Thursday, July 19, 2018

Galatians and Ephesians: faith, freedom and life in Christ

This month’s study was on the books of Galatians and Ephesians. In Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, he writes to refute the claims of some teachers, who taught that Gentile believers had to follow Jewish law in order to be saved. As well as to call Christians to faith and freedom in Christ. In his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul writes to strengthen the believers in Ephesus in their Christian faith by explaining the nature and purpose of the church, the body of Christ. I will focus on his instructions to wives and husbands as well as his imagery of the full armor of God in order to fight of spiritual battles.

In Galatians 3:1-14, Paul writes about the importance of faith over the Law. The Galatians were being influenced by teachers called Judiazers who claimed that the Law still had to be followed. Paul stresses that believers received the Spirit through faith not by observance of the Law. In verses 2 and 5, he repeats the same question, did the believers receive the Spirit by observance of the law or by believing the message that they heard? By asking these questions, Paul wanted to remind them, and us, that faith is founded in Christ, not the law. We grow spiritually because of God’s work in us by his Spirit, not by following special rules. The reasons that the Galatians felt they still needed to follow the law is the same way people today still believe there needs to be special rules to follow. Receiving God’s Spirit and blessings by faith alone is too simple, too easy. While studying the Bible, prayer and service in the church helps us grow, they do not take the place of the Holy Spirit which we all receive at the moment of acceptance. Paul even brings up Abraham who many agreed kept the law and therefore received salvation. However, Abraham was a man of faith and preceded the law by generations. So how can Abraham be a man of the law when the law hadn’t been written yet? (verses 6-9). Christ died to rid the curse of the law as breaking even one commandment condemned someone (Deuteronomy 27:26). Paul continues his argument that if righteousness and salvation were achieved by observance of the law, then Christ died for nothing (Galatians 2:21). Would God send his only Son to die for us if his death was meaningless? Therefore, the law is importance to know as it helps be moral compass; however, it is not the source of our salvation. Faith and faith alone in Christ is.

In Galatians 5:19-26, Paul lists acts of a sinful nature and tells readers that those who live in these acts will not inherit the kingdom of God. He says these acts are obvious (i.e. sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, jealousy, etc.) (verse 19-21). He then terms his attention to the Fruit of the Spirit, by products, acts as one lives for God. These acts are just as obvious: love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (verse 22). These acts are characteristics found in the nature of Christ. We obtain these traits by imitating him, loving him and knowing him. As a result, we fulfill the intended purpose of the law: to love God and our neighbors. A person who exhibits these fruits fulfills the law far better than a person who observes the rituals but has little love in his heart for God or others. Paul warns us in verses 24 and 25 that we have crucified our sinful natures with Christ; however, we still have the capacity to sin which is why we need to stay in step with the Spirit and commit daily (emphasis mine) to rid ourselves of our sinful natures. Daily crucify our sinful natures and draw on the Spirit’s power to overcome them. “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (verse 25). His final words are: “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (verse 26). After speaking about the fruit of the Spirit and committing ourselves to walking with the Spirit, why would Paul end with a statement like that? As humans, we are social creatures and we often seek approval of others. And when we seek the approval of others, rather than God’s approval, we become conceited and envious. Keep your eyes on God and you won’t need the approval of others. I also want to mention that there are some Christians who become so confident in their relationship with God that they become conceited and forget that they too were once a broken person who reached out for God for salvation. Remember where and who you were when you accepted Christ’s gift of salvation as you deal with others who need him too.

In Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul turns his attention to wives and husbands and gives instructions on how they should act with each other. First, he addresses the wives. He tells them to submit to their husbands (verse 22). The dreaded word “submit.” It has been misinterpreted and misused throughout history and even in today’s modern times. Submitting to one’s husband does not mean being a doormat or a slave. For a wife to submit to her husband means to be willing to follow her husband’s leadership. A husband is the spiritual leader of the family just as Christ is the spiritual leader of the church (verse 24). A wise and Christ honoring husband does not take advantage of his leadership role and a wise and Christ honoring wife will not try to undermine her husband’s leadership. While Paul instructs wives in two verses, he has much more to say to husbands. He instructs husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (verse 25). He is to love his wife as he loves himself (verse 28) and unite with her to become one flesh (verse 31). Uniting as one flesh isn’t just through sex, it also includes being of one mind and discuss any disagreements. For example, with my husband and I, we discuss everything together: money, budget, our children’s education and discipline, etc. My husband listens to and considers my position and opinions, while I accept that as the head of our family, he has the final say in any decision and we usually come to an equal agreement on many topics; however, sometimes, as the leader, he may decide something different. Going back to verses 25 and 28, how should a husband love his wife? First, he should be willing to sacrifice everything for her as Christ did for the church (verse 25). Second, he should make her well-being a priority as Christ did for the disciples (verses 26-27). Third, a husband should care for her as he cares for his own body (verse 28-29). With a husband who does these three things as Christ as his example, no wife needs to fear submitting to her husband’s leadership.

In Ephesians 6:10-18, near the end of his letter, Paul discusses the armor of God for protection against the devil’s schemes (verse 11). These schemes could come in the form of unseen forces or as the attacks from nonbelievers. First, the belt of truth (verse 14) helps us remember God’s truth and defeat Satan’s lies. Second, the breastplate of righteousness (verse 14) to protect our hearts which safeguards our emotions, self-worth and trust. The breastplate reminds us that God loves us and sent his Son to die for us. Third, the footgear of the gospel of peace (verse 15) is the motivation and readiness to spread the Good News of Christ and the peace found with him. Fourth, the shield of faith (verse 16) to protect ourselves from Satan’s attacks. These attacks come in the form of insults, setbacks and temptations. The shield of faith reminds us of God’s promise of love and salvation. Fifth, the helmet of salvation (verse 17) protects our minds from doubts about God, Jesus and our salvation. Lastly, the sword of the Spirit (verse 17), as the only weapon of offense in the armor of God, it is the Word of God. Our best weapon against spiritual attacks and helps the other pieces of armor do their part to protect us. Along with putting on the full armor of God, we are to pray on all occasion and with all prayers and requests. We are to be alert and pray for all the saint (other believers the ones we know as well as those around the world) (verse 18). The image of the full armor of God reminds me of a song by Twila Paris called The Warrior is a Child. In the song, the narrator discusses being a child who runs to God when the battles become too much to fight. We came to the Father for rest, comfort and encouragement as we go through life fighting battles for God.

In conclusion, the letters to the Galatian and Ephesian churches are filled with importance lessons. I just touched on a few. Our salvation does not depend on the observance of the law but rather with faith in Christ. A true believer and follower of Christ can be identified by the fruit of the Spirit he displays in his life. Wives are to submit to their husbands, while husbands are to love his wife as Christ loved the church. Believers are called to put on the full armor of God in order to defend ourselves against the attacks against spiritual forces as well as fight battles against those who fight against God.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

1 and 2 Corinthians: lessons about gifts, love, giving and false teachers

This month’s study is on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Paul wrote letters to the church in Corinth, a major cosmopolitan city, seaport and trade center of Achaia. The purpose of the first letter is to identify the problems in the Corinthian church, to offer solutions and to teach the believers how to live for Christ in a corrupt society. The second letter’s purpose is to affirm Paul’s ministry, defend his authority as an apostle and refute the false teachers in Corinth. I will discuss four points in these letters. Spiritual gifts, what are they and what purpose to they serve in the Body of Christ? What love is and isn’t. I will discuss what it means to generously give and what to look out for when dealing with false teachers.

First, spiritual gifts are often a controversial topic in churches even today because so many denominations define them differently. First, let’s look at what Paul says about the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11. He tells us that each gift is given by the same Spirit (verse 4), the Spirit of God. It is also something he repeats several times. Each gift is given for the common good. There is the gift of wisdom, the gift of knowledge, the gift of faith, gift of healing, the gift of miraculous powers, the gift of prophesy, the gift of distinguishing between spirits, gift of tongues, the gift of interpreting tongues (verses 8-10). Each believer is given a gift which he is to use for the good of the Body of Christ (i.e. the church). The problem in the Corinthian church is they were treating some of the gifts as superior to others and thus elevating that person as better or higher than someone else simply because they have a certain gift. Paul says this is not right. Since all the gifts are given by the same Spirit, the gifts are equal. They may serve different purposes but each one is special and needed. Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 that each gift is given to certain believers to serve a function in the Body of Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (verse 27). Some are teachers, some are musicians to lead worship, some are missionaries, some are fundraisers, some are prayer warriors, the list can go on and on. No one is more important than the other just because they serve a different purpose. The individual who helps clean the church building is just as important as the pastor who teaches from the pulpit.

Second, Paul discusses what love is and isn’t and it is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. Just 13 verses long, it speaks volumes about what true love looks like. People today are confused about what love truly is just as they were in the Corinthian church. In verses 1-3, Paul talks about how he could have all these wonderful gifts but without love, it is nothing. With all the spiritual gifts that people are given, if they do not use them with love, then the gifts are useless. Love is: patient and kind (verse 4), always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres (verse 7). Love is not envious, is not boastful, or proud (verse 4). It is not rude, self-seeking, or easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs (verse 5). “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (verse 6). Love is one of the greatest human qualities and it is one of God’s attributes (1 John 4:8). Love involves unselfish service to others. To show love gives evidence to others that you care. Unfortunately, many people today use love as a bargaining chip. “To do this for me and I will love you” but love should be given without conditions, without a price and without thought of what one gets in return. Yes, sometimes we all act without love. We are still human and sometimes other emotions get the best of us. When we are hurt and angry, we lash out without love. One of the most quoted verses is verse 13 “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Faith is the foundation and content of God’s message. Hope is the attitude and focus and love is the action. Without love, you cannot have faith or hope. If you need an example of love, look to Christ.

Third, in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Paul speaks about giving generously. However, this isn’t about the amount one gives but the attitude in which one gives. God doesn’t look at the person who gives $1,000 dollars and says “wow” and looks down at the person who only gave $100. He looks at the attitude and the spirit in which in was given. “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly, or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Generously giving isn’t just about money but our time as well. When one serves with their time in the church, he or she should do so cheerfully as God will increase that gift with rewards but when the spirit of service isn’t there, the rewards will be small. If you feel like you do not have the spirit of service, do not be afraid to say “no, I can’t right now.” Sometimes when the spirit of service is small, it could mean that you need to reenergize yourself. It’s okay to have “me time.” No one can give 100% of themselves, 100% of the time. And if you ask someone to service and they say no, do not think badly of them or think that they are backsliding in their faith, it may be because God is telling them to rest and when they are ready to serve again, they will. Give where and how you can give. If you can give money, then help provide the funds that the church can use to serve the people. If you can’t give money, but can give of your time, then serve in a ministry whether it be in the teaching a Sunday school class or rocking the babies to sleep in the nursery, so the parents can fellowship. This is just a few examples of how someone can generously give to the church.

Lastly, false apostles or false teachers was a big problem in the church of Corinth just as it is now. In 2 Corinthians 11:1-15, Paul speaks about false teachers. He warns the church to be mindful of what teachers are teaching. If they are teaching something other than what Christ taught be careful be to be led astray (verse 3-4). Paul says not to judge a teacher by how much money he demands to teach (verses 7-8). A great teacher isn’t determined by their fee. Paul says “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve” (verses 13-15). False teachers deceive others by appearing to be good and moral. Many unsuspecting believers have fallen into the trap of a smooth-talking, Bible quoting teacher, but we are warned to look beyond their outward appearances. To ask ourselves questions. For example, do the teachings confirm Scriptures as stated in Acts 17:11? Acts 17:11 states that the Berean church examined the Scriptures every day and very careful to see if what Paul said was true. If a pastor or teacher says something about God or Scripture, go into the Scriptures. Do not take the pastor’s word for it, simply because he is a pastor. Another question could be: Does the teacher affirm and proclaim that Jesus Christ is God who came into the world as a man to save people from their sins (1 John 4:1-3)? Is the teacher’s lifestyle consistent with Biblical morality (Matthew 12:33-37)? If the answer to these questions, or any questions you may have, gives you pause, then it is time to consider if this individual is a false teacher.

In conclusion, there are many lessons in the letters to the Corinthian church. First, we are all special and unique to God and we are all called to a special purpose within the church. Look to God and ask Him how you can use your gifts for his glory. Second, love is often misunderstood. Do not look to the world’s definition of love with all its conditions. Remember that love is the action in which faith and hope is built on. Third, attitude is more important when it comes to the giving of our time and money, much more important than the amount we give. Lastly, be very discerning with pastors and church leaders. Look to the Bible and use it to verify what is being taught.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

How to Walk Away: a beautiful story of how to leave one life behind and begin a new one

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center is the story of one woman’s journey from one life to another. Margaret’s life had been plagued with the fear to fly. Her boyfriend, Chip, had earned his pilot license and to celebrate, much to Margaret’s dismay, he decides to take her for a flight. During the flight, Chip proposes, she accepts, then tragedy happens. The plane crashes and Margaret is left horrible injured. As Margaret spends months in the hospital recovery, her estranged sister, Kitty, reenters her life to support her. During her stay, Margaret learns of deep secrets which were kept from her and threatens to tear apart her family. Meanwhile, she is assigned to a surly physical therapist, named Ian, who’s sour demeanor hides a a deep hurt. Will Margaret fully recover? How will she accept the information she learns about her family’s past? And how will she look to the future?

I enjoyed How to Walk Away a lot more than I thought I would. I requested to read this book based on the brief description which I can say didn’t do the story justice. It was so much more than the description gives it credit. It was deeply emotional, dramatic, inspirational and proof that sometimes life has to give you a tragedy to open your eyes to its beauty and a life so much more than you had planned. I highly recommend How to Walk Away.

How to Walk Away
is available in hardcover and eBook

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The book of Romans: the power of grace

Romans is an illustration of how people have turned from God and God’s response and his offer of salvation through faith and grace. Pastor and author Max Lucado has a great book on the book of Romans. In the Grip of Grace (1996) begins with the Parable of the River which helps describes how people have turned from God. Briefly, the parable is about five brothers who disobey their father by getting too close to a powerful river. They are caught in the currents and swept away, fair from home. They began their long journey home and one by one, a brother stops the journey and turning away from the hope of seeing their father and home again. Leaving two, the oldest and youngest brothers, to continue the journey. I will use this book and the parable as I discuss different aspects of Romans.

The first brother is an illustration of an individual who turns from God and seeks his own pleasure in life. Hedonists are people who believe that the most important thing in life is pleasure. Their goal is to satisfy themselves, their passions with a disregard to God. They believe that no one is guilty of sin and what each person does is their own business. Paul describes this person as having no excuse for the things he does. In Romans 1:20, Paul says that men have no excuse “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what being made.” Therefore, nature itself is a testimony, evidence to the existence of God and his role as the Creator. But because they choose to ignore God and claim he doesn’t exist, Paul tells us that God gave them over to sinful desires (Romans 1:24). Hedonists believe that since they haven’t seen God, therefore there is no life beyond what we life, there’s no ultimate truth beyond this world and there’s no purpose in life beyond one’s own pleasure. He has no concern for the eternal and refuses to acknowledge a Creator (Lucado, 26). Hedonism has made its way into Christianity through the prosperity gospel. Prosperity Gospel is a belief among some Christians that financial blessings and physical well-being are always the will of God for them and that faith, positive speech and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. However, many Christians criticize this idea as contrary to Scripture as God never promised a wealthy life here on earth.

The second brother is an illustration of an individual who becomes the fault finding judgmentalist. This person compares himself to others as “Well, I’m not as bad as they are!” He is the finger pointer, the “record keeper” of others’ wrongs for God. This person is often bitter and proclaims himself the watchdog for God. Paul tells this “watchdog” that he has no authority to judge (Romans 2:1) and cannot escape God’s judgment based on others’ wrongdoings. Romans 2:3 says “So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” The judgmentalist doesn’t realize that the wrath he is storing up against others will be used against himself at his own judgment (Romans 2:5). Paul tells us that God doesn’t show favoritism. Those who do evil will face trouble and distress and those who do good will receive glory, honor and peace (Romans 2:9-11). We do not need to keep tally of the wrongdoings of others, God already sees and already knows. Focus on your own wrongdoings as you alone will stand before God and your list of others’ transgressions will not help your defense. It is one thing to have an opinion about one’s actions but its entirely another thing to pass a verdict. Romans 2:1-2 is a prohibition of standing in judgement of other people and failing to condemn ourselves (Stott, 82). There are two reasons we are not in a position to judge: we aren’t good enough and we don’t know enough. 
Therefore, leave the judgment to God and focus on your own wrongdoings and rightness with God.

The third brother to leave the journey is an illustration of a legalist who believe that works will save him. This individual will write a list of accomplishments that he hopes will settle his debt with God. He acknowledges that he is bad, but he will make it up to God by doing `good works on earth. Paul tells us in Romans 4:5 that man doesn’t have to work to be saved, he only needs to trust in God who justifies him through his faith and credits him with righteousness. The legalists are the ones who usually become stuck up and think they are the only ones who will make it because he has done many works and looks down on others who haven’t. These people are the ones who criticizes other Christians who may not go to church every Sunday while they faithfully sit in the same pew every week. They go to every weekly Bible study and volunteer for every activity the church may organize. The problem is the motivation behind it. They are doing so in order to win brownie points with God rather than the heart behind the act to show God’s love to others. They may give their ten percent tithe every month and not feel the pinch and yet they will scuff at the individual who puts in a few dollars not realizing that it’s the last dollars that person has until payday. This reminds me of the story of the poor widow who gave all she had to the temple while others gave large amounts. Jesus proclaims that the woman had put in more than the wealthy did because she gave out of her poverty and others gave out of their wealth (Mark 12:41-44). The difference? The value of the gift isn’t in the amount but the spirit in which it was given. Therefore, when you give of your time or money, make sure you are doing so in the right spirit.

This leads us to the Grace-driven Christian. The brother who stayed on the journey, leaning on the strength of the older brother. This person actively seeks God, who acknowledges that he is bad but knows he is forgiven though his faith in Jesus Christ. You may ask what is grace? Simply, grace is unearned and undeserved favor from God. We receive grace through our faith (complete trust) in Jesus Christ. Through grace and faith, we can stand before God as not guilty as Jesus took our guilt upon himself on the cross. Romans 10:10 says “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Faith comes from our hearts and we are saved through grace as we confess our sins. We are made right with God through faith alone, not through obeying the law (Romans 3:28), not by the works we do or passing judgment on others. Grace gives us peace with God (Romans 5:1). Grace gives us a place with God and a share in his glory (Romans 5:2). We are saved dispute our struggles. Even after becoming a Christian, an individual still struggles with sin. Sin just doesn’t disappear from our world and our lives. However, God still claims us as His child and he still guides us through his word. “The same One who saved us first is there to save us still’ (Lucado, 148). This statement reminds me of the Avalon song Always Have, Always Will. In the song, the narrator reflects on his sinful nature as he struggles to follow Christ and follow his own selfish desires. “I always have, I always will. You saved me once you save me still.” The fact is we do not need to be perfect for God, as long as we have faith in Jesus and look to his Word for guidance, his grace and forgiveness will always be given to us.

In conclusion, as we go through life, we can sometimes find ourselves acting like the three brothers who left the journey. We become the hedonist who focuses on our own desires. We become the judgmentalist who criticizes others and ignores our own wrongs. We become the legalist who looks at our list of accomplishments and forget the heart and spirit of the service we can called to do. But we refocus on God and the gift he has given us in his son, we realize that we all have fallen short. We are not called to be perfect. We are simply called to love him, to trust in him and he will help us with our human struggles. Every other approach to God is a bartering system: If I do this…(works). If I feel this...(emotions). If I know this…(knowledge). Christianity has no negotiation. Every person is made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22-24). That’s it.

Lucado, Max (1996): In the Grip of Grace. Dallas, TX: Word Publishing
Stott, John (1994): Romans: God’s Good News for the World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press

Sunday, May 13, 2018

White Houses: the story of two women's deep friendship

White Houses by Amy Bloom is a fictionalized look into the friendship, and possible love affair, between Lorena Alice “Hick” Hickcock and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The story opens in April 1945, soon after President Roosevelt has passed away and Hick is waiting for the arrival of Eleanor, whom she hasn’t seen in years. The story then takes us back to when the two women first met. Hick was a reporter and Eleanor was on the getting ready to set on the road for the White House as Franklin makes his bid for the presidency. Told in a series of memories from her childhood through the Great Depression and her life with the Roosevelts, the book takes a deeper look into these historical icons.

White Houses takes the reader into the characters and shows them as more than the media and history has recorded them. Real people with real issues, concerns and struggles as the United States headed to the depths of the Great Depression and war. I usually love historical fiction and don’t usually mind when a book features real people, but I found this book dragged a bit. If the two women were indeed lovers, the author didn’t display much emotion between them. It felt flat and so matter of fact. I still enjoyed the story and recommend White Houses to readers who like fictionalized stories of historical figures.

White Houses
is available in hardcover and ebook

Thursday, May 3, 2018

A general overview of the different religious groups in the gospels

As I read through the gospels over the last few months, I decided that I would go back on do more research on the groups which are discussed during Jesus’s ministry. The Pharisees, teachers of the law and the Sadducees are the three main groups who opposed Jesus and sought to end his influence over the people of Israel. These groups would make up the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, composed of 70 members with the high priest serving as a leader. It is this council in which Jesus would have his trials before being handed over to Roman officials. The Sanhedrin also judge the apostles and members of the early church as they spread the message of Jesus.

First, the Pharisees are often the most widely known and most often mentioned in the gospels. They were a strict group of religious Jews who advocated minute obedience to Jewish law and traditions. The origin of the group is shrouded in some obscurity, but it is believed to have been organized out of the Maccabean Revolt (165 BCE). The Pharisees had three distinct characteristics. First, they had deep respect for the Law. Second, they were more a fraternity than a sect. To be a member, one must have a strict adherence to the Law, oral or written. Third, the Pharisees despised those they did not consider to be equals and were arrogant as they believe to be the only interpreter of God and his Word. The Pharisees saw the Jewish faith as a religion of works rather than heart as they believed God’s grace came through the Law. The Pharisees believed in predestination, the teaching of special divine providence. They stressed so much on the immortality of the soul that they often clashed with the Sadducees over this belief. They believed the reward for good works and wicked souls were under the earth. Only the souls of the virtuous would rise again. They also believed heavily in the existence of angels and spirits. They accepted the Old Testament scriptures and fostered the messianic hope which they gave a material and nationalistic twist. The picture painted in the New Testament and by teachers of the Bible, is almost entirely negative; however, not everything about the Pharisees was bad. Not all of them were self-righteous and hypocritical. Some tried to promote true piety. Some joined the Christian movement in the beginning. Some of the great men in the New Testament were Pharisees. Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) who met with Jesus to discuss his miraculous signs. He would later boldly defend Jesus as a member of the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51).

Second, teachers of the law were religious scholars and professional interpreters of the law who especially emphasized the traditions. They are often seen together with the Pharisees in the gospels. They were an important element of the Sanhedrin as they often served as judges. In the application of the Law, the oral teachings of these men were a greater authority than the written law itself. They were described as the most watchful and determined opponents of Jesus as they disagreed with association with tax collectors and other sinners (Mark 2:16, Luke 15:2). They agreed with Jesus on respect for the law and commitment to the obedience of the law. However, they disagreed with Jesus in respect as they denied his authority to interpret the law. They also rejected Jesus as the Messiah because he did not obey all their traditions. It is mentioned throughout the gospels on multiple occasions, they believed that Jesus forgiving sins was blasphemous (i.e. Matthew 9:3, Mark 2:16). But not all the teachers of the law were confrontational. In Matthew 8:19-20, a teacher of the law told Jesus he would follow him wherever he will go where Jesus teaches him the cost to follow him. Some teachers of the law even agreed with Jesus when he says that God is the God of the living when he was questioned about the resurrection (Luke 20:39).  

Lastly, the Sadducees were a wealthy, upper class Jewish priestly party, while many of the Sadducees were priests, not all priests were Sadducees. They often profited from business in the temple. The origin of this group is uncertain, but it is thought to be from the period of Jewish history between the restoration of the Jews to their own land (536 BCE) to the Christian era. They held to distinctive beliefs. First, they rejected the authority of the Bible beyond the five books of Moses and held only to the written law. They rejected all the traditions of the Pharisees. Second, they denied the existence of the resurrection of the body. They believed souls died with the body. Third, they denied the existence of angels and spirits according to Acts 23:8. Although the existence of angels and spirits was accepted in the Old Testament and especially in the five books of Moses, it is hard to understand why they would deny it. Scholars have thought of possible reasons as to general indifference to religion and their own rationalistic temper and the wild extravagances of the angelology and demonology of the Pharisees. Lastly, the Sadducees did not believe in predestination. There was no need for divine providence to order their lives and human beings were entirely masters of their own lives. Doing good or evil was a matter of free choice. With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 BC, the Sadducees seem to disappear from history.

In conclusion, these three groups display the both the good and bad of knowledge. To be so sure of themselves in what they know, they rejected anything which didn’t fit in their box of understanding including God himself. In today’s church, the term, Pharisee, is often used as an insult for someone who focuses too much on rules and regulations than on grace and mercy. They are a lesson to be mindful how one’s acts and sees themselves in relation to their knowledge. We may be well read in the Bible; however, we must not forget we are dealing with children of God and a God who is more powerful than we can imagine.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The book of Acts: the beginnings of the church

The book of Acts, authored by Luke, details the events after Christ’s ascension into Heaven and the men and women who helped shape the early church. Peter who became a leader and continued spreading the gospel. Stephen who is traditionally thought to be the first martyr of Christianity. Philip who performed miracles in Samaria and baptizing an Ethiopian man. One man who helped the early church more than any other man, Saul of Tarsus, who became known as the Apostle Paul after one of the greatest conversions to be recorded in the Bible. Acts 7:58-28:31 detailed his life as Saul, his conversion and his mission trips to travel to every region he could, preaching the message of Christ and establishing churches. He continued to teach from inside a prison cell, letters to the churches he established and his companions which became the books Romans through Philemon.

When Saul of Tarsus is first introduced by Luke, he is hated, persecuting the early Christians. The first mentioned of Saul of Tarsus is in Acts 7:58, 60 at the stoning death of Stephen. He gave his approval as Stephen died (Acts 7:60). Luke details Saul’s conversion in Acts 9: 1-19, Saul made murderous threats against the disciples and made his way to Damascus to gather men and women who belonged to the Way (early Christians) to arrest them (verse 2). While on the road, a flash of light from heaven surrounded him, as he fell to the ground, a great voice spoke “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (verses 3-4). It is Jesus who tells Saul to make his way into the city and wait there. When Saul gets up from the ground, he is unable to see. He, with the help of his companions, makes his way to Damascus. For three days, he was blind, unable to eat or drink (verses 8-9). In the city, Ananias, a disciple, was given a vision from Jesus to seek Saul to restore his sight (verses 10-12) but Ananias is hesitant because he has heard stories about Saul of Tarsus. But Jesus reassures him that Saul will be his instrument to spread his message to the Gentiles and the people of Israel (verses 15-16). Ananias obeys, finds Saul and restores his sight. Saul was baptized and began to regain his strength (verses 17-19). The lessons in Saul’s conversion is that people can be changed by Jesus, even today. Saul was convinced he was persecuting heretics when he was persecuting Jesus himself as believers are the body of Christ on earth. Despite his fears, Ananias obeys Jesus and finds Saul, greets him lovingly, calling his Brother Saul (Acts 9: 17). It is not always easy to show love to other, especially when we are afraid of them or doubt their motives. However, we must show lovingly acceptance to other believers, for even the hardest hearts can be softened by the power of Jesus Christ.

Soon after his conversion, Saul began to preach in the synagogues (Acts 9:20). He grew more and more powerful in his conviction. People were skeptical about Saul but soon were convinced as his changed life was evident (Acts 9:22). It is important to know what the Bible teaches and how to defend your faith, but your words need to be backed up with the actions in your life. This can be difficult to do. In the song, What if I stumble? by DC Talk (1995), a quote from American author, Brennan Manning (1934-2013) was used. He says “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today are Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. This is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” Unfortunately, there are many Christians who acts as if they are perfect and judges of the world and become blind to their own faults that the world still sees. These are the Christians that the non-believers sees and says, “Well if that’s being Christian, then why bother?” Walking with Christ is not easy. We are still human with human weaknesses and we will stumble every now and then as our human side takes over. However, we need to strive to emulate Jesus as best we can. If we are humble, admit our mistakes, we can show non-Christians that being a follower of Christ isn’t about being perfect, that we aren’t the judges of the world. We are to show Jesus’s love and bring his message to the world. Saul is one of the great examples of how a life can be changed by Christ and being his message to the world. He admits his weaknesses and even delights in them as he writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 that his weaknesses keeps him humble and God’s power is displayed in our weaknesses. Strive to be humble and show the world that we can be strengthen by Jesus despite our weaknesses, despite our faults, and despite our failings.

By the time he begins his mission trips, Saul begins to use the name Paul. Some have thought that he changed his name to further signify his conversion. However, the names are interchangeable as he is Jewish as well as Roman through his father. The custom was two names to reflect both heritages. He seems to change to the name Paul as he travels around through Greece and what is today called Asia minor, preaching the message of Jesus to Gentiles. My thought is that he did so to be more approachable than going by his Jewish name would. The book of Acts details three mission trips. During his first mission trip, he travels with Barnabas where he encounters a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet called Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:1-7). They traveled throughout the area, boldly preaching the message of Jesus (Acts 13-14). During his second, Paul begins to traveling with Silas (Acts 15:40) where they traveled through Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41). Timothy (Acts 16:1-5) and Luke (Acts 16:10 the change in pronouns) join Paul and Silas on their mission trip. During this trip, Paul and Silas were imprisoned for “advocating customs unlawful” for Romans to practice (Acts 16:21). During their imprisonment, there was a great earthquake which freed their shackles. It convinced the jailer of the power of God (Acts 16:25-30). After his third mission trip, while in Jerusalem, Paul is arrested by Roman troops (Acts 22) when a group of Jews stirred up the crowd and accused Paul of defiling the temple by inviting Gentiles in (Acts 21:28). Eventually he is sent to Rome, where he is placed under house arrest, allowed visitors and boldly preached the message of Jesus (Acts 28:30-31). Tradition holds that Paul was released after two years and sets off on a fourth mission trip. However, there is no Biblical account of this, only mentions by Paul in letters to the various churches. During his mission trips, Paul displayed a boldness and fierce intensity. He carried the mission to spread the gospel to the rest of the world as commanded by Jesus (Acts 1:8).  

In conclusion, while the book of Acts isn’t just an account of Paul but the early church, you can’t deny the impact he had on the early church as he helped spread the message beyond the Jewish communities. He has become known as the apostle to the Gentiles. Of the 27 books in the New Testament, Paul has been the attributed author to 14 of them although some scholars now question if he truly authored some of them. God used all parts of Paul, his background, his citizenship and even his mistakes to spread the gospel to all people. A man who once approved of the murder of one of God’s people became the loudest voice for him. If God can use a man like Paul, he can use anyone of us to further his message. All we need to do is be sensitive to his leading and direction.