The God of Strangers

•June 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I never really paid much attention to the Book of Acts until now. I’ve been reading through it in my personal devotions lately, and I’ve begun to see just how beautiful a picture of unity of purpose and faith it is.

There’s one thing about it that I really think is a beautiful continuum that flows out of the life of Jesus.

In an easy-to-miss passage in Acts 13, a brief description of the major ministers in the church of Antioch is given:

“In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch), and Saul.”

As if the verse itself isn’t easy enough to miss, it’s also easy to miss its context. Let’s take a look at the people involved.

Barnabas: The first mention of this man is in Acts 4:26, where he is described as “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus,” who gave a rather large donation to the church after selling some land he owned. His identification marks him as a true Jew, from the tribe of Levi, who had since emigrated to Cyprus. “Barnabas” is an epithet that means “Son of Encouragement,” as this man had a gift of exhorting his fellow believers.

Simeon, called Niger: Back when the world was not truly cosmopolitan and it was easy to identify a man’s geographic origins by his appearance, being called “black” was not meant to be an offensive racial slur. This man’s Jewish name and his epithet seem to hint at an African convert to Judaism.

Lucius of Cyrene: Cyrene, which is in present-day Libya, was a Greek colony during the historical period which Acts describes. Given that he has a a Latin name, it might hint that this man is not actually a Jew, but a Greek.

Manaen (Who had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch): The term “who had been brought up with” is a single word in Greek (suntrophos) which means “fellow nursling.” This implies that this man had the same nursemaid as the king of Judea. The same word can also mean “comrade,” which still implies close ties. This man was not a simple commoner. He was an aristocrat.

Saul: Saul, who became known as Paul, is known as one of the most radical converts in the early church. He was a persecutor turned missionary. However, don’t forget why he was a persecutor: He was a Pharisee. Being a Pharisee required a lofty education and strict religious training. Saul also lists both of these under his “qualifications” later on. (Philippians 3:4-6). Thus, he was the equivalent of a Th.D. during his time.

Taking a look at these five men, we can come up with a simple observation: There is no reason these men should be associating with each other.  Jews would shun a Gentile like Lucius. Indigenous Hebrews, while bound to social rules of hospitality, would not necessarily work closely with an African. An upright man like Saul might see something reprehensible about aristocrats like Manaen. Manaen might think it below him to associate with a commoner like Barnabas. They might as well be strangers—rather, they might as well be strangers, if not for the love of Christ.

In a world that so savagely attacks Christianity these days, in the face of so-called freethinkers who proclaim the Gospel as intolerant, we have much to learn from the simple fellowship of five men of diverse and sundry origins. They were brought together by a common faith, a common purpose, and a common love.  Christ is not one who demands uniformity, but unity. He is a God who reaches out to strangers—like ourselves—and brings us together.

Unflinching Witness

•June 2, 2011 • Leave a Comment

While I greatly admire my students for their courage in standing up for the Gospel, even posting memetic status messages on Facebook, there’s a simple reason why I do not do the same: These memetic status messages bypass one’s inhibitions by using a simple psychological marketing technique: guilt.

Even if they do not use the inane threats like “Your mother or loved one will die if you don’t forward this” (Which I HAVE seen on supposedly Christian chain emails or memetic messages), they still prey on the same instinct. They are able to inflict a subtle psychological pressure on us that make us think we decided to say “Hey, I’ll stand up for Jesus” without us realizing that there was any external pressure at all.

Contrast this with Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was originally chosen to work in the ancient Jerusalem version of a church soup kitchen—to ensure the proper distribution of food to both the Hebraic and Greek believers.  However, witnessing was natural to him.

The verses immediately after his selection (Acts 6:8-15) talk about how Stephen was preaching in public, and how he was so Spirit-filled that the opposition could not argue with him. Let’s step back for a moment and consider Stephen for a moment.

He was witnessing in public, when he knew there was powerful opposition from a large and influential group. Stephen could have said “Oh, since I’m just a charity worker, I’ll stick to ministering by serving food to widows.” He could have saved himself that way. However, he did not. Witnessing was natural to him.

Later on, Stephen is arrested and brought before the most powerful Jewish council, the Sanhedrin. This was the equivalent of Martin Luther being brought before the Diet of Worms (ironic double meaning, I know) and being told to recant, or in our day, being called before the Supreme Court. This was the ultimate judicial authority.

When a bunch of false witnesses come forward (vs 12-13), Stephen is asked if the charges were true. Stephen doesn’t even answer them with a yes or no—once more, Stephen preaches. To the Supreme Court.  In doing so, he knew he would convict himself, because his belief that Jesus was the Son of God was considered blasphemous. He did so anyway. It was natural to him.

This was not an act of witness brought on by guilt. Not by coercion. It was brought about by the movement of the Holy Spirit in his own heart. This wasn’t just his religion. This was his life, in accordance with what the angel told the apostles earlier as he set the apostles free from jail:

“‘Go, stand in the temple courts,’ he said, ‘and tell the people the full message of this new life.'” (Acts 5:20)

The word “life” here is not the biological “bios,” but the spiritual “zoe.” Christ to Stephen wasn’t just a religious leader. His path was a life to be lived. This was why he served food to widows, who were among the most despised and “useless” members of society during that time. This was why he showed them compassion. This was why he witnessed boldly in front of powerful religious authorities.

Looking at Stephen’s short entry in Acts, I just feel so inadequate in my witness. Do I live my life consistently with what I preach? Do I witness as naturally as he did?

Brothers and sisters, dear students—let’s make every effort to be unflinching witnesses. Let’s remember that the Spirit we rely on is the same Spirit that filled Stephen.

The Habit of Meeting

•May 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It is probably not uncommon for newcomers to the faith to wonder why it’s so important for people to be part of a small group. Others, who are more used to traditional religion, might wonder as well why we have to commit to meeting a group that meets outside of regular church hours. Isn’t it enough for us to just sit in church and listen and then go home?

If we dig a bit into the history of the early church, we’ll see why. Acts 2:42-46 expounds on the habits of the first Christians: They devoted themselves to four thing—the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, o the breaking of bread, and to prayer. These were the primary reasons why they met.

The Apostles’ Teaching: Learning and growth are important. No doubt about that. In this case it was important for the new believers to learn from those who had experienced Jesus firsthand. The apostles were able to pass on their learning.

Fellowship: No man is an island. This is no less true for the Christian. “Fellowship” in the Greek has connotations of participation, partnership, and communication. They work together and build up each other. This would be of course, impossible without communication.

The Breaking of Bread: There are few acts of social participation that are as effective at strengthening bonds as sharing meals. This is true for almost any culture–in some it is seen as a sign of great honor to be offered a meal. Even now, when relationships can be changed on the Internet as simply as toggling a few options on your Facebook account, sharing meals still carries a powerful meaning. It is not only a way of relating to people one already knows, but an effective way of reaching out to newcomers as well.

Prayer: Prayer is more than just saying things to God, hoping that He hears them. If individual prayer has a transformative effect on ourselves, then corporal prayer (and I don’t mean simultaneous recitation of formulas, but simultaneously crying out to the Lord) has a transformative effect on our relationships and communities. And this is the case in verses 46-47, where the beauty of the church really stands out:

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

This was not merely a new religion. It was a transformed society that consisted of transformed people. It’s a far cry from the political cabals of the Pharisees and Sadducees, or the profit-oriented markets in the Temple. The early church was about honoring God first, and touching the community around them with positive influence that points people not to any moral code or political orientation, but to Jesus—He’s the one who does the transformation.

Gazing into the Aether

•May 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

As I’d just finished the Gospel of John, I prayed for guidance as to which book I’ll study next. I was lead to Acts. As if to underscore Harold Camping’s failed prediction of the Rapture, Jesus gives some sober instructions before he ascends into heaven.

The book opens with the author (likely Luke), introducing the text to his intended recipient, Theophilus, about how Jesus performed many more proofs of his resurrection, appearing to many throughout a period of 40 days, speaking mostly about “the kingdom of God.”

In Acts 1:4-5, Jesus instructs the Apostles to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit (not so much because the Holy Spirit couldn’t go elsewhere, but that he wanted the church to start spreading from there) to arrive. Because of this, the Apostles are excited. They ask him if he’s going to “restore the kingdom to Israel,” which is code for “Kick out the Romans and make things like the good old days of David.”

The reply Jesus gave was sobering:

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalm, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:7-8)

Afterwards, Jesus ascends before their eyes, and the Apostles spend a good time gawking at the aether. Two angels then appear and tell them to stop gawking, and that Jesus will come back the same way.

It’s interesting that the angels here are described in a relatively simple, mortal-looking fashion (two men dressed in white) as opposed to Luke’s previous account of angelic appearances during the Resurrection in Luke 24:4 (two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning), and even the Old Testament visions of the Ophanim, Cherubim, and Seraphim (which were all very alien and terrifying in appearance.)

While I am no Bible scholar, I can’t help but notice the stark difference, especially since in the New Testament, such visions don’t appear again until Revelation. It’s like they’re saying that Jesus had already given all the signs necessary, and that from then on, Christ’s primary witness of who he was would be through mankind. Yes, miracles were still performed, and while more subtle now, I believe they still do happen. However, the sobering implication of this is that we Christians have to take our testimony seriously.

Yes, Mr. Camping has his good intentions for this, but what happens? Cynics and critics of Christianity instead get more ammunition to mock the body of believers as a whole, and they make no distinction between believers who believed in Mr. Camping’s numerology, and those who are much more sane and much more effective in their witness. I do not want to judge anyone as not being a true believer, but it’s pretty clear that Jesus here desires a much more fleshly and earthly witness of His goodness—us.

Instead of staring at the sky, we’d do better to obey Christ’s command: Receive the power of His Holy Spirit, and be His witnesses to lands nearby and lands far away.

Yes, Jesus will come again. Yes, the End Times are near, and while we cannot know for certain when they will happen and how the events will occur, they are far closer than many believe. However, brothers and sisters, let’s not be caught gazing into the aether when we can instead continue carrying His cross, speaking the truth in love, and humbly but boldly preach the Gospel, living lives deserving of that calling.  That’s how the Church should be preparing for the End Times.

Sheep Farming

•May 21, 2011 • Leave a Comment

As I was reading the final verses of the gospel according to John, I was thinking about how Peter’s reinstatement into the ministry applied to me. Again, I’ve read John multiple times, so I asked the Lord to yet again reveal to me a fresh perspective.

Now, this is going to be my seventh school year of teaching. I was only a class advisor in my first year, and then again last year. I’m going to be an advisor once more this year. I had my reasons for this.

I confess that for the longest time I didn’t want the job. I thought I didn’t have the people skills needed. I thought I didn’t have the creativity and resources to be a good advisor. At the same time I had a comfort zone to maintain and annoying parents to avoid. I didn’t want the job.

Now on to the Scripture:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “feed my lambs.”

(John 21:15)

This repeats twice more, with Jesus slightly changing the wording of his questions: The first is “Do you truly love me more than these,” meaning there is a certain element of relativity in the question: Jesus was asking if compared to “these,” Peter loved him more.

Many Bible commentaries give suggestions as to what “these” were; the Scripture is not explicit. Scholars speculate that Jesus might have been referring to Peter’s career as a fisherman, or the good breakfast he was eating, or the other 10 Apostles, or his own sin and guilt. I think it could have been any or all of the above. It’s a simpler question than it sounds: “Do you love me more than your own ideas, goals, comfort, or relationships?” In the Greek, Jesus uses the word agapao, which we might know is related to agape, the unconditional, ultimate love that Jesus preaches.

A much more sober Peter replies in the affirmative, and Jesus commands him to feed his lambs. Curiously, Peter only replies with phileo–the brotherly sense of love.

The second time, Jesus asks: ” Do you truly love me?” (NIV). Jesus once again uses agapao. In this case, Peter again replies with phileo, saying he does, and Jesus once more commands him to take care of his sheep.

Finally, Jesus asks: ‘Do you love me?’ (NIV). The original punch of this simple question is dampened by the clumsiness of English in handling the complexity of the ancient concepts of love, because this time, Jesus uses the same word that Peter had been using: phileo. This is probably why Peter was hurt. My understanding of the passage is something like this:

Jesus: Peter, do you love me more than anything else?

Peter: I love you–as a brother.

Jesus: That’s okay. Continue my work.

Jesus: Peter, do you really love me?

Peter: I love you as a brother.

Jesus: No problem. Continue my work .

Jesus: Do you love me as a brother?

Peter, emotionally troubled: Lord, you know I do. You know I’m messed up right now about what I did.

Jesus: I know, and it’s fine; Continue my ministry. I know someday you will lay down your life for it.

I think Jesus was allowing Peter to gradually come to grips with his own spiritual state, slowly helping him realize just where he was, and yet at the same time affirming him. Jesus wasn’t being passive-aggressive here; He was gently leading Peter out of a state of denial. For each time that Peter had denied Jesus in front of others, Jesus affirmed him in front of others.

This really spoke to me. I’m not a great Christian. I’m selfish in many ways. I do a lot of stupid things despite knowing better, yet the Lord is willing to meet me where I am and he gave me this great responsibility as an advisor.

Come SY 2010-2011, my first year in GCF-ICS. (Wow, it’s been a year already.) I was assigned to become an advisor, and of course I couldn’t refuse. I knew this time that I had to grow beyond it. I accepted.

I had to relearn how to deal with parents, how to care about students beyond academics, how to establish real, meaningful relationships. I’m very thankful that my kids put up with me as long as they did. I think they’re used to advisors who are much more proactive and intentional. It seems it’s only now that I’m getting back into the groove of being an advisor.

This year, I have a bigger class, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to have to slack off even more. It’s not going to be easy—just ask any person who’s serious in their ministry. After all, despite all of the tender and romanticized pictures of sheep farming (“It’s like having a stuffed toy, except it’s alive!), it’s not going to be easy. I know it won’t be,but this is how God assures me: I know He loves me. I know I love Him. I admit I’m messed up, and He knows—but I know He’s going to give me the strength to pull this off. I am ready to lay down my life for His sheep.

I look forward to meeting you, II-Ephesians.

The Compass of Blessing

•May 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Although I rarely watch TV nowadays, I do enjoy watching survival shows. By this I don’t mean “reality TV” like Survivor, but the more entertaining solo survival demonstrations such as Bear Grylls’s Man vs. Wild. (Yes, I know it’s actually done with close support.) The common trend in all episodes of Grylls’s and similar shows is that one has to keep moving in a direction that will eventually result in one’s survival. Usually, Grylls would look for the lowest point in a valley, or a river, which will eventually lead out to sea or to a village (as civilization tends to grow around rivers). It’s also interesting to note that he invariably gets his bearings first; he establishes a general direction he should go, so that he knows where he is most likely going to get to safety.

As I was reading John 21 this morning, this came to mind as I was reading the rather familiar passage that tells the story of Jesus reappearing to his disciples after His resurrection.

One morning, the disciples (no longer cowering behind a locked door after Jesus appeared to them) decided to take their boat out to the water and go fishing. The trip was a failure; nothing went to them all night. Early the next morning, a mysterious man called out to them, asking them if they had caught anything. When they responded by saying “Nothing at all!”, the man tells them to cast the boat over the other side. The net is miraculously full this time, and we are even given the exact number of fish caught.

This echoes  an earlier instance in Jesus’ ministry when he first met Peter and Andrew (Luke 5 gives the full story, though all the gospel accounts mention Jesus meeting Peter and Andrew while they are fishing); a failed catch, an encounter with Jesus, and a miraculous catch that immediately tells the two fishermen that the man they just met is far more than he seems to be.

Perhaps because of this memory, John’s own character (whom he never names), immediately realizes that the stranger standing on the beach is actually Jesus and points this out to Peter. Immediately, Peter jumps out of the boat and swims to shore.

A few learnings:

1. The blessings we receive in life, great or small, lead us to Christ. Yes, they are good for us, but because God wants not only what is good but what is best for us, these blessings are meant to point us in the direction that is best for us: His direction. The real blessing is not what we get, but the One who actually gives it.

2. It is entirely possible to miss this direction. Peter, perhaps still full of guilt over his denial of Christ, or focusing on the failed catch (as is likely for us in times of failure), doesn’t realize this at first. Thus, as brethren in Christ, it is our role to point out to each other how blessings are to lead us in God’s direction. John takes up this role and helps his friend realize the giver of the blessing.

3. As soon as we realize the direction in which we’re supposed to go, we take off. Peter didn’t just look in Christ’s direction. He didn’t wait for the boat to get to shore. He jumped out of the boat. In all fairness, Peter was not caught up in the blessing or in his own inadequacy (how he tried to shoo Jesus away in Luke 5: “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man!”). He instead focused on his Lord’s goodness and mercy.  Without any whining or moping, he went straight to Jesus. O, that we might all pursue Christ with this kind of intensity!

Blessing is like a compass. The compass itself will not save you, but it will point you in the direction that will. It’s possible to miss out on that direction, so we have to look out for each other; survival chances are always better in a group. When we all know the direction in which to go, we don’t mess around. We take off in that direction.

Ego and Dependence

•May 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Many of us are familiar with the apostle Peter’s often foolhardy and bombastic manner early on in his walk with Christ. He boasted about never leaving Christ’s side, attacked the servant of the high priest during Jesus’s arrest, his refusal to let Jesus wash his feet, among other things.

In John 13:35-38, Jesus has just begun to say farewell to his disciples, but Peter declares in verse 37 that he is willing to follow and even lay down his life for his master. Jesus then makes his prediction of Peter’s betrayal.

We all know what happens later, of course: Peter denies Jesus three times as predicted, and he gets farther and farther from Jesus each time he denies Him. It’s only after the Resurrection that Jesus restores him to the ministry.

Without a doubt, going into the ministry and serving the Lord takes commitment. If I were not committed to teaching, I’d have long left it—checking papers alone is probably something nobody with a soul actually enjoys doing. (I often tell my students and others who are not familiar with the task that it’s like doing the homework of everyone in the batch while making all the same mistakes and being unable to correct it.)

However, commitment here is more than just our own will asserting itself and applying itself to the task. Committing ourself to the Lord’s work more importantly requires our continuous dependence and submission to Him. In John 14:12, Jesus tells us the secret—faith in him empowers to such great extents that we can do things that even Christ was not able to do during his earthly ministry. In John 16:33, Jesus says that while we will encounter trials in the world, He has already overcome it. In Philippians 4:11 and 13, Paul says that he has learned to be content because I can do everything through Christ, who gives him strength.

This dependence and submission is a state that has to be maintained (and it takes effort to do so). The most obvious ways of doing so are of course, spending time in the Lord’s word and in prayer. These habits, in addition to so many other things, remind us of our dependence on the Lord’s empowering grace. Without this, no matter how strong-willed we are, we will eventually end up buckling under the pressures of fear, anxiety, and doubt—which happened to Peter.

Let’s not end there, however—this dependence also transforms us. Peter, for all his impulsiveness, writes to church leaders later in his life:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

And the God of grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make your strong, firm and steadfast. to him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. -1 Peter 5:6-11

I think this is a wonderful testimony of how submission and dependence can transform a bursting ego to a form that outwardly seems meeker, yet contains a deeper, more subtle power—the power to accomplish the Lord’s work and change lives.