Monday, March 8, 2010


Acts 4-6

In chapter four, Peter and John are brought before the Sanhedrin. The priests and temple guards were disturbed by their preaching and healing, and put them in jail until the next day, but many believed their preaching and the number of believers grew to about five thousand. The next day, they were brought before the rulers and elders and teachers of the law, and asked in whose name, by what power, did they heal and preach. Peter, "filled with the Holy Spirit," told them that they did it "by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead." When they saw that Peter and John were ordinary men, not schooled, "they were astonished." They ordered them out and conferred, and knew that they could not deny the miracle but wanted to "stop this thing from spreading any further." THey brought them in and warned them not to speak or preach about Jesus, but Peter asked whether they should obey the council rather than GOD, so, after more threats, they let them go. Peter and John went back and all of "their own people" prayed to GOD together. There was an earthquake where they met, and "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly." And the believers all shared everything they had with one another.

Chapter five tells of Ananias and his wife Sapphira who also sold a piece of property and brought the money to the apostles, but held back some for himself. Peter asked him how it was that Satan had filled his heart so that he lied to the Holy Spirit and GOD, and Ananias, on hearing this, dropped dead. When his wife Sapphira came, about three hours later, not knowing what had happened to Ananias, she answered, "Yes," when Peter asked if they had received for the land what Ananias had said. Peter told her that the men who had buried her husband were ready to carry her out also, and she fell down and died. "Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events."

"The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people," including many healings, gathering great crowds from the towns around Jerusalem. But the high priest and his fellow Sadducees "were filled with jealousy" and arrested the apostles. But during the night, the doors were opened by an Angel and they came out. He told them to preach in the temple courts, so they entered at daybreak and did as the Angel had said. When the high priest called together the Sanhedrin and sent to the jail for the prisoners, the officers did not find them there. Someone told them that they were preaching in the temple courts and the officers went and brought them. Peter and the others responded to their questions and charges by saying that "we must obey God rather than men!" The Sanhedrin was furious, but a Pharisee named Gamaliel told them that if their activity was of human origin it would fail, and if not, they'd be "fighting against GOD." So they had the apostles flogged, ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and sent them away. The apostles continued preaching and rejoiced "because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name."

In chapter six, the number of disciples was increasing and there were conflicts between the Grecian Jews and Hebraic Jews. The apostles felt that "it would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables," so they told the rest of the disciples to choose seven men to handle the worldly responsibilities. "They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism" and the apostles prayed and laid hands on them. Stephen did "great wonders and miraculous signs among the people" and was brought before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy, trying him with false witnesses.

Thoughts, questions, issues

  • The story of Ananias and Sapphira has an Old Testament feel to it. And it's hard to see any crime here. They did sell their land and they did give money to the apostles. Surely, there must be room for people who are willing to help even if they aren't willing to give every last cent. Maybe they'll never fully achieve was GOD wants, but they are actively helping, aren't they? And while none of us can get in to heaven on our own acts, it seems as if these two are being punished for actions which are objectively supportive of the early church.
  • There's a great danger in stories like the healing of the cripple by Peter, and of great crowds gathering and "all of them were healed." Actually two of them.

    1. GOD is not a magician. Healing is not a parlor trick. When Jesus healed, he was exercising his rightful powers as ruler of the universe, and demonstrating his person, and his power. When Peter does it, or John or Paul or Stephen or anyone else, or even when Moses brought forth water from the stone at Meribah, there is a risk of sending the wrong message. Not that GOD is the rightful LORD of all creation, but that if you can just manipulate him the right way, you can get him to set everything right in your life. GOD is not a cosmic vending machine, where if you just put in the right coin, you get out a magic talisman of health. GOD cannot be manipulate or controlled.
    2. I love Norman Vincent Peale's The Power Of Positive Thinking, but its attitude of "just pray enough, think the right thoughts, and you'll be healthy" is dangerous. (Robert Schuller's work has the same issue.) And it's a danger fed by passages like these. They run a real risk of inducing in people an attitude of blaming the victim. I'm a huge believer in positive attitude, in mental health promoting physical health, and in the power of prayer. But we aren't going to like the answers to all of our prayers.

      The psalmist asked, "if GOD is for me, who can stand against me?" But GOD's purposes are not ours, and we cannot see all the possible ends and implications of our actions, or GOD's. Some healthy people who pray are nevertheless going to get sick. Some sick people who pray are nevertheless going to die. (In the long run, of course, we are all going to die.) The attitude of a naive belief in Jesus' words, "ask and it will be given to you" results in condemnation of the sick, because logically, they must not be praying hard enough, or maintaining the right mental attitude.

      That's wrong. That's a dangerous and wrong attitude, and it is, or at least, it can be fostered and strengthened by passages like these.

Psalms 31

Another balanced psalm, with praise - "I trust in you, O times are in your hands" - and pleading - "be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress."

Psalm 31
For the director of music. A psalm of David.
1 In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.

2 Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.

3 Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.

4 Free me from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.

5 Into your hands I commit my spirit;
redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth.

6 I hate those who cling to worthless idols;
I trust in the LORD.

7 I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
for you saw my affliction
and knew the anguish of my soul.

8 You have not handed me over to the enemy
but have set my feet in a spacious place.

9 Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and my body with grief.

10 My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak.

11 Because of all my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of my neighbors;
I am a dread to my friends—
those who see me on the street flee from me

12 I am forgotten by them as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.

13 For I hear the slander of many;
there is terror on every side;
they conspire against me
and plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, O LORD;
I say, "You are my God."

15 My times are in your hands;
deliver me from my enemies
and from those who pursue me.

16 Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love.

17 Let me not be put to shame, O LORD,
for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
and lie silent in the grave.

18 Let their lying lips be silenced,
for with pride and contempt
they speak arrogantly against the righteous.

19 How great is your goodness,
which you have stored up for those who fear you,
which you bestow in the sight of men
on those who take refuge in you.

20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
from the intrigues of men;
in your dwelling you keep them safe
from accusing tongues.

21 Praise be to the LORD,
for he showed his wonderful love to me
when I was in a besieged city.

22 In my alarm I said,
"I am cut off from your sight!"
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.

23 Love the LORD, all his saints!
The LORD preserves the faithful,
but the proud he pays back in full.

24 Be strong and take heart,
all you who hope in the LORD.

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