Pressing On

with THE WORD

A study of the Scriptures to discover who God is, what He is like, and how to partner with Him now.

Filtering by Category: Acts

Perspective and a prayer request

Ever see a situation on the horizon, and you know, without a doubt, it’s something that you’re going to have to deal with?  You know you can’t avoid it.  It won’t be pleasant.  It’s probably not what you would have wanted.  But somehow, you just know – that the only way out is through.

Maybe you’ve been there with a relationship.  Maybe it was your friend, a boss, a competitor, or even a government office.  Right now, for me – it’s my health.  I greatly appreciate the emails of concern, consolation, and the offers to pray for me (and I really, really hope you follow up on that!).  I’m on the mend, but this is not the end of whatever is off-kilter in my systems.  There will be more tests to take at a later date, more mysteries to be unraveled.  But for now, I am to rest and recover, knowing full well that the only way out is through.

Just yesterday, God brought a passage to me that helps put it all in perspective.  Near the end of Paul’s recorded ministry, he is on his way to Jerusalem.  He knows what will happen if he goes back.  In fact, everyone knows what he will face.  The devout Jews would turn on this former rabbinical star in a heartbeat.  Paul would be arrested, beaten, and quite likely killed.  So, why go back?  I’ll let him answer that:

Acts 20:17-24
Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and summoned the elders of the church.  When they came to him, he said to them:

“You know, from the first day I set foot in Asia, how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility, with tears, and during the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews.  You know that I did not avoid proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching you publicly and from house to house.  I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus.

And now I am on my way to Jerusalem, compelled by the Spirit, not knowing what I will encounter there, except that in every town the Holy Spirit warns me that chains and afflictions are waiting for me.  But I consider my life of no value to myself; my purpose is to finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.”


Oh wow, does that resonate!  But I consider my life of no value to myself; my purpose…that is a man who has clear eyes and proper perspective.  He sees the value of his life, not in his own comforts and desires, but in his purposeful pursuit of the work God has given him – to testify to [the good news] of God’s grace.

That’s the perspective we need in order to handle the difficulties we see on the horizon.  Stop looking at our immediate circumstances, get aligned with God, see from His vantage point, and then look back down on what we’re facing.  Difficulties can be managed when they have been placed in their proper context.  That doesn’t mean that the difficulties will be removed – Paul knew there were chains and afflictions waiting.  There’s no amount of perspective that makes them go away.  However, looking at life from God’s viewpoint gives us the strength to go through.

So if you choose to petition our Great God on my behalf, I would rather you not pray for healing.  If I fully recover, that’s great.  If I end up worse off, that’s fine.  If I now have a “new normal”, so be it.  Instead, I would ask that you pray I stay aligned with God, keep His perspective on everything, and do the work God has given me.  My prayer is that you also learn to live this way.

Acts 20:24
But I consider my life of no value to myself; my purpose is to finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace.


Keep Pressing,
Ken

The Christian life, in 3 steps. Seriously. (part 3)

The author of Hebrews gave his readers a three step description of what Christian living looks like.  Each step begins with the phrase “let us”.  After drawing near to God and then holding on to our reliance on Him, the next step is this:

Hebrews 10:24-25
And let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

We can’t do this alone.  We need to be watching out for one another.

How many times have you heard (…or said) the following:

I don’t need to go to church.  I can be with God just fine by myself out in nature.
I don’t need to go to church.  Everyone there is a judgmental hypocrite.
I don’t need to go to church.  I don’t really get much out of it.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it is very, very self-centered.

What if we viewed our weekly gatherings as an opportunity to help others in God’s family?  Try this line of thinking instead:

I need to go to church because a little boy needs to know that God loves him.
I need to go to church because a teenage girl needs to know that God accepts her, just as she is.
I need to go to church because a struggling mom needs a smile and someone to talk to.
I need to go to church because a man doubting his marriage needs reassured in order to keep at it.

I need to go to church because we will all encourage each other while we wait for Jesus to return.

We must watch out for and encourage each other.  The perspective we develop when we give Godly encouragement is just as important as the perspective we develop when we receive Godly encouragement.

The rest of the Scriptures certainly bear this out, too:

Acts 20:35
…remember the words of the Lord Jesus, because He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

Proverbs 11:25
A generous person will be enriched, and the one who gives a drink of water will receive water.

Mark 10:45
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.


If we’re going to live the Christian life…If we’re going to live the Christ-like life…then we need to take the focus off of ourselves.  Encouraging each other is a great way to put our focus on others.

Hebrews 10:24-25
And let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

The importance of focusing on Jesus

After discussing how the church body should act and what expectations there should be for church leadership, Paul moves on to tell the Ephesian believers what will happen when their focus on God is shifted.

1 Timothy 4:1-3
Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared.  They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods that God created to be received with gratitude by those who believe and know the truth.

An infiltration of deceitful, demon-influenced teaching being peddled by hypocrites from within the church itself?  I’m not sure about you, but that sounds like some pretty scary stuff.

The first observation we can make from Paul’s statement is that this is actually going to happen: the Spirit explicitly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith.  As human history continues on its downward spiral to the inevitable moment when only Jesus can correct the sinful disaster we’ve made, the Spirit says that some will depart from the faith.

The second observation is that God isn’t surprised by this.  He already sees it coming.  He knows how and when his church will be inundated with false teachings.  We can take comfort in the fact that He isn’t caught off-guard, and He’s preparing us by giving warning ahead of time.

But who are those that depart from the faith?  Some commentators think that these people were never “true believers” in Jesus.  I don’t think that’s the case, though.  Why give believers a warning about a group of people leaving who weren’t really part of them anyway?

Instead, Paul is giving Timothy a warning to pass along to the church in Ephesus – that it is possible for believers to be deceived, and those who will be deceived got there because they paid attention to teachings other than what lined up with God’s revelation.

But that leave us to wonder…what happens to those believers who depart from the faith?  Does their “departing” mean they lose their salvation?

The Greek word Paul uses here for depart is different from the word translated as depart in other areas of Scripture when Paul refers to his departing Earth to go to Heaven.  Here, the word aphistemi means to withdraw, to remove, or desert.  It’s the same word Jesus used to describe the seed that fell in the rocky soil:

Luke 8:6, 13
Other seed fell on the rock; when it sprang up, it withered, since it lacked moisture…And the seed on the rock are those who, when they hear, welcome the word with joy.  Having no root, these believe for a while and depart in a time of testing.

They trust God for eternal salvation, but when times get tough, they don’t trust God with their circumstances.  Their choice leaves them withered; however, there’s no indication that God abandons them.  These believers do not lose their salvation, but they lack the life-giving relationship Christ offers because they have no roots.  They have departed from their connection to Him.

Luke uses the word aphistemi (translated to English as deserted) to describe John Mark’s abandoning of Paul and Barnabas:

Acts 15:38
But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not done on with them to the work.

John Mark had left the mission at that point, but his departing didn’t permanently banish him from fellowship with Paul, Barnabas, or the rest of the church.  Instead, he was considered not worthy of a later opportunity to serve.

So did Timothy convey Paul’s serious warning to the Ephesians?  Did they take heed?

Years later, while dictating a letter to the Apostle John to send to the church of Ephesus, Jesus said

Revelation 2:2
I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil.  You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars.

They took the right steps to avoid listening to the liars who were peddling the ideas and teachings of those who oppose God.  Paul sent them a warning, Timothy delivered it, and the believers kept their focus on Jesus. 

In doing so, they did not depart from the faith in a time of trial.  And for their faithfulness, they received praise and approval from the Creator of the Universe and became an example for us.

Keep Pressing,
Ken
 

Addressing needs in the church family

There were deacons in the church I grew up in, but honestly, I had no idea what that title meant for them.  Many Christian denominations have deacons on staff or as specially chosen volunteers.

What does a deacon do?  How are they different from the overseers?

The Greek word for deacon (diakonos) translates into humble servant.  While all Christians are called to serve others like Christ did, the early church found themselves in a situation where they needed officially identified servants to address specific needs in the church family.  Here’s how the apostles in Jerusalem established this office:

Acts 6:3-4
Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty.  But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.

This division of labor makes a whole lot of sense.  We can’t expect our church’s pastors and overseers to handle every single ministry need of the congregation.  Notice that these first deacons were to be highly regarded men from within the church family – but their role as an official church servant was to then be appointed by the church leadership.

Paul wanted to keep this balance of structure within the churches outside of Jerusalem as well.  After explaining to Timothy the qualifications necessary to be an overseer, Paul then turns his attention to the qualifications necessary to be a humble servant for the congregation:

1 Timothy 3:8-13
Deacons, likewise, should be worthy of respect, not hypocritical, not drinking a lot of wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.  And they must also be tested first; if they prove blameless, then they can serve as deacons. 

Wives, too, must be worthy of respect, not slanderers, self-controlled, faithful in everything.  Deacons must be husbands of one wife, managing their children and their own households competently.  For those who have served well as deacons acquire a good standing for themselves, and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s directions to Timothy do not list what places a deacon is to serve; rather, Paul is more concerned that Timothy understands the type of person who would be allowed to represent the church’s ministry to others by their serving. 

It should be noted, too, that the Greek word for wives is often translated as “wife” or simply “women”, depending on the context of the word.  Commentators have made reasonable arguments for either interpretation here – that Paul is referring to qualifications for the wife of a deacon, or that Paul is allowing for women to also hold the deacon-servant role within the church.  Supporters for the latter interpretation often refer to Paul’s comments at the end of his letter to the Roman believers:

Romans 16:1
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant (diakonos) of the church in Cenchreae.

Additionally, with the deacon role’s subordination and support function for the activities of the church’s overseers, having both men and women official serve the church would fit nicely into the leadership model Paul describe just a few verses prior (see 1 Timothy 2:1-15).

Paul then closes out his discussion about deacons by reminding Timothy of the two-fold reward available to those who serve well in this capacity.  First, that by their quality service, a good standing and reputation would be enjoyed by both them personally and the church corporately.  Secondly, a quality deacon would imitate Jesus’ servanthood so well that they would acquire a great boldness in the faith.  The Apostle John also believed that obtaining this boldness was worth working toward:

1 John 2:28
So now, little children, remain in Him, so that when He appears we may have boldness and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.

A deacon’s actions are a great help to the pastors and overseers, allowing them to focus on spiritual needs of the congregation through teaching and prayer.  Serving and ministering the physical needs of the church congregation is an important and rewarding labor, which is why Paul wanted Timothy to carefully select those who would serve in this manner.

Keep Pressing,
Ken
 

Avoiding spiritual distractions

We are spiritual beings.  That’s how God made us.  So naturally, we gravitate toward the spiritual aspect of life.  We look at design in nature and recognize that there must be a designer.  We observe the happenings around us and acknowledge that there is more going on than only what we can see with our eyes.  We read history from God’s perspective and marvel at His-story.

However, since we are also fallen and sinful, our understanding of spiritual topics is easily knocked off course. 

Human history is littered with wrong ideas about God, what He is like, and how we can know Him.  Before we came to know Jesus, our internal desire for “spiritual things” led us down all sorts of paths.  The difficulty, then, becomes what we will do with our old understandings in light of our relationship with Jesus?

The believers in Paul’s day had the same issues.  Ephesus was a magnificent, melting-pot metropolis.  In that town there were numerous Greek gods and goddesses – the people not only worshiped them, but also told stories, explained their history, and held festivals in their honor.  The Jewish community had many fantasy stories of angels and how to manipulate them, as well as various speculative “biographies” of Biblical characters.

These are the kinds of topics Paul wants Timothy to tackle head-on.

1 Timothy 1:3-4
As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may command certain people not to teach other doctrine or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. 

These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith.

The Greek word for pay attention was used to convey the word picture of bringing a ship to land.  It was also used to describe how a person is attached to someone or something, with a level of devotion or even addiction.

One of Timothy’s goals was to weed out these false ideas about God and correct the people’s fascination with myths and endless genealogies.  It wouldn’t be easy.  Some of these myths were quite popular in the culture.  Some Jews would trace their tribal heritage as proof of personal importance or value to God.

However, Paul nails down the problem with focusing on these things – they promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan.  Paul knew they couldn’t walk with God while deceiving themselves with feel-good stories or puffing themselves up with information about their lineage.  The mythical stories detracted or even contradicted God’s story.  The genealogies put the focus on them, rather than on God.  Instead, the Ephesian believers were in danger of missing the point – our relationship with God and our ability to live rightly before Him only comes through a faith that is focused on God.

However, on rare occasion, Paul would reference that a philosopher correctly identified a spiritual truth (Acts 17:28), yet this acknowledgment was stepping stone to point others toward Jesus.  He didn’t dwell there.  To continue the word picture – Paul didn’t dock his ship on the philosopher’s point.  Instead, as he continued on in his message, Paul then dropped anchor on the truth of the resurrection (Acts 17:31).

We see this same tendency toward distraction in the modern church as well.  There’s a fascination with stories of people who have gone to Heaven and come back.  There’s wide-spread speculation about angels and an abundance of feel-good stories.  We look for “Bible codes” and try to match up prophecy with the newspaper.

Whenever the next “big thing” comes through Christian-living literature, we must ask ourselves: Does the author promote empty speculations or God’s plan?  Where will we choose to drop our anchor?

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Hello, my name is Timothy

Given the numerous mentoring examples in the Bible, it’s easy to see that God values the mentor-protégé relationship.  It is a special bond at an intimate level between two people.  Most of the Biblical examples give us just a snapshot – a mentoring moment or lesson taught – and then we must look at what happened next to the mentor and the protégé to find out how well the lesson was applied.  However, there is one mentoring relationship in the Scriptures where we get to see much more than a glimpse.  Paul and Timothy spent many years together, and much of their efforts and relationship is on display throughout the New Testament.

But who was Timothy?  How did they meet?  Why did they pair up?

We are first introduced to Timothy at the start of Paul’s second missionary journey:

Acts 15:40-16:2
Then Paul chose Silas and departed, after being commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers he traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. 

Then he went on to Derbe and Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a believing Jewish woman, but his father was a Greek.  The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke highly of him.

Timothy was a young man stuck between two worlds.  He believed in Jesus as the Messiah who would come from the Jewish half of his parents, but Timothy was also half Greek and grew up in a Greek city, surrounded by Grecian culture.  Since no additional information is given about his father, we can’t be sure of how much influence that heritage had – but the fact that he had not been circumcised suggests that Timothy wasn’t raised in a strictly observant Jewish household.  However, both worlds were still a part of him and people were aware of his mixed-race background. 

Although such mixed marriages were illegal in Jewish law, rabbinic texts reckoned a person’s decent through the mother’s line; and as such, Timothy would have been considered to be a Jew by the Jewish community.

Acts 16:3-5
Paul wanted Timothy to go with him, so he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, since they all knew that his father was a Greek.  As they traveled through the towns, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders at Jerusalem for them to observe.  So the churches were strengthened in the faith and were increased in number daily.

Was it necessary for Timothy’s salvation that he be circumcised? 

No, not at all.  Salvation from eternal separation away from God is only through believing (i.e. – trusting) Jesus for eternal life.

Then was Paul being inconsistent by circumcising Timothy?  Was this an example of Paul “giving in” to local peer pressure?

No, not at all.  Timothy was already a believer before he met Paul.  However, given Timothy’s well known heritage, for him to come with Paul and have access to be a missionary in Jewish synagogues, he would need to be circumcised.  Otherwise, the Jewish communities would consider Timothy an apostate, and they would not be willing to listen to what he had to say about Jesus.

Timothy was willing to endure significant physical pain in order to share the gospel message with those who would have looked down on him as a “half-breed”, the same way that Jews had historically looked down on Samaritans.  In fact, by agreeing to be circumcised, Timothy boldly demonstrated an evangelistic principle which Paul would later pass on to the believers in Corinth:

1 Corinthians 9:19-22
For although I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, in order to win more people.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law – though I myself am not under the law – to win those under the law.  To those who are outside the law, like one outside the law – not being outside God’s law, but under the law of Christ – to win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. 

I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some.

That is an incredible lesson for Timothy to grab a hold of so early in his mentoring relationship under Paul.  And it’s certainly not the last time Timothy is a reflection of his mentor.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

The invitation that launched a ministry

Let me introduce you to one of the great mentors in the Bible:

Acts 4:36-37
Joseph, a Levite and a Cypriot by birth, whom the apostles named Barnabas, which is translated ‘Son of Encouragement’, sold a field he owned, brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Barnabas shows up many times throughout the New Testament.  He was always well respected, and he lived up to his nickname by encouraging others.

After Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, not everyone believed that he had really changed.  Imagine if the top leader of ISIS, who had personally killed or imprisoned your friends and family, suddenly declared that he was now a believer.  Wouldn’t you be nervous to have him over for dinner?

Acts 9:26-30
When [Saul] arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to associate with the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, since they did not believe he was a disciple.  Barnabas, however, took him and brought him to the apostles and explained to them how, on the road, Saul had seen the Lord, and that He had talked to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.

Saul was coming and going with them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.  He conversed and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they attempted to kill him.  When the brothers found out, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

Saul was accepted by the disciples only after Barnabas vouched for him.  However, soon after, the one who had once hunted believers was now being hunted for being a believer.  They needed to get Saul to a safe place, so the disciples sent him far away to Tarsus, back to his hometown.

About a decade later, we find that the persecution of Christians which had begun under Saul was the driver for getting good news of salvation through Jesus to those outside of Jewish boarders.

Acts 11:19-24
Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews.  But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus.  The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.

Then the report about them reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to travel as far as Antioch.  When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with a firm resolve of the heart – for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith – and large numbers of people were added to the Lord.

It's what Barnabas does next that I find surprising: he leaves.  In the middle of a great spiritual awakening in an important ancient city, Barnabas leaves the many to go find one man – Saul. 

Acts 11:25-26
Then he went to Tarsus to search for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch.  For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers, and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

Tarsus was further out from Jerusalem than Antioch.  Barnabas was willing to go out beyond his initial orders to find the man that he knew would be of great help to the newly formed church.  The church in Antioch would also be an opportunity for Saul to grow personally and for him to learn to lead both Jews and Gentiles in their new Christ-focused lives.

The work of Barnabas and Saul in Antioch would prepare them for future missionary journeys throughout the known world.  All because Barnabas invited Saul to participate.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Who can be mentored?

We really don’t know a lot about what the disciples were doing before they encountered Jesus.  If any of the disciples had been a part of a prominent family, or politically connected, or a member of the religious ruling class…you would think that the gospel writers would have brought that up.  However, given that Jesus was doing something new on earth, then it stands to reason that He would not have wanted his disciples to have any previous connections to the leading human institutions of the time.

The only community education for a Jewish child was to learn the Torah and impress a Rabbi enough for him to take the child on as his personal disciple.  If a Jewish child didn’t make the cut to continue up the religious school ranks, they were sent home to learn the family trade. 

We do know that when Jesus called Andrew, Peter, James, and John, they all were fishermen.  This job required no formal education, only on-the-job training.  So clearly, they hadn’t been picked by any Rabbi or Pharisee.  Matthew is introduced as a tax collector.  This was a job working for the hated Romans.  Tax collectors were generally known as cheaters, liars, and turncoats against their kinsmen.  They were barely tolerated in Jewish society.  Simon is referred to as “a zealot”, and while not a profession, the title suggests he was part of a fringe political group interested in the overthrow of the Roman government.  Again, not mainstream or popular. The rest of the disciples’ previous occupations are unknown.

But there is a scene that takes place much later that gives another piece of information about this rag-tag group.

After Jesus had returned to Heaven, the disciples were speaking about what they had seen and heard.  Through Peter, God performed a miracle and healed a lame man.  Reading through the account, we find that the man had been that way since birth and was now over 40 years old. 

Of course, the entire city of Jerusalem was going crazy over this miracle.  After Peter and John preached to the crowd, they were arrested by the religious authorities.  When they were brought before the Jewish leadership, Peter again spoke of Jesus:

Acts 4:12
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.

It’s the next comment that gives us a clue about their background before they had become Jesus’ disciples:

Acts 4:13
When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and knew that they had been with Jesus.

Jesus’ disciples were men of little clout.  They were people that high society did not consider all that important.  They were common-folk, and some were outcasts.  Definitely not Varsity players.  Not even Junior Varsity.  Maybe they might make the B-team.  

However, no one can change a life like Jesus can.  Peter said it himself, that there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.  Just as all are welcome to come to Jesus for salvation – regardless of their background – don’t overlook someone’s need for a mentor because they don’t have a great resume.  The uneducated, the untrained, the unwanted – Jesus didn’t disqualify them, and neither should we.

The disciples’ example should also keep us from thinking that we could be disqualified from either being mentored or doing great things for God because we didn’t get the proverbial “silver spoon” or if we’ve been rejected by others.  Ask God to send you a mentor.  You might be surprised by who they are when they show up, too.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Reoccurring themes and second chances

As Paul wraps up his personal letter to Philemon, he also lists out final greetings from those who are ministering with him at the moment:

Philemon 23-25
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my coworkers.  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

In light of Paul’s plea for Philemon to reconcile with Onesimus – despite the wrongs Onesimus had committed – one name on Paul’s final greeting list stands out: Mark.

Paul’s letter to Philemon and his letter to the Colossian church were very likely to have been written and delivered at the same time.  In fact, one of the great evidences for this timeline is the near-identical final greeting list at the end of Colossians, where Paul says:

Colossians 4:10
Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, greets you, as does Mark, Barnabas’ cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him)

This is the same Mark who deserted Paul and Barnabas on a missionary trip approximately 20 years before Paul wrote his letter to Philemon.  Although the Scriptures do not record why Mark abandoned the team, we do know that his reasons caused significant problems later on:

Acts 15:36-41
After some time had passed, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit the brothers in every town where we have preached the message of the Lord, and see how they’re doing.”  Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark.  But Paul did not think it appropriate to take along this man who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not gone on with them to the work.  There was such a sharp disagreement that they parted company, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed off to Cyprus.  Then Paul chose Silas and departed, after being commended to the grace of the Lord by the brothers.  He traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

At that time, it was Barnabas standing in the gap for John Mark and pleading for Paul to reconcile over the past wrongs that John Mark had caused.  However, Paul did not want to trust John Mark after his previous failure. 

The disagreement over John Mark’s usefulness was significant enough for Barnabas and Paul to part company.  They are never mentioned together again in the rest of the New Testament.

Now fast-forward 20 years.  John Mark, through Barnabas’ mentoring, has become useful to Paul as they work together spreading the gospel.  There is no doubt in my mind that Paul saw in Onesimus the same need for a second chance that John Mark had needed so many years prior.  While Paul could not go back to change his previous choices, he was presented with an opportunity to make the better choice this time.

You can almost hear the echo of Barnabas’ plea on behalf of John Mark when Paul writes about Onesimus:

Philemon 17-18
So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me.  And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 

Maybe we’ve messed up opportunities to reconcile relationships in the past.  We can’t go back and change those.  We have to trust that God will work in other people’s lives.  However, we will run into reoccurring themes the longer we walk with Christ.  There will be opportunities for us to make the right choice and help someone else.

Our great God is a God who gives second chances.  And He is patient enough to show us the reoccurring themes of life – even decades later – to give us another chance to act like Him toward another person.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Recognizing cultural trends

My younger son and I went to a movie recently.  While we sat there waiting for the show, we were inundated with what seemed like a never-ending barrage of previews.  Trailer after trailer did its best to convince us that their show was the next movie we should be anticipating.  I don’t remember how many previews we saw – I wouldn’t be surprised if we hit double-digits – but I noticed a common thread among almost all of them:

Nearly every movie preview was about a person finding out they were part of a larger, hidden story.  And this hidden story was something they had always suspected, but finding out it was real still turned their world upside-down.

Whether the plot line contained science-fiction, horror elements, super powers, magic, or whatever…it was all different wrapping for the same idea: There is something greater than you going on, and you have a vital part to play in it.  Movies and entertainment have long been a mirror of inner thoughts and desires, and this theme of a great, adventurous story is resonating with many people. 

Being aware of the culture tendencies around us can show us ways to reach others with the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.  Take a look at the cultural theme Paul noticed when he was Athens:

Acts 17:16-23
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, his spirit was troubled within him when he saw that the city was full of idols.  So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and with those who worshipped God, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.  Then also, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers argued with him.  Some said, “What is the pseudo-intellectual trying to say?”

Others replied, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign deities” – because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection

They took him and brought him to the Areopagus, and said, “May we learn about this new teaching you’re speaking of? For what you say sounds strange to us, and we want to know what these ideas mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing something new.

Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens!  I see that you are extremely religious in every respect.  For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.  Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”

From there, Paul went on to tell them about God’s plan for relationship with all of humanity.  During his speech he even quoted one of the Greek’s philosophers, saying that on at least one point, their philosophers got something right

Even though Paul was internally troubled by the idolatry in Athens, he didn’t blast them out of his frustration.  Instead, Paul met them where they were with the gospel and let them decide what to do with it.

Many years later, Paul wrote some instructions to the believers in Colossae:

Colossians 4:5-6
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the time.  Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.

The kind of wisdom Paul wants them to use is the same kind he did with the Athenians and that God does with us.  There were elements of truth in the culture around them, and the Colossian believers could use these touch-points to know how they should answer each person.

Our current culture is resonating with the idea that there is a larger story going on, and that they could have an important part in that story.  The thing is, they’re right.  They’re even more right than they know.  We just need to recognize these cultural trends and meet others where they are, with the good news of Jesus and the resurrection.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Playing favorites

Titus 3:13 Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need. 

Last time, we were introduced to Apollos and caught a glimpse of his impact on the churches in the known world.  However, there is another important lesson to learn with a continued look at his ministry.

Apollos later went to Corinth (Acts 19:1), where he again successfully ministered to the believers.  His teaching was so well respected, that the believers in Corinth actually placed Apollos at the same teaching level as Peter, Paul, and even Jesus.  The debate of which-teacher-to-follow became such a problem in the Corinthian church that a good portion of one letter Paul wrote was to correct them in how they should be viewing himself and Apollos.

1 Corinthians 1:11-13 My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas (Peter)”; still another, “I follow Christ”.  Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized into the name of Paul?

Nowadays, if a situation like this arose and one of the popular teachers wrote a letter concerning how the congregation should view the other teachers, I would expect the letter to be very territorial.  Given today’s denominational climate in America, it’s easy to envision a letter being written that sounds theologically pretty, but the author’s core message is that the believers should listen to him only.  His arguments would sound something like – “I am best suited to help you develop your relationship with Christ”, or that “Since I ministered to you first, you should stick with me”, or he could suggest that the other preacher’s teaching style or approach to spreading the gospel was inadequate.  Unfortunately, concern for a congregation is also a potential mask for a preacher’s ego and pride.

However, Paul is not one to play these kinds of games.  Direct and to the point, Paul’s main concern was that the believers were properly focusing on Christ…and not on who the message of Christ was coming from or what teaching style the person used.

1 Corinthians 3:5-9 What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task.  I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.  The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

All teachers, preachers, and church leaders are susceptible to the trap of thinking that it is “my church, or “my” class, or “my” ministry.  The cure for this selfish pitfall is the same for the teacher as it is for those who follow the teacher…our focus must be on God, for he is the one who makes things grow

A congregation does not grow because the preacher is preaching and an individual does not grow because of the particular teacher they are listening to.  The work of preachers, teachers, and church leaders is to provide the best conditions for people to grow.  Ultimately, it was God that built us with the capacity for growth in relationship to him, and the responsibility for the development of that relationship is between the individual and God. 

1 Corinthians 3:21-23 So then, no more boasting about men!  All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

Our favorite teacher is simply a servant of the God we love.  Don’t look for them to make you grow.  Don’t put God’s responsibility on your teacher.

Since Paul was the one who started the church in Corinth, he could have been territorial about which teacher they should be follow; however, he chose not to be.  The debate about which teacher to follow was already dividing the congregation, and could have easily led to a church split.  Imagine the damage to the church’s reputation!  A division of ‘Paul vs. Apollos’ could have also spread to the young churches in other regions if Paul had either ignored or participated in their debate.

Instead, Paul kept his pride in check and didn’t fuel the fire of their arguments.  Instead, he promoted harmony within the church by turning their attention appropriately towards Christ.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Unknown impact

As Paul closes his letter, he gives Titus one final charge:

Titus 3:13 Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need. 

Based on this statement, it is likely that that Zenas and Apollos were the ones who delivered Paul’s letter to Titus.  Although Zenas isn’t mentioned anywhere else in Scripture, Apollos was a well-known preacher during the first century.  He preached in many of the same regions that Paul did, and their ministries sometimes overlapped.

Interestingly enough, Apollos’ ministry began as an indirect result of Paul’s second missionary journey.  Paul met, befriended, and ministered alongside a couple named Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth.  After a year and a half, they traveled to Ephesus – Aquila and Priscilla stayed there, while Paul continued on to Caesarea and Antioch.  It’s in Ephesus that we first meet Apollos:

Acts 18:24-26 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus.  He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.  He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John.  He began to speak boldly in the synagogue.  When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

What Aquila and Priscilla learned from Paul, they passed on to Apollos.  In heeding their counsel, Apollos finally met the Savior he had been looking forward to, based upon his understanding of the Scriptures.  His next step was to share with others his new relationship with God:

Acts 18:27-28 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.  On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed.  For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.

Although Paul wasn’t directly involved in Apollos’ conversion, his previous actions of faithfully spreading the gospel led up to the moment when Aquila and Priscilla could lead Apollos to a better understanding of Jesus.  Paul, Aquila, or Priscilla would have had no foresight that their actions would have led to the rise of such a dynamic speaker and teacher for Christ.  However, the faithful actions of those three people eventually led to the encouragement and strengthening of many believers across the known world.

Our takeaway should be the same – be faithful in what God has asked us to do.  You never know when your mentoring of just one person will impact scores of other people.  Maybe you’ll see the fruits of those labors, or even get to work with your spiritual grand-children, like Paul eventually did when Apollos delivered the letter to Titus.  Or perhaps we’ll have to wait until Heaven to find out the full impact of our work for Jesus.

The point is to be faithful, and trust that God knows what to do with the fruit of our labor with him.

Keep Pressing,
Ken