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Saul’s Conversion June 25, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 9:1-19a.

Summary: In this passage, Saul traveled to Damascus; he planned to arrest any believers in that city and bring them to Jerusalem. As he approached Damascus, though, he encountered Jesus Christ for the first time; He spoke to him and temporarily afflicted him with blindness. Saul was then led into Damascus by his companions; he fasted and prayed in the house of Judas for three days. After that, Christ appeared to him and a believer named Ananias in separate visions – declaring that He would work through Ananias to make him a blessing to the Gentiles. While Ananias was fearful of Saul – as his reputation preceded him – Christ overcame these fears and enabled him to:

  • baptize Saul
  • restore his vision.

Thoughts: In verses 9 and 11, we see that Saul fasted and prayed during a period of temporary blindness. I assume that while he maintained his faith in the God of Israel, he struggled to comprehend the meaning of the voice from heaven that confronted him in verses 4-6. Perhaps he pondered these questions:

  • could Jesus of Nazareth have been the promised Messiah?
  • wasn’t Jesus of Nazareth a megalomaniac who died a shameful death on a cross?

The tenets of Judaism that fueled his lifelong zeal for the God of Israel were now in doubt – spurring him to introspection. Perhaps his blindness – and his fasting – inflamed his desire to obtain answers from God to the questions noted above. As a man of action, he would not rest until he could determine the authenticity of this voice from heaven; moreover, if Jesus of Nazareth really was the promised Messiah, he had to know how he should live in light of that revelation.

Ananias is a central figure in this passage, and I certainly hope to meet him in the next life and learn more about him. Was he born and raised in Damascus? How did he come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God? What thoughts raced through his mind as he approached the house of Judas, entered it and placed his hands on Saul? Did he fear that Saul would arrest him – or even kill him – after his sight was restored? Did the Jews in Damascus persecute him, knowing that he played a critical role in the conversion of Saul? Was he able to bring others to a saving faith in Christ after the events of this passage?

Philip and the Ethiopian June 24, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 8:26-40.

Summary: In this passage, the Lord commanded Philip to go to the desert road connecting Jerusalem and Gaza; there, he met an Ethiopian eunuch who had gone to Jerusalem to worship the Lord. The eunuch had been reading from Isaiah 53:7-8 – though he could not comprehend those verses. Philip explained how those verses actually referenced the Messiah – Jesus of Nazareth. The eunuch responded to this revelation by declaring his belief that Jesus is the Son of God. After Philip baptized him:

  • the eunuch rejoiced at his salvation as he returned to Ethiopia
  • Philip preached the Gospel in the towns between Azotus and Caesarea.

Thoughts: An Ethiopian eunuch is a central figure in this passage. Calvin offers some insights regarding this eunuch in his commentary on verse 27:

Candace was not just the name of one queen. Pliny tells us that the Ethiopians called their queens Candace in the same way that the Romans called their emperors Caesar. Historians report that Ethiopia, whose capital was Meroe, was a noble and wealthy kingdom, and this is relevant to this incident because it tells us how exalted this eunuch was. Secular writers confirm Luke’s account by reporting that women used to reign there.

I certainly anticipate meeting this eunuch in the next life and learning more about him. How did he attain his high position in the kingdom of Ethiopia? How did he come to believe in the God of Israel? How did he acquire a scroll with the words of the prophet Isaiah? Was he able to share the Gospel message after his conversion? Did the Ethiopian monarch tolerate his newfound faith, or did she conduct a purge to remove him from office?

This passage displays God’s providence regarding His salvation plan, as He:

  • spurred Philip to go to the desert road connecting Jerusalem and Gaza
  • enabled Philip to encounter the Ethiopian eunuch on that road
  • had already brought the eunuch to faith in Him as the God of Israel
  • had already furnished the eunuch with a written copy of the words of the prophet Isaiah
  • caused the eunuch to read from the “suffering servant” passage – referencing the Messiah
  • enabled Philip to explain that obscure passage to the eunuch
  • enabled the eunuch to believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God.

After I read this passage, I wished that God would display His providence by working in the hearts and minds of unbelievers who are close to me – especially family members. While this eunuch outwardly pursued God, I find that the unbelievers who are close to me are unconcerned with deep philosophical issues, including the purpose of their existence. This is quite frustrating, and I often grow discouraged when I pray for them. Perhaps this passage should spur me to renew my 1) trust in God’s sovereignty regarding salvation and 2) commitment to the Great Commission – since my free will shapes my response to His calling.

Simon the Sorceror June 18, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 8:9-25.

Summary: In this passage, a sorceror named Simon had captivated the Samaritans by his actions. His hold on them was broken by the arrival of Philip – who preached the Gospel message, bearing much fruit. The apostles in Jerusalem then sent Peter and John to Samaria to build on the good work of Philip. In particular, Peter and John:

  • laid their hands on the Samaritan converts so that they might receive an extraordinary gifting of the Holy Spirit
  • rebuked Simon for attempting to leverage the Holy Spirit for a pecuniary advantage
  • preached the Gospel message.

Thoughts: Simon the sorceror is a central figure in this passage. How did he acquire his powers of sorcery (e.g. by making a pact with Satan)? What was his understanding of the Gospel message that Philip presented? After he was baptized, did Philip instruct him on how to live obediently to God? How did he respond to Peter’s sharp rebuke of his pecuniary motives? Was he convicted of his sin and compelled to live a righteous life? I certainly hope to meet him in the next life and learn about God’s work in his life.

In verses 15 and 16, we see that while the Samaritans had been baptized, they had not received the Holy Spirit. Calvin offers some insights on this potentially confusing point in his commentary on verse 16:

A question arises here. Luke says they were only baptized into the name of Christ and that they had not yet received the Holy Spirit; but either baptism must be empty and confer no grace, or else its power must come from the Holy Spirit…He must be speaking about those special gifts that God gave certain people in the early days of the Gospel to honor Christ’s kingdom…So we conclude that the Samaritans already had the Spirit of adoption, and the special graces of the Spirit were then added.

Initially, I was confused by these verses; thus, Calvin’s insights were immensely helpful. Now I am curious as to whether these “special graces of the Spirit” can still be communicated today through the laying on of hands. We occasionally see believers – even in churches that adhere to a conservative doctrine – laying hands on pastors and missionaries at special ceremonies. Does God furnish them with extraordinary gifts at those ceremonies? Or are those ceremonies symbolic – confirming what God has already done?

Philip in Samaria June 17, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 8:4-8.

Summary: In this passage, Philip traveled to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Gospel message. He demonstrated the power of his words by:

  • healing those with physical infirmities
  • driving out evil spirits

and the denizens of that city were overjoyed.

Thoughts: Here, we see that Philip performed many miracles to reinforce his teaching. Would the Samaritans have heeded his words if he had not performed these miracles? Have miracles facilitated the conversion of any unbelievers in the 21st century? Are modern-day unbelievers more skeptical than those Samaritans regarding miracles (especially since our understanding of science has improved by leaps and bounds since the 1st century)? On a related note, I believe that:

  • while God has called all believers to obey the Great Commission, He does not command all believers to perform miracles in the process
  • He has called us to place our ultimate trust in the power of the Holy Spirit as we fulfill the Great Commission – as only He can change the hearts of unbelievers.

The Church Persecuted and Scattered June 12, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 8:1b-3.

Summary: In this passage, the Jewish aristocracy fomented persecution of the church in Jerusalem – spurring many believers to flee to other parts of Judea and Samaria. Saul played a key role in this campaign of persecution, as he arrested many believers.

Thoughts: We see that the Jewish aristocracy completely disregarded the advice of Gamaliel regarding the Gospel message. The nature of their response to the Word – including murdering Stephen and fomenting persecution of the believers in Jerusalem – reflected their misguided zeal for God. Indeed, they believed that they were honoring Him by punishing those who were:

  • spreading a false doctrine concerning Him
  • accusing them of murdering Jesus of Nazareth – when they had simply punished that blasphemer for rebelling against their righteous authority and inciting others to follow His lead.

In the rest of this book, we will see how God displayed His sovereignty by utilizing the misguided zeal of the Jews to fulfill His Kingdom plan; whenever they opposed His Word, it continued to advance.

The Stoning of Stephen June 10, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 7:54-8:1a.

Summary: In this passage, the members of the Sanhedrin responded to Stephen’s rebuke with a paroxysm of rage. They dragged him out of Jerusalem and – with the approval of Saul – stoned him to death. Before Stephen passed away, though, he prayed for:

  • his ultimate salvation
  • God to forgive his murderers.

At that time, he was full of the Holy Spirit.

Thoughts: In verse 60 of chapter 7, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of his murderers. Calvin offers some insights on this point:

We know that we are all commanded by Christ to do what Luke tells us Stephen did, but nothing is harder than to forgive injuries so completely that we wish well to those who want our downfall. Therefore, we must always look to Stephen as an example.

In terms of doing good to others, one should consider the following cases:

  • doing good to those who do good to us; this could be viewed as a straightforward application of quid pro quo
  • doing good to those who are indifferent to us; this can be a difficult task – especially if we have high expectations of the other party
  • doing good to those who harm us; I wonder if anyone can do this without hesitation.

I would say that I have no struggles with the first case, as I strongly believe in the concept of quid pro quo. In terms of the second case, I have improved over the last few years – especially when I spend time with younger believers. I still fall short when it comes to the third case, though; I often find myself inwardly cursing those who harm me – even if I do not respond outwardly to their actions. Clearly I do not fully understand the concept of grace; thus, I need God’s help when it comes to loving those who harm me.

Stephen’s Speech to the Sanhedrin June 5, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 7:1-53.

Summary: In this passage, Stephen addressed the charges that the Jews had brought against him – namely, advocating the:

  • destruction of the temple in Jerusalem
  • abolition of the Mosaic law.

To this end, he rebuked the Jews, asserting that they:

  • focused on external things (e.g. the Mosaic law, the temple) – yet God wanted them to focus on spiritual things (e.g. the spirit of the law, His temple in heaven); Abraham was a paragon in this regard
  • hewed to the negative paradigm of their forefathers in resisting God’s call for them to focus on spiritual things; in particular, they consistently rejected those whom God sent to rebuke them – including 1) Moses, 2) the prophets, and 3) the final prophet – Jesus of Nazareth.

Thoughts: Here, Stephen furnished a lengthy response to the charges that the Jews brought against him. Calvin offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 1:

Stephen’s answer may at first seem silly. He began at the beginning, then went on and on making almost no mention of the matter in hand; there can be no greater fault than to say a lot but wander from the subject. But whoever studies this long speech carefully will find nothing superfluous in it…

…The main point concerned the temple and the ceremonies, and so the introductory part of his speech argued that their fathers were chosen by God to be a special people before there was any temple and before Moses was born. In the second part he told them that all the external rites God gave them through Moses were made to a heavenly pattern, and those who ignore the truth and go no further than the signs are being foolish.

When I first read this passage, I also thought that Stephen was rambling; thus, I failed to grasp the main point of his response. After re-reading it, I actually focused on a secondary point – i.e. the Jews consistently rejected those whom God sent to call them to genuine worship. In particular, they rejected:

  • Joseph, as his brothers were fueled by jealousy when they sold him into slavery
  • Moses, whom they rejected at least twice (even after he had delivered them from bondage to the Egyptians)
  • the prophets who predicted the arrival of the Messiah
  • the Messiah Himself – Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus, reading Calvin’s commentary was invaluable for my understanding of this passage, as his thoughts compelled me to focus on the distinction between external worship and spiritual worship.

In verses 21-23, we see that Moses was raised by Pharaoh’s daughter and spent about forty years in a privileged state before he went to his people. If I had been in Moses’ position, I doubt that I would have willingly surrendered my privileged status. In particular, I would have likely clung to the following temptations:

  • a fantastic education, especially in terms of engineering; the pyramids are a paragon of Egyptian knowledge in this regard
  • opulence; Egypt enjoyed the advantages of its geography, especially the presence of the Nile River
  • a plethora of beautiful women.

Somehow, though, God compelled Moses to surrender his privileged status and seek out the Israelites. How did Moses know that he was an Israelite by birth? Did he bemoan his fate while he lived as a foreigner in Midian? Did he long to return to Egypt and the inherent luxuries of Pharaoh’s household? I hope to meet Moses in the next life and ply him with these queries.

In this passage, we see that God called the Israelites toward genuine, spiritual worship. Calvin offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 49:

In short, when we receive the promise in faith, that causes God to listen to us and to reveal his power in the sacraments, as if he were present; but unless we rise up to him by faith, we shall not have his presence.

This caused me to ponder why believers often place undue value on external worship. I believe this stems from the fact that we rely on our senses; thus, our worship is shaped by our desire to quantify the world around us. We apply this principle in the following contexts:

  • evaluating our singing during worship services
  • determining the number of Gospel tracts that we have distributed during an outreach event
  • accounting for positive feedback after we have completed a service project.

Yet we cannot quantify genuine, spiritual worship of God; how, then, can we determine if God is pleased by our worship of Him? One thought is that God gives us a “warm, fuzzy feeling” if He is pleased with our worship of Him. While this feeling may be indescribable, God still chooses to communicate with us in this regard; thus, we need to be attuned to His Spirit at all times and respond to His internal feedback.

Stephen Seized June 3, 2016

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Here are my thoughts on Acts 6:8-15.

Summary: In this passage, Stephen performed many miracles and signs. Yet he was opposed by several Jews from sundry parts of the Roman Empire, as they:

  • made several futile attempts to disprove his presentation of the Gospel message
  • then resorted to the underhanded tactic of accusing him of blasphemy.

He was then charged with advocating the:

  • destruction of the temple in Jerusalem
  • abolition of the Mosaic law.

His face had the appearance of that of an angel at his subsequent trial before the Sanhedrin.

Thoughts: I wonder how the Jews in this passage attempted to disprove Stephen’s presentation of the Gospel message. Perhaps their position could be summarized as follows:

  • the Old Testament passages predict the arrival of a political – not a spiritual – Messiah
  • since the Jews were still vassals of the Roman emperor, the Messiah had not arrived
  • consequently, Jesus of Nazareth could not be the promised Messiah.

Although Stephen repeatedly debunked their arguments, I assume that they refused to yield any ground; otherwise, their consciences would have been seared when they gathered false witnesses against him. Did these Jews eventually accept the validity of the Gospel message? I certainly hope that they saw the error of their ways after they put another innocent man to death.