Introduction to Acts chapters 2-4

Some have suggested that the book of Acts (short for the ‘Acts of the Apostles’) should have been named ‘the Acts of the Holy Spirit’.  The reason becomes apparent as you read through chapters 2-4.  Time and again it is the Holy Spirit who acts and takes the initiative and its the Apostles who follow his lead.  Look for this pattern as you read:

  • The Holy Spirit acts.
  • The crowds witness the action.
  • The Apostles explain the action to the crowds, always pointing back to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This shouldn’t surprise us for it was Jesus who said:

John 15:26-27 When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me [Jesus].  And you [the disciples] also must testify.

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Listen. Obey. Share.

House on the rock

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who builds his house on the rock.

Jesus tells a tale of two home builders at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. A wise builder constructs his house on a foundation of stone while the foolish contractor builds his on sand. The homes are indistinguishable until the storms come and you know what happened. The house built on sand is washed out to sea, but the home built on the rock survives the hurricane. It’s a poignant story that resonates here in coastal New England and it is told to instruct us in the proper use of Jesus’ teaching. The wise builder is the one who hears the words of Jesus and puts them into practice. The foolish man is one who hears, but fails to obey them. You can’t tell the difference until the hurricane blows ashore.

It’s devastatingly simple: we are supposed to read the Bible, listen to what is says and put it into practice. That is the key to building a faith that can stand through life’s tragedies and endure until the end. The problem is we don’t do it.  We prefer the soft sand. We may know the material of the Bible, but we fail to practice it.  Consequently we learn more about Jesus, yet make little progress in becoming like Him.

I’ve noticed this with my own Bible reading and there’s been a gnawing feeling this past year that there has been something missing in my approach. I’ve learned a lot, but I’ve largely been reading for information rather than transformation. Ironically, I was sent by my church down to Honduras as part of a team to instruct a young church startup how to incorporate regular Bible reading in their church. Literacy is a problem in the remote Indian villages we were working in, so we gave away audio Bibles so that groups of believers with limited reading skills could gather daily, hear the word and discuss it. We only had a couple days with this church, so we needed simple instructions that could be learned quickly and passed on to others and fortunately we found an approach on our flight down (for those who are interested we found this reading method in a book entitled T4T: A Discipleship Revolution and made some adjustments to it). Here is what we shared with them …

After reading (or listening to the chapter) ask the following questions:

  • What is the passage saying? (Listen)
  • What is God asking me to do? (Obey) But when it comes to obedience, we can’t stop here.  If we are honest, we know that it is impossible to perfectly obey God’ commands and we will always encounter a law we can’t keep. So we add two more steps to obedience: (Repent) How have I failed to do what God is asking me to do?  Confess that God and ask for his forgiveness.  (Believe) What would I have to believe about God or which of His promises would I need to trust in order to obey what I’ve read?
  • Who can I can share this with? (Share)

This is the kind of  Bible reading rock foundations are made of:  You not only read to understand, you read to hear, trust and obey the voice of God. If we spend money to teach it overseas, why not practice it ourselves?

If you are interested in trying this Bible reading approach here are some resources that can help you get started:

Read until your Heart gets hot

I learned something the other day that might help those of us who struggle with keeping a routine of reading the Bible. Here is my rough paraphrase of a talk Tim Keller gave to a group of pastors  …

Read slowly. Chew on the passages that grab your attention. Read until your heart gets hot and then move into prayer.

There is a difference between reading for information (or worse, to check it off my list) and devouring Scripture for its own sake. CS Lewis, in his book, An Experiment in Criticism, calls this “using” a book, as opposed to truly reading it and allowing it to move you. I have certainly been guilty of this. I use the Bible like a tool, to turn out sermons, find principles for life, and win arguments. But Scripture is more than a hammer or a good smart phone, it is a Spirit-breathed document created to mold us into the image of God. We must, as Mr. Lewis encourages us, surrender to it in order to fully experience its power. We need to move beyond using Scripture to receiving it.

I know no better way to do this than to approach Scripture with no other agenda than to listen closely to the Spirit of God whispering softly from its pages.  Only the humble, the quiet, and the slow will have ears to hear.  Begin with a prayer of surrender to the will of God, pray that he will break through the noise of your ambition and your busy life, and prepare yourself to savor the words as one would enjoy a fine meal or conversation with a friend.

Read through the passage slowly and stop when your attention is drawn to a word, a line or sentence.  Stay there a while, chew on the words and turn it over in your mind.  This is what the Scriptures call meditation. Think, mull, chew, and meditate until your heart begins to warm and the Spirit carries you into prayer. The language may move you to worship, call you to repent, or challenge you with a fresh vision for your life.  Pray in the direction the Scriptures take you. Allow the Holy Spirit to carry you from reading, through meditation and into prayer.

Let’s try this together (you can use one of the today’s Scripture readings.). Practice this for a couple of days and share your experiences by posting a comment.

An Introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy

[From the ESV Study Bible introduction to Deuteronomy p. 326.]

“Theme: Deuteronomy, the last installment of Moses’ biography, contains his last three sermons and two prophetic poems about Israel’s future. Reflecting on the nation’s past mistakes, he urges the people not to repeat those mistakes when entering the Promised Land. Israel’s entry fulfills the promises made to the patriarchs [Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (and his sons)], but if the people fall into idolatry or fail to keep the law, they will be exiled.”

“Purpose, Occasion, and Background
“Deuteronomy is largely a sermon, or set of sermons, preached by Moses to all of Israel shortly before his death and not long before the conquest of the land under the leadership of Joshua. It is a motivational sermon, urging Israel’s faithful obedience to the covenant laws of Sinai given 40 years previously.

“The circumstance of the sermon caries added significance because of Israel’s failure, a generation earlier, to conquer the land starting at Kadesh-Barnea on the southern border of
the Promised Land, Deuteronomy seeks to ensure that such failure does not recur. The rhetorical style of the sermon motivates obedience by constantly reassuring them of God’s faithfulness and his power to keep his promise of land. This faithfulness of God remains despite Israel’s persistent sin, detailed at length (e.g., 1:19-46; 9:1-29). Thus Deuteronomy demonstrates that God’s faithfulness results in mercy to his sinful people, for the sake of his promises to Abraham.

“The theology of Deuteronomy is focused on convincing Israel to trust and obey, and to conquer the land. The uniqueness and incomparability of God is clearly argued (e.g., ch. 4). His power over other nations and armies is evident (e.g., 2:1-23). His grace and faithfulness are also stressed, with frequent reminders that the land is sworn by him on oath and is undeserved (9:4-6) and full of good things.

“The book’s emphasis on the continuation of the covenant made at Sinai with the previous generation underscore the abiding significance of God’s law for his people (e.g., 5:1-3). The large central section incorporating all areas of life – economics, family and sexual relationships, religious observance, leadership, justice, guidance, food, property, and warfare. To some extent, the detail of the laws fleshes out the great command of 6:5, that Israel is to love the Lord with all its heart, soul, and strength. Chapters 12-16 show what such total love of God will look like and, in many respects, provide examples of what the Ten Commandments (ch.5) mean in practice.”

“Function of Deuteronomy in the Bible
“Deuteronomy is an important book. It conclude the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), drawing together many of its key themes. Deuteronomy brings together the patriarchal promises, the history of the exodus and wilderness, and the laws given at Sinai. It also provides a theological foundation for the history books that follow (esp. Joshua – 2 Kings). The language of Deuteronomy is often found in these later books, so much so that they are sometimes referred to as the Deuteronomistic History. Deuteronomy is surely the key book undergirding the reforms of Josiah in 2 Kings 23 and is referred to by several of the prophets, especially Jeremiah and Hosea. Deuteronomy is also frequently quoted in the NT most notably by Jesus in his wilderness temptations and by Paul in his letter to the Romans.”

Deuteronomy as a whole is a retelling of the law that Moses had received from the LORD.

An Introduction to 1 and 2 Samuel

(Originally 1 & 2 Samuel were one book until the time of the Septuagint (LXX). As translated during the renaissance, the Catholic version (Douay-Rheims in 1610) joined 1 & 2 Samuel with 1 & 2 Kings rendering 4 books of the Kings. j.t.)

From the Archaeological Bible p. 395 some background information. “We do not know who wrote 1 and 2 Samuel, which were named after the judge and prophet God used to establish Israel’s monarchy. Originally these now separated sections comprised one book, which was divided in to two parts by the translators of the Septuagint (early Greek translation of the OT). Based upon the wide span of history covered in 1 and 2 Samuel – from the days of Eli (1 Sa. 1) to the end of David’s reign (2 Sa. 24) – we know that no single writer or compiler could have been alive to record all of this information upon direct knowledge.

“Some features of 1 Samuel suggest that several independent, unedited sources, including firsthand accounts, were used, possibly at times verbatim, in the author’s compositions. Scholars sometimes speak of the “Succession Narrative” (2 Sa. 9 – 1 Kings. 2) as being a single-source document, but this viewpoint is debated. The writers/compilers certainly referenced the historical records of Samuel, Saul and David.

“The book of 1 Samuel (as well as its various sources) was evidently written between the end of David’s life and some point during Solomon’s reign. We cannot pinpoint exact dates because the data is insufficient to build a precise chronology. David’s birth and the length of his reign are certain (cf. 2 Sa. 5:4-5), but most other dates are not – including that of Saul’s ascension to the throne and the end of his reign. Adding to these chronological challenges is the lack of dates for Samuel’s birth and death. To complicate the situation still further, the editors/compilers of 1 Samuel did not always arrange their material in strict chronological sequence. The following proposed dates provide a helpful framework:

Birth of Samuel, about 1105 B.C.

Birth of Saul, about 1080 B.C.

Birth of David, 1040 B.C.

David anointed to be Saul’s successor, about 1025 B.C.

End of David’s reign, 970 B.C.

“The original audience of 1 Samuel consisted of the Israelites who lived during the reigns of David and Solomon, as well as of their successive generations. The stories in this book spoke most directly to Israelites who lived while the monarchy was being established, particularly in light of the fact that the account legitimized God’s choice of David (16:13).

“During this period (c. the eleventh century B.C.) no superpower overshadowed the region now known as Palestine. Consequently, led by David, Israel used its opportunities to subdue other nations in Canaan. The Philistines, however, who lived in the coastal areas along the Mediterranean Sea, proved to be a resilient and persistent enemy. The book of 1 Samuel introduces Samuel and goes on to explore the tension between covenant loyalty to God and human kingship. King Saul generally disobeyed God, so God set plans in motion for David to become Israel’s next king.” The Archaeological Bible p. 395.

[Just an aside about this last statement – the monarchy had to move from [the tribe of] Benjamin (Saul) to [the tribe of] Judah (David) because

“Judah, your brothers shall praise you;

your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies;

your father’s sons shall bow down before you.

Judah is a lion’s cub;

from the prey, my son, you have gone up.

He stooped down; he crouched as a lion

and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,

nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,

until tribute comes to him;

and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” Gen. 49:8-10 [ESV]

This prophecy was made about 1689 B.C. almost 600 years before the birth of Samuel. j.t.]

Notes from the ESV Study Bible p.486: “The purpose of the book of 1 Samuel is to highlight two major events: first, the establishment of the monarchy in Israel (chs. 8-12); and second, the preparation of David to sit on the royal throne after Saul (chs. 16-31). Saul was rejected by the LORD in favor of David (chs. 15-16) even though, humanly speaking, he stayed on the throne until his death at Mount Gilboa (ch. 31). Later in 2 Samuel 7 God promises David and his house an eternal dynasty. In these two central events the role of the prophet Samuel was very important because he had anointed first Saul, then David, as king over the covenant people. The book of 1 Samuel establishes the principle that the king in Israel is to be subject to the word of God as conveyed through his prophets. In other words, obedience to the word of God is the necessary condition for a king to be acceptable to the God of Israel. This is what Jesus the Messiah-King did in his life of obedience to God the Father, even up to ‘death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). First and Second Samuel deal with a transitional period in the history of ancient Israel – the transition from the priest Eli to the judge Samuel, then from the judge Samuel to the king Saul, and then from Saul to David, who founded the dynasty that would last as long as the kingdom of Judah. The prophet Samuel thus functions as the link between the judgeship and the kingship. The kingdom of Saul was transitional in a further sense: it was more than a loose confederation that gathered together when there was a common threat, but it was not a period of strong central rule such as existed later. The story of the rise of David in the second half of 1 Samuel prepares for the full-scale kingship of David in 2 Samuel.”

Reading the Bible with Christ colored lenses

Eileen and I worked for Youth for Christ back when we were in college.  Each week our ministry team, all college student volunteers, prepared Bible lessons for our group of poor, unchurched, rough looking local high school students. One lesson centered on why we should read the Bible, but we struggled to find an analogy to adequately describe the Bible.  We finally settled on one that seemed right to us.

“Just as a car comes with a user’s manual, life comes with a manual as well.  It is called the Bible.”

Over the years, I’ve grown uncomfortable with this view of the Bible.  Don’t get me wrong, you can learn valuable life lessons from the successes and failures of the people in the Bible.  You can gain wise principles from the book of Proverbs.  You can learn how to treat others from the book of James.  So what’s the problem?  The problem is that there was another group of people who read the Bible like a life manual in Jesus’ day.  They were called Pharisees.

Jesus confronted the Pharisees with these words:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to have life.  (John 5:39-40)

What was wrong with the Pharisees reading of the Bible?  They were reading the Bible (in their case the Old Testament) with the point left out.  Behind each Bible story, poem, song, prophecy and vision was not a life principle, but a person, Jesus.  The Pharisees meticulously followed the principles gleaned from the Old Testament, but they missed the Son of God standing in front of them.

Consider Jesus’ own summary of the Old Testament:

Then [Jesus] opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.  He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise  from the dead on the third day … (Luke 24:45-46)

Why was the Bible written?  It was written to point us to Jesus and what he accomplished for us in his life, death and resurrection.  The Bible was written to inspire us to love Him, trust Him and worship Him.  It is our renewed faith and love for Jesus Christ that moves us to become like Him.

When we read the Bible like a manual, our primary question is “what’s the principle so I can apply it.”  But when you read the Bible as God’s grand story with Christ as the hero, the questions begin to change.  No longer is it, “what does God want me to do?”  The question becomes, “where do I see Jesus in this passage?”

But doesn’t God want us to obey him by following his principles?  Absolutely.  But our problem with God’s commands is not primarily that we don’t know them, it’s that we don’t trust Him enough to follow Him.  And that is precisely why the Bible was written.  To point us to Jesus Christ and to deepen our faith in Him.  The obedience and the holiness will follow as we encounter Christ in the pages of the Bible.

But these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  (John 20:31)

Bible reading for those enjoy who reading slowly

The Slow RoadWhen it comes to reading the Bible, I’ve noticed that we tend to fall in one of three camps.

  • Some like to read quickly and read larger portions of Scripture in context.
  • Others like to meander slowly the Bible and stop to savor the details and nuances of each verse.
  • There’s a final group, where the habit of reading is not one that does not come naturally.

If you are in the second or third camps, chances are the prospect of reading 20 chapters of Scripture week has you saying, “hey, slow down a minute!”

If this is you, consider taking this approach to your Daily Bible Reading. The Pacific Union Connect, which is based on the Book of Common Prayer’s Daily Office, offers three tracks of reading each day: the Gospels, the Old Testament and the New Testament.  The Gospel and New Testament tracks have two rhythms: a daily rhythm (Monday through Saturday) and a weekly rhythm (Sundays).

If you want to go by the slower, weekly pace give this a try:

  • Limit your Bible reading for the week to the Sunday Gospel and New Testament readings.
  • Pick out a verse or a phrase each day that grabs your attention and turn it over in your mind (meditate on it) as you go throughout the day.  Try journaling about it at the end of the day.
I’ll be interested in hearing how this approach works for people.  Post a comment on how it went or any suggestions you might have.