Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Set Apart (Acts 13:1-3)

Saul had now become an established leader in the Christian church. It was a kind of roundabout journey that he had, with what had taken place in his life after his conversion, whether he was living in Damascus, Jerusalem, Tarsus or Antioch. Although he had been very diligent in his service for Jesus and made many contributions to the progress of the gospel, his main years of service were still ahead of him. Luke describes here an important step in how Saul moved from a static ministry in one location to an itinerant ministry in numerous places.

A leader in Antioch

It looks as if this group of five individuals named by Luke were the leaders in the church in Antioch. Since no other information is given we cannot say whether there was also another group similar to what we call a kirk session or whether this group functioned as the kirk session.

Who were these men? We know about Barnabas and Saul, but not about the other three, which is a reminder that usually church leaders get forgotten. Probably, none of them actually came from Antioch. Barnabas had been sent to Antioch by the church in Jerusalem to help the new congregation become established, and later he had enlisted Saul from Tarsus to help him in the task of teaching the growing church in Antioch. The other three leaders could have been among the Christians who were forced to leave Jerusalem when the persecution connected to Stephen took place under Saul’s instigation. Luke elsewhere in this book mentions those who had to flee from Jerusalem and who eventually reached Antioch where they began to witness to Gentiles.

Each of those men had a story of grace to tell. Niger probably means that Simeon was a black person from Africa. Lucian was from North Africa. The only one whose conversion we know anything about is Saul. But it would be interesting to know how a friend of Herod’s had become a follower of the true King. What we can tell from the list is that social class should not be a barrier to service and that former persecutors are welcome into the leadership of the church after conversion.

The way the names are listed suggests that it was done according to age. Barnabas, who is mentioned first, was an experienced believer who had a prominent place in the church from its early days, so it is not surprising that he is mentioned first. Saul was likely the most recently converted. We know that he was the most gifted of the individuals and we should observe that his friend Luke was guided to mention him last in the list. Moreover, by the time Luke wrote this account the dispute between Barnabas and Saul had occurred, but subsequent failures did not prevent the name of Barnabas being held in high regard.

Luke describes them as possessing two spiritual gifts – they were prophets and teachers. I doubt if he means that some were prophets and others were teachers, although that suggestion is possible. We may wonder what is the difference between the activities because a prophet normally is a teacher. The usual explanation is that prophecy refers to a direct action of the Holy Spirit in a person’s mind so that an individual can make an accurate statement about a matter, whether to do with doctrine or practice. There were many such individuals in the early church, with some women regarded as prophetesses (such as the daughters of Philip).

The presence of such prophets was evidence that the age of the Spirit had come. Joel, for example, had predicted that when the Spirit would be poured out, it would be common for men and women to have this gift. I suspect it happened at different levels in church life, and women would have been given this role to help them in relationship with one another. The point is that the presence of such people was evidence that a new era had come in the kingdom of God and we should expect accounts of the kingdom to show growth, which is what happens here.

We may wonder why the church in Antioch had five teachers. The probably answer is that the church was so large that the persons connected to it met in different places throughout the city. They did not have denominations in those days, so there was only one church in each place, meeting in different places if necessary. One way to think about it is to imagine if there was only one church in Inverness. There is not a building in Inverness that could hold all the local Christians at the one time for a service, so there would need to be different meetings around the city. And that would require a number of teachers.

The obvious detail about this group of five leaders is their harmony and devotion to prayer. We can see their devotion in the way that they incorporated fasting into their time together. Luke describes this activity in a manner that suggests it was a regular engagement in which they met together to seek the Lord. Two features are seen in their approach. One is brotherly love – there is no sense of competition between them. Another is dependence on God for his blessing – the fact is that growing churches pray more. There would have been many things to pray about in the church and they took time to consider those issues.

Prayer would have been needed regarding what subjects to teach. After all, they could not have a series on a New Testament book because none of them had yet been written. This means that the congregations in Antioch were not asked to listen to a sermon on John 3:16! There could be expositions of Old Testament passages interpreted in light of the coming of Jesus and there would have been explanations of doctrines and of areas of Christian living.

A discernible feature here with regard to the call of the Spirit is that he can ask a leadership to release their best people from among themselves for service elsewhere. It is likely that Barnabas and Saul were the more accomplished of the five men, and they were the ones that God wanted to use elsewhere. Subsequent events in Antioch reveal that sacrifice on the church’s part did not hinder the growth of the church in that city because it continued to grow.

Prayer, calling and confirmation

We are not told the background to the command of the Holy Spirit about his plans for Barnabas and Saul. It may have come suddenly or it may have been given because the time was now ripe for them to move on after thinking about it for a while. Saul definitely knew that his future ministry would not be confined to one place because he had been told by Ananias years before that he would take the gospel to different places. It may have been the case that he had asked his fellow leaders to pray about the matter. The one thing that is obvious is that the information was given in a situation of seeking the Lord’s will.

It is interesting that the Holy Spirit gave this information to the leaders as a group rather than just to Barnabas and Saul themselves. This indicates that God does not want his servants to function as detached from others and not responsible to others. It is clear from Barnabas’ and Saul’s response after their first missionary journey that they held themselves as accountable to the church in Antioch because they returned there with their report.

The Holy Spirit also asked the other three leaders to embrace his plan for Barnabas and Saul. We can imagine the thoughts that went through their minds at the prospects of losing two gifted leaders. The three would have more responsibilities. We can see that they too were being asked to go forward in faith and not to regard the change as a loss but as an opportunity for more grace to be given.

The commissioning of Barnabas and Saul involved the ritual of laying hands on them. This was proceeded by a time of earnest prayer for divine blessing. The laying of hands pointed to identification. As we read the accounts of what happened to Barnabas and Saul in later chapters we should remind ourselves that behind the scenes, as it were, prayer was being made for them by the leaders left behind in Antioch (and no doubt by the church there as well).

Clearly, the leaders in the church in Antioch wanted to obey the Lord. Probably the congregations in Antioch would have been puzzled by the willingness to let Barnabas and Saul go away. Some might have even objected to the loss. Maybe that is why the leaders seem to have sent the pair away immediately so that no-one would attempt to hinder the Lord’s plans. Whatever the situation, they speedily obeyed the instructions from the Spirit.

Communications from the Spirit

This incident does raise the issue of how do we know that the Holy Spirit is intimating something to us. One obvious aspect is that others will be aware of it – Barnabas and Saul were not the only ones who were given awareness by the Spirit. In what ways would they have been aware of it? One detail is that Barnabas and Saul had shown previously that they were gifted for the roles of teaching. A second detail is that they had proved already that they could work as a team when the church in Antioch had sent them to Jerusalem. Connected to that second detail was the fact that they had proved themselves reliable with finances and other helps that the church in Antioch had provided for needy churches. A third detail is that Barnabas and Saul were men of prayer.

In addition to God providing awareness to others, he also teaches those he wants to use to have patience until his time comes. If there is one person who had to wait for God to open doors it is Saul of Tarsus. He has been a Christian now for over a decade, he has been engaged in various kinds of ministry in Damascus, Tarsus and Antioch, and yet he has not fully commenced his life’s work. That is about to happen, of course. Yet we can see that he was taught patience. We need to ask ourselves what patience is. In a biblical sense, it is not mere resignation to a situation. Rather it is expectancy that the Lord has his time for things to happen.

The Spirit leads people to be busy while they wait for doors to open for them. It has been pointed out that God never asked a person who was doing nothing to do something for him. The ones who receive guidance from the Lord are busy doing his general commands about service in the church. One way in which this was explained was by saying that God would not call a person to cross the sea for Jesus if that person was not willing to cross the street for Jesus.

We know that on this occasion the Spirit could have led one of the three leaders to make a prophetic announcement about Barnabas and Saul. In a sense, that does not help us today because we believe that the gift of prophecy has ceased. One obvious question is, how would we know that it was the Spirit who was speaking? When writing to the church in Corinth, Paul told those who prophesied to check what another prophet had said, which indicates that mistakes could be made. It is also possible that the Spirit revealed his will to all the men at the same time by another means. It looks to me that when the Spirit leads someone to work for him he will accompany the call with so many obvious features that others will be convinced that the person has been called. And if others are not convinced, it would suggest that the Spirit is not calling that person to the task.

Leaving Antioch

Barnabas and Saul set off on what we call Paul’s first missionary journey, although that is not very accurate if all that is being referred to his travelling with the gospel. Paul had been engaged in spreading the gospel around his home area for several years. As they set out on this new journey, there does not seem to have been any specific guidance as to where they should go. They travelled under the providential guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Heart of the Matter (Matthew 15:1-10)

We are often told to be careful because we do not know who is watching us. This is true in all walks of life. After all, when we drive along the road there may be a man with a speed checker around the corner about to tell us the truth. Children often think their parents have more than two eyes because they seem to observe lots of things that the children try to hide.

Jesus told his disciples that they too were under observation spiritually. In the Sermon on the Mount he told them that their heavenly Father watched what they did in secret when they prayed and fasted or gave alms. The Gospel writers often mention that Jesus looked at his disciples when they were engaged in different activities. And we know that it is impossible to be an example without others looking at us. So, there are good ways of being observed.

There are also sinful ways of being observed and we have an example of such in this passage. Representatives of the more conservative religious group in Israel – that is the Pharisees – had been watching the disciples of Jesus and had spotted something to point out to Jesus. The disciples were not keeping the tradition of the elders regarding washing their hands when they ate.

The traditions of the elders
What were the tradition of the elders? The Pharisees said that there were two kinds of laws given by God. One kind was the law given to Moses at Mount Sinai and those requirements are found in the Pentateuch. The other kind was oral law, which was a set of requirements handed down from previous generations. Eventually those laws would be written down, but that was done after the time of Jesus. When they were written down, there was a whole volume concerned with the practice of washing hands. Those oral requirements were given the same status as the laws given by God.

Where did this tradition about washing hands come from? While one cannot be certain, it is reasonable to assume it commenced for two reasons. The first was that individuals did not want to have contaminated hands in a ritualistic sense and the second was that they wanted others to know that their hands were not contaminated. After all, if your dinner companion was unsure about your hands he might be frightened that he would be contaminated by you. Eventually, this tradition became a display of religious pride.

Some features of traditions
One way of looking at this incident is to automatically assume that we would not be in the company of the Pharisees and scribes. Usually, the problem is always with the others, whoever they are. Yet it is impossible to live without having practices that we prefer to engage in.

We know that the Bible does not speak about everything. We are not given a detailed list of what we should do all the time. So we are going to have some practices that become our personal tradition because we may find them useful. It all depends on what we do with our practices because although they may be harmless to us they could become harmful to others if we convince them that such practices are required by God. That is a path to self-righteousness.

An obvious problem with traditions is that no one has only one tradition. Instead, each person will have numerous traditions. The Pharisees had hundreds that they thought were important and they insisted that their followers practice such traditions. They had so many, it would take a long time to check whether they had kept all of them as required.

We can see from this incident another feature of traditions and that is the power it can give over others. The disciples sensed that the Pharisees disapproved of what Jesus had said and it looks as if the disciples were expecting trouble from them. After all, the power was expressed through getting people to go along with their ideas. Jesus regarded those ideas as bondage, and we know that bondage is a wrong use of power.

What did Jesus say to the Pharisees?
The Pharisees had traditions that covered all kinds of situations in human life and one of them was connected to a practice known as Corban. A person may choose to dedicate something to God and give it to his service at some stage. This was a voluntary vow, which God had not commanded anyone to make. As far as the person was concerned, the item now belonged to God, even although it was still in the person’s possession.

Then the individual discovered that his parents were in need. Instead of using the devoted item to meet the needs of his parents, which would have been in line with obedience to the fifth commandment, he merely informed them that he could not do so because the item belonged to God. Of course, he had the authority of the Pharisees to back him up. The individual was saying that obedience to a manmade law had priority over obedience to God’s law. The outcome was that God’s law was disobeyed.

What did this reveal about the Pharisees in the time of Jesus? He gives his explanation in verses 7-9. The first detail is that Jesus regards such people as hypocrites. What does it mean to be a hypocrite? In everyday life, the word is used of someone who does not believe in what he is doing. That does not seem to be how Jesus understood a hypocrite. Instead, a hypocrite was someone who replaced God’s requirements with those of someone else and imagined he was pleasing God.

The second detail is that Jesus said such an attitude was nothing new. It had been happening in the time of Isaiah centuries before. This meant that what God’s Word stated back then was relevant to them. They were like those whom Isaiah had rebuked for their religious priorities.

A third detail is that such a choice revealed that there was something wrong with their hearts. The Pharisees would have been startled to know that their clean hands indicated an unclean heart, that their words of devotion indicated that they were not close to God, and that their worship was futile. While outward ritual is important in the sense that we need to do something, nevertheless if all it does is cover up an unclean heart, it is sinful behaviour.

The problem identified by Jesus
It is obvious that Jesus did not regard this outlook of the Pharisees as trivial. Instead he warned both the crowd and the disciples about what those religious leaders were teaching. He predicted that his Father would yet deal with those who taught wrong things as the Pharisees did. They were like weeds in the Lord’s garden and were about to be removed in the way a gardener gets rid of weeds. Moreover, they were like blind guides who instead of helping people to see did the opposite. The result would be spiritual damage when leader and follower fell into a deep pit.

As far as his teaching was concerned, Jesus taught the opposite of what the Pharisees said. Of course, we know that Jesus was not speaking about personal hygiene here when he says that one can eat with unwashed hands. What he means is that a manmade law cannot replace or cure a defiled heart. Keeping the tradition externally was meaningless. It was not even of value if the person’s heart was right.

What did Jesus want his disciples to do with the Pharisees and their teachings? Jesus had one requirement and that was that his followers should avoid them entirely. Listening to them would lead to spiritual blindness and danger. Jesus says we should avoid anyone whose teachings lead us to disobey God’s Word.

The illustration that Jesus uses is one that reminds us where sin comes from. All sin comes from within humans. We are often prone to lay the blame on situations or on the devil. Yet the fact is that every sin that marks our world is there because humans somewhere chose to behave in that way.

Moreover, we can see that sins include silent thoughts as well as outward actions. It is important for us to note what goes through our minds. Imagine if somehow our thoughts were to appear on a screen for everyone to read. What would be our response? After all, God can read them. We could be ashamed, or we might just be embarrassed. Yet one can be embarrassed because he was caught and not because he was guilty. But it is appropriate to be ashamed of our sinful thoughts. Yet there is more to it than that.

We can see from his description that Jesus is like a surgeon dealing with a severe problem that a person has and who wants to get to the roots to deal with it. Jesus is not merely contrasting inward sins and outward sins. Instead he says that both inward and outward sins come from deep within a person. Personal sin is not a surface issue, a little influence that affects us trivially. Instead, it is a power that affects everything we are. My sin is not an extension of who I am. Instead, it is who I am. I am a sinner. I go astray. I will love to go astray if my heart is not changed. And it is not changed by manmade laws. Human commandments never made anyone holy.

How do we respond to this description of human hearts? We should answer this question by confessing that what is needed is not personal reformation but divine regeneration as far as individuals are concerned. It is not enough to stop doing a few external activities. Instead, the Lord must change the heart.

What should be our response to our personal sinfulness? The answer is repentance. Jesus on numerous occasions made it very clear that his message included the demand for repentance and that without it a person could not enter the kingdom of God. What is repentance? We can use the letters of the word ‘repent’ and say six things about it.

First, repentance includes regret for our sins against God. Second, repentance appreciates the enlightenment received through the gospel – it is stimulated by the contents of the gospel. Third, repentance has a longing for pardon from the God who has been offended. Fourth, repentance dismisses all excuses – there is no attempt to mitigate one’s sins and make them less serious than they are. Fifth, repentance is needed now – there should be no delay. Sixth, repentance is accompanied by trust in Jesus.

A person’s spirituality should deal with spiritual realities. Christian spirituality focuses on one’s relationship with the God of grace through the work of the Holy Spirit leading to ongoing fellowship with the Father and with Jesus, the Saviour. That should be our priority and not meaningless traditions that are of no value in living a spiritual life. We should beware the example of the Pharisees.