Archives for January 2017

Psalm 18:26–30; 1 Chronicles 28,29; Acts 17:16–28

Psalm 18:26—30: After describing how God rescued him from his enemies, our psalmist provides a general theological overview to all those who follow God by showing how God reciprocates in exactly the same way we approach him:
With the faithful You deal faithfully,
with a blameless man, [You] act without blame.
With the pure one, You deal purely,
with the perverse man, [You] deal in twists.” (26, 27)

In one of the great themes of the Hebrew scriptures, God cares for the lowly and rejects the self-centered mighty: “For it is You Who rescues the lowly folk/ and haughty eyes You bring low.” If we do not approach God in humility, then God will seem irrelevant to us.

In a powerful metaphor, the psalmist expresses how God is the sole source of guidance as we follow life’s dark and twisty path: “For You light up my lamp, O Lord/ my God illumines my darkness.” (29) We cannot get through life on our own. And when we encounter obstacles, it is God who takes us over them: “For through You I rush at a barrier,/ through my God I can vault a wall.” (30)

This last metaphor reminds me of how we had to get over a tall wall with no handholds when I was at OCS. To surmount this obstacle we had to run right toward the wall and then take off on the right foot to clear it. Here, in a wonderful metaphor of the Christian life we are encouraged to run with all our might toward—not away from— the obstacle, confidently faithful that God will help us over. With faith in God we do not have to be stymied by the hurdles that life throws at us, confident that with faith in God all things are indeed possible.

1 Chronicles 28,29: Sometimes I do not understand the Moravians. We plod one chapter at a time through the endless lists and now that we finally come to the narrative we have to rush through it…

David gathers his staff together and announces that while he had planned to build the temple himself, God intervened telling the king, “‘You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood.’” (28:3). Then he tells the assembly that it is God—not him— who has chosen Solomon from among David’s many sons to be the next king. David tells “all Israel, the assembly of the Lord, and in the hearing of our God, observe and search out all the commandments of the Lord your God; that you may possess this good land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children after you forever.” (28:8) Once again, we have the terms of the covenant stated for all to hear: observe and search out all the commandments of the Lord your God.

David may not be able to build the temple but he has been its funder and its architect as he hands Solomon “the plan of all that he had in mind: for the courts of the house of the Lord, all the surrounding chambers, the treasuries of the house of God, and the treasuries for dedicated gifts.” (28:12) In addition, he hands over the organization charts as well as “all the vessels for the service in the house of the Lord,” (13) He makes sure that Solomon and all listening clearly understand that this is God’s plan, telling them,“All this, in writing at the Lord’s direction, he made clear to me—the plan of all the works.” (28:19)

Realizing his work is nearly done, David bestows a final blessing on his son: “Be strong and of good courage, and act. Do not be afraid or dismayed; for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the Lord is finished.” (28:20) This is the fatherly blessing that I think every son wants to hear.

The king then turns to everyone assembled there and asks them to assist his inexperienced son, telling them, “My son Solomon, whom alone God has chosen, is young and inexperienced, and the work is great.” (29:2) He tells everyone how much he has contributed to the funds required to build the temple and asks each person there, “Who then will offer willingly, consecrating themselves today to the Lord?” (29:5) This is an excellent example of a leader having made his own substantial contribution before asking it of others. Something that TV evangelists seem to fail to do.

The next verse would be a terrific passage on which to base a stewardship sermon as our authors write, “Then the people rejoiced because these had given willingly, for with single mind they had offered freely to the Lord; King David also rejoiced greatly.” (9) What a terrific description of a real free-will offering!

The offering complete, David prays one of the greatest prayers in Scripture. In that prayer he observes that in God’s big picture we humans are mere ephemera: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.” (15) This is a theme that Peter picks up in his eponymous letter about us Christians being resident aliens here on earth.

David concludes his prayer by asking God to “Grant to my son Solomon that with single mind he may keep your commandments, your decrees, and your statutes, performing all of them, and that he may build the temple for which I have made provision.” (19) The people in attendance “bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the Lord and the king.” (20)

The next day is filled with the offering of sacrifices and everyone “ate and drank before the Lord on that day with great joy.” (22) This is a reminder that worship is at the center of our lives, but that God also wants us to have a party afterwards.

Solomon sits on the throne and all pledge their allegiance to him as our authors remind us that “The Lord highly exalted Solomon in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed upon him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel.” (25)

Acts 17:16–28: Paul arrives in Athens and “was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (16) Paul, being Paul, “argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” (17) Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debate him, but Paul seems to have met his intellectual match and some call him a “babbler.” The Athenians are interested in what Paul has to say more for its academic interest than anything having to do with faith in God. Which is certainly how much of the world views Christianity today—or at least that portion of the world that doesn’t view Christianity as a threat to world peace.

Paul uses the altar “to an unknown god” as his launch point to tell them that “God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,” (24)  Given the plentitude of shrines on the Acropolis, this was doubtless a new concept to them. Paul then uses logic to move from point to point, announcing that those who “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” (27) That statement probably makes sense to their philosophical minds, but then Paul says,  “‘In him we live and move and have our being’” and attempts to tie that idea to one of their own poets, observing that “some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” (28).

The question at this point is can people be saved by Paul’s supremely logical argument? So far, Paul seems to think so—or at least he’s giving this approach to proclaiming the gospel the old college try.


Psalm 18:17–25; 1 Chronicles 27; Acts 17:4–15

Psalm 18:17–25: Amidst the natural chaos—earthquakes, violent storms, volcanic eruptions—that our psalmist has described as God “tilting the heavens” and coming down to earth, there is a personal rescue as from drowning:
He reached down form on high and took me,
pulled me out of the many waters.
He save me from my daunting enemy
and from my foes who were stronger than I.” (17, 18)

But it was a close run thing. His enemies have already attacked: “The came at me on my day of disaster” (18a) but God has arrived at the very last moment and “the Lord became my support.” (19b) God “brought me out to a wide-open space,/ set me free, for His pleasure I was.” (20)

At first the word  ‘pleasure’ seems oddly out of place. David is rescued because he brings pleasure to God? The next verses tell us exactly why David was God’s ‘pleasure’ as we encounter the Old Covenant’s deuteronomic bargain. David has followed God and therefore has become God’s pleasure, worthy of rescue:
The Lord dealt with me by my merit,
for my cleanness of hands He requited me.
For I kept the ways of the Lord
and did no evil before my God.” (21, 22)

We arrive at one of the foundational themes that course through Psalms. This one is most on display in Psalm 119. If we keep God’s law diligently, God will reciprocate and provide rescue in our times of trouble:
For all His laws were before me.
From His statutes I did not swerve.
And I was blameless before Him,
and kept myself from crime.” (23, 24)

The deuteronomic logic is irrefutable. David has kept himself “from crime,” and therefore, “the Lord requited me for my merit,/ for my cleanness of hands in His eyes.” (25) Well, David may have been able to do that most—but not all— of the time, because we know he committed some big time sins. How much better the New Covenant is for us: to be saved through grace by Jesus Christ.

1 Chronicles 27: It’s beginning to look like no citizen of Israel will go unmentioned by the authors of Chronicles as list follows relentless upon list.

At least our authors are straightforward and simply call it for what it is: “This is the list of the people of Israel, the heads of families, the commanders of the thousands and the hundreds, and their officers who served the king in all matters…” (1) Twelve divisions of 24,000 men each rotates through David’s court, each serving for a month.

There’s a parallel leadership structure in Israel. The military that reports to David as commander -in-chief and then there are the tribal heads, which seem more like state governors. After listing the leaders, our authors remind us once again of David’s perfidy in going against God and performing a census: “David did not count those below twenty years of age, for the Lord had promised to make Israel as numerous as the stars of heaven.” (23) But as if for completeness, our authors mention the hapless Joab who “began to count them, but did not finish; yet wrath came upon Israel for this, and the number was not entered into the account of the Annals of King David.” (24) I feel sorry for poor Joab: caught between a demanding king and an angry God.

There is another civic structure described here. This one is the various officials that form something like a cabinet or heads of various ministries for the king. These include:

  • the treasuries,
  • work of the field (farmers),
  • vineyards,
  • “produce of the vineyards,” i.e. the wine cellars,
  • olive and sycamore trees,
  • oil (presumably olive oil)
  • herds that pastured in Sharon
  • herds in the valleys
  • camels
  • donkeys
  • flocks of sheep

Each head held the title of steward and “All these were stewards of King David’s property.” (31)

Finally, “Jonathan, David’s uncle, was a counselor, being a man of understanding and a scribe; Jehiel son of Hachmoni attended the king’s sons.” (32)

I cannot fail to be impressed at the level of organizational sophistication that is described here. When it comes to bureaucracies, there is truly nothing new under the sun.

Acts 17:4–15: Paul and Silas appear to be having great success in Thessalonica.But in describing the events there Luke gives us another clue as to Paul’s persuasive but also abrasive personality: “Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” (2,3)  

The Gentiles (“Greeks”) and women basically flock to Paul’s message but “the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar.” (5) [I love the word ‘ruffians!’] Paul and Silas cannot be found, so the mob attacks Jason’s house, who having once entertained Paul and Silas as guests, becomes the handy target for outrage. Some things just never change about protests that turn into riots. 

Jason is freed on bail, but to get the officials off the church’s back, the Thessalonian Christians “sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue.” (10) Here, there is greater success among the Jews who “welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.” (11) Also, a number of Gentiles, including “men of high standing” become believers.

However, the Thessalonian Jews hear about this and head on over to Beroea “to stir up and incite the crowds.” (13) which they succeed in doing. The Beroean believers see that Paul is definitely the Thessalonian Jew’s target and they “immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind.” (14)

The bottom line here is that Paul was an outstanding theologian and clearly bested anyone who chose to argue against him—always a great way to create enmity. However, it’s also clear that he was an abrasive personality that stirred deep passions and one which had to be hustled off to the next town in order to prevent riots and hurting the church in whatever town he visited. Now wonder Paul started writing letters to the churches.

Paul sounds a lot like a certain abrasive personality now heading the executive branch. Unfortunately, unlike Paul, it’s going to be hard to hustle him off to the next town.

Psalm 18:8–16; 1 Chronicles 26; Acts 16:30–17:3

Psalm 18:8–16: David has cried out to God in his distress and God hears him: “He heard from His palace my voice,/ and my outcry before Him came to His ears.” (8) What follows is an amazing description that is essentially cinematic as this brilliant poetry evokes incredible images of power.

God not only hears he acts. And there’s nothing subtle about God’s response for it affects all nature, beginning with a violent earthquake:
The earth heaved and shuddered,
the mountains’ foundations were shaken.” (9a)

Followed by a volcanic eruption:
They heaved, for smoke rose from His nostrils
and fire from His mouth consumed,
coals blazed up around Him.” (9b)

So, the question becomes, is this theophany an actual description of God’s power or is our psalmist simply giving us a dramatic metaphor for God’s power? To me, the details in the verses seem to suggest an eyewitness account. Whether or not these events actually happened doesn’t really matter. We have a marvelous reminder of God’s power that many believed (and many still believe) is expressed through natural phenomena.

Then in a remarkable image of heaven intersecting with earth, “He tilted the heavens, came down,/ dense mist beneath His feet.” (10) As if dramatic natural manifestations of God’s power were not enough, God “mounted a cherub and flew,/ and He soared on the wings of the wind.” (11)

But amidst all this sturm und drang, God still remains hidden from view: “He set darkness His hiding place around him,” (12a) And then with dark foreboding he sneaks up on David’s enemies, “His abode water-massing, the clouds of the skies.” (12b) WHich I take to be something like a giant thunderhead reaching far up into the atmosphere. David’s enemies can see that something awful is about to happen because God is suddenly visible as the skies open: “From the brilliance before Him His clouds moved ahead—/ hail and fiery coals.” (13) We encounter these kinds of dramatic images later in Revelation, leading me to believe that the author knew this psalm well.

And then it happens. God in all his terror acts against David’s enemies who are no match for God’s power as they flee in terror:
He let loose His arrows, and scattered them,
lightning bolts shot, and He panicked them.” (15)

This theophany becomes even more apocalyptic as earth seems transformed back to its primordial origins:
The channels of water were exposed,
and the world’s foundations laid bare
from the Lord’s roaring,
from the blast of Your nostril’s breath.” (16)

These verses are important to recall when we call God, “Abba,” but forget that God is no ordinary father. To be sure, God loves us, but he is also the source of unimaginable power.

1 Chronicles 26: The endless organization chart continues with the names and organization of the gatekeeper, who are split into three divisions, and guard the entrances to Jerusalem.

Then come the treasurers, accountants, and judges. “The sons of Jehieli, Zetham and his brother Joel, were in charge of the treasuries of the house of the Lord.” (22) The treasury is divided into two parts: [1] the gifts brought by David and the leaders of the army (26) and [2] the gifts from the past: “all that Samuel the seer, and Saul son of Kish, and Abner son of Ner, and Joab son of Zeruiah had dedicated.” (28)

Then, “Chenaniah and his sons were appointed to outside duties for Israel, as officers and judges.” (29) In addition, 1700 “men of ability, had the oversight of Israel west of the Jordan for all the work of the Lord and for the service of the king.” (30) It would be great to be designated a “man of ability.”  The key here is that responsible people were put in charge. We can only hope for the same in our own day…

Acts 16:30–17:3: Rescued form suicide the Philippian jailer asks Paul a simple but all-important question. And it’s the question every person really has to ask one way or the other at some point in his or her life: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (3) Paul’s answer is equally simple and straightforward: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (31) The jailer and his family are quickly baptized and then there a party. NOtice there are no complicated statements of doctrine or theological discussions or other hoops through which the jailer must jump—especially the circumcision hoop.

Apparently someone at the Philippi city hall came to his senses and word was sent that “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” (36) The officials would be only too happy to shove the wretched affair under the proverbial rug, but Paul would have nothing of it: “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not!” (37)

So, the fearful authorities apologize to Paul and Silas and asked them to leave Philippi. However, Paul and Silas return to Lydia’s house and only then, “when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” (40) This is a great example of Paul’s fearlessness and the fact that he did not submit to false authority.

So, what are the lessons here? One is that sometimes there really is justice and as so many psalms remind us, the wicked do indeed get their comeuppance. The other more important lesson, I think, is that one does not need to be a theologian to be saved. One needs only to believe on Jesus Christ and accept the wonderful gift he has given us. And then throw a party. For that is what grace is all about: salvation and the joy that comes form the knowledge we are indeed saved.

Psalm 18:1–7; 1 Chronicles 25; Acts 16:16–29

Psalm 18:1–7: The superscription of this poem is extraordinarily long providing the back-story about the circumstances that led David to proclaim this victory psalm: “For the lead player, for the LORD’s servant, for David, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day the LORD saved him from the grasp of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.” (1)  Alter also points out that this psalm is almost exactly (but not quite) the same as David’s song of thanksgiving in 2 Samuel 22.

The joyfully confident opening line firmly establishes the joyful emotions that suffuse the psalm: “I am impassioned of You, Lord, my strength!” (2) Have I ever felt this passionately toward God?

Our poet then has David expressing several metaphors that make it clear that it was David’s trust— his sheltering—in God was what brought him victory and saved his life:
The Lord is my crag and bastion,
and my deliverer, my God, my rock where I shelter,” (3a)

He then shifts to military metaphors to describe how God saved him for certain death: “my shield and the horn of my rescue, my fortress.” (3b)

David’s gratitude is all the greater because God’s rescue came just in the nick of time: “The cords of death wrapped round me,. and the torrents of perdition dismayed me.” (5) I think that ‘Torrents of perdition’ is perhaps one of the greatest metaphors in all of Psalms! What a marvelous image of a deluge of evil approaching and then washing over us—but that God protects us from all of it.

The next verse emphasizes how close David was to death, so close that he could see his doom, apparently having been trapped by the enemy, perhaps even Saul himself, on the battlefield: “The cords of Sheol encircled me,/ the traps of death sprung upon me.” (6) In this desperate situation there is only one thing David can do: “In my strait I called to the Lord,/ to my God I cried out.” (7)

We are sometimes tempted to deride so-called ‘foxhole prayers.’ Yet, here is the greatest warrior king of Israel doing exactly that. God does not take our circumstances into account when we pray. Whether we are praying from the silence of the cloister or the middle of a blood-soaked battlefield, God hears us.

1 Chronicles 25: More lists of the vast organizational apparatus that our authors assert was established by David himself. This time it’s the temple musicians. “David and the officers of the army also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals.” (1)

What strikes me here is that the playing of musical instruments can also be prophecy, not just speech. Clearly, our authors understood how music can stir emotions, frequently with greater power than words. Which is one reason why I think music at worship is so crucially important—and also how music can become fraught and divisive in a congregation. Different music stirs different emotions. Perhaps if we thought more often of music having prophetic power we would pay close attention to the lyrics of what we sing: are the words speaking as if from God—like the words of this psalm— or are they therapeutic ditties too focused on our own self esteem and feelings?

A certain Heman is father to 14 sons and 3 daughters, all of whom “were under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God.”  (6) Moreover, he was director of a large choir: “They and their kindred, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all of whom were skillful, numbered two hundred eighty-eight. (7). The remainder of the chapter details how that group was divided.

If ever we needed a reminder that music is to be played and sung with skill and reverent feeling, it is right here. This is what should set worship music apart from secular music—and why I personally find too great a focus on the musicians rather than on God to be distressful.

Acts 16:16–29: Paul and Silas seem to be having great success in Philippi. In one of the most famous stories Silas himself narrates the events that landed Paul and him in prison. It all starts with a demon-possessed slave girl who apparently has the powers of divination. “Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.” (18)

The slave girl’s owners, seeing “that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.” (20) Rather than the usual fairly trivial charges of disturbing the peace, the owners accuse Paul and Silas of sedition against Rome. A kangaroo court ensues and they are found guilty as charged. Paul & Silas are stripped, beaten, tossed into the innermost cell of the prison, and locked up in stocks.

None of this discourages the pair from singing and praying as the famous earthquake occurs around midnight, “so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.” (26)

Assuming the prisoners had escaped the jailer was about to commit suicide when Paul shouts, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” (28) The jailer “called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.” (29)

One of the things I’ve always wondered about is why didn’t the other prisoners escape? I understand why Paul and Silas stayed put but what force would hold the other prisoners back? Was the Holy Spirit somehow involved here?

Psalm 17:8–15; 1 Chronicles 24; Acts 16:4–15

Psalm 17:8–15: Asking for God’s protection from the wicked people that surround him—”Guard me like the apple of the eye,/ in the shadow of Your wings conceal me” (8)—our psalmist memorably describes his enemies:
Their fat has covered their heart.
With their dewlaps they speak haughty words.” (10)

For me, the fat represents a self-righteous prosperity and/or social position that in their eyes grants the wicked the authority to lord it over the less fortunate, including our psalmist. This image of haughtiness is amplified by the image of dewlaps—fat beneath the chin—announcing their self-proclaimed superiority over others. We have all met these people and they are especially popular on cable TV.

These people are dangerous. Our psalmist feels constrained by them on all sides as they seek out their prey, an image made all the more threatening by the metaphor of a hungry lion ready to pounce:
My steps now they hem in,
their eyes they cast over the land.
He is like a lion longing for prey,
like the king of beasts lying in wait.” (11, 12)

Having described his imminent danger, our psalmist pleads with God to “Rise, Lord, head him off, bring him down,/ save my life from the wicked with Your sword.” (13) After all, he reminds God, these bloody-minded enemies are still mortals, far weaker than God himself: “from men, by Your hand, from men,/ from those fleeting of portion in life.” (14a) This is an important aspect for us to remember: even though the wiliest enemy may set himself up as superior, he is still mortal and subject to God’s judgement.  This reality becomes an underlying theme of the book of Revelation.

The question, of course, is can we pray for the destruction of our enemies by God? Jesus has cancelled this kind of prayer, it seems, by requiring us to love our enemies. That said, however, I think we can still pray that God’s will be done and that God will protect us from the depredations of our enemies.

1 Chronicles 24: Now we come to the priestly organization chart as our authors describe exactly who was given what priestly responsibility by David: “Along with Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, David organized them according to the appointed duties in their service.” (3) This includes 16 heads form the ancestral house of Eleazar but only 8 from the house of Ithamar “Since more chief men were found among the sons of Eleazar than among the sons of Ithamar.” (4). One has the feeling our authors stem from the Eleazar line.

The positions are assigned by lot, and our authors carefully record the name of every person assigned to every lot. The listing the continues with describing “the rest of the sons of Levi: of the sons of Amram, Shubael; of the sons of Shubael, Jehdeiah,” (20) who were not of the priestly clan. They “also cast lots corresponding to their kindred, the descendants of Aaron, in the presence of King David.” (31)

So, did David actually conduct this rather detailed assignment? As I noted yesterday it really doesn’t matter if he did this historically. By attaching all these names (and their descendants down to the time our authors were writing in Babylon) to David it really doesn’t matter. David has become the firm root by which all priestly authority derives. We see this same assignment of legitimacy through David in the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.

Acts 16:4–15: Paul and Silas go from town to town in delivering “to them [the churches] for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem.” (4) This would be the happy news that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised in order to join the church. There’s no question that the resolution of this issue resulted in the happy reality that “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.” (5)

Luke informs us that there was nothing random about the missionary work of Paul and Silas, but that it is the Holy Spirit that is guiding them every step of the way, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” (6) As well as Bithynia.

Paul has a vision: “there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (9)  Paul and Silas head to Europe, “being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.” (10)

Suddenly, Paul (or Silas) begins speaking in the first person after they arrive at Philippi, “We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.” (12b, 13) They seem to have abandoned the strategy of starting out by speaking in the synagogues, but head directly to speak with Gentiles. 

We don’t think much today about exactly how revolutionary it was for two Jewish men to converse with Gentile women. This unprecedented act was as unexpected as Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well recorded in John’s gospel.

They meet Lydia down by the river. She is a businesswoman, “a dealer in purple cloth.” (14a) Luke tells us that “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” (14b) and she and her household are baptized. Lydia invites the two missionaries to stay at her house.

There is a number of remarkable things going on here, but perhaps the most remarkable is that the first recorded convert in Europe is a Gentile businesswoman. It’s almost as if Luke is telling us that if a Gentile woman has responded then Jesus’ revolutionary message, then the gospel is about to reach—and affect— everyone in the Roman empire. Which of course ultimately is exactly what happened.

Psalm 17:1–7; 1 Chronicles 23; Acts 15:32–16:3

Psalm 17:1–7: This psalm of supplication opens with a fairly anodyne request for God to listen to his “guileless prayer.” (1) He knows that it is God who judges because God is the source of all righteousness: “From before You my judgement will come,/ Your eyes behold rightness.” (2)

He feels that God has tested him, including in his dreams, and that he has passed the test: “You have probed my heart, come upon me by night,/ You have tried me, and found no wrong in me.” (3a) Above all, he has guarded his speech as if having been muzzled by God: “I barred my mouth to let nothing pass.” (3a)

Not only speech, but his actions are guarded as well as he responds to God’s direction, avoiding the temptation to sin: “As for human acts—by the word of Your lips!/ I have kept from the tracks of the brute.” (4) However, it’s not clear to me who the “brute” is. Satan? Some specific enemy? Or maybe he was referring to his own sinful self.

He asks God to continue to keep him on the path of righteousness: “Set firm my steps on Your pathways,/ so my feet will not stumble.” (5) In this state of carefully following of God’s will, the psalmist feels justified in calling on God and is assured that God will answer: “I called You, for You will answer me, God./ Incline Your ear, O hear my utterance.” (6)

He expands the perspective from himself to all persons who follow God and are thereby protected from their enemies: “Make Your mercies abound, O rescuer of those who shelter/ from foes at Your right hand.” (7)

I am impressed by how carefully our psalmist has followed the path that God has laid out for him. What’s not so clear to me, however, is what path God has laid out for me. I see great evidence God’s work in my life retrospectively, but it’s more difficult to see what God has in mind prospectively. I guess that’s what faith is all about.

1 Chronicles 23: Arrrrgh. More lists! Of the 38,000 Levites who are thirty years or older, David assigns 24,000 of them to be associated with religious rites and “have charge of the work in the house of the Lord.” (4) The labor is divided down further:

  • Officers & judges: 6,000
  • Gatekeepers: 4,000
  • Musicians & singers: 4,000

David, in a valedictory fit of administrative energy, “organized them in divisions corresponding to the sons of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.” (6) The lists of names then follows, proving once again that the authors of this book were themselves Levites.

David then makes an important announcement: The Lord, the God of Israel, has given rest to his people; and he resides in Jerusalem forever. And so the Levites no longer need to carry the tabernacle or any of the things for its service.” (25, 26) Instead, now that God is firmly ensconced at Jerusalem, they have a new job description. The duty of the Levites “shall be to assist the descendants of Aaron for the service of the house of the Lord, having the care of the courts and the chambers, the cleansing of all that is holy, and any work for the service of the house of God.” (28) They also assist with the holy bread, and “shall stand every morning, thanking and praising the Lord, and likewise at evening,” (30)

I’m left with the very firm impression that the Levites who wrote this book are quite specifically codifying the roles and responsibilities of the Levites once they return from exile in Babylon back to Jerusalem. By asserting that the greatest king of Israel had decreed these tasks makes it clear that no appeal will be brooked by the levitical officials who will shortly be in charge of the temple. In short: If David said so, then thus it shall ever be.

Acts 15:32–16:3: Judas and Silas “said much to encourage and strengthen the believers” (32) while in Antioch. After a while they leave and Paul and Barnabas remain. In one of those incidents that convinces me that we are reading history and not some fictional story, Paul and Barnabas get into a serious disagreement. Paul wants to retrace the first missionary journey “in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” (36) Barnabas agrees but wants to take John Mark with them. We get a glimpse into Paul’s ability to hold a grudge when he refuses because  John Mark “had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work.” (38) As Luke succinctly puts it, “the disagreement became so sharp that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus.” (39) So Paul chooses Silas as his companion and they set out “through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” (41)

This incident is a good lesson to us in the church today. There will always be disagreements over strategy and often over doctrine. Sometimes it’s better to just split up and move on. I’ve always wondered if Luther had Paul and Barnabas in mind when he posted his 95 Theses.

So, Paul and Silas head off to Derbe and Lystra, where they meet uncircumcised Timothy. Tim is the son of a mixed marriage, and Paul wants him to join them. Then Paul does something that seems counter to the entire point of the Council of Jerusalem: he “had [Timothy] circumcised because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” (16:3)

So did Paul abandon his principle that Gentiles didn’t need to be circumcised in order to become Christians? Or was he just being expedient?

I suspect the latter since the task at hand was to carry the gospel to many more cities. The missionary strategy was to preach at the synagogues and let things take their course from there. There is no way Timothy could even enter the synagogue without having been circumcised. We don’t get to hear what Timothy had to say in this matter, but he obviously agreed to undergo the less-than-pleasant procedure as an adult. Nevertheless, I don’t think we should be too hard on Paul in this matter. Sometimes it’s important to bow to custom in order to have credibility.

Psalm 16:7–11; 1 Chronicles 21:27–22:19; Acts 15:19–31

Psalm 16:7–11: Our psalmist writes in the second half that because God has brought him to his senses about the futility of worshipping the small-g gods, his life is now suffused with a peaceful conscience: “I shall bless the Lord who gave me counsel/ through the nights that my conscience would lash me.” (7) God has become the guide of his entire being, the key to living an upright life: “I set the Lord always before me,/ on my right hand, that I not stumble.” (8) Which is enormously good advice for us, as well. It is when we hew to the small-g gods in our own lives that we drift away from God and inevitably into a guilty conscience.

The concluding verses are an expression of the joy that permeates the psalmist’s entire being—an image that’s intensified by the references to his heart and the blood that pulses in him: “So my heart rejoices and my pulse beats with joy,/ my whole body abides secure.” (9) This verse resonates because it demonstrates so clearly that a right relationship with God is not just an abstract spiritual feeling, but that true joy in God is an intense physical experience as well.

Our psalmist has total assurance that God will always be with him—that he is indeed saved from an awful fate: “For You will not forsake my life to Sheol/ You won’t let Your faithful one see the Pit.” (10) Rather, God is about a life well lived where joy rather than a a guilty conscience is the order of the day:
Make me know the path of life.
Joys overflow in Your presence,
delights in Your right hand forever.” (11)

A right relationship with God means joy, never fear and never a guilty conscience.

1 Chronicles 21:27–22:19: God answers David’s fervent prayer to save Israel from the pestilence and “the Lord commanded the angel, and he put his sword back into its sheath.” (21:27) God’s angel has struck fear into David and he is now afraid to go before God in the tabernacle currently located at Gibeon. Instead, David determines that the threshing floor of Ornan is where the permanent structure of a temple is to be located. Which suggests that Ornan’s threshing floor was atop what is now called Temple Mount in the middle of Jerusalem.

Among David’s final acts as king is to assemble and prepare the materials for the temple, which will be built by his son Solomon. He “set stonecutters to prepare dressed stones for building the house of God. David also provided great stores of iron for nails for the doors of the gates and for clamps, as well as bronze in quantities beyond weighing, and cedar logs without number.” (22:2-4) It’s just like our accountant authors to provide a fairly complete inventory of building materials!

Now that those details have been taken care of, David “called for his son Solomon and charged him to build a house for the Lord, the God of Israel,” (22:6) explaining that he cannot build because God told him that “you [David] have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth.” (22:8)

David goes on to tell Solomon that God has given the future king a great promise: “I will give peace  and quiet to Israel in his days. He shall build a house for my name. He shall be a son to me, and I will be a father to him, and I will establish his royal throne in Israel forever.’” (9, 10)

David advises Solomon, “may the Lord grant you discretion and understanding, so that when he gives you charge over Israel you may keep the law of the Lord your God.” (12) Solomon has a lot to work with as our accountants happily relate in their usual inventory fashion that David has “provided for the house of the Lord one hundred thousand talents of gold, one million talents of silver, and bronze and iron beyond weighing, for there is so much of it; timber and stone too I have provided.” (14) David has also provided an abundance of labor, “stonecutters, masons, carpenters, and all kinds of artisans without number, skilled in working gold, silver, bronze, and iron” (15, 16a).

David then gives his son a final fatherly command: “Now begin the work, and the Lord be with you.” (16b). Just to make sure we get the point that it was David who decided where the temple was going to be built, who performed a lot of pre-construction work, and most importantly that he was Israel’s greatest king, David gives a final instruction to “the leaders of Israel to help his son Solomon, saying, “Is not the Lord your God with you? Has he not given you peace on every side? For he has delivered the inhabitants of the land into my hand; and the land is subdued before the Lord and his people.” (18)  David may have blood on his hands, but to our authors he was also a holy man of God, who in the end accepts he will not have the honor of building the temple for the God whom he loves. The question is, would I be so willing to forego a project on which my heart was so firmly set?

Acts 15:19–31: The Jerusalem conference issues its communique that insofar as circumcision is concerned, Peter has “reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.” (19) However, he does ask them to follow some Jewish dietary laws: “we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” (20)

To make sure that the Gentiles at Antioch understand that the church at Jerusalem has made this all-important decision, Judas Barsabbas and Silas accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch, letter in hand, to make it clear Paul and Barnabas are not making this up.

Luke helpfully quotes the letter, which after a lengthy introduction of who Judas Barsabbas and Silas are, gets to the meat: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” (28, 29)

To say that the members of the Antioch congregation were happy is something of an understatement as Luke somewhat drily observes, “When its members read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation.” (31) Good news indeed. For the church at Antioch and every gentile Christian. Although we’ll find out via Paul’s various epistles that the letter form Jerusalem did not completely put the circumcision issue to rest.

Psalm 16:1–6; 1 Chronicles 21:1–26; Acts 15:6–18

Psalm 16:1–6: This psalm opens with an affirmation of the psalmist’s faith in God”
Guard me, O God,
for I shelter in You.
I said to the Lord,
‘My Master You are.
My good is only through You.’” (1,2)

It appears that he has only recently turned back to God from idol worship, saying that before finding God, idols were for him the “holy ones in the land/ and the mighty who were all my desire.” (3) We assume that he is speaking ironically when he refers to those false gods as “holy ones” and “the mighty.” He once believed they were holy and mighty, but now having found faith in the real God, they are worthless. Which is exactly what we should be doing when we realize that Jesus has come to us. But putting away false gods is often a difficult business.

The psalmist continues in this ironic tone by suggesting the small-g gods will be sorrowful because he has abandoned them: “let their [i.e., the gods] sorrows abound—/another did they betroth.” (4a) The latter phrase suggests that other people are still following these false gods, even to the point of being married to them. [But we have to admit these lines are pretty obscure, so I’m guessing here.]

Things become clearer at the latter half of verse 4 as the psalmist makes clear that he has turned away form worshiping or even speaking of these small-g gods: “I will not pour their libations with blood,/ I will not bear their names on my lips.” (4b)

Now that he is rid of the gods he once worshipped, he can worship the true God with all his heart, realizing that whatever may happen in the future his entire life is now under God’s protection: “The Lord is my portion and lot,/ it is You Who will sustain my fate.” (5)

Then, he uses a lawyeresque metaphor of how he has now been written into God’s last will and testament: “An inheritance fell to me with delight,/ my estate, too, is lovely to me.” (6) This verse speaks to everyone of us who believes in God through Jesus Christ. Through him we have acquired the inheritance of faith that indeed “is lovely.” In short, we have been written into what in the book of Revelation is called the “Book of Life.”

1 Chronicles 21:1–26: King David foolishly asks his military leader Joab to conduct a census of Israel and Judah. Joab objects, telling David that the act of counting will bring guilt on Israel. “But the king’s word prevailed against Joab.” (4) Joab returns with the count: 1.1 million men under arms “who drew the sword” and 470,000 more soldiers in Judah. However, Joab “did not include Levi and Benjamin in the numbering, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.” (6)

As to why a census was so abhorrent, I have to assume it’s because David has trespassed onto God’s sole right to number his creation. After all, Israel belongs to God not to David, and God cannot abide that kind of presumption—even from beloved David. When we think about this prohibition of a census and the census of Israel demanded by Augustus at the time Jesus was born, we can imagine the abhorrence with which the emperor’s order was received in Israel.

Joab is not the only one who is displeased by David’s insistence on a census: “God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel.” (7) The cost of this effrontery before God is high. David must choose among three awful punishments: 3 years of famine, 3 ,months of “devastation by your foes,” or 3 days of pestilence. David chooses the latter “and seventy thousand persons fell in Israel.” God sends an angel to Jerusalem to destroy it, but then decides to spare the city at the last minute.

Here is where we see why David was the greatest king of Israel. He is willing to take God’s entire punishment on himself, telling God that he is solely responsible for this grievous sin and that as far as his people are concerned, “these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father’s house; but do not let your people be plagued!” (17) As Christians, we certainly see this act of self-sacrifice as a pre-echo for what Jesus has done for us sheep.

As penance, the angel commands David to “erect an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.” (18) The floor of an altar?!? Sometimes God can seem awfully capricious. Ornan, seeing the king, offers to give it to him, but David insists on paying full price, 600 shekels, telling Ornan, “I will not take for the Lord what is yours, nor offer burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (24) David build the altar, prays to God and God answers, “with fire from heaven on the altar of burnt offering.” (26)

What’s clear here is that the authors of Chronicles wish to paint David in the best possible editorial light. So, when he commits the egregious sin of conducting the census, he comes to God and begs forgiveness. The story of Ornan’s threshing floor is a proof of David’s intrinsic righteousness and fairness.

Acts 15:6–18: The council at Jerusalem composed of the original apostles considers the fraught question of whether or not Gentiles must be circumcised in order to become Christians. Peter points out that he was the original missionary to the Gentiles, called by God: “in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.” (7) He goes on to say that the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit just like the Jews, implicitly suggesting that the Holy Spirit is indifferent to the matter of circumcision. He accuses the pro-circumcisers of putting God to the test and that “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (11) Which of course is the primary message in the New Testament—and what Luther finally came to realize: “By grace are you saved.”

Paul and Barnabas then provide supporting testimony as “they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.” (12) James then takes the floor and pretty much wraps up the issue by quoting the prophet Jeremiah, who said, “that all other peoples may seek the Lord—/ even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.” (17)

It appears that the circumcision issue is being laid to rest at the highest level of the church—and our author Luke wants to make sure we understand that by citing three independent proofs: (1) Peter, the senior apostle, being called to go to the Gentiles; (2) Paul’s and Barnabas’ testimony re the power of the Holy Spirit working among the Gentiles; and (3) A proof text from the Hebrew scripture.

But as we know from the numerous references in Paul’s letters, the issue of Gentile circumcision issue continued to be contentious.


Psalm 14; 1 Chronicles 18; Acts 14:8–20

Psalm 14: At first glance the first two lines opening verse seems to describe an atheist: “The scoundrel has said in his heart,/ ‘There is no God.‘” But the lines that follow make it clear that this is a moral judgement by the psalmist, not a theological statement: “They corrupt, they make loathsome their acts.” This scoundrel believes that there is no God looking down on his evil acts and that therefore he can get away with whatever he pleases. In fact, as far as our psalmist is concerned, the world seems to be populated exclusively by evil-doers: “There is none who does good.

In what appears to be a pre-diluvian world full of only evil and corruption, our psalmist evokes an image of God who appears to be seeking out a Noah: “The Lord from the heavens looked down/ on the sons of humankind/ to see, is there someone discerning,/ someone seeking out God.” (2) But what God finds (or doesn’t find) is pretty discouraging. There is not even a Noah to be found in this dark almost cynical world view: “All turn astray./ altogether befouled./ There is none who does good./ There is not even one.” (3) We need to remember that it is the psalmist is speaking, not God. In his deep discouragement he believes that the entire nation of Israel has been put under the collective thumb of the corrupt, who occupy every position of power. Just as many do today when they survey the landscape of American culture. And many view the recently inaugurated president as the very symbol of that corruption.

But there is hope. The evildoers will eventually receive their comeuppance as our psalmist reflects, “Do they not know,/ all wrongdoers?/…They did not call the Lord.” (4) And for not acknowledging God is on the side of righteousness, their punishment will come at the hands of those who believe God will act on behalf of the righteous: “There did they sorely fear,/ for God is with the righteous band.” (5)

Now we also learn the nature of their sin. It is one of the worst: exploiting the poor: “In your plot against the poor you [the wrongdoers] are shamed,/ for the Lord is his shelter.” (6) Clearly, this psalm seems to have been written at some point of widespread oppression of the weak by the powerful. The nation appears to be under the thumb of a tyrant and his lackeys.

The psalm concludes with the usual plea for God to make his appearance and once again set things aright in Israel: “Oh, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue/ when the Lord restores His people’s condition.’ (7a) When that happens there will be rejoicing: “May Jacob exult,/ May Israel rejoice.” (7b) At the end of virtualy every psalm there is always a ray of hope.

1 Chronicles 18: This chapter is devoted to a summary of David as warrior-king and his many battles and victories. David attacks and subdues:

  • The Philistines (1)
  • Moab (2)
  • King Hadadezer of Zobah (3)
  • Arameans from Damascus (5, 6)
  • Edomites (12)

When a certain King Tou of Hamath “heard that David had defeated the whole army of King Hadadezer of Zobah, he sent his son Hadoram to King David, to greet him and to congratulate him.” (9) Smart man that King Tou. Because David acknowledges that it was “the Lord [who] gave victory to David wherever he went.” (12)

Our authors are careful to note that in every victory, David dedicated the spoils of war to God. I suspect this wealth became the basis of Solomon’s wealth used to build the temple.

Needless to say, no chapter in Chronicles would be complete without a list of names. Here, we read who is head of the army, the recorder, and the priests, as well as “David’s sons [who] were the chief officials in the service of the king.” (17) Our authors are definitely David fans.

Acts 14:8–20: Paul and Barnabas arrive at Lystra, where a crippled man “listened to Paul as he was speaking.” (9) Paul, “seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet. And the man sprang up and began to walk.” (9, 10) However, retrospectively this was a mistake on Paul’s part. The crowds do not understand that faith in Jesus was the reason behind the man’s healing and “they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (11) They even name Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, “because he was the chief speaker.” (12) 

Things start to get out of hand when the priest of Zeus wants to offer a sacrifice before Paul and Barnabas. A distraught Paul tries to calm the crowd by telling them, “We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” (15) But as our author rather tartly observes, “Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.” (18)

Just when we think that things will settle down and Paul and Barnabas will successfully convert many to Jesus, the Jews from Antioch and Iconium show up. This easily swayed crowd is reminiscent of the crowds in Jerusalem during last Jesus’ last week there. They quickly turn from exaltation to execration and actually stone Paul, leaving him for dead. Happily, he is apparently uninjured (or perhaps miraculously healed) and as “the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city.” (20)

There are several lessons for the church here in this story. First, miracles, however benign their intent, do not necessarily produce the desired outcome of converting people to Jesus because they can be easily ,misunderstood. I suspect that following this incident Paul became far more judicious in using the power of the Holy Spirit to heal people.

Second, the church has always had—and always will have—enemies who will do everything in their power to quash the good news. Why so many people delude themselves into thinking America is a “Christian nation” and therefore should be different than what happened to Paul and Barnabas Lystra remains a mystery to me.

Third, even where there is persecution and the gospel appears to have been defeated there will still be followers such as the disciples who surrounded the apparently dead Paul. The Holy Spirit can never be completely quenched.


Psalm 13; 1 Chronicles 16:37–17:27; Acts 13:48–14:7

Psalm 13: Here we have a classical psalm of supplication that opens with an agonized cry: “How long, O Lord, will You forget me always?/ How long hide Your face from me?” (2) It is clear from the psalmist’s point of view that he has been in his desperate straits for what seems like years, and that God has simply and permanently gone silent. This verse has echoed down the centuries by those who suffer, especially at the hands of enemies and have concluded that God has abandoned them.

Compounding his suffering, our supplicant feels he is completely alone and abandoned by God as he asks, “How long shall I cast about for counsel,/ sorrow in my heart all day?” (3a) Even worse, he feels personally threatened: “How long will my enemy loom over me?” (3b)

This is his final desperate plea before he lays down and dies. Even though his faith in God has been put to the ultimate test, he turns to God because there is nowhere else to turn: “Regard, answer me, Lord, my God./ Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death.” (4) Perhaps even worse, our supplicant’s death would give his enemy the satisfaction of triumph: “lest my enemy say, ‘I’ve prevailed over him,’/ lest my foes exult when I stumble.” (5)

And yet. Although his faith wavers, he still trusts that God will come through in the end as this prayer of agony ends with a simple statement of trust that God will indeed come to his rescue: “But I in Your kindness do trust, my heart exults in Your rescue.” (6a) Because once he is rescued there can be worship: “Let me sing to the Lord,/ for He requited me.” (6b)

I know that I would certainly pray for God’s rescue in my hour of agony, but would I have the courage and faith to so trust that God will come through and I will be able to worship? I fear far too many prayers that begin in desperation do not end in worshipful exultation because I (and others) have been unwilling to completely trust that God will come through for us.

1 Chronicles 16:37–17:27: We can certainly tell that Chronicles was written by Levite priests who had been active in worship at the temple in Jerusalem before being exiled. They devote yet another lengthy passage to naming the priests, most notably the famous Zadok, who maintained worship at the tabernacle that is now located in Jerusalem. What’s interesting to me here is the concept that individuals are called to the priesthood: “With them were Heman and Jeduthun, and the rest of those chosen and expressly named to render thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (16:41) This of course is also the basis on which we “call” pastors today.

We arrive once again at David’s great dilemma: “David said to the prophet Nathan, “I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of the covenant of the Lord is under a tent.”‘ (17:1) David believes God should have the greater glory and Nathan agrees, advising him, “Do all that you have in mind, for God is with you.” (17:2)

However, “that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan,” (3) that he should instruct David that he “shall not build me a house to live in.” (4) God remains perfectly happy to live in a tent and reviews all he has done for Israel since arriving at Canaan even though he lacked a “house.”

Speaking through Nathan, God gives David a great promise: “I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom…I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.” (11, 14) Of course the immediate reference is to Solomon, but as Christians we also remember God’s promise that Jesus would arise out of the ouse of David and that even though the earthly kingdom of Israel has long since passed away King Jesus continues to reign.

What makes David so extraordinary from his predecessor (and the vast majority of kings who follow him) is his humility before God. David prays to God and offers the example of servant leadership that we see in Jesus: “For your servant’s sake, O Lord, and according to your own heart, you have done all these great deeds, making known all these great things. There is no one like you, O Lord, and there is no God besides you.” (17:19)

David graciously accepts God’s decision that he will not have the honor of building God’s house. The question is, would I accept as graciously as David if God were telling me to not do something that I felt called to do? Or would I just ignore God and forge ahead? I know I have done the latter more times in my life than the former.

Acts 13:48–14:7: Although the Gentiles are thrilled to hear that the good news of Jesus applies to them as well as the Jews, the Jews in Antioch are none too pleased, and “the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region.” (13:50) What’s terribly important to note here is that Paul and Barnabas simply left town: “they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium.” (51) But they did not leave a spiritual vacuum behind them. The disciples who remained “were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” (52)

Luke is making it extremely clear here that it is the Holy Spirit doing the work of building the church. Paul and Barnabas are simply the catalyst that helps light the fire of the Holy Spirit inside others who then build community that is the heart of the church. Too often, leaders linger far beyond their time. Then, it is too often their personality and charisma—rather than the Holy Spirit—that becomes the focal point of the community. Since the Holy Spirit has been shunted aside in favor of a human personality, when that personality retires or dies the community withers away. A recent example was the Crystal Cathedral, which had centered itself around the personality of its founder, Bob Schuller. After he passed on, the church faded from existence.

As far as the Jews are concerned, Paul and Barnabas are definitely rabble rousers, hated mostly, I suppose, for including Gentiles as full-fledged members of what the Jews saw as a strictly Jewish sect. They felt their religion itself was threatened by this Jesus. “The same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.”  (14:1, 2) The missionaries remain for some months, “speaking boldly for the Lord,” (14:3) but they manage only to further divide the city into polarized camps, where “some [Gentiles] sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles.” (14:4) When Paul and Barnabas learn of a plot to kill them, they “fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country,” (6) but the never ever give up. They simply “continued proclaiming the good news.” (7)

The early adventures of Paul and Barnabas give us a flavor of just how radical and revolutionary the Gospel message really was. The previous order of Jewish-Gentile relationships throughout the Roman world was being unexpectedly upset. People, who had assumed the status quo ante would continue just as they wanted to, were extremely upset. Just as many are today at the upsetting of their perception of how the arc of history should proceed because something unexpected and to their mind, radical and distasteful, has occurred. Worse, they are losing control of the narrative, just as the Jews lost control of their narrative in Antioch and Iconium.