Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Acts 1:6-7 – The role of Israel

Another detail that Luke mentions here, from what Jesus and his disciples discussed during their time together, is the future of Israel in God’s purposes.

Several commentators find fault with the disciples for asking this question, but on what evidence they do so I cannot see. I don’t think it is valid to say that they would have asked a carnal question having spent so much time during these forty days being instructed by Jesus about the kingdom of God. The Saviour, certainly, does not find fault with them for asking it and neither does he say that Israel will not be restored in the future. 

Why would they have asked this question? I think the answer is that the Old Testament promised both the coming of the Spirit and the restoration of Israel during the reign of the Messiah. Jesus was about to begin his reign from heaven, and he had intimated that the Spirit would come within a few days. Therefore it was natural for them to ask if the restoration of Israel would also occur then. 

We should note two things from this matter. First, the apostles were acknowledging the sovereignty of Jesus because they believed that he would be the one who would restore Israel. This would be one of the actions that Jesus would do from heaven during his reign. The church has waited a long time for Jesus to perform this great work, but it will be wonderful when it happens (Rom. 11:11-15). We should be praying for and anticipating with delight that wonderful future day. 

Second, Jesus reminds them that the Father works to his timetable, and there are many details within it that he has not revealed when they will happen (v. 7). This denial, however, should not diminish or remove our confidence in him. Today, we seem to be seeing the decline of Christianity in the western world, or so we are told. But these commentators don’t know the timetable of God. Our hope is in his plans and not in human speculations. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Acts 1:4-5 – The baptism with the Holy Spirit

As we know, the topic of the baptism of the Holy Spirit can be a very controversial topic. Sadly it can be used like a slogan or even to demean Christians with whom a person disagrees. Usually when something doctrinal is causing controversy, it is best to go and see what the Bible says about it. So what does Jesus say about this particular topic in Acts 1.

The first detail that the Saviour stresses is that this baptism was going to occur in a particular place, Jerusalem. I think this is why he commands his apostles not to leave the city. If any of them had decided to return to Galilee, they would have missed out on this occasion.  Of course, the mention of a specific location raises the question as to why it was selected?

One answer to the question is that God is free to bless wherever he wishes. A second answer is that Jerusalem was the climax or goal of the Old Testament perspective, but here in the New Testament it is only the beginning of what God was going to do. A third answer is that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were the ones who had urged the authorities to crucify Jesus, and Jesus here reveals that where sin abounded, grace would abound even more.  

A second detail connected to this baptism was that it was going to be experienced by particular people, the apostles of Jesus. Initially, at least, the baptism with the Spirit was limited to them because there is not a suggestion that it was experienced by the other believers out of the 120 who are mentioned in verse 15. This leads us to ask why Jesus limited the baptism to them, and the answer is given in verse 8: they needed spiritual power in order to be the witnesses of Jesus. These men already had the Spirit, but they needed to experience him in a more expansive and powerful way as they went out with the gospel.  

A third detail connected to the baptism with the Spirit is that it is connected to a particular promise made by the Father to his Son (v. 4). This takes us back to the eternal counsels when the Father, Son and Holy Spirit interacted with one another concerning their kingdom of grace and glory. One aspect of these counsels was that the Father promised the Son that, upon the completion of his work on earth, he would receive the Holy Spirit in order to continue the development of the church throughout the history of the world.

This statement of Jesus created the anticipation that something great and marvellous was going to take place shortly in Jerusalem and elsewhere, through these men, as they are empowered by the Holy Spirit. And that is what took place.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Acts 1:1-8 - Luke's Preface

It is usual for an author to begin his book with a preface that enables the reader to see where the author has come from and what he intends to say. Chapter 1:1-8 of Acts functions like a preface and in it Luke details what his main emphases are going to be in his book.  

His first point is that the risen Jesus is still active, although he is no longer present physically on earth. I think we can deduce this from the verb ‘began’ in verse 1 – it suggests that he is still continuing with his work although in a different way. Luke is saying that the contents of his second volume will describe the ongoing acts of Jesus as he oversees the extension of the kingdom of God. 

The second point stressed by Luke as he writes to Theophilus is that the Holy Spirit will be active once he comes. In contrast to the rulers who were responsible for the development of earthly kingdoms, and who used fiendish power to defeat and enslave their enemies, the risen Jesus will use heavenly power (the Holy Spirit) to bring spiritual life to sinners who are the enemies of God. The Book of Acts will detail what took place in several places when the Spirit came in his power. 

A third point that Luke stresses is that the blessings connected to the growth of the kingdom of God will come to a spiritually-active church. In Chapter 1, he describes what the church did as they waited for the Spirit to come; in subsequent chapters, he will detail what the church did after the Spirit came. What is important to note about this point is that God blesses those who practice their faith. 

Monday, 27 April 2015

Acts 1 - The author of Acts

We begin today a set of readings from the early chapters of the Book of Acts. As with any book, we can ask who wrote it. The author of this volume was Luke, the doctor who became the companion of Paul.

There are several references to him in the literature of the early church – he was a native of Antioch in Syria, which we know from the Book of Acts was one of the earliest centres of Christianity, and the suggestion is made that he may have been converted there. These references to Luke also say that he never married and later, after Paul’s death, he moved to Greece where he died at the age of eighty-four.

As far as the New Testament is concerned, Luke first appears on the Christian scene in Troas (the use of ‘we’ in Acts 16:10), and perhaps he was a doctor there. It may be the case that he was converted at that time, which would differ from the tradition about him mentioned in the previous paragraph. Alternatively he may have been a believer in Jesus for some time before then. Whether it was the time of his conversion or not, it does seem to have been a time of special consecration for Luke and he was accepted into the company of Paul’s apostolic team, perhaps because his medical skills were needed by others in the group. 

No doubt, Luke at that moment of consecration had little idea of what was ahead of him in the service of God. As far as he could see, he was putting his talents to good use. Yet behind the scenes, God was working in his life, preparing him for his future role as one of the authors of the Bible. As far as we know, Luke is the only Gentile who had this great privilege. Even in his medical role, Luke would have been good at observing details and taking notes of what he saw, and these practices would have helped him as he interviewed witnesses and summarised events. None of us can say what God will do through us when we dedicate ourselves to him. 

Paul’s apostolic team learned quickly that Luke was both reliable and capable. One of the first places they went to was Philippi, and we can see from the account in Acts 18 that Luke seems to have stayed on there when the others left (note the use of ‘we’ as the team journey from Troas to Philippi, and the use of ‘they’ when the team leaves Philippi; in Acts 20:6, when Paul’s team, having revisited Philippi, leaves for Jerusalem, the ‘we’ is resumed). We should not be surprised that the church in Philippi was devoted to helping missions once we recall the likely possibility that it was nurtured by Luke in its early years. We cannot say how great the blessing will be that others will experience through our devotion to Jesus. 

It is not too difficult to see that Luke was marked by practical love for Paul. In Colossians 4:14, Paul calls him ‘the beloved physician’. This description flows from years of experience. Paul had several infirmities, with some suggesting that he had symptoms of malaria, and he needed almost constant medical care. In addition, he suffered much physical abuse from hostile crowds and official beatings from the authorities. I suspect that many times Luke had to deal with deep lacerations, even broken bones, in Paul’s body. And during these years, a deep bond developed between Paul and his doctor.

Colossians 4:14, when combined with 2 Timothy 4:10, reveals another feature of Luke, which is that he did not flinch when the going became tough. These two verses detail the contrast between Luke and Demas – the latter abandoned the Christian ship when the winds became too strong and the waves were almost submerging the boat. But Luke remained, true to the end. In fact, he was Paul’s only companion in his second, and last, imprisonment in Rome. From his prison cell, Paul informs Timothy, ’Only Luke is with me’ (2 Tim. 4:11). 

We can mention one more characteristic of Luke, and it brings us back to the books he wrote. Why did Luke write his Gospel and the Acts? His initial reason was that Theophilus, a high-ranking Roman official, would know about Jesus Christ and his church. The labour of writing these works were intense and demanding, yet Luke thought it worthwhile for a great deal of labour to be expended on one person. Luke had a concern for the soul of Theophilus, and his concern made him busy in helping his friend. 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Colossians 4:15-18 – The church in Laodicea

Probably we are aware of this congregation because of what is said about it thirty years later by Jesus in Revelation 3. By that time it had become a very worldly church, one that appalled the Saviour. Yet we can see from Colossians 4 that it was a church that had enjoyed spiritual blessings. It is likely that the church was founded by Epaphras around about the time that the church in Colosse began. Paul’s short description of this neighbouring church to Colosse gives us insight into church life in the first century.

A focus of prayer. Paul had a great burden for the church in Laodicea: he wrestled in prayer for it (Col. 2:1ff.), especially that they would appreciate who Jesus is and what his resources for his people are. Epaphras too laboured in prayer for the congregation there (Col. 4:13). No doubt, he wanted the members in both churches to imitate such practices and pray earnestly for one another.

Recipients of Pauline letters. Paul mentions a letter he had written to the church there, which does not seem to have been taken at this time by Tychicus. It is described rather unusually as the letter ‘from Laodicea’. I don’t think he means that it originated in Laodicea, but rather he means that once Laodicea had read the letter they were to send it on to Colosse. This points to the existence of a circular letter that had been sent to all the churches and many scholars believe it is a reference to the letter to the Ephesians.

In addition to that letter, which was also to be read in the church in Colosse, the church in Laodicea was to read the letter that Paul had sent to the church in Colosse. This points to two important aspects: (a) Paul knew that he was writing scripture and (b) the Bible should be read publicly in church gatherings. Regarding the first aspect, here we evidence as to how the church would know which letters were divinely inspired – the apostles would have guided them. Concerning the second aspect, Paul previously had urged the church in Thessalonica to listen to the public reading of his letter to them (1 Thess. 5:27). A special blessing is given to the person who fulfilled this task in the churches who received the Book of Revelation from John (Rev. 1:3).

This practice has disappeared from most churches – we only read passages from which we are going to preach, and the disappearance may be connected to the availability of printed Bibles which allow us to read as much of the Bible as we wish at one sitting. There is one difference at least between the two methods. Personal reading can turn into a devotional approach, and that is fine. Yet public reading was a proclamation to individuals by the representative of the sovereign God – in other words, the authority of God’s Word was being affirmed by the listening congregation.

Met in a house. The third feature of the church in Laodicea is that we are told its address – it met in the house of a lady called Nympha. It may be that Paul has in mind the eldership of the church by his term ‘brethren’, and then addresses the rest of the congregation, or he may have the same group in mind when he calls them ‘brethren’ and ‘church’. The early church usually met in the house of a wealthy member of the congregation. Obviously this is a reminder that ‘church’ in the New Testament refers to the people and not to a building.

Encourage those who should be serving. Archippus was the son of Philemon (Phile. 1-2), and in that passage Paul refers to him as his ‘fellow-soldier’, which indicates that he was engaged in a form of spiritual warfare. Here in Colossians 4:17, the congregation are told to convey to Archippus the message that he must complete the work that he has received from the Lord. Paul has not met Archippus, so he is not referring to a task given to Archippus by the apostle. He is the only Colossian that Paul singles out in this letter, so perhaps Archippus was acting as a pastor in the absence of Epaphras. Whatever role he was engaged in, Paul reminds the congregation of their responsibility to encourage him until he completes the task.

Remember Paul’s chains. In verse 18, Paul asks the Colossians to remember his chains, a reminder that we should intercede for those suffering for the faith. No doubt, he wanted them to recall the chains as they prayed for him. In that sense, it is not possible for us to remember his chains because Paul was liberated centuries ago. Yet there are other senses in which we should remember his chains. We can recall the providence of God that arranged for his servant to write several letters of the New Testament while he was in chains. We can recall his devotion to Christ and his determination to serve his Master even while in chains. And we can resolve to do what he would want us most to do – read what he wrote while in chains and absorb what he said about Jesus and living for him.