Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Acts

It is very clear from the first paragraph that Acts is volume two of Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus, who continues to be very much present among his followers as the church is born and they continue the work he began. The story is obviously selective, as we saw last week that John’s was, but Luke’s guiding principle is set out clearly in 1:8. The believers are to receive the Holy Spirit, and then the gospel is going to spread out from the city of Jerusalem, to the ‘county’ of Judea, and to the neighbouring territory of Samaria, which was considered Jewish by the Gentiles but foreign by the Jews, rather as Wales might be to Americans and to the English. Then it would spread to the ends of the earth. The rest of the book is the story of how this happened.


The Spirit comes, as promised, during the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, which celebrated the firstfruits of the harvest, and the disciples, who have now become ‘apostles’, are supernaturally gifted not just with speaking in tongues but also with boldness to preach and demonstrate the gospel. Within a very short time the church has grown to thousands of members, who are seeking to live out their community life of prayer, learning, generosity and service. Then in chapter 8 Philip takes the gospel to Samaria, and the same supernatural life springs up.

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The focus then shifts to Paul, who is dramatically converted in chapter 9, and who will be the one to take the gospel into the world of the Gentiles. His missionary journeys fill the rest of the book, until his arrest and transportation to Rome to face trial.


One significant feature alongside the spiritual power and success of the church in Acts is the fierce opposition they face, almost from day one. As a general rule opposition comes not from the occupying Romans but from the religious Jews: Paul’s appeal to be tried by Caesar in 25:11 suggests that he thinks he will fare better there than before the Jewish Sanhedrin. But even within the church there is opposition: the conversion of some Gentiles is a matter for deep suspicion, Abraham’s call notwithstanding, and it takes the first General Synod in chapter 15 to allow Gentile believers into the church. The study of opposition is an important area with which to engage in the church today, riddled as we are by hostility to new things. Acts suggests that it doesn’t take very long at all for traditions to get set in stone and to become hostile to the work of the Spirit.


Significant in the book are the ‘we’ passages, in which Luke switches to the first person, suggesting strongly that he himself was an eyewitness to the events he describes. As with his Gospel, he shows concern for medical details, and for women and the poor and helpless.


But what of the ends of the earth? The book seems to end with a whimper rather than a bang, as Paul is imprisoned in Rome and fades from view. However it may not be like that. Paul arrives in Rome, not the end of the earth but its centre, to which all roads lead and presumably from which all roads go. There is some evidence that the Roman legal system allowed two years for accusers to come and make their case, after which prisoners were acquitted and set free. But even while under house arrest Paul preached freely. So there may be more of a bang there than we think. And of course as has often been said we are Acts chapter 29 as the story goes on and more and more unreached people have the opportunity to respond to the good news of God in Christ.

Image: “All Saints Episcopal Church, Jensen Beach, Florida windows 010” by Stephen B Calvert Clariosophic – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

OT Lectionary May 17th Sunday after Ascension Ezekiel 36:24-28

The days between the Ascension and Pentecost are increasingly being marked in the Anglican church as a novena, or nine days, of prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Better late than never, I suppose, but as we seek to reflect and live out that period of prayer to which the first believers devoted themselves I sometimes wonder what we are expecting to happen. How will we know when the Holy Spirit has come? I reckon that when tongues of fire and strange languages broke out among them on the day of Pentecost it wasn’t just the onlookers who were amazed and perplexed. I’m sure the believers got more than they were bargaining for.

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So we seek to sanitise the Holy Spirit. I can remember being part of a team planning a children’s Pentecost celebration in our cathedral, at which it was suggested that we might cut out thousands of little red, yellow and orange bits of sparkly paper and drop them from the roof onto the children gathered below, and set up some huge fans to blow everyone around. Having just written a book on how children can receive the Spirit and his gifts as well as adults can, I suggested that we might just pray for the children to be filled with the Spirit, a suggestion which went down like air con in an igloo. Symbolism is much safer if it protects us from the real thing. We want the Spirit, but we don’t want to be charismatic, for goodness’ sake!

So apart from tongues, what might praying for the coming of the Spirit result in? Ezekiel has a slightly different take, although one which potentially might be equally disturbing. This text is aimed at those languishing in Babylonian exile as a result of their idolatry, and as God puts his Spirit in them they can expect a radical turnaround. The ‘before’ picture is one of scattered people, far from home, with hard hearts, filthy from their rubbing up against detestable idols, the sort, for example, to which you sacrifice your own children. But the gift of the Spirit will bring homecoming, cleansing, a heart transplant, and a restoration of their relationship with God. So radical will this U turn be that people will even want to keep God’s laws, rather than regarding them as a bit of a killjoy nuisance.

Ezekiel’s vision of the work of the Spirit is essentially a moral one, after which polluted and compromised people will not only behave themselves but will even want to behave themselves. The naughty delight in sin will lose its appeal for them, and they will be 100% devoted to God.

So for what do we think we’re praying as we seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on God’s church? Spectacular gifts? More position and power in today’s society? The ability better to serve the needs of our communities? More bums on seats? Ezekiel would tell us that God has different priorities, although none of the above is a bad thing for which to pray. Essentially, says Ezekiel, the Holy Spirit is in the business of bringing holiness. If you’re the kind of Christian who sort of enjoys a bit of sin now and again, and believes that God isn’t that bothered, be careful what you pray!

Reflections on Discipleship – A Sense of Perspective

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

One of the most helpful things I’ve read on discipleship is Rick ‘Purpose Driven’ Warren’s attempt to define it and to chart how it might grow in us. He begins with growth in knowledge – how much we know of what the Bible teaches, what the Church believes, how we are supposed to live, and so on. But, he says, this is merely the first step. Just because we know stuff doesn’t mean we’re living as disciples. So what we need next is what he calls ‘Perspective’, or learning to see things as God sees them, rather than in a merely human way. This is best seen in the gospel stories when Peter, with well-meaning human concern for his friend, tries to tell Jesus that he needn’t go to the cross. He is roundly rebuked, because ‘you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ (Mt 16:23) His perspective, while understandable, is completely wrong.

1 Corinthians 1 and 2 provide an extended exploration of this concept of ‘perspective’. The passage is all about the contrast between worldly thinking and the gospel. The message of the cross is ‘foolishness’ in merely human eyes, but is the power of God to those who have believed it (1:18). The wisdom and philosophy of the ‘world’ is contrasted with the apparent ‘foolishness’ of the preaching to which Christians have responded (1:19-21). Indeed our teaching is a ‘stumbling block’ (a ‘scandal’ in the Greek – 1:22-24). That’s why it is important that the preaching of the gospel doesn’t try to persuade people with worldly ‘wisdom’ and rhetoric, but is demonstrated by the power of the Holy Spirit (2:1-5). Indeed it is only through the Spirit that we are taught, and only through the Spirit that we can grasp the message of the gospel (2:10-13). Those who think merely from a human point of view simply don’t get it.

Disciples, therefore, might be defined as those seeking more and more to see things from God’s point of view. 2:15-16 tells us that

The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments,  for,

‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’


and then adds:

But we have the mind of Christ.

We have the mind of Christ, but we still need to learn to think with it. So my task, as a Christian disciple, is constantly to be asking ‘What does God think about this?’ What would Jesus do in a situation like this? As a Christian what do I think about ISIS, or Charlie Hebdo? How am I going to vote at the next General Election? How am I feeling at the prospect of another ‘Black Friday’ next November? There is no shortage of information from those ‘without the Spirit’ (2:14) telling me how I ought to be thinking, but what is the mind of Christ on these matters?

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The corollary of this, of course, which Paul spells out only too clearly, is that to be a disciple will bring us into conflict, because we see things differently, we ‘get’ stuff which those without faith, or with faith but without perspective, simply don’t. We have received the Spirit so that we may understand what God has freely given us (2:12). Thanks be to God for his indescribable, if somewhat dangerous, gift!