Saturday, June 26, 2010

Th Book of Acts: A summary

Luke begins his story where the gospel accounts of Jesus leave off; with the ascent of the resurrected Jesus back into heaven. After his death on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead- he came back to life! All this was foretold by the Old Testament prophets via the scriptures as well as by John the Baptist and Jesus himself as well. There were actual eye witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection for 40 days, not only to the apostles but others as well. There were proofs that neither the skeptics nor enemies of Jesus could not deny! No one within the ancient Pharasee sect, the Sadduccess nor the educated Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus could deny his resurrection- though they tried to cover it up. The Greeks and Romans and pagan religions could not deny the resurrection of Jesus either! They did not want competition to their worldly power of authority from either Jesus or the apostles. Therefore they did their best to intimidate the apostles and followers through oppression, threats and punishments- they even went so far as torture and kill the believers of Jesus. Luke tells the story of how the apostles and earliest of followers, with the power of the Holy Spirit, boldly spread the message of the good news of Jesus. Essentially this is the story of the early church.
As he goes back up to heaven, Jesus tells the apostles to spread the knowledge they have learned about God, to people everywhere- to all nations, races, and cultures, until the message is spread worldwide. Jesus comforts the apostles as well as the new believers, he as promises not only the Holy Spirit but his own return as well.
After Jesus ascends Peter, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus, attends to some practical matters; first and foremost- the need to add one more member to make up for the loss of Judas, the apostle that betrayed Jesus and thereafter killed himself. Yet, even the betrayal by Judas, one of their own, was in fact foretold by the prophets in the scriptures and Jesus. In his first speech to the followers, Peter illustrates this fact as just one of the many prophecies that came true, showing beyond a doubt the accuracy of the prophets and Jesus.
(The drawing of lots may seem to us to be an absurd, superstitious and highly unscientific way of making an important choice. But the drawing of lots is actually advocated in the Old Testament as a valid way of discerning God’s will. Think about it- in a time when God’s Holy Spirit was a very real entity guiding the believers- then using such a method such as drawing a lot would not simply result in a random result because God’s power would direct the outcome without the imput of human will or pride. )
An unbelievable and miraculous event occurred- had there not been so many eyewitnesses, it would have been hard to believe. While the apostles were gathered together, at the busiest time of the year (a special sacred holiday) within a crowded public location packed with lots of townspeople and tourists- the Holy Spirit literally appeared. A huge flame appeared out of nowhere, and then it began dividing into smaller flames, as it spread from person to person. This was the Holy Spirit itself! And each person the flame came into contact with was not burned or scorched, but rather filled in spirit with the Holy Spirit. Each began to speak in a foreign language they had never personally had spoken or studied before about God. The visitors and tourists present represented many nations of the world. Each of the foreigners heard the good news of God, the gospel, spoken in his or her own native language and was astounded but confused as well! Peter, the spokesman for the disciples explained to the crowds that this occurred because of the power of God. Peter proceeded to share the life of Jesus and how Jesus had fulfilled the message of the prophets. He urged the crowd of listeners to place their faith in Jesus, to accept forgiveness of sins, to repent and be baptized. Over 3,000 people believed his message, and were baptized that day!
The number of believers continued to grow thereafter forming a community.
On the way to the temple, Peter performed a miracle by healing a man who had been paralyzed since birth. The handicapped man used to hang out at the gate day after day begging for money from those who passed by. Everyone knew who he was. When he saw Peter approach him he thought he was simply getting some money, but Peter explained that while he didn’t have any money to give he had something even better- by the power of the name of Jesus, he ordered the mean to stand up and walk- to be healed. Obviously the man was overjoyed, and in his happiness he jumped around praising God at the top of his lungs. This of course did not go unnoticed as a large crowd of onlookers had assembled in amazement. They saw this man they had known to be unable to walk, suddenly walking, running and jumping. Peter used this as an opportunity once again to share the message of God. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, Peter’s gift of persuasion enabled him to successfully share the message, and thereby saving countless of listeners. It was no surprise when Peter was rudely interrupted by the temple police and the Sadducees. They were annoyed and irritated by Peter, as they felt he was a threat to the status quo of the religious leaders and their power. They arrested Peter, and John (another original apostle who was Peter’s companion). Nevertheless, despite the protests of the authorities, about 5,000 more people came to believe the truth of the message and placed their faith in the message of Jesus!
After their arrest, the apostles were subjected to a make-shift trial before various Jewish leaders and scholars. As you may know by now, Peter never loses an opportunity to spread the message of Jesus. And without fail, the Holy Spirit, enabling Peter’s gift at storytelling, once again the irresistible story of forgiveness and salvation was presented right then and there to the hostile group of authorities.
In a closed caucus amongst themselves, these leaders discussed their amazement at Peter’s gift of oration and logic, despite his lack of education. They could not deny the facts or truthfulness of the story presented by Peter and they feared that Peter would convince the whole world of his message, thereby undermining the authority and power of the Jewish leaders and Roman leaders. They figured they would intimidate and threaten Peter to stop him from spreading the message of Jesus. But, in response, fearlessly with the aid of the Holy Spirit, Peter confronted those men of authority and said he could not nor would he refrain from spreading the message of salvation. With the Holy Spirit by their side, Peter as well as the rest of the community of believers were even more bold and courageous than ever before.
The gift of salvation and the Holy Spirit were available freely to all who believed. Nevertheless, dishonesty before God was not tolerated. In one illustrative example, a husband and wife, made a pretense of presenting a donation to the early community, when in actuality they were concealing their dishonesty and hoarding wealth. In response they were immediately judged and died- illustrative of the fact that no matter what- you may be able to fool people around you, even to the point of obtaining human praise and honor, but you can never conceal the truth from God- and God will judge and convict you. This story may seem arbitrary and cruel but it simply illustrates God’s swift and just judgment occurring without the passage of time to which we all will eventually be subject to. For example, instead of letting the couple continuing about in their earthly lies hiding the lie, and then having it revealed at a judgment at a later time in the future, it occurred instantly in order to illustrate that God will not tolerate deception and lies from anyone.
The numbers of believers continue to grow and grow. The message of Jesus and the message of salvation was irresistible. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, Peter as well as other believers were emboldened to spread the message and to even perform miracles as well! Peter’s popularity continued to increase, threatening the authority of the leaders. The Jewish leaders hauled Peter off to prison. Messenger angels from heaven appeared in Peter’s cell, opening the gates and releasing Peter. As they released Peter, the messengers told Peter to deliver the message of Jesus. You can imagine how shocked those same Jewish leaders and police that arrested Peter the previous evening were when they saw him at the same very spot, preaching again. They could not figure out how he could have escaped a heavily guarded prison cell. The Jewish leaders and the police officers approached Peter and questioned as to why he had such nerve to disobey and continue spreading the message that was banned.
An opportunist, once again Peter saw this as another chance to tell the story of Jesus Christ. Their hardened hearts rejected the message and they were angry beyond belief! Privately, the council of leaders and officers met amongst themselves to discuss what they should do about the troublemaker that they feared. One of the religious leaders, Gamaliel, a man who possessed some degree of common sense, addressed the other leaders explaining that they should respond to Peter and the message he represented with caution. He rationalized that if in fact this was just another man made movement then eventually it momentum would just die off on its own as so many revolutions before. But, if in fact if God was involved, and they actively opposed it, then they would find themselves opposing and even fighting against God, which as self professed devout Jews and Jewish leaders, was the very last thing they wanted to do. Gamaliel proposed to just ignore Peter and his movement, waiting it out to see what would happen- which seemed like sound advice. The rest agreed with him- they could not argue against common sense.
More and more people came to believe in the message of Jesus. They were growing and growing in numbers. For practical reasons, the apostles decided it would be best to delegate some of the numerous housekeeping tasks of the largely growing community of believers in order that Peter and the apostles may devote themselves to spreading the message of Jesus and teaching.
One notable member of the early church, Stephen, was filled with the Holy Spirit. Fearlessly, he preached the message despite opposition. In fact, despite the threat of impending death, he spoke even more boldly proclaiming the message of Jesus to his oppressors and enemies. For that they stoned him to death- but in the moments before his death, he prayed for Jesus to receive his spirit and for the forgiveness of his murderers. All the while, Saul, an outspoken enemy of the apostles, nodded in approval as Stephen was stoned. Immediately after, within that same very city of Jerusalem, believers everywhere were being arrested, persecuted, tortured and killed- and Saul was the ringleader! Many followers of Jesus fled to surrounding areas such as Samaria and the Judean countryside. But no matter where these followers, disciples and apostles went, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, they boldly spread the message of Jesus. After all that was their purpose. Peter and his apostles had many Holy Spirit directed encounters with people from all walks of life- not just the Jews.
Illustrative of the point that the life giving message was intended for people of all nations and non-Jews as well, occurred when the a messenger of God, an angel, told Peter and John to meet an Ethiopian in order to share the news of Jesus. During this encounter, immediately after hearing the message, the Ethiopian man was baptized. This was very symbolic, because previously, according to Jewish tradition, such a man would have been considered unclean according to Jewish law and would have been from banned from even stepping foot in the temple, but now this very man could receive salvation from faith in Jesus.
Meanwhile, Saul’s persecution of the believers in Jesus, was in full force. Mercilessly, he hunted down, arrested and even people just for believing in Jesus. On his way to Damascus, his evil mission was interrupted when Saul was blinded by a miraculous vision- a blinding light flashed from out of nowhere and he heard the sound of voice, which identified himself as Jesus who Saul was opposing. Jesus instructed Saul to continue to Damascus and await further instruction. Meanwhile, a man named Ananias also had a vision from Jesus and he is told to meet Saul. God has a special purpose for Saul, because through Saul, the message of Jesus would eventually be spread far and wide. It wasn’t long before Saul himself was preaching the news of Jesus in the same very places where he earlier had been arresting followers of Jesus. The irony of this did not go unnoticed. At first many believers and apostles were hesitant to trust Saul. But after hearing him spread the message and after seeing Saul, himself, the target of Jewish persecution, they eventually came to accept him into the community of believers.
In the meantime, Peter had not slacked off- he was busy at work, performing miracles with the help of the Holy Spirit, spreading the message of Jesus, teaching and baptizing up in the northern area of the map. One day, while praying and relaxing, Peter had a vision which challenged his traditional Jewish views and laws that he had been so accustomed to following. In essence, he was told in contrast to longstanding Jewish tradition that neither animals nor people, for that matter could be ever considered unclean again. (Ancient Jewish tradition considered certain foods unclean as well as non Jews! In fact, a Jew would be considered ceremonially unclean if he even touch or shared a meal with a non Jewish person! As a result, Jews isolated themselves from non Jews, looking down on them and considering them to be inferior second class citizens.) As the heavenly message to Peter instructed him, he obeyed, and traveled to meet a group of non-Jewish men who also were obeying a vision they received instructing them to meet Peter as well!
Peter enters the home of Cornelius for that fateful meeting directed by the Holy Spirit, and while at his home, he proceeds to share the message of Jesus Christ. Immediately after sharing the message, the Holy Spirit came upon all the listeners. The amazing thing was that these were not Jews at all, but they were “outsiders”, unclean and unworthy in the eyes of the Jews! They were non-Jews, but the Holy Spirit was upon them nonetheless, illustrating the fact that truth and salvation was available for all and not limited to just the Jewish people as it had been in the ancient times. After they had received the Holy Spirit, they were baptized in the name of Jesus. The news about non- Jews- outsiders receiving the Holy Spirit and accepting the message of God spread back to the apostles and other believers. When Peter returned, some of the Jewish believers who were still used to and still loyal to traditional Jewish law criticized Peter for associating with non-Jews. In fact they were outright angry that Peter dared to share the message to those who were considered unclean or outsiders. In response, Peter told them the story of his vision and how he was simply obeying the Holy Spirit. Who was he or anyone else for that matter to get in the way of the work of the Holy Spirit. If God wanted to spread the message to someone, what gives any of them the right to oppose God’s will? The traditional Jewish believers conceded and agreed with Peter. Saul, now known by the new name Paul, traveled to that community of believers staying for over a year in order to encourage them and solidify their faith. The Holy Spirit was actively involved in the early community of believers, otherwise known as the early church.
During Roman persecution of the believers, James was executed and Peter was imprisoned. On the eve of Peter’s own execution, God intervened, literally, by sending an angel to release the chains that bound Peter between two prison guards. The angel helped him escape and gave him instructions of what he was to do.
Meanwhile, King Herod was busy conducting political negotiations with neighboring areas. After a diplomatic success, the superstitious crowds hailed Herod as a god. Herod, accepted the worship of the people (which obviously he was not entitled to receive in the eyes of God). That very day, God intervened and as a result of Herod’s vain pride, struck him with a disgusting fatal flesh eating illness.
During an incident where Paul was involved in a discussion, sharing the message of Jesus with a receptive proconsul, an important Roman politician, an man commonly known as an occult spiritualist/ psychic named Elymas intervened and attempted to interrupts Paul by arguing. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul responded to Elymas rightfully accusing him of following the devil, and impeding others from coming to salvation through lies and through twisting the truth as well. Paul told him that as a consequence of knowingly working against the truth he would become blind for a period of time. (The blindness is symbolic of the spiritual blindness) Right at that moment a mist engulfed Elymas into total darkness- blindness.
Paul and Barnabas resumed their traveling mission, and arrived at another synagogue. Paul delivered the message of Jesus to his audience in light of the ancient prophets and scriptures of which they were all familiar. Some Jewish leaders, jealous at the receptiveness of the audience to Paul’s message began to argue and accuse him of lying. In response Paul and Barnabus cited old testament passages fortelling the hardened hearts and rejection of the message by the Jews. Offended and outraged the Jewish scholars and leaders drove them out of town. Nevertheless, the reaction of the non Jews was quite the opposite. In fact many came to believe and accepted the message. The disciples weren’t afraid or discouraged- rather they were overjoyed because they had their helper, the Holy Spirit with them. They were not discouraged in the least and they continued their journey to spread the word of God. In other towns they shared the message and performed healings. In one town they even tried worship Paul and Barnabus as the greek gods Zeus and Hermes. Of course they refused, and in response Paul used it as an opportunity to share the news of the true God and the message of salvation to the crowds there. They went from town to town, spreading the message of salvation, starting encouraging communities of believers, starting churched and appointing leaders who would follow through teaching.
A controversial issue developed within the community of believers which threatened to divide the unity of the early church. The converts to faith that grew up Jewish many of whom had been Jewish leaders and priests and followed Jewish laws and traditions, felt that the new converts from non Jewish (pagan religions) should also be subject to Jewish laws and traditions as well. They believed that the new believers should adhere to the Jewish dietary laws and become circumcised according to the Jewish custom in order to be saved. In fact they insisted on this! Paul and Barnabus decided to set the record straight and objected to this unnecessary requirement. The apostles Peter and John explained to these irate Jewish believers that new converts to the message should not be burdened by the Jewish law. It would be wrong to impose it. Basically, they concluded that there were certain moral expectation new believers should be subject most importantly: rejecting sexual immorality and the worship of idols and other “gods”. Everyone agreed with this and the issue seemed to be settled.
The adventures continued. The Holy Spirit led the disciples from one place to another- saving countless of hearers, but often to be subjected to various accusations and tortures- marked as agitators and troublemakers, and kicked out of town. Upon arrival in Macedonia, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, joined the disciples on their missionary mission. Interestingly, a local fortune teller, a slave who made a profit for her owners through the use of her “talents”, followed the disciples around, practically shouting aloud that they were servants of God whose purpose it was to spread the message of salvation. The evil spirit immediately recognized the true God and those who were serving God. Annoyed, Paul ordered to spirit to come out of the girl in the name of the Lord Jesus. The spirit left as well as her ability of prophecy and therefore her career. Her owners were angry at Paul, and reported him to the Roman authorities as a troublemaker. The crowd turned against the disciples, and the Roman authorities put them in jail after torturing them. Rather than despair, the apostles prayed and rejoiced in their cell. Suddenly the ground began to shake , and all the prisoners were released from their chains, not just the apostles. The jailers awake to see all the prisoners have been freed. In despair, the jailor prepares to take his own life rather than be subjected to the punishment of Roman authorities for losing the prisoners. Paul intervenes and stops the jailer from following through with his suicidal mission. The jailer responds to Paul and listens to the message of salvation. That night, the jailer, as well as his entire household are saved after hearing the message. In the morning, the jailer receives a message from the Roman authorities to release the prisoners.
In another city, the Athenians, an open-minded, educated group of pagans, curious about the new “god” the disciples represented, questioned Paul about his new teaching. With respect and sensitivity, Paul used the example of the Athenians’ diverse religious beliefs in multitudes of gods to introduce them to the true God and the message of salvation. Many were curious and were eager to learn more. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit also directed the apostles to follow up with established churches, and believers in order to continue their education in the truth. A common theme was that the apostles would be rejected by the Jews, yet the message would be openly received by the non Jews- outsiders. This was foretold in the Jewish scriptures themselves which mentioned that because of the hardened hearts of the Jews, the message of salvation they rejected would be brought to outsiders- to all nations and peoples world wide. And this, is exactly what occurred!
The Holy Spirit urged and encouraged Paul to speak nevertheless, despite opposition. Eventually the Jews organized their attacks and made formal charges against Paul. The Roman authorities tried to dismiss it as internal Jewish squabbling and encouraged the Jewish leaders to handle the matter amongst themselves. But, the Jewish leaders would not allow the case to be dismissed and persisted!
On one occasion, while Paul was socializing and sharing the message of the Lord late at night in, a crazy thing happened. Had there not been witnesses no one would have believed it actually happened. Ironically, while listening to Paul, a young man perched in a window, fell asleep and then suddenly fell three stories to the ground! Everyone was shocked and devastated as they quickly ran down to check on the man. He was dead! Paul followed to see what all the commotion was about. Seeing the young man was dead, he healed him…. and brought him back to life. It was miraculous. Then as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened, Paul casually went upstairs to continue his discussion right where he had left off. Despite what had happened, Paul’s message was so irresistible that no one wanted it to end. In fact the conversation continued well into the morning!
There was never a break from the mission at hand. The very next day, once again Paul was traveling for the purpose of spreading the message. He had no advance itinerary, neither a travel agent nor concierge at his disposal; in faith he simply traveled as the Holy Spirit directed. Paul met with some of the leaders of previously established churches to encourage them. First and foremost, the Holy Spirit, above all, was to be followed. Despite persecution it was Paul’s mission to spread the good news with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Paul emphasized that he did not hold back, and whatever knowledge he had, through the Holy Spirit, he freely shared. He also gave important instructions to be on guard against false teachings. Holding steadfast, regardless of fear was important- and the Holy Spirit would be there to help. Ultimately, Paul explained he would not always be there and that regardless of that, they would be in God’s hands. He offered additional advice, based not on his words alone but on his actions such as not going after wealth, and jealousy. God’s messengers were not called to acquire worldly wealth, processions or fame. The messengers of God are called to be servants, delivering the word of God and working for their own food. He stressed the importance of giving, rather than getting. This motto of life preached by Paul is in stark contrast to this world where most are after getting all they can, amassing wealth and possessions and recognition and fame. Paul’s decisions were based on the simple phrase: “God’s will be done”.
Paul’s missions as described by the book of Acts were coming to an end. Nevertheless, there was more to accomplish. Some trouble makers were trying to accuse Paul of totally disregarding the prophet Moses, and teaching others to do the same. In response to the request of the church leaders, moved by the Holy Spirit, Paul addressed the accusations with yet another dialog. This was not enough to satisfy the enemies of the truth who were merely seeking to undermine the message of God. A riot erupted in the crowd, because many of the zealous traditional Jews were offended because the message of Salvation was also extended to non Jews as well as Jews, and the authorities intervened. Eventually he was subjected to various hearings and imprisoned. Even duing his own hearings, Paul used the opportunity to share his faith. He didn’t lose faith in the plan of God, knowing that God is also the God of justice. He did not use worldly means to buy his freedom or escape persecution.
As the Book of Acts come to a close, the imprisoned Paul sets sail, to depart for Rome to face more legal proceedings. After a near fatal voyage, they arrive on Malta instead. Despite the perilous voyage, Paul does not lose his faith, even seeking to help his captors! Eventually he makes his way to Rome, and after a final speech inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul explains the importance of listening the message of truth with an open heart. Acts abruptly ends with a brief footnote explaining that Paul lived for two years in Rome, imprisoned, yet paying his own expenses while spreading the message of salvation.