Archives for January 2019

Psalm 10:12–18; 1 Chronicles 13:1–14:7; Acts 13:8–20a

Originally published 1/15/2015. Revised and updated 1/15/2019.

Psalm 10:12–18: Our psalmist turns to a prayer of supplication, asking God to remember the weak when it seems the wicked have all the power even though they have rejected God—a rejection that God is well aware of:
Rise, O LORD, raise Your hand, 
forget not the lowly.
Why has the wicked despised God,
has said in his heart, ‘You shall not seek out.’
For You have seen mischief

and have looked on vexation.(12, 13, 14a)

The reason God should remember the lowly is simple: the poor and the weak have nowhere else to turn as they are oppressed by the wicked who so openly despise God:
The wretched leaves his fate in Your hands.
It is You Who help the orphan. (14b)

Like many of these prayers, the psalmist reminds God—and reminds us—of what God can and will indeed at some point do:
Break the arm of the wicked,
and seek out evil, let wickedness not be found.
The Lord is King for all time,
nations are lost from His land. (15, 16)

But we must always remember that there is no doubt in the mind and heart of the psalmist that God would ever fail to accomplish these acts as he turns confidently to the assurance that God is truly listening to the prayers of the poor:
The desire of the poor You have heard, O LORD,
You make their heart firm, Your ear listens. (17)

And having listened, we are convinced that God will act:
To do justice for the orphan and the wretched, 
and let none still oppress man in the land. (18)

The question for me is, can I pray with the same remarkable assurance of the psalmist when I see injustice and oppression around me? Regardless, the lesson of this psalm is clear: pray confidently!

1 Chronicles 13:1–14:7: David has consolidated his power and he decides it’s time to bring the Ark up to Jerusalem. Apparently it has been sitting somewhere else, ignored, during the reign of Saul. Wise leader that he is, David consults “the commanders of the thousands and of the hundreds, with every leader.” (1) and asks if it’s a good idea. Happily, “it pleased all the people.” (4) Once again, we have an example of the leader, who by consulting with those he leads, finds this is an excellent way to gain agreement and along the way, to infuse them with the same enthusiasm for the project that the leader feels.

So, they build a new ox-cart and bring the Ark up to Jerusalem. This is a cause of great celebration, as “David and all Israel were dancing before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.” (8) But just as the ark cart reaches the threshing floor of Chidon, the oxen stumble. Afraid that the ark will fall off the cart, one of the drivers, Uzzah, reaches out to steady it. Not being a priest, he has broken the law and is immediately struck dead. David is outraged by this act of unfairness. After all, poor Uzzah was trying to do the right thing. Where’s the fairness in that?

David is angry at God (11) and then afraid of God (12), so he abandons his plan to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, leaving it the care of Obed-edom, whose household God blesses.

So, what gives with God? I’m on David’s side here. Yes, God’s law is to be followed, but this is the merciless OT side of God that like David, we are both angry at and afraid of. I’m pretty sure David didn’t go home and write a psalm praising God that night. If nothing else, though, we learn that like David, we can be people of God, but can still get angry at God for his seeming indifference—or worse, his seeming capriciousness, and yes, his seeming cruelty—to people who are only trying to do the right thing. But at this point in ISrael’s relationship with God, the Law was immutable and stern.

In any event, David settles down in Jerusalem and “took more wives in Jerusalem, and David became the father of more sons and daughters.” (14:3)

Acts 13:8–20a: Saul, now also called Paul, begins his first missionary journey. And immediately encounters Elymas the magician, trying to influence the proconsul with his magic. Luke makes it clear here that Paul is no magician whose magic trumps the other magician. Instead, Paul “filled with the Holy Spirit” (9) simply stares at Elymas and denouncing him, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?” (10) Whereupon Elymas goes blind.  Luke is making it clear that this is not Paul’s doing but the Holy Spirit’s.

Paul says something crucial we would do well to remember: we incessantly attempt to make the straight paths of the Lord crooked. There are infinite ways of making the simplicity of the Gospel message more complex than it is. We do this with complicated sermons that talk around the Kerygma rather than just saying it outright. We are capable of creating complex theology that causes people to misunderstand the Gospel message and lose their way. This statement is a fair warning to all who teach and lead others.

Paul and Barnabas, having converted the proconsul, head of to Perga in Pamphylia, while John Mark heads back to Jerusalem. The pair go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, whereupon they are invited “if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it.” (14:15) Which Paul does. I’m intrigued: Luke tells us that Paul “stood up and with a gesture began to speak.” (14:16) What was the gesture? It certainly must have been a friendly one.

Paul opens his speech with a history lesson about Israel. One has the impression that the Jews at the synagogue in Perga may not have been all that familiar with their ancestors’ history. Not unlike many in church today who do not know the roots and history of their Christian faith…

Psalm 10:1–11; 1 Chronicles 12; Acts 12:20–13:7

Originally published 1/14/2015. Revised and updated 1/14/2019.

Psalm 10:1–11: Our translator, Robert Alter, tells us that like the preceding psalm, the received text for this one appears to have been damaged. Consequently, the meaning of the original Hebrew in many verses is unclear. Nevertheless, the overall theme seems clear: it is a wonderful description of the wicked and their schemes, which ultimately lead to their downfall:
In the wicked man’s pride he pursues the poor,
but is caught in the schemes he devised. (2)

The root cause of this wickedness is obvious:
‘There is no God’ is all his schemes. (4b)

And as usual, pride—the conviction that he is the one in control—is at the bottom of the wicked man’s overweening (and misplaced!) confidence:
He said in his heart, ‘I will not stumble, 
for all time I will not come to harm.‘ (6)

At his root, he is a con man:
His mouth is full of oaths,
beneath his tongue are guile and deceit,
mischief and misdeed. (7)

Worst of all, this con man preys on the innocent and the poor:
He waits in ambush in a sheltered place,
from a covert he kills the blameless,
for the wretched his eyes look out.
He lies in wait in a covert like a lion in his lair,
lies in wait to snatch up the poor,
snatch the poor as he pulls with his net. (8, 9)

And alas, it is the lowly [who] bow down,/ and the wretched fall into his traps. (10)

Is there a greater evil than what we see around us today where financial cons designed to prey on the insecure and elderly rob them of both wealth and dignity? Yet, right here in the psalms is a perfect description of those evil men; the kind of evildoers who have been with us for three millennia.

1 Chronicles 12: Once again, where the author of Samuel focuses on the plot and motivations of Saul in his pursuit of David, our Chronicler focuses on—and carefully names—the men who surrounded David and fought with him. Our author wants us to understand that David is not a superman but grew in strength because of the warriors who came to join his side.

We see how the original core of named warriors (vss 2-7) is augmented by the arrival of some Gadites, who are “mighty and experienced warriors, expert with shield and spear, whose faces were like the faces of lions, and who were swift as gazelles on the mountains.” (8). These men are  also named. Then, “Some Benjaminites and Judahites came to the stronghold to David.” (16). David warns them “if you have come to betray me to my adversaries, though my hands have done no wrong, then may the God of our ancestors see and give judgment.” (17b)  But “the spirit came upon Amasi, chief of the Thirty” and states the theme of this movement to David’s side, “For your God is the one who helps you.” (18). This culminates in “people kept coming to David to help him, until there was a great army, like an army of God.” (22)

Then, since at heart he is a list-maker, our author lists the “numbers and divisions of the armed troops who came to David in Hebron to turn the kingdom of Saul over to him, according to the word of the Lord.” (23).  Here in Chronicles, we get a much richer picture of the shift of loyalty from Saul to David by the most powerful men in the country. These numbers of named soldiers undergirds the inevitability to David’s triumph over Saul as the Chronicler ends the story by saying “there was joy in Israel.” (40)

I like how we see the detailed politics and sheer strength that aligns with David–it gives us a sense that David is not some magic king, but a real man to whom major portions of the nation give their allegiance. Yes, God is on David’s side because he is a man of God, but it takes real people with real loyalty and skill to bring David to the throne.

Acts 12:20–13:7: Even after Herod’s disappointment with Peter, the king believes the apostle is basically a god. For reasons Luke doesn’t spell out, “Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon,” (12:20) who come begging for food.  They appeal to his vanity by “shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!””  (12:22) Herod apparently believes his own press releases and for a variety of reasons, I suppose, he meets a fairly dreadful end, “an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” (12:23).  Herod’s death removes a major political obstacle out of the way for the early church. and “the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.” (12:24).

We see that Antioch was a vital part of the early church as Luke names some of its more prominent prophets and teachers. The Holy Spirit intervenes in the proceedings and tells them (I presume through the prophets) to “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (13:2). Luke makes it clear that Saul and Barnabas did not just wake up one morning and decide to be missionaries. They have been called by the Holy Spirit as the community dispatches them to carry the Good News far and wide.

Which is why we must still listen for the call of the Holy Spirit. Even though we may think we have certain talents which will serve the church well, in the end it is the Holy Spirit that decides. Which is also why we need to listen carefully for the voice of God and be able to discern that call.

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

Originally published 1/13/2017. Revised and updated 1/12/2019.

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 pretend we are better than God—or worse, that we do not need 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 passage 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 hometown. “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? For at the risk of their lives they brought it.” (18, 19) David never forgot 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, naming the names is 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 original 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. We are assured through Jesus that God will remember us as well.

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 rushes 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

Originally published 1/12/2017. Revised and updated 1/11/2019.

Psalm 9:1–11: This thanksgiving psalm begins with an excellent description of the various 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 should consume our entire being—all our heart. 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 delivered 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 (and certainly in our current readings in I Chronicles!), 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 existed:
The enemy—ruins that are gone for all time,
and towns you smashed, their name is lost.
 (7)

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 encounter big time 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 overestimate 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)

Because God never abandons us we return God’s faithfulness with our trust—and worship. 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 and arrives at 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, who began his reign with such promise, may have become a weak, paranoid leader who drifted away from God at the end of his reign, but there’s no question that he is still honored in this chapter and 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 egregious, Saul “had consulted a medium, seeking guidance, and did not seek guidance from the Lord.” (10:13, 14)

Our authors 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 have been stuck with for the last 50 years—and certainly not the present crop of “leaders.”

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 already 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 has a rather poor reputation and 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 as Peter points out in his eponymous epistle, Christians are always resident aliens and never part of the power structure. We must always be looking to Jesus, not to temporal power.

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

Originally published 1/11/2017. Revised and updated 1/10/2019.

Psalm 8: This psalm, which has produced a popular hymn, 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 obvious:
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 next justly famous verse. Our psalmist compares the glories of the heavens that God has flung into place as over against we humans, who are seemingly but small blips in God’s vast creation. Recent discoveries of new planetary systems certainly suggest that we humans may not be as unique as we think we are. But because of the vast distances we have little chance of finding out. But God is greater than all of it.

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 insignificant beings in a vast universe? 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)

For the psalmist, 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 us now-exhausted readers/ listeners to their present day, where they observe correctly that “Judah was taken into exile in Babylon because of their unfaithfulness.” (1b) 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 it is 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 prominence they may or may not have  entailed, were important enough to be recorded.

For me, this means that everyone in a community like 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 community it is little wonder that people eventually drift away from the church.

Acts 11:11–24: Peter continues to explain to the others in Jerusalem 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  and on whom the Holy Spirit should be operating.

Luke now 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). 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? Could I be Barnabas?

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

Originally published 1/10/2017. Revised and updated 1/9/2019.

Psalm 7:11–18: Our psalmist describes a deuteronomic world where everything is black and white, good and evil. Convinced that God will “exact justice for the righteous,” (12a) he 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)

Doubtless a source for the images of eternal punishment that suffused Medieval Christianity and Jonathan Edwars’ famouse sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God,’ 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)

But 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 inevitable consequences. As the saying goes, the wicked are ultimately 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 appears 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 in the tribe of Benjamin 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 are listening to Peter’s sermon and “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” (44) 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 now arrived and demonstrated its power, 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 fact 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 any of the Jewish followers worried that the Gentiles would shortly become the dominant force within the church. Paul’s exhortations—”there is neither Jew nor Greek“—notwithstanding did they fear 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, and the Jews were never held responsible for Jesus’ death. The awful consequences of Jewish persecution down through the centuries, through the Holocaust, and down to today might never have occurred. Truly one of the great ‘what ifs’ of history…

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

Originally published 1/8/2017. Revised and updated 1/8/2019.

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 breathlessness suggesting he is on the run—and his enemies are not far behind:
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, effectively daring God to allow the enemies to capture and kill him:
Lord, my God, if I have done this,
if there be wrongdoing in my hands
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.” (4–6)

Since he believes himself to be truly innocent he assumes God is angry with his enemies rather than himself. Consequently, he pleads with God to execute vengeance on them (remembering always that vengeance is God’s alone). 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:
Rise up, O Lord, in Your anger,
Loom high against the wrath of my enemies.
Rouse for me the the justice You ordained. (7)

The camera pulls back from this single desperate man, expanding the psalm’s viewpoint to reveal the multitude of people—ultimately comprising entire nations—all of whom 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 deliver justice. In the end, the wicked will be consumed by their own wicked deeds while the righteous will 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 in this psalm 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) The descendants of Benjamin are “mighty warriors, seventeen thousand two hundred, ready for service in war.” (11)—(about whom we will read more in the next chapter). Asher gets some 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 genealogical records of Naphtali and this all the data our authors had?

As for Manasseh and Ephram, they are almost as inconsequential as Naphtali. There is 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.

Nevertheless, the naming of names is crucial. Without names these ancestors will be lost to history. I wonder how many of my ancestors have been lost to history? Will I? Or will I be remembered?

Acts 10:34–43: In this crucial passage lies the 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 possess—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 6; 1 Chronicles 6:31–81; Acts 10:23b–34

Originally published 1/7/2015. Revised and updated 1/7/2019.

Psalm 6: We can almost feel the psalmist’s pain as he cries out to God from his sick bed for mercy. As always, the idea is that illness is God’s punishment for wrongdoing:
Lord, do not chastise me in Your wrath.
Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am wretched.
Heal me, for my limbs are stricken.
And my life is hard stricken. (2, 3, 4a).

The assurance of God’s presence that we saw in earlier psalms is completely absent. In fact, it seems that this psalmist has been calling on God for quite a while, and the only answer is silence:
—and You, O Lord, how long? (4b)

But our poet is not so sick that he cannot apply logic to make his case in order to cause God to answer. After all, God cannot be worshipped if he is dead:
For death holds no mention of You.
In Sheol who can acclaim You? (6)

Perhaps if God realizes how desperately the psalmist longs desperately in his tears of pain and despair for God to respond:
I weary in my sighing.
I make my bed swim every night, 
with my tears I water my couch.
From vexation my eye becomes dim,

is worn out, because of my foes. (7, 8)

And then. And then, comes an answer. God has indeed been listening. The tears vanish; we can imagine the weak smile on the poet’s tear-stained face:
Turn from me, all you wrongdoers,
or the LORD hears the sound of my weeping.
The LORD hears my plea,
the LORD will take my prayer. (9, 10).

His enemies, who doubtless have been assuring him that God cannot hear him are now “shamed and hard stricken.” (11)

This is the psalm that speaks so profoundly to those of who feel we are praying to a God who is not listening. But God is indeed listening. He hears. The next question: Will God speak?

1 Chronicles 6:31–81: Our scrupulous Chroniclers, having listed the genealogies of every tribe of Israel now turn their attention to other inventories, listing the men and their sons and grandsons who served as musicians and priests for David and then, Solomon, including Heman, Samuel’s grandson. We have to wonder which of these men wrote psalms among the list compiled by the Chronicler. I assume that “musician” included not just “player,” but “composer” and “poet” as well.

The Chronicler then turns his attention to inventorying the land and settlements occupied by the Levites, as we recall that the tribe of Levi, being priests, were allocated pieces of land by each of the other tribes. The allocation appear to be a small town and its surrounding pasture lands.  Even in this humble inventory we are reminded that land was at the center of God’s promise to Israel.

Acts 10:23b–33: Peter arrives at Cornelius’ house, who immediately falls down and tries to worship Peter, who in turn “made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” (26). I think Luke is making a critical point here. Jesus had not somehow passed along his divinity to his disciples; they were human like everyone else. That would be an important point for the early church, especially as if fought off the influences of gnosticism.

Quite a crowd has gathered and again, Luke underscores the radical nature of this meeting as Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” (28) So he has obeyed God and appeared before Cornelius, who still doesn’t know why Peter is there.

Cornelius describes what happened with military precision, including the exact time, “Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock,” (30a), explaining only that “a man in dazzling clothes stood before me.” (30b) commanded him to send for Peter at Joppa. [Cornelius seems to be one of the few people in the Bible who is not afraid of an angelic visitation.] And not just send for Peter, but “here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.” (33) Notice how Cornelius makes it clear that both Jew and gentile are standing in “the presence of God.” Luke is telling us that what is about to happen is not a human idea, but an action that comes from God himself via the power of the Holy Spirit.

Peter begins his speech to Cornelius [and I presume by this time, quite a few listeners, including the soldier’s family, servants and the troops he commanded.] Peter states that God is available to everyone—whether Jew or Gentile. 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. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” (34-36) These sentences are the operation details of Jesus’ Great Commission to “go into all the world.”

Peter states the kerygma, “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear,” (40, 41) He then states the Good News that is indeed for every person, not just the Jews: “[Jesus] 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.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (42, 43) There is no ambiguity here! Jesus died to forgive the sins of every person—the living and the dead.

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

Originally published 1/6/2017. Revised and updated 1/5/2019.

Psalm 5: This psalm of supplication has a greater sense of urgency than the preceding one as it seems almost to instruct God—twice:
Hearken to my speech, O Lord,
attend to my utterance.
Listen well to my voice crying out, my king and my God,
for to You I pray.
 (2, 3)

This stentorian opening is soften in the next verse where our psalmist expresses his assurance that God is indeed listening to his supplications—and that he will wait patiently for God’s response:
Lord, in the morning You hear my voice,
in the morning I lay it before You and wait. (4)

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 (presumptuously?) states 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, the God-follower experiences only God’s kindness as he seeks God’s guidance—always aware that God would reject him if he pursues unrighteousness:
As for me—through Your great kindness I enter Your house.
I bow to Your holy temple in the fear of You.
Guide me, O Lord, in Your righteousness
.” (8, 9a)

We then encounter one of the more severe descriptions of the kind of enemies plotting against David. Interestingly, their primary weapon is speech—basically identical to present day politics:
For there is nothing right in their mouths,
within them—falsehood.
” (10a)

A brilliant metaphor follows, beautifully describing the deceit of too many politicians today:
An open grave their throat,
their tongue, smooth-talking
. (10b)

Our psalmist, speaking as David, asks but one thing: Condemn them, O God.” (11a) However, 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 concludes 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 who 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 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 possibility of besmirching their ancestors.

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 that eating the Gentile food is exactly what he has commanded Peter to do, 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. And there will be lots of conflict to come over whether or not Gentiles must fully observe Jewish law, including circumcision. This is also a dramatic statement that Peter, upon whom the church was founded, is the one who is called to go meet the Gentile centurion and his family. These are the bona fides that the early church needed to “go into all the world.” Since it’s the apostle primus inter pares who 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

Originally published 1/5/2017. Revised and updated 1/4/2019.

Psalm 4: Its opening verse lets us know that 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  as compared to David’s own position:
You love vain things and seek out lies.
But know that the Lord set apart His faithful.” (3b, 4a)

We are either with God or against him; we are either righteous or not. There is no ambiguous middle ground. Speaking as David, 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 with peaceful assurance God is listening: “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)

Trusting God is what faith is all about. When doubters, who lack this trust, ask, God will respond to the call:
Who will show us good things?
Lift up the light of Your face to us, Lord” (7)

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 and we need only trust him. 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) There’s a clear implication that the sins of the father are carried to the sons with the clear implication that Reuben’s sin lit inexorably to the downfall of the Northern Kingdom.

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 the psalmist above, put their trust in God.

Acts 9:36–10:8: Like a movie director running several stories in parallel, Luke leaves Paul and once again turns his lens toward Peter and the early church. 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 now 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?

In any event, 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 cherub with wings that the pre-renaissance painters depicted, but to Cornelius’ credit he recognizes his vision as coming from 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 not only has faith but he then acts on faith. As James has it in his eponymous epistle, faith without works (or action) is dead. Like Cornelius, we are to act in faith even though we don’t necessarily know what the outcome will be. Cornelius gave up trying to control the circumstances. Rather, as Oswald Hoffman has it so often, he abandoned himself to the will of God. I wonder what my own reaction in Cornelius’s circumstances would have been?