Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hungry for the Gospel, Acts. 16:11-15

Sunday, October 9, 2011

When the Spirit Says, "No!", Acts 16:1-10

I heard an advertisement on the radio this week for a website that compares clichés that people think are in Scripture with the actual words of Scripture. This one happened to be, “I dare you to find in the Bible where it says, ‘When God closes a door, He opens a window.” You won’t find it. It’s not there. Sometimes the Spirit says, “No.”
Someone said, “The stops as well as the steps of a person are ordered by the Lord.” That’s what we see in today’s Scripture. Twice the Spirit says, “No.”
Paul and Silas start out on the journey revisiting the churches in Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium. In Lystra Paul chooses Timothy, a young disciple, to join the team. Timothy was converted during the first missionary journey, probably as a pre-teen or young teenager, and grew strongly during the 3 years or so that Paul had been away. He had grown in the faith so much that the other believers spoke well of him. His discipleship had come in large part through his mother and grandmother. Timothy would be an asset to the team because of his spiritual maturity and familiarity with both Jewish and Gentile cultures. Paul has Timothy circumcised before he joins the journey so as not to offend the Jewish believers. Timothy’s heritage was Jewish because Jews practice matrilineal heritage. If Timothy’s father had been Jewish and his mother Gentile, Timothy would not necessarily been considered Jewish unless his mother had converted. This is why Ezra sent the wives and children of those in mixed marriages back to their homelands when the Jews returned from exile. This is why Ruth encouraged Naomi and Orpah to return to stay in their homelands, but Ruth chose to convert.
Timothy is circumcised only for cultural reasons, not theological ones. Paul had refused to circumcise Titus, who was totally of Gentile background on theological grounds. Paul is serious about cultural sensitivity, much like missionary William Carey to Asia who died his hair black and adopted native dress in order to better fit in. Most foreign missionaries spend a great deal of time learning new languages. Even in my short time in Japan, it was essential to learn and use as much Japanese as I could. Another example of cultural sensitivity is Bible translation. This sets Christianity apart from Islam. We believe that Scripture is just as valid in Swahili as in any other language. Although the original languages of Greek and Hebrew are important, we believe that because the gospel was intended for all people, all ought to be able to understand it and hear it in their language. This is even shown in Scripture at Pentecost. It was important for all those people groups to hear the good news in their own languages. We believe in the translatability of the gospel. In contrast, Muslims believe that the Scriptures, in their case the Quran, is only valid in Arabic. Translated versions are not pure, but corrupt. It is important to learn the Quran in Arabic to truly understand it. Every culture, including our own and our own subcultures have things that we can celebrate, elements with which we can connect, as well as those aspects we need to challenge and even condemn. It seems easier to challenge and condemn than to celebrate and connect, but we have to do both. We cannot stop challenging our culture, especially in a day and age in which the Church has become so dangerously accommodated and numb to worldly ways. But we must also connect. Otherwise, the world will not have ears to hear the mandate to come out of Babylon and to live in the glorious kingdom of God. They will have no clue what God’s kingdom truly is. What are the implications of cultural sensitivity for us today? How do we become culturally relevant to the lost people in our area so that they understand their need for Jesus? What changes or adaptations ought we be willing to make in order to reach unbelievers where we live?
Timothy joins the group and they continue on their way, strengthening the churches previously established. Paul saw that the Galatian churches were strong enough to carry on the gospel. But then Paul wants to go west. He is forbidden by the Holy Spirit. Silas was a prophet, so perhaps he most clearly heard and discerned the Spirit’s, “No.” Just to make sure, he tries again after going through Galatia to take the northern route through Bithynia. Again, the Spirit stops them. Paul could not go the way he wanted to go. The door was closed. In the same way Paul had to give up his desires to yield to the Spirit, we must give up our human desires, plans, what we think is right, and even surrender our dreams for God’s vision.
Why did the Spirit say, “No” to Paul? Whatever God’s reasons, we know they were good. We can trust that whatever God’s reasons for the Spirit telling us, “No,” they are good and for a greater good. We know from I Peter and from church history that these areas were evangelized. Pliny the governor of Asia writes by the end of the first century there were many churches in this area. Peter writes his letters to churches that include the areas of Asia and Bithynia. He himself was able to go where Paul was not. Perhaps he was already at work in this area and there was no since in duplicating efforts. Better for Paul to go to a totally unreached area. Sometimes the Spirit says, “No” because it is not good stewardship to duplicate outreach efforts. This is one of the reasons I am against “sheep swapping”. There are enough people who have no church home and who do not know Jesus than to trade members with other churches. If there are no unreached people or only those who have clearly chosen to reject Christ, then it is time for us to move to a new area and to a new ministry.
After the Spirit says, “No” twice, Paul has a nighttime vision in Troas of a man from Macedonia, who says, “Come over and help us.” This wasn’t a dream. The word for dream is different from vision. Vision implies being awake. This may have been a supernatural vision, like Peter with the sheet coming down from heaven in Acts 10, or it could have been an encounter with a real person, perhaps even Luke himself. God’s answers can come through dreams and supernatural visions, but they also come through real people. Divine encounters aren’t always mental or psychological but God speaks through flesh and blood. We know Luke joins them at point, as the narrative changes to first person. Luke was originally from Philippi, which is in Macedonia. Philippi will be their next major stop and we will find that the narrative will change back to 3rd person there, as Luke leaves Paul and Silas again. It would be characteristic of an author to indirectly refer to himself, just as John does in his gospel, referring to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Luke was a Gentile believer. Perhaps he was converted in Troas, or perhaps earlier, but he knew the spiritual condition of his homeland, and desired to have Paul come and preach the gospel where it was desperately needed. Whatever the vision was—supernatural or Luke himself—there was an eagerness and urgency to the call to “Come over and help us.” We will see that in Philippi there isn’t even a synagogue, so even the Jewish influence was minimal. These were unreached people. And the Spirit says, “Yes.” Paul knew that this encounter was of the Lord, and that this was the direction the team should go. Who in our community is hungry for the gospel? Who is being missed or neglected by other outreach efforts?
Sometimes the Spirit tells us, “No.” Sometimes God wants us to wait. Other times, God wants to totally redirect us. We must maintain a sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit, not forging ahead on our own, but allowing the Spirit to give us new visions, trusting that God is good, that God’s plans are always good.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Nobody's Perfect, Acts 15:36-41