Acts 12:1-5 and Why Prayer Doesn’t Seem to Work Sometimes

Unknown_St_James_the_Great_the_Apostle_300I know people who are afraid to pray because they don’t want to be let down if their prayers are not answered. I also know people who are hurt and disillusioned with God because they prayed earnestly and their prayers were not answered. Sometimes prayer does not seem to work. Look at this passage from Acts:

About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.

The rest of the story is that God sent an angel to free Peter, and Peter escaped, hid, and had a fruitful ministry for years until he was crucified in Rome. This seems like a story about how prayer works, but what about James? Isn’t it entirely probable that the church prayed fervently for James as well? Yet James was killed and Peter was spared.

I do not have an answer for this. James was just as much beloved by the church as Peter was. James was one of Jesus’ inner circle of three just like Peter was (along with James’ brother John). James was an Apostle just as Peter was. Yet James was killed and Peter was spared.

What I do know is that the church prayed for Peter after James was martyred. This means that the death of James, the unanswered prayers for his deliverance, did not stop the church from praying for Peter.

We do not understand why prayers are answered or not answered because we are the ones asking for intervention. It is up to God to decide if, when, and how to do it. This is where faith comes in to the picture. Faith is strengthened when it is tried. Perhaps the best illustration of this kind of faith and prayer is the when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all are about to be thrown into the fiery furnace. Here is how that situation played out:

13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?’ 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up’ (Daniel 3:13-18).

They had enough faith in God that, whether or not God answered their prayers for deliverance, they would still believe.

Prayers are our outpouring of our selves to God. Sometimes we see them answered in miraculous ways, and sometimes they seem ineffective and unanswered. The question we all have of ourselves is whether or not we will continue to pray even if our prayers in the past were unanswered.

Acts 10:27-33 and Confusion When God is in Control

Peter-with-CorneliusI tend to think that when God is in control and people are actively obeying his leading and guiding that everything will be very predictable and nice and neat. It seems like this would be the case, after all God is a God of order and not of chaos. Therefore, it would only seem logical that this order would manifest itself in the Body of Christ.

True as this may sound, it is not always the case. That is why I love the story of Peter and Cornelius. It is extremely obvious that both men were being faithful in this story. An angel was sent to Cornelius, who obeyed, and a vision and message was sent to Peter, who obeyed. Once Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, look at the exchange that takes place:

27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28 and he said to them, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. 29 So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?’ 30 Cornelius replied, ‘Four days ago at this very hour, at three o’clock, I was praying in my house when suddenly a man in dazzling clothes stood before me. 31 He said, “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon, who is called Peter; he is staying in the home of Simon, a tanner, by the sea.” 33 Therefore I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. So now all of us are here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to say.’

Pay close attention to verses 29 and 33. Neither Peter nor Cornelius know what is going on. Neither of them know why they are meeting with each other. They are both confused as to why this meeting is taking place.

It is clear that it is God who orchestrated this meeting, not either of them. And it is equally clear that God did not give the whole vision of what was happening to either of them. Each of them was given a piece of the mission/vision and were asked to be faithful with the piece they had been given. Because they did not understand the whole scope of what God was doing, there is this confusing exchange between Peter and Cornelius where Peter wants to know why he is there and Cornelius wants to know what Peter is supposed to say. But because they were faithful with the piece they each had, this exchange could happen.

There are times in our own lives and ministries when things do not seem to make sense. It is precisely at those times when we need to be faithful with what we know we have been asked to do. We are rarely given the whole picture of what God is doing, but if we are willing to be used by God, we are given a piece of it. God does not call us to understand everything. Rather, he calls us to be faithful with what he has called us to do. If we are faithful, then there could be times when we have a meeting like Peter and Cornelius, where we gather with other Christians and no one quite understands why. Rest assured, God knows, and God is in control. Even if it seems confusing, God is in control.

Acts 6:1-7 and Church Leaders Refusing to Do Work

Acts-6-praying-for-the-7I have been in pastoral ministry in a local church setting for almost sixteen years now. Over that time I have served large churches and small churches, suburban churches and rural churches. One thing that is consistent across all types of churches I have experienced is the innate belief that the pastor should be doing most, if not all, of the ministry. This is not healthy, as it is a recipe for burnout. It is also not biblical:

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

I love this scene. The Christians who are Greek-speaking Jews are being neglected in the division of provisions among the Church. They think it is intentional and even a little segregational. They approach the leaders, the Twelve Apostles, and say as much. They want the leadership to see the problem and fix it.

Here is where things get interesting from a modern congregational point of view. Essentially, a group of parishioners just came up to the pastor (or pastoral staff) and leveled a serious complaint that could derail the entire church, cause division, and ruin the ministry. The Apostles’ response–That’s not our job. You fix it yourself. Our job is to preach and pray. Many congregations who operate on the call system for hiring their pastor would follow that response up quickly with, “Yes, and you can add packing to that list because we are going to find a new pastor.”

But look at how the Church in Jerusalem responds. They agree! They know that the work the Apostles are doing was directed to them by Christ. They do not want to take them away from their God-given responsibilities. Instead, the whole community chooses leaders who can oversee this ministry and ensure equality. Another interesting thing to point out in this episode is that all seven people chosen to oversee the food distribution have Hellenistic names. Not a single one has a Hebrew name. This probably shows that the ones with the grievance, the Hellenists,  were allowed to choose the people whom they wanted to lead this ministry, and the whole Church agreed to it. As a result, the Church grew tremendously.

When congregations expect and demand that the pastor or pastoral staff be involved in every ministry it is a sure way to slow or stop the growth of the Church. This is because one pastor can only minister to around 80-100 people effectively and 100-150 people somewhat effectively. Even with a pastoral staff of for pastors, that gives a maximum number of people who can be somewhat effectively cared for as 600. Beyond this number, it is just numbers. People come for a while and then go again. There may be a crowd, but Jesus wanted us to make disciples, not gather a crowd.

Now if others are empowered to be active in ministry, then the number can jump exponentially. If a solo pastor has an empowered congregation, who take leadership and ownership of the ministries in the congregation while still following their leader who was called and sent by God to preach and pray, just imagine the results. One pastor and four lay people can effectively minister to 500 people. As the church grows and more lay people are trained and empowered to be in ministry, that number grows. If just five out of every 100 new people becomes a ministry leader, then after the first 500 people the potential effective reach of that congregation is now 3000 people (30 leaders x 100 people). After that first 3000, the potential would be 15,000 people (150 leaders x 100 people)!

This is why the Early Church grew so rapidly with committed disciples. Church leaders refused to do all the work. They enabled the rest of the Body of Christ to use their God-given gifts for the building up of the community. And God blessed that work.

Acts 2:42-47 and Church Growth

Here is a post from earlier this year on Acts 2:42-47.

 

peter_preaching

There is so much information about how to grow churches.  There are so many different ideas, programs, worship styles, outreach strategies, and other ideas that it can seem very complicated and confusing.  In Acts, we see some of the firstfruits of growth.

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.  A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles.  All the believers were united

and shared everything.  They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.  Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.  They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

Here is the result most people would want to see: God adding daily to the number of those in the fellowship community.  So it would be wise to see what caused such a response by God.

First, there are four aspects of life in the Church that these believers hold: the apostolic teaching, community, shared meals (breaking bread), and prayers.  Let’s look at each of these:

Apostolic Teaching: This is the proclamation of the Good News that in Jesus Christ the long awaited kingdom of God and the restoration of all things has begun.  It is the preaching and teaching from Scripture (in this case only the Old Testament since there is no New Testament yet!) to show how God has been preparing the world for this from the beginning.  It is faithfulness to what God has done in the past, application of those past actions to the experiences they had with Jesus, and how these things now apply to people’s lives at that moment.

Community: This is more than Bible studies and fellowship meals.  The former is in the apostolic teaching and the latter will be dealt with below.  This is the kind of community that shares with one another emotionally and physically.  It is the kind of community that seeks to care for each other and provide for one another.  It is a community that creates a new family based upon following Jesus.  It is people that truly love and care about each other and want to be a part of each others’ lives.

Shared Meals: Eating together transforms fellowship time into something more.  There is something that is almost sacred when people get together and eat.  And while these first believers were sharing meals with one another, building their relationships and community, this is also inclusive of the sacramental act of breaking bread, Holy Communion.  In this way, people experienced God’s grace afresh and anew every time they gathered together because in the breaking of bread, Jesus meets them.  People have debated for centuries what actually happens in the Lord’s Supper, but what we know for sure is that in some mysterious way Jesus meets those who gather in his name to celebrate his sacrament.

Prayers: This is a time of spiritual fellowship and communion with God.  The term in Greek is actually the prayers, which implies something radically different than what many people in today’s reading would understand.  This implies the believers were still participating in the times of prayer established in faithful Jewish life, complete with the prayers that go with those times (and this is shown in the beginning of chapter 3 when Peter and John go to the Temple at the time for prayer at 3:00 pm).  It would also include the Lord’s Prayer and other, specifically Christian prayers that the community was taught (which we get hints of in Paul’s letters).

Beyond these four things that grew and enhanced the believers’ spiritual lives, they “praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.”  Spiritual growth, faithful participation in the life of the Church, and practical demonstrations of God’s love to all.  If we had congregations like this, God would most likely add daily to them “those who were being saved.”

John 9:1-7 and Jesus Shows He is God

SUTF 7 healing he blindmanRight on the heals of Jesus claiming to be God by applying the Divine Name to himself, Jesus actually performs an act to show that he is God. This is immediately following the confrontation with the religious authorities. Jesus departs from there and this scene unfolds:

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

Many people focus on the disciples’ illogical question of whether this man sinned before he was born so that he was born blind. There are historical and cultural reasons why they asked such a question, but leaving that aside, the real issue is the miracle. Jesus just claimed I Am as his name. Now here is a person who was born without the ability to see. He was born without eyes, as it were. So Jesus does what I Am would do–he takes dust from the ground and creates what was missing in this man’s body. Just as God took dust from the ground and created humanity originally, Jesus does the same thing to complete this man’s creation and give him sight.

This is the reason why the religious leaders deal with this miracle so much more than they did any other miracle Jesus performed, with the possible exception of raising Lazarus from the dead, and even then Jesus gives life which is something only God can do. Jesus said he was God, and now he proved he was God by his actions. Those who would deny Jesus is God are not reading the plain meaning of the text, but rather have preconceived notions about Jesus and try to make the Bible fit into their understanding, rather than let the biblical witness to Jesus inform who Jesus is.

John 8:56-59 and Jesus is More Than a Teacher

With the influence of Christianity lessening in the West, it is more and more common to find people who think of Jesus as a great moral teacher. They accept much of what Jesus said and did, but reject the claim that the Church has made that Jesus is, in fact, God incarnate–that is, God in the flesh. The problem with rejecting this understanding of Jesus is that one has to reject this very passage of Scripture:

56 Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ 57 Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ 58 Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

i-amJohn 8:58 makes the claim explicit. Throughout this extended debate with the religious authorities, Jesus had continually referenced God as his Father. Here, in this verse, Jesus appropriates the Divine Name for himself. The name I Am comes from Exodus 3, when Moses met God in the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. From the bush God answers Moses’ question about what name he should tell the Hebrews their God has,

I am who I am. He said further, Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I am has sent me to you (Exodus 3:14).

By Jesus using this name for himself, he told the religious authorities in no uncertain terms that he is God.

Now, many of the people who want to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher will reject this verse, and any of the other verses in the Bible that refer to Jesus as God, as being not true to history. These, they conclude, are later additions to the tradition of Jesus and do not reflect reality.

It is interesting, though, that they will accept the parts of the Bible that will agree with what they want to believe and reject the parts of the Bible that do not agree with them. On what basis will they make the distinction between what to accept and what to reject? Their own beliefs and personal preferences. They already know what they want to believe. Then they go to the Bible and pull out as authentic what agrees with those beliefs and throw out as inauthentic those parts of the Bible that contradict their preconceived notions.

Perhaps the reason why people will more readily accept Jesus as a great moral teacher than as God is because a teacher can be followed, amended, or even ignored if the teaching becomes out-of-date. God must be obeyed. If Jesus is God, then there are actual demands placed on our lives and a true and objective standard of right and wrong that transcends us and our opinions or appeals.

Jesus is so much more than a teacher. Jesus is God.

John 3:17-21 and Christians Should Not Judge

nicodmeusOne of the biggest criticisms against Christians by those who are not Christians is that they are very judgmental. Unfortunately, this criticism is not without reason. We, in the Church, have become very good at thinking we are proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ by telling everyone else why they do not measure up to what God desires for life. We have decided along the way that one of the best ways of appealing to people is to make them understand just how far away from God they are by pointing out all of the sinful actions and attitudes in which they participate.

Look closely at this passage of John’s Gospel, a part of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus:

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

The world is already in the dark, and thus condemned. The Good News does not need us to condemn or judge people. First of all, that is not our job. If Jesus Christ was not sent into the world to condemn, neither were we. Second, this is Good News! It ought to be presented as Good!

One way to think of it is that the whole world is drowning and Jesus is the life preserver. What we do not need to do is berate people over why they are in the water having a hard time staying afloat without the life preserver. We do not need to point out that they should have been on a different boat or shouldn’t have gone in the water in the first place. Why? Because according to this passage, we all start out in the water. We do not suffer in sin because we chose to enter that world. The world is already condemned. What we have to offer people is the way out. We have the rescue. We have the salvation. We have Jesus Christ.

If we, as Christians, spent less time trying to make people feel guilty for their actions (which is the Holy Spirit’s role anyway) and point out how bad they are (because we are all born into a world that is condemned), then we can proclaim a message of Good News to all people. In Jesus Christ the evil and degradation of this world is undone. In Jesus Christ our guilt is cleansed. In Jesus Christ we have the ability to live in the grace and power of God to overcome temptation and sin in the future. In Jesus Christ we inherit everlasting life.

This is all Good News. We do not have to package it in a way that requires people to feel completely miserable with themselves and their lives before they can accept it. If we present the reality of new life in Jesus Christ to people, the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

Finally, remember these words from Jesus to his followers:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get (Matthew 7:1-2).