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The Growth of the Early Church

Saturday, July 24, 2021

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Acts 2:42

After Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared to the apostles, he told them to go to Jerusalem and wait to be baptized by the Holy Spirit who would lead them in the expansion of God’s kingdom. When they received the Spirit, thousands of people were converted and the church began to grow. Throughout the book of Acts, Luke describes the growth of the church in several summary statements. The first one is a great example. In Acts 2:38-47, Luke introduces four specific practices of the early church:

  1. The apostles’ teaching — attention to God’s word and works
  2. The fellowship — shared participation and resources
  3. The breaking of bread — also known as the Lord’s Supper
  4. The prayers — a regular pattern of worship

These four acts of devotion (Acts 2:42) are repeated and expanded in the following verses:

  1. Wonders and signs were done through the apostles (43)
  2. The church shared their resources (44-45)
  3. They continued to break bread (46)
  4. And praise God together (47)

Then Luke writes, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47) The section begins with a description of people responding to the gospel with repentance and baptism, and receiving the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38-41) The next section shows the things the church did that follow a forgiven, Spirit-filled life. (Acts 2:42-47) Luke intentionally frames these patterns of devotion with summary statements about the growth of the church (Acts 2:41, 47).

Noticing this sequence helps us understand God’s design for the growth of the church. Repentance, baptism, and the forgiveness of sins come first in the text because they come first in the life of every Christian. When we change our minds about God (repentance), we turn away from our sins and toward Jesus. We surrender ourselves to him in faith by being baptized. This is the turning point of our lives where we receive the forgiveness of sins and are put into a right relationship with God (Father, Son, and Spirit, Mt. 28:19).

Once in God’s family, we begin to live a radically different life. This new life is spent in the regular patterns of devotion outlined in Acts 2:42 — learning, sharing, feasting, worshiping. All four of these acts of devotion contribute to both the individual growth of Christians and the collective growth of the church (Acts 2:41, 47).

These repeated statements of growth remind us of God’s intention for humans in the beginning. When God created humans in his image, he generously provided for all their needs and taught them to “be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen. 1:27-31) This command is repeated to Noah after the floodwaters cleansed the earth. He was also blessed and told to “be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen. 9:1-7) Later on, Abram and Sarai, who were too old to have children, were blessed by God who promised he would “greatly multiply” their descendants bringing blessing to the world. (Gen. 12:2; 15:5; 17:2; 26:4, etc.)

The beginning of God’s church is like a new creation. God’s newly formed people are blessed and multiply, bearing fruit for him filling the earth with God’s glory. Through Jesus, God fulfilled his promise to Abraham to “bless all nations.” (Acts 3:25-26) Now, through the church, God’s blessing of life continues to multiply as we devote ourselves to these four activities: we devote ourselves to learning about God and his work; we devote ourselves to sharing life as one family; we devote ourselves to remembering Christ’s sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper; and we devote ourselves to praising God together.

Knowledge

Saturday, July 17, 2021

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…”

Hosea 4:6

The book of Proverbs invites those who fear the LORD to gain wisdom and instruction (Prov. 1:7) because it is always better to be smart than dumb (Ecc. 2:13). The ignorant suffer while the wise “will dwell secure and be at ease” (Prov. 1:29-33). But those who pursue knowledge and have not the wisdom to wield it also suffer. Notice three simple things about knowledge from the Scriptures.

A lack of knowledge is destructive

There is a clear correlation between ignorance and ungodliness. The unbelieving Gentiles “walk… in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding… because of the ignorance that is in them.” This is not due to an intellectual deficiency on their part but rather “due to their hardness of heart.” Ignorance leads to poor moral choices and destructive behavior (Eph. 4:17-19).

Despite having the Law, Israel also suffered from ignorance. They were destroyed for their “lack of knowledge” and “discernment” (Isa. 1:3; 5:13; 27:11). There was “no knowledge of God in the land” (Hos. 4:1) because God's word wasn’t being taught. The priests were responsible for teaching the Law (Lev. 10:11; Deut. 17:10-11) so God addressed them: “because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (Hos. 4:6). The Law was not to be presented as a list of factoids about God or merely a checklist on our behavior. The goal of instruction was for Israel to “know the LORD” (Hos. 2:8, 20; 5:3-4; 11:3-4; 6:1-3, 6) and what it meant to practically follow him. Jesus echoed this in his prayer: “this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3; cf. 1:18). True knowledge which results in eternal life is knowing God both intelligently and relationally.

A lack of love is also destructive

As crucial as knowledge is, knowledge by itself is no good. There were some in Ephesus who were “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). Knowledge can make us arrogant people (1 Cor. 8:1) if not wielded with love (1 Cor. 13:2). The Corinthians were tearing each other down with their “knowledge” because it was not expressed with any concern for their brethren (1 Cor. 8:1-13; Rom. 14:15). If we lack love we use knowledge as a destructive weapon instead of a healing instrument.

Love shaped in knowledge is the way

John commonly associated light with both truth and love. "Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” (1 Jn. 2:10-11)

Therefore, the parallel increase of love with knowledge is the way of Christ. Paul prayed “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment…” (Phil. 1:9-11). The Scriptures always hold love and truth together in balance because we tend to emphasize one over the other. Pursuing love at the expense of truth or truth at expense of love results in a failure to express either one sincerely (Eph. 4:15; 3 Jn. 1). Therefore, love must be strengthened with knowledge of the truth and knowledge must be tempered with love for one another.

Only when our “hearts” are “knit together in love” will we “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3) We must “put off the old self with its practices and… put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col. 3:10)

Love Simple and Profound

Saturday, July 10, 2021

“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”

John 11:5

The love of Jesus can be known and, yet, it surpasses knowledge. His love is limitless in its dimensions and requires Spirit-wrought strength to comprehend in its fullness (Eph. 3:14-19). The story of Lazarus’ resurrection illustrates this simple, profound, and often challenging love of Jesus.

In the story, Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, was ill. Upon receiving the news, Jesus declared, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Jn. 11:1-4). These words prime us for another miracle. Jesus had done amazing things before to demonstrate his identity, or reveal his “glory” (Jn. 2:11).

We expect Jesus to leave immediately for Bethany to heal Lazarus, but instead, “when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (Jn. 11:6). Even more strange, Jesus seemed to speak in riddles to his disciples. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to wake him” (Jn. 11:11). But if he were asleep, wouldn’t he be able to wake up on his own? Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (Jn. 11:12-15). How could he be glad that his friend died? If he was glad, why, when he arrived at the tomb, did he openly weep for him (Jn. 11:33-35)? He then told them to remove the stone from the tomb even though, by that point, Lazarus had been dead for four days, long enough for the body to begin to decay (Jn. 11:38-39). Both sisters gave voice to their grief and confusion by repeating the same statement, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (Jn. 11:21, 32). The mourners also raised the question, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (Jn. 11:37)

Though Jesus’ words at the beginning of the story prepare us for something big (Jn. 11:4), the people suffering at the funeral in Bethany were confused. They didn’t see how it could turn out “for the glory of God.” In their minds, death was the end. Even the power of Jesus, they thought, was limited. If Jesus had really loved them, wouldn’t he have rushed over to spare them this grief? And yet, John insists at the very beginning, Jesus did love them (Jn. 11:5). Jesus’ love can be seen at three different points in the story.

The love of Jesus waits — Look back at Jn. 11:5-6. Jesus loved them, “So (or “therefore”) he stayed two days longer…” Somehow, it was because Jesus loved them that he waited until Lazarus died. Jesus’ waiting while we suffer is somehow compatible with his love.

The love of Jesus weeps — “Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”” (Jn. 11:35-36) Even though he knew how the story would end, he shared in their grief because he loved them.

The love of Jesus raises the dead — Finally, Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out!” (Jn. 11:43) This too is love. Jesus doesn’t just wait and he doesn’t just weep with us. He acts to reveal God’s glory. One day, all who hear his voice will rise from the dead!

Do you believe this? — “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (Jn. 11:25-26). Jesus asked Martha this while her brother’s body lie in the tomb, knowing that if Jesus had been there, he could have prevented his death. What about us? When we suffer in this life knowing that Jesus could have prevented it, do we still trust in him? Jesus loves us. He shows his love for us by weeping and waiting with us. One day, his waiting will be over. God’s glory will be revealed. His love will be triumphant. He will right every wrong, wipe away every tear, and raise the dead. Do you believe it?

Adapted from The Confusing and Perfect Love of Jesus, by Joe Rigney @ desiringGod.org

Two Beautiful Women

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Shunem was an obscure city in the territory of Issachar (Josh. 19:18). It was also home to two notable women. Since they are the only Shunammites mentioned in Scripture a comparison is in order.

Abishag the Shunammite — (1 Kings 1)

We meet the first woman at the end of David’s life. After God had promised David a royal dynasty (2 Sam. 7:12-13) his family and kingdom began to fall apart. There was adultery, then murder, two rebellions (15:1-19:43; 20:1-26), a war with the Philistines (21:15-22), and an ill-advised census which resulted in a terrible plague (24:1-25). It is a tragic story of decline.

As David continued to age, his servants tried to solve the issue of the royal succession their own way. They looked for a woman to “wait on the king and be in his service. Let her lie in your arms… So they sought for a beautiful young woman throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite… The young woman was very beautiful, and she was of service to the king and attended to him, but the king knew her not.” (1 Kings 1:1-4)

Sadly, Abishag was regarded as little more than a blanket and a bedfellow for the king. The Hebrew expression “to wait” appears in Lev. 18:23 as “give herself,” which tells us the advisors’ intention was for Abishag to make herself sexually available to David. Another phrase, “lie in your arms,” also has sexual undertones (Gen. 16:5; 2 Sam. 12:8; Mic. 7:5). This was a calculated move to use Abishag’s beauty to entice the king and produce an heir. The king’s impotence (“the king knew her not”) was perhaps what sparked Adonijah’s rebellion in the following verses. Even worse, after Adonijah’s rebellion was quelled and Solomon was crowned king, Adonijah asked Bathsheba to “give [him] Abishag the Shunammite as [his] wife” (1 Kgs. 1:13-18) as a kind of consolation prize. This impertinent request cost him his life (1:19-25). Abishag, endowed with physical beauty by God, was regarded as a pawn by men and suffered terrible shame. How many women like Abishag are used in the same way today?

The Wealthy Shunammite Woman — (2 Kings 4)

The only other story of a Shunammite is much more refreshing. It comes years later during the tenure of Elisha the prophet. Unlike Abishag, this woman is not named or described physically. Instead, she is remembered for her wealth, hospitality, and faith.

She invited Elisha to eat as he traveled through Shunem (2 Kgs. 4:8). Recognizing him as a “holy man of God,” she consulted with her husband to make an apartment for Elisha so he could stay whenever he liked (4:9-10). Elisha wanted to thank her in a special way but serving the Lord was reward enough for her (4:12-13).

Elisha later found out she had “no son and her husband is old,” so he promised she would have a son the following year. Stunned, she thought the prophet was playing a cruel joke but, sure as God’s word, “the woman conceived, and she bore a son about that time the following spring, as Elisha had said to her.” (2 Kgs. 4:12-17) Years later, the child tragically died in his mother’s arms but Elisha, in a vivid display of God’s power, brought him back to life and restored him to his mother (2 Kgs. 4:32-37). 

These two women, although both from Shunem and both beautiful, are a study in contrasts. One was cursed by her physical beauty and was caught in the middle of a twisted plan that ended in failure and disgrace. The unnamed woman's inwardly beauty was used for God’s good purposes and ended in honor. Abishag, like many women today, was exploited for her perishable beauty and suffered greatly. However, the unnamed woman's imperishable beauty was willingly given in service to God’s kingdom (1 Pet. 3:4; Rom. 6:13).

Caveats & Exceptions

Saturday, June 26, 2021

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:48

Jesus made astonishing claims and gave challenging commands. For example, the Sermon on the Mount is perhaps his most well-known but least understood teaching. It is certainly the least obeyed. In his sermon, our Lord sets forth the ethic of the kingdom he came to establish. It is his own description of what he wants his people to be and to do. The sermon is a call to be different than the rest of the world. He said, “Do not be like them,” echoing God’s commands to ancient Israel to be “holy” (Lev. 18:1-4; Ex. 19:4-6).

Jesus was creating a Christian counter-culture through which God and his power could be known to the world. His disciples’ righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes, both in ethical behavior and in religious devotion. Their love was to be greater and their ambition nobler than the pagans. They were to be “perfect, as [their] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). In each paragraph, Jesus draws a strong contrast between those who live under God’s rule (“the kingdom of heaven”) and those who do not.

Sadly, when expounding such teaching we tend to water it down by focusing on caveats. “Yes,” we say, “Jesus said we are to be perfect but of course none of us are perfect.” That is true but could Jesus still mean exactly what he said? Could he mean that we are to aspire to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, specifically as it pertains to our love for all people including our enemies? (5:43-48)

When we explain everything a passage doesn’t mean we may miss the whole point of what it does mean. When we provide stipulations in the name of ‘clarifying’ a teaching we may strip it of its power. When we highlight the exceptions we often miss the rule.

Jesus teaches us to love our enemy. “Yes, but…” we respond. There are no exceptions to the law of love! Are all the stipulations we attach to the Lord’s commands just an attempt to dodge our responsibility to obey them? Jesus teaches us that marriage is for life. “Yes, but,” we respond, “he also provided the exception clause for divorce.” Perhaps if we spent the same time learning the rule as we do the exception we would have happier, healthier marriages.

Jesus usually doesn’t waste time giving caveats and exceptions. He gives the rule, the kingdom ideal, and expects his disciples to respect and trust him enough to strive for it. Whenever we attempt to restrict Christ’s commands and extend Christ’s permissions we are rejecting God’s rule and acting like the Pharisees and scribes.

Restricting God’s commands — Some will do this to make the commands more attainable. Jesus’ contemporaries restricted the Law’s prohibition against murder and adultery to the act alone, while Jesus shows the intent of the Law included prohibiting angry thoughts, insulting words, and lustful stares. (Mt. 5:21-30) Do we restrict our Lord’s commands to lessen their demands on us?

Extending God’s permissions — The Pharisees and scribes widened the permission of retribution beyond the law courts to include personal revenge, while Jesus upholds the intent of the Law by saying all revenge in personal relationships should be avoided. (Mt. 5:38-42) Do we extend permissions to fit our behavior?

This all comes down to whether we respect Jesus as King or not. If we want to do things our way, we will continue to obscure God’s commands and lower the standard to make it easier for us and others to follow. But the one who has come under the loving, liberating authority of Christ will learn, accept, and try their best to follow his word, despite its uncomfortable implications and difficult demands it puts on their life. They will recognize Christ’s domain extends beyond one’s actions to his words, and beyond one’s words to his thoughts and the intentions of his heart.

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