Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Model for Prayer from Acts 4:23-31

The believer’s prayer for Peter and John in Acts 4:23-31 gives us a good model for prayer.

While analyzing the structure of a prayer may seem like a mundane exercise for linguaphiles, it is anything but. Just as Linus reminded Charley Brown that good theology has a way of comforting, the structure of prayer we see in this passage can help to bring God’s Word powerfully into your life through prayer. Let’s take a look.

To understand why this prayer can form a good general outline for prayer, we must first remind ourselves of the context. Peter and John have just been interrogated, threatened and released by the same people that had Jesus crucified. This is a prayer for boldness in the face of legitimate threat. So this model can be a good model when something specific is on your mind.

Step 1: Say something about who God is in relation to what you are praying about.

In this instance, the prayer begins by addressing God as “Sovereign Lord, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.” Immediately when these words are said, the people praying are reminded that the religious rulers are not, in the grand scale, in charge of anything. There is a God who created everything and that is the God to whom we pray.

So in your own prayer, think of something about God that interfaces with the situation that is on your mind. If your prayer is for healing, you might start out with a phrase like, “Father, you are the great physician. You created us and know our bodies better than we know ourselves.” If your prayer is for something having to do with sustenance in your life, you might start by saying, “Father, you created this world and everything in it. It is all yours to do with as you please.” You get the idea. 

Step 2: Bring the Word of God into the prayer.

The next thing the praying believers did was bring God’s Word into their prayer. In this instance, they quoted Psalm 2. This is a messianic psalm which talks about how people think they can fight God and he just laughs. His purposes and his anointed one cannot be overthrown (You should read it. It’s a good one!)

In this step, you think about the Word of God and how various scriptures might interact with the situation about which you are praying. In the case of healing, you might say, “Your Son displayed your healing power on earth as he healed people throughout his ministry.” If you are struggling, you might say something like this, “You have said that a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Isaiah 42:3)

The Word of God is powerful and active. It brings comfort, guidance, power and peace to those who hear it and speak it with faith. 

Step 3: Present the current situations.

Notice that we are far into the prayer before we even get to what is on our mind specifically. By beginning with God’s nature and God’s Word, we draw ourselves toward the right frame of mind for a prayer grounded in faith. But now the prayer gets very specific. The people who threatened and killed Jesus (albeit by God’s plan of salvation) are now threatening Peter and John.

In this step you tell God what’s going on. Be specific and clear. Do you feel threatened and if so, by what? Do you feel overwhelmed and if so, by what? What, specifically, is the current situation and what, specifically, are your concerns? 

Step 4: Ask.

Finally the believers pray. By calling to mind God’s nature and his Word along with presenting a specific situation, the believers pray for what a follower of Jesus would want to do in this situation: speak boldly while continuing to heal in Jesus’ name.

By the time your thoughts go through God’s nature, God’s Word and the specific situation, you will likely be ready to pray a prayer that connects you to God’s will. The disciples did not pray for deliverance, they prayed for courage. If a relationship is broken, by the time a believer gets through God’s nature, God’s Word and a clear description of the situation, the believer’s heart is ready to pray for reconciliation instead of vengeance, for healing instead of pain. If a serious illness is at hand, by the by the time a believer gets through God’s nature, God’s Word and a clear description of the situation, the believer’s heart is ready to pray for peace and the opportunity to glorify God along with, of course, healing. 

I am not asserting that this model is prescriptive — it doesn’t direct us to pray this way. Jesus did that with the Lord’s Prayer. In this prayer, though, we have a good model for how to pray in response to specific situations. Try it for yourself. (And don't worry about not knowing the references for the scriptures that you find meaningful. New Testament authors often did not cite references.)
  1. Who God is.
  2. What God’s Word says. 
  3. What the situations is. 
  4. What you are praying for.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Observations & Commentary on Acts 4:1-14

Acts 4...

Vv. 1-2 The group of people who show up to see what’s going on are all leaders in the temple, people with authority. Understanding who they were and what they were about will help you see how diverse a group of people were united in their opposition to Jesus.

PRIESTS — Priests are from the tribe of Levi. They live all over the nationa of Israel and serve rotational duty in the Temple, receiving offerings, performing sacrifices, and all the other activities that were part of life in the Temple. There is no indication that the priests who approached Peter were anything more than ordinary priests. There is good reason to assume that, while the priestly leadership might be universally corrupt, the rank and file priests were of the variety of integrity and piety that we might expect to find in any vocation.

CAPTAIN OF THE TEMPLE — The Captain of the Temple was the second in authority in the Temple, only behind the High Priest. Luke is the only New Testament writer to use this term. It appears that this person was the person in charge of maintaining order in the Temple. Bear in mind that unlike churches today, the Temple staff included the Temple Guard. The New Bible Dictionary tells us, “The Temple had its own police department known as the Temple Guard, who were mostly Levites and whose task, among other things, was to keep out the forbidden Gentiles.” (©1996, Intervarsity Press)

SADDUCEES — There are some things we know about the Sadducees. They denied the resurrection of the dead, the continuation of the soul beyond death and judgment after death. Unlike the Pharisees, who relied greatly on oral tradtion to guide their interpretation of the Old Testament, the Sadducees rejected strongly rejected this oral tradition and rooted themselves firmly and solely in the Torah, the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. The current scholarly consensus is that the Sadducees were an aristocratic party among the priesthood, wealthy, well-connected, and willing to work with whatever political leadership was in power. Acts 5:17 tells us that the party of the Sadducees were aligned with the High Priest, who was most certainly wealthy, corrupt and self-serving, since the high priest put in place by the Romans, likely at great cost in money and loyalty. The sadducees appear to be well-educated and cynical, denying any non-material world, from human spirits surviving death to angels and demons.

The beliefs of the Sadducees explain why verse 2 tells us that they were greatly annoyed because Peter was “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” To clarify this annoyance, it is painfully disturbed as opposed to how one might be annoyed by something minor like a squeeky hinge. They are driven to put a stop to Peter’s public speach.

v. 3 In this verse we get a little hint of how different things were back then. The priests didn’t like what Peter and John were saying, so they arrested them.

v. 4 Too late. The people have heard and believed. The church that was 120 a short time ago and had swelled to about 3,000 people on the day of Pentecost has now reached about 5,000 people.

V. 5-6 Some new characters appear in our narrative, gathered to interrogate Peter and John.

RULERS — This is a general word for those with authority or power in the situation. Satan is called the “ruler of demons” (Matt. 12:24) and the ruler of this world (John 12:31).

ELDERS — As the name implies, these are not young men. But it was more than simply the old guys. This is a title that designates those who are looked upon as leaders because they have attaind and displayed the wisdom that can be acquired with age. It may also be a title or office into which these people are placed.

SCRIBES — Scribes were specially trained in reading and writing. The word would be used of town clerks, lawyers and other who work specifically with words. In the Temple context, the scribes are experts in the law of Moses (as opposed to the priests who performed the Temple rituals).

ANNAS THE HIGH PRIEST — Annas is not, at the time of these proceedings, officially the High Priest. He was deposed by the Romans in 15AD. Five of his sons and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, also served as High Priest. In the trial of Jesus, Annas conducted a pretrial questioning prior to the official trial before Caiaphas. That Annas continued to have great influence long after being removed from office is shown by his being called “High Priest” and by how many of his relatives served as High Priest after him. The authority of Annas was so clear that in John 3:2, the apostle tells us that John the Baptist’s ministry began during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas even thought Annas had been officially out of office for 12 years.

It should also be noted that the High Priest, in Jewish thought, is a lifetime office. It was only under Roman rule that the High Priest was put in place and deposed (by the Romans).

CAIAPHAS — Caiaphas, at this time, holds the officially designated office of High Priest, serving from 18AD - 36AD. Caiaphas interrogated Jesus and handed him over to Pilate.

JOHN — John appears to have served as High Priest from 36AD - 37AD. He was deposed and the office was given to his brother, Theophilus. He was briefly restored to office in 44AD.

ALEXANDER — We don’t know anythingn about Alexander except that he was part of the high priestly family. There is no indication that Alexander ever ascended to the office of High Priest.

THE HIGH PRIESTLY FAMILY — Can you say, “nepotism”?

v. 7 The gathered leadership would sit in a semicircle on a raised platform.

The first big thing to notice is that the miracle is not denied. This miracle cannot be denied because a well-known crippled beggar can now walk.

There were many itinerant rabbis, healers and exorcists. In Acts 19:13 we hear of some of these trying to co-opt the name of Jesus for their work: “Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” (It doesn’t go so well for those folks because the name “Jesus” is not a magical power word. You’ll have to look it up if you want to find out what happened.)

The question of the Temple leaders insinuates that the power that healed was not the power of God because God’s name does not get spoken. Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons (see Luke 11:14-26).

v. 8 The Holy Spirit resides in all believers. We are told that no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 12:3). The filling of the Holy Spirit is a repeatable experience whereby the Holy Spirit gives boldness and wisdom. Remember that this is Peter who only recently swore with curses on himself that he didn’t know Jesus. We will also hear in a few verses (v. 13) that the educated leaders of the Temple were amazed because Peter and John were “uneducated, common men.”

Notice that Peter begins to speak politely and with respect. He will not pull punches, but neither will be be needlessly disrespectful or inflammatory.

vv. 9-10 Instead of resenting the insuation of their question, Peter uses it to bring in the name of Jesus, connecting his resurrection (which one might deny) to the healed cripple, whom they cannot deny.

Also, Peter frames his answer around having to respond to doing a good deed. Who can question a good deed? Crimes should be investigated, not good deeds.

v. 11 In this verse, Peter connects Jesus to Old Testament prophecy by directly quoting Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (ESV)

v. 12 This is the boldly restrictive sentence. Based in Jesus being the stone, salvation is found through him.

v. 13 Jewish boys in Jesus’ day would go to school at the local synagogue for 1/2 day six days per week from age 5 to 11 after which their schooling would be finished unless they shows special special promise. If they were to continue their education, they would go to a rabbinical school. Peter and John, as would be apparent from the way they spoke, were not educated beyond the minimum for Jewish boys. Typically, one would not expect a lower class fisherman to speak boldly and eloquently before the educated and wealthy Temple leadership gathered to examine them. In trying to figure out their boldness, they recognized that these men who were now healing in Jesus’ name had been with Jesus.

v. 14 What can they say? Remember that most of these leaders are of the Sadducees, so they don’t believe in a spiritual reality. But there is the cripple healed and standing right there in front of them.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Commentary and Observations on Acts 3, including the Cycle for Every Day Outreach

Loving acts create the opportunity for witness.

v. 1 - Peter & John were going to the temple at the Jewish hour of prayer, about 3pm our time. This pattern is reflected in Acts 2:46.

v. 2 - This man had never been able to walk, which would mean that he would pretty much be unable to work. Luke, as a doctor, notes in verse 7 that his feet and ankles were made strong. Perhaps he had a severe case of club feet?

v. 3 It appears that just as he was being brought to his usually place for alms, he asked for alms.

v. 4-5 Peter and John looked at him. They gave him their attention instead of dropping coins and walking on. The instruction of Peter that the alms requester look at him shows that Peter thinks of the alms requester as an equal. An inferior averts his gaze and does not look directly into the eyes of his social superior. But this cripple is told, “Look at us.”

v. 6 First Peter acknowledges that he does not have money to give. Peter’s gift is not to have material wealth. But what Peter does have, he freely shares without payment: healing.

vv. 7-8 The healing was immediate and, as you might imagine, the man is literal jumping for joy. We will later learn that this man is over 40 years old when the healing occurs (Acts 4:22).

vv. 9-10 Everyone remembered seeing the this leaping man sitting as a cripple begging for alms, which he had probably done in the same place at the same time for many years. They are amazed, just as you and I would be

v. 11 The man wouldn’t leave Peter and all the astonished people followed to see what was going on.

v. 12 Peter did not heal this man with the intent of drawing attention or using the incident for anything other than what it was: a loving act of healing. But when he sees the crowd, his is open to the opportunity to testify about Jesus Christ.

Peter addressing the crowd as “Men of Israel” reminds us that everyone in this picture is Jewish. At this point, the idea that Jesus is the Messiah is a debate between Jews, with some Jews believing he is, some not, and many trying to figure it out. There is, as yet, no real thought of the proclamation of Jesus being for people beyond the Jews. The caveat to this is that God’s people have always been told to welcome those of non-Jewish descent who wanted to become part of God’s covenant people. (”If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land…” — Exodus 12:48, ESV)

Peter is aware of the crowd wondering what kind of person Peter is and what kind of power he possesses that enables him to heal like this. Peter’s first order of business is to put this to rest, which he does in two ways.

First, this healing is not by Peter and John’s own power. This is the simple one: we are not magicians.

Then Peter tells the crowd that it is not by his and John’s own “piety,” that is personal holiness. Having been through his experience of denying Christ and being restored, Peter is fully aware of his own failings. The crowd might think that God listens to Peter because he is such a good guy. Peter will have no part of that!

v. 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a standard Jewish way of referring to God. The “you” in these verses is plural. Paul speaks to these people as “the Jewish nation.” There is a sense of collective guilt when the leaders (and, as we recall, the crowds) do something despicable.

vv. 14-15 Peter is using very messianic titles for Jesus when calls Jesus “the Holy and Righteous One.” Calling Jesus the “Author of Life” is an even bolder assertion. While the title “Author of Life” is not used in that exact turn of phrase to designate God, the Old Testament is riddled with assertions about, laws based in and praises offered to God as the giver or originator of life. The word for “author” in this passage (archÄ“gos) designates the originator or founder. It can also designate a founding leader who is still leading.

Much of the force of what Peter proclaims is wrapped around these six words: “To this we are witnesses.” There are a host of theological implications to Jesus being the Messiah and being raised from the dead, but Peter’s preaching is witnessing — sharing what he has experienced.

v. 16 Again, Peter is no magician. It is by faith in the name of Jesus that this man is now walking.

v. 17 Here Peter follows the lead of Jesus who asked the Father to forgive his executioners because they did not know what they were doing.

v. 18 The path of suffering on the way to the fulfillment of God’s plan is a common theme throughout scriptures. Abraham had to leave his ancestral home when he was an old man. Joseph, whose brothers had sold him into slavery, ended up Prime Minister of Egypt. Upon meeting his brothers, he told them that what they meant for evil, God meant for good. The Israelites suffered under the Egyptians before God delivered them.

vv. 19-26 Repent — turn around, think differently — which includes, of course, repenting of rejecting Jesus as the Christ.

The rest of these verses is a little harder to understand unless we remember that at this time the disciples still thought that salvation was for the Jews. It is not until later that, through visions and the work of the Holy Spirit, the disciples realize that Jesus is for Jews and Non-Jews alike. Peter’s speech seems to indicate that there is still an expectation of Jesus restoring the physical nation of Israel, only now it is when he returns in power and glory after the foretold suffering is fulfilled. Although in verses 25 and 26, Peter recalls God’s promise to Abraham, that all the families of the world being blessed and that Jesus was sent to the Jews “first.” Who is “first”? The nation of Israel to be followed by the rest of the world, or the people of Jerusalem, to be followed by the rest of the nation of Israel?

A Basic Pattern for Everyday Outreach

A basic pattern of everyday outreach can be observed in this encounter. We can’t all heal, but we can all be open to loving and giving interaction with those around us. And, importantly, we can keep our eyes open for opportunities for spiritual conversation and sharing our faith in Jesus.

Notice the progression by which Peter ends up talking to the crowd about Jesus.
v. 1 - Peter and John are going about their business. (step 1)
vv. 2-3 — There is the possibility of human interaction (step 2)
vv. 4-5 — Peter and John essentially say, “Yes” to the man’s bid for interaction. (Note that looking each other in the eyes, in this culture, is an indicator of equality. It is not the lame man, who is lower on the social scale, who initiates this equality. It is Peter and John who tell the lame man to look them in the eye.) (step 3)
v. 6 Peter offers what what he has to give. Then continues on. (step 4)
v. 12 Peter noticed a further opportunity and took it. (step 5, noticing and step 6, acting) 

This diagram summarizes the process of everyday outreach God’s kingdom. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Devotion on Leadership in Grace

“The Lord will provide. But, oh that He would until he does.” – The Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof

There is a strain of Christian faith that goes something like this, “if you are doing everything right, everything will be going right.” This seems natural.  There is a folksy wisdom to a statement.  And in many instances, it is true.

The scriptures do tell us that we reap what we sow.  It would be both unscriptural and immature to suggest that are words and actions don’t have a real effect on our lives.  The scriptures tell us that plans fail for lack of counsel but with many advisers they succeed.  And so as we, as the Board of Directors, think and plan strategically, try to cast a vision for the future of our congregation, considering the large sense what we should be working on and measuring, there is a certain sense in which it is our job to figure out what the right things are to do so that things will be going right.

But things going well, that is, according to our plan, and things going well according to the measures that would seem to us to indicate success, can never be the thing by which we judge ourselves. Paul writes, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.” (1 Corinthians 4:3) Jesus reminded the religious leaders of his day that it was religious leaders that killed the prophets.  The job of the Christian is to get out of the judgment business altogether, including a judging ourselves.

We begin this meeting together not by reminding ourselves of our responsibility, but by reminding ourselves of God’s love.  While we are, in fact, the ones here and now who will have to make decisions, we do not make decisions in fear and trembling. We don’t make decisions as though we will be in or out of God’s love. The only way we can make a wrong decision is if we make decisions out of fear rather than faith.

This cannot be said too often: There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. God’s love rains down on us. God has reconciled the world to himself in Jesus Christ, not counting our sins against us. In Christ we have peace with God that cannot be taken away. This is the foundation in which we work.

As we have God’s grace secure in our minds, as the utterly unshakable and unassailable love of God courses through our veins, we find the peace that will enable us to hear and follow the inner voice of the Holy Spirit. We have the faith to listen to God’s guidance through his Word and Spirit and boldly follow his direction, sometimes toward results that look like success to the world and sometimes toward results that look like failure to the world. God’s love casts out fear and let’s us lead boldly according to his call.

It all comes down to this:
  1. We are not earning God’s love. We are working out our lives in the umbrella of his grace.
  2. God isn’t speaking just to hear himself talk.