Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Two Turtledoves: Leviticus 5

On the second day of Christmas

My true love gave to me

Two Turtledoves

And a partridge in a pear tree.

If you’re wondering why I’m quoting Christmas songs in September, it’s because two turtledoves are part of what we see in Leviticus 5 (link). The book of Leviticus is continuing with instructions about the Law/Holiness Code for the Nation of Israel. We’ve seen some of the offerings described, and eventually Leviticus will get into the specifics of how the people were expected to live.

The starting point, though, are the consequences for when the people fail to live up to the Laws that they have not even heard yet. This is not unlike perusing the Internal Revenue Code and starting with the penalties, because the rest of it is simply impenetrable. You know that something bad will happen if you do this wrong, but you do not yet know what is wrong and what is right.

Now, when we get into the Holiness Code section of Leviticus, it’s less confusing than the Internal Revenue Code. God’s Law was not, after all, written by committee and approved by politicians. The penalties can be severe, but your everyday Israelite was not going to blunder into an error about their actions: clarity matches the brevity. Which is a lesson I have yet to learn.

In those pages of moral, civil, and religious laws, we see a great deal about the holiness and righteousness of the Almighty God. The section that precedes it, though, shows us the compassion of the same God.

How so?

Take a look at Leviticus 5:11. In the midst of all the laws about the required sacrifices for sins and guilt, there is this brief addendum. For those who are without the means to bring an ox, sheep, or other herd-type animal, two turtledoves are to be brought instead.

Why did this matter then?

These are wild birds that were in abundance in the time of Israel. I am uncertain about the availability of a turtledove on the streets of Tel Aviv today, but the average family of Ai or Hebron then would have likely been very tired of cleaning up the turtledove evidences at the time. Being wild and abundant, anyone could have all the turtledoves they wanted. It just took effort. A little skill and training, and one could snare a bird or two in the course of a few days. (Note that some translations render this bird as a pigeon. That shows the commonality of the bird. Oh, and keep your city clean. Eat a pigeon.)

The people did not have to remain distanced from worship because of poverty. They were able to replace that which they could not afford with something that would either be sold much cheaper or which they could obtain on their own. The compassion of God was that He does not restrict access to those who can afford to come. He accepts all those who will put forth the effort to come before Him.

Why does this matter now?

This is always an important question when looking at the Old Testament Law. After all, as Christians we hold that Jesus fulfilled the Law and we are not bound to follow the sacrifices listed within it. There are differences of opinion regarding other parts of the Law, but this much is clear: if one does not think that Jesus going to the cross for your sins satisfied the sin/guilt offerings for you, then you are outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. We may disagree about how that exactly explains out, but that is of lesser importance: how He did it is less important than that He did so.

How it matters now is this: God still is the compassionate, merciful God He was then. After all, God does not change. The same God who made the necessary provision for the poor to come before Him in those times still makes provision for the poor now.

How so?

First, He provided for all, because all are spiritually poor. Actually, spiritually bankrupt and so underwater we make Enron look like a good investment now. In this, none of us have anything to offer God to buy His favor. Our sins are enough to condemn us for eternity. No amount of personal sacrifice is enough to fix that. Yet Jesus went to the Cross to satisfy our debt instead of us doing so. The redeemed are redeemed not because they had enough but because Christ is enough.

Are you trying to pay off what you lack the means to pay for?

Second, He provided for all, because we all are spiritually alone. So He gave us each other to have fellowship, encouragement, and growth from. Typically, we call that gathering of people a church. There are other things bound up in being a church, but one of the purposes is God’s provision for those who are spiritually alone, which all of His followers are as the world does not fit anymore.

And the price to attend church? Paid by the blood of Christ at the Cross. If they charge admission, then it’s not a church. End of story.

What do we do?

Don’t avoid joining with your local body of believers in Christ because you’re poor and lonely. If you are a believer, then that’s the place you ought to be. We miss out on God’s provision for our needs by not taking the provision He has made.

Don’t reject Christ because you think you have nothing to offer. The truth is, no one who comes to Jesus thinking they have something to give, unless it’s a wrecked sin-soaked life, comes with the wrong mind. We all came knowing we had nothing.

The other point applies from the inside: God made it possible for anyone to participate in worship. Be careful that, as a church, you do not make it harder than He did. If someone is too poor to participate in your church, then they are not the ones with the problems. And a side note: this includes building your worship service such that full participation only works for people with smartphones or other gadgetry. Honestly—you’ll take a tweeted question but not a live one? How dare you reject those who cannot afford (or understand) the technology.

Today’s not-so-nerdy note: Some of the other things we have attached to the concept of church take financial/material resources to operate. That is why we view one part of Christian discipleship as learning to give generously in obedience to Scripture. Even so, for some monetary giving just is not happening. I see Scripture as being clear that the efforts and hearts of people are more important than their bank accounts. Someone may be willing and able to give of their time but have little to no income to give from. Let them give as they are led and blessed. Perhaps someone is blessed with time and wishes to do. LET IT HAPPEN. Do not refuse the gifts of the growing heart.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sermon Recap

Just a few notes: I think the videocasting experiment is about to end. It’s not working to relay down to the nursery and we haven’t had anyone else tuning it, so we’ll give it another week or two, but there doesn’t seem to be a need for it. We’ll revisit the idea—I think we have a greater call for finding a way to store and use as a video archive than we do for a livestream, so that’s my next experiment.

Morning Sermon:

Audio here (alternate here)

Outline: Luke 14:15-24

Subject: Be present at the Wedding Feast

     No one must miss Heaven, but some will

Central Theme:

     The grace of God provides more than mere adequacy for eternity and He determines that it should be shared.

Objective Statement:

  Each of us should: 1. receive the grace; 2. extend the grace


Setting: Jesus has just highlighted not to exalt yourself at a banquet, but to attend humbly and allow others to exalt you if you deserve it. One major point is that the host determines who is important. Not the attendees.

Culture: Banquets and feasts were a critical part of social existence at the time. These were important--general evidence suggests a great deal of back-and-forth invitations, who invited whom being social position markers, and a very closed loop: if you were on the list, you were on. Declining an invitation was a sign you deemed yourself more important than the one who invited you.

With that in mind, Jesus tells the story of a banquet. 

     1. The invitation is sent out to those that are worthy first

          A. These are stand-ins for the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other self-important folks

          B. When the time comes to actually participate, these all have excuses

          C. Those who make excuses do so because they see God, the Host, as lesser than they

     2. The invitation is sent out to those that are unworthy next

          A. These are those who have responded to Jesus in His earthly ministry

          B. These participate first--but they were unworthy at the outset

          C. These have little in terms of ability to payback: poor, crippled, blind, lame--certainly not                

          equal, not even capable of returning pennies on the dollar expended

     3. The invitation is sent out to those that are utterly rejected finally

          A. These are those who were not there at the beginning

          B. These participate as fully as the first--but were unworthy and distant at the outset

          C. These were so detached that they were lying in ditches or passing by, but were found by 

          those sent by the Host

          D. These are us


    First: Have you rejected the banquet? You may have said you were coming, but have you truly shown up? Or do you remain aloof, counting yourself as the one who determines whether you will go at all? Or when you will go? Today is the day, step from one who acknowledges the "save-the-date" card and be one who admits their need and becomes a disciple!!

     Second: If you are attending, how are you behaving? As one who deserves to be there? Or as one who did not deserve the invite? Do you, the one plucked from the ditch hold those pulled from the hedge in disdain?

     Third: Have you come alone? Who can you go get?

Evening Message:

We’ve been looking back at the old Experiencing God Bible Study in the evenings, but we’re not using the videos. Instead, I’m trying to highlight certain of the strong aspects of the material and have a discussion. So, I’ll give you the outline that I have used for that:

Friday, September 21, 2012

Evidently Evident Evidence: Acts 11

Take a moment. Now, read the rest of the post :)

Take another moment and think about a time when you did something that you thought was just great. Maybe you were away from home or your normal friends or your typical coworkers and a great opportunity dropped in front of you.

You took it.

Then on the way back, you spent the whole trip thinking of how great it was and how much you wanted to tell the story.

You walked in, the first words you met were “How in the world could you have done that?”

Feel the deflation? If you’ve been through that circumstance, you know the feeling. Here you thought that you had done well but the response is devastating. Someone has either taken issue with all that you did or perhaps just one little detail is under assault, but either way you feel laid low instead of lifted up.

Now, take a look at Acts 11 (link). Well, go back to Acts 10 first (my blog post about is at this link) if you need the context. Peter has gone from the Jewish world into the Gentile world and shared the Gospel. He has got to be excited to see the Word of God go into a place with less opposition than the fledgling faith was facing among the Jewish faith.

Then he goes back to Jerusalem. While the text of Acts is certainly compressed in its relation of events and happenings, the reading feels like Peter walks in the door and rather than hearing “How was the road?” or even “Did you blow out a sandal?” he instead hears “What in the world are you thinking, eating with Gentiles?”

He demonstrates wisdom in his response, though: in an orderly fashion he explains how God showed him the truth. The truth that the Gospel is not bound by circumcision or uncircumcision, not bound by ethnic background or prior religious views. Instead, the Gospel is bound only by the Grace of God.

Peter then goes to discuss the evidence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the new Gentile-heritage believers. The conclusion from the old-line body of believers? “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to live.” (Acts 11:18)

It was a big step for the church, and it is from this step that the church goes forward. The remainder of the chapter shows the establishment of the church at Antioch which becomes the center of the Christian mission. Christian mission because it is here that the disciples are first called Christians, mission because it is from here that intentional efforts to make disciples where there were none go forth.

What if it had been different? What if there had been no evidence from the lives of the Gentiles that showed they were saved by the same God and indwelt by the same Spirit that had come upon the Apostles at Pentecost?

Fortunately it was not the case—the evidence was there. Just as then, now the evidence of our faith should be evident. How so?

1. Faith should be evident in our attitudes toward others. This was not quite the case of the old-line believers at first, but they came around. Our attitude should be one that welcomes hearts that have been granted repentance to life. Prior divisions should be meaningless to us.

2. Faith should be evident by the obvious work of the Spirit of God. In Acts, this was the move of the Spirit to empower speaking in tongues. My conviction is that this was how God authenticated salvation for this group and others in Acts because it met the normative experience from Acts 2, Pentecost, that the Apostles had. Their experience, though, was Spirit-birthed out of practical necessity: people needed to hear the Gospel in diverse languages, so it was empowered.

Today, I would argue that this is not the definite evidence of the Spirit in believers. I think you should check Galatians 5:22-23 for the definite evidence of the Spirit. However, in the speed-growth that was those first years, time was critical, and it is hard to see patience in a week. Unless it’s a really bad week.

3. Faith should be evident by our recognition of the Word of God. For us, this is in the Bible. For Peter, it was the vision and the sheet. God speaks clearly through Scripture today, and our faith should be evident in our recognition of Scripture as God’s Word.

4. Faith should be evident in our repentance from all things not Christ. Note the response: not “Ok, the Gentiles believe.” The response: “The Gentiles can repent, too!” Repentance from sin is the first act of a heart regenerated by Christ. In truth, being born again, having faith, and repenting are so muddled together that they are the crucial ingredients of a new Christian. You cannot truly have one without the other—just as there are three keys to bread: flour, salt, and water (yeast helps, too, but not always) and you don’t have bread until you’ve got them all.

5. Faith should be evident by its spread. The last portions of the chapter set this up: faith does not stay in one place. It is shared with a vibrancy and joy that makes a difference in the world around those who have it. Both in spiritual need and physical—note the presence of Agabus, the prediction of the famine, and the plan to provide for the needs of fellow believers.

In challenging our thoughts:

Does our faith shape the way we see people?

Does our faith shape the way we see events?

Does our faith shape the way we see our future?

If not, why not?

If so, how so?

Today’s Nerd Note:

Prophets then: Agabus makes his first appearance in this chapter, and then he shows up again near the end of Acts. He prophesies of a famine that will affect the ‘whole world.’ Luke notes that this happened, and it happened during the reign of Claudius.

A few notes: first we see that Agabus the Prophet was accurate in his prediction. He does not get it partly right. Second we see that he was precise. There is no vagueness like “perhaps, there might maybe be….”

Prophecy in Scripture may have parts that are unclear, but little (if any) is truly ‘vague’ and none of it is inaccurate.

All of prophecy in Scripture is seen evidence in Agabus in this: prophecy is sent to stir actions of obedience. Here, the church that had means gathered funds to aid the brethren that were in need. Note on brethren: take that to mean all fellow believers, not just men-folk; don’t take it to mean every last person affected by the famine.

So, prophecy is precise, accurate, and requires actions of obedience. Anything that claims to be prophecy but is not all three is probably not prophecy. It may be good preaching, but inspired prophecy? Not there.

An additional aside: throughout Scripture, meeting the needs of the poor is a theme. That theme includes these restrictions: typically it is the poor within the community of faith, not all the poor everywhere; it is the poor that are unable to provide for themselves though they have tried; it is the poor that are poor due to life circumstances not due to personal sin. To claim that the Bible teaches that those with means should have their means taken by threat of force (which is what taxation is, really) to care for those the agent of force (government) deems fit is nonsense.

We should care for the poor. Our hearts should drive us to meet needs and meet needs in an appropriate manner. Those with more ought to see their blessing as the opportunity to give more. Some do: read The Generosity Factor by Ken Blanchard. Yet Christian life originates from the heart, not from outside force.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Someone has to pay for this: Leviticus 4

In one of the last movies Nicolas Cage was in that I actually like, he shares a few scenes with Harvey Keitel. Through the course of National Treasure, several laws are broken, and Keitel is an FBI Special Agent responsible for bringing to justice those who are breaking those laws. He gets the line, frequently, that “Someone’s got to go to prison.” In the off-chance that you have listened to the critics and skipped this film, I won’t spoil how it ends for you about who goes to prison. Suffice it to say that one does not simply walk into Boston’s Old North Church.

The theme, though, is clear. When the law is broken, justice requires that a penalty be paid. Even though the film demonstrates that much of the law-breaking is done for good reasons, done with noble intentions, that law-breaking requires payment. Even the semi-unintentional kidnapping of Diane Kruger in the film requires that an arrest be made.

The truth is, when wrong is done, someone must pay for the wrong done. This is not merely the case when the victim of a crime deserves justice—after all, some crimes appear victimless, do they not? Yet the issue is not merely how things appear to us.

At issue is one of those larger questions of life. The question: If something is done that is wrong, but no one is directly harmed by it, is it still wrong? In other words, is there a persistent concept of right and wrong that is inescapable, or are human decisions only subject to the trials of peers and historians?

Leviticus 4 (link) gives us an insight into this as we go through the whole Bible.  God speaks to Moses and gives him instruction about how to offer a sacrifice for the sins committed by the people unintentionally.

Catch that line? All of the detail in this chapter reflects the perfection of the offering needed and the intricacies of the process for sins that occurred even though there was no willful intent. Why?

Why would such a process be necessary?

Because sin, the doing of wrong and the not-doing of right, violates an eternal standard of right and wrong. Much of Leviticus delves into how that fleshes out. Some of those commands are for a theocratic 15th century BC society, and some are for all time, and that division requires more than mere proof-texting. However, here we are not explicitly concerned with the content of that standard.

We are concerned with its existence. If Moses heard correctly from God, then that standard exists. Otherwise, there is no point in the Sin Offering commanded in this chapter. The Sin Offering is the major Old Testament offering that does not allocate a portion to the priests: the whole sacrifice is burned up to the Lord God.

How does that matter? One can imagine that religious leadership might invent a concept that benefits them—like the annual pastoral cheeseburger offering—but it is less likely that they would imagine a concept that brings no tangible benefit to themselves or society. This idea of a sin offering for unintentional, unwillful violation of an eternal standard comes from somewhere beyond the priests of Israel.

As a Biblical conservative, I think it comes from what you see in Leviticus 4:1. This is revealed truth from God Almighty.

We would do well, then, to recognize what this means for our lives. It is not a question of whether or not anyone knows what we do. It is not a question of whether or not we only hurt ourselves with what we do. It is not even a question of what we meant to do.

It is a question of whether or not we recognize the existence of that eternal standard.

From there, life changes. If we admit there is an eternal standard, then there is an eternal source for that standard. That source should be known and consulted.

If there is no standard, then who gets to set the standard this week? Next week? What becomes the line for morality among humanity?

If there is a standard, we would do well to learn about it, its source, and its consequences.

In Leviticus, those consequences are shown to be a life for each infraction, adding up to a lot of sacrifice. In Hebrews, we see that there remains a better way.

We can see it here: there is no need for the Sin Offerings if there is no eternal standard. Let the sin that harms no one have no consequence. But it does not work that way. Never has, never will.

Today’s Nerd Note: Short and to the point: memorize “Then the Lord (Yahweh) spoke to Moses, saying” and you’ve got most of the verse 1s of the book of Leviticus.

That’s a crucial point, too: this is God’s revelation. Not man’s ideas nor man’s attempts to please God. These are God’s requirements for life in His community. Again, as we go forward, we’ll look at understanding which parts are better understood as pertaining to theocratic Israel and which parts pertain to all of us at all times. But these aren’t Moses’ ideas. He may not have even liked them.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book: The Shorter Catechism Activity Book

Today’s Book Review is brought to you by Cross-Focused Reviews, who provided a copy of the book in exchange for the review. They send the book and schedule the blog tour, and I write how I really feel about the book. Trust me, there’s not enough money in these print-run of specialty books like this to bribe all these bloggers :)

I am a Christian of the Southern Baptist variety, and so we do not have an official creed for our churches nor do we have a catechism for the teaching of basic doctrines. We’re a bit more random than that. While I would agree that we might need some changes in that area, this is not really the place for that discussion. Instead, I provide you with that information so that you know I do not come predisposed to a different catechism program or a preference for the one I grew up with, because I didn’t grow up. Or grow up with one.

The Shorter Catechism Activity Book by Marianne Ross looks a little something like this: The Shorter Catechism Activity Book 

So, now you know how it looks. It’s published by Christian Focus Publications. The author, Marianne Ross, is listed as a wife, mother, writer, and cup-cake baker. Unfortunately, no cupcakes were provided alongside the book and I am unable to evaluate the veracity of this particular claim.

The initial content of this book is the official Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC). This is a series of 107 questions and answers about Christian doctrine. The Westminster Standards are the doctrinal standards for many English-speaking denominations that trace their heritage to the English Reformation, especially the more Presbyterian-leaning groups. Given that the WSC is more than 300 years old, I will not offer an extensive comment here about its value.

This book is not intended to persuade you to use the WSC, either, though. Instead, this book is intended to help reinforce the teaching of that system. There are 107 activities in the book, one for each question of the catechism.

These are in the shape of various word searches, code-breaking games, fill-in-the-blanks, and crossword puzzles. Some of these would be beyond frustrating, but the first page after the table of contents is a code key page. That helps. A lot. In fact, by having this page, you do not find yourself in need of a specific answer key, as working out the answers becomes easy, if time consuming.

In all, the activities are challenging enough to keep a child working at them for some time. Certainly, if they already know the answers to a specific question, the puzzles will be easy.

The drawbacks I would find here are these:

1. I am not an education expert, but in my observation, sometimes puzzle-based learning activities help a student learn to solve puzzles, but not learn the material. That is not all bad, but it is something to consider.

2. You can count this as a drawback or not, but there is no source document on the Westminster Shorter Catechism here. If you do not know it or have a copy available, you’ll have to solve the puzzles to learn it.

3. The book uses the straight Westminster Shorter Catechism. Including “doth” and various other antiquated phrasings. While it falls to the churches to update the overall language, perhaps a minor paraphrasing would fall within the purview of a children’s book.

In all, though, if your particular view of Christianity encourages learning the Westminster Shorter Catechism, this book is a helpful tool in your arsenal. It is worth an extra look.

Free book, again, received from publisher in exchange for review.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sermon Wrap-Up: September 16

Morning Audio Link is here (alternate)

Morning Outline: (And the prayer guide referenced in the audio is here)

Luke 11:1-13


I. Desire for relationship

II. Recognition of situation

     A. Prayer is from lesser to a greater

     B. Prayer reflects our need

     C. Prayer is not powerful: God is powerful

III. Content:

     A. Recognition of situation

     B. From a heart of gratitude and understanding

     C. Focused on what is necessary for obedience

     D. Not focused on perfect wording

IV. Attitude

     A. Persistent

     B. Desperation

V. Trust

     A. God knows already

     B. God will answer better than we realize


1. Pray. 

2. Pray specifically

3. Pray generically

4. Pray for: Salvation for the lost; growth for the saved; the church to make disciples; strength to obey---provision and deliverance


Evening was discussion, primarily, but here were some of the points I wanted to hit:

I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.

John 15:5


What does it mean to you that God works through His servants?

What is the limit on your usefulness to God?


1. The Bible: is this about us or God? GOD!!

2. We learn about God through the practice of obedience

3. The Holy Spirit guides us in all Truth: John 14:18-27

4. The Presence of the Holy Spirit should also bring Peace

5. God is not still or passive

6. The question is not about you: "What does God want from me?" It is about God: "What is God doing?" 

We follow on with: How has God made me? How, then, am I fit to join with His work?

7. His agenda. Not ours.

Next week's verse:

Some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the Lord, our God: Psalm 20:7

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book: Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day

This week, I am participating in a book review project for the book Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day. The book is published by BethanyHouse Publishers, and they sent me a free copy of the book to entice me to review it. All they enticed was the review, though, they did not require any level of review.

The book looks like this: Image

Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day by Garry R. Morgan is a short primer on more than twenty religions practiced throughout the world today. The obvious focus is on world religions that impact on world culture and American culture, but one of the good points present is that any major religion in the world impacts on those items in the modern day.

As a side note, it appears that BethanyHouse is doing a series of "15 Minutes a Day" books, having started with Understanding Your Bible in 15 Minutes a Day and looking ahead to Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day. I will hopefully bring you a review of the latter after it releases. 

On point, UWRI15 presents us with a challenge. Is it really possible to understand another person's belief system in that short of a time investment? The author acknowledges that he presents a brief summary and not an in-depth treatment.

What is there to like? First of all, comprehensiveness. While someone will find a religious movement left out, Morgan has presented most of the major world religions. This includes groups with fairly small numbers like the Sikhs and Jainists. Second, differentiation. He presents Nation of Islam separate from Islam, and rightly so: the two are different, though related, religious groups. Third, even-handedness. While I think Morgan shows his Christian preferences in the text, he does not attempt to present religious counters to the beliefs of others. Fourth, fast-reading. Each chapter averages four pages, which allows for quick reading. Fifth, going deeper. A few religions, namely Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, are given multiple chapters to flesh out more of their story.

What is there not to like? Primarily this: while Morgan uses some in-line citations, there are no footnotes, endnotes, or other comprehensive references in the text. Admittedly, he is Professor of Intercultural Studies for Northwestern College, so he knows the facts and information, but there is no built-in reference section to verify his statements or conclusions. The secondary dislike is related: for one not satisfied with the basic knowledge acquired in 40 days of 15-minute reading, there are no suggestions of where to go next. If I want to know more on Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where do I go? What about Jainism or Scientology (well, other than Tom Cruise)? A bibliographic section would have enhanced the value of this book.

One minor quibble someone may have is with the book's section on the Unification Church: UWRI15 was written before the recent death of the founder of that church. So, his death is not mentioned and this makes one statement in UWRI15 inaccurate about who the leader of that body is.

In all, I found this book helpful as a primer. More could be said about the details of Christian theology in the opening chapters, but then more could be said about the details of many groups mentioned. If you need a short intro, you can start here and Morgan will keep you in the right waters. They are shallow waters at many points, but you will have to decide to invest more than 15 minutes a day if you want to get any deeper.

I did receive a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Gospel for Shrimp: Acts 10

We’re back into the book of Acts today as we go through the whole Bible. We saw Saul’s conversion back in Acts 9 (and talked about it some), and we’ve left him at home in Tarsus for the time being. Well, he may be headed off into the wilderness to hear from God (check Galatians 1:15-17), but for all we know right now, he’s in Tarsus.

That chapter finished up with a return to examining the work of Peter. We’re actually winding down our learning about Peter: after the events of this chapter, he heads back to Jerusalem, and the book of Acts does not give us much else about him. He appears in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, but we have no further Scriptural locations for Peter. His presence in Antioch that is mentioned in Galatians 2 could have happened after this time or before it—we cannot be certain. (I think after, and I think it’s safe to think Peter makes it to Rome as historical tradition posits.)

This, though, is his high-water mark. Peter has been an instrumental part of the infancy of the church. He stands forward as the leader of the band of disciples in the wake of the Ascension of Christ. He is the public face of preaching, teaching, and healing in the early weeks and months starting with Pentecost. He is “the man” for the early church in those years.

He verifies the spread of the Gospel to the Samaritans, he raises the dead and is the visible portion of God’s discipline of Ananias and Sapphira. Then he finds himself in Joppa. Why is he in Joppa?

Well, Peter had gone to the saints (believers) at Lydda, and then gone to Joppa where he had raised Dorcas from the dead. Yes, God raised Dorcas, but He worked through Peter. Credit where it is due: all glory to God, all praise to God, and a wink to Peter for being the hands. That’s the way we ought to see all things in Christian service.

While he’s in Joppa, he has a vision. It’s the vision of a sheet, filled with unclean animals.  While we mainly think of pork in these instances, there were plenty of other unclean animals. Like catfish or shrimp. The voice in his vision tells him to eat some of the animals. Actually, to kill and eat some of them. Peter defends himself by stating that he doesn’t mess with unclean stuff, and the voice corrects him: What God has made clean, do not call common (unclean).

About this time, there’s a knock on the door as a man, a Gentile man, named Cornelius has sent them to bring Peter back to him, so that Peter can tell Cornelius about Jesus. This is a big deal, because Jews and Gentiles of the time mixed, well, infrequently. As in less often than Auburn and Alabama fans do during fall in the South.

Peter, wisely, gets the point of the vision. It’s not about the shrimp and bacon. It’s about the Gentiles. It is about the need to not cut a division between the people God is calling to salvation. No matter what the prior traditions have been, there is to be no division among God’s people that is simply based on ethnic background.

There is also certainly to be no consideration of ethnicity in the spread of the Gospel. Woe be unto any of us who choose to ignore a group of people seeking the good news of salvation simply because they are not on our list of cool ethnicities. That has been done, though it never should have, and it should never happen again. I would also note this: while responsible mission strategy may highlight a people group to work among, responsible discipleship would not refuse to spread the Gospel to different people groups, no matter the “strategy” of it.

Peter shares the Gospel, then defends the new converts to the other believers. He holds forth not only their salvation as valid, but their overall right to be considered as part of the church at large. There was to be no isolation or division into like-groupings, but the church was to unify and grow together. To walk in discipleship without regard for circumcision or uncircumcision, for all that matters is the presence of the Holy Spirit and obedience to Christ by identifying through baptism.

In all, it was a bad day for shrimp, because Christian theology has long looked back at this passage as the abolition of dietary laws. So, now we eat bacon and catfish and shrimp, though frequently not together.

Yet it was a good day for us: a day that recognizes that we have one faith, one baptism, one Lord.

So, the next time you see that Red Lobster ShrimpFest commercial, think about this: do you draw lines and divide what God has made one?

Today’s Nerd Note: Acts 10:40-41 has an interesting and infrequently considered statement in it. In those verses, Peter states that Jesus resurrected was not visible to all people. Instead, He was only visible to those chosen beforehand by God to see Him.

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 has a list of those who definitely saw the Risen Christ, and more may have done so, but these couple of verses give us an insight into the question of why He wasn’t more widely seen. Why, for example, no major riots broke out when Jesus was walking from place to place and people saw Him and just went nuts. Which, really, they would have: here’s the Miracle Worker, back! What happened?

And imagine the first time He bumps into a Pharisee or Sanhedrin member? Awkward.

This is where the case is made, though, for the importance of doing historical work on the text of Scripture. If one can see that this statement by Peter is recorded, textually, fairly early, then it strengthens his argument: people may not have seen Jesus even though He was risen.

If, however, we just let the text of Acts sit as if it were composed some 2 or 3 centuries after Peter speaks, then the question becomes whether or not someone inserted this statement to answer a criticism raised against Christianity: why are there not more records of seeing the Risen Jesus? Then one must answer whether or not some later scribe added Peter’s explanation here, whether Peter made it or not.

The better of a date we can derive for the writing of the complete text of Acts, the better we understand even why Peter said this in the first place: was he answering a question? Responding to criticism? Or just telling the story as he knew it?

These are the reasons why we don’t just pick a translation, read it, and never consider some of the additional academic questions about our faith. We need to study it and dive into these issues. They matter, more than we realize sometimes.

So, nerd up. And pass the bacon.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sermon Wrap-Up: September 9

Well, I thought I had recorded video of the evening sermon, and have spent the day trying to get it uploaded so I could embed it here.

Guess what? I’m a computer nerd from the text-only days. It didn’t work. On a related note, anyone out there wishing to contribute to the cause of getting us set up to video, let me know.

Morning sermon: no outline, we were planning on a guest speaker but a few communication lines got crossed up, so that didn’t happen.

However, here’s the audio link (alternate link here).

Luke 10:25-37 was the text.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Easy Peace, the Tooth Fairy, and Leviticus 3

There are certain things that people want to believe in, no matter what the reality is. Often it’s because we have been raised with those beliefs, while other times it because we need those beliefs to cope with a world that is radically out-of-control. Rationality does not come into play—we want to believe some of these things whether or not we can find any support of the idea.

Some of these things are fairly innocuous: a belief in the Tooth Fairy does not do a kid much harm. Provided you couch it in the proper idea of fairy tales and imagination, it can actually be a great deal of fun, although those teeth are getting expensive.

There are other things that you can believe in, even if they are beyond possible. For a time, it’s good to encourage your children to think they might be professional musicians or athletes, until a realistic look at their abilities points out that skipping math class to sing karaoke would be highly unwise. Reality is a harsh teacher, and it’s better to ease someone towards it than to slam them into it. If you can. Even so, it’s okay to let someone live with that dream, that “Well, there was this one time I thought I had a chance….” After all, if not for that one bad night, I could have been a professional saxophone player. Right? Right.

However, there are some things that it is just never a good thing to believe in. It’s no good to believe you can fly and try practicing it from your 4th floor bedroom window. It’s not a good thing to believe your blood has super-duper clotting factors and cut your arteries to prove it. It’s not good to “believe” the safety’s on or the gun isn’t loaded---all of these are fatal things to believe, no matter how “sincere” your belief may be.

Leviticus 3 (link) gives us something else that we should be wary of believing in: easy peace. Easy peace is the notion we get in our heads that everything will be alright between all of us if we just decide to get along with each other. It's the idea that wrongs can be overlooked without any consideration for the harm done between people.

Easy peace is nonsense, and nonsense worse than any winged dental agent or rabbit-like candy deliverer. Leviticus 3 gives us some insight into the idea and how it's a non-starter. This chapter recounts for us the idea of a peace offering. Some translations use the term fellowship offering but the concept is the same: this is a sacrifice made in the intention of restoring a botched relationship. 

It is the primary offering in which the person making the sacrifice is allowed to eat part of the sacrifice: the sin offering and the burnt offerings were alloted only to the priests and God Almighty, but the worshiper is free to join in the peace offering. 

The centerpiece to this offering is the idea of restored fellowship between a person and God. This offering recognizes that even if guilt is atoned for, that does not make a relationship at peace (or in right fellowship). It only means that there are no negatives between the two parties.

However, who among us really wants to life with the statement "there are no negatives between these two"? Sure, there are people with whom that's good enough. If there are no negatives between myself and the water company, then we're good. But what relationship do I have with my wife if it's summarized by the phrase "no negatives?"

That's no place to be for the relationship between people or between a person and God. Our hearts cry out for a right relationship among parties, a place where there is positive flow between the two. Not simply a lack of negative, but a real exchange. Even if the relationship is between a greater, God, and a lesser, people.

Our problem is that we want this to happen easily. We want to be at peace without any substantial effort, especially if we are the ones who disrupted the relationship in the first place. We want the correction of wrongs to be enough. After that, it should all be okay.

Or we want to believe that, having never done anything wrong, everyone will have a great relationship with us. That if we simply avoid offense, there will always be peaceful fellowship.

It's just not the case. Peace always has a cost. Effort is always required for fellowship.

Kidneys and entrails and draining blood were the cost in those times. In our times, the costs are openness, honesty, and compassion between people and contrition, repentance, and faith between people and God--Jesus paid the blood price necessary for peace between people and God.

These are the costs, whether we like them or not. True, we could live without paying these costs, but we end up missing something that truly matters. We end up isolated, lonely and alone, and without hope. Do we want to live that way?

Today's Not-Quite-Nerdy Note: There is also a price to pay for peace between nation-states. That price is often also paid in blood. It is either paid in the blood of soldiers who stand, fight, and die for the protection of the nation behind them, or it is paid in the blood of the nation as they are conquered. There is no "middle-ground" whereby nation-states at odds with each other simply fluff it out and get over it.

It is valid that in times past, two warring tribes could simply avoid each other rather than make peace, but that ship has sailed. It is not possible to live at pure peace with everyone, for human nature is divisive at its core. However, we must realize that no easy peace comes between free people and tyrants---we either stand and fight the tyrants, at the cost of our blood, or we bow and let the tyrants conquer us, at the cost of our children's blood. Which will it be?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Sermon Wrap-Up: September 2

We had our annual Labor Day weekend cookout last night, so there’s only the morning sermon.

Morning Audio is here (alternate link here)

Luke 9:57-62

I. Following Christ: No Easy Task

II. The volunteer: when the going gets tough, are you still there?

III. The called: Will you answer when it needs to happen, or do you want it on your schedule? Will you put the call of Christ above other calls?

IV. The deal-maker: Let me finish this---then I'll do, but I want counted now.

V. What are we?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book: The Gospel According to Isaiah 53

In Acts 8, Philip the Evangelist is recorded as sharing the Gospel with a man from Ethiopia. His starting point? A question about Isaiah 53, posed by that same man. Given that event, Isaiah 53 has long been a major text cited by Christians about Jesus. It's viewed as a prophetic message that finds its fulfillment in Him.

Far too often, though, this text is taken without serious consideration. First, the assumption is made that the only interpretation is that this passage refers to the Messiah. Second, the assumption is made that there is no additional meaning to be considered.

These assumptions cause Christianity some problems. It appears obvious to Christians that Isaiah is speaking of Jesus, so we wonder why no one else sees that? This especially hinders our interactions with people of the Jewish faith and heritage. After all, Isaiah is truly a Jewish prophet--why, then, do current Jewish understandings of the passage differ so much from Christian ones?

Further, we miss out in Christianity on understanding how Isaiah may have been speaking of others as the "Suffering Servant." Is it simply a dodge to claim that Israel themselves or Isaiah himself are the Servant? Or could that be a valid interpretation?

Into this discussion comes this book, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53. The subtitle spells it out: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology. This book is intended to present a full, scholarly look at the chapter in the title. Well, actually starting with Isaiah 52:13. The book is guided by two editors, Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, and  is written by 11 contributors. These authors represent some of the strongest scholars in Christian theology.

That is an important note: while a concerted effort is made to present the current and historical Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53, all of the contributors are believers in Christ. There are contributors who are Christians with Jewish heritage, and Mitch Glaser who co-edits the book is deeply involved with the Jewish community, but this book is intended to come out as a Christian viewpoint. I think that's a good thing, personally--but if you want something that leaves the question open, you're looking in the wrong place.

Each chapter develops a slightly different theme, and Bock's conclusion draws the work together. I found the chapter on Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 53, by Michael Brown, eye-opening. His chapter was the most helpful to me, while Mitch Glaser's chapter on the practical aspects of using Isaiah 53 in evangelism was the least directly helpful. That is likely because his focus was on evangelism in areas with a strong Jewish heritage, and rural Redneckia, where I live, is not exactly one of those places. His points sound excellent: the idea of using the Suffering Servant passages to center discussion on theology among people you have a relationship with is a good one.

All in all, I found this to be a helpful volume. I would be hopeful that this team, or a similar one, will come out with 65 more to cover the remainder of Isaiah, but I have my doubts.

One thing to recognize here: this is a theological commentary, not a textual/historical one. It does not delve deeply into the historical issues about the book of Isaiah as a whole or really deal much with authorship or textual issues. You'll want a good Isaiah commentary for that. This book does not claim to be an textual/historical commentary, so that's not a problem. Just an observation.

I did receive a free copy of this book from Kregel Publishers in exchange for the review.

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