Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Reading Through the Acts of the Apostles #4 (9-12)

Larkin ActsThis post continues my reading through the book of Acts accompanied by Acts, vol. 5, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, by William J. Larkin Jr..Acts 9-12 concludes the account of the beginning and growth of the Jerusalem and Samaritan churches and transitions into the story of the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles and throughout the Roman empire, featuring the apostle Paul. I am posting from my reading in the New Testament accompanied by various commentaries on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book. As usual my comments are in black and quotes from the book are in blue.

This persecution of the church leads to the conversion of God's key servant in his plan to extend the kingdom to the Gentiles, Saul of Tarsus. God takes the church's worst enemy, confronts him, and transforms him into the church's greatest spokesman. Paul is confronted by the risen Christ on his way to persecute Christians in Damascus. His task will be to bring the good news of Jesus to both Jews and the Gentile nations and to suffer for Christ's sake. Paul's vision is confirmed to the church in Damascus by God's revelation to Ananias. Paul immediately begins preaching that Jesus is the Messiah there, resulting in many conversions and a plot against his life. He escapes Damascus in a basket being lowered down the wall of the city. Later in Jerusalem, though, Barnabas must provide the bridge to the wary church leaders, Paul is received by the apostles and they verify his commission from God. Paul preaches in Jerusalem with much the same results and is forced to leave. After Paul leaves Jerusalem. the church has a time of peace in which it continues to grow. This period of growth will prepare them for the great outreach to the Gentiles which will soon begin with Peter's trip to Joppa. Peter participates in two great miracles which enhance the church's reputation there and place Peter in position, as the leader of the Jerusalem church, to meet Cornelius and extend the gospel to the Gentiles.

To be converted means to move from self-centered independence to dependence on the Lord and interdependence with fellow disciples. Saul the convert needs the support and encouragement of the church. Today too the gospel witness should emphasize by word and deed that being born again is being born into the family of God, the church. Acts 9.1-19

In a day when we often elevate individualistic, personal, subjective experience over communal, ecclesial, corporate judgments, Saul’s example shines. His call is “for real” because it stands up to the test of the apostles, those charged with guaranteeing the message and mission of Christ’s church. Any contemporary claims to God’s call must similarly be tested by the deposit of the apostles and prophets: the Scriptures. Acts 9.20-31

We need to avoid two extremes. Rather than despising the role of the miraculous in evoking saving faith, we should recognize its legitimate role in giving credence to the preached word. In the end, saving faith must rest not on the impression the miracle has made but on the truth of the message to which it points...When miracles do occur as the gospel is being preached, the evangelist must fearlessly interpret God’s acts by his Word to the audience, so that misunderstanding is put down and Jesus Christ is exalted. Acts 9.32-43

As God places Peter in place, he also prepares Cornelius to hear the Gospel. Cornelius is a "God-fearer," a Gentile who practiced Judaism without being circumcised and becoming a proselyte. Thus, the gospel is going to Gentiles who would be considered "unclean" in Judaism. Peter's vision and testimony of the subsequent events (as with the Samaritans) will provide the bridge for Gentile inclusion for what, up to then, had been primarily a Jewish movement. Luke's emphasis is that this revolutionary change in the way God relates to the world is a revelation from the Spirit and is based on Jesus' words and actions. It is a mandate from God, not a human idea. God now receives all people without regard to ethnicity, without the old Testament rites and codes, who trust in Jesus' resurrection and follow him. The Spirit's filling of the Gentile contingent in the same way he filled the first Christians at Pentecost confirms this.

What we see emerging to this point is the basic outline of the “more light” principle of God’s redemptive mercy (compare Lk 8:18; 19:26). Cornelius has responded in faith and obedience to the “light” he has received, as evidenced by his piety. He fears the one true God, prays to him regularly and acts in love to the needy among God’s people. Such obedience is not a “works righteousness” that earns salvation. This we can see by God’s response. He does not declare Cornelius saved. Rather, he grants him “more light” by which he and his household may be saved (Acts 11:14). Acts 10.1-8

The Spirit’s instruction is Peter’s focal point of illumination concerning the vision. If he will act out “not making distinctions” with these Gentiles even to the extent of table fellowship in their household, he will understand the vision and its implications. And today if we would understand God’s Word, especially where it challenges our prejudices, we too must wrestle with its meaning and its implications. We may expect to understand it more and more fully as we obey it more and more readily. Acts 10.9-23

The ground is indeed level at the foot of the cross. What a comfort to all the racially and culturally despised in our day, who thirst for the dignity that comes from spiritual equality in the “Christ identity.” What a challenge to the church to live out, through acceptance across racial, class, ethnic and gender lines, our profession that we serve an impartial God who has sent us a universal Lord and Savior. Acts 10.24-48

Peter's acceptance of Gentiles into the fellowship creates opposition from some of the Jewish Christians. Peter responds by witnessing to the facts of what happened to show that this was a command and act of God. The 6 Jewish witnesses that went to Cornelius' house with Peter confirm this. The leaders in Jerusalem confirm this and agree with Peter that God is now offering kingdom salvation to the Gentiles. The Gentile mission begins in earnest in the city of Syrian Antioch. Even though the Hellenistic Jews begin there by preaching to Jews only, Gentiles hear the message and are converted. The Jerusalem church sends Barnabas to evaluate the situation and he confirms the work of God in this. Barnabas brings Paul into the ministry and they teach and lead the new converts in Antioch for a full year. The multi-ethnic church in Antioch becomes the base for the Gentile mission throughout the Roman empire and a pattern of the ethnic, class and cultural diversity that the fellowship of the Spirit produces. The predominantly Gentile church in Antioch and the Jewish church in Jerusalem are in full fellowship and lovingly support one another. 

What then should convince us that God is at work even in ways that cut across the grain of our prejudices? A plain hearing of the facts and their interpretation, judged by the promises of God’s Word, is where we start. And when we keep in mind that salvation begins with the gift of repentance, our prejudices, which will always demand that the outsider meet certain performance standards, will melt away. In their place will come wonder and praise to God that his salvation has touched people whom we, left to ourselves, would not. Acts 11.1-18

In a day when a misapplication of church-growth theory’s “homogeneous unit principle” can produce monocultural churches, God’s blessing on inclusive evangelism across ethnic lines at Antioch is a necessary reminder of where God’s heart is. While he may indeed give growth within homogeneous ethnic units, such units are not his ideal, and neither should they be ours. Acts 11.19-30

The success of the Jerusalem church causes concern for the political powers of the day and they begin to persecute the church. Herod executes James, the brother of John, and places Peter in prison to await execution. The power of the kingdom of God is now opposed by Roman might and the dark powers behind it. Luke shows here that God's kingdom will win, despite the death and seeming powerlessness of His people, because God will make it happen. Peter is rescued miraculously from prison while he sleeps (his ability to sleep in this situation is a testimony to his faith) and is restored to the praying church. The only "weapon" they had was their prayer and faith but that was enough. In contrast, the soldiers are executed and Herod is struck by the angel of the LORD and dies from being "eaten by worms." God's kingdom will triumph, not by use of political power and the weapons of this world, but through the power of God mediated through the faith and prayers of His people.

As long as it is necessary that a particular servant of the Lord be actively deployed in accomplishing Christ’s mission, he or she will be rescued. Any martyrdom is still a mark of God’s sovereignty, not a sign of his weakness; his gracious purposes, not his sadistic pleasure, may be traced in it. Any rescue is a sign of the triumphant advance of God’s mission and a mark that nothing can thwart the accomplishment of his purposes. Acts 12.1-17

Worms spread and devour Herod’s body, but the word of God, the Christian message, also spreads and multiplies. This should work confidence in our hearts. We need not cower before threatening political power. We will boldly continue to spread the message of life. Though those in power may stop us, even by death, they cannot stop the gospel! Acts 12.18-25

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