Friday, August 22, 2014

Proving that Jesus is the Christ

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:20-22 (ESV)
“He is the Son of God.” So Luke summarizes the proclamation of Paul at this time. He had come to persecute the Christians, followers of “the Way”, and instead had joined them. He proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God and proving that Jesus is the Christ.
Here is an aside on the ESV translation of this passage. Estin, means is, third person present indicative. The Greek New Testament I have before me has Estin in both “He “Is” the Son of God,” and “Jesus “was/is” the Christ.” I really can’t say why they translated it “was” in the second half, perhaps they are using some obscure variant, or a slip of the mind. It’s easy to do that, to think of Christ in the past tense as if he were dead. But just as he is the Son of God who is eternal and present, so he is the Christ. He is still the Christ. He is still the Messiah. He is still that one for whom all of Israel waited, the one who would be anointed to be king of Israel, who would establish the eternal kingdom. And he has done this. The Church is his kingdom, and it is eternal. He has never given up the title Christ. And this is what Paul proved to the Jews in Damascus to their consternation.  
Of course this word can be translated a few different ways too. But here I think they  did well to translate it prove. Prove is a funny word. It’s most often and properly used in math and logic, geometry has proofs. Other scientific disciplines opt for probability. Some things have a higher probability than others, but it is hard to say that anything is proven to be true. Of course for the way this works is that once something has been shown to have a certain height of probability most people take it for granted that it is proved.
But it is a funny thing today when it comes to faith. Today people believe you can’t believe something that has been proved. Faith somehow requires it not to be demonstrated or proved. That if you can give a rational explanation or demonstration of it you know longer have faith. Apologetics is therefore marginalized as unchristian and counter productive. Well tell that to Paul and Peter for that matter. Neither of them thought that giving a rationalization for the faith detracted from a person’s ability to believe, or somehow compromised the work of the Holy Spirit. But it was precisely in and through a rational and reasonable presentation of the Gospel that Jesus is the Christ that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of man and calls them by the gospel as Luther hammers home in the third article of the creed. It isn’t something that we can do by our own reason or strength, but that doesn’t negate the Holy Spirit using our reason or appealing to our reason as he sets forth the faith as Paul does here in Damascus.
Paul though, has a particular advantage with his audience that we don’t always have today. He is arguing with people who take two things for granted that are not always taken for granted today. One that there is a God, and two that there would be a Christ. Today it is sometimes necessary to first prove that there is a God. And even when you do this you will find people who refuse to believe. Just the way it is. Proving doesn’t actually make anyone believe. Somehow one must inspire a person to first want to believe. People won’t believe what they don’t want to. And it is about that simple. We as humans are emotionally invested both in what we do believe and what we don’t believe, and this is true even if you have good reason for what you believe.

Paul though didn’t have to argue that. All he had to do is show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies these people already believed would be fulfilled. This in itself is a pretty amazing demonstration for the rationalization of the faith and presentation of the gospel being true. And most of it will fall into place by just showing the historical reliability of the resurrection accounts, that given the evidence at hand it makes more sense to believe Jesus rose from the dead then it does to not believe that he rose from the dead. But if he rose from the dead the most rational explanation is that he is the Son of God, and he is the Christ.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Suffering For Christ

10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. (Acts 9:10-19 (ESV)
“For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  It jumps out at a person. As we read it we think Jesus plans on punishing Paul for his persecution of the church. But doesn’t Jesus forgive? And the answer is yes, Jesus forgives all. This doesn’t mean that the temporal consequences of our actions are necessarily done away with, though sometimes it works even that way. Yet, this has nothing to do with forgiveness or temporal consequences of Paul’s previous sins. Paul himself would not have read it that way, neither would Annanias or the other disciples. They all understood their suffering for the sake of Jesus to be a blessing and an honor, as it is even today.
Oh, this understanding hardly makes the suffering itself any easier to bear. And it hardly meant that Paul’s life would be nothing but suffering. A close reading of Paul shows that he had much joy and happiness in life. He knew how to enjoy life. But he also knew suffering for the sake of Jesus name. He records it here and there in his letters, the shipwrecks, the robbers, the beatings, and the imprisonments. At times he wondered if he would be better off just to die, and he knew he would. But he would rather endure the suffering for the sake of his brothers that they would be edified. He no longer lived for himself, but for Christ. And if his life was Christ’s life than it would necessarily entail suffering in this world.
This suffering can take on so many different forms. The world has so many ways of inflicting pain on the children of God. The devil is never finished with his work. Sometimes we don’t understand even how any of this suffering is for the sake of Christ. Perhaps we see Christians in the Middle East being persecuted for Christ and we understand that this if for his name. But the great tribulation covers more than all of that.
We have been given the name of Christ, anointed with it in baptism. Any suffering we encounter in life is suffering we endure in the name of Christ. We know the world was not supposed to be this way. We know that God had created the world and it was good. And suffering lets us know it is not good. And yet we endure this suffering knowing that this life is a gift from God that has been redeemed by God. We endure this suffering in the name of Christ because we no longer live to ourselves but for others. Namely, we live for Christ, and so we suffer for his name sake. The hardships we endure at work, the allergies that wake us up at 4:00 AM and induce us to weazing through the morning, the cancer we get in old age, sick children we are given to take care of when perhaps we would rather be on vacation. All of these things we suffer as children of God, and for the name of Jesus. From those little things that seem so trivial, to the life shattering events that makes us stare down death in the evening shadows. Yes, these things we suffer for the name of Christ.

No, there isn’t any glory in them. They seem pointless, and meaningless, they seem to suck the purpose straight out of life. Beheadings for confession, being thrown to the lions, strapped on grid irons, burned at the stake, 40 lashes minus 1. We think we can more easily see how this suffering is suffering for Christ. But often we are blinded by the blaze of glory aspect to this sort of suffering. We see the confession of faith this makes just before death. But we are drawn to glory, and we think if the suffering will bring us glory we would even afflict it upon ourselves as so many early Christians were won’t to do during great persecutions of the church. There is an aspect of this sort of thing that attempts to short circuit the suffering and make it into something it is not. Oh, Paul understood that when these things happened he was suffering for Christ. But he also understood that this suffering for Christ also extended to the thorn in his side, and poor eyesight, things too which glory can’t be attached. Suffering that looks no different from the suffering the rest of the world suffers itself. But then as with everything in the Christian life, it isn’t the thing itself that makes it good or bad but the blessing of God. Just as it is impossible for the non-Christian to do good works because they don’t have the faith necessary for good works. And yet the Christian flipping burgers at McDonald’s is doing works pleasing to God simply because of their faith. So it is not what we suffer that determines it being good or bad suffering, suffering for the name of Christ or not, but that we suffer what we suffer in faith, trusting in the death and resurrection of Christ to forgive all sins. Trusting that this momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of Glory that is beyond all comparison to any glory we might receive in this world. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Road To Damascus

“9:1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” (Acts 9:1-9 (ESV)
We return to Saul on the road to Damascus. It has become a by word in Christianity for conversion. Saul had gained letters from the high priest to bring any who belonged to “the Way” bound to Jerusalem for trial in the persecutions. It always amazes me just how much power and prestige the high priest must have had within the eyes of the Roman government to be able to issue such a letter. Damascus was close enough to Jerusalem that it was part of Israel in the days of David and Solomon. However, Damascus was considered part of Syria by the time Paul gets around to it. Though it was also considered to be one of the cities of the Decapolis a region that Jesus himself visited. The Roman authorities would had to have lifted an eyebrow or two wondering what business the high priest had in Damascus. Yet, the high priest issued the letter and presumably expected this was something he could get away with.
Here you see what was at stake in this whole controversy for the high priest, power and prestige. But for Saul it was his whole world view. Everything he knew about life was being challenged by the Way. All he had tried to earn with his good life was for nothing if Jesus had risen from the dead. This would mean that Paul would have to give up his own righteousness, and consider it to be as rubbish, skubola even. And that is a bitter pill to swallow. It isn’t that our own righteousness counts for nothing in this world. Here we live by the rules of society and society honors and rewards us for that, for the most part. And there is something to be said for all of that. But we want it to count for more. Paul wanted the life he had lived to count for more. And when it doesn’t, when we realize that either it is forgiveness or nothing, well then we have opportunity to see just how depraved our hearts really are. We start looking at others and thinking but they did all of this, they did drugs, they were promiscuous whore mongers, they went to wild parties, they were drunkards, they were you fill in the blank, and they get the same reward the same forgiveness the same righteousness before God as me, and we are upset. But a person has to ask himself why? Was it because you were tempted to be a druggy, a whoremonger or prostitute, a drunkard, was it because you really wanted to go to all those wild parties yourself? Are you seriously jealous of their sin? And the truth is, yes. Yes we really are. We think it is not fair that they should have gotten away with these things and received the same forgiveness as us who tried so hard to abstain from those things. It’s just a little messed up. If you took inventory of your sin you would see that you have more than plenty of your own, you don’t need to be jealous of others for theirs. You just haven’t lived a life that would qualify as righteous before God, as even your begrudging of their forgiveness shows. Jesus, the model of righteousness to which none of us lives up to shows his true righteousness in that he loves his neighbors, shows. Jesus, the model of righteousness to which none of us lives up to shows his true righteousness in that he loves his neighbors, you, I, the prostitutes, the whoremongers, the druggies and drunkards, the murderers and the self-righteous to afraid to enjoy life even a little less they be found to have sinned in the eyes of man. He loves them all as he loves himself and so he dies for all to give them forgiveness. But it makes the moralist masticate his pride. And Paul was a moralist as no moralist can be. His forgiveness will change him so much so that two thousand years later people are still as scandalized by what he wrote in his letters as he was by the cross, the death and resurrection of Christ. To this day when people take Paul seriously, they are called anti-nomians, just as he was called.

But now on the road he meets the man he persecutes. It is an insight into the body of Christ, and how real it is. When we are persecuted for our faith we are persecuted together. When someone insults us for our faith, it is not us but Christ, it is Jesus who is insulted, it is our creator and redeemer they blaspheme. And so we pray, we pray that even they would be converted as was Paul, we begrudge them not their sin, but for their sake’s we pray they would know the forgiveness of Christ’s cross and have their sin wrested from them. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Look, Here is Water!

32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
 34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [5] 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.(Acts 8:32-40 (ESV)
“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”  “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” Those are wonderful moments in the Christian’s life when you get to share the gospel. Even more so glorious when those who are listening are interested in what you have to say.  Sharing the gospel is never a futile event. It is never fruitless. Though it may seem so, the word of God accomplishes its purpose. It may not always have the effect we desire but we leave that in God’s hands and are thankful for the privilege of being his messenger. But here the Eunuch asks to be baptized. And when this happens, well the angels in heaven rejoice and so do we.
“See, here is water.” There is an odd phrase floating about the baptist circles today. It is water baptism. It’s an odd phrase because there really isn’t any other type of baptism. There is one baptism (Eph. 4) and we see here that it requires water. The word baptism actually carries the connotation of water so much so that in all ancient documents Christian or none Christian water was assumed unless otherwise specified. When Jesus says, “go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them.” The disciples did not have to ask, “with what?” They knew water was meant.  It is also true that the disciples would have no way of knowing who had been baptized and who had not been if it wasn’t water baptism. For the spirit blows where it pleases and faith is a rather invisible thing. So when 3,000 are baptized in one day we know that water was being used.

When the Eunuch is done being baptized the Spirit carries Philip away. His job there is done. The Spirit will provide other means with which the Eunuch will have his faith nutured and fed. But Philip finds himself in Azotus and preaches in all the towns on his way to Caeserea. There he stays. This was a port town built by Herod. Actually would have been a very posh neighborhood, the ruins of this town are even beautiful. Paul will end up spending quite some time himself here in this town, which is probably how Luke comes to know so much of Philips activity. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Even the Dogs Eat

Even the Dogs Eat

Even Dog's Eat From Their Master's Table

21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. [5] (Matthew 15:21-28 (ESV)

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”  These are the words of the Canaanite woman, the words of a great faith having been born of hearing, born of eating crumbs that had fallen from her master’s table, crumbs of the gospel that had spilled from the mouths of not so tight lipped children feasting on forgiveness. And they had offered her hope as she heard of miracles and mercy, healing and grace, because when children eat, dogs gather at their feet.
I think it is a picture we can all relate too. We’ve all seen it. Children even going so far as feed their beloved pets from their plate. The dogs know where they have their best chances for the tastiest morsels, and behave as if they are starved and haven’t been fed in days. It hardly matters what it is, it is often snatched mid-air before it even gets a chance to fall on the ground.
This woman had fed on crumbs, and it had born faith. She knew that such a Lord as this Jesus who was tender and merciful to so many would not fail to hear her plea. She had started to hear the gospel years ago as pilgrims returned from their journeys. First it was about a strange prophet at the riverside preaching as with fire, and talking about one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie, a Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But he was gone now, and this Jesus seemed to take his place. These Jewish folk had been passing through on their way to Jerusalem. She heard them on their way  back home, about this Jesus who in the midst of the desert was healing the sick and the lame, and had fed so many of his children, five thousand with five loaves and two fish. She couldn’t help but over hear them talk as they were buying bread for their journey home, as they stopped to purchase wine while waiting for the boats of Tyre and Sidon. The left overs of that feast filled twelve baskets and spilled all over the ancient kingdom of David.
She had heard stories of him and his kingdom. She had heard of how his God had defeated all the Baal’s so many years ago. How even as her Canaanite ancestors worshiped the Baals, the same gods that punished her daughter with this demon after they attended the fertility fest. How even as they worshiped these Baals everyone knew that Israel’s God was the true God to be feared. She had heard of how the Ancient prophets like Elijah and Elisha had shown mercy to foreigners like Namaan. But she never felt that she could trust this God, or live up to his standards, she never felt she could be more than a dog in his eyes. She had watched as the Pharisees travelled through, so proud of themselves for keeping the law as they looked down their nose at everyone around them, wearing their fine clothing too costly for a peasant. They had a way of making everyone around them feel unwelcome and inferior. So many of the other Jews she knew could never themselves afford to live up to their ideals. But they always showed deference to them, respected them for their strong faith, their great faith, their ability to live out the law. Meanwhile her daughter suffered a demon, and none of them would lift a finger to help, wouldn’t even petition their God on behalf of her. She was a lost cause, too poor to even be bothered by the proselytism that turned so many of her countrymen into the same children of hell if not worse than these arrogant Pharisees born into it. 

“Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s table.” And now her master, HER Lord! He praises her. He praises her, a sinner, a dog, a gentile who had spent her life worshiping other gods, debasing herself in the midst of frenzied fertility rites. This woman whom the Pharisees despised, her faith is declared great, because she would rather have mercy than sacrifice, because in hearing the gospel, she ate the crumbs of the feast the children spilled. She came to faith, came to believe in grace, and came to know that she wasn’t the dog in the eyes of the lord she felt herself to be for her sins, but she herself was a beloved child of God. So it is that Jesus sets his table for you, his gospel, the New Testament he consummated with his death on the cross given for you in flesh and blood, forgiveness in the bread and wine, here for you to eat and chew on all week, that even from your lips, cleansed as with coals from heavenly altars, healed and made whole, from those lips the crumbs of the gospel would fall. That family and friends, children and coworkers, and those who feel themselves dogs in the eyes of the Lord would know the mercy of God on sinners in the death and resurrection of Christ, and join the rest of his children even here at this feast of forgiveness. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Eunuch

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south [4] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
(Acts 8:26-31 (ESV)
Ethiopia, to this day there is a strong Christian community there. When European Colonists came upon this area of Africa they were still Christian and had not succumbed to Islamic invasion as had the rest of North Africa, like Egypt where the Copts were a persecuted minority. But it all started with Jewish proselyting during the diaspora. There were at this time huge Jewish populations throughout Greco/Roman Africa.  The whole northern coast was once a bastion of Greeks and Romans, Romans taking everything from Libya west. It’s hard to say how Christian these areas ever were. It is estimated by Peter Brown in “Through the Eye of a Needle” that perhaps only ten percent of the population was Christian at the time of Augustine. One wonders if it had moved much by the time of the Islamic invasions. Nevertheless archeology in these areas produces wonderful artifacts from these industrious Christians from that era, but also many pagan artifacts depicting Greek and Roman gods, and still yet many Jewish artifacts.
It’s hard to imagine Jewish people being zealous proselytes today, that they ever were boggles one’s mind. Yet in the first century the Jews were very  zealous in proselyting. Jesus even mentions this: 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell [5] as yourselves.(Matthew 23:15) And evidently they were more successful at it back then then they are today.  Sure they get a few converts here and there even today, but mostly through marriage. Every once in a while Kabala becomes popular with the movie starts and people start experimenting with it, it’s hard to say how many actually convert through that Jewish discipline. I suppose it is easier today on the converts as most men are circumcised as a matter of course in the hospital with little thought given to it. At least they don’t have to go through that pain when they convert. Of course, this posed and even greater problem for the Eunuch. In order to serve the Queen, the males had to be castrated. And the castration would mean according to Deuteronomy 23 that they could never really be a part of the assembly. That is they could get about as close to the holy of holy as the court of the gentiles and no further. In the Old Testament there are many such requirements that would make a person like this Eunuch feel as an outsider. Things that people had little control over would exclude them from the assembly. Often it is assumed they could not then be saved, and it seems rather cruel. But this isn’t really the case. Isaiah says these people are saved despite their being cut off from the people, even if all they do is observe the Sabbath. (Isaiah 56) Still, can you imagine heading to Jerusalem for the feasts and not really being able to participate, and never having any hope of doing so? The heart break probably explains him studying Isaiah trying to assure himself of his salvation. And along comes Philip.

The Holy Spirit told him to approach the chariot it says. Philip had been told by the angel of the Lord to go to Gaza, a desert place. So he went. He doesn’t seem to know why until the Holy Spirit tells him to approach the Eunuch’s chariot. The Eunuch has his prayers answered.