The best way

And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.
Acts 10:39‭-‬42 ESV

This is part of the talk Peter gave to the household and friends of Cornelius on the day that is often referred to as the “Gentile Pentecost”. I’m drawn to his statement that God made Jesus “to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

There is a lot in that sentence, but in particular Peter answers a question many have asked over the millennia. You may have asked it yourself. Here’s the question:

“God, why don’t you just show yourself?”

Why didn’t he appear to all the people? Wouldn’t that be easier? Jesus could have just flashed across the sky and the whole world would see and know. Why didn’t God do that? Why doesn’t God do that?

I can’t comprehensively answer that question. But I think Peter gives the main answer here: because God didn’t want to.

Jesus didn’t appear to all the people, as we might desire. Instead, he appeared “to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses.”

The whole point was to have us carry the message, imperfect and bungling though we might be. This is how God has chosen to do it, virally spreading the good news of Jesus to the world through people who, first, were the friends and followers who ate and drank with him, then through those they told, down through the centuries and untold spiritual generations to us.

It’s the best way. Because it’s God’s way.

“And they devoted themselves . . .”

This is based on a short talk I gave at our college lifegroup night of worship last night.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

– Acts 2:42-47

I’ve read this passage hundreds of times. Today as I read it again I noticed the first four words as if for the first time: “And they devoted themselves”.

One truism about people in general (and perhaps young people in particular) is that many of us are looking for something to devote ourselves to. Something worthwhile. Something meaningful. Something we can live for and die for. You may be feeling that today.

Acts 2:42-47 is an invitation to devote yourselves. To set aside this summer to taking new steps, large steps in your relationship to Jesus. If you are in Christ, it’s an invitation to own your faith more, to devote yourself to Jesus more fully and more deeply than ever before. If you aren’t yet a believer in Christ, what better time than tonight to take that first step? Let’s speak the good news of Jesus to ourselves and to each other. I deserve God’s wrath for what I’ve done in life, to be separated forever from Him in hell. Yet he devoted himself to the salvation of me and you and to the salvation of the whole world. He died the death I deserved to die and rose again in new, eternal life and offers me that as well! This is such good news, something that we can feast on together!

Lifegroup is not a house on one night; it’s a group of people who are alive. Our hope for College lifegroup is that it will be an experience in Jesus that you can devote yourself to this summer. Not just for yourself, but for others; to devote yourself to teaching and friendship together, to eating together, praying together, worshiping together, being in awe together, seeing God together, helping each other, sacrificing for each other, making your relationship to Jesus an every day thing, an all the time thing. Devoting yourself to being glad rather than angsty, generous rather than selfish, to praising God rather than idols, to being truly alive, and to watching the Lord add daily to you and to us and to himself those who are being saved.

That’s the invitation! We’re ready to devote ourselves to it, and I hope and pray you are too.

“So Philip ran to him”

From last week’s message on Acts 8:26-40

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” – Acts 8:26-30 (ESV)

I love this episode from the early days of the church. Everything is new, the church is young, full of energy, just figuring things out, doing things and experiencing things she never would have dreamed up on her own. The church is realizing just how big the Good News is and just how inclusive the invitation is, and is just trying to keep up with the Holy Spirit. The church is going through hard times but is full of joy.

Philip has been preaching the gospel in Samaria, another one of those formerly untouchable lands populated by what the Jewish people would consider an unsavory people group. Signs and wonders begin happening, conversions, former magic-workers coming to faith, baptisms, receivings of the Holy Spirit, corrections, repentance. Read it, it’s all there in Acts 8.

In the midst of this an angel of the Lord tells Philip to go basically nowhere, otherwise known as the desert place to the south on the way to Gaza. Philip goes – I love the immediacy of obedience in the phrase “he rose and went” – and is confronted with probably the most “other” of all the others he has yet dealt with: a wealthy eunuch from Ethiopia, a worshiper returning from Jerusalem, in a chariot, no doubt surrounded by an armed entourage.

One quick prompting from the Spirit, and Philip runs to this man. Don’t you just love that? When he arrives at the chariot he hears the familiar words of Isaiah 53, Isaiah’s moving description of God’s Suffering Servant, Jesus. The rest is history; a conversation over the open Word, the good news of Jesus proclaimed, a heart reborn, water, baptism, joy. And then – boom – Philip is carried away to Azotus, a distance of probably thirty miles or so.

Lord, I want to be like Philip. He is quick, energetic and fearless in obedience. He lets the scripture breathe, and can explain the good news of Jesus from it.

He never sees an “Other”, he only sees one invited, just like he has been, into the wonders of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

The new tree of the knowledge of good and evil

From last week’s message on Acts 17:16-34

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. – Acts 17:16-34 (ESV)

Paul begins this episode provoked in spirit over the idolatry all around him. Indeed, Athens was so full of idols that they even had a catch-all altar to the “unknown god”, just in case they missed one.

It’s easy from our modern perch to ridicule the ancients for their idolatry, but if you think about it our generation is no different. The joy that explodes in social media over the release of a new phone OS, the way we fawn over our celebrities, the energy and time spent pursuing that ancient, unholy trinity of sex, money and power; all of this points to a society no more free of idolatry than Athens was, and probably even more idolatrous. We don’t bow before statues, but there are all sorts of things that get us out of bed in the morning that aren’t Jesus.

Paul takes the opportunity in a culture awash in idolatry to introduce them to the one true God. He is a God who has been unknown to his audience, for the most part, though they have been given clear communication of him from creation and have been feeling their way toward him all this time. Of course, when you are groping in the dark you will make mistakes, for our God doesn’t need or want all these man-made temples and sacrifices into which they had put so much energy. This is a God who is very near, and who created everything and everybody.

Paul then comes to the point.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Jesus is the turning point of history. Jesus has come, has lived a perfect life, has suffered under God’s wrath for our sins, has died, and has been raised again. Jesus is the great decision of God to save his offspring, and about whom a great decision is called for in each one of us. Repent, or not. Trust in his great gift, or don’t. Reject our idols and worship the one true God, or continue swimming in a sea of idolatry. Breathe the free air, or drown.

When Paul speaks of the resurrection, some of his listeners begin mocking him. This is because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest event in the history of the world and is itself the hinge upon which history swings, but it is also a great scandal and offense to our natural minds, living as we do with the natural assumptions of karma and natural ignorance and misconceptions of holiness and unholiness. Into this ignorance Jesus steps, and in him the cross truly becomes the new tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because when we see him high and lifted up we finally see what holiness truly is, and can discard all our self-idolatry and our misnamed, false goodness. In the cross we also see what unholiness truly is, because of our own deep evil that put Jesus there. The cross is like looking in a mirror that shows us our true reflection. It isn’t pretty, in fact it’s horrifying, but Jesus is beautiful. When he is lifted high he will draw all men to himself.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)

Jesus is alive! He has come to free us from idolatry and hopelessness and sin and bring us home to wholeness and holiness and him. Praise his name!