Acts 10

Read Acts 10 today.

Two days ago in Acts 8, we read about how God used Saul’s persecution to move the church and the gospel out of Jerusalem and into Judea and Samaria, just as Jesus said would happen in Acts 1:8. Then yesterday in Acts 9 we read how Jesus redeemed Saul and told Ananias how Saul was the Lord’s chosen instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

Taking the gospel to the Gentiles was the final phase of Jesus’ great commission in Acts 1:8. But transitioning the Christian church from a Jewish sect to a worldwide movement was going to be difficult. Gentiles were allowed to convert to Judaism before Jesus came, but they were always second class citizen to native Jews. For Gentile Christians to have full acceptance in the church, God would have to move in a special way.

That’s what we read about today in Acts 10. Although Saul was God’s chosen instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles, God used Peter to be the first apostle to see Gentile converts to Christianity. Notice how God did this here in Acts 10.

First, God sent a vision to Cornelius in verses 1-8. Verse 2 of Acts 10 said, “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing….” The phrase “devout and God-fearing” indicates that he was a Gentile convert to Judaism. When God spoke to him, he was told to send for Simon Peter and he was told where to find him.

Second, just before Cornelius’ messengers arrived, God sent a vision to Peter telling him to eat foods that were unclean according to the law of Moses (vv. 11-14). Peter saw this vision three times (v. 16)–probably so that he would be completely convinced of what he saw. But verse 17 told us, “Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision…” which shows us that the larger meaning–the broadest interpretation and application of this revelation–was unclear to Peter. Surely God was not concerned about Peter’s diet, but what could be the greater lesson of this vision?

According to verse 17, the men sent by Cornelius arrived “while Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision.” Peter understood that the timing was not coincidental and he went to see Cornelius despite the fact that “it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (v. 28b) In verses 28b-29, Peter applied his vision about the unclean food to this meeting with Cornelius. Peter realized then and there “that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (vv. 34-35). Therefore, Peter gave them the gospel. That brings us to the next step in God’s process of bringing Gentiles into the church:

Third, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (v. 44b). The Jewish Christians who heard this “were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (v. 45b). This is telling us that these new Gentile believers had the same experience that Jesus’ disciples had in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost and that the Samaritan disciples had in Acts 8. The purpose of that dramatic, miraculous demonstration of the Spirit’s power was not to show us that all Christians must have these signs; rather, it was to demonstrate that Gentile believers are equal to Jewish believers in Jesus in every way. As a result of this experience, Peter “ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 48a).

The full implications of a church integrated with Jews and Gentiles alike would still have to be worked out by the early church. We’ll read about that in some of the chapters ahead.

But the point of this chapter was to show that God viewed and treated Gentile believers as equal in the church to Jewish believers. It would be wrong for the church, therefore, to discriminate against any believer.

Although we no longer have those Jewish-Gentile tensions in every Christian church, there are other ways in which the church is sometimes divided by race. Churches here in America are still divided along racial lines with “mostly white” churches, like ours is, frankly, and churches that are mostly African-Americans, or Latinos/Latinas, or Romanians, or Chinese Christians, and so on.

Language differences create some of these distinctions, but all of them are contrary to how God views true believers. In Christ there are no “white Christians” or “black Christians” or any other human category of Christians. To Jesus, there are only believers and unbelievers. All believers are accepted fully into God’s family through Him.

We cannot solve the divisions of churches in America on our own, but we can and should fully accept, welcome, and integrate anyone into our church family who has faith in Christ, is baptized in his name, and is seeking to do what the Lord commands. We should strive for this kind of unity, then, because it is pleasing to God.

Genesis 17, Nehemiah 6, Matthew 12

Read Genesis 17, Nehemiah 6, and Matthew 12 today. This devotional is about Matthew 12.

God’s intention for the Sabbath was that man would take a day off from the way that he normally makes his living. It was to be a day of rest and a day to reflect on God, our Creator. So farmers would not plant, weed, water, reap, or do any of the normal activities that farmers do Sunday through Friday. The same was commanded for their wives and children and servants; everybody was supposed to get a break from their normal daily schedule.

This law was clear enough that it could be applied easily to most situations. Don’t farm your land, or fix your equipment, or type up those invoices, or make a fancy meal, or clean the house, or do the laundry. It was a day to rest, not to catch up on chores–work or personal. Do what needs to be done but keep it simple so you get a break and feel rested for a change. That’s the idea.

The problem with broadly-applicable commands is that it is not always clear how they should be applied. Obeying the command, “Do not work on the Sabbath” depends on how you define “work.” Is it work to make your bed? Tie your shoes? If you were a milkman who delivered milk by walking from house to house, that would clearly be forbidden on the Sabbath. But what if the milkman’s wife wanted to go for a long walk for recreation? Is that forbidden? The Pharisees hated ambiguity so they wanted every possible application of every law spelled out clearly. They specified how far someone could walk on the Sabbath to keep the milkman or his wife from doing “work” accidentally. This is one aspect of legalism.

Speaking of legalism, what exactly is it? It is a term that can be applied to at least two kinds of situations: First, anyone who thinks they can do good works to merit favor with God is a legalist. Second, anyone who thinks that his or her application of the Bible has the authority of the Bible itself is a legalist.

The Pharisees were legalists in both senses. They believed that their obedience to the law gave them favor with God. They also believed that they ways in which they applied God’s laws were as authoritative and binding as the law itself. That’s what’s going on here in Matthew 12:1-2. The disciples were not farmers. They were not working to earn a living by reaping. Instead they were getting a snack from someone else’s farmland. Taking small amounts of food from someone’s farm was allowed in God’s Law, so the Pharisees did not accuse the disciples of stealing. Instead, they accused them of working on the Sabbath. Because they applied the Sabbath law to any kind of reaping at all, they concluded that the disciples were doing what was “unlawful on the Sabbath” (v. 2b).

Elsewhere in the gospels we learn that Jesus rebuked them for distorting God’s intentions. The Sabbath law was supposed to be a blessing from God, not a burden. It was God imposing a day off on everyone so that everyone could enjoy life for at least one day a week. By denying the right to snack on the Sabbath, the Pharisees were making the Sabbath something unpleasant instead of enjoyable. Their legalism was not an obedience that pleased God, it was a burden that robbed people of the joy he wanted them to have.

Here in Matthew 12, however, Matthew records a different emphasis of Jesus regarding Sabbath violations. Jesus pointed out ways in which people broke the law technically but they did so in a way that upheld the law’s intention. The first example Jesus cited was from David (vv. 3-4). He and his warrior-companions ate the temple show bread which was against the law, yet they were not condemned. The reason was that they were servants of God doing God’s work, just like the priests were. So, technically they broke the law but by taking and eating the bread, they were being served by the law’s intention–to provide for God’s servants. Likewise, the priests on the Sabbath were technically in a no-win situation. The temple duties allowed no Sabbath breaks for the priests but the priests made their living being priests. So, they were not allowed to let the temple activities lapse even for a day but that required them to do the normal work of priests–a technical violation of the law. Yet Jesus said that “they are innocent” (v. 5b). Then Christ took things further; not only were the disciples not guilty of breaking the Sabbath by picking up a snack, Christ himself asserted the right to rule or overrule anything regarding the Sabbath because he was “Lord of the Sabbath.” He then pressed the issue further by healing a man deliberately on the Sabbath day to show his lordship over it (vv. 9-14).

The Pharisees’ zeal about the Sabbath wasn’t really about obedience to God; it was about control. They wanted to define everything so that there was complete uniformity; no ambiguity or exceptions were allowed. They could, then, define who was right with God and who wasn’t based on how well or how poorly everyone kept the rules. Unfortunately, we sometimes do the same things. The “good guys” never wear denim on Sunday, or use the right translation of the Bible, or only buy American, or never listen to music that has a beat to it. But these (and other) rules are at best only applications of Biblical principles, not Biblical truths themselves. The Bible teaches us to accept each other in areas where there are genuine disagreements about application (Rom 15:7). You should never use someone else’s actions to justify doing something that your conscience bothers you about. And, if you are truly concerned for someone else’s spiritual life, I think it is good to humbly approach them to talk about how they are or are not applying a scriptural command. But let’s be careful not to judge and condemn each other based on our own man-made rules. Instead, each of us should submit ourselves and our actions to the Lord of everything–including the Sabbath–and do what we think is right in his sight based on the clear teachings of scripture.

Deuteronomy 25, Isaiah 52

Today’s OT18 readings are Deuteronomy 25 and Isaiah 52.

This devotional is about Deuteronomy 25:4–kind of, but not really.

Lemme explain….

Deuteronomy 25:4 is a very simple command: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” I don’t know anyone who owns an ox. I’m sure I have some friend or acquaintance or friend of a friend who grows grain but I doubt that person uses an ox. So, on its face, this simple command seems to say nothing to any of us. It might be applicable to the Amish, but if you’re Amish, how and why are you reading this devotional online?

Anyway, this command looks like a dead instruction. It looks like a command that was relevant to God’s people for thousands of years but no longer. So, as people of God today, we can safely ignore it.

Right?

Not so fast. Paul quoted this passage in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and also in 1 Timothy 5:18, but 1 Corinthians 9 is the passage where he says the most about it. Here is his quotation of Deuteronomy 25:4 and a few verses of the surrounding context from 1 Corinthians 9:9-10:

9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.

This is an important passage because of what Paul’s handling of it teaches us about how to use scripture.

  • First, note that Paul ascribed the quote to Moses in verse 9a “…it is written in the Law of Moses….” But in verse 9c he attributed the verse to God when he wrote, “Is it about oxen that God is concerned?” This shows us that Paul and Christians in the New Testament believed that Moses’s law was God’s word.
  • Second, because it is God’s word, it isn’t just about oxen. Paul argued that point in verse 9c-10b: “Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us….” His argument is that a command of scripture like this one that has a very simple, straightforward meaning and application, still has relevance for people who don’t own oxen or grow grain. That brings us to:
  • Third, the command in verse 4 teaches a principle that applies in many different settings that don’t include oxen. That’s what Paul said in the rest of verse 10: “…this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.” His point is that the ox is working so that the harvest will be valuable and that ox has a right to some of the value for his work.

So the command not to muzzle the ox points to a greater principle: “Don’t take all the value created by the work of everyone for yourself; let the workers have their share.” Paul went on to apply that principle to himself in 1 Corinthians 9 and to elders in the church in 1 Timothy 5:18. His takeaway from Deuteronomy 25:4 was, “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” Note that it begins with “the Lord.” In other words, this isn’t just wise advice, like “measure twice, cut once” that you might learn from watching someone cut a board too short. No, for Paul, his application of Deuteronomy 25:4 WAS God’s word and must be obeyed.

I bring this up in this devotional because it is an important lesson for interpreting the Bible and for living the Christian life. None of the Bible was written TO us directly. There is no letter to the Ypsilantians in any copy of scripture I’ve ever owned. But all of the Bible was written FOR us and, as God’s creation and as his children by faith in Christ, what he wrote through Moses thousands of years ago is authoritative, instructive, important, and applicable to us. Our job is to interpret what he said carefully, to discern the larger principle taught in any scripture, then to apply it to our lives and live it.

This is what I’m trying to do in these daily devotionals. I hope it helps you to know God’s word better, live it more consistently, and learn how to interpret and apply it for yourself.

Genesis 7, Ezra 7, Psalm 7

Today we’re reading Genesis 7, Ezra 7, Psalm 7.

This devotional is about Ezra 7.

Isn’t it interesting that this book of the Bible is named after someone who doesn’t appear until chapter 7? And, the book of Ezra only has 10 chapters, so the man Ezra is absent from most of it.

And yet, it is fitting that this book is named after Ezra because Ezra, we will see, was given by God to be a key spiritual leader for Israel. Verses 1-5 told us that Ezra had the human pedigree needed to hold the office of priest (see also verse 11: “Ezra the priest”). This was important because of God’s commands about the office of priest. But, one could be humanly qualified to be a priest without actually being a true spiritual leader. Eli’s sons from another era are an example of that.

So what made Ezra special? Well, the grace of God of course. But, in keeping with that grace, Ezra prepared himself. Before he showed up in Jerusalem to be a spiritual leader in Israel, he “was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given” (v. 6b). Ezra prepared to teach God’s word before he showed up to serve as a leader of God’s people.

That preparation is elaborated on in verse 10. How did he become the man verse 6 says was “well versed in the Law of Moses”? According to verse 10a, he “had devoted himself to the study… of the Law of the Lord.” He put in the time; he was in the word himself.

That’s not all though, because verse 10 goes on to say, “Ezra had devoted himself to the… observance of the Law of the Lord.” That means he obeyed it himself. After he learned what it said, Ezra abided by it in the way that he lived his life. Only then did he devote himself “to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (v. 10c).

This is the pattern that any and every one of us who leads spiritually must follow. We must be in the word personally, applying it personally and obeying it personally before we teach it to others. If we try to teach without study, we will lead people to error and false doctrine. If we study without application, we will be exposed as hypocrites, creating a crisis of credibility for ourselves and causing some who follow us to stumble.

Are you an elder in our church? A deacon or deaconess? A Calvary Class teacher? An AWANA leader? A parent? Almost everyone of us is leading someone in some way. May the Lord use Ezra’s method of preparation for leadership to call us to prepare well before we speak in God’s name.

Mark 7

Today’s reading is Mark 7.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law were careful to observe the ceremonial washings that other men had created (vv. 1-4) and they were offended when Jesus and his disciples did not follow that tradition (v. 5). Jesus used their complaint to charge them with hypocrisy for holding religiously to man-made traditions while looking for religious reasons to avoid doing God’s will (vv. 6-13). Christ used the specific example of “Corban” to illustrate this sinful choice. One of the Big 10 commandments was to “honor your father and mother” (v. 10). We talk about this command to children and of course it applies to them. But the command was originally given to adults which suggests that there were responsibilities that adults had to their parents. If a man is going to honor his parents, that may mean giving them financial assistance as they get older. In a society without a concept such as “retirement” and no financial way to prepare for getting older, an elderly person would have to work until he/she died or live on the support of their children. Jesus applied the commandment to honor your parents to this kind of financial support. To Christ, if you want to honor your parents, you’d better share your home, your food, and/or your income when they have needs. This is a very logical application of the commandment to honor your parents.

The most religious people in Jesus’ society found a way to use their religious rules to render themselves unable of helping their parents. They would take a portion of their income or some of their assets and vow an oath to give that to God (someday). If it were devoted to God, then it would be morally wrong for them to give it to someone else, even their own elderly parents. They applied God’s word, then, in ways that helped them avoid the difficult applications of other portions of God’s word. In the words of Jesus, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (v. 9).

Do we do that? Do we ever apply scripture in ways that let us off the hook for obeying other passages of scripture? If we use the truth of God’s electing grace as an excuse not to share the gospel, then we are doing something like the Pharisees did. What about if we buy a large house for the good of our family but can’t tithe and pay the mortgage at the same time? What about if we volunteer to serve in one ministry in order to avoid getting into a small group or coming to the worship service?

These are just a few things that come to my mind at the moment. The human heart being what it is, I’m sure there are other ways we do something like what the Pharisees did here. If something comes to mind for you, consider what Jesus said about this practice of the Pharisees: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ’“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”’” Don’t apply one command so favorably that it helps you avoid obeying another command. That reveals a heart that is distant from God, not one that wants to honor and obey him.