Acts 10:1-12:23: Times of Transition.

Actually, Acts 13:1 might be called a turning-point, although the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 is itself a landmark in early church history.  The Gospel had begun to be slowly diffused through the nations, but there was still a lot of ground to be covered in the disciples themselves.  They still had much to learn.  The conversion of Cornelius was one such lesson.

1. An Elect Gentile, 10:1-11:18.

Conversion of, 10:1-48.  This chapter shows us the opening to Gentiles of the door granting direct access to God.  The early church, made up of Jewish believers, had a very difficult time working through the idea that Gentiles could have such access.  After all, for centuries the Jews had been God’s chosen people and in order to come to God, one had to go through them, as it were. Over and over, Israel had gotten into trouble for mixing with other nations, and now, here was the Gospel message for them equally with Israel.  It was a tough nut to crack and took a direct message/vision from God to get it done.

In the conversion of Cornelius, we see God working both in Peter and Cornelius, vs. 1-33, and His witness in Peter’s message to Cornelius, vs. 34-43, and, finally, in the manifestation of the Spirit, vs. 44-48.

This incident forever refutes the idea that baptism is essential to salvation – unless one believes that unbelievers can receive the Holy Spirit.

Controversy concerning, 11:1-18.

1. Confrontation, vs. 1-3.  It seems terrible that believers would be upset over others receiving the Word of God, but we must remember the cultural and religious background of these people.  God Himself had forbidden religious and/or social admixture with other peoples and Jerusalem and the Temple had for centuries been the focal point of God’s worship.   As we noted above, the early church had great difficulty understanding this change in God’s dealing with mankind “one-on-one,” as it were, instead of through the mediation and channel of Jerusalem.  They failed to understand that a Person is the Way into God’s presence, not a place, John 14:6.

2. Recitation, vs. 4-17.  Peter gives a simple and straight-forward account of what happened, and then finished with the reasonable conclusion in v. 17 that since God was pleased to give “them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

3. Glorification, v. 18.  These early believers recognized the hand and will of God and submitted to it, even if they didn’t completely understand all that was going on.

2. Expanding Grace, 11:19-30.

The Gospel goes to Antioch in Syria and a second influential church is established.  With this church prospering, the church at Jerusalem recedes into the background as far as the divine record is concerned.

Growth of the church, vs. 19-21.  Here we pick up the record begun in 8:4 of the scattered believers.  Saul wanted to exterminate the church at Jerusalem, but all he succeeded in doing was extending the reach of the Gospel.  Note well v. 21.  See also Saul’s later testimony as Paul in Philippians 1:12, But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel.

Grace of the church, vs. 22-24.  These verses record the last “investigation” we read of by a delegation from Jerusalem.  The church at Antioch was recognized as a true and independent assembly of believers.  There is no Scriptural support for the denominational and hierarchical structure we see in Christianity today.  There is no “holy city”  or “headquarters” in spite of what men might think.  Though they may choose to work together, no church has any authority over another church.  Each is to be autonomous and responsible only to her Lord.

V. 23 mentions a theme often recurring in Scripture:  the perseverance of the saints.  Cf. 13:43 and 14:22.  While certainly also teaching the preservation of the saints, Scripture also teaches the responsibility of the saints to act like it.

Gathering of the church, vs. 25, 26.  Barnabas became a key man at Antioch.  We saw him first in Acts 4:36, which tells us that he did what he could.  Here he was enabled to do much more, even to playing an important role in the early missionary efforts of Saul/Paul.

Gift from the church, vs. 27-30.  Nothing is said of this church having a “community of goods” as did the church at Jerusalem.  They did, however, have the same compassion and sent aid to relieve the poor saints at Jerusalem.

3. Escape From Death, 12:1-24.

Herod’s Murderous Design, vs. 1-4.  Perhaps this whole incident was politically motivated.  Herod was hated by the Jews.  V. 3 indicates at least that the arrest of Peter was done with the idea of getting on the Jews’ good side.  See in this the sovereign purpose of God.  He permits the death of one of His servants, v. 1, but then delivers another from death.  Why didn’t He deliver them both?  Only He knows.  Only He needs know.  Cf. Job 33:13.

Peter’s Miraculous Deliverance, vs. 5-19.  This is an unbelievable section.  Here is Peter, expecting to die.  Was he worried?  He was sound asleep!  He had witnessed the death of his Lord, had been reconciled to his risen Lord.  Death held no terror for him.

Herod’s Miserable Death, vs. 20-23.  One would think Herod might learn something from all this, but no.  How dense, how stupid we are, apart from the grace of God!

  

 

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A Girl Named Rhoda.

In our reading Sunday, my wife and I were in Acts 11 and 12.  When we read Acts 12, I had to chuckle at what happened, and yet also reflected how often what happened then happens now.

In ch. 12, Herod had decided to persecute the church at Jerusalem.  He put to death James, the brother of John.  Because this greatly pleased the Jews, with whom the Herods pretty much always had uneasy relationships, he also imprisoned Peter.  V. 5 tells us that constant prayer was offered to God for him by the church.  What happens next always impresses me:  on the night before Peter was to be brought out, probably to be executed, that night Peter was sleeping…. (!)

“Sleeping”….

I wonder what you and I would do under similar circumstances.

Well, Peter is miraculously released, which ultimately cost the lives of 16 Roman soldiers and went to where many was gathered together for prayer.  This is where Rhoda comes in.

So excited was she to hear Peter’s voice on the other side of the door that she didn’t open it, but ran and told the others, “Peter’s outside the door!  Peter’s outside the door!”

Their response? –

In the vernacular of our day, “You’re out of your mind!”

“No!  He’s outside, he’s outside!”

“No way!”

“Way!”

“It must be his angel.”  This from one of the more spiritual brothers.

Well – finally – they opened the door, and the Word says that they were…

…”astonished”(!)

Oh, my!

(Looking in the mirror) – how often we are “astonished” when the Lord answers prayer unexpectedly, as He did here.  I don’t know exactly what the believers were praying for when they prayed for him, but it evidently wasn’t that he would just show up at the door!

How often – too often – we’re like the man in Mark 9, who came to the Lord about his son and said, “…if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”  I think the Lord was very emphatic in the first part of His reply when He said, “If you can believe – all things are possible to him who believes.” 

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Mark 9:17-24.

Aye, there’s a prayer for us poor believers!

“Lord, we believe.  Help our unbelief!”

The Scandal of Christmas

That first Christmas…

So long ago…

What was it like?

Granted, it wasn’t called “Christmas.”  Those involved probably had no real idea at all of what was going on, and what the result would be of this one single day in their lives.

And we’re not concerned with the present celebration of Christmas.

But…

What was it like for them…

Mary, Joseph and the Infant?

For the most part, it was a time of scandal.

  • There was the scandal of immorality.

Remember, Joseph and Mary hadn’t yet been married, though their engagement was as binding as a marriage.  It could only be broken by divorce.

Now, there are professed Christians who are quite comfortable with the idea that Matthew or, more likely, someone much, much later who just used his name, invented the story of the virgin birth in order to make the best of a bad situation.  After all, living together without the benefit of marriage, or other “adult situations,” are quite acceptable and very common in our day, even among church people.

It wasn’t like that back then.  There were those who lived in immorality, to be sure, witness the incident of the Samaritan woman in John 4, but it surely wasn’t as widely accepted as it is today.

When Mary came back from her three-month visit with her cousin Elizabeth, no doubt she had begun to “show.”

We’re given no details of this at all, except the angelic visit to Joseph, who was the other concerned party in all this.  But what was the reaction of her parents?  What did the townspeople think of it, this hurried, sudden marriage of Joseph and Mary?

I’m sure it wasn’t all loving and accepting.

Then, too, there was Joseph.  How did this affect him?  His reputation?  Beyond his perplexity about what to do with his beloved, there is nothing.

And there was a third party affected by this.

  • There was the scandal of illegitimacy.

This concerned the Lord Jesus Himself.  If His conception was no different than any other conception, then the Mosaic Law shut Him out from the nation.  Deuteronomy 23:2 says, One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the LORD;  even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD.

He could have no access to God.  He certainly couldn’t have become our Redeemer.

There could be no salvation – no reason to “celebrate Christmas.” 

  • There was the scandal of ignorance.

Except for a few shepherds, who were socially among the lowest of the low, no one else beside the little family knew anything of what was going on.  There were no floodlights, no fireworks, no “breaking news” on the local TV stations – if they would have had them. True, the shepherds made known what they had seen and heard, but who listened to shepherds?

No, just another birth, another little baby.

Life went on.

What about the wise men?

  • There was the scandal of indifference.

Though they’re always part of a nativity set, the visit of the wise men was probably more than a year later.  After Jesus was born, Matthew 2:1, not “when”, the men found what they were looking for, not in a stable somewhere, but in a house, Matthew 2:11.

The thing is, in trying to find whom they were looking for, they had gone to Jerusalem. After all, when one is looking for a King, where else to go but the royal city?

Herod had no idea what they were talking about, so he called in the local minister’s alliance:  the chief priests and scribes, Matthew 2:4.  They were immediately able to give him the information he wanted.

The sad thing, the somber thing, is that, as far as we have any record, these men, these scholars of the Scripture, never went to Bethlehem themselves to see what was going on.  The visit of the wise men had stirred up the whole city, for surely there were more than the three men commonly thought of.  Even if there were only three wise men,  taken from their gifts to the infant child, surely they had what we could call “support staff”.  Their’s had been a dangerous journey of months, and even if they joined a caravan to make the trip, surely they took provisions and guards with them.

The wise men had gone to a great deal of trouble to travel hundreds of miles, but the academics in Jerusalem couldn’t be bothered to travel just down the road.

Sad, isn’t it, that those closest to the text of Scripture were farthest from its truth.

  • There was the scandal of infamy.

The scholars may not have been interested in what the wise men said, but Herod certainly was.  He had no inherent right to the throne, but only held it through the power of Rome.  He wanted to find this Rival, not to worship Him, as he lied to the wise men, but to kill Him.

Using the time line supplied by the wise men, Herod sent soldiers to the region around Bethlehem, ordering them to kill all male children two years and younger.  He would brook no competition.

So, that first “Christmas” wasn’t all lights and tinsel.  There was a lot of sorrow and grief associated with it.  A lot of scandal.

The scandal of Christmas.

Voices of Christmas: The Chief Priests and scribes.

In our last posts, we looked at the three wise men and Herod. Herod didn’t know anything about the Old Testament, so when asked about the birth of the Messiah, he asked those who should know, that is, he called in the experts:  the chief priests and scribes of the people.

To me, these verses are the most somber of all the verses in the Christmas story.  You expect Herod’s reaction to the wise men’s not returning to him and his decree to murder little boys as a result.  He was that evil.  But the chief priests and the scribes?  What do I mean?  Look at the story.  When asked about the birthplace of the Messiah, they answered correctly and immediately, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:  ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel’,” Matthew 2:4-6.  These men didn’t have to look the verses up in the concordance or on their I-Pads.  They knew them.  (And, yes, I know….)

The thing is, knowing the verses and that men had come a long way to find the Messiah, there is no record that these chief priests and scribes ever went to Bethlehem themselves.  There is no record that they themselves ever went looking for the Messiah. Indeed, some thirty-plus years later, their successors were among those most active in seeking to destroy Him.

During His ministry, our Lord tangled with some of these successors Himself.  In John 5, Jesus responds to some who were upset that He had dared to heal the impotent man on the Sabbath, and then had claimed equality with God, v. 18.  In v. 39, He said, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.”  He was talking to the leaders of the Jews, for the ordinary folks didn’t have copies of the Scripture to study for themselves.

Like their predecessors in the time of Herod and the wise men, these men apparently thought the study of Scripture was an end in itself.  Their goal was to know as much about It as possible.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  God places no premium on ignorance.  Indeed, ignorance will only get you lost.  This isn’t to say that apart from Christ, we’re not lost already.  It’s just that only through the Scriptures can we find Him and salvation.

Jesus said as much Himself.  In His response, He continued, “and these are they which testify of Me.”  From Genesis through Malachi, for that’s all they had, the Old Testament testifies of the Lord Jesus.  This doesn’t mean that we have to look for some “spiritual” meaning in the words.  The words themselves speak of Him.  If Micah 5:2 prophecies of an actual event in an actual place, then so do all the rest of the Old Testament prophecies.  Granted, there are some things the Old Testament only hints at, for example, “the church.”  However, “the church” neither nullifies, cancels or “fulfills” the Old Testament.  That is reserved for, and will yet be completed by, the Lord Jesus.

For all their knowledge of the Scripture, these scholars Herod called didn’t know the Scripture.  Neither did their successors.  Paul refers to this in 1 Corinthians 2:8, where, in writing of the hidden wisdom of God, he said, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  Our Lord Himself said to the disciples in John 16:2, “…the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”  This happened in the experience of the early church, and it happens today in the murder of Christians by those of other religions.  It will continue to happen until the Lord comes back.  In the US, we’ve escaped a lot of this persecution through the mercy and providence of God.  Considering how things are going in this country, I’m not sure that our time isn’t coming, if it hasn’t already started.

In John 5:40, our Lord finished His response to those who were persecuting Him, “But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.”

That is the crux of the matter.  We can discuss and argue about “the church,” or baptism, or prophecy, or any of a number of other subjects.  I’ve done so in this blog. We can have all kinds of “degrees” and religious titles:  “Master of Theology,” “Doctor of Theology,” Bishop, Reverend, etc., etc.  I’m not against “education,” and I understand the meaning of the terms “Master” and “Doctor of Theology,” as simply meaning that one has finished a required course of study and graduated.  At the same time, how can anyone really say that they’ve “mastered” the study of God (theology)?

That’s the thing with Bible college and Seminary; they study about the Scripture, not the Scripture itself.  The various papers and theses I had to turn in had to have a certain number of references from other authors.  I could never have simply turned in a paper using only Scripture.  It was really all about what other men said about the Scripture.  And I have nothing against “books;” I have several in my library.  I’ve even written one.  But our main study should be “the Book,” and not just “books.”  “The Book” intends to lead us to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Even here, though, we can fall short.  We can discuss the “theology” of the Lord Jesus and miss the point.  Is He God?  Was He virgin-born?  Did He even exist?  And on and on.  And these are important things to know.  But if our study doesn’t bring us to the point of bowing before Him as our Lord and Savior, recognizing our sinfulness and that He’s the only One that can do anything about it, then we’re worse off than if we’d never seen a Bible.

That was the trouble with the chief priests and scribes Herod called.  For all their knowledge, they never came to the Lord Jesus for “life.”

Christmas is four days away.  In a couple of weeks, the tree will be out on the curb, waiting to be picked up by the trash collectors.  The needles will have been swept up from the floor.  The ornaments will be put away for another year.  A lot of the toys will be broken already.  All the food we ate will make itself known on the scale.  Perhaps good and happy memories will be stored in the files of our minds.  The question is, will “the Babe” be stored away with the Nativity set?

Oh, that we might remember and live with and for Him in January and February and July and November, and not just for a few weeks at the end of the year.  If you’ve never particularly thought about sin and salvation, may this time of the year get you to thinking about it.  Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, Acts 16:31.

Voices of Christmas: Herod

Not everybody was thrilled with the news of One “born King of the Jews.”  Herod was about as nasty as any “king” has ever been.  He had only become king through political and social machination.  Besides, he wasn’t even a Jew.  He was an Edomite!

There was a lot of unrest under his rule.  When he heard the news of men searching for One “born King,” the Scripture says, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him, Matthew 2:3.  Now, the Jews weren’t concerned about him; they were concerned about what he might do!  A concern borne out by his actions several months later.

Something I’d never really paid attention to until just now.  Having found out from the chief priests and scribes of the people where the Messiah was to be born, HEROD sent the wise men to Bethlehem, Matthew 2:8!  It ought to be a matter of some concern when the ungodly express an interest in the things of God.  It can mean no good!  Now, the wise men probably didn’t know about Herod, but took what he said at face value.  And perhaps it had only seemed to them the thing to do to look in the capitol city of Israel to find Israel’s king.  So they were apparently fooled by Herod’s expressed desire to worship with them this One for whom they looking.  Except for God intervening and spoiling Herod’s evil plan, they might have led to the murder of the Messiah.  Such a thing would have been impossible, but it took divine intervention to prevent it.

I think Herod may be considered emblematic of a world under Satan’s control.  This doesn’t cancel out God’s overall control of things, but Satan is called the god of this world, 2 Corinthians 4:4 (KJV).  Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about their preconversion life:  you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in [“energizes”] the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves…, Ephesians 2:2, 3 (NKJV).

In the Garden of Eden, Satan usurped God’s place as the one to whom men would look for guidance.  Where the Word of God has been valued and obeyed, Satan’s influence is minimized.  However, where the Word is unknown, ignored or rejected, as is increasingly the case here in the US, Satan blinds the minds of men to the fact that the way(s) of life he leads them in is or are ultimately only destructive, never beneficial.  He promises them “freedom” from the old Puritanical taboos, but in reality enslaves them to the desires of their own selfish being.  There is more than one kind of slavery.

In Herod and the magi, we clearly see the two-fold division of mankind:  those who are truly seeking the Savior and those who are not.  Granted, many do not know anything about the Savior, and many others have found Him, or, rather, have been found by Him, John 10:14-16.  Nevertheless, humanity may be divided into two classes, not rich or poor, but lost or saved.  We’re every one of us either one or the other.

The difference is found in our reaction to and our relationship with that One “born King of the Jews.”