Books Shape Our Thinking

A couple of times in our lives, my husband and I attended churches where we didn’t quite agree with everything, but we felt these churches were the closest we could find to our own understanding of Scripture. The differences weren’t a matter of false teaching or heresy: they were areas where good people could differ and should be able to give each other grace. We felt as long as the Bible was preached and taught rather than a particular system, then everything would be okay.

In one church, over time, we began to notice that everyone from the pastor to Sunday School teachers to lay leaders began quoting the same authors. Then their vocabulary began changing to match the authors they revered. Concepts that used to be alluded to were now main points. Sermons and lessons changed emphasis to feature points from these authors, and Bible passages were viewed through their lens. When one man spoke about this belief system as being “in the club,” it almost seemed a little cultish.

In another church, the issue wasn’t a particular belief system. But every Christian bestseller that came along was eventually taught in our church. When we moved, I found sermon notes from our first year there which were rich and meaty and directly from the Bible. Later sermons were second- or third-hand thoughts from popular books.

One of my favorite writers reads and quotes authors that I am uncomfortable with because their view of Scriptural truth seems a little skewed to me. Instead of following standard hermeneutics, principles for interpreting Scripture, they twist things a little to get a different outcome more in line with popular culture. They are not quite heretical yet, but this subtle shift will lead that way if continued. This lovely author, with so much talent and potential, is getting more entrenched in this kind of thinking every year. It grieves me to see it.

We’ve seen a couple of young men we’ve known get caught up in belief systems that, again, I don’t think are heretical, but I don’t agree with. It wouldn’t be a problem except that these belief systems now dominate their conversation and online presence. They like to bait and argue over their points of belief. Even though they are not being heretical, their ministry and outreach has been hijacked into debating rather than gently persuading people of God’s truth.

We observed over the course of years a definite shift in thinking and beliefs in each of these cases. The speaker or writer didn’t come to their new views from their Bible reading, but from the books they read. Those books then colored their view of Scripture.

One of our former pastors used to frequently quote Charlie “Tremendous” Jones as saying, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.

If that’s true, and I think it may be, we need to be watchful about what we read. Of course, these days many people read online articles and listen to podcasts as well.

Does this mean we should only read books where we know we’ll agree with everything? Not necessarily. It’s good to exercise discernment. Sometimes when we are entrenched in our own tenets and lingo, we can get a little myopic.

But we should filter everything we read through the Scriptures. The Bible tells us to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Early Christians were called noble because they checked everything even the apostle Paul said against the Scriptures.

We need to be careful not to swallow everything an author says just because they use Scripture or religious talk. The devil does that. “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). With Eve, Satan questioned what God said and then skewed His meaning. He quoted and misapplied Scripture when tempting Jesus. Peter said of Paul’s writing:

There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.(2 Peter 3:16-18).

Some writers don’t go that far–they are not exactly heretical. But a subtle shift in emphasis can skew their teaching, and therefore our thinking. Then a particular facet of their understanding becomes a hobbyhorse. So we need to be discerning not just with writing we might be prepared to be on guard with, but also with popular writing.

We need to make sure we are spending more time with the Bible itself than even books about the Bible. If we’re spending thirty minutes a day in a theological book and ten minutes in the Bible, we’re off balance. One former pastor used to say that bank tellers were instructed in discerning counterfeit money not by studying counterfeits, but by studying the real thing. The more familiar they were with legal money, the more easily they could tell when something was a little off with money they were handling. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). As we read and study, we need to pray with the psalmist, “I am your servant; give me understanding, that I may know your testimonies!” (Psalm 119:125). Then our “powers of discernment” will be “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

We need to ask God to search our hearts, show us our blind spots, and “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).

I love good books. I’ve had my thinking shaped in good ways by authors who faithfully studied and represented God’s truth shared in His Word. I especially love writers and teachers who, like the Levites in Nehemiah’s time, “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8).

But we need discernment to know when a teacher is giving the sense of the Word itself or twisting it a bit for their own purposes or from their own mistaken understanding.

And we need to be careful that our thoughts, understanding, and resulting actions are shaped by the Bible itself.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

Book Review: Be Available

The book of Judges is one of the oddest in Scripture. The phrases “There was no king in Israel” and “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” are repeated. In the preceding book, Joshua was the nation’s leader who had followed Moses. Now there was no national leader and Israel had by and large fallen away from following God as they had promised. The behavior in the book dramatically shows the need for godly leadership and personal righteousness.

Warren Wiersbe helps readers navigate through the book of Judges in Be Available: Accepting the Challenge to Confront the Enemy.

Wiersbe points out that, ““Deuteronomy 6 outlined the nation’s basic responsibilities: Love and obey Jehovah as the only true God (vv. 1–5); teach your children God’s laws (vv. 6–9); be thankful for God’s blessings (vv. 10–15); and separate yourself from the worship of the pagan gods in the land of Canaan (vv. 16–25). “Unfortunately, the new generation failed in each of those responsibilities” (p. 18, Kindle version). “The sin in our lives we refuse to conquer will eventually conquer us” (p. 26).

“The first step the new generation took toward defeat and slavery was neglecting the Word of God, and generations ever since have made that same mistake” (p. 23). Wiersbe applies this across the ages: “I fear that too many believers today are trying to live on religious fast food dispensed for easy consumption (no chewing necessary) by entertaining teachers who give people what they want, not what they need” (p. 23).

Wiersbe makes this interesting observation: “Whether in a nation or a local church, the absence of qualified leaders is often a judgment of God and evidence of the low spiritual level of the people” (p. 112).

By the time of the Judges, ““Unfortunately, God’s people aren’t working together to defeat the enemy, but here and there, God is raising up men and women of faith who are experiencing His blessing and power and are leading His people to victory” (p. 20, Kindle version).

Sometimes those leaders were a surprise: ““When God goes to war, He usually chooses the most unlikely soldiers, hands them the most unusual weapons, and accomplishes through them the most unpredictable results” (p. 31). “Never underestimate the good that one person can do who is filled with the Spirit of God and obedient to the will of God” (p. 36). Others were a disappointment: though they yielded to God and were used by Him, at other times they yielded to the flesh.

The last few chapters show the low level Israel sank to and set us up for the monarchy to come. But even though some of the future kings were godly and inspiring, all of them failed in various points. One of my former pastors used to say that throughout the OT, we see the best of the judges and kings, but we also see the worst. These point us to the only completely righteous and perfect King, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Be Right (Romans): How to Be Right with God, Yourself, and Others

Warren W. Wiersbe sheds some light on the book of Romans in Be Right (Romans): How to Be Right with God, Yourself, and Others. The title comes from the fact that some form of the word “righteousness” is used over sixty times in Romans. Also, the most important pursuits in the world are being right with God and our fellow humans.

Romans has some of the most familiar verses in the Bible, but also many difficult passages.

We typically use verses from Romans when sharing the gospel with others.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10).

But these are not isolated verses. They come from a context of Paul’s detailed explanation of man’s sin, Christ’s sacrifice, and more.

Chapters 6-8 detail the struggle between the flesh and Spirit.

Romans also discusses God’s plan for Jews and Gentiles. He has not forsaken the Jews, but he has “grafted in” the Gentiles (chapters 9-11). Paul shows that this was God’s plan all along. The section about election and free will from Romans 9 was very helpful to me.

Then chapters 12-14 are full of practical instructions. Paul often deals with the doctrinal first, then shows how doctrine manifests itself in everyday lives. Romans 14:1-15:7 particularly deal with disagreements among Christians over what we call “debatable” matters.

Romans ends with Paul’s warm greetings to several individuals.

As always, I have several passages marked. Here are a couple that stood out to me:

In the Christian life, doctrine and duty always go together. What we believe helps to determine how we behave. It is not enough for us to understand Paul’s doctrinal explanations. We must translate our learning into living and show by our daily lives that we trust God’s Word.

Christian living depends on Christian learning; duty is always founded on doctrine. If Satan can keep a Christian ignorant, he can keep him impotent.

The law was a signpost, pointing the way. But it could never take them to their destination. The law cannot give righteousness; it only leads the sinner to the Savior who can give righteousness.

Does a strong Christian think he is making a great sacrifice by giving up some food or drink [for the sake of a weaker believer]? Then let him measure his sacrifice by the sacrifice of Christ. No sacrifice we could ever make could match Calvary.

A person’s spiritual maturity is revealed by his discernment. He is willing to give up his rights that others might be helped. He does this, not as a burden, but as a blessing. Just as loving parents make sacrifices for their children, so the mature believer sacrifices to help younger Christians grow in the faith.

Spiritual gifts are tools to build with, not toys to play with or weapons to fight with. In the church at Corinth, the believers were tearing down the ministry because they were abusing spiritual gifts. They were using their gifts as ends in themselves and not as a means toward the end of building up the church. They so emphasized their spiritual gifts that they lost their spiritual graces! They had the gifts of the Spirit but were lacking in the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, etc. (Gal. 5: 22–23)

This is a fairly short commentary, so Wiersbe didn’t go into as much detail as he could have in some sections. But I think this is a good book for those who want more insight from Romans without slogging through a massive volume.

Laudable Linkage

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Here are some noteworthy reads found this week.

From Meat to Meta: Facebook’s Disincarnate Dreamworld, HT to Challies. “For those who labour under the Enlightenment (and latterly Zuckerbergian) prejudice that ideal reality is immaterial and universal, the notion that God could have a body is quite a scandal. But it is deeply, deeply good news that the Word ‘became’ flesh.”

Life Beyond the Spiritual Shallows. “There is a depth to God’s character that cannot be assessed with quick glances and fleeting thoughts. We will never become the kind of women who face the lion’s den without a deep understanding of God’s character. We will never know that depth if we cannot find ways to circumnavigate our brain’s wiring and study God’s Word for longer than eight second bursts.”

Should We Pursue Self-Love? HT to Challies. “God acknowledges the reality of self-love, but He certainly does not teach it as a Christian virtue to be cultivated. Rather, it is an existing reality, necessary for our survival, in some respects healthy, but in other ways very much tainted by our sin. Our instinct to take care of ourselves is something we are to extend to others, that we might lovingly take care of them.”

When You Are Wrongly Accused: 5 Things to Do. “What can we do when we are wrongly accused? Either directly or indirectly? When someone we know is telling us we are a bad person, exhibiting bad behavior that we are not responsible for, have ruined something way beyond our control, or have a pattern of wrong deeds and we feel it simply is not true. Before you start responding to their accusations, you want to ask yourself a few questions.”

Two Important Principles for Trusting God: Commas and Periods. “Clearly, punctuation matters when giving instructions. It’s even more important when it comes to trusting God. Understanding and embracing the principles of God’s punctuation can give us peace—and even joy—in the waiting.”

Night Watch, HT to Challies. “Night watch. Our God neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). And sometimes He wakes us in the night. To watch and pray. I remember when the two emails arrived. One after the other. To our inbox in Karachi. Same time. Same message. Traveling across the world. From opposite sides of the United States.”

Dividing Lines: Beware of “Us vs. Them.” “The Bible separates people into just two categories as well: those who are in Christ and those who aren’t. But this important distinction does not give us permission to attack people who don’t agree with us. In fact, Jesus told a parable about a religious person who did just that.”

This moving video, shared by Lisa, is titled Before You Call the Cops. This man had an experience when, just seeing him, a woman reacted in fear. He encourages us to get to know each other and not fit everyone into stereotypes.

Be Strong: Study of Joshua

Our church has been reading through the book of Joshua the last few weeks. I read Be Strong (Joshua): Putting God’s Power to Work in Your Life by Warren W. Wiersbe along with our daily Bible reading.

Joshua marks two major transitions in Israel’s history. First, Moses, their leader of over forty years, had just passed away. Then the Israelites had just finished forty years of wandering and were about to enter the land God had promised their ancestors long ago.

Either situation would be daunting to a new leader. So God encourages Joshua right off the bat:

No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them (Joshua 1:5-6).

God also gives Joshua vital instruction:

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go (Joshua 1:7-9).

Joshua seems to have followed God’s instruction faithfully throughout the rest of his life. He made a couple of costly mistakes: going up to Ai and making a pact with the Gibeonites without seeking counsel of the Lord. But Wiersbe spends a lot of time pointing out that when we err, we don’t give up: we confess our sins, pick up again, and get back on the right path.

Wiersbe discusses the difficulty of God having His people slaughter the nations in Canaan. He points out that the Canaanites weren’t innocent: they were known for cruel acts like sacrificing their children to their gods and vile sexual acts in the name of worship. And he reminds that God gave them plenty of space to repent. Rahab was one who heard of the God of Israel and turned to Him in faith (eventually becoming an ancestor of the Messiah).

Some hymns have portrayed the promised land as symbolic of heaven. But Wiersbe repeatably points out that the symbolism doesn’t fit: we don’t battle our way either into heaven or after we get there. He says that entering the promised land symbolizes our maturity in Christ. God often said that He was the one driving out the nations before Israel, yet they had to pick up their swords and fight (most of the time. Jericho and some of the other cities had different battle plans). So with us: we’re saved by grace through faith plus nothing. And we’re sanctified by grace as well. Yet we only become mature Christians as we pick up our “sword of the Spirit,” God’s Word, and believe it and apply it. We can and should pray for God’s grace and help in taking temptation away and helping us overcome, but He expects us to read and apply the Word He gave us. “What Paul’s letter to the Ephesians explains doctrinally, the book of Joshua illustrates practically. It shows us how to claim our riches in Christ. But it also shows us how to claim our rest in Christ (p. 22, Kindle version). Wiersbe discusses briefly the different kinds of rest Hebrews 4 and 5 tell about, then says, “This ‘Canaan rest’ is a picture of the rest that Christian believers experience when they yield their all to Christ and claim their inheritance by faith” (p. 22).

The victorious Christian life isn’t a once-for-all triumph that ends all our problems. As pictured by Israel in the book of Joshua, the victorious Christian life is a series of conflicts and victories as we defeat one enemy after another and claim more of our inheritance to the glory of God (p. 23).

The main point of Joshua is that God kept His promises to His people. Not only did He give them the land He originally promised Abraham, but He provided for each of the tribes. At the end of the book, Joshua tells the people, “You know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14). He encourages them to “cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day” (23:8) and warns that just as God kept His promises to give them the land, He’ll keep His promise to punish them if they go after other gods.

Wiersbe has a closing chapter of the example of Joshua himself in his following the Lord and leading the people.

As always, I appreciate Dr. Wiersbe’s insights into this book of the Bible.

 

Laudable Linkage

A collection of good reading online

Here are some of the most noteworthy reads discovered recently:

Be a Peacemaker, Not a Peacekeeper. “For a long time, I thought that working for peace meant staying quiet – withdrawing from conflict, brushing aside whatever was bothering me, ignoring my own feelings and opinions to appease someone else, doing anything to avoid rocking the boat. It seemed like the nice thing to do, even the Christian thing to do. But then I realised that it is not really peacemaking, but peacekeeping.”

Things Revealed, HT to Challies. I was pondering this very concept recently. “A lot of us spend our time trying to read that book called ‘The Secret Things’ while all the time the book called ‘The Things Revealed’ is sitting right in front of us. God has given it to us and it belongs to us and to our children so we won’t just read it but also obey it.”

9 Wrong Ways to Read the Bible (And One Better Way). “When we yawn over the Bible, that’s like a severe asthmatic yawning over the free offer of a ventilator while gasping for air. Read the Bible asking not mainly whom to imitate and how to live but what it shows us about a God who loves to save and about sinners who need saving.”

Fading Joy: Am I Seeking an Experience or a Relationship? “Too often we value a feeling over the reality that would produce that feeling. We want to feel close to God without actually drawing close to God. We want the benefits of a close walk with God without the heart change required to walk with God. Many times, we want the outward trappings without the inward transformation. Our need for an experience can become an idol that dethrones God in our lives.”

Teach What the Bible Says First, HT to Knowable Word. “Sometimes, people who are teaching the Bible try much too hard to be brilliant, giving us their own insights into life rather than letting the brilliance of the Bible speak for itself. Let the Bible speak! I would rather hear one halting, inexperienced speaker show me God in a text of the Bible than hear 1,000 polished pastors give me their three-point, alliterated instructions for life, which are often only loosely based on the actual text.”

The Sin of Provoking. “It’s one thing, as Proverbs cautions, to recognize an angry person and beware; it’s quite another thing to provoke to the point of an angry response an individual who is seeking to do right (and then condemning the person for their angry response).” Yes! I am glad to see this addressed.

Bitter Roots, HT to Challies. “At some time each of us is affected by unfairness and hurt. Each of our stories would be, could be, maybe even should be different had people or situations not altered our path. . . . We can choose to replay wrong and rewind hurt. But when I read God’s Word, I come back time and time again to this.”

A Diligent Wife, HT to Challies. “So, I began to pray. For my marriage, yes. But, more than my marriage, I began to pray for my heart. The kids weren’t going to stop needing me. Giving up my role as a Mom wasn’t an option. But neither was quitting on my marriage. How could I be a wife and a Mom? Was it possible to be both? What could this look like, and where was I to start? What needed to change in me in order to invest more fully in my marriage?” This is the first of a 31-day series that looks great so far.

Wanted: Spiritual Mothers. HT to Challies. “The truth is, you’re never too old to no longer want your mom—the mom you may or may not have ever had. One who not only cares for you physically, but also speaks into your life with spiritual wisdom and comfort, who prays for you and builds you up with words of experience and knowledge, who reminds you of how much God loves you and desires a relationship with you.”

Fall color video, HT to Story Warren. If you need a dose of fall color, these drone shots of gorgeous autumn trees will feed your spirit.

Finally, these ceramic masters are amazing, HT to Steve Laube. They make it look so easy. Some years ago, a man demonstrated to our church what was involved in throwing and shaping clay. He and his wife were going as artists to a country that did not welcome missionaries. As he worked, he pointed our various parallels between what he was doing and what God does for us. Though the whole demonstration was wonderful, the one thing that stood out to me was the intimacy of what he was doing. The wheel is almost in the potter’s lap. He’s bent over it, his arms around it. That picture of God as being over us, surrounding us, carefully watching and shaping us, has stayed with me for years.

Something secondary came to mind as I watched this video: creating art is messy before it is beautiful. The artists aren’t bothered by getting their hands dirty or brushing away shavings. They have the finished project in mind.

Hope you have a lovely weekend!

Book Review: Be Daring

Warren Wiersbe divided his commentary on Acts into two volumes. I reviewed the first, Be Dynamic (Acts 1-12): Experience the Power of God’s People, a few weeks ago. I just finished the second commentary, Be Daring (Acts 13-28): Put Your Faith Where the Action Is.

As I said in the last review, Wiersbe has commented on books longer than 28 chapters in one volume before. But Acts is a pivotal book between the OT, gospels, and the rest of the NT. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ changed a lot of things, and the early disciples were still figuring out the implications. But this was also probably the biggest expanse of the church in history.

Serious persecution also dogged followers of the Way, as Paul referred to it. Thus Wiersbe’s title to Be Daring fits.

The apostle Paul is the focus of these latter chapters of Acts: his standing as a loyal Pharisee and his persecution of the church, his miraculous conversion, his three missionary journeys, his arrest and imprisonment.

As usual, I have several quotes marked from the book. Here are a few:

The first one was from the context of the big council meeting in Acts 15 about whether the newly-saved Gentiles needed to keep the Jewish laws and customs:

It is beautiful to see that this letter expressed the loving unity of people who had once been debating with each other and defending opposing views. . . . We today can learn a great deal from this difficult experience of the early church. To begin with, problems and differences are opportunities for growth just as much as temptations for dissension and division. Churches need to work together and take time to listen, love, and learn. How many hurtful fights and splits could have been avoided if only some of God’s people had given the Spirit time to speak and to work. . . . Most church problems are not caused by doctrinal differences but by different viewpoints on practical matters (pp. 35-36, Kindle version).

This is still applicable in our times, isn’t it?

[Paul] used one approach with the synagogue congregations and another with the Gentiles. He referred the Jews and Jewish proselytes to the Old Testament Scriptures, but when preaching to the Gentiles, he emphasized the God of creation and His goodness to the nations. His starting point was different, but his finishing point was the same: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (p. 23).

If God had to depend on perfect people to accomplish His work, He would never ever get anything done. Our limitations and imperfections are good reasons for us to depend on the grace of God, for our sufficiency is from Him alone (2 Cor. 3: 5) (p. 43).

To walk by faith means to see opportunities even in the midst of opposition. A pessimist sees only the problems; an optimist sees only the potential; but a realist sees the potential in the problems (p. 71).

The church ministers by persuasion, not propaganda. We share God’s truth, not man’s religious lies. Our motive is love, not anger; and the glory of God, not the praise of men (p. 91).

Luke did not write his book simply to record ancient history. He wrote to encourage the church in every age to be faithful to the Lord and carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. “What was begun with so much heroism ought to be continued with ardent zeal,” said Charles Spurgeon, “since we are assured that the same Lord is mighty still to carry on His heavenly designs” (p. 174).

Acts doesn’t mention any of the apostles writing epistles, except the joint one in Acts 15. But we have clues from the epistles that many of them were written during this time period.

The book of Acts ends somewhat abruptly, with Paul in prison. Dr. Wiersbe shares from what we know of history what happened during the rest of Paul’s life: he was released from prison, ministered a few more years, was arrested again, and was eventually beheaded. Of course, at the time Luke was writing, they did not know how long Paul would be in prison. Luke probably figured it was a good a time as any to stop where he was and send this long letter to Theophilus. But Luke was also under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps the Spirit’s leading Luke to stop where he did was an indication that the transitional phase was over and the church was established and on its way to continued growth til Christ returns.

Be Dynamic: Experience the Power of God’s People

Warren Wiersbe has divided his commentary of Acts into two books, the first of which is Be Dynamic (Acts 1-12): Experience the Power of God’s People.

Wiersbe has commented on longer books than Acts in one volume. But I think he must have divided his notes on this book of the Bible because it is such a pivotal book.

Acts was written by Luke as a sequel to the gospel bearing his name. Both books are addressed to Theophilus.

At the beginning of Acts, Jesus had already died, been buried, and been resurrected. He spent 40 days teaching His disciples, then He ascended back to heaven. The last thing He told His disciples to do was to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth. He promised the power of His Holy Spirit would enable them to accomplish this task. The book of Acts tells the story of how that witness spread.

Perhaps another reason Wiersbe divided this commentary in two is that Peter is the main character in the first twelve chapters. Then the focus shifts to Paul.

Yet a third possible reason: there were so many changes over the course of Acts, some of which are confusing to people to this day. For one, Jesus’s ministry had been primarily to Jews, though He ministered to Samaritans and Gentiles as well. But when God used Peter to open the doors of the gospel to Samaritans and Gentiles (which most believe is what is meant by his being given the keys of the kingdom), many disciples were confused. But they couldn’t argue with the definite way God had led. Then came the whole question of what part the OT law had in the life of a NT disciple. They had to meet together and hammer out these issues, which some of the epistles go into further.

Another change was the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, as promised by Jesus in Acts 1:4-5 and 8. In the OT, the Spirit came upon certain people at certain times for specific tasks. After Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to inhabit every believer all the time.

The filling of the Spirit has to do with power for witness and service (Acts 1: 8). We are not exhorted to be baptized by the Spirit, for this is something God does once and for all when we trust His Son. But we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5: 18), for we need His power constantly if we are to serve God effectively. At Pentecost, the Christians were filled with the Spirit and experienced the baptism of the Spirit, but after that, they experienced many fillings (Acts 4: 8, 31; 9: 17; 13: 9) but no more baptisms (p. 35-36).

Another controversy has to do with Acts 2:44-45: “ 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.” Some have said that this is a form of Communism. Wiersbe says it is not, because “the program was totally voluntary, temporary (Acts 11:27-30), and motivated by love” (p. 43).

One striking feature of this era is that the church took persecution for granted as part of life.

They did not pray to have their circumstances changed or their enemies put out of office. Rather, they asked God to empower them to make the best use of their circumstances and to accomplish what He had already determined (Acts 4: 28). This was not “fatalism” but faith in the Lord of history who has a perfect plan and is always victorious. They asked for divine enablement, not escape, and God gave them the power that they needed (p. 68).

In one of my favorite chapters in Acts, chapter 12, Peter is delivered from prison and goes to the home of Mary, where the disciples were praying. If you remember the story, Rhoda comes to the door and is so astonished to hear Peter that she forgets to open it. She runs back in to tell everyone, and no one believes her. Almost every sermon or lesson I’ve heard from this chapter ridicules the disciples for praying without faith. Here they were praying for Peter, yet they couldn’t believe God had set him free. Even Wiersbe takes this view.

But Dr. Layton Talbert (one of our former Sunday School teachers), in his book Not By Chance: Learning to Trust a Sovereign God, brings up a different viewpoint. We don’t know that they were praying for Peter’s deliverance from prison. Dr. Talbert points out that the text doesn’t say. James was killed by Herod earlier in the chapter: since he was not delivered they may not have expected Peter to be, either. “The only precedent we have for the church’s prayer under similar circumstances is in Acts 4:23-30. There, in the face of recent imprisonment, persecution, and renewed threats, the church made only one request. And it wasn’t for deliverance from prison or persecution; it was for boldness in the face of both (4:29)” (p. 203).

A few more quotes from Wiersbe:

Repentance is not the same as “doing penance,” as though we have to make a special sacrifice to God to prove that we are sincere. True repentance is admitting that what God says is true, and because it is true, to change our minds about our sins and about the Savior, (p. 52).

If Satan cannot defeat the church by attacks from the outside, he will get on the inside and go to work (20: 28–31) (p. 79).

God has no grandchildren. Each of us must be born into the family of God through personal faith in Jesus Christ (John 1: 11–13) (p. 108).

Luke summarizes the events up to this point in Acts 12:24: “But the word of God increased and multiplied.

As always, Dr. Wiersbe’s notes were very helpful in studying the Bible.

Laudable Linkage

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I’m way behind on my blog reading this week, but here are a few thought-provoking posts I came across:

Strength for the Weary, HT to Challies. “As I sat with the mid-week church group, the people around me had no idea how I felt. What they saw was a man dressed in business casual who had just come from a day of work, and he had a smile on his face. What they did not know was I was forcing that smile.”

Don’t Feel Sorry for or Fear for Your Kids; Raise Them up to Walk in Faith, HT to Challies. “Don’t feel sorry for or fear for your kids because the world they are going to grow up in is not what it used to be. God created them and called them for the exact moment in time that they’re in. Their life wasn’t a coincidence or an accident.” This encourages me as a grandparent—I admit I have been concerned about the world my grandson is growing up in.

Ask the Forbidden Question in Bible Study, HT to Challies. On asking, “What does this verse mean to me?” “The reality is, there is an objective truth. Every biblical text was written with authorial intent—human author and the Spirit. . . . We must ask what it means to us, to our lives, to our personal discipleship.”

What Response Are You Going For? Though written from the standpoint of a Bible teacher, I think it’s good for writers as well.

Netflix’s “Pray Away” Seethes with Contempt for Christianity, HT to Challies. “As someone who worked in Hollywood for decades, I’ve seen firsthand the contempt the entertainment industry has for Christianity. But only after I left my gay identity—in exchange for a new identity in Christ—did I realize the special resentment Hollywood reserves for converts like me.”

I’ve seen a couple of videos about baby sea turtles hatching and making their way to the sea. One source said they hatch through the year, but mostly in summer. What fun to catch sight of them.

Happy Saturday!

Strengthening Others

If someone had said to me personally, or before our church congregation, “I want to strengthen you today,” I would have thought, “Well, thanks, but only God can do that.”

But during my last trek through Acts, I noticed several times the Bible said someone strengthened others. That gave me pause. How did they strengthen others? Why did the Bible phrase it that way instead of saying God strengthened them? I made a note to come back and look at those occurrences some time, and did that last week.

According to BibleStudyTools.com, the Greek word for “strengthen” in these passages means “to establish besides, strengthen more; to render more firm, confirm.” The KJV and a few other translations use “confirmed,” but most use “strengthened.” There are synonyms to this word all through the Bible, but this particular Greek word seems to be only in Acts. So for now I confined my study there.

In the first passage, Acts 14:19-23, men came from Antioch and Iconium and stoned Paul and left him for dead. But Paul got up, traveled to another city, and preached there. Then he returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch—the very places that men had come from to stone him—and began “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (v. 22).

You can imagine how the disciples might have been shaken. If this could happen to Paul, it could happen to them. These guys had who stoned Paul had traveled to another city to do so—what would they do to Christians in their own towns? But Paul encouraged them: Yes, we’ll face persecution. It’s part of the Christian life. But this is the true faith.

Matthew Henry says in his Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume VI.—Acts to Revelation:

But is this the way to confirm the souls of the disciples and to engage them to continue in the faith? One would think it would rather shock them, and make them weary. No, as the matter is fairly stated and taken entire, it will help to confirm them, and fix them for Christ (p. 185).

Henry then goes on for several paragraphs bringing up other verses that talk about persecution being part of the Christian life and something even Christ experienced. 

The rest of the passage says they appointed elders in the churches, prayed, fasted, and “committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (v 23). No doubt these were an outworking of Paul’s encouragement.

In the second passage in Acts 15, some men were teaching newly-believing Gentiles that they had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (verses 1, 5). The apostles and elders met together to discuss the issue. “After there had been much debate,” Peter shared his experience of being taught by the Lord that God “made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.” To put them under the OT law would be “placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear. But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Paul and Barnabus followed with their experiences reaching Gentiles. The council confirmed that the Gentiles did not have to keep the OT ceremonial law and just asked them to observe a few things. They sent a letter with Paul, Barnabus, Judas, and Silas to the brethren in Antioch. “And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words” (verses 31-32).

Here the disciples were strengthened with truth and the rest that comes from grace. Instead of coming under a religion of works that they could never live up to, they could rejoice in the grace of God. One commentary here noted “Their work was the very reverse of those who had previously come from Judea ‘subverting the souls of the disciples (Acts 15:24).'”

The rest of the verses, Acts 15:40-41; 16:4-5; and 18:22-23, just mention that Paul, along with various companions, traveled place to place strengthening the disciples.

So from these passages, we can draw out these principles of how the apostles strengthened others:

Their presence. The elders in Jerusalem sent a letter, but they sent it with people to deliver personally, who then went on to strengthen them. Paul went back to several churches he started, watering the seed that was planted, encouraging them in person.

They shared truth and grace. God gives us strength through His Word. “Strengthen me according to your word” (Psalm 119:28b). The passage where Paul was persecuted presages Peter’s later epistle encouraging disciples not to be surprised at persecution, but to “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” The truth encouraged them. Then the Acts 15 passage brought them back to the foundation of grace rather than the added-on works of tradition.

They showed loving concern. Paul was so concerned for the disciples that he went back to the city of those who stoned him to encourage them. Though he was the one who had suffered, he wanted to strengthen them. Matthew Henry says of Acts 16:4-5, “that spirit of tenderness and condescension which appeared in these letters plainly showed that the apostles and elders were herein under the guidance of him who is love itself” (p. 203). What a contrast to the Pharisees, who protested at people being healed on the Sabbath in violation, not of God’s law, but their own, and who were so full of hate that they sought to have Jesus killed.

They were empathic. I love Peter’s empathy when he asks why they would put a heavy yoke on the new disciples that they had not been able to bear themselves.

Paul didn’t lessen the truth that persecution would come, but he encouraged them to bear it for Christ.

There is a sympathy that weakens and a sympathy that strengthens. One thing that stood out to me in Walter and Trudy Fremont’s book from many years ago, Formula for Family Unity, was this thought:

Parents should not take the grit out of their children’s lives by protecting them from every hardship, blow, or disappointment. Remember, adversity strengthens character. . . .

Children are resilient; they can take a lot if Mother doesn’t make them feel abused and neglected by an overly sympathetic attitude. Such a statement as, “Oh, honey, it’s so cold out there; I’m afraid you’ll freeze on your paper route,” produces a negative attitude in the mind of the child. Mother ought to say, “When you finish your paper route, I’ll have a cup of hot chocolate waiting and a good breakfast” (pp. 103-104)(2).

The mother’s second statement acknowledges the child’s difficulty and her sympathy, but in a way that braces him for what he has to face rather than leaving him wallowing in self-pity.

We can do the same as we interact with others. Sometimes we slap truth on like a band-aid without taking time to enter into another’s situation. No wonder what we say hits them the wrong way instead of ministering to them. Instead, Jesus was “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15, KJV). Since He “has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15b-16).

Why does Acts say the apostles strengthened others instead of saying God did or the Word of God did? Strength actually came from God and His Word, but He sent it through His messengers. God often works through people. How we need to be faithful messengers, loving, caring, personally interested, sharing truth and grace.

Matthew Henry sums it up perfectly:

[Paul] preached that to them which strengthened them, which confirmed their faith in Christ, their resolutions for Christ, their pious affections to him. Disciples need to be strengthened, for they are compassed about with infirmity; ministers must do what they can to strengthen them, to strengthen them all, by directing them to Christ, and bringing them to live upon him, whose strength is perfected in their weakness, and who is himself their strength and song (p. 240).

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