Archives for January 2017

Psalm 12; 1 Chronicles 16:1–36; Acts 13:34–47

Psalm 12: This psalm sounds like a prophet declaring doom even though it opens on a note of supplication as it describes a moral desert: “Rescue, O Lord! For the faithful is gone,/ for vanished is trust from sons of man.” (2) The idea that no one trusts anyone else certainly reflects today’s political climate. The next verse is even more relevant to our culture as it perfectly describes the politicians who have surrounded us for years now: “Falsehood every man speaks to his fellow,/ smooth talk, with two hearts they speak.” (3) If ever we wanted a perfect description of the duplicitous qualities of conventional politicians, it is captured perfectly in the phrase, “smooth talk, with two hearts they speak.” I believe it is the focus-group-tested smooth talk of politicians like Obama and Clinton that people finally tired of and thereby elected a man who for better or worse disdains smooth talk as the empty rhetoric it is.

Using a rather stark image, our psalmist is sure that God will eventually intervene: “The Lord will cut off all smooth-talking lips,/ the tongue that speaks of big things.” (4) Of course the root problem is human pride, as it always is, as our psalmist describes the overweening pride of those who believe they are greater than God: “those who said, ‘Let us make our tongue great,/ our own lips are with us—who is master to us?” (5) Certainly sounds familiar today.

Ultimately, their punishment will arise from an unexpected direction: “From the plunder of the poor, from the wretched men’s groans,/ now I will rise,” says the Lord.” (6) While it is certainly over-interpretation on my part, for me, this verse describes the unexpected direction from which the “wrong person” won the recent presidential election. The smooth-talkers were defeated by the poor rising up and saying they had had enough.

In the next verse the point of view shifts from a culture to an individual who is being oppressed by his “smooth-talking” enemies as God himself speaks, “‘I will set up for rescue a witness for him.‘” (7a) Again, possible over-interpretation, but God certainly sent Jesus to rescue us.

The psalmist’s voice returns with a contrast between the “smooth talkers” and God’s pure speech: “The Lord’s sayings—pure sayings,/ silver tried in a kiln in the earth/ refined sevenfold.” (7b) How much more pure are the words of the Lord than the treacly speeches of smooth-talking politicians if two hearts.

In the end, God will protect those who are oppressed by the smooth talkers: “You, Lord, will guard him,/ will keep him from this age for all time.” (8)

The psalm concludes with a verse that seems completely out of place as it describes the actions of the wicked—”All around go the wicked,/ they have dug deep pits for the sons of men.” It feels like someone accidentally dropped a scroll and this verse wound up being misplaced. It would certainly make more sense following verse 3.

1 Chronicles 16:1–36: The party moves to its concluding stages as “They brought in the ark of God, and set it inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and they offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before God.” (1) David also seems to originated the custom of party bags as “he distributed to every person in Israel—man and woman alike—to each a loaf of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins.” (3)

No chapter in this book would be complete with out a list of names, and here our authors duly record the Levites who are appointed by David to be “ministers before the ark of the Lord, to invoke, to thank, and to praise the Lord, the God of Israel.” (4)

The reminder of the chapter records David’s justly famous psalm of thanksgiving. [One wonders why it did not end up in the book of Psalms.] It would be wonderful to hear the opening verses as a hymn that we could sing ourselves:
O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
    make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him,
    tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.” (8-10)

The body of David’s psalm recounts Israel’s history beginning with Abraham, continuing to the promise to Jacob and the promise of Caanan. Israel once was “wandering from nation to nation,/ from one kingdom to another people,” (20) But God was always watching over them and “he allowed no one to oppress them;/he rebuked kings on their account.” (21)

The words and promises of this psalm are not only for ancient Israel, but also for us here today:
Sing to the Lord, all the earth.
    Tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (23-24)

David concludes on the highest possible note, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,/ from everlasting to everlasting.” (36a) And in response, “all the people said “Amen!” and praised the Lord.” (36b) If we ever needed a model for grateful worship it is right here: we could come into the sanctuary and read this psalm in unison and know that we had truly worshipped God. No sermon, no songs, no hymns, no announcements. Just pure worship.

Acts 13:34–47: Paul continues his sermon by quoting scripture that was doubtless well known to his Jewish audience. And in one of those interesting Moravian parallels between readings, Paul points out that even revered David was a sinner and died like all other men: “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, died, was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption.” (36) By contrast, Paul asserts, “he [Jesus] whom God raised up experienced no corruption.” (37)

Paul is much more the theologian than Peter, and some key theology follows as Paul argues that because Jesus was free of human corruption, he is the agent of God’s forgiveness: “Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.” (38) And therefore, “by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.” (40) This is the very core of the Good News.

Paul concludes by warning his listeners with a quote from the prophet Habakuk that they are not to scoff, but that God has now fulfilled the prophet’s promise with “a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you.’” (41)

This sermon generates a lot of enthusiasm among Paul’s listeners, who invite Barnabas and him back for more next week.  And, “many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.” (42)

However, many other Jews “saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul.” (45) And this is the crucial turning point in Paul’s life—and in the church itself. Inasmuch as the Jews “reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” (46)

Retrospectively, we can see why the Jewish Christian church ultimately died away. The Good News was simply too radical, too contrary to a belief system that had been in place for the 100 years since David. The weight of a culture that refused to accept something new was simply too much to withstand.

Paul, being Paul, makes his point by again quoting scripture. This time Isaiah: “I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles,/so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” Christianity was no longer a Jewish sect; it was now more than ever, Good News for all the world.

Psalm 11; 1 Chronicles 14:8–15:29; Acts 13:20b–33

Psalm 11: Our psalmist is in dialog with his friends, who have advised him to flee his enemies. But he resists, telling them: “How could you say to me,/ ‘Off to the hills like a bird!‘” (1) Nevertheless, the friends remain adamant, pointing out that the psalmist [whom we’ll say is David] is about to be attacked by the conspirators.  “For, look, the wicked bend back the bow,/ they fix to the string their arrow/ to shoot from the gloom at the up right.” (2) In fact, they despair that a righteous man has no option but to flee a world populated by evil men and their wicked deeds: “The foundations destroyed,/ what can a righteous man do?”

Not so, David replies, for he knows that “The Lord is in His holy palace,/ The Lord in the heavens His throne.” (4a) In point of fact, from his position up in heaven God is looking down at every man—good or evil—and judging them. God sees everything; every person and every deed:
His eyes behold,
His look probes the sons of man.
The Lord probes the righteous and  wicked,
and the lover of havoc He utterly hates.” (4b, 5)

Ultimately, God declares justice as the wicked receive their just desserts. Our psalmist chooses an image that instantly recalls the punishing doom experienced by the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah:
He rains fiery coals on the wicked,
sulphur and gale-winds their lot.” (6)

We arrive the moral of the psalm. As usual there is no middle ground. God hates evil and loves righteousness, because God is the source of righteousness and therefore cannot abide evil. Thus, the righteous man enjoys God’s favor:
For righteous the Lord is,
righteous acts He does love.
The upright behold His face.” (7)

The last line wraps up the core theology of this psalm. Only the righteous can see God and receive his favor. Happily for us, when we stray from righteousness, we can confess our sins through Jesus Christ and restore our right relationship with God.

1 Chronicles 14:8–15:29: Our authors continue with the story of David as the warrior king who never failed to ask God for guidance. The Philistines have raided a valley in Israel. rather than just going out and attacking them, “David inquired of God, “Shall I go up against the Philistines? Will you give them into my hand?” ” (14:10a) God answers David: “Go up, and I will give them into your hand.” (14:10b) And David handily defeats the enemy.

The another example of how attentive David was to God’s leading and guidance. There is a subsequent raid by the Philistines. Once again, David inquires of God, God even provides battle strategy: “You shall not go up after them; go around and come on them opposite the balsam trees.” (14:14) Once again, by following God’s explicit orders, David is victorious and “The fame of David went out into all lands, and the Lord brought the fear of him on all nations.” (14:17)

Back in Jerusalem, and now king, David builds his palace and “he prepared a place for the ark of God and pitched a tent for it.” (15:1) He then calls the leaders of Israel together. [And this being 1 Chronicles that never fails to name everyone involved, especially the Levites, the leaders are all duly identified.] David points out that after the unfortunate incident of Uzzah touching the Ark, they must be more careful about how and who deals with the Ark: “Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God burst out against us, because we did not give it proper care.” (15:13) The Levites sanctify themselves and rather than putting the Ark on a wagon, they “carried the ark of God on their shoulders with the poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the Lord.” (15:15) God like it when he is obeyed to the letter of the law.

The act of bringing the Ark into the newly erected tabernacle at Jerusalem is also an occasion of worship, and David “commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their kindred as the singers to play on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise loud sounds of joy.” (15:16) [Once again, this being 1 Chronicles, all the players and participants are named.] A party accompanies the successful delivery of the Ark to the tabernacle in Jerusalem: “So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the Lord with shouting, to the sound of the horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and made loud music on harps and lyres.” (28)

But there is one person who is unhappy as the reading concludes on a dark note: “As the ark of the covenant of the Lord came to the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing; and she despised him in her heart.” (15:29) Proof that as always, no matter how great the rejoicing, discontent and hatred is never far off in the distance.

Acts 13:20b–33: In a sermon not dissimilar to Stephen’s, Paul continues to recount Israel’s history, noting that after the last judge, Samuel, the people asked for a king. That would be Saul, who reigned for 40 years. Then came David, who Peter observes, God said, “‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’” (22) The history lesson ends there as Peter leaps ahead in time to Jesus, stating that out of David’s “posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.” (23) Peter then makes sure that everyone understands that John the Baptist was not—contrary to widespread rumor—the Messiah, but that John made it clear that “one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.’” (25)

Paul then relates that “Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him.” (27) This is crucial: Jesus fulfilled the prophet’s foretelling by virtue of being unrecognized for who he was and for being killed by the authorities of Israel.

He goes on to describe Jesus ‘ resurrection, making it clear that it was not magic, not a resuscitation, nor a mere rumor, but that it was “God [who] raised him from the dead.” (30) Peter concludes by telling his audience that this is indeed “good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (32, 33a) Paul caps off his sermon by quoting Psalm 2 as God being the one who is speaking: “You are my Son;/ today I have begotten you.’” (33b)

We hear a lot about the “good news” but it is when we actually read Paul’s wonderful sermon that we really get it. Yes, there can be no better news than that Jesus died and rose from the dead. A promise to Israel’s ancestors has been fulfilled for the people to whom Paul is speaking—and remains a promise that has been fulfilled for all of us.

Psalm 9:12–21; 1 Chronicles 11:4–47; Acts 12:6–19

Psalm 9:12–21: The latter half of this psalm is a juxtaposition of worship, thanksgiving and supplication, which of course are the elements we should also include in our own prayers. Worship:
Hymn to the Lord Who dwells in Zion,
tell among the peoples his deeds.
For the Requiter of blood recalled them,
He forgot not the cry of the lowly.” (12, 13)

Note that as always, God cares most for the powerless.

Supplication follows:
Grant me grace, O Lord,
see my torment by my foes,
You Who raise me from the gates of death.” (14)

Then thanksgiving:
So that I may tell all Your praise
in the gates of the daughter of Zion.
Let me exult in Your rescue.” (15)

At this point, our psalmist veers off into observations contrasting God’s justice with the fate of the wicked persons and nations, observing correctly, in my opinion, that their downfall is inevitably of their own making:
The nations sank down in the trap that they made,
in the snare that they made their foot was caught.” (16)

and…
By his own handiwork was the wicked ensnared.” (17)

What stands out to me at this point in our own history at this point is the simple phrase, “The wicked will turn back to Sheol,/ all the nations forgetful of God.” (18) Which of course is exactly what is happening in the here and now. As always, the cause of this is overweening pride as individuals and collectively as a nation—all of which will eventually come to God’s negative judgement: “Arise, O Lord, let not man flaunt his strength,/ let nations be judged in Your presence.” (20)

Men and nations fall because we are mortal and flawed. The lesson here is as the psalmist suggests in the last line: it would be good if we remembered our own weaknesses rather than trying to become like God: “O Lord, put fear upon them/ let the nations know they are mortal.” (21)

1 Chronicles 11:4–47: We tend to forget that before David, Jerusalem was held by the Jebusites and not Israel. Our authors recount David’s clever ploy to take the city, offering that “Whoever attacks the Jebusites first shall be chief and commander.” (6) Joab takes David up on the offer and becomes chief of the army. David moves into the stronghold of the city and builds its wall. As our authors do so often, they point out that David’s success arises for exactly one reason: “David became greater and greater, for the Lord of hosts was with him.” (9)

David’s chiefs also get their historical due as the authors title the next section, “This is an account of David’s mighty warriors:” (11) The highlight the exploits of Jashobeam, who kills 300 men at one time; and Eleazar (son of—wait for it—Dodo), who with David saves a plot of barley from the pillaging Philistines.

Other adventures are recounted as well, including the reconquest of Bethlehem, whose well water the warriors bring to David, doubtless remembering that it was his home town. “But David would not drink of it; he poured it out to the Lord, and said, “My God forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of these men?” (18, 19) David never forgat the sacrifices that his men had made.

Other exploits are followed, as we might expect in this book, by a lengthy list of names of the warriors. (26-47) Once again, the names are crucial for this is how these men have been remembered down through the generations. The names also remind us that Israel’s history is not myth but that these were real people who acted in real history.

The act of naming—from Adam’s orginal duty in the Garden down to this book—is a central organizational principle in the Bible. That’s why God knows us by name. We are each unique individuals occurring only once in all of history.

Acts 12:6–19: IN one of the most famous events in the book of Acts, Peter languishes in prison, doubtless awaiting his execution. But, “Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists.”  (7) The angel tells Peter to get dressed and to follow him out of the prison. Peter, rather understandably, thinks this is all a dream and “did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real.” (9) Only when the doors open of their own accord and Peter is standing outside in the night air after the angel vanishes does he realize “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (11)

Peter hastily goes to Mary’s house, knocks on the gate, and “a maid named Rhoda came to answer” (13) Rhoda recognizes Peter but is so overjoyed that she neglects to admit him and “ran in and announced that Peter was standing at the gate.” (14) Needless to say, everyone is pretty skeptical about Rhoda’s announcement. In an almost comical scene, Peter keeps knocking until someone else finally comes and opens the gate and in the excitement of seeing Peter, things become quite loud. He motions with his hand for silence and relates the story of what happened. Telling them to get word to James, Peter departs for “another place“—doubtless a smart move since the authorities would probably look for him at Mary’s house.

This lovely story has a serious downside: the guards who were with Peter pay for the angelic intervention and Peter’s escape with their lives. This certainly demonstrates Herod’s innate cruelty, but it also reminds us that when God intervenes there is not necessarily a happy ending for everyone. We may wonder why the angel didn’t help the guards escape. But I suggest that if that had happened, Peter’s release would have become even more mythic and unbelievable. For me, the death of the guards substantiates the event’s historicity.

Psalm 9:1–11; 1 Chronicles 9:35–11:3; Acts 11:25–12:5

Psalm 9:1–11: This thanksgiving psalm begins with an excellent description of the aspects of worship: “I acclaim the Lord with all my heart,
let me tell of all His wonders.
Let me rejoice and be glad in You,
let me hymn Your name, Most High.” (2,3)

Worship consumes our entire being—all our hearts. It is not something we do while thinking about other things. Worship is testimony as we tell of “all His wonders,” both of our personal feelings as well as the glories of God’s creation. Worship is suffused in joy, and above all, it is focused solely on God, and for us Christians, always on Jesus in both singing and speech.

The reason for the psalmist’s joy is that God has brought justice: “For You upheld my justice, my right,/ You sat on the throne of the righteous judge.” (5) The backstory appears to be that there has been a tremendous victory by Israel over its enemies: “You rebuked the nations, destroyed the wicked,/ their name You wiped out forever.” (6) As is always the case in the OT, it is always about names. Without a name there is no reality, no existence. Thus, the defeated nations, having lost their name, are as if they never were: “The enemy—ruins that are gone for all time,/ and towns you smashed, their name is lost.” (7)

By contrast, God, who is beyond time, is the source of all justice: “But the Lord is forever enthroned,/ makes His throne for justice unshaken.” (9) Moreover, God is not just a local God for Israel; God reigns over all humankind and judges everyone—a theme we see again in Revelation: “And He judges the the world in righteousness,/ lays down law to the nations in truth.” (9)

There is nothing capricious about God, who can judge only in righteousness and truth. We hear often today that we are living in a “post-truth” era, at least as far as politics is concerned. We cannot over-estimate the doleful trajectory of a culture that does not center itself as God does: on truth and righteousness.

As always, God is the protector of the discouraged and powerless: “Let the Lord be a fortress for the downcast,/ a fortress in times of distress.” (10) And because God never abandons us we return God’s faithfulness with our trust. God knows our names and we know his: “And those who know Your name will trust You,/ for You forsook not Your seekers, O Lord.” (11) God of course is the “name above all names.”

1 Chronicles 9:35–11:3: This epic 9-chapter genealogy finally concludes with the family of Jeiel that comes to Saul about eight generations later. Then we read of Saul’s descendants on down to a succeeding eight generations, which probably brought it up to the present day as the authors were writing. So Saul may have been a weak paranoid leader who drifted away from God at the end of his reign, but there’s no question he was still honored in Israel as its first king.

At chapter 10 we finally come to history, which opens at the final battle where Saul is defeated and asks his reluctant armor-bearer to “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and make sport of me.” (10:4) The armor-bearer refuses and Saul famously falls on his own sword.

The authors record how the Philistines took Saul’s body, stripped it, decapitated him, and “put his armor in the temple of their gods, and fastened his head in the temple of Dagon.” (10:10) Upon hearing of this outrage, “all the valiant warriors got up and took away the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons, and brought them to Jabesh.” (12)

Our authors editorialize, observing that “Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord.” (10:13) Even more egregiouly, Saul “had consulted a medium, seeking guidance, and did not seek guidance from the Lord.” (10:13, 14) They conclude Saul’s story by asserting, “Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse.” (10:14) In short, it was God’s action that placed David on Israel’s throne. The question of course is, does God act in a similar fashion today? Personally, I doubt he would have chosen any of the politicians that we seem to be stuck with for the last 50 years.

David is eagerly accepted by the populace of Israel, who tell him that even though Saul was king it was pretty much in name only because “it was you [David] who commanded the army of Israel,” (11:2) i.e., David was at the center of power. Israel itself recognizes that God chose David and “David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord.” (11:3a) Accordingly, David is anointed “king over Israel, according to the word of the Lord by Samuel.” (11:3b). As is the question at the beginning of every kingly accession, will David keep his promise to Israel and to God?

Acts 11:25–12:5: While on his road trip to Antioch, Barnabas heads over to Tarsus and retrieves Saul. It’s clear by the timing that Barnabas believes that Saul is the perfect guy to preach to the Gentiles—and it will keep him away from Jerusalem where he caused so much dissension.

Luke notes that “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.” (11:26) A name that has certainly stuck…

A Jewish prophet named Agabus arrives in Antioch and “predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world.” (11:27a) Luke attests to the famine’s historic actuality when he tells us that “this took place during the reign of Claudius.” (11:27b) The Antioch believers send aid down to Judea via Barnabas and Saul—a great sign of Gentiles aiding Jews because they were all one in Jesus.

After enjoying substantial growth the church now enters a time of persecution. King Herod, obviously fearing that his power base would be undermined by these Christians, “had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword.” (12:2) This proved to be popular with the Jews and the king then arrests Peter. Rather than killing him outright, Herod plans to make a public example of Peter following Passover, so he places Peter in prison. What’s significant here is that “While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.” (12:5)

I think it’s important for us American Christians to remember that the church has been persecuted by the political authorities since its earliest years. That why trying to claim America is a “Christian nation” or is somehow “blessed by God” is such a stupid act. These folks are just playing into the hands of modern day Herods, who see themselves as the all-knowing elites and will always cast Christianity as superstitious intolerance. We need to recognize that Christians are always resident aliens and never part of the power structure. We must look to Jesus, not temporal power.

Psalm 8; 1 Chronicles 9:1–34; Acts 11:11–24

Psalm 8: This famous psalm celebrates God’s name as it is expressed in humans, babies, the heavens. More importantly, it clearly lays out the hierarchy of God as Creator and master of heaven and earth over against humans as God’s created ones or creatures:
Lord, our Master,
how majestic is Your name in all the earth!
Whose splendor was told over the heavens.” (2)

While the next verse opens with a phrase that has become a well-known saying, it’s actual meaning is rather less clear: “From the mouth of babes and sucklings/ You founded strength.” (3a) My take is that a suckling child grows up to become a strong man.

We focus on the God/human hierarchy at the justly famous verse as our psalmist compares the glories of the heavens that God has flung into place as over against we humans who seemingly are but small blips in God’s vast creation:
When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars You fixed firm,
‘What is man that You should note him,
and the human creature, that You pay him heed.” (4b, 5a)

In starker terms we ask, why does God care about us, we small beings in a vast universe? On the other hand, while God has made us “a little less than the [small-g] gods” (6a) we have nevertheless received God’s highest accolade as he has crowned us “with glory and grandeur.” (6b)

In point of fact, God has positioned humankind over the remainder of his creation: “You make him rule over the work of Your hands./ All things You set under his feet.” (7) Humans are the rulers over all living creatures:
Sheep and oxen all together,
and also the beasts of the field,
birds of the heavens and fish of the seas.” (8,9)

We sit atop natural creation because we have been created imago Deo. But with this exalted position comes great responsibility—a responsibility we have too often failed to live up to as we have harmed God’s natural creation in awful ways down through the centuries. One hopes that we are becoming increasingly aware of that responsibility for being stewards over the earth rather than exploiters.

The psalm ends as it began, with a glorious chorus: “Lord, our Master,/ how majestic Your name in all the earth.” (10) A great line for a hymn…

1 Chronicles 9:1–34: Our authors have brought we now-exhausted readers/ listeners to their present day, where they observe correctly that “Judah was taken into exile in Babylon because of their unfaithfulness.” (1) The lists of names that follow are “the first to live again in their possessions in their towns [who] were Israelites, priests, Levites, and temple servants.” (2)

We then move to yet another list; this time the post-exilic inhabitants who returned to Israel, beginning with 956 “heads of families according to their ancestral houses.” (9) Our accountants continue relentlessly, stating that 1760 priestly families, “qualified for the work of the service of the house of God” (13) have also returned.

Then come the Levitical families, beginning with the 212 gatekeepers “stationed previously in the king’s gate on the east side.” (18) We are reminded that “the Korahites, were in charge of the work of the service, …as their ancestors had been in charge of the camp [tabernacle] of the Lord, guardians of the entrance.” (19) Then come the Levitical families, who  had to take daily inventory as they “had charge of the utensils of service, for they were required to count them when they were brought in and taken out.” (28) Division of labor is by no means a new concept. There are Levites “appointed over the furniture, and over all the holy utensils, also over the choice flour, the wine, the oil, the incense, and the spices.” (29) Not to be confused with those assigned to mix the spices (30) and others in “charge of the rows of bread, to prepare them for each sabbath.” (32)

Nor are musicians forgotten, who as it turns out, are on call for worship 24/7: “these are the singers, the heads of ancestral houses of the Levites, living in the chambers of the temple free from other service, for they were on duty day and night.” (33)

What strikes me here is how there is nothing random about how the Judeans returned to Jerusalem from exile. Brilliant organization is key here. Everyone has an assigned job. And all the jobs, regardless of what they entailed, were important enough to be recorded.

For me, this means that everyone in a church must have a role to play. Having professionalized many of its duties with staff, too many churches today have made many people mere audience members, mere observers. Without a clear sense of purpose of how they contribute to the life of the church it is little wonder that people eventually drift away from the church.

Acts 11:11–24: Peter continues to explain the justification for his visit to Caesarea and the house of Cornelius. He makes it clear that it was at the behest of the Holy Spirit, not something he just thought up: “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” (12) He underscores the role of the Holy Spirit, telling the Jerusalem disciples, “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning.” (15) He concludes by observing that if this is what God wants, so be it: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (17)

The Jerusalem disciples accept Peter’s explanation and “they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (18). This is a real example to us: the disciples were willing to accept that the Holy Spirit did something completely unexpected by inviting Gentiles into the “repentance that leads to life.” What a contrast to those of us who remain skeptical about the working of the Holy Spirit, especially when something happens that does not conform to our own agenda about how the Holy Spirit should be operating.

Our author, Luke, shifts his narrative gaze to how even more Gentiles beyond Cornelius and his family came into the church. Stephen’s death was the beginning of persecution that resulted in many Jerusalem Jews, who believed in Jesus, being scattered “as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, [where] they spoke the word to no one except Jews.” (19) But then, “among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.” (20) Many Gentiles [Hellenists] were converted at Antioch. Word of these Gentile conversions trickled back to Jerusalem, whereupon they sent Barnabas to check things out. In Antioch, Barnabas sees that God has clearly included Gentiles as equal members of the church. Barnabas exhorts the Gentiles to “remain faithful with steadfast devotion.” (23) In an aside, Luke compliments Barnabas here: “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith,” (24a) and we presume he brought the good news back to Jerusalem that in Antioch, “a great many people were brought to the Lord” (24b) .

Again, the question for us is would we be as happy as Barnabas and the Jewish church at how God worked so unexpectedly through the Holy Spirit doing something so culturally alien to our entire experience?

Psalm 7:11–18; 1 Chronicles 8; Acts 10:44–11:10

Psalm 7:11–18: The deuteronomic world described in this psalm is black and white, good and evil. Our psalmist, convinced that God will “exact justice for the righteous,” (12a) is sure that God “utters doom [to the wicked] each day.” (12b)  He then goes on to describe the fairly horrific consequences that will befall the unrepentant man, describing God’s punishment in a stark metaphor of military weaponry: “If a man repent not, [God] sharpens His sword,/ He pulls back the bow and aims it.” (13) Moreover, God is at the ready to execute capital punishment on the wicked form which there is no escape: “And for him [the wicked man], [God] readies the tools of death,/ lets fly his arrows at the fleers.” (14) This imagery is about as far as one can get from the sweet images of a loving “Abba” God. Nevertheless, it’s worth remembering that vengeance is indeed God’s.

The metaphor shifts from God as warrior to describing how evil grows can grow from simple sin using the metaphor of a pregnant woman whose baby is growing in the womb: “Look, one spawns wrongdoing,/ grows big with mischief,/ gives birth to lies.” (15) That’s how it happens, isn’t it? We start out with a simple prevarication and are able to get away with it. Too often, one thing leads to another and criminal activity is the result.

But our evil actions have their consequences. As the saying goes, the wicked are inevitably hoisted on our own petard:
A pit he [the wicked man] delved, and dug it,
and he fell in the trap he made.
His mischief comes down on his head,
on his skull his outrage descends.” (16, 17)

Seeing the wicked get their just desserts is always satisfying. However, I’m not as optimistic as the psalmist that the wicked will become mired in their own conspiracies. Especially those in places of power. Nevertheless, this psalm reminds us that there is a better way to live: as a righteous human being following God. And that’s how the psalm ends: not in the pit of wickedness, but on the peak of righteousness, assured that in the end, God’s justice will prevail: “I acclaim the Lord for His righteousness,/ let me hymn the Lord’s name, Most High.” (18) God is indeed the Most High. And when we focus above rather than below we avoid the mire of wickedness and God’s just punishment of the consequences of doing evil.

1 Chronicles 8: This chapter seems to have been written by a different author who apparently objected to the short shrift given to the descendants of Benjamin back in chapter 7.  Every son, grandson great grandson, etc. appears to be mentioned in this genealogy. The various descendants become head of “ancestral houses” (13, 28) and we can see how the population grew apace.

The one noteworthy descendant is Saul, Israel’s first king: “Ner became the father of Kish, Kish of Saul, Saul of Jonathan, Malchishua, Abinadab, and Esh-baal.” (33) And then, other men that we met back in 1 Samuel: “the son of Jonathan was Merib-baal; and Merib-baal became the father of Micah.” (34) I wonder if this is the same Micah of the eponymous book in the Minor Prophets?

Apparently, the contemporaries of our author, who was certainly a Benjaminite himself, are the sons of a certain Ulam. They receive serious acclamation at the very end of the chapter: “The sons of Ulam were mighty warriors, archers, having many children and grandchildren, one hundred fifty. All these were Benjaminites.” (40) The thrust is (1) it’s good for a many to have many children and grandchildren and (2) it’s good if the sons and grandsons are “mighty warriors.”

Acts 10:44–11:10: The Gentiles listening to the Holy Spirit and this is the official place where Gentiles become part of the Church. Needless to say, “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” (10:45) The proof of the gift of the Holy Spirit is that the Gentiles were “speaking in tongues and extolling God.” (10:46) In short, it’s a mini-Pentecost for the Gentiles. Given that the Holy Spirit had arrived, Peter gives orders for “them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (48) What’s fascinating to me is that it is Peter and not Saul—soon to become Paul—who brings the message of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles. We shall see Peter’s struggles with this later in Acts.

Peter arrives back at Jerusalem and is immediately criticized by the other apostles and disciples for consorting with Gentiles: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” (11:3) Peter patiently explains his trance/dream at Joppa, emphasizing that he resisted mightily, telling God,”By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” (11:8) and that this happened two more times before “everything was pulled up again to heaven.” (11:10)

This of course is just the beginning of the long-standing conflict between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. I wonder if the Jewish followers worried that the Gentiles would shortly become the dominant force within the church and that Paul’s exhortations—”there is neither Jew nor Greek”—notwithstanding that the church would eventually become completely Gentile. That the Jewish side eventually died out is certainly one of the great tragedies of the early church. Think of how different history might have been if the Church remained equally Jewish and Gentile.

Psalm 7:1–10; 1 Chronicles 7; Acts 10:34–43

Psalm 7:1–10: Our psalmist, whom we’ll presume to be David, comes right to the point in this psalm of supplication with a fairly breathless undertone suggesting he is on the run: “Lord, my God, in You I sheltered./ Rescue me from all my pursuers and save me.” (2) That the situation is beyond desperate becomes clear in the violent simile that follows: “Lest like a lion they tear up my life—/rend me, with no one to save me.” (3)

David underscores his innocence by daring God to allow the enemies to capture and kill him:
If I paid back my ally with evil,
if I oppressed my foes without reason—
may the enemy pursue and overtake me
and trample to earth my life
and make my glory dwell in the dust.” (5, 6)

But since he believes himself to be truly innocent he assumes God is angry with his enemies and he asks God to execute vengeance (remembering always that vengeance is God’s alone): “Rise up, O Lord, in Your anger,/ Loom high against the wrath of my enemies.” (7a) The underlying assumption about God is that God’s demand for justice is even greater than David’s because injustice has upset the order of creation: “Rouse for me the the justice You ordained.” (7b)

As if it were a camera pulling back from this single desperate man, the poem expands its viewpoint to reveal the multitude of people, ultimately comprising entire nations, all of which God judges: “A band of nations surrounds You,/ and above it to the heights return./ The Lord will judge peoples.” (8, 9a)

David tells God that in his innocence he deserves justice: “Grant me justice, Lord, as befits my righteousness/ and as befits my innocence that is in me.” (9b) Our poet’s logic is inexorable: since he is innocent and since God demands justice, God will bring justice because in the end, the wicked be consumed by their own wicked deeds while the righteous prevail: “May evil put an end to the wicked;/ and make the righteous stay unshaken.” (10a) That’s because God knows the heart and motivations of every human: “He searches hearts and conscience,/ God is righteous.” (10b)

In these times where evil seems to be on every corner we too can find hope that God will ultimately set things right.

1 Chronicles 7: This chapter covers the genealogies of the tribal descendants of Issachar, Benjamin, Naphtali, Manasseh, Ephraim, and Asher. Of this group the authors clearly prefer the tribes of Issachar and Benjamin, noting the number of “mighty warriors” each tribe offered: “Their kindred belonging to all the families of Issachar were in all eighty-seven thousand mighty warriors, enrolled by genealogy.” (5) and the descendants of Benjamin: “mighty warriors, seventeen thousand two hundred, ready for service in war.” (11)—(of which we will read more in the next chapter). Asher gets a bit of credit as well: “Their number enrolled by genealogies, for service in war, was twenty-six thousand men.” (40)

Clearly, Naphtali was a non-entity as far as our authors are concerned, being basically written off in a single verse: “The descendants of Naphtali: Jahziel, Guni, Jezer, and Shallum, the descendants of Bilhah.” (13) Beginning and end of story. (Or had they lost the geneaological records of Naphtali and this all the data they had?

As for Manasseh and Ephram, they are almost as inconsequential as Naphtali with no mention anywhere of “mighty warriors.” Instead, we hear only of defeat: “Now the people of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle.” (21)  About all the authors have to say about them beyond  the naming of names is to note the towns they where they lived.

Acts 10:34–43: In this crucial passage which is a foundational charter of the Christian church Peter speaks to the Gentiles, admitting that God is not for the Jews alone, but for all humankind: I truly understand that God shows no partiality,  but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (35) To emphasize his point, he says that although Jesus was sent to the people of Israel, Jesus’ message of peace is for everyone because “he is Lord of all” (36).

As always, Peter’s sermon reviews what Jesus did, making sure that everyone understands that it was the power of the Holy Spirit—that same power the apostles now have—that was the engine of Jesus’ ministry: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (38) Notice also that Peter underscores the primary theme of the Hebrew Scriptures: that God means to bring justice to the poor and oppressed—the so-called “social gospel,” too often demoted by evangelicals over-eager to save people’s souls.

Peter reviews the core of the Good News: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear.” (39b, 40) But it’s worth pausing and noting the apostolic exclusivity here: “not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (41) This is the operating definition of “apostle” and why I believe only this group could perform healing miracles through the power of the Holy Spirit because they had eaten and drunk with the risen Jesus. Even though Paul experienced a theophany on the road to Damascus, he was not blessed with healing power. Just as the rest of us down through the centuries have not been so blessed.

Peter wraps up his sermon with the Great Commission—”He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. (42)—and repeats that every person “who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (43) At this point there is no ambiguity whatsoever: the saving power of Jesus Christ is for everyone—a theme Paul picks up again and again in his epistles.

Psalm 5; 1 Chronicles 5:23–6:30; Acts 10:9–23a

Psalm 5: This psalm of supplication has a greater sense of urgency than the preceding one as it seems almost to instruct God: “Listen well to my voice crying out, my king and my God,/ for to You I pray.” (3) As always, there is the bifurcation between the righteous supplicant and the wicked men who surround him. Unlike the small-g gods, God cannot abide intentional wrongdoing: “For not a god desiring wickedness are You,/ no evil will sojourn by You.” (5) In fact, our psalmist is somewhat presumptuous about what God will and will not tolerate: “The debauched take no stand in Your eyes,/ You hate all the wrongdoers.” (6)

The fallout of God’s hatred of wickedness and prevarication is pretty intense: “You destroy pronouncers of lies/ a man of blood and deceit the Lord loathes.” (7) Whereas by contrast, “As for me—through Your great kindness I enter Your house.” (8a) and he asks God, “Guide me, O Lord, in Your righteousness.” (9a)

We then encounter one of the more severe descriptions of the kind of enemies plotting against David. Interestingly, their primary weapon is speech—not unlike present day politics: “For there is nothing right in their mouths,/ within them—falsehood.” (10a) Then comes a brilliant metaphor that beautifully describes the deceit of too many politicians today: “An open grave their throat,/ their tongue, smooth-talking.” (10b)

Our psalmist asks but one thing: “Condemn them, O God.” (11a) But he is not asking that they be done in by the sword, but by their own conspiratorial words and of course the greatest sin of all, which is rebelling against God: “Let them fall by their counsels for their many sins./ Cast them off, for they have rebelled against You.” (11b)

As usual, the psalm ends with the great contrast between the wicked who have ultimately fallen and those, who like the psalmist, are righteous men worshipping God:”Let all who shelter in You rejoice,/ let them sing gladly forever—protect them!” (12) It is those who are righteous and follow God that are blessed because God reserves his favors for them: “For You bless the just man, O Lord. (13)

Once again, there are no gray areas about our behavior; no gray ambiguity to hide behind: we either follow God and his righteousness or we don’t And if we don’t, our grim fate is clearly defined.

1 Chronicles 5:23–6:30: The half-tribe of Manasseh goes next as our authors note that “they were very numerous from Bashan to Baal-hermon, Senir, and Mount Hermon.” (5:23)  They have multiplied with fecundity, but their multitude of sins led to the the tribe being carried away along with the Reubenites and the Gadites by the Assyrians for one simple reason: “They transgressed against the God of their ancestors, and prostituted themselves to the gods of the peoples of the land.” (25)

The genealogy of the priestly clan, the Levites, is laid out in extensive detail. Our authors avoid any editorial comments about the Levite’s behavior other than to note that they “went into exile when the Lord sent Judah and Jerusalem into exile by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar.” (6:15) We assume that as the scholars of  Judea, it was the Levites themselves writing this genealogy and therefore they avoided any self-deprecating remarks.

Acts 10:9–23a: Peter has his famous picnic vision while his meal was being prepared in the journey down to Cornelius. He sees a collection of Gentile—and therefore unclean—food together with the command, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” (13) As an observant Jew, Peter naturally refuses, so God in the vision is forced to clarify, turning centuries of Jewish practice on its head: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (15) After a third instruction, which our author does not describe, Peter emerges from his trance deeply confused (and doubtless conflicted).

Just then, “while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared.” (17) He hears them ask for him and this time the Holy Spirit takes over: “While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you.” (19). Unlike the vision, there is no ambiguity from the Holy Spirit as it instructs Peter quite clearly, “Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” (20)

The next day Peter sets out from Joppa to make the famous visit where Gentiles officially become part of the church.

This story is told in such detail because the full participation of Gentiles in the early church was certainly a fraught matter because of rather clear Jewish law. It is also a dramatic statement that Peter, upon whom the church was founded, is the one who is called to go meet the Gentile centurial. These are the bona fides that the early church needed to “go into all the world.” Since it’s the primary apostle that goes to sup with the Gentiles, there’s no ambiguity about including Gentiles in the church going forward.

 

Psalm 4; 1 Chronicles 5:1–22; Acts 9:36–10:8

Psalm 4: We know straight off this “David psalm” is a psalm of supplication:
When I call out, answer me, my righteous God.
In the straits You set me free.
Have mercy upon me and hear my prayer.” (2)

As usual, there is a clear bifurcation between wickedness and righteousness. Clearly, David’s enemies are in the former camp: “You love vain things and seek out lies.” (3b) As compared to David’s own position, “But know that the Lord set apart His faithful.” (4a) We are either with God or against him; we are either righteous or not. There is no ambiguous middle ground.

Our psalmist is assured that “The Lord will hear when I call to Him.” (4b) Although we are to fear God and approach him in due reverence—”Quake, and do not offend” (5a)—God is nonetheless approachable and our prayers can be spoken in peaceful assurance: “Speak in your hearts on your beds, and be still.” (5b)

Our relationship with God extends beyond prayer: “Offer righteous sacrifices/ and trust in the Lord.” (6) When doubters, who lack this trust, ask, “Who will show us good things?” (7a) God will respond to the call: “Lift up the light of Your face to us, Lord” (7b) Best of all, David says, “You put joy in my heart.” (8a) Moreover, the joy of God brings inner peace and restoration: “In peace, all whole, let me lie down and sleep./ For You, Lord, alone, do set me down safely.” (9)

Indeed, God cares for us. This psalm reminds us that while we must approach God in reverence and obedience, he is the one who will ultimately bring inner peace. Something to remember in these fraught times.

1 Chronicles 5:1–22: Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, comes next in the genealogies. However, our authors are quick to point out parenthetically that “He was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright.” (1) I’m struck that someone named their son “Baal.” (5) The authors seem to skip multiple generations leaping from Reuben across the centuries to the very end of the Northern Kingdom: “Beerah his son, whom King Tilgath-pilneser of Assyria carried away into exile.” (6)

Gad’s genealogy follows. This is one of the tribes that remained on the far side of the Jordan when Israel arrived at Canaan: “they lived in Gilead, in Bashan and in its towns, and in all the pasture lands of Sharon to their limits.” (16) Apparently there was some kind of census along the way: “All of these were enrolled by genealogies in the days of King Jotham of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam of Israel.” (17)

Along with the Reubenites and the half-tribe of Manasseh, the Gadites are commended because they “had valiant warriors, who carried shield and sword, and drew the bow, expert in war, forty-four thousand seven hundred sixty, ready for service.” (18) Even better, when at war, “they cried to God in the battle, and he granted their entreaty because they trusted in him.” (20) As a result of this trust in battle against the Hagrites, they “captured their livestock: fifty thousand of their camels, two hundred fifty thousand sheep, two thousand donkeys, and one hundred thousand captives.” (21) Even in this tedious genealogy we find gems and commendation of those ancestors who, like today’s psalmist, put their trust in God.

Acts 9:36–10:8: In this story of Dorcas (aka Tabitha) we finally learn that women are a key part of the early church. The disciples at Joppa, hearing that Peter is nearby, send for him. Dorcas has apparently died and when Peter “arrived, they took him to the room upstairs” where the body was laid out. Weeping widows show Peter “tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” (9:39) Peter shoos everyone outside and says, “Tabitha, get up.” (40) which she promptly does. This resuscitation “became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” (9:42) While our author is fairly oblique here, I’m pretty sure that unlike Jesus, Peter did not bring anyone back to life, but rather revived a comatose woman.

The scene shifts to a certain Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian Cohort,” who, although a Gentile, “was a devout man who feared God with all his household [and] he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” (10:2). Cornelius has a vision for which our author rather puzzlingly records the time of day: 3 p.m.  This is approximately the same hour Jesus died on the cross. Is there some kind of symbolic connection here?

Anyway, he “saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” (3) If we needed proof that angelic visitations can be frightening events, we have it right here: “He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” (4a) After all, Cornelius is a battle-hardened centurion who has seen many sights. The angel he saw was certainly not the romantic guy with wings that we depict, but to Cornelius’ credit he recognizes his vision as coming form God.

The angel informs Cornelius that “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.” (4b) and instructs Cornelius to send “two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him,” (7) to Joppa and to bring Peter to him. At this point, Cornelius would have had little idea who this Simon fellow was or why he was supposed to have the apostle come to him. Cornelius acts on faith.  I wonder what my own reaction would have been.

Psalm 3; 1 Chronicles 4:24–43; Acts 9:23–35

Psalm 3: Our psalmist ascribes this psalm to David “when he fled from Absalom his son.” (1) Alter points out that the Hebrew is ambiguous and while it implies David is the author it also implies that it might refer to another author, who is writing “in the manner of David.” My own view is that most of these “David psalms” were probably written by others, but it seems pointless to argue. David it is.

This is the first psalm of supplication and the situation is desperate. David is beset on all sides: “Lord, how many are my foes,/ many, who rise up against me.” (2) While others may think that there is “No rescue for him through God,” (3) David’s faith remains strong: “And You, Lord, a shield are for me,/ my glory, Who lifts up my head.” (4) The question for us of course is, would we still have faith in God when so many things have gone wrong, even to the point of others saying, ‘God won’t rescue him?’

But David’s faith is strong and “With my voice I cry out to the Lord,/ and He answers me from His holy mountain.” (5) Knowing that God’s rescue is imminent, he has sufficient inner peace that “I lie down and I sleep./ I awake, for the Lord has sustained me.” (6) Fear has been banished even though his surrounded and outnumbered: “I fear not from myriads of troops/ that round about set against me.” (7)

There is one final cry of confidence that God will intervene—and intervene violently:
Rise, Lord! Rescue me, my God,
for You strike all my foes on the cheek,
the teeth of the wicked You smash.” (8)

But it’s crucial to note that David leaves the dirty work to God; he does not pray for strength to do the striking and smashing himself. As with vengeance, violence belongs to God.

The psalm concludes with a restatement that “Rescue is the Lord’s!” (9a) And that those who follow God faithfully are indeed blessed: “On Your people Your blessing.” (9b) This psalm is a marvelous statement of strongly grounded faith that is put to the test. Here, David’s faith remains invincible. Would mine?

1 Chronicles 4:24–43: Apparently we are going to slog through the genealogies of all twelve of Jacob’s sons. Next up: Simeon, who apparently had seven sons. Simeon’s grandson, “Shimei had sixteen sons and six daughters; but his brothers did not have many children, nor did all their family multiply like the Judeans.” (27) Their towns seem to fade from the map after David becomes king.

Ultimately, though, the descendants of Simeon take up agriculture and work peacefully in Gedor, “where they found rich, good pasture, and the land was very broad, quiet, and peaceful; for the former inhabitants there belonged to Ham.” (40) The Simeonites repulse the ‘sons of Ham’—Amalekites— during the reign of King Hezekiah and take up residence in Mount Seir. Good to know, I suppose…

Acts 9:23–35: The converted Saul is now preaching Christ as aggressively and with the same passion he once devoted to capturing Christians. His enthusiasm and doubtless strong argumentation leads to a plot by the Jewish leaders in Damascus to kill him should he appear at the city gates. Saul’s followers cleverly “took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” (25)

Saul heads back to Jerusalem where he attempts to join the other disciples, who are understandably not convinced Saul has been converted, thinking rather it was a clever plot by Saul to capture them. But Barnabas stands up for Saul and “described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.” (27) They accept that Saul is now truly one of them.

There’s nothing like a newly-converted Christian to preach enthusiastically, and Saul is apparently the exemplar. In Jerusalem he manages to offend the Hellenists with whom “he spoke and argued” to the point that they want to kill him. Recognizing that Saul is doing the Jerusalem church no particular good, the other apostles hustle him off to Caesarea and put him on a boat back to his hometown of Tarsus.

Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.” (31a) because they were “living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (31b)

The clear message here is that it is the Holy Spirit, not aggressive or enthusiastic preaching, that builds up the church. Paul’s aggressive arguments—and as we will read in his letters, they were both creative and theologically sound—manages only to offend rather than convert. The other clear message is that Saul—soon to become Paul—has lawyeresque skills that are going to be used by God that are far beyond noisy debates in Damascus or Jerusalem.

The scene shifts to Peter, who heals a certain Aeneas with the happy result that “all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.” (35) At this point in the life of the early church, acts of healing by the apostles appears to be primary driver of growth. But I suspect the time remaining for this form of conversion is limited.