THE CONVERSION OF CORNELIUS and his household is so important a step in history that it is recorded twice (chs. 10 and 11, in Peter’s recounting) and mentioned again in Acts 15. Not only were these converts fully Gentile (though also “God-fearers,” or Gentile sympathizers with Jews and Judaism, who figure greatly in the Acts story), they are connected to the Roman military and occupation. That alone does not justify war nor Christian participation in it. It shows how powerful are the Spirit and the grace of God, reaching even into the idolatrous, unjust and violent imperial system. Though Cornelius is now delivered safely into the kingdom of God, he is also delivered into a dilemma similar to those of the tax collectors and prostitutes who flocked to Jesus: something will have to change. In the first few centuries of the church, soldiers who became Christian either left the military, if possible, or if not, transferred and accepted demotions to noncombatant positions until they could leave. They were also placed at odds with the idolatrous and religious aspects of military service, such as swearing oaths to Caesar as a god, or participation in secret religious rites or societies unique to their units.
ANTIOCH AND THE FIRST MISSIONARY JOURNEY, from chapters 13 on, display a new development: the church of Antioch, rather than the church of Jerusalem, is the new center of Holy Spirit-driven mission to the Gentiles. Perhaps the Jerusalem church was occupied with mission to the Jews, such as those in Judea, Palestine and the Diaspora (e.g., Baghdad and Alexandria). Paul, Barnabas and John Mark leave Antioch and go first to familiar territory: Cyprus (for Barnabus), then Turkey (for Paul). Also familiar to them is the synagogue, where they most often preached first, to reach fellow Jews and then sympathetic and knowledgeable Gentiles, either converts or “God-fearers.” This second group then gave them entry to the wider Gentile world, so that the new Christian community was ethnically mixed. The preaching of the gospel forced a choice, of either acceptance or rejection and persecution. Either way, the gospel and the kingdom spread. Then, after much teaching, but before leaving for the next setting, the missionary team would appoint elders and pastors over the new congregations, after much prayer and fasting.
Prayer and fasting are also key to the spread of the gospel in Acts. Through them the Spirit gives direction and power for the work.
THE ROLE OF CONFLICT in the Gospel’s spread: Luke does not paint an ideal or unrealistic picture of the relationships of all the first generation Christians. Conflicts arise, such as over the care of Greek/Jewish widows, the role and place of Mosaic Law among Gentile Christians, and whether John Mark should accompany Paul and Barnabas on their second missionary journey. Either the conflict leads to discernment, which leads to new gospel breakthroughs, or, in Acts 15: 36-40, it leads to an agreement to disagree, which also permits more spreading of the gospel. Christians then should not be so afraid of differences of opinion or even of conflict, but should instead see them as opportunities for discernment, breakthroughs and growth. Conflicts and disagreements are inevitable, sometimes even desirable. The question is, How do we go about conflict? Are we hard on problems and soft on people, or hard on people and soft on problems?
THE RESULTS OF THE JERUSALEM COUNCIL may puzzle the modern reader: “to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality (15: 29). Anything to do with idolatry and immorality we can understand, but why blood and “the meat of strangled animals?” The answer has to do not only with food, but with eating together, especially during the Love Feast. Jewish and Gentile Christians worshiping and eating together is a sign of the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. But just as Jews would have to overcome some of their ingrained habits and feelings around eating with Gentiles, so would Gentiles have to make some allowances, curtail their freedoms and show respect for the sensibilities of their Jewish fellow believers if such signs of kingdom-based interdependence were to happen.
While today the issues may not be blood or butchering by strangulation, other issues of cultural significance may be dividing Christians unnecessarily, requiring of us some voluntary acceptance of limits to our freedoms, such as in the culture wars around worship music.
PAUL’S SERMON IN ATHENS (Acts 17): Was it a success or a failure? His act of speaking in terms that the Athenian scholars could appreciate, even quoting some of their thinkers and poets, has often been held up as a model of missionary sensitivity. And it led to a few conversions. But when Paul later reflected upon his entry into Corinth (I Cor. 2: 1-4), he said he came eschewing all attempts to convince anyone by worldly wisdom, and would instead rely on the preaching of the cross, about “Christ and him crucified,” a shocking, scandalous message that sounds like foolishness, but which really confronts the world, in mirror image fashion, with its own folly. More than a few scholars suggest that Paul may have come to Corinth shaken and disappointed by his experience in Athens. Did Paul’s attempt to appeal to the high class scholars on their own terms only do more to reinforce their trust in their worldly wisdom, when that way of wisdom is what they most needed to have shaken?
WHY DON’T WE SEE SUCH AMAZING GOSPEL BREAKTHROUGHS such as the three thousand converts on that first Pentecost after Easter, or in some of the Samaritan and Gentile settings where Paul, Silas and Barnabas preached? Sometimes there still are, as in places where the gospel first enters a pagan people group. But for most of the people reading this blog, we are in a different context, one in which our societies are somewhat familiar with the church, have long domesticated it, are bored or indifferent to it, or even hostile to it, sometimes for fault of the church, as in recent clergy sex abuse scandals. Then the Gospel is not courting new people, but seeking a new hearing from many who have divorced from it. Acts still gives us directions in this different task: prayer, faith and boldness are still necessary for the task of evangelism. But so are great love and great integrity. And patience, including patience in the face of persecution. Rather than getting reactionary and defensive in response to real or perceived persecution, Christians should anticipate the kinds of breakthroughs that can happen when persecution and opposition are met with the essential missionary ingredients of Acts mentioned above: great love and integrity, patience, prayer and the Holy Spirit.
PSALM 107 bears the elements of a Wisdom Psalm (v. 43 “Let the one who is wise heed these things
and ponder the loving deeds of the LORD”), but also those of a hymn of praise, with a recurrent refrain that may indicate some sort of litany (v. 5 “Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind.”) We learn wisdom through worship and through meditating on the redemptive deeds of God. Some of the deeds recounted bear some similarity to other stories in the Bible, such as the settlement of Canaan, deliverance through judges from oppression, the deliverance of the crew that carried Jonah from the storm. But the language is general enough to indicate that God continues to do such things in history, and that we would do well to take note and ponder his works.
PSSALM 108 records the prayer and litany of an Israelite king (David) about to go to war. Recent events have left the nation doubtful that God has acted on their behalf (v. 11), and yet the king and the nation implore God’s help. The psalm even contains a prophecy of victory, direct from God, in verses 7-9. The phrase, “Over Edom I toss my sandal,” reflects an ancient practice by which people showed that they intended to purchase or redeem land for themselves, that of tossing their shoe onto it (Ruth 4:7). God thus lays claim to all of Israel’s neighbors and enemies.
For the pacifist Christian church, such psalms initially pose problems until we remember that “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God for the pulling down of strongholds,
casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:4-5).” In Christ, the means and the aims of our now spiritual warfare have been transformed into a fight against every form of violence against the knowledge and the image of God, whether within or among ourselves. But we still are engaged in nothing short of warfare, warfare of the kind that Jesus waged against Satan and his wiles. Read Psalm 108 in this light for maximum insight.
PSALM 109 contains frightening and disturbing words and images of cursing and imprecation against the psalmist’s persecutors and oppressors. This doesn’t square initially with Jesus’ command, to love those who hate us and to pray for those who persecute us. At least, this is likely not the kind of prayer for one’s persecutors that Jesus had in mind.
Yet who has never felt this way against someone else? And when that happens, what is the value of hiding it from ourselves or from God? Sometimes we must discharge these feelings before we can go on to “love our enemies.” This Psalm assures us that it is safe to bring such feelings to God.
But the psalm contains another surprise. This is the prayer of the poor and oppressed (vv. 21-22). Looking to Israel’s imperial and pagan neighbors, we see that their versions of prayers and psalms usually were exercises in royal propaganda, prayers by or to the royalty as deity. Much more rarely did they pray from the perspective of the poor and oppressed, or against injustice and abuses by the high and mighty. They were the prayers of, or to, the high and mighty. So it is with media, marketing and much of politics today. Psalm 109 then contains a warning to the high and mighty, the powerful and oppressive, against treating the poor and powerless in ways mentioned here. And though we would hopefully wish on no one (and their descendants) the kinds of punishments prayed for in Ps. 109, a quick glance at history shows that such consequences do often befall the most wicked and abusive oppressors, by way of simple laws of consequences, moral and spiritual.