So, what happened to take this ragbag bunch of followers who were timid, dimwitted at times and unreliable to have such a transformation in attitude about Jesus to such a point to die for him? It was the resurrection. Can you imagine the impact on the original followers when they saw a postmortem Jesus, not as an aberration or translucent ghost, but in living flesh to different people at different times? And to actually see his wounds? I, for some reason, previously put more emphasis on the coming of the Holy Spirit to account for their transformation. The abiding Holy Spirit is important, but that was not their only turning point into the powerful witnesses the disciples became. Things have never been the same since.
And things Jesus’s resurrection, in a bodily form, was an unknown thing, unimaginable up to this time. The idea of a resurrection was previously thought of as in spirit only form only. The resurrection is the foundation of the Gospel message (2Cor. 15). C.S. Lewis said (in Mere Christianity), that when considering Jesus there are a few choices. He is either a liar, Lord or lunatic.
Luke continues his narrative in a second book entitled of “Acts of the Apostles,” which is addressed to Theophilus. The name Theophilus means “lover of God,” and scholars often question with no firm answers who he was other than perhaps a benefactor. I wonder if it might be limiting to think of Theophilus not as one individual but instead as anyone who possesses the attributes of being “lover of God” to encompass wanting to know more about Jesus and how to go about continuing his work. The book of Acts is about the apostles particularly the two lead characters: Peter (Simon) and a Saul who became a Paul and the beginnings of the Christian movement. The book of Acts is the chronology of the ministry and complete travels that inform the travels, places, and people of the following letters.
This book is considered a historical narrative on the planting and Christian outreach. The word Christian is first used in Acts 11:26 but didn’t catch on until the late in the first century. It began in the piety of Judaism. All the writers of the NT (except for Luke) were Jewish (not to forget to mention Jesus) who saw Christ as the Messiah that was predicted to come.
Kudos to Dr. Luke for penning the first works of church history commencing after the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). It’s a story of the lead characters proclaiming and spreading the Gospel geographically from Jerusalem into the rest of the Roman Empire. Since it ends with Paul in a Roman prison, before his death in around AD 66., this book predates the writing before then. It begins in Jerusalem and is predominately for the transition of the Jewish Church. It ends in Rome with it then inclusive to the Gentiles and the world at large.
There is a transition in the title of a disciple to an apostle. An apostle is a person who is a catalyst or pioneer for a purpose or mission whereas being a disciple emphasizes the person’s relationship and following of a teacher. In the Old Testament books foretelling of Jesus’s coming is found. After the Good News is announced in the Gospel, there is a shift to the future promises of Jesus’s return found in throughout the New Testament books. This is foretold in Acts 1:10-11 and in 15:16-18.
We all are familiar with people who are Peter like who think out loud or don’t know what they are thinking unless they are talking, are impetuous, and have a contagious excitement about life. Peter’s story takes up the first half of this book. The redeemed Peter’s credibility grows in the books of Acts as he deals with the new idea of church and its inclusion of all people. There are many lessons about the structure and how to grow the church.
My approach in ministry is best described by this poem discovered when I finished graduate school: I Stand at the Door by Sam Shoemaker (priest and a significant influence on the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous or AA). The essence of the poem is found in keywords to stand at the door, neither too far in, nor stay too far out. It’s a door, men are groping, feeling for yet can’t find when they are looking for God. The narrator can show them the door to go through, encouraging them to go as deep into the house of God as they can then call out to the rest of the world about that one taste of God where nothing else can wonderfully compare to its wonder. The storyteller is aware that personalities get in the way, leaving us afraid lest His house devour us. He wants people to go to church and pray they won’t forget, no matter how long they’ve been there, how it was before they got there. To not forget the people outside the door who are looking for it. That is where I want to prayerfully stand in my personal ministry. Whyte, in his poem Everything is Waiting for You, wrote about other doors that have always been there to frighten and invite.
Fred Buechner captures the essence of what I desire to do: “What I had always hoped was that, since I come so much from the same kind of world as those people who don’t touch Christianity with a ten-foot pole also come from, maybe I could be a bridge, one of their own who had gone over to the other side, saying things in a language they would understand.”
Remember the quote by Warren comparing the use of the Gutenberg press and Google? Here’s another perspective, in 1496, the Bible was read to the public at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. The people wanted to hear the Word of God in their language that within six months twenty thousand packed in the church, and at least that many outside were straining to hear it. Fast-forward four hundred years or so and on Easter Sunday 1800, only six people received holy communion at the Cathedral. Today, that cathedral remains the main church in London and on a typical Sunday 2003 morning worship attendance was only around two hundred people, mostly tourists. It seemed to have turned into a historical landmark. But she is still standing and is a testimony to the faithful.
I happen to enjoy the ambiance and sacredness of symbolic artifacts, religious stain glass or icons of churches that have stood the test of time. Others see it as an archaic old building, no longer relevant, if not, hip and contemporary. I see it as a reminder. There is a place for both kinds of churches.
There are inreach and outreach ministries when working with God’s people. Inreach is helping those who are already situated inside the walls of the church to become part of a larger family (internal ministry) whereas outreach (external ministry) involves welcoming people into the church to allow the Holy Spirit to work in their life. In both cases, it takes followup and follow through to help attendees find their place and way in the church. A church is healthiest when the most important thing, Jesus’s message, is conveyed. There are two types of people transformers and translators in the church. The first while trying to attract others are susceptible to changing the message or dummying done topics like sin, judgment, and doctrine. Translators maintain conveying the biblical message. Basically, the word of God should speak and humans who change, not vice versa. If a transformation is needed it is for man, not the message. The transformers styles of worship come and go, most are based on feelings and the experimental aspect of faith. God’s message is transient and carries through time, the same message. That may sound boring but its not when the message is grasped and why we should go to church to worship God.
Every generation has their version of the Henny Penny warning “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” with their forecast of fears about the future when the change disrupts our comfort level. Currently, the post-Christianity worldview is that no longer is Christian faith going to be dominant, nor has it the same assumed values and culture as we once knew. The doom-and-gloom people cite the decline, if not the death, of the Church. I do not think so. Church may be changing, but this change is more an evolution. If the substance (Jesus as the Son of God and His sacrificial death on the cross) of the topic stays the same, the Church will then continue to survive.
Paul’s writings initially came across to me sounding misogynistic, yet he was a close traveling friend and confidant with Luke. How could two more different men have a friendship? They had common traits of intellect and ability to communicate well. And they were brothers in Christ. Obviously, Paul’s previous background with the intent of killing and abolishing Christianity, prior to his conversion, when he was almost thirty years old, on the road to Damascus redirected his personality. Paul is a wonderful example of using his God-given talents, the force and fire of his mind coupled with the tenderness of his heart, for good instead of evil.
I, initially, along with some other female friends, struggled reading Paul. He is blunt, outspoken, bold, at time heroic, aggressive, warlike, a bull in an ecclesiastical china shop; yet I also see Paul’s attributes of tenderness with a delicate, gentle manner in his zeal. I slow myself down now, to remember that when he says that sounds like he limits women in ministry, is to recall how also he sensitively admits his personal struggles. I also note his many acknowledgments of women in ministry. It makes sense Paul would recognize the contribution women were making to the early church ministry alongside his like-minded friend Luke.
A classmate during graduate school also struggled with this. She was an attorney, single, in her late forties who was striving to achieve enlightenment of Bodhisattvahood (Buddhists go through four levels or stages of enlightenment to reach this level) before she converted to Christianity. Her testimony is inspiring. For her to advance in the steps to enlightenment, she was told to study a prominent religious figure. She picked Jesus to study. During her research, she also befriended Anne Graham Lotz, first, via the Internet, then email and meet her in person. The rest is His story: my friend, a former Buddhist, converted like so many others who set out to study Jesus. Many of the latter’s motivation was to disprove who He is. As she continued to explore and study the Bible, she struggled with Paul’s mandates about women teaching men, taking what he said to apply to every situation. Understanding the context of how Paul says things is important in understanding his message.
Paul recognizes and commends the work of such women as Phoebe, Chloe and Rufus’s mother. In Romans, he mentions Priscilla and Junia, He acknowledges Mary, Julia, and Lydia of Phillipi; and in Philippians, he doesn’t forget to mention two women who worked alongside other fellow workers. Not only did these women open their homes (the original house churches), but they supported Paul and others from their financial means in his mission. Jesus forbids any hierarchy in Christian relationships:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.” While “lord it over” implies abusive leadership, his words “exercise authority” have no connotation of abuse of authority. Jesus continued, “This woman is worth far more than any animal you have. This woman is not an animal; she is a ‘daughter of Abraham’ ” (Lk. 13:15-16).
Paul does not demean or defame the glory of God in women (Gal. 3:28). He does not forbid them to serve within the church or place a higher value on a man than a woman. God reveals his idea of what is biblical manhood and biblical womanhood in the Bible (cf. Eph. 5:21-23, 1Tim. 2:9-15, Tts. 1:5-9). I am not talking about the milieu of sports, media, politics, business, academia, and entertainment. In the Bible, there are much higher standards for the man. If a man abuses his role as husband, he clearly lacks an understanding of the gospel in how it relates to marriage. Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and His bride. I read once that the traditions found in the Bible themselves are not oppressive, it’s the interpretations that are.
Another credit to Paul is that he is recorded in one of the two of the greatest encounters between man and God: Moses meeting Him at the burning bush and Paul meeting the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Paul refers in his writings to a “thorn in his side” (2Cor. 12:7-8). I always wonder if the “thorn” was a sharp pain resulting from his enlightenment on the road to Damascus. When looking at the physical symptoms (particularly the initial onslaught of blindness) that he encountered, it could be interpreted as the onset of symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). I had a military friend’s wife who developed MS and she had similar initial blindness that went away after three days.
What with Paul’s strong, forceful personality he felt that this thorn was a reminder in humility. Paul would accomplish a lot in his life, but he didn’t get everything he wanted. One of those things was for God to not take his pain away. It’s an interesting way to see pain, not as punishment but for the sake of staying humbled. He saw it as an opportunity to remember to enjoy the strength and rest God did give him.
No one likes to live in pain particularly when it is invisible or indiscernible to others unless you consider the alternative of being paralyzed with no sensation in those limbs. When others can’t observe ongoing physical pain, consequently by not seeing it, they don’t recognize how it can affect the sufferer’s actions and words.
It’s not just the invisible physical pain that is difficult to perceive. Once when my children’s father was working through some frustrating issues with his secretary, I had to remind him she was going through a divorce during that time.
I was sensitive to that secretary’s personal struggle, and then later experienced it personally, a grief where anything and everything that could hurt felt amplified. I was in a job I loved. But in my wounded state, I started to imagine being attacked for my decisions and work. I caught myself arguing with colleagues. In the back of my mind, I could not help but think “please give me a break, I am having a hard time here!” But I did not say anything. Instead, I left that position thinking I was doing more harm than good. I read somewhere that if you can tell your story and it doesn’t make you cry then you’ve completely healed. There is no timetable as to when the grief becomes tolerable, and you exist despite it.
Instead of removing Paul’s thorn, whatever it was, God gave Paul overwhelming grace with compensating strength. It is an example of God’s “my power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor. 12:9). I wonder if perhaps Paul’s pain influenced or impacted how he conveyed his ideas in a sometimes curt, blunt fashion? Who of us has not been short with others in the manner of making requests, impatient when enduring periods of ongoing pain?
Paul, prior to his conversion, approved the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr for Jesus which must have put that much more determination in him to make right this redirection in ministry. The effects of the sudden flash of light on Paul, blinding him for three days left something akin to a baptismal spiritual watermark on him, lasting his lifetime. It left him with flashes of insight from a divine abiding light he shared with future generations.