Prayer and Jealousy; or Getting What You Ask For

This morning I began reading A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller (I picked the book up a couple of weeks ago when, after an initial blast of great recommendations from guys like Tim Keller and David Powlison, it ended up on most of the top-ten book lists from 2009). Toward the end of chapter two, Miller tells the following story:
I was walking to the train station after work, and without realizing it, I began comparing the mission I worked for with another mission. It dawned on me that I was jealous, trying to make a name for myself at the expense of someone else. My jealousy surprised me. It was not the first time I’d been jealous about this, just the first time I’d named it.

As I continued to walk, I thought, This is ridiculous, being jealous, competing in my heart with other Christians when we are all involved in the same task. So before I got to the train I prayed, quietly giving my work to Jesus. I remember thinking he might actually take it.
A few pages later, I finished chapter two and began praying. One of my requests was that God would begin exposing in my own heart how pride—the desire to make a name for myself—was driving my desire for ministry and to replace that wrong, self-centered motivation with real, gospel-motivation.

I hadn’t finished praying when my phone rang. It was my wife, so rather than let it go to voicemail I answered. She shared briefly about a difficult situation she’d walked into that morning at work and then brought up a new church she’d just heard about in Charlotte, NC.

Someone had posted a quote on her work’s online message-board, something about how real joy isn’t dependent on what happens to you but what Christ is doing through you for others. She liked the quote so much that she tracked down its author online. His name was Steve Furtick.

The story of Furtick’s church——is an amazing one. Their web-site describes it like this:
Elevation was founded on the faith of 8 families who risked everything - sold houses, quit jobs and moved to Charlotte believing that God would turn this city upside down for his glory through the local church. That risk has resulted in a remarkable return.

At the three-year mark, we've grown to more than 5,000 in weekly attendance among our three locations. Since our launch we've seen more than 6,200 people receive Christ. For the past three years, our church was named one of the “10 fastest growing churches in America” by Outreach Magazine.
My wife’s thinking went something like this: Furtick’s under 30. I’m under 30. Furtick recently launched an exciting new ministry aimed at young adults and families. I’m involved in launching a new ministry—re:Generātion—aimed at reaching young adults and families. Furtick’s project was wildly successful for the kingdom. I should be encouraged to expect wildly successful things for the kingdom as well.

My thinking, on the other hand, went more like this: Furtick’s under 30. I’m under 30. Furtick recently launched an exciting new ministry aimed at young adults and families. I’m involved in launching a new ministry—re:Generātion—aimed at reaching young adults and families. Furtick’s project was wildly successful for the kingdom. My project will not be wildly successful because I’m not Furtick. Far from being encouraged, I was intimidated. I was jealous. I felt inadequate, unprepared, ill-equipped. I feared failure.

I knew my wife meant well, so I tried my best to hide how I really felt. A minute after I hung up the phone the irony of it hit me—by “irony,” of course, I mean the kind, exposing, humbling providence of a wise, loving, sovereign God. Here I was praying that God would expose my heart for what it is and that’s exactly, not a moment later, what he does. Prayer is a dangerous, uncomfortable and sometimes an embarrassing thing. As Eugene Peterson warns:
Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back.

Mercy Sweetens

Dave Harvey, When Sinners Say “I Do”
Mercy is a unique, marvelous, exceptional word. God’s mercy means his kindness, patience, and forgiveness toward us. It is his compassionate willingness to suffer for and with sinners for their ultimate good (79).

Do you know God as a God of mercy? Do you see your spouse as God sees him or her—through the eyes of mercy?

If your answer to either question is no, it is unlikely that your marriage is sweet. Mercy sweetens marriage. Where it is absent, two people flog one another over everything from failure to fix the faucet to phone bills. But where it is present, marriage grows sweeter and more delightful, even in the face of challenges, setbacks, and the persistent effects of our remaining sin (80).
Aaron Orendorff
Father, as you are merciful, so I pray that I too would be merciful.
Give me, I ask, a profound and heartfelt sense of your own tender, redeeming mercy that by experiencing mercy I may become merciful.
Sweeten my marriage with mercy, make me merciful toward my wife: soft, forgiving, patient, willing to “bear with” whatever petty grievances and personal offenses I might face (to bear with them in silence without bitterness or record-keeping) for her good and ultimately for her beauty.

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“. . . in his end is our beginning.”

Acts 28:23, 30-31
When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. . . . He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[T]he real hero of the whole book is of course the Jesus who was enthroned as the world’s Lord at the beginning, and is now proclaimed, at the end, “openly and unhindered,” that is with all “boldness” . . . and with nobody stopping him. And here, for once, Luke gives a full “Pauline” title to Jesus: “the Lord Jesus, the Messiah.” King of the Jews; Lord of the World: Jesus of Nazareth, continuing to do and to teach, continuing to announce the kingdom of God which has been decisively inaugurated on earth as it is in heaven. . . . [T]his is a drama in which we ourselves have been called to belong to the cast. The journey is ours, the trials and vindications are ours, the sovereign presence of Jesus is ours, the story is ours to pick up and carry on. Luke’s writing, like Paul’s journey, has reached its end, but in his end is our beginning (248-249).

Meeting Outside of Rome

Acts 28:14-15
There we found brothers and were invited to stay with them for seven days. And so we came to Rome. And the brothers there, when they heard about us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.
Aaron Orendorff
The book of Acts, as chapter 1 tells us, is about all the things that Jesus—resurrected and ascended—continued to do and teach. For Luke, how Jesus continues his work, now that (physically speaking) he’s off the scene, is through two players: the Spirit and the church. Much of Acts, therefore, is comprised of “meeting scenes”—scenes of greeting, fellowship and farewell.

Finally at his destination (one to which Luke has been building for several chapters now), Paul is enveloped into just such a scene. The church at Rome—to the surprise Paul’s captors—“hear of Paul’s arrival and come to see him, doing with him what citizens of a great city would do for a visiting emperor or a returning [king]: they come out some distance to meet him, to escort him with them into their city” (Wright, 239).

With this something striking happens: for all his visions and special revelations, for all the works of the Spirit done through, for and around him—the healings, the tongues, the miraculous escapes and amazing preservations of life—for all the certainty of knowing (from the lips of Jesus himself) “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11), for all of this and more, what finally grips Paul’s heart and erupts in praise and courage is the plain and ordinary sight of other weary Christians—God’s unimpressive though much-loved family—coming out to meet him on the road and walk the last few miles together.

No “Sidelines”

Acts 28:3-6
When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Luke simply cannot help, now, allowing the pattern of accusation-and-vindication to run through story after story. “This man could have been set free,” declares Agrippa. The storm does its worst but Paul and his companions are “saved.” The snake and “Justice” do their worst and Paul is hailed as a god (236).

The whole scene, of course, provides yet another example, before Italy itself is finally reached, of an official finding that Paul was a man to be trusted and valued, on top of the islanders finding that, despite an apparent accusation (via the snake) he was in fact innocent. This sets the narrative up for the final voyage and the theology for its full meaning. The sea and the snake have done their worst and are overcome. New creation is happening, and the powers of evil cannot stop it. Paul may arrive in Rome a more bedraggled figure than he would have liked, but the gospel which he brings is flourishing, and nobody can stop it (237).
Aaron Orendorff
However we may feel at times and whatever our particular situation my look like, the final chapters of Acts (among there other aims) serve to illustrate that in reality (that is, under the kind and sovereign providence of God) there are no “sidelines” in gospel-service: no “back-alleys,” no “wrong-ways,” no “holding-patterns,” no “missteps.” Reading from Acts 24 to Acts 28 only takes a few minutes, so it’s easy to forget that for Paul more than two years have passed since he was told by the Lord, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). Two years spent waiting in jail on account of petty, political posturing. Then, as if that weren’t discouraging enough, a sea-voyage that goes from bad, to worse, to catastrophic until finally, water-logged and half-drown, he arrives on a foreign shore only to be bit by a viper while trying to warm himself by the fire.

And yet, all of this is for a purpose. The venom doesn’t kill Paul and he is vindicated before the island’s natives. The father of the “chief man of the island, named Publius” (a Roman) is nearly dead and Paul heals him. News of this healing spreads and before you know it “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured.” Finally, as v. 10 concludes, “They [the people of the island] also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed.”

However we may feel at times and whatever our particular situation my look like, there are no “sidelines” in gospel-service.

Through Waters to Salvation

Acts 27:42-44
The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape. But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely [literally, “thoroughly saved”] to land.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
All hope of being “saved” had been lost (verse 20). If the sailors had carried out their secret plan to slip away in the ship’s boat, they could none of them be “saved” (verse 31). Taking some food—involving the breaking of bread!—will be “for your salvation” (verse 34). The centurion wished to “save” Paul (verse 43). And the end result is that they all were “utterly saved” in coming to land (verse 44). Luke could hardly make it clearer. As in Philippi, yet again, the meaning “rescued” is clear, and the meaning “saved in a far, far deeper sense corresponds to Luke’s larger intention throughout this chapter. Through the waters to safety: that’s the Noah story, the Exodus story, the John-the-Baptist story, the Jesus story. The Paul story. Our story. . . . Through the cross, through the waters, to salvation. This is at the heart of Paul’s own understanding of Jesus’ death, and, I suggest, Luke’s as well (233-234).

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The Storm at Sea

Acts 27:18-26
Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began the next day to jettison the cargo. And on the third day they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.

Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, “Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.’ So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island.”
Aaron Orendorff
Being an apostle is hard, exhausting, draining work. When God decides to send a person somewhere—i.e., Paul to Rome—what we normally expect is for Him to send them first-class, or, at the very least, with speed and safety. But that simply isn’t the case.

Fourteen days at sea. “All hope” abandoned. No food. Jettisoned cargo. The tackle thrown overboard. Even the lifeboat cut loose. What is God’s point?

God’s point is this: There’s work to be done. Looking ahead to chapter 28, Paul is to be used mightily on the island of Malta as a witness to God’s preserving power before taking his stand in the presence of Caesar. In other words, the storm, with all its
fearful fury, is not ultimately opposed to God’s plan; it is his plan. Though it is impossible to see from within, the storm is God’s agent, accomplishing his will, testing his servant and driving forward his mission.

Three Arguments

Acts 26:24-27
And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice [shouted at the top of his voice], “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.”

But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.”
Aaron Orendorff
While Luke’s record of Paul’s defense against Festus’ accusation is certainly a condensed summary of the apostle’s actual speech and not an exact replication, three substantial arguments may be identified. First, Paul’s message is intellectual coherent: “I am speaking true and rational words.” Literally: “words of truth and reasonableness (i.e., mental soundness).” Second, Paul’s message is historically reliable: “none of these things has escaped his [King Agrippa’s] notice, for this has not been done in a corner.” The events of the gospel are not private, spiritual events; they are public, historical events that can be verified in space and time. Third, Paul’s message is religiously consistent: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” Paul appeals, as his does throughout Acts, to the Jewish Scriptures to validate (for lack of a better word) the “religious” authenticity (i.e., the thoroughly Jewish pedigree) of the gospel.

Paul: A Light to the Gentiles

Acts 26:15-18
“And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’

“And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’”
Aaron Orendorff
Paraphrasing Paul’s call, Jesus tells him: I have made you a “servant and witness” both to what you have just seen—that is, my post-resurrection glory, that I am who my followers say I am—and to what you will see in the future—which, again, is not going to be some abstract vision of God or revelatory lessons in theology, ethics or philosophy, but rather, revelations of Me.

Jesus, in other words—crucified and risen—is the person to whom Paul has become a servant and a witness. This commission by Christ is a call, therefore, to mission: “I am sending you.” The purpose of Paul’s mission is described in four parts: (1) to open their (the “Gentiles’”) eyes, so that (2) they may turn (that is, repent) from (2a) darkness to light and (2b) from the power of Satan to God, (3) in this way they will receive “forgiveness and sin,” and (4) a place in God’s family, described here as “those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

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Resurrection, Paul’s “Conversion” and the Promises Made to Abraham

Acts 26:6-8
Then Paul stretched out his hand and made his defense: . . . “And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[T]his passage is saying, at its heart, that though there was an obvious break between Sal of Tarsus prior to his conversion and Paul the apostle afterwards, there was a strong line of continuity making a bridge between the two. This is, in fact, where the language of “conversion” may be misleading because, as Paul himself would have put it, and indeed did put it frequently to anyone who would listen, at no point did he waver in his belief that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was and is the true God, the one and only creator God. He didn’t change Gods. From his point of view, he didn’t even, really, change religions. Rather, he followed (so he would have said) the one God, the creator, Abraham’s God, down the line he had always promised to lead his people, the line that would lead to resurrection (206).

His message about resurrection—(a) that it is what we were all waiting for, and (b) that is has happened, to our enormous surprise, in Jesus—is at the heart of his claim that this changes everything at the same moment as fulfilling everything. It is the changes, of course, which are the controversial bits, but Paul’s point would be that they are not changes for change’s sake, nor changes because there was something wrong with the old ways, but changes because God’s new world had arrived, fulfilling the promises to bless all nations through Abraham, and that in this new world it appeared that some things which Jews, himself included, had thought were fixed for ever had turned out to be, quite deliberately from God’s point of view, only temporary (207-208).

Points of Contention

Acts 25:19
And Festus said, . . . “Rather they [Paul’s accusers] had certain points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who was dead, but whom Paul asserted to be alive.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
This is how the Christian faith appeared to one outsider, at least. Paul was not charged with the sort of crimes one might have imagined. Instead, it was a matter of disputes about the Jewish religion, “and about some dead man called Jesus whom Paul asserted was alive.”

There we have it: resurrection from the pagan viewpoint. At least it shows Festus had been listening; and it shows, too, how “resurrection” appeared. It wasn’t “about some dead man called Jesus who had gone to heaven and whom one might have a relationship.” It was about a dead man—no question in Festus’ mind—and about the fact that Paul said he was alive—no question of that either. And “alive” meant “alive,” bodily of course (202-203).
Aaron Orendorff
Throughout the book of Acts, Luke presents the contention between Judaism and the early followers of Jesus as regarding two interlocking points: first, the continuing validity of the Mosaic Law (and with it the role of both circumcision and the temple) and second the person of Jesus Christ (namely, did he or didn’t he rise from the dead?). In Paul we see a picture of how a positive answer to the second point—“Yes, in fact, Jesus did rise from the dead and is now reigning with power over the nations.”—deeply affects one’s answer to the first—“The role of the Mosaic Code is therefore fundamentally fulfilled.”

Providence and Initiative

Acts 25:10-12
But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar's tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Paul has been promised by God through his sense of vocation (19.21), and has been promised by Jesus through a special vision (23.11), that he would get to Rome. What Luke has now told us is that Paul himself has had to take responsibility, at one level, for making this happen.

This is an important point about the interaction between God’s purposes and our praying. Sometimes, when we pray and wait for God to act, part of the answer is that God is indeed going to act, but that he will do so through our taking proper human responsibility in the matter. It’s hard to tell in advance what the answer will be. There are times when it is “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (Exodus 14.14), and other times when it is “Be strong and very courageous, for you shall put this people in possession of the land I swore to give them” (Joshua 1.6). Discerning and discovering which applies in which case . . . is a major element in the discernment to which all Christians, and especially all Christian leaders, are called (199).

Paul and Felix

Acts 24:24-25
After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Paul seems to have exercised . . . a kind of fearful fascination: the twisted, crooked ruler found the straight talking extraordinary and even appealing but of course frightening as the same time. If what Paul was saying was true, his own life was a tangled mess indeed. Faith in the Messiah, Jesus, would mean coming to terms with justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, and on each of those scores Felix must have realized that he was, to say the least, doing rather badly. . . .

We must never forget that Acts is the book in which Luke descries all that Jesus continued to do and to teach (1.1). This is what that continuing ministry looks like, as the living Jesus once more confronts a Roman governor and puts him straight on matters of truth, justice and the kingdom of God (John 18.33—19.12) (193).

The Way, the Law and the Prophets

Acts 24:14-16
“But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
In other words, Paul is claiming the moral, theological and biblical high ground. For him, following Jesus is not an odd hobby that might lead him away from scripture and tradition, but it is the way, indeed the Way, by which the one true God has fulfilled all that the scriptures had said. Paul in other words, is claiming to be a loyal and faithful Jew. That was his boast throughout, that Jesus had not made him stop being true to his ancestral faith, but that Jesus had revealed who the God of Abraham had been all along and what he had been up to. . . . For Paul, the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah meant not that he was abandoning the faith of his ancestors but that he was penetrating to its very heart (187).

Where do you go for justice?

Acts 24:4-5
Tertullus [the spokesman] began to accuse him, saying . . . “We have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the temple, but we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to find out from him about everything of which we accuse him.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Only when we allow the weight of these charges, and their prima facie plausibility, do we face the real theological problem that has been looming up behind the rather stylized account of a typical first-century barrister [lawyer] making a sly speech to a typical first-century provincial governor. If this is how the authorities get at “truth,” so that they can do “justice,” is the world threatening to collapse into chaos after all? Would not Paul be better doing what many revolutionaries have done in many places and at many times—and what many people today assume will result from any attempt to “combine religions and politics”—namely, to deny the validity of the court and declare that he wouldn’t have anything to do with it, since obviously it wasn’t capable of bringing about God’s justice? . . . Or are more important principles [than mere pragmatism] at stake, principles such as we find in the thirteenth chapter of his own letter to Rome? And do those principles not flow directly from the deeply Jewish belief that the God with whom we have to do is the God of both creation and providence? (184)

Innocent . . .

Acts 23:25-29
And he [the Roman tribune] wrote a letter to this effect: “Claudius Lysias, to his Excellency the governor Felix, greetings. This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen. And desiring to know the charge for which they were accusing him, I brought him down to their council. I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
The heart of the letter . . . is the point which yet again Luke wants to emphasize. Paul was accused of things to with the Jewish law, but my judgment as a Roman official is that he deserves neither death nor imprisonment. Where have we heard that before? Oh, in Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, a variant of it in Ephesus. And we shall hear it again, more than once, before the story is out. Who is Luke really writing for? What is he trying to tell them? (178)
Aaron Orendorff
There is—as has already been pointed out in previous posts—great irony in the method of Paul’s escape from the plot in Jerusalem to kill him. Those whom he has for all intents and purposes avoided in his previous missionary journeys, except for the occasional (and always uncomfortable) brush—i.e., the Romans—now serve as his rescuers. Moreover, the Roman tribune even vindicates Paul from his Jewish accusers: “I found that he was being accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment.” Luke’s inclusion of this brief letter, as Wright points out, is meant not only to provide the political rationale for Paul’s narrow escape but to also stress his innocence (at least from the Roman perspective) in the matter at hand. It is evidence, in other words, not only in the trial Paul has just entered but in the larger question Luke’s narrative is after: Is Paul a blasphemer of the law or is he truly a messenger sent from Jesus, Israel’s resurrected Messiah?

“scuppered by a little boy”

Acts 23:16, 19-21
Now the son of Paul's sister heard of their ambush, so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. . . . The tribune took [Paul’s nephew] by the hand, and going aside asked him privately, “What is it that you have to tell me?” And he said, “The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul down to the council tomorrow, as though they were going to inquire somewhat more closely about him. But do not be persuaded by them, for more than forty of their men are lying in ambush for him, who have bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they have killed him. And now they are ready, waiting for your consent.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[G]ranted that throughout history people have made plots against other people, and have often carried them out all too successfully, isn’t it interesting that on this occasion the plot which might so easily have done away with Paul once and for all was scuppered by a little boy? (172)

What we all want to know at this point is, of course, what did they all do next, once the plan was thwarted? . . . I imagine that few of them, if any starved. I imagine the high priest found a legal loophole to absolve them from their silly vow. Or maybe, since they were legal experts, they invented one themselves. It wouldn’t be the first or the last time. And—since part of the point of all this is that they were the ultra-orthodox legal experts, concerned above all for the honor of God and his law—there would be a nice irony in imagining them cautiously explaining to their own consciences how even that most solemn oath hadn’t quite meant what it said (173).

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The Road to Rome

Acts 23:11
The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Once again, the moment of crisis becomes the moment of vision. . . . And the word this time is encouraging indeed, and provides a key turning-point in Luke’s plot. Paul is not, after all, to die in Jerusalem. His sense of vocation, to go to Rome, was genuine. He isn’t promised a comfortable ride. But he will get there, and must do there what he has done here: bear witness (170).
Aaron Orendorff
We can trace what Wright calls Paul’s “sense of vocation, to go to Rome” back to the apostle’s two-year stay in Ephesus during his third and final missionary journey. Acts 19:21 reports, “Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’” This same desire is expressed in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, most likely written from Corith just after he left Ephesus (Acts 20:2-3): “I always ask that somehow by God’s will I may at last succeed in coming to you” (Rom. 1:10).

There is a great, almost comical (were it not so painful), irony to way in which God provided for this desire. Bound by the tribune in Jerusalem, with his life in profound and increasing danger, God sets into motion a series of “lucky” events that will eventually end (as all roads do) in the great city. The encouragement in Acts 23:11 is aimed at fortifying Paul for the coming storms (both literally and figuratively) and to assure him that the resurrected Christ is also the reigning Christ whose will (in this case, Paul arriving in Rome alive and ready to preach) cannot be thwarted by opposition, whatever its shape or form, but will actually be propelled by it.

Playing the Rome Card

Acts 22:25-29
But when they had stretched him out for the whips, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, But I am a citizen by birth.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him immediately, and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Aaron Orendorff
We have seen this sort of interaction once before: at the end of Acts 16, after Paul and Silas’ wrongful imprisonment in the Philippian jail. There Paul uses his Roman citizenship to extend his stay in Philippi by putting the city’s magistrates in an extremely uncomfortable position of their own political making. Here in Jerusalem he uses it in a way that, at first glance, seems to be about little more than saving his own skin . . . literally. Tracking the story out, however, we see that Paul’s protests set him on a course of speaking the truth to power that eventually ends in Roman itself.

Whether we attribute to Paul’s choice the big picture that eventually develops is beside the point. Paraphrasing Philippians 1:18, the lesson seems to be this: “. . . that in every way, even with political pretense, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”

“He should not be allowed to live.”

Acts 22:14-16
“And [Ananias] said [to me], ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’”
Acts 22:21-22
“And [Jesus] said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

Up to this word they listened to him. Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
If Paul thought this was a “defense,” he had another thing coming. They [the Jewish crowd] were going to show him otherwise. He was guilty, guilty as the Gentiles whose friend he had become, guilty as sin itself (159).

[T]hey will not see . . . that God is offering them all of that [righteousness, zeal and knowledge] and more: fulfillment of the covenant, the real and final “return from exile” promised in Deuteronomy 30, the gift of the law not just as a book to be studies but as the very beating of their own hearts, and, above all, the Messiah. The Messiah is the goal, the completion, the crown of it all, bringing to its destination the long, sad story of God’s people, taking upon himself all the anger, all the fear, all the bitterness of the centuries, and making an end of it for all except those who are now so identified with and by that anger that they dare not let it go for fear that they won’t know who they are anymore (160).

Loyal to Whom?

Acts 21:27-28, 32-34
When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” . . . [The Roman tribune] at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
The one note of clarity in the whole scene is the point Luke is making yet again. The mob is trying to kill Paul because of false charges to do with his disloyalty to the Jewish law and customs. And the Roman solder rescues him. Luke is not, as some have supposed, trying to suck up to Rome, saying that Romans always do the right thing while Jews always do the wrong thing. . . . No: Luke is trying to establish a pattern . . . . Give this man a chance and he will show you his innocence. Let cool-headed justice prevail over hot-tempered mobs, and Paul will be vindicated.

Luke is not just trying to make a general point, for a general readership, about Christians in general. He is making a specific point about Paul. Yes, wherever he goes there is a riot. But that is because he is being loyal to the true, if extraordinary and dangerous, purposes of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the creator God who will one day call the whole world to account. Every vindication of Paul is another advance signal of that eventual day (151).

re:Generātion/5(hundred) Hours

In January, New Life Church is planning to launch a new young adults ministry Sunday nights entitled re:Generātion. I’m incredibly excited to be a part of the leadership team in preparation. Here’s a copy of the promotional video Grant Blomdahl, Taylor Reavely and myself put together to preview the ministry along with a pre-launch project called 5(hundred) Hours: A Call to Prayer.

re:Generation/5(hundred) Hours Promotional Video from New Life Church on Vimeo.

A Complicated Situation

Acts 21:15, 18-22
After these days we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. . . . On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God.

And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed. They are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs. What then is to be done?”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Speaking for a moment as a church leader, I take great comfort in Paul’s uncomfortable position. It’s where we often find ourselves. Zealots to the lefts of us, zealots to the right of us, zealots in front of us, volley and thunder their absolute and undoubted truths, while those of us who have to find a way through with real people who are struggling to live real lives in loyalty to the real Jesus know, but realize we simply cannot explain to such people, that things are more complicated than that. Not because we have made them complicated, or because the gospel itself isn’t clear, or because we are fatally compromised, but because real life in God’s world is complicated and the gospel must not only address that real life from a distance but must get down on its hands and knees alongside it and embrace it right there with the love of God (146-147).

Instructions to Elders

Acts 20:28-30
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.
Acts 20:32
And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
More worrying still, some of the sheep, and even some of the shepherds, may turn out to be wolves in disguise (verse 30). And the attack will then take the form, not of direct contradiction or a clash of powers, but of distorting the truth. The greatest heresies do not come about by straightforward denial; most the church will see that for what it is. They happen when an element which may even be important, but isn’t central, looms so large that people can’t help talking about it, fixating on it, debating different views of it as though this were the only thing that mattered (137-138).
Aaron Orendorff
Paul’s remedy to the coming “wolves” is two-fold.

First, the elders are to “pay careful attention to [themselves] and the flock.” In other words, their vocation from the Lord via Paul is to know the sheep with which they have been entrusted, to know them intimately and personally, to care for them, understand them, watch over them and (in some cases) scrutinize them, closely and perhaps at times in ways quite uncomfortable to both the shepherd and the sheep. And yet all of this sheep-watching is to run parallel to the elders own self-watch: “[N]o good using your care for the flock as displacement activity to prevent you needing to think about your own discipline, obedience and maturity.”

Second, Paul commends the elders (and, by extension, the sheep) in general to God and in particular “to the word of his grace.” He describes this word, which would probably be better translated as “message,” as “able to build you up and give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” In other words, running alongside watchfulness must be a positive presentation of what God’s word—the truth of the gospel—really says. This doesn’t mean that heresy is never to be confronted head-on, Paul’s own letters rule out such an outlandish assumption. But it does mean, as the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.

What Do You Value?

Acts 20:18-27
You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
All he knows is that it isn’t going to get any easier, and in that, at least, he was absolutely correct. Those in Ephesus who had watched him through a sustained ministry knew very well that he meant it when he said what he did in verse 24, which stands as a model, challenging but also strangely beckoning, to all who work for the gospel: “I don’t reckon my life at any value, so long as I can finish my course, and the ministry which I have received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the gospel of God’s grace.” That witness, as much by what Paul was and did as by what he said, stands to this day (133).
Aaron Orendorff
With the Ephesian elders gathered to him, Paul’s farewell address draws together a number of themes that dominated his ministry.

First: the act of preaching. Paul uses four terms to describe this element of his ministry: declaring, teaching, testifying and proclaiming.

Second: the content of his preaching. Again, Paul strings together a number of descriptive (and most likely, conceptually parallel) phrases: “repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ,” “the gospel of the grace of God,” “the kingdom” and finally “the whole counsel of God.”

Third: his lifestyle. Just as Paul’s preaching was Christ-shaped, in that what he “proclaimed” was Jesus Christ crucified and raised, so too was his lifestyle. He describes it, in v. 19, as “serving the Lord with all humility and with tears” as he faced various trials and torments at the hands of his opponents. The reference here to “tears” reminds us that the pain Paul endured was real. There was no hint in Paul’s ministry of either unfeeling stoicism or proud triumphalism. This is reiterated in vv. 22-24 when he tells the elders that although he doesn’t know what exactly will happen to him in Jerusalem what he does know is that “in every city imprisonment and afflictions await me.” Nonetheless, what drives Paul is not the value of his life but the aim of “finishing the course” and faithfully discharging the “ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus.”

The question then is this: what do I value? What is it that drives and motivates me? Is it “my own life,” that is my own comfort and well-being? Perhaps it’s my reputation, being liked, well thought of or made much of? Perhaps it’s success, even ministerial success? It is absolutely inevitable that something will drive us and motivate us to say what we say, be who we are and to what we do. The basic choice this: either it will be our own lives that are of ultimate value or it will be the life of Christ.

“Manmade gods are no gods at all.”

Acts 19:23-27
About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
Acts 19:35 & 37
And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “. . . you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
There are all kinds of lessons here for the church in later days. Have we learned the lesson of being so definite in our witness to the powerful name of Jesus that people will indeed find their vested interests radically challenged, while being so innocent in our actual behavior that there will be nothing to accuse us of? There is fine line to be trodden between a quiet, ineffective “preaching” of a “gospel” which will make no impact on real life, on the one hand, and a noisy, obstreperous, personally and socially offensive proclamation on the other (123).
Aaron Orendorff
The accusation here in Acts 19:23-27 that Paul has been preaching against “Artemis of the Ephesians,” persuading “a great many people” to turn away from idolatry and therefore destabilizing the “business” and the “wealth” her idolatry supports is probably a direct response to the kind of preaching represented in the Areopagus sermon from Acts 17:22-31. There, Paul’s critique of idolatry is simple: “The God who made and sustains the world does not ‘live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands.’ We are his offspring and therefore ought not to think ‘that the diving being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man’” (17:24, 29).

The issue of idolatry is, in this instance, one of control. Manmade gods are not gods. The real, creator God cannot be contained, neither in a temple nor a statue. The real, creator God cannot be manipulated, neither by sacrifice nor service. Such a God, as C. S. Lewis said, is without a doubt unsafe and yet thoroughly and unreservedly good.

Gospel-Power and Gospel-People

Acts 19:18-20
Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
Aaron Orendorff
There is an organic and indissoluble connection between the life of God’s people and power of God’s word.

Here in Ephesus, the connection in this: wide-scale, public repentance of a very costly and counter-culture kind is both preceded by and adds to the triumph of God’s word. This is not so much a formula for church-growth as it is a culturally specific example of what happens when the power of the gospel collides with and gets inside a city filled with every other kind of power imaginable—political, magical and religious.

The relationship is reciprocal—as Paul preaches, people change; as people change, Paul preaches. Another way to say this is: gospel-power produces gospel-people and gospel-people produce gospel-power. Both are uniquely dependent on the other.

Another “Twelve”

Acts 19:6-8
And when Paul [after their baptism into the name of Jesus] had laid his hands on [the disciples of John the Baptist], the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all. And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.
Aaron Orendorff
It’s tempting, when studying a text like the Bible, to want to make much of numbers. Numerology, however—as well as it might sell books—is a genre related matter and not one of hidden mathematics and Gnostic codes. Still, in Acts 19:7, we must ask the question: why does Luke take the time to point out that there were “about twelve men in all”? We have, at this point in the story, moved through a number of conversion scenes—some with individuals, some with groups; some in private, some in public—and yet rarely does Luke record, to the chagrin of our fascination with numbers, how many people were included. Yet here he does. Why is that?

One clue to answering the question is to ask another: where else have we seen a collection of themes like those in Acts 19:6-8, namely, the baptism of John, baptism into “the name of Jesus,” a miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit resulting in prophesy and tongues, a recorded number of converts (“twelve”) and the bold declaration that God’s “kingdom” has come?

To answer that question we must go back to the very beginning of the book. After speaking to his disciples for forty days about God’s kingdom (Acts 1:3), Jesus instructs them to stay in Jerusalem until “the promise of the Father” arrives, which he describes in terms of a Holy Spirit “baptism” greater than the baptism of John (1:4-5). Interestingly, this “promise” only arrives after Matthias is chosen to replace Judas thus restoring the number of disciples to Jesus’ original twelve. Then, once the Holy Spirit does descend on the day of Pentecost and the twelve disciples begin to “speak in other tongues” and prophesy as Joel foretold (2:4-21), Peter instructs the awed and cut-to-the-heart crowd to repent and “be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus.” As a result, Acts 2:41 tells us, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

The parallels are staggering and the point seems to be this: what’s happening here in Ephesus is precisely what happened in Jerusalem at Pentecost which is also precisely what happened inside Cornelius’ house in Acts 10: God is redefining and expanding the communal identity of His people.

So, why twelve? For the same reason that Jesus chose twelve originally and that Matthias replaced Judas: the locus of God’s people—the twelve tribes of Israel—have, at the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, been reconstituted around the person of Jesus and it is faith in Jesus (i.e., his name), instead of an ethnic or nationalistic marker, that now identifies those who belong to the Spirit-produced people of God.

Community and Learning

Acts 18:24-26
Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Luke offers us no set pattern for the way in which people come, step by step, into full membership of the Christian family and full participation in all the possibilities that are thereby open to them. Sometimes it happens this way, sometimes that. Just as humans grow to maturity at different paces, and some make great strides in one area while other have to catch up later, so it seems to be in the church. What matters is that we are open, ready to learn even from unlikely sources [i.e., “Priscilla helping her husband Aquila to teach a learned scholar from the great university city of Alexandria”], and prepared for whatever God has to reveal to us through the scriptures, the apostolic teaching, and the ongoing and always unpredictable common life of the believing family (108-109).
Aaron Orendorff
Throughout the book of Acts, great stress is laid upon the centrality of community in the Christian life. This stress runs contrary to a number of distinctly American assumptions about how life in general and Christianity in particular works. Many well-meaning (though misguided) disciples live out of on a nexus of individualistic principles that revolve, in one way or another, on the assumption “It’s just me and Jesus” or “It’s just me and the Bible.”

Here, with the introduction of Apollos, is one of the most powerful antidotes to those kinds of assumptions. Luke takes great pains to describe Apollos’ pedigree: a native of Alexandria (the great, as Wright points out, “university city”), an “eloquent man” (literally, a man of the word, that is, learned or cultured), “competent in the Scriptures,” having been “instructed in the way of the Lord,” “fervent in spirit,” and speaking and teaching “accurately the things concerning Jesus.” Luke could hardly have compiled a more flattering picture of a preacher-teacher. And yet, for all of his excellent learning and clear ability, two tent-makers—a man and a (gasp) woman—take this scholar aside in order to explain to him the way of God more accurately.

The lesson: God has built the Christian life—in all its various parts, including both learning and teaching—to be done in the context of community. To learn from and lean upon the insight and knowledge of others is not a weakness in faith, it is its fruit.

A Matter of Worship

Acts 18:12-15
But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.”
Aaron Orendorff
One of the most insightful features of Acts is that we are given (through the eyes of Luke) a window into both the actual content of Paul’s preaching as well as how those who heard it perceived it. Here, in Corinth, the gospel (in the understanding of its opponents) was conceived as a matter of worship; namely, worship “contrary to the law [nomos, or Torah].”

Contrary how? N. T. Wright calls attention to at least three points of contention: “[1] The Christians didn’t insist on circumcision for non-Jewish converts; [2] they did insist on believing Jews and Gentiles sharing table-fellowship; and [3] they had expressed, early on, a strong repudiation of the Temple in Jerusalem” (102).

I would add to these objections two more points of contention that actually provide for and undergird the first three. One, the central feature of Paul’s preaching was, as 18:5 itself reads, “that the Christ was Jesus.” The Messiah, Israel’s anointed king, had come and he had come in the person of Jesus to both suffer and rise. Two, faith in this Jesus—placing your personal trust in him and him alone—is God’s means of justifying all people without ethnic distinction so that in Jesus one, new, grace-dependent people have now been created. As Paul writes in Philippians 3:3, “We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh . . . .”

Proximity, Responsibility and Success

Acts 18:9-11
And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city [Corinth] who are my people.” And he stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[T]he last vision [Paul] had had was of someone telling him to go somewhere he hadn’t expected (16.9), this one was telling him to say put. And the Lord, speaking to him personally . . . gave him an interesting reason: There are many of my people in this city. In other words, evangelism is only just beginning here. Settle down and get on with it. I am at work here and you must trust me and stick it out.

Presumable, Paul needed the encouragement. Visions, both in the New Testament and in much later experience, are not normally granted just for the sake of it. . . . One of the many lessons Acts teaches quietly, as it goes along, is that you tend to get the guidance you need when you need it, not before, and not in too much detail. Enough to know that the Lord Jesus has many people in this city, and that he wants you, Paul, to stay here and work with them (98-99).
Aaron Orendorff
The question that immediately comes to mind when reading Acts 18:9-11 is this: Can I apply what Jesus said to Paul in Corinth to my situation here in (blank)? Are there also “many in this city who are [His] people?” How are we to answer this question?

One line of reasoning seems to be this: If, as Paul said in Acts 17:26, there is one creator God—“being Lord of heaven and earth”—who has sovereignly “determined” both when and where people live for the express purpose of seeking Him, then concluding that this same God—who passionately desires to be known—has also “determined” both when and where we, His redeemed people, live for the express purpose of leading others to seek Him seems more than just reasonable, it seems required. I recently heard someone say, “Proximity implies responsibility.” What this means is that God has placed us when and where we live to be agents of his gospel calling those around us—those within our “proximity”—to Him. We are, perhaps, not quite as guaranteed as Paul to assume all those we meet “are His people,” but we can be nonetheless assured that some certainly are. Proximity not only implies responsibility; it (to some degree) also implies success.

A Change in Time and the Resurrected Judge

Acts 17:29-31
“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Now something new had happened! Now there was something to say, particular news about particular events and a particular man, which provided just the sort of new evidence that the genuinely open-minded agnostic should be prepared to take into account, that Epicurean and Stoic should see as forming both a confirmation of the correct elements in their worldviews and a challenge to the misleading elements, and that the ordinary pagan, trudging off to yet another temple with yet another sacrifice, should see as good news indeed. This God . . . has set a time when he is going to do what the Jewish tradition always said he would do, indeed what the must do if he is indeed the good and wise creator: he will set the world right, will call it to account, will in other words judge it in the full, Hebraic, biblical sense (92).

[W]ith the resurrection of Jesus God’s new world has begun; in other words, his being raised form the dead is the start, the paradigm case, the foundation, the beginning, of that great setting-right which God will do for the whole cosmos at the end. The risen body of Jesus is the one bit of the physical universe that has already been “set right.” Jesus is therefore the one through whom everything else will be “set right.”

The double challenge, then, is: first, repent. Turn back from your ways, particularly from your idolatry, your supposing that the gods can be made of gold and silver, or that they live in man-made houses, or that they want or need animal sacrifices! Turn away from these things, give them up, shake yourself free of them. And, second, turn to the living God . . . grope for him and find him (Acts 17.27). You will only do that if you abandon the parodies, the idols that get in the way and distract you from the true God. But if can be done. And it can be done because the living God is at work, changing the times and season so that now the day of ignorance is over and the time of revealing truth has arrived (93).

The Creator Lord and the Good News

Acts 17:24-27
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
So far, so Jewish. . . . [Paul’s message] is the message about the creator God, which is the foundation of all good news, all gospel. Without a creator God, even such good news as you might have (there is hope for bliss yet to come) is purchased at the cost of very bad news (this bliss will not involve the rescue of the present beautiful creation). . . . People sometimes grumble that Paul doesn’t seem to have put much “gospel” into this speech. But actually the whole thing is good news, from start to finish. The specific “good news” of Jesus Christ grows directly out of this doctrine of creation (89).
Aaron Orendorff
Back behind, or perhaps better, running in and through, our relationship with God is the reality of who God is. For example: as a relational, responsive Being, we pray, God listens and God acts. This is true; wonderfully true. And yet this is not all that is true. God is the creator: the vast, incomparable, incomprehensible, untamed God who “made the world and everything in it.” God is also the lord . . . the Lord “of heaven and earth,” of all there is, both physical and immaterial. He has not only made all that exists—all of it!—he has ordered it and governed it so that everything from the boarders of nations to the house you live in has been “determined” by him. And why has this sovereign, all-powerful creator Lord done this? As a show of cosmic strength? To flex is divine, narcissistic muscles? No. He has done so “that [we, all people] should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find.”

The Norming Norm

Acts 17:11-12a
Now these [Berean] Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed . . . .
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
What a relief to find some people who are actually prepared to say, in effect, “Well, we hadn’t even thought this sort of thing before; but let’s have a look at the scriptures and see if it’s true.” That is, again and again, all a preacher can really ask for: don’t take it from me, we say, go home and study the scriptures for yourselves and see how it all fits together (82-3).
Aaron Orendorff
Within the bounds of orthodox Christian faith, Scripture functions as a sort of ethical, epistemic and theological first principle. God’s word in written form is, as D. A. Carson and others have said, a “norming norm” against which all other norms, or standards, must be plumbed. Everything else—whether practical or philosophical—is held to this measurement. Why? Because the words of Scripture are the words of God.

The nobility of the Berean Jews—that is, their virtue—was integrally connected to their relationship to Scripture. It is not merely that they “received the word [of Paul] with all eagerness,” but that they examined this new word against God’s old word “to see if these things were so.” The result, of course, was not mere intellectual assent, as if all Paul was after was simple agreement—“Yes, that appears to be true.”—but rather belief, trust in the Messiah. Ethics—i.e., “nobility”—epistemology—i.e., “examination”—and theology—i.e., “belief”—all therefore meet together, held not in tension with one another but in proportion to the word of God and the holistic response it produces.

Another King!

Acts 17:6-8
And when they could not find [Paul and Silas], they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” And the people and the city authorities were disturbed when they heard these things.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
Well, yes. Paul would probably, if pushed, say that they were turning the world the right way up, because it was currently upside down, but he would most likely have been quite pleased to see that the people had at least understood that he wasn’t just offering people a new religious experience, but announcing to the world that its creator was at last setting it all right. And the charge goes on, “all of them [are] acting against Caesar’s decrees”—they don’t say which ones, but the meaning seems to be in the final phrase—“saying that there is another king, namely Jesus.”

Another king! Well, they really have got the message. Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t; the fundamental “decree” or “dogma” of Caesar is that he and he alone in the emperor (78).

[W]hen we stand back from the present incident and look at the whole sweep of Acts as it unfolds before our eyes, we begin to see a pattern emerging, a pattern which will grow and swell until it leaves us . . . wondering what on earth happened next. In Acts 1—12 Jesus is hailed as Messiah, king of the Jews, until eventually the present king of the Jews tries to do something about it but is struck down for his pagan arrogance. Now, from Acts 13 onwards, Jesus is being hailed as “another king,” “lord of the world”; but there already is a “lord of the world,” and anyone who knows anything about tyrants, particularly ancient Roman ones, knows well that they don’t take kindly to rivals on the stage (79).

A Political Citizen and a Christian Apostle

Acts 16:37-38
But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
God had given [Paul] the extraordinary position of being a highly trained Pharisee and a Roman citizen, and had called him to do a job. Paul took it for granted that the tools God had given him were tools he should use.

This doesn’t provide an easy template for all subsequent Christians to figure out how they should employ their political or civic status within their Christian vocation. That will vary from time to time, regime to regime, and vocation to vocation. It does suggest, once more, that we should avoid easy dogmatisms of this or that kind and, while holding firmly to the belief that Jesus is Lord and the through him God’s kingdom is indeed coming on earth as in heaven, be ready for some surprises as to how that latter reality is brought to birth (73).
Aaron Orendorff
While much is often said in the church about spiritual gifting, very little instruction is devoted to the much more complicated question of position and vocation. Often, this imbalance is owing to an assumed, though unexamined, dualism that separates the spiritual from the secular. The church, it is implicitly presumed, has to do with what is spiritual in nature and its aim, therefore, ought to be to extract people more and more from the world around them into a cloistered, “godly” existence.

Here, however, in Acts 16, and elsewhere along his journeys, Paul makes full use of his political position as a Roman citizen in the service of his Christian vocation as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In Paul’s mind, the two roles—one secular, the other spiritual—were not separate entities but rather two sides of the same, holistic coin. Paul was who he was and he was willing to bring the totality of his life to bear on his calling to spread the gospel.

The question for us, therefore, ought to be similar: what “secular” positions has God placed us into and how are we being called to bring them to bear in service for the gospel?

Summarizing the Good News

Acts 16:29-30
And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said,“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[T]he Christian message, the evangel or “good news” . . . isn’t about getting in touch with one’s inner spiritual self. It isn’t about committing oneself to a life of worship, prayer and good works. It isn’t even about believing in some particular theory of how precisely God deals with our sins in the death of Jesus. It is about recognizing, acknowledging and hailing Jesus Christ as Lord . . . . Everything else is contained within that--all the volumes of systematic and pastoral theology, all the worship and prayers and devotions and dogma, all the ethics and choices and personal dilemmas (68).

“Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

Acts 16:9-10
And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Aaron Orendorff
Ultimately, the spread of the gospel is not about God winning at the expense of those who oppose him. Often, our vision of evangelism reflects an “I don’t want to bother you but . . .” sort of attitude instead—as the Macedonian vision presents it—an “I know you’re desperate for hope and meaning so let me share with you . . .” attitude. What a difference it would make to feel called not just by God by the lost around us to share the message of the gospel.

A Sharp Disagreement

Acts 15:37-41
Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[I]f anyone suggests that Luke . . . is trying to whitewash early church history, or make out that the apostles were fledged angles, they should think again. This is a shameful episode, and the fact that it stands in scripture should not make us afraid to say so. On the contrary, its scriptural status should be interpreted as a sign that the Bible itself is warning us against allowing such a thing to happen (52).

The [Greek word in v. 39] is paroxysm, from which of course we get “paroxysm” [meaning, a “sudden violent emotion or action”]. When the word is used in a medical context it can mean “convulsion” or refer to someone running a high fever. It carries overtones of severely heightened emotions, red and distorted faces, loud voices, things said that were better left unsaid. A sorry sight (53).
Aaron Orendorff
It doesn’t seem to be readily apparent what sort of lesson Luke is teaching in the separation of Barnabas and Paul. In one sense, of course, his primary aim isn’t to “teach a lesson” but rather to report the facts—the history of how the church came to be. And yet, Luke’s history (like all biblical history) isn’t a bare presentation historical events, but instead history with a purpose, history endowed with meaning, both theological and ethical. Instead of just venturing a guess, I’m going to spend a bit more time with this particular episode and see what comes up.

The Freeness of Grace

Jonathan Edwards, On Knowing Christ
The grace of God in bestowing this gift [i.e., His Son] is most free. It was what God was under no obligation to bestow. He might have rejected fallen man, as he did the fallen angles. It was what we never did any thing to merit; it was given while we were yet enemies, and before we had so much as repented. It was from the love of God who saw no excellency in us to attract it; and it was without expectation of ever being required for it.—And it is from mere grace that the benefits of Christ are applied to such and such particular persons. Those that are called and sanctified are to attribute it alone to the good pleasure of God’s goodness, by which they are distinguished. He is sovereign, and hath mercy on whom he will have mercy (37).

Now whatever scheme is inconsistent with out entire dependence on God fall, and of having all of him, through him, and in him, it is repugnant to the design and tenor of the gospel, and robs it of that which God accounts its lustre and glory (47).
Aaron Orendorff
It is a profoundly frightening thing to be exposed to the sheer graciousness of the gospel. To understand, as Edwards writes, that God might have simply rejected fallen humanity and been none the less glorious, just or perfect is to simultaneously understand that nothing (save the free and sovereign activity of God) stands in the way our rejection. There was and is no “excellency” inherent to us us that motivated God to act; not even the prospect of our repentance, which is itself an outworking and result of grace, propelled God toward us. God and God alone—through the unmerited (and, in fact, counter-merited) grace of the gospel—is all that separates us from who we are, what we deserve and the rescue of forgiveness and eternal life.

Rebuilding the House of David

Acts 15:13-19
After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’
“Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God . . .”
Amos 9:11-12
“In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name,” declares the LORD who does this.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
[C]rucially, [James] cites a biblical passage which sums up so much of the theology both of Acts and Paul: when the house of David has been re-established, then the Gentiles will come flocking in to share in the blessings that will follow. This passage, from the end of the prophet Amos (9.11-12), follows hard on the heels of a warning about God’s judgment on his own people . . . . But, once “the house of David that has collapsed” is restored—and James, like all early Christians believed as a first principle that that was what had happened through Jesus being established as Messiah by his resurrection—then not only will the nations come flocking in, but Israel itself will be restored (9.11-15). James goes for the center of the passage, and draws the conclusion that the Gentiles are indeed welcome as they are, on the basis of God’s grace and with faith in Jesus as their only badge of membership (44-5).

Through Many Tribulations

Acts 14:21-23
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
N. T. Wright, Acts for Everyone (Part Two)
The worrying thing, of course, is this: when Paul and Barnabas laid hands on the newly appointed elders, and then left them to it, that didn’t mean they were automatically “safe.” Indeed, it probably meant that that was when new times of testing would burst in on them. That is often how it works. But Paul meant what he said in verse 22: it is through much suffering that we shall enter God’s kingdom. And sometimes the suffering comes in the form of terrible, church-dividing controversy (36).
Aaron Orendorff
There’s nothing romantic about suffering in the moment. Many beautiful and profound words may be said in expectation and reflection, but the point of suffering is just that: suffering. No matter how prepared you are or how cross-centered your theology, suffering hurts (particularly in the first round). We may arm ourselves so as not to be blindsided nor sinfully provoked, but pain is still (nonetheless) pain. This, of course, is not by defect, but by design. Suffering is supposed to hurt.

So then, what makes suffering bearable in the short term and profitable in the long? Just this: it is in the suffering that Christ is known. Paul described the pattern like this: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). Here in v. 22, Luke echoes Paul’s sentiments: “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

The journey isn’t easy. But again: that’s the point. To have a crucified King means living a crucified life.

The Glory of the Giver - John Piper on Prayer

John 14:13
Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
John 16:24
Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.
John Piper, Desiring God
[T]he pursuit of our interest and our happiness is never above God’s, but always in God’s. The most precious truth in the Bible is that God’s greatest interest is to glorify the wealth of His grace by making sinners happy in Him—in Him (159)!

How then do we glorify Him? Jesus gives the answer in John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” We pray! We ask God to do for us through Christ what we can’t do for ourselves—bear fruit. Verse 8 gives the result: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit.” So how is God glorified by prayer? Prayer is the open admission that without Christ we can do nothing. And prayer is the turning away from ourselves to God in the confidence that He will provide the help we need. Prayer humbles us as needy and exalts God as wealthy (161).
Psalm 50:15
. . . call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
John Piper, Desiring God
God’s insistence that we ask Him to give us help so that He gets glory (Psalm 50:15) forces on us the startling fact that we must beware of serving God and take special care to let Him serve us, lest we rob Him of His glory (168).
Isaiah 64:4
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts [or, “works”] for those who wait for him.
John Piper, Desiring God
To wait! That means to pause and soberly consider our own inadequacy and the Lord’s all-sufficiency and to seek counsel and help from the Lord and to hope in Him (Psalm 33:20–22; Isaiah 8:17). . . . God aims to exalt Himself by working for those who wait for Him. Prayer is the essential activity of waiting for God—acknowledging our helplessness and His power, calling upon Him for help, seeking His counsel (170).

God is not looking for people to work for Him, so much as He is looking for people who will let Him work for them. The gospel is not a help-wanted ad. Neither is the call to Christian service. On the contrary, the gospel commands us to give up and hang out a help-wanted sign (this is the basic meaning of prayer). Then the gospel promises that God will work for us if we do. He will not surrender the glory of being the Giver (171).
1 Peter 4:11
If anyone speaks, he must do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he must do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
John Piper, Desiring God
The Giver gets the glory. So all serving that honors God must be a receiving. Which means that all service must be performed by prayer (173).