasons of “tradition,” but tradition doesn’t always come from God. Dividing humanity up along the lines of socioeconomic status, political parties, races and ethnicities, cultures, genders, etc. does nothing except to splinter the church apart, and keep us from witnessing to and prayerfully serving anyone whom God has put in our path.
So, this is our challenge as Christians, then: to aid and witness to anyone who needs God and needs our help, no matter if they are unwashed, no matter if they are poor or of a different race, no matter if we know their past legal history, etc. As Peter says here, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean;” that goes for us, too.
8 Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. 9 But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. 10 This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.
In this passage, Paul has visited Ephesus and is doing missionary work there, preaching about Jesus and sharing the various truths of the gospel with the Ephesians. Here, we see that a few people become resistant to Paul’s message and disparage it. Yet, rather than sit there and verbally duke it out with the few resisters, Paul simply leaves them, and takes his discussion elsewhere (namely, the “lecture hall of Tyrannus,” who was likely a philosopher or teacher of rhetoric of the day).
This does not mean that Paul was angrily giving up on these people, nor that they “won” the debate somehow. Instead, Paul knew that any angry argument with these resistant people would only obscure the message for others, and would degrade the quality of his witness. There was no point to argue with people who were only interested in shouting him down.
But notice that Paul doesn’t leave Ephesus entirely. He still has daily discussions with people who are interested, and the discussions seem to be open to anyone and everyone. He is preaching to both Jews and Greeks (both people of Abrahamic descent and people of other ancestry); he is presumably speaking to anyone who is interested in learning the gospel, and no one is left out. And Paul stays in this same location two years more doing this, so that everyone hears at least something about the gospel, and those who are interested can come and find out more if they wish.
To me, Paul’s open sharing of the gospel, staying away from conflict and instead inviting peaceful discussion, is what we as Christians should aspire toward. Too many times, modern Christians make headlines because they act too confrontational and angry, and in fact that is the way many nonbelievers see Christianity–as an angry, self-righteous faith, quick to judge and even quicker to condemn. Just as indignant confrontation would have only muddled Paul’s message in Ephesus, such negative communication can only damage us modern Christians and keep others from ever wanting to hear our own stories of how God has worked in our lives.
Any time we talk about Jesus with someone, we should make it as serene as possible, being willing to share our own experience and answer any questions the other person/people may have. Not everyone will want to hear our message, and that’s okay; they can make the choice for themselves, just as we did. Accepting and respecting their choice, whether it’s to listen or to walk away, is part of our job as witnesses for Christ. And, just as Paul did, we can continue to share our testimony and our understanding of the gospel elsewhere if need be.
3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Saul, a well-known persecutor of Christians, becomes Paul, apostle of God, in this one moment. This is the moment that all believers go through at some point in their lives–when they ask God, “Who are you?” and He answers. What a watershed moment, what a powerful change! And yet, this story isn’t just Biblical–it happens to all of us who have come to love Jesus and worship God.
For some of us, our conversion moment (our Road to Damascus moment, if you will) comes in childhood, with a simple, toddling foray down to the front of the church to tell the minister what we have decided. Some of us, like Saul, spend years fighting before finally deciding to give this Jesus guy a shot.
But no matter how you come to Jesus, no matter what you’ve done, said, or thought, He still seeks reconciliation with you if you haven’t already. That’s the amazing thing about God; He knows us and loves us, despite all the railing and whining we might have done toward Him over the years (*raises a guilty hand*). And He does everything He can to extend love toward us. The only thing we have to do is accept it. Then, once we do that, He guides us and helps us know “what we must do,” as Jesus says to Paul. This is indeed what all believers go through…learning to hear and trust God.
“ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
This is Paul’s retelling of what happened to him on the road to Damascus, when Jesus appeared to him and his life was changed forever. Before that fateful trip, he had been Saul, a Pharisee who went around collecting and persecuting Christians; afterwards, he was Paul, an inspired missionary and witness for Christ who planted many churches and spoke to many people of what had happened to him.
In these verses, Paul is retelling his conversion story to King Agrippa, after many days of court trials and hearings, to prove his case of Christianity to the king. His conversion tale, however, is but a small thread of his larger defense: that he is still of sound mind, and that he firmly believes what he is saying. He wouldn’t consciously choose to speak blasphemy, because he had once been the arm of the law as far as persecuting blasphemers was concerned. Now he believes that what he has witnessed proves Christianity is not blasphemy.
A Personal, Modern-Day Example
This kind of story seems to belong only in the Bible–certainly, people don’t hear God speaking to them anymore (at least not sane people). Because of this mindset, some people have passed this story off as a metaphorical device, an oratorical embellishment, perhaps. I beg to differ.
When God Spoke Straight to Me
I was at home, convalescing after my disastrous 8-month service as a middle-school teacher, regaining the physical and mental strength I had lost during those trying months. Not the least of my troubles was my consuming depression, which literally left me unable to do anything except what absolutely had to be done; in the last days of my teaching career, I had fought to get out of bed, fought to stay on my feet for 7 hours, fought to regain control of classroom discipline. I had almost no motivation to do much of anything except to be with the people who loved me best–my parents, my boyfriend, his parents, and my friends at church and in the community.
Though I felt buoyed by my supportive net of people around me, I still was at a loss as to what to do with my life. Since teaching was gone, cut away like some diseased gangrenous flesh from the rest of me, what was I going to become? What was I “going to do when I grew up,” whenever that might be? This terrible indecision about my future, which I had never experienced before, was maddening and depressing in the same moment.
I spent a lot of time on my laptop in bed in those days–though we had no wireless internet at home, I had plenty of things I wanted to work on. But it seemed I had no energy to do much writing or thinking, either. That is, until I opened a file I hadn’t touched in almost a year.
It had been just a dribble of a story, about 30 pages worth of aimless thinking about a role-play character I had developed in the days when I still thought positively about my future. It seemed much too hopeful for me now. And yet, as I read over it, I felt a strange tug in my chest; as I reached the end of the story, where the train of thought ended abruptly, I had a thought which did not feel like mine: “Continue the story.”
I resisted this idea. Continue this terrible, piddling story, born of a mind trying to escape its confines of schoolwork and career prep? Bah. It was too much to do, and I was tired. I wanted to sleep, not write.
Then came the thought again. “Continue…the story.” Much firmer and clearer this time, and it brooked no argument. Sighing, I began to type a few sentences. Then, reading over what I had just written, I fixed a few words, and wrote a few more sentences to explain what was going on.
This pattern continued not just for the rest of that day, but for the next few weeks, and then a month afterward, and even several months afterward. I continued the story, expanding and editing, and as I wrote the story, my life began to resume a more normal course. I had something to do again, something to work for again, though I wasn’t quite sure what it was becoming.
As regular readers of my blog might have guessed, what I am speaking of is the beginnings of my first novel, which is now well over 150,000 words. That command, to “continue my story,” was the impetus for me to push the accelerator on my life and move it forward, however tentative and inching its progress.
Looking back, I do believe God spoke to me to encourage me in launching a new creative project–after all, He had made me and knew that my true joys lay in nurturing new ideas to life. Maybe my story is not quite the conversion tale that Paul’s story is, but based on this experience, I don’t think God’s lost his touch for reaching out to His children when they need Him!
15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus–17 he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.”
In this first chapter of Acts, the remaining 11 disciples have just seen Jesus ascend into Heaven, and they are feeling a bit bereft, trying to choose a replacement for Judas and continue their ministry without their Shepherd. They are also reeling from the shock of recent days–some of them are having trouble making sense of the reasons why Jesus had to be crucified, or why He had to return to Heaven. You can imagine the questions going around in their minds: “Why did God let this happen? And why is Jesus now ascended rather than staying with us?”
At this point, Peter intervenes, reminding them that Jesus’ birth, betrayal by Judas, and death were all foretold for thousands of years in the Old Testament (the Scriptures referenced here). All of Jesus’ suffering, as well as the betrayals and failures that led up to His ultimate sacrifice on the cross, were all necessary, not just to fulfill some old words, but to gather God’s people back to Him. In a way, the disciples, even Judas, did what they were supposed to do. (Hard to conceive of Judas doing something he was supposed to do, isn’t it?)
We, too, have a hard time reconciling how God could let us suffer, especially if we view ourselves to be faithful and righteous believers. “How could God let this happen to me?” we ask. “Maybe God just doesn’t exist, because I’m suffering and nothing seems to be getting better.” Hard times can drive believers away from God, as they sit insulated by their own grief and pain, feeling bereft by God. And yet, suffering can develop us in ways we never expected, and can shape us for the better as we struggle to cope with our current situation.
For instance, during my failed attempt at becoming a teacher in 2009, I wondered at times what–if any–good could come from the series of unexpected difficulties and failures I faced. Eventually I had to quit or risk becoming even more suicidal than I already was. Yet since I quit my teaching degree program, I have seen how that time of suffering developed me, even though it was unconscionable at the time to me. I needed to be shown that I indeed COULD fail, that I was NOT perfect, and that God (and my human loved ones) loved me anyway. Just as the disciples had to be reminded that Jesus’ great sacrifice was for the betterment of all, I had to be reminded that I needed to rely on God for wisdom in choosing my life’s course. It was not an easy, comfortable reminding process, but it was necessary.