Worship God.

And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”

10 And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” Revelation 22:6-11 ESV

John’s vision, given to him on the island of Patmos, is quickly coming to a close. And as it does, he hears repeated some of the same words he heard when he began his incredible experience.

1 The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. – Revelation 1:1-3 ESV

The angel reminds John that every word he has heard is trustworthy and true. They can be trusted for their veracity and accuracy. The visions he has been privileged to see and the words of prophecy he has been commanded to write down have been given to him by the God of the spirit of the prophets. This phrase is meant to qualify the content of John’s visions as having been God-breathed. The same God who spoke through Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah and a host of other Old Testament prophets, had just spoken to and would be passing His message through John. Peter reminds us that God is the one who gave the prophets the words they wrote in their books. He was the author behind their predictions, many of which find their fulfillment in the future events John has just witnessed and chronicled.

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. – 2 Peter 1:21 ESV

At the birth of John the Baptist, the final prophet of God, who heralded the coming of Christ, his father spoke spoke these words:

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
    in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
    and from the hand of all who hate us. – Luke 1:68-71 ESV

God, the author behind every word spoken by the prophets, has just spoken to John. And because God is trustworthy and true, His words can be relied upon.

And John is reminded once again that the things he has seen “must soon take place.” There is a degree of imminence to the angel’s words, but this does not necessarily mean immediacy. The Greek phrase John uses is en tachos, which means “with quickness or speed.” The angel is not saying that these things are about to happen, but that when they do, they will come in rapid succession. And there is another aspect to this warning that we are all to take to heart. None of us know the day of their coming. Jesus Himself told us, “no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows” (Matthew 24:36 NLT). But we are to live as if they could happen at any minute. As believers, we are to conduct our lives with an expectation that Jesus Christ could return for His church at any moment. Paul told the Philippian believers, “we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior” (Philippians 3:20 NLT). He encouraged the believers in Corinth to “eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:7 NLT). He told the church in Rome to “wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us” (Romans 8:23 NLT). He complimented the Thessalonian believers for their reputation for “looking forward to the coming of God’s Son from heaven—Jesus, whom God raised from the dead” (1 Thessalonians 1:10 NLT).

So, there is a sense in which we are to eagerly look for the return of Jesus for His bride, the church, because it will usher in the period of the tribulation and inaugurate the final days of judgment. And John hears the voice of Jesus, assuring him that His return is indeed growing closer with each passing day.

“And behold, I am coming soon.” – Revelation 22:7 ESV

When the time comes, Jesus will come quickly or without delay. Right now, He is in a holding pattern, waiting for the very moment in time when His heavenly Father commands Him to return for His church. But He is ready. And we should be as well.

And Jesus also reminds John that there is a blessing associated with the faithful reading and keeping of the contents of this book.

“Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” – Revelation 22:7 ESV

The Greek word John uses is tēreō, and it means “to attend to carefully, to take care of or guard.” The words contained in each and every prophecy given to John and recorded in his book are to be taken seriously and treated with reverence and awe. They are the words of God and, as such, come with a blessing. Knowing what God has planned for the future of the world should bring us hope and assurance. It should provide us with confidence and endurance. It should alleviate our fears and eliminate our uncertainties about the future. We don’t have to worry about which side wins. We don’t have to wonder if God has forgotten about us. There is a perfectly planned timeline in place and God will enact it at the very right moment. When He deems best. It has already been predetermined and its outcome preordained.

And in response to all that John had seen or heard during the course of his vision, John fell at the feet of the angel in worship. He couldn’t help but subjugate himself to the one who had provided him with such amazing news. But the angel refused John’s adoration, demanding that he worship God instead. And that is the point behind the entire book. What we read on its pages should drive us to our knees before God Almighty. It should remind us that our God is not only great, but good. He is just, holy, righteous, and in complete control of all things – in heaven and on earth.

And John is told to keep his book open. He was not to seal or close it, but to allow its content to be readily available for all to see, read, and heed. Because it is meant to be a constant reminder to the people of God that the events disclosed on its pages will happen before they know it – “for the time is near.” And then, Jesus utters some rather strange words that carry with them a certain degree of pre-determinism.

Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” – Revelation 22:11 ESV

The sad truth is that there are many who will never accept God’s free gift of salvation made available through His Son’s death on the cross. They will hear, but not heed. They will be offered salvation through faith alone in Christ alone, but refuse to accept this priceless gift. And Jesus is simply saying that they will continue to live as they always have, committed to a life marked by sin and open rebellion against God. And yet, there will be those who, in God’s plan, have heard and accepted God’s gracious gift, received forgiveness for their sins and been imputed the righteousness of Christ. And they are to live as who they are: Sons and daughters of God.

As John has seen and as his book reveals, there is an outcome in store for all. The righteous and the unrighteous have a future already reserved for them. Those who choose to reject God will receive the judgment they deserve. And as has been shown all throughout John’s vision, there will be many times within the seven years of the tribulation when people will be given ample evidence that God is bringing judgment upon sinful men, but they will refuse to repent, choosing instead to maintain their independent, autonomous lifestyle of self-determination. Even under the unrelenting, heavy hand of God, they will reject Him as God and choose instead to worship false gods, including the Antichrist himself. The evil will continue to do evil. Right to the bitter end.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

The First Seal.

1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. Revelation 6:1-2 ESV

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John saw a vision of Jesus, the Lamb of God who was slain, now standing in the throne room of heaven and taking the sealed scroll from the hand of God. As Jesus begins to open the seven seals, John will be given a glimpse into the future. This is in keeping with the instructions he received at the beginning of his book. “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this” (Revelation 1:19 ESV). With the opening of each successive seal, another aspect of God’s future judgment of mankind will be revealed and released upon the earth. One of the keys to making sense all that John will see and record is to understand that the church is nowhere mentioned. While chapters two and three dealt extensively with the seven churches, there will not be another reference to the church until the end of the book, where Jesus will explain that the messages contained in it were for the benefit of the church, but not about it.

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”Revelation 22:16.

John is being given these insights into future things in order to encourage the body of Christ, those who have placed their faith in Him, by informing them of God’s future plans for the restoration of all things. As the church suffers persecution and trials in this age, God is letting them know that there is a day coming when all things will be made right. That day is most often referred to as in Scripture as “the day of the Lord.” Paul warned the Thessalonian believers about that coming day, but let them know that it was not intended for them.

2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. – 1 Thessalonians 5:2-5 ESV

Believers will not be surprised by that day, because they will not be around to experience it. Earlier in his same letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul told his brothers and sisters in Christ:

16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV

Christ will one day return for His church. This is not His second coming, which will be explained in great detail in this book. It is the rapture of the church, which will bring an end to the church age or what is also referred to as the age of the Gentiles. It is the removal of the church that will set the stage for the coming day of the Lord. That is why Paul goes on to encourage the believers in Thessalonica “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10 ESV). He is letting them know that the church will be delivered from the wrath to come. And it is the wrath to come that Jesus is about to make known by the opening of the seals and the subsequent revelation of the scroll’s content. With each seal broken, a new aspect of God’s judgment on the unbelieving world is made known. And as the book of Revelation progresses, the judgments will increase in intensity, all the way up to the day of the Lord’s return.

What we are about to see is not intended to scare or intimidate us. As members of the body of Christ, His church, we will not experience any of these judgments. They are meant to give us hope and to cause us to trust in the sovereign will of our God. As bad as things may get on this earth during our stay here, we can know that God will one day restore all things to a state of order and righteousness. The wicked who, in this life, seem to escape God’s judgment, will one day find themselves having to face the wrath of God. And the book of Revelation is intended to give us a glimpse into what is to come.

With each of the first four seals, John hears a voice cry out, “Come!” This seems to represent a divine command, calling forth all that John sees. They are being summoned to do God’s bidding. The seven seals represent the official nature of the document and its content. As long as the seals remained intact, what was written inside the scroll remained a mystery. And it could not be released or revealed. In essence, it was held captive or in check until such time as “the one who was worthy” broke the seals. And with each successive seal, a new portion of the scroll gets revealed and a new aspect of God’s future judgment made known. They appear to reveal a timeline, with each event following the one before it in chronological order.

With the breaking of the first seal, a rider on a white horse appears. He is carrying a a bow, but there is no mention of him holding any arrows. He is also given a crown to wear, signifying power and authority. But who is this rider? It would be easy to assume that, because he is riding a white horse, he must represent someone good or righteous. And while the color white is often used in Scripture to signify holiness or purity, it can also be a symbol for victory. This rider’s appearance on a white horse gives him the appearance of being victorious and righteous, but it will prove to be a deception. Not all who claim to be righteous prove to be so. And this individual carries a bow, a symbol of warfare, but he has no arrows. So, he appears to have the threat of military might, but will initially have no real power to back up that threat. It is important to note that he is given a crown (stephanos), which represents authority, but that authority is given to him. The apostle Paul reminds us, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1 ESV). This rider will be given the right to rule by God Himself. But this does not mean he will rule righteously or in keeping with the holy demands of God. Like so many of the wicked and immoral kings of Judah and Israel, this man’s rule will be marked by rebellion against God.

John reveals that this rider “came out conquering, and to conquer.” He will be intent on conquest. His agenda will be that of war and nothing but war. But who is he? There has been much debate as to the identity of this rider. But it would seem that the most likely explanation would be that he represents the coming Antichrist. In His Olivette Discourse, Jesus warned that, in the future, there would be those coming who claimed to be the Messiah, the Christ.

“For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” – Matthew 24:5 ESV

He warned that there would be false prophets and false teachers. But there would come one particular individual who would surpass them all in terms of his lies and wickedness. Paul gives us a glimpse into this individual’s character in his second letter to the church at Thessalonica.

Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. – 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 ESV

He will be the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction. He will set himself up as a god and suppress any and all other religions, demanding that he alone be worshiped. He will be anti-Christ and anti-God, opposing them at every hand. The prophet Daniel predicts that “He shall speak words against the Most High” (Daniel 7:25 ESV) and “through his shrewdness He will cause deceit to succeed by his influence; And he will magnify himself in his heart, And he will destroy many while they are at ease. He will even oppose the Prince of princes” (Daniel 8:25 ESV). And Daniel adds yet one more feature to this man’s reign, indicating that he “will do as he pleases, and he will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will speak monstrous things against the God of gods” (Daniel 11:36 ESV).

One of the things that will become clear as the book of Revelation unfolds, is that the interpretation of its contents is totally dependent upon the rest of Scripture. It is not intended to be a stand-alone book, but is included in the canon of Scripture and as a supplemental text that works in conjunction with other prophetic passages found elsewhere in the Bible. So, to understand much of what is found in the book of Revelation will require a careful study of God’s Word. And the scenes which John writes about as he watches the breaking of the seals, are incomplete in nature. He only describes a rider on a white horse, carrying a bow and wearing a crown. But there will be more details to come. These seven seals are like an outline of the rest of the book. They provide an abbreviated introduction for all that is to come. This one who came out conquering and to conquer, will do just that and we will see it in great detail. His appearance sets up all that is to come in the rest of the book. This rider will play a major role in the unfolding drama surrounding God’s future judgment of the world.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

This Is Not the End.

23 When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. 24 And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. 25 And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:

26 “‘Go to this people, and say,
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
27 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.’

28 Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

30 He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. Acts 28:23-31 ESV

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As we prepare to wrap up this study on the Book of Acts, we come to Luke’s concluding paragraphs covering Paul’s arrival in Rome. In a sense, Luke doesn’t complete the story. He leaves us hanging, with Paul in prison and his final fate left unstated. It’s almost as if he was planning a sequel. The way he ends the book is much like the final episode in the first season of a Netflix TV series. It’s a cliff hanger that leaves us wanting to know more. But the second season of Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles”, if he ever planned one, never aired.

What we do know is that just three days after his arrival in Rome, Paul called for a meeting with the local Jewish leadership. He wanted to explain why he was there and what had happened in Jerusalem to necessitate his arrival as a prisoner of the Roman government. The local Jews had received no news regarding the events leading up to Paul’s initial arrest. There had been no visits from the representatives of the Sanhedrin and, as a result, the Jews in Rome had no idea what Paul was talking about. But they wanted to hear more. And hear more they did. Luke tells us that Paul met with them from morning until evening, “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23 ESV). Paul may have been a prisoner of Rome, with a Roman guard attached to him at all times, but he never shirked from the commission given to him by Christ. He continued to share the gospel, doing everything in his power to persuade Gentiles and Jews that Jesus was the Savior of the world. And Luke reveals that the crowd was divided over what they heard Paul say that day. Some believed, while others rejected his message. And Paul broke up the meeting when he quoted from the prophet Isaiah:

26 “‘Go to this people, and say,
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
27 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.’ – Acts 28:26-27 ESV

Paul quoted from Isaiah 6:9-10, where God spoke to the prophet, providing him with a message concerning the people of Judah. God was warning Isaiah that they would not listen to a word he said. They would hear, but not understand. They would see, but not perceive. Why? Because they had hard hearts and deaf ears. And God inferred to Isaiah that their stubborn resistance to His message of repentance had been His doing. God could have softened their hearts, but He chose not to. He could have opened their eyes to see the reality of their situation and the incredible graciousness of His offer to take them back if they would repent. But He didn’t. And the people of Judah would eventually end up defeated by the Babylonians and taken into captivity.

Paul directly tied this prophecy from the prophet of God to the people of God living in his day. And Paul was not the only one who had used this passage to indict the Jewish people in the first century. Jesus Himself quoted it to His disciples. But right before He did, He told them, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge. But for those who are not listening, even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them. That is why I use these parables…” (Matthew 13:11-13 NLT).

Jesus explained His parables to the disciples, but He didn’t do the same thing for the Jews. And the majority of them continued to reject His message regarding the Kingdom of God and His role as Messiah. And the same thing was true in Paul’s day. They were still wrestling with the idea that Jesus, the rabbi from Nazareth, who had been crucified by the Romans, had actually been the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. And they most certainly struggled with the concept that Jesus had been raised back to life by God, as proof that He had been who He had claimed to be. Which is what led Paul to break the news to them that he had been sharing with other Jews all throughout his journey to Rome.

“Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” – Acts 28:28 ESV

The majority of the Jews would not listen, but the Gentiles would. And Paul had seen that reality proved out time and time again in place after place. He had repeatedly gone to the Jews in every city he visited, and he had watched them reject his message and respond in anger at his audacity to insinuate that they needed salvation. And even during the two years that Paul remained in Rome, he would continue to preach the gospel to anyone who would listen, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31 ESV).

Luke has brought his book full circle. He began it by talking about the Kingdom of God, and he finished it the same way. In the opening lines of his history of the Christian church, Luke told Theolophilus that the gospel he wrote had been intended to deal “with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen” (Acts 1:1-2 ESV). The Book of Acts had been written to pick up the story where the gospel had left off, when Jesus had “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3 ESV). Jesus had spent His final days with the disciples, telling them about the Kingdom of God. And now, we see Luke closing out his book with Paul speaking about the Kingdom of God. As stated earlier, Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to Paul. He was still a prisoner of the Roman government. He had been brought to Rome, at great expense, to stand trial before Emperor Nero. But Luke doesn’t provide us with those details.

According to Clement, the Bishop of Rome from 88-98 A.D., the apostle Paul eventually died, but he also provided no details as to the means of his death.

5 Through envy Paul, too, showed by example the prize that is given to patience: 6 seven times was he cast into chains; he was banished; he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West, he obtained the noble renown due to his faith; 7 and having preached righteousness to the whole world, and having come to the extremity of the West, and having borne witness before rulers, he departed at length out of the world, and went to the holy place, having become the greatest example of patience. – 1 Clement 5:5-7

Church tradition has long held that Paul was eventually beheaded by Nero, as part of his persecution of the church. But there is no compelling evidence that proves how and when Paul died. It seems that Luke was less interested in ending his story with the death of Paul, than eluding to the fact that the gospel was going to the Gentiles. Jesus had commissioned His disciples to take the gospel to the “ends of the earth.” Rome was not the end of the earth, but it was the center of the world at the time. And through its wide-spread influence and network of roads to virtually all point in in the known world of that day, the gospel would continue to spread, and the church would continue to grow. Paul would eventually die, but the gospel would not. The apostles would all fade from view, passing away and out of the limelight. But the message of salvation, made possible by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone would make its way around the world, completely transforming the landscape of society for generations to come. And God’s message of redemption continues to spread. The world has gotten smaller. Advancements in technology and travel have made the remotest parts of the planet accessible and the transmission of the gospel into every imaginable tongue, possible.

Interestingly enough, Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome, where he reminded them that God had plans for the Jews. The very ones whose hearts He had hardened and whose eyes He had blinded to the truth, He will one day restore.

25 I want you to understand this mystery, dear brothers and sisters, so that you will not feel proud about yourselves. Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. 26 And so all Israel will be saved. As the Scriptures say,

“The one who rescues will come from Jerusalem,
    and he will turn Israel away from ungodliness.
27 And this is my covenant with them,
    that I will take away their sins.”Romans 11:25-27 NLT

 

God was not done in Paul’s day. And God is not done in our day. Paul was in prison, but the gospel was not. Our world seems resistant and even hostile to the message of the gospel, but God is not done bringing in the “full number of the Gentiles.” The history of the church did not conclude with the last chapter of Acts. It continues to be written and only God knows when and exactly how it will all end. But Paul gives us an insight into what that day will look like.

16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died will rise from their graves. 17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. 18 So encourage each other with these words. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Misdirected Zeal.

37 As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” 39 Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.” 40 And when he had given him permission, Paul, standing on the steps, motioned with his hand to the people. And when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying:

1 “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you.”

And when they heard that he was addressing them in the Hebrew language, they became even more quiet. And he said:

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.” Acts 21:37-22:5 ESV

At the close of chapter seven and the beginning of chapter eight, Luke introduced us to Saul for the very first time. Luke indicated that Saul “was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison” (Acts 8:3 NLT). He was a man on a mission. He was obsessed. And he honestly thought he was doing God a huge favor by ridding the world of any and all Christians he could get his hands on. In fact, in today’s chapter, he explains the mindset behind his passionate persecution of the church.

3 I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. – Acts 22:3-4 NLT
He was highly motivated and demonstrated extreme eagerness to please and honor God through his actions. We know that when he had stood by and watched the stoning of Stephen, he not only held the coats of those who threw the stones, he “agreed completely with the killing of Stephen” (Acts 8:1 NLT). He was convinced that the killing of Christians was a good thing. He saw them as dangerous heretics and criminals who opposed the Mosaic law and the Jewish religion. But something had happened to Saul. He had a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus and his life had been dramatically transformed and the trajectory of his life had been radically altered. He was no longer the same man.
And as he stood in the Court of the Gentiles, having been rescued by the Roman cohort, from a beating at the hands of the Jews, he recounted to the crowd just what had happened to change his life. He asked the captain of the Roman soldiers if he could be given a chance to address the crowd, the very ones who had been attempting to end his life. Paul saw this as a unique and unavoidable opportunity to share his story. And when the captain, having learned that Paul was not the radical Egyptian revolutionary he supposed him to be, allowed him to speak. And Paul addressed the crowd of Jews in their own language.
Not only did Paul address the crowd in their own language of Aramaic, he let them know that he was one of them, a Jew born in Tarsus of Cilicia. He was a Hellenistic Jew, born in the Roman-controlled region of Cilicia. Tarsus was a major city, located in what is today southern Turkey. Paul wanted the Jews in his audience to know that he was a Jew, not some upstart Greek-speaking troublemaker. And he proceeded to give them his curriculum vitae, explaining that he had a significant Hebrew heritage and a formal education that was more than a little bit impressive. Paul wasn’t bragging, but he was attempting to get his audience’s attention by highlighting his religious and educational resumes.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel.” – Acts 22:3 NLT
He wasn’t a newcomer to Jerusalem or some kind of country bumpkin from the sticks. He had been raised in the capital city and trained under one of the most revered of all the Jewish rabbis and teachers of the day. He was well-educated and more than familiar with the religion of his forefathers. Paul had been a Pharisee. and he would later describe himself as having been one of the best of all the Pharisees.
I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT
Paul had been a law-keeping, card-carrying Pharisee who had an impeccable record of human-based righteousness. He had Hebrew blood coursing through his veins and a no-holds-barred obsession with the Hebrew faith. If you looked up the word, “zealous” in the dictionary, you would have found Paul’s picture out beside it. In fact, Paul referred to himself as “being zealous for God.” The Greek word he used is zēlōtēs, and it refers to someone who burns with zeal for something, but also someone who defends and upholds something, vehemently contending for it with all his power. Paul had seen his pre-conversion mission as somehow God-ordained. But he had really appointed himself, having determined that he was doing the will of God, without having ever received his assignment from God. Paul was a self-appointed vigilante for God. He was kicking tail and taking names. His mission in life was to eliminate any and all Christians from the face of the earth – one at a time, if necessary. And Paul openly confessed, “I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison” (Acts 22:4 NLT). He had taken his job very seriously. And he had not been content to restrict his efforts to the city of Jerusalem. He had gone to the high priest and solicited formal documents that would allow him to take his little show on the road, seeking out Christians wherever he could find them.
Back in chapter eight, Luke recorded that “A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison” (Acts 8:1-4 NLT). And he had received official papers giving him permission and power to search and destroy all Christians found in the city of Damascus.
I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished. – Acts 22:5 NLT
And he challenged his listeners to fact-check his claim by talking to the high priest himself. He would corroborate the authenticity of his story.
But this is where his tale takes a dramatic turn. He had set them up. They were on pins and needles, having heard him share some insights into his life story that none of them would have ever guessed in a million years. Here was a former Pharisee and student of the famous Gamaliel, and he had just been accused of teaching against the law of Moses and of desecrating the temple by bringing uncircumcised Gentiles into the area reserved only for Jews. How could he have done such a thing? What had forced this Pharisee to abandon his Jewish faith and turn his back on his own people? At this point, the crowd is far less interested in beating Paul, as they are in hearing what he has to say. They were mesmerized and intrigued. And Paul was going to take advantage of their rapt attention to share the most dramatic and unexpected part of his story. He had been one of them. He had grown up in the same culture and under the same conditions as they had. He had been circumcised, taught in the synagogue, attended the various feasts and festivals, trained as a Pharisee, and emersed in the rights, rituals and religious rules of Judaism. So, what had happened? That’s where Paul will pick up his story:
“As I was on the road, approaching Damascus…” – Acts 22:6 NLT
Remember. He had been on a mission. He thought he was acting on behalf of God. He had truly believed he was doing God a favor. He was zealous and energetic in his efforts. He had been determined and disciplined to carry out his mission. And, like the people standing in the crowd, listening to his words, Paul had been convinced that he was right. He had fully believed that his agenda had been God’s agenda. But he was in for a big surprise and so were they.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

A People of Faith.

54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

1 And Saul approved of his execution.

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. – Acts 7:44-8:3 ESV

Stephen had called out the high priest and the Sanhedrin. These powerful and influential religious leaders of the Jews were the guilty culprits, not him. They were supposed to be the spiritual shepherds of Israel, but Stephen had exposed them for what they were: stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, who always resist the Holy Spirit. They were just like their ancestors, whose rebellion against God Stephen had just outlined for them in great detail. These men were supposed to be man of faith, like Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David. They should have expected the unexpected from God. Of all people, they should have known what the Scriptures said and how God had repeatedly told of new things to come. The author of Hebrews provides further proof that Abraham, Joseph, Moses and David were men of faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. – Hebrews 11:8-10 ESV

Abraham, whose only possession in the land of Canaan was the tomb in which he buried his wife, believed God and kept waiting for the promise of God to be fulfilled.

22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones. – Hebrews 11:22 ESV

Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his own brothers, kept faithfully trusting in God, eventually being appointed the second-highest ranking official in the land of Egypt. But he was so convinced of God’s promise concerning the promised land, that he made his brothers swear to return his bones there after his death.

24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. – Hebrews 11:24-26 ESV

Moses gave up the privileges that came with being the adopted son of Pharaoh, instead risking it all in order to faithfully serve God. He obeyed God, leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and all the way to the land of promise. And then the author of Hebrews sums up his recounting of those patriarchs who exhibited faith in their God.

32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Hebrews 11:32-34 ESV

All of these individuals led lives of faith. They placed their trust in God, never knowing quite how things were going to turn out, but leaving the outcome up to God. But the men to whom Stephen had just delivered his message were men of little faith. They no longer expected God to do great things. They were content with the Mosaic Law, the Temple and their own status as spiritual leaders of Israel. It didn’t seem to bother them that they were under oppressive Roman rule and that the spiritual climate within Israel was at an all-time low. Stephen had clearly pointed out that they were just like their ancestors, who had rejected the leadership of Moses and the prophetic warnings of the prophets. The high priest and the Sanhedrin had rejected the Righteous One of God, and were now rejecting His Spirit-filled apostles. They wanted nothing to do with the gospel. They rejected the words of Peter, John, and Stephen, refusing to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and had been resurrected from the grave. In fact, it is when Stephen claims to see a vision of the resurrected Lord that these men lose it.

55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” – Acts 7:55-56 NLT

That was all it took. Stephen’s Spirit-inspired vision of the risen Lord left the Jewish religious leaders seeing red. They immediately assaulted Stephen, dragging him outside the city, where they stoned him to death. And in doing so, they revealed that their faith was in something other than God. They worshiped the status quo. They had made idols out of the Mosaic Law and the Temple. They were not interested in what God was doing in their midst, but only in what God had done in the past. These men had no expectation that God would do great things in their midst. Their faith was in what they could see and touch, including their own status as religious leaders and the bricks and mortar of the Temple itself. They took comfort in the law, even though they failed to keep it. They sought salvation through their own self-effort and saw no need for a Savior. In their minds, they were already righteous before God because they were the chosen people of God, the keepers of the law of God, and the proud occupants of the Temple of God.

So, like their ancestors before them, they killed the messenger of God. And in doing so, they refused the message God had proclaimed through him. And this tagic event brought a dramatic change to the atmosphere within Jerusalem. No longer would the city be a safe and inviting environment for the followers of Jesus. Luke points out that “there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1 ESV). And he drops the name of a man who would play a vital role in both the church’s persecution and the gospel’s proclamation: Saul. He is only given a mention in these verses, but in a relatively short period of time, Saul would become a key player in the ongoing drama surrounding the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ.

There are a number of things presaged in these verses. First of all, the future role of Saul as both a persecutor of the church and as its poster-boy for conversion stories. His presence at Stephen’s stoning and his approval of his death, provide us with a glimpse into what was to come. God was at work. He was moving behind the scenes in ways that even the apostles could not have foreseen. Little did they know that the escalating tension between the Jewish religious leaders and the church was going to have a positive impact on the spread of the gospel. We must always recall what Jesus had said to His disciples just prior to His ascension. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). Yet, up until this point in Luke’s account of the church’s growth and spread, the gospel had yet to make it outside the city walls of Jerusalem. But what does he say happened as a result of Stephen’s death and the subsequent persecution of the church? “…and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1 ESV). The new believers were forced to flee for their lives, vacating the confines of Jerusalem and heading out into the surrounding regions, even as far as Samaria. God was using what appeared to be a tragic event to accomplish His divine will for the church. What the people of God had been unwilling or unready to do, He made happen. He used the persecution by the religious leaders to force His own people to do what Jesus had commanded them to do. And this new era in the life of the church was going to take faith. No longer would they be able to remain in the close community they had established and enjoyed in Jerusalem. Unlike the Jews, God was not satisfied with the status quo. The gospel was meant to be spread. The community of faith was meant to be shared. The good news of Jesus Christ was intended for any and all who would hear it and accept it, regardless of race or creed.

Saul, who would later become known to us as Paul, would one day pick up the mantel of Stephen and take the good news to the Gentiles. It was he who wrote, “For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes–the Jew first and also the Gentile” (Romans 1:16 NLT). The man who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen and approved of their actions, would one day face stoning himself, for preaching the gospel boldly and without apology. He would become a man of great faith, who willingly suffered for the sake of Christ, because he had placed his hope in the future promises of Christ. Which is why he could say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

Stephen, a man of great faith, died at the hands of men of little faith. But the God in whom Stephen had placed his faith, was not done. His church, while facing persecution, was far from finished. It would continue to grow. The Spirit would continue to move. Men and women would continue to place their faith in a faithful God who was doing new and exciting things in their midst. And while Saul was busy ravaging the church, our faithful God had plans for Saul would radically revolutionize his life and forever alter the trajectory of the gospel.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Godly Men.

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you — if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. – Titus 1:5-9 ESV

One of the first things Titus was to concentrate on was the appointment of elders for the local churches on Crete. As Paul’s letter will shortly disclose, there was a problem with disorder and doctrinal disruption within the church on Crete. Paul will describe these individuals as “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers” (Titus 1:10 ESV).  He will accuse them of “upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:11 ESV). That’s why Paul tells Titus that he has been left in Crete with the specific task to “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5 ESV). Paul gave Titus a two-part commission. The first was to put in order or to complete what was lacking or left undone. There were some issues within the church there that needed to be taken care of and Paul will spend a good portion of his letter explaining exactly what the issues were. But the second part of Titus’ commission was to appoint elders. He was going to need help. A big reason for the lack of order was based on a void of qualified leadership. Within any organization, if there is not adequate, qualified leadership, the void will end up being filled by someone. There will always be those who step into the leadership vacuum and attempt to use their power and influence to take charge. And evidently, that is exactly what was happening on Crete. So, Paul told Titus to take care of the problem by appointing men to help him lead the local body of believers. The responsibilities were too great for one man to handle on his own. But these couldn’t be just any kind of men. They were going to have to meet certain qualifications in order to be considered.

But it’s important to notice that Paul’s description of the qualifications has everything to do with character and says little about Scripture knowledge, academic aptitude, business savvy, or even leadership skills. Instead, Paul mentions qualities and characteristics that would have been visible to all those who knew these men. Titus was to look for the outward evidence of an inward transformation that had taken place in the lives of these men due to their relationship with Christ and their knowledge of the Word of God. Each of them were to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9 NLT). In other words, they had to know the truth of the Gospel and the realities regarding God and His redemptive plan for man, if they were going to be able to refute falsehood and defend the Good News from attack.

But the real point Paul seems to be making is the contrast of character between these future leaders and those who were doing harm to the church. Those who would lead the church had to be men who were above reproach or blameless. This didn’t mean that they had to be perfect or sinless. The Greek word Paul used referred to the fact that these men were to have no glaring character flaws. They were not to be guilty of living their lives in such a way that it would cause people to point their fingers in criticism, resulting in harm to the reputation of the church. They were to be loving husbands who didn’t have reputations for unfaithfulness. They were to be fathers who had proven themselves capable leaders at home, having children who had come to faith in Christ and who were modeling lives of moral integrity and obedience. This would seem to suggest that Paul was recommending men who were older, with children old enough to have come to faith in Christ and to have exhibited godly character. Paul went on to say that an elder candidate “must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain” (Titus 1:7 NLT). Instead, he was to be “hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:8 NLT). It’s interesting to note that Paul had to be so specific in his list of qualifying character traits. He went out of his way to list disqualifying characteristics as well. Arrogance, anger, greed, violence and a problem with alcohol would all be huge detriments to godly leadership. They are outward signs of someone who is under the control of the flesh and not the Spirit. In fact, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul provides an even more details list of those characteristics that mark someone who is living according to their sin nature: “sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division,  envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these” (Galatians 5:19-21 NLT). A man who was controlled by his own flesh was going to make a lousy leader. He would be disruptive and potentially destructive. And it’s obvious that the church on Crete already had enough negative influences impacting it. Titus was going to need godly men who exhibited lives that were under the control of the Spirit of God.

Titus was going to need help in dealing with the disorder and negative moral influences within the churches on Crete. He couldn’t handle it on his own. So Paul emphasized the need for him to find the right kind of men to lovingly lead the flock of God, providing much-needed discipline and modeling the character of Christ to all those around them. One of the main qualifications these men were to have was a love for the gospel. Paul tells Titus that each of them “must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught” (Titus 1:9 NLT). In other words, they must remain committed to the gospel message by which they came to faith in Christ. One of the problems going on there was the influence of false gospels. There were those who were preaching something other than salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. They were adding to the gospel. Paul will remind Titus that people were “listening to Jewish myths and the commands of people who have turned away from the truth” (Titus 1:14 NLT). So, the men Titus chose to help him lead the church were going to have to be men who were committed to the gospel message. They would not accept alternative versions of the truth. They would not tolerate false gospels or destructive heresies.

These men were not to function as a board of directors. They were not to be figure heads or to function as nothing more than an advisory board for Titus. They were to be overseers, shepherds and pastors to the flock. They were to be godly in character and bold in their witness. Paul had a strong view of eldership. He knew these men were indispensable to the spiritual well-being of the church. Which is why he told the elders in Ephesus: “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders” (Acts 20:28 NLT).

We live in the midst of an ungodly world and there is an ongoing need for godly men who will step forward and provide leadership and protection for the flock of God. The church needs men of character who are led by the Spirit of God and committed to the Word of God. Disorder and disruption are all around us. That’s why qualified men are in great need, even today.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Wide Open Door.

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.

When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers. Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.– 1 Corinthians 16:5-12 ESV

Paul was a man on the move, because he was a man on a mission for God. He wrote this letter from Ephesus where he would spend three years ministering, one of his longest stops in any particular place. He was constantly looking for opportunities to share the gospel and to help believers grow in their knowledge of God and their faith in Christ. Paul had a deep love for the churches he helped establish and saw the members of the congregations as his children in the faith. He felt a special bond with them and had a strong sense of responsibility for their spiritual well-being. In the case of Ephesus, there were “many adversaries” who were opposing his work and making life difficult for the believers there. Like a mother hen protecting her chicks, Paul was not about to leave the Ephesian believers alone and defenseless. Plus, he saw a “wide door for effective work” opened to him. And as long as there were unbelievers with whom to share the gospel and new believers who needed to grow, Paul would see himself as a man with work to do. His job was never done. And even in spite of pain and suffering, rejection and times of apparent failure, Paul was prone to soldier on, giving everything he had to accomplish the mission given to him by Christ.

When Paul wrote his letter to the believers in Philippi, he did so while in prison in Rome. For a man like Paul, the real pain of imprisonment was not the conditions, but the fact that he was kept from visiting the churches he loved so much. And while he knew that he might very well die for his faith, he was not quite ready to give up his mission.

For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. – Philippians 1:20-24 NLT

You get a glimpse into Paul’s heart in this passage. He longed to be bold and unashamed, even while under Roman guard. He desired for his life to honor Christ – either in life or death. And he was torn between those two options, because in a way, he knew it would be better if he could die and go to be with Christ. But he also knew that there was work yet to be done. Notice that he puts the needs of the Philippians ahead of his own. “But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.”

Paul longed to see the Corinthians again, but he did not want it to be “in passing.” In other words, he wanted to have an extended stay with them, probably because he saw the spiritual needs there as great. His entire letter has reflected the many concerns he had for their spiritual well-being. But while Paul had to delay his visit because of the open doors in Ephesus, he had made plans to send Timothy, his young protegé and disciple in the faith, to Corinth. And because Paul knew that the Corinthians were prone to judge by appearances and were already struggling with divisions over leadership (1 Corinthians 3:4), he had to remind them to “see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him” (1 Corinthians 16:10-11 ESV). Timothy was young and easily intimidated. Which is why Paul had told him, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT).

In verse 12, we have Paul’s sixth and final use of the phrase, “now concerning…” In each and every case that he has used it, he was referring to a question or concern raised by the Corinthians. In this instance, we are not sure what the issue was concerning Apollos, but we know that there was a group in the church in Corinth who considered him their leader. They may have been wondering when Apollos was going to return to them. In fact, they may have preferred his presence over that of Paul. But rather than be offended, Paul simply stated that he had urged Apollos to visit them, but for some reason he had chosen not to do so. Paul didn’t throw Apollos under the bus or malign him in any way. For Paul, it was not a competition. It was about sharing the gospel and building up the body of Christ. As he stated earlier in this letter, “I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6 NLT). Paul assured them that Apollos would come when he had the opportunity.

In the meantime, Paul longed to return himself. He saw much work that needed to be done in Corinth. The church was divided. The people were immature and misusing their their spiritual gifts. Selfishness and pride were evident in the church. The influence of paganism and Hellenistic dualism was having a negative impact on the fellowship there. And all of this would result in Paul’s eventual return. As long as there were immature believers needing to grow and lost individuals needing to hear about the gospel, Paul had work to do. The door was wide open, and he was more than willing to walk through it. No rest for the weary. No retirement plans. No extended vacation. Open doors are meant to be walked through. Opportunities need to be taken advantage of. Pressing needs require immediate attention. And Paul was always reading, willing and able.

 

 

Death to Death.

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. – 1 Corinthians 15:51-58 ESV

Paul lived with a sense of eminence, an eager expectation and anticipation of the Lord’s return. He fully expected to be alive when Jesus returned for His bride, the church. This attitude of expectation, coupled with his strong belief in the resurrection of the body, is what drove him to live his life to please God and make the most of the time he had on this earth. He wanted to be doing the will of God when His Son returned. And he told the Corinthians, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV).

All that he talks about in these closing verses of chapter 15 concerns, as he calls it, “a mystery.” It has been hidden from view, remaining unrevealed and unknown as to the day of its occurrence. No one knows the day of the Lord’s return. But just because we are ignorant of the timing of His return does not mean we should doubt its validity. And the events surrounding that day, including the resurrection of our bodies, while mysterious and unknown as to exactly how they will occur, are to be believed and eagerly anticipated. Paul says that not every believer is going to die. Some will be alive and well when the Lord returns. And both the living and the dead will experience the resurrection of their earthly bodies. Paul does not explain how this will happen, because he does not know. He simply reveals that it will happen unquestionably and instantaneously – “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52 ESV). He says, “the dead will be raised imperishable” and those who are alive on that day, “shall be changed.” Both groups will receive their new spiritual bodies, made in “the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49b ESV). The apostle John tells us, “Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 NLT). Instantaneously, we will all undergo a miraculous transformation, receiving our new resurrected bodies, made for our new home and designed by God to exist for eternity. “For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NLT). And when that happens, Paul says, it will be a slap in the face to death. Death is the wage or payment for a life of sin (Romans 6:23). When sin entered the world at the fall, it brought with it death.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ. – Romans 5:17 NLT

Because of Jesus, death has lost its sting, its power over us. Those who have placed their faith in Jesus no longer need to fear death. That does not mean that we are immune from death. Even believers die. But the real “sting” of death, its power to separate men from their God, is no longer valid. All men die, but not all men will experience eternal separation from God. Those who have placed their faith in His Son, at death, find themselves immediately transferred into the presence of God the Father. Paul alludes to this reality in his second letter to the Corinthians:

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. – 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV

Well-versed in the Old Testament, Paul paraphrases Hosea 13:14, and uses it to taunt death. Because of Jesus, it no longer has any power over us. It is like a toothless, declawed lion – intimidating and with a scary roar, but devoid of any real power to do us harm.

But the real message Paul seems to be trying to convey is that the future assurance the Lord’s return and the certainty of the resurrection of our bodies should embolden us to live godly lives here and now. We are to remain “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” Rather than wasting our time arguing about spiritual gifts and debating over who follows who, we need to be sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with the lost and the love of God with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather than worrying about death, we need to concentrate on living for God, making the most of every moment He gives us on this earth. We exist for His glory. We are His servants, called by Him to do His will and to spread the message of salvation made possible through His Son’s death on the cross.

But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 6:22-23 NLT

God of Peace.

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. – 1 Corinthians 14:26-33a ESV

The very fact that Paul is going into this great amount of detail regarding the gifts reveals that this was a real problem for the church in Corinth. This was not a case of the gifts being in short supply. They seemed to have them in abundance. But they were confused as to their purpose and were neglecting to practice them in a spirit of love. So now, Paul gives more specific comments regarding their use in corporate worship. “When you come together,” Paul says, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” The gifts were designed primarily for use within the community and Paul makes clear their intended purpose: “Let all things be done for building up.” They were not designed to get attention or to make the one with the gift look good. And they most certainly were not to be used in a competitive or chaotic way. It seems that the Corinthians were in the habit of practicing their gifts almost like it was a competition. There was no order to their services. Everyone was prophesying, singing, teaching, and speaking in tongues at the same time. Which is what let Paul to say, “God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.”

The gift of tongues was not to dominate the corporate gathering. As Paul made clear earlier, tongues were intended for the lost, not believers. But if someone was going to practice the gift of tongues within the worship service, there must be someone there to interpret what was said. Otherwise, they were to remain silent. And Paul restricted the use of tongues to no more than three individuals per worship service. He did the same thing with the gift of prophecy. “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29 ESV). The worship service was not to be a circus or free-for-all, with everyone speaking at the same time or saying whatever they felt led to say. Even those with a prophetic word were to be evaluated by others with the same gift. There had to be a confirmation of what was being said. Just because someone prophesied did not mean that what they said was true. There was a need for the congregation and others with the gift of prophecy to ascertain whether what was being said was of God. This is an important distinction. Not all tongues is of God. Not all prophecy is of God. Not all revelation is of God. The gifts can be easily replicated and done apart from the power of the Holy Spirit. There are many who claim to prophesy in the name of God, but their words are not from God. There are those who claim to have the gift of tongues, but they do not practice them according to Scripture. There is no interpretation. There is no message. And no one, except the one speaking in tongues, is built up. To Paul, this was all unacceptable. It was more evident of the former pagan background of the Corinthians than than it was of God’s intended form of worship for the church.  

The theological point is crucial: the character of one’s deity is reflected in the character of one’s worship. The Corinthians must therefore cease worship that reflects the pagan deities more than the God whom they have come to know through the Lord Jesus Christ. God is neither characterized by disorder nor the cause of it in the assembly. – Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians

Order. Edification. Peace. Godliness. Love. All of these things were to characterize the corporate worship of the body of Christ. God had given the gifts to assist in the building up of the saints. When the Spirit of God was at work within the congregation, it would be evident. There would be a spirit of love present. Orderliness, not confusion, would characterize the assembly. The gifts would be complimentary, not competitive. The use of the gifts would be dictated by the Spirit of God, not the selfish desires of men. And the result would be the edification of all, not the elevation of one.

 

Edification, Not Emotion.

Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. – 1 Corinthians 14:13-19 ESV

Once again, Paul emphasizes the importance of the spiritual gifts as tools given by God for the mutual edification of the body of Christ. He indicates that a person who prays during worship using an unknown language may be giving thanks to God, but the rest of the congregation will not be built up. They will not understand what is being said, so they will be unable to join in thanksgiving. In fact, Paul says that someone praying in a tongue has no idea what they are saying as well. “For if I pray in tongues, my spirit is praying, but I don’t understand what I am saying” (1 Corinthians 14:14 NLT). That’s why Paul encourages those who say they have the gift of tongues to pray that they might also be given the ability to interpret what they are saying. The spiritual part of a believer’s life was not to be viewed as separate or distinct from their intellectual or cognitive capacities. God puts a high priority on knowledge. He wants us to know Him. He desires for us to know truth. He wants us to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19 ESV). Even Paul said, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death” (Philippians 3:10 NLT).

Earlier in this same letter, Paul spoke of the Spirit’s role in helping believers understand and comprehend the mind of God.

For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. – 1 Corinthians 2:10-13 NLT

The Spirit of God exists to make God known. He helps us understand those things given to us by God. Without the Spirit living within us, we would still be natural and not spiritual. And the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV).

So the Spirit within us is there to help us understand. And when the Spirit speaks through us by means of our gift, others should be able to understand as well. They should be drawn closer to God. But Paul indicates that the gift of tongues, without interpretation, is of no use to anyone. It may make the one speaking feel spiritual, but there is no benefit to their understanding. Underlying all of this is Paul’s emphasis on the content of the message. What is being said is far more important than the means or the method of delivery. That’s why he makes the very bold statement: “But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language” (1 Corinthians 14:19 NLT). He is discounting the validity of tongues as a gift, but he is elevating the priority of communication and edification.

One of the more difficult portions of this passage to understand is Paul’s claim, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Corinthians 14:18 ESV). Many in the charismatic movement who view tongues as ecstatic utterances and not actual languages, use this verse as proof that Paul used the gift of tongues in secret. But in every case where tongues is mentioned in the New Testament, it is in a corporate context. And it always involves unbelievers, such as on the day of Pentecost. Paul will even go on to clarify that “tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22 ESV). So what does Paul mean when he says that he speaks in tongues more than any of them. I think Paul is using sarcasm. He is actually saying that what they are claiming to be the gift of tongues is not tongues at all. Paul had evidently spoken in tongues before. And more than likely he did so in keeping with the New Testament criteria that it be done for the benefit of non-believers. More than likely Paul was given the use of tongues when he spoke in the synagogues in the towns he visited. There would have been non-Jews present who had become followers of Yahweh. They would have spoken other languages and it is likely that it was on those occasions that Paul spoke in tongues, using languages that would be understood by those present.

But the bottom line for Paul was using the gifts properly and in keeping with God’s design for them. If they did not benefit others, either the lost or other believers, they were being misused, even abused. Paul will go on to use an absurd example intended to show the danger of the Corinthian’s improper view of gifts. If one Sunday the entire congregation broke out in the gift of tongues and an unbeliever walked in the door, they would probably conclude that everyone had lost their minds. The disciples of Jesus got a similar response when they spoke in tongues at Pentecost. Some were amazed, others were perplexed, and then there were those who just accused them of being drunk. But Peter used the opportunity to share the gospel. The gift of tongues had a divine purpose. Any gift that does not edify is being misused. Any view of the gifts that emphasizes the emotions over spiritual edification is misguided and dangerous. There must be a benefit to the entire congregation. Which is why Paul said, “if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” (1 Corinthians 14:6 ESV). When we are operating in the power of the Spirit, it is for the benefit of all. It is for the building up of the body of Christ, not the individual.