To begin, here is a brief refresher on the narrative of the first 12 chapters of the book of Acts:
The Christian movement began as a sect of Judaism. The first disciples were Jews. There was not a neat, clean break between the Jewish faith and the new thing God was doing among first century Jesus followers. The laws and rituals that guided the Jewish faith were expressions of holiness, intended to set Israel apart for God’s purposes, to be different from the rest of the world. As the church slowly branched off from its Judaic origins all of these preexisting conceptions of God and spiritual practice had to be reckoned with.
One of these conceptions was dietary law. Leviticus 11, “establishes dietary laws for the Israelites, specifying which animals can be eaten by them and which cannot be eaten. It is difficult to discern the reasoning behind the distinctions. For instance, clean land animals are those that have divided hoofs, chew the cud, and are cleft-footed. Any animal that meets only two of these three criteria is unclean (11:1-8). Scholars speculate that in the priestly mind-set, animals of each distinct group (land animals, fish, birds, insects) must exhibit certain characteristics emblematic of that group. For instance, a fish must have fins and scales in order to be ‘clean.’ Those water animals that do not have fins and scales (like crustaceans) are ‘unclean’ (that is, they do not fit within their category) and are therefore unlawful to be eaten (11:9-12)” (Enter the Bible, http://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=23).
In Acts 10, Peter has an episode that causes him to throw out the window all of his preconceived ideas about the dietary laws found in Leviticus 11. Here is a dramatized version of the story:
The work of new creation begins with transformed minds. God sets into the recreation of all things after the resurrection by changing Peter’s mind about what is clean and what is not. The restrictions and condemnation that had been handed down through the people of Israel from ages before were being lifted. Only the Creator can declare what is unclean, and God was telling Peter that things are different now.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
How is God doing both a new thing and continuing an old thing in the meeting of Peter and Cornelius from Acts 10? My interpretation has to do with a small detail from the story: three visitors arrive for Peter (Acts 10:7, 19). This harkens back to an old story that contained a promise that was made. In Genesis 18, three visitors who predict the birth of a son visit Abraham and Sarah in their old age. That son would be the realization of the covenant God made with Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation…so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
The narrative of Acts tells of the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. Through Jesus, centuries later, all the families of the earth are finally able to be welcomed as brothers and sisters into the people of God. The veil of who was clean and who was unclean was also being lifted. The inclusivity of God’s love was breaking free from the laws that restricted it to one nation.
For further study check out:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Holy Spirit
Photo: “The seven Species of the Land of Israel are listed in the biblical verse Deuteronomy 8:8: a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and [date] honey.” WikiMedia Commons רוליג
Often when we hear the word “Pentecost” we immediately jump to the episode with the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2. Pentecost, however, was a Jewish festival before it was a Christian event.
Leviticus 23:15-22 describes the appointed festival: 15 And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete. 16 You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord. 17 You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering, each made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of choice flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the Lord. 18 You shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, along with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord. 19 You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of well-being. 20 The priest shall raise them with the bread of the first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord, together with the two lambs; they shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. 21 On that same day you shall make proclamation; you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations. 22 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.
Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival known as Shavuot. Shavuot was “one of the three pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesach [Passover] and Sukkot [Booths]) that attracted many Jews to Jerusalem” (Gary Gilbert, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 201). Shavuot, also called the Feast of Weeks because you had to count seven weeks, took place 50 days after Passover and was a celebration for the wheat harvest. Later it came to be associated with the giving of God’s covenants: the covenant with Noah, but especially the Torah as given through Moses.
Here is an description of how some Jews celebrate the feast of Shavuot today:
How is God doing both a new thing and continuing an old thing in the Pentecost scene of Acts 2? Similar to how Jesus reinterprets Passover at the last supper in the gospel of Luke, now Peter is reinterpreting Shavuot for the church. Shavuot was meant to foster an attitude of thanksgiving at the time of harvest. “Then you shall keep the festival of weeks to the Lord your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:10). The gratitude for harvest was meant to overflow to the most vulnerable members of Israel’s society (see Leviticus 23:22 above). Prompted by Peter’s speech at Pentecost, the new converts fulfill the purpose of Shavuot: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Everyone had enough because of the just and equitable distribution of goods.
The scene in Acts 2 can also be interpreted in another way connected with the history of Israel: the reversal of the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). At Babel God confused the language of the people because of pride in their technological advancements. In Acts 2 the people that God scattered are reunited and able to understand in their own languages. God was doing a new thing connected to a very old thing.
Here is a reenactment of Shavuot from a Jewish group in Jerusalem:
For further study check out:
- Nadler, Samuel. Feasts of the Bible 6-session Study. Rose Publishing, 2011.
- Kanotopsky, Rabbi Zvi Dov. Rejoice in Your Festivals: Penetrating Insights into Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Urim Publications, 2008.
- Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. Ceremony & Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays. Maggid, 2017.
(Photo: Andreas Praefcke, WikiMedia Commons)
Read the Introduction
One of the most well known events detailed in the Book of Acts is the Pentecost episode and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. It continues to be a major festival day in the life of the church nearly 2,000 years later. Do you ever wish that you could have your own personal Pentecost…
In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit moved and empowered the words of the disciples on Pentecost, was God doing a new thing or continuing an old thing? If we think that the movement of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was only a new thing we put ourselves in a potentially dangerous theological position. The Holy Spirit can be thought of as a version of God that doesn’t show up until the New Testament. That can lead us to thinking God the Father was present with the Israelites in the Old Testament, then God the Son came to in first century Palestine as Jesus, and after that the church received God the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Unfortunately that idea dabbles in Marcionism.
God the Holy Spirit is mentioned often in Acts as the acting presence of God. The Holy Spirit, however, is not a new thing God does in the Book of Acts. It is a continuation of God’s presence from the very beginning. Throughout the Old Testament we have references to God’s Spirit, breath, and wind (ruach in Hebrew). These references are all connected to God the Holy Spirit that empowers the disciples at Pentecost. Our impression of the Holy Spirit becomes richer and more complex through the Book of Acts, adding layers of descriptions to our understanding.
The Spirit was at creation. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).
The Spirit was at the anointing of King David. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13).
The Spirit was the theme of Israel’s ancient songs. “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:11-12).
The Spirit was with the voice of the prophets. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).
“Over 25% of references in scripture to the divine Spirit (Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Jesus, etc.) appear in the Old Testament (26.5% using the NRSV). A relatively consistent pattern we find with the Spirit’s activity in the Old Testament is that it creates (e.g., Gen 1), anoints for leadership/service (e.g., Samson, King Saul), and initiates new life and movements (e.g., Ezekiel 37). Now consider what kinds of things the Spirit does in Acts. Is it much different, or more similar than not” (Forum post from Professor Troy Troftgruben, New Testament Narratives, November 16, 2017)?
The work of the Holy Spirit in the world did not begin at Pentecost. God is working and has been working in the world, through all times, with God’s own two hands, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. God’s Word is carried on God’s breath to redeem and renew God’s people for the life of the world.
Check out this animated narrative about how God’s Spirit was moving and working all the way through the Bible…
For further study check out:
Some have suggested that the Book of Acts is mis-titled. I guess the question would be whom do you consider the main character of the story? Some say it is the Apostles, others say it is the Holy Spirit who shines as the star, or maybe even Jesus. I would suggest Acts is the second half of the gospel of Luke, or an account of Christ’s body in the Spirit. Acts is still Jesus’ story, just the story of his body in growth and action.
The Book of Acts in the New Testament is partly a historical account of how the church came to be. As Powell puts it, “It’s got earthquakes (16:26), shipwrecks (27:41-44), avenging angels (12:23), harrowing escapes (9:23-25; 21:30-36), riots (19:23-41), murder plots (9:23; 23:12-15; 25:1-3), political intrigue (16:35-39; 22:24-29; 24:26-27), courtroom drama (23:1-10), and so much more” (Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament, 191). It tells the story of how the gospel of Jesus spread after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. But the Book of Acts isn’t just about new beginnings. The content of Acts also carries the narrative of God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel. Acts is set up to continue the work of the gospel of Luke in connecting Jesus’ ministry to the history and mission of Israel.
If you haven’t read Acts recently you should to refresh your memory. If you don’t have time to read the whole book of Acts but want to get the gist of it, I would like to submit…
For the people of Israel, covenant relationship with God had always been a way of life. It was engrained in the fiber of their lives. The yearly observance of Passover recalled and renewed the release from captivity in Egypt through God’s faithful deliverance. The laws and rituals that guided their daily lives were expressions of holiness, intended to set Israel apart for God’s purposes, to be different from the rest of the world. As the church grew out of this Jewish perspective all of these preexisting conceptions of God and spiritual practice had to be reckoned with.
Is God only doing a new thing in the Book of Acts or is God continuing an old thing? Strangely enough, Acts tells of the people of God being community in totally new ways that are also entirely consistent with things from the past.
I think the central message of Acts is that God is bigger than Israel, yet inclusive of Israel. God is both doing a new thing and continuing an old thing. This is a great reminder for our day and time because God is bigger than the church, yet inclusive of the church. In the next post I will describe how Acts wasn’t the first time the Holy Spirit made an entrance…
Did Jesus have to die in order to forgive the sins of the world? Consider this:
First, a few ideas about sin. Consider the creation and fall narrative from Genesis. Adam is perhaps best understood not as a historical person, but as a metaphorical character based on the people of Israel. Adam was created in the dust (Egypt), brought into the garden (promised land), given regulations (Torah), and was removed from the garden for breaking them (exile). The point I make is that the story of Adam is less about how sin entered the picture, and more about the wisdom of how God works amidst the people of Israel. In fact, sin is not mentioned as a punishment for Adam’s mistake. Death is the consequence of Adam’s trespass (Genesis 2:17). God’s response to the disobedience is the curse of labor (both in childbearing and cultivation, Genesis 3:16-19). The idea that sin entered the world through a historical couple is not found in the Old Testament, but is a theological development that occurs much later. (Check out this podcast from Pete Enns, from whom I borrowed this idea: https://www.peteenns.com/5-things-jesus-wants-know-adam-story/)
Second, I think death is the real issue being addressed in Jesus’ own dying. God comes to us (the whole world) in human form to live and die that death might be defeated. Jesus goes face-to-face with death in his own dying, so that the decay, sorrow, brokenness, and all the other messed up stuff in our world can be undone. Jesus dies to defeat death and bring new life. Why are things not perfect after Jesus death then? Because of the already-but-not-yet-ness of God’s kingdom and the new creation. We see slivers and peeks now.
Third, I feel that substitutionary atonement is less favorable when trying to explain all this. The Christus Victor motif, in my feeling, helps us understand this defeat of death in Christ’s dying. It helps us understand the shift from things decaying to things being in an everlasting state. It is in Christ’s weakest state that the true power of God is displayed. I would spin this as the triumph of life over death. Jesus’ death destroys our image of a wrathful God. God, “refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism” (Forde, p. 30). Left to our own theological deplorability, we make God out to be like us: vengeful, bean-counting, and insecure. Jesus came to take that notion of God to the grave and replace it with love. Jesus takes the mantle of a wrathful God and buries it down in the grave, rising to a new life where God is love.
Fourth, I think it is significant that the gospel writers tell us that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross. Was Jesus claiming forsakenness? Or was Jesus defaulting to the ingrained liturgical patterns of his Jewish heritage by speaking/singing David’s words? Or was Jesus starting to quote Psalm 22 with the intent of making it to the end and fulfilling the words, “To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vs. 29-31)?
The degree to which Jesus Christ was knowingly involved in the politics of his time is a widely debated subject. Truthfully, we cannot say for certain. As much as we think we know the mind of Jesus, and as many books and sermons that have been written to give us insight, we still do not know whether his life and ministry were purposefully plotted for political reasons.
We do know King Herod, the political leader of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth, was terrified at the prospect of a newborn child that would threaten his power (Matthew 2:1-12). We also know that Jesus lived in a time and region that was politically charged. The Roman Empire was the latest in a line of regimes to claim control of the Palestine territory. There were several factions of Jewish people that presented ideologies for how they should be in relationship with Rome. Jesus didn’t completely align with any of them. John the baptizer influenced Jesus (Mark 1:4-11). It is thought that John was part of the Essenes, whose solution to the political question was to withdraw completely and not participate. Jesus caught the attention of the Pharisees when he ate with the wrong people. The Pharisees’ political agenda was to maintain purity through strict observance of Jewish laws (Mark 2:15-17).
In the end, Jesus was executed by the Roman state, at the request of the Jewish people, for sedition (Matthew 27:1-66). Jesus’ death was certainly for political reasons.
Next Sunday (Sept. 24) I will have the opportunity to preach at church. This is something I have done before, although not very often. As a seminary student working toward being a pastor, these are opportunities that I really look forward to. Preaching a sermon is like exploring an undiscovered territory. There is so much to learn, try, and experience.
The first lesson for 16 Pentecost A is the end of the book of Jonah (3:10-4:11). Since I’m planning on spending some time there, here are some of my first thoughts on this well-known story:
- Jonah is a whiny brat. His behavior reminds me of my children when they are at their most unpleasant.
- Do I think that there was a real person named Jonah who was swallowed by a fish for 3 days? No. This story is more of a prophetic parable. Besides, it doesn’t matter if it really happened or not, because the story contains truth.
- Everyone knows that Jonah fled from God’s plan. But the truth behind Jonah’s 180° turn is less obvious: he hated the Assyrians. His prejudice against them ran deep. Jonah’s preference would be for the whole city of Nineveh to be damned. And it makes sense. Assyria had invaded and defeated Israel.
- Jonah fled from God’s plan because he knew that God was too gracious. Jonah knew God’s love was bigger than Israel and he didn’t want Nineveh to know it.
- I love how the book ends, “and also many animals?” Whereas Jonah’s prejudice against Assyria won’t even allow him to acknowledge they are worthy to receive God’s mercy, God’s concern is so profound that it reaches past the Assyrians all the way down to the animals. It’s that deep.
- The lesson picks up with God changing God’s mind. It reminds me of another time when God changed God’s mind. Moses was receiving the 10 commandments on the mountain and the people were at the bottom making idols. God, insulted by the idolatry, tears down the mountain after them, ready to teach them a lesson. But Moses stops God, and intercedes for Israel. And it says that God changed God’s mind. Maybe Jonah had that merciful episode in mind when he decided to go the other way?
Did you ever look at those 3D hidden image posters when you were younger? I think you were supposed to cross your eyes and slowly uncross them. Or stare at the center intensely. Or put your nose against the image and then ease your way backward. Then poof! A 3D image was supposed to appear. I have to confess – I don’t think I ever saw anything in any of them.
What we see matters. Sometimes it is the things we don’t see that matter most. There’s a story in the Bible about a time that Jesus noticed someone that couldn’t see (John 9). The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What the disciples saw was someone cursed. Jesus saw an opportunity for healing and restoration. After he was cured of his blindness, the people were baffled. “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’”
The blind man had become invisible. The community was blind to his poverty and need. As a beggar, he had faded into the background of his surroundings. No one noticed him anymore. The story shows that his neighbors couldn’t distinguish if it was really he or someone else; they forgot what he looked like. The greatest sin of this story didn’t have anything to do with the parents. The sin was a community that had forgotten their own needy.
Perhaps you’ve noticed something different at the baptismal font this Lent.
Several people have stopped me and asked what this installation symbolizes. Some have offered their own interpretation. That is the beauty of art – we can see many different things in it depending on our interpretation. When someone asks me what it is, my first response is usually to turn the table and ask them what they see in it. I’ve heard some very interesting and insightful interpretations:
- The purple cloth could represent the robe that was mockingly placed on Jesus before the crucifixion. (The appointed liturgical color for Lent is purple because purple has long been associated with royalty. In this case, Christ reigns from a cross.)
- The branches could represent the crown of thorns. Or they could remind us of the desert and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
- The large, flat stones could represent the tablets that the Ten Commandments were recorded on.
- The broken vessel could represent the vinegar that Jesus was offered on the cross. The broken pot reminds me of our brokenness and need for God to make us whole.
The point of the installation is simple: to help us recall the themes of Lent. What about you – what do you see?
Brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)
Reflecting on the upcoming second reading for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, I think about the process of disciple making. The church in Corinth was getting a word of rebuke from brother Paul because of their lack of spiritual maturity. What was the sign of their immaturity? Dividing and separating themselves into factions. Not only were they splitting up based on which leader helped ignite their spiritual flame, they were also not treating each other with respect because of socio-economic differences (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). We might think we are so much farther down the path to maturity than the folks of Corinth were, but are we?
Then Paul gives this terrific agrarian image of what really happens in the process of discipleship. We are God’s field. Some people help plant us. Other people help water us. Some people make sure our soil is rich with fertilizer. Other people help prune us to ensure the best overall yield. Some people help us keep the pests away. God is everything else: the solar system, the earth, the seasons, the environment, and the atmosphere. Every bit of growth hinges on God. No growth is possible without God.
I cannot make a disciple. I can help cultivate discipleship in others.
I cannot be a disciple without others cultivating me.