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As the book of Acts begins, the Apostle Peter, whose mouth got him into trouble so many times during Jesus’ ministry, has redeemed that talent for use in God’s service. As a result, the first several chapters of Acts follow Peter closely, and record several of his sermons, as the church was being established and growing in and around Jerusalem. In a broad sense, these sermons all have the same goal: convince the hearers that Jesus is the Christ, that he died and rose again, and that they need to repent and enter into a new, eternal covenant with him. Yet, while there are many points that keep coming up in each sermon, Peter doesn’t just repeat the whole thing verbatim. Instead, he suits his words to each situation, taking into account the different audiences, with different attitudes, different goals, and different likelihoods of success. Consider an example:
“Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel…” (Acts 2.14-16)
Peter and the rest have been speaking in tongues at the behest of the Holy Spirit, for the benefit of people from many nations, visiting Jerusalem for the feast. Some of the native Jews, not understanding these foreign languages, think they’re hearing drunken babble, and so hurl a mocking accusation at the Apostles, to dismiss what they had to say. How does Peter handle it? With a gentle, logical counterpoint, followed by the real explanation. Now, let’s consider his approach, in the next sermon.
“Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?” (Acts 3.12)
This time around, he’s defending himself against unwarranted praise! Just like last time, he dismisses the idea quickly, and afterward moves on to talking about Jesus, who’s really the one who healed the cripple. What about his next opportunity to speak?
“Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.” (Acts 4.8-10)
This time, Peter savors his defense, and uses it to go on offense at the same time! Note that the entire clause beginning with “if we are being examined” and ending with “has been healed,” could be removed from this long sentence without causing any trouble for what remains. It’s totally unnecessary, and yet he includes it. Why? Well, he could have skipped the editorializing and simply answered the question posed to him in v7, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” But that would have missed the opportunity to point out the absurdity of the situation, and thereby to shatter the illusion of his accusers’ sincerity. Really? You arrested and jailed us for the night, and are now putting us on trial for—let me check my notes—helping a crippled man? Don’t we have, like, laws telling us to do that sort of thing?
Peter’s not about to miss his chance to preach Christ to the rulers of his people—but he also takes a moment to highlight the horrible motivations of this audience. Just as they accused Jesus of sinning when he healed on the Sabbath, so now they find fault with the obviously good deed done by Jesus’ Apostles, despite knowing that only God could enable such a miracle! There’s nothing Peter can do to prevent them doing this; but he can point it out in embarrassing fashion!
We face a similar climate today, in which the prevailing winds are opposed to Christ, in many ways and for many reasons. On many topics, including marriage, reproduction, the role of each sex, and especially the lordship of Christ and the coming judgment, there is pressure to go along with the spirit of the age, and reject Christ’s commandments. Many who profess to be Christians succumb to this pressure. Others content themselves with remaining silent, for fear of the world’s response. Still others, of a more combative nature, are tempted to overreact, as if it were the job of Christians to hatefully force the world into compliance with God’s rules, by any means necessary. Satan is just as pleased with this, as with silence or participation in the sin, because it’s simply the exchange of one idol for another, and he’s not picky about exactly which idol-worship he’ll accept.
We can see, in Peter’s three sermons, that he recognizes what the civil authorities want him to do, and that he will not only refuse to go along with the spirit of the age, but will refuse to keep silent about the truth. In preaching Jesus, he will expose these men for what they are: self-serving hypocrites, dressing themselves up in a pretense of righteousness, in order to please themselves, not God.
Isn’t he worried that pointing out their hypocrisy will push them even farther away from Christ? Well, no. If they ignored the miracle, and the Scriptures, and the Apostles’ testimony, then they’ve already made their decision, and it’s not Peter’s fault they reject Jesus. So, he’ll confess Jesus before men, but will not waste his time and effort on a vain attempt to be winsome toward those who have so clearly chosen the world. Learn from Peter, and apply what Jesus said:
“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” (Matthew 7.6)
In the second year of Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, Jotham the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Jerusha the daughter of Zadok. And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that his father Uzziah had done. Nevertheless, the high places were not removed. The people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. He built the upper gate of the house of the Lord. Now the rest of the acts of Jotham and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? In those days the Lord began to send Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah against Judah. Jotham slept with his fathers and was buried with his fathers in the city of David his father, and Ahaz his son reigned in his place. (2 Kings 15.32-38)
Not enough attention is given to the record of rulers among the Israelites after David and Solomon. Those represent what we might call the “glory days” of the kingdom, when Israel could most easily see that God had fulfilled his promises to them. It’s not that they lacked for troubles, of course—David withstood numerous scandals and rebellions, including more than one occasion when it looked quite likely he would lose his throne, if not his life. But in terms of national cohesion, military strength, and influence abroad, Israel hit its peak during the reigns of David and Solomon, spanning the better part of a century. Afterward, David remained the touchstone for comparison, both in fleshly and spiritual terms. For example, the greatest praise given to a later king concerns Josiah, who
did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. (2 Kings 22.2)
As for Solomon, his reign is summarized thus:
All King Solomon's drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the House of the Forest of Lebanon were of pure gold. None were of silver; silver was not considered as anything in the days of Solomon. For the king had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.
Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. (1 Kings 10.21-24)
Certainly, both of these men were far from perfect, but it is equally certain that they set a very high bar for the kings who would come after them!
So, how did their successors measure up? We’ve already seen the annalist’s judgments of Jotham and Josiah, but they were just two of more than forty kings who would eventually reign over Israel or Judah, before the monarchy was abolished by their respective downfalls to Assyria and Babylon. Whether because of the unfavorable comparison to the glory days, or the confusion introduced by the books of Kings and Chronicles narrating many of the same events, or the difficulty and tedium of reading all the unfamiliar names, or simple disinterest, these are among the least trafficked pages in most bibles; but even a surface level glance at these records can teach us an important lesson.
Following Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam’s accession to the throne, and the consequent fracturing of the kingdom, there were a total of twenty kings over the northern kingdom of Israel, spanning a period of just over two centuries, from about 931 BC to about 723 BC. The very first, Jeroboam, was appointed by God to take ten tribes away from Rehoboam (1Ki 11.29-38); how did he receive this great blessing and responsibility? He
made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. (1 Kings 12.28-29)
Every king that followed him—both of his own short-lived dynasty, and those that came afterward—continued in this same sin, and generally got much worse. There was a brief ray of hope under Jehu, who eradicated the worship of other gods in his kingdom; but even he “did not turn from the sins of Jeroboam” (2Ki 12.31).
How about the southern kingdom of Judah? Things were a little better there—but only a little. Over a period stretching well over three centuries down to 586 BC, there were nineteen kings—not including a stretch when the queen mother Athaliah, a truly horrible person, usurped the throne for six years. Clearly, the average length of a king’s reign was much longer in Judah, but while that reflects a bit of welcome stability for the nation, we’re more concerned with the kings’ moral character, at the moment. So, what’s the verdict? Of the nineteen, only eight—Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah, Jotham, Hezekiah, and Josiah—were judged to have done “what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2Ki 22.2). Of these, all but Josiah were like Jotham in the passage where we started, judged to be good kings, but still blamed for serious flaws or failures. These were the people of God! And even among them, God-fearing rulers were distressingly rare! How much worse should we expect it to be, for the nations of the world, today?
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes. (Psalm 118.8-9)
In the game of baseball, the umpire faces a frustrating problem. He is tasked with calling each pitch a ball or a strike, and his calls will have an enormous impact on the outcome of the game. Now, most of these calls are obvious and take very little effort to label correctly; and there is a clearly defined border to the strike zone: in order to be called a strike, the pitch must pass over home plate, and when it does, some portion of the ball most be between one horizontal line just below the batter’s kneecaps when he takes his batting stance, and another horizontal line midway between the batter’s shoulders and the top of his uniform pants. As that definition wore on into its seventh or eighth clause, you may have noticed that it’s a bit complicated. And that’s just the start! Despite what TV viewers may assume, an automatically self-adjusting box is not actually suspended in midair over home plate to aid the umpire in clearly establishing the lines for each new batter. On top of that, we could consider how trajectory matters, the catcher’s efforts to fool the umpire by giving the pitch a favorable framing, and the small matter of the incredibly high speed of many of these pitches. With the benefit of 4k resolution broadcasts and giant screens, overlays, and instant replay, every slob at home on his couch thinks he has a better eye than the umpire, but in fact it’s a very difficult job just to decide whether each pitch was a ball or a strike!
What do we do, when we are faced with tough calls that affect more than just the outcome of a game, but potentially the eternal outcome of our souls? Continuing the baseball analogy, forget about the umpire for a minute—what about the batter? He has an even smaller fraction of a second to decide whether, when, where, and how to swing at each pitch—and let’s not even get into the base running decisions that immediately arise, in the unlikely event he makes contact! Most of us don’t face this exact set of fast-paced decisions, but other choices present themselves to us daily. Should you take that job? Should you buy that house? Which brand of toilet paper should you select? Which meal will you pick from the breakfast menu? Even those can matter an awful lot, but of course we also face decisions whether to sin—or, even more difficult, whether a particular course of action is sin, or not.
As with the umpire’s task, for the most part it’s easy to make that call—God’s commandments are clear, and they are “not burdensome” (1 Jn 5.3). “Flee from sexual immorality” (1Co 6.18)—there’s no ambiguity there. “Let the thief no longer steal” (Ep 4.28)—we all know what this means. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Lk 6.37)—this is much simpler to implement than the umpire’s mumbo-jumbo rule about the ever-changing lines governing the strike zone! However there are also times the correct call is not so clear. At exactly what point does an innocent conversation about a mutual friend become gossip? How many cookies can you eat before it becomes gluttony? Where’s the line between frugality and love of money? Is your reaction to an awful news story righteous anger, or malicious wrath? Or, is your choice to shrug off the same news story and do nothing, the same as the priest and Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan, who sinned in that they “[knew] the right thing to do and [failed] to do it” (Ja 4.17)?
How do we make these decisions? How should we make these decisions? Peter and the rest of the Apostles give us an excellent example in the first chapter of Acts. Jesus has ascended back to his father and told them to wait for the promised Holy Spirit to be poured out on them. He has also told them their job, for the rest of their lives: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Ac 1.8). As they wait, Peter notices a problem. Jesus chose twelve Apostles, but now they are only eleven. What should they do? Anything? Should they presume to replace Judas? What does Jesus want them to do about this? He didn’t tell them anything. But they consult the Scriptures and find that Judas’ betrayal was foretold, as was his subsequent death:
“For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to
dwell in it…’” (Acts 1.20a)
In another psalm they find a Messianic appeal about the “wicked man” and “accuser” who returned “evil for good, and hatred for my love” (Ps 109.5-6). Christ, speaking through David, had said, “Let another take his office” (Ac 1.20b). This still leaves the question of exactly how to choose a replacement. Peter exercises wisdom and prudence, and puts forth his best judgment regarding the criteria upon which to base their selection. The others agree, but find two excellent candidates, with no reason to choose one over the other. The Apostles pray for guidance, and resort to casting lots to choose between the two. Did the roll of the dice, so to speak, reflect God’s specific will in this matter? We’re not told. Either way, the Apostles had made their first difficult decision, and they made it well.
Some people don’t have this problem. They never second-guess their own decisions. They should start! God will hold us accountable for the decisions we make, and the manner in which we make them. Others are crippled by indecision through fear of choosing wrong. This approach is no better. Consider your options; consult God—in his word, and by prayer; exercise wisdom and prudence to best of your ability; then make your choice.
In general, if someone asks whether you are a this-ist or a that-ist, the best answer would be no answer at all. The question often implies that the two alternatives are the only options and, further, mistakenly treats both as basically legitimate beliefs. Ever since the Garden humans have loved naming things (Ge 2.19-20), and so of course there’s a name for all manner of nonsense cooked up by mankind over the millennia. It’s extremely presumptuous of us to treat our own childish notions with the same level of honor as we give to God’s diverse creation, but we do it anyway. Especially when it comes to religion, men have created unique labels for just about every interpretation and opinion that’s ever been held. Our first goal should be to shun all of these “commandments of men” (Mt 15.9), and instead direct our efforts toward keeping God’s commandments; but in service of that goal, it is useful to examine some of these man-made labels, to see whether the ideas behind them, at least, come from God.
One such label is Replacement Theology, formerly called Supersessionism. This is a model of God’s purpose for the church today, and it asserts that the church has replaced—or superseded—the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people. This has implications on the “everlasting covenant” he made with Abraham (Ge 17.7) and Abraham’s descendants through Isaac (Ge 17.19) and Jacob (1Ch 16.17). If it was to be “everlasting,” how could it come to end, and Israel be replaced by a bunch of Gentiles? Well, as the author of Hebrews points out, even the Old Testament prophets pointed toward such a change:
For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah…”
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8.7-13)
How could it be any clearer? The old covenant is obsolete, and with it vanishes the special place of Israel in God’s plan. And yet…well, it didn’t actually say that second part, did it? In fact, God’s prediction through the prophet Jeremiah had said the new covenant would be “with with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” So, does that mean that, contrary to the “replacement” theory, in fact the New Covenant through Christ was only intended for the Jews? That’s certainly what the early Jewish Christians generally thought! And who can blame them? Jesus told the Apostles,
“Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 10.5-7)
He used the same language to describe his own mission when a Gentile woman asked for his help, telling her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15.24). After the church was established,
those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. (Acts 11.19)
It took a literal act of God to change this habit among the Apostles (see Ac 10-11). Even after some years of Gentiles receiving the word and becoming Christians, there were Jewish Christians preaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Ac 15.1). This was, of course, incorrect. Let’s consider just one of the many Scriptures that establish this point:
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” (Romans 4.16-17)
The so-called “Judaizers” (we love to assign names, remember?) believed that salvation is from the Jews. And they weren’t exactly wrong, since Jesus said, “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4.22). Where they lost the thread was in mistakenly concluding that it was about keeping the Law of Moses. That law served its purpose—namely, it “imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Ga 3.22). Now, that old way is “obsolete.”
So, replacement theology is correct then, right? Well, if the theory is summed up as, Jews out, Gentiles in, then no. It’s wrong.
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. (Romans 11.1-2)
God keeps his promises, and he promised to give Israel a special role in his plans—one that should never be forgotten. After all, Jesus is a Jew, and so were all of his Apostles and the first several thousand Christians. But God’s plan, from the beginning, was to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ep 2.16). It’s not that the Jews have been replaced by the church; rather, the whole purpose of the nation of Israel was to become the church, and then bring salvation to the Gentiles, through Christ. This was always the plan. God told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Ge 12.3).
There’s a mistaken, but sadly quite common idea about parenting, that parents play a vital role guiding children and building them up into healthy, mature, and responsible adults, until they leave the house. This last bit is the trouble. We hear it from the parents themselves during the troublesome teen years, when Dad is likely to angrily spout something like, “as long as you live under my roof, you’ll obey my rules!” The implication is that, once you leave home and earn your own living, you won’t have to obey Dad anymore. It may even be given biblical support. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Ge 2.24). Buried within the point about marriage, we can see the presumption that the man will have grown up in his parents’ home, and that he ought to one day leave it and make his own way. Additionally, “we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them” (He 12.9). This is put in the past tense, as if the relationship between fathers and their adult children in the audience no longer involves discipline.
So far, this is all fine. The relationship does change, when children become adults. But it’s not a complete reversal of what it used to be, nor does the change occur like the flip of a light switch. In fact, this relationship never remains static for long—parents have to carry around their infants, and the mothers even nurse them, but no one expects this to continue until the child reaches adulthood!
Children are supposed to grow—in stature, in virtue, in knowledge, in understanding, in responsibility, and many other qualities. In each new phase, the parents must change the way they interact with their children, in order to effectively provide what their children now need, which is different from what they needed months or years prior.
So, does this continual growth and change mean that parents’ influence over their children should be cut off, when they grow up? Far from it! Isaac was forty years old, when his father arranged his marriage (Ge 25.20, 24.2-4). God’s grievance against the high priest and judge Eli had little to do with Eli’s own behavior, and much to do with his sons’—who were already serving as priests (1Sa 1.3). Their age is unknown, but given that one of their offenses was that “they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (1Sa 2.22), it’s safe to say they had reached sexual maturity. Why was God upset with Eli? Because “he did not restrain them” (3.13). Although they were grown men, and Eli was “very old” (2.22), unable to physically overpower his sons, God held him to account for failing to put a stop to their behavior.
Jesus teaches us about this, too. He accused the Pharisees:
“For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’” (Matthew 15.4-6)
He didn’t mean children living at home; rather, he meant grown children whose parents need their help, but don’t get it. That shouldn’t happen! In contrast, consider the example of Jesus himself, when his mother asked him to intervene in an embarrassing situation for the hosts of a wedding. Never mind that he was “about thirty years of age” at the time (Lk 3.23)—he’s the Lord of all creation! Even after he told her, “My hour has not yet come” (Jn 2.4), she knew he would do what she asked, telling the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (v5).
Of course, this doesn’t mean that parents get to boss around their adult children forever; as noted earlier, the relationship is supposed to change. But grown children should still honor their parents, seek their counsel, and work to repay their many years of love and sacrifice. Parenting doesn’t end, when the child grows up. Parenting is forever.
This is important as we seek to live after the pattern God has designed; but it’s even more important for spiritual reasons—it teaches us what to expect of spiritual parentage. Paul told the Christians at Corinth,
For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? (1 Corinthians 4.15-21)
Consider the tone in which Paul addresses his spiritual children. Even though they were mature enough for their father to leave them unattended for a time, he maintained his position of authority over them, and spoke to them in harsh terms, with the ability to back them up. We’ve established that parents are owed love and respect even by their grown children, and that extends to the spiritual realm, as well. But even here, it’s just a tool to point us upward, to our heavenly Father. No matter how long we live; no matter how much we accomplish, no matter how badly we want to be out from under his watchful eye, we will always owe him honor.
For [our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (Hebrews 12.10)