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The "We" Passages in Acts

Friday, February 18, 2022

Like the other historical books of the New Testament, neither Luke nor Acts explicitly identifies its author.  However, it is evident from the introduction to each book and the style used throughout each that both were written by the same hand.  The first identification of this writer that we still have comes from Irenaeus, who wrote during the second century AD and attributed both books to Luke, the companion of Paul.

Not surprisingly, generations of scholarly skeptics have challenged Luke’s authorship.  After all, the later a work is, the less reliable it is as a record of the miraculous events of the New Testament era.  In particular, people who want to challenge the historicity of the resurrection must insist on a late date for Luke and Acts.

However, a major problem exists in Acts for those who want to make this claim.  Acts 16:10-17 and Acts 20:5-28:16 are written in first-person plural.  Taken at face value, these passages are written by an eyewitness who traveled with Paul from Troas to Philippi, then from Philippi to Rome some years later.  This is consistent with Irenaeus’ attribution of Acts to Luke, and even if Luke wasn’t actually the author, another first-century companion of Paul’s was.  This pushes the composition date for both Luke and Acts much earlier than any Biblical skeptic wants it to be!

In reply, such skeptics make two counterarguments.  Some claim that the “we” passages are an older narrative inserted into Acts by a later editor (“Luke”).  However, this isn’t consistent with the way that “Luke” operates elsewhere.  In Luke 1:1-4, he acknowledges that he uses eyewitness testimony from others in his narrative.  However, nowhere else does he use first-person narrative without attribution. 

In the gospel of Luke, at least, he seems to cite eyewitness by mentioning their names. For instance, in the Emmaus narrative of Luke 24:13-35, even though the two disciples who see Jesus are equally important, the only one whom “Luke” names is Cleopas.  This implies that Cleopas is “Luke’s” source.  Nonetheless, this eyewitness testimony is presented in third person, along with most of Luke-Acts.  To break this pattern, especially when doing so creates the false impression that “Luke” is an eyewitness, is utterly at odds with the skill and care with which he writes.

Others have suggested that the entirety of Acts is a forgery, and the “we” passages are inserted into it to lend verisimilitude.  Though theoretically possible, this scenario is extremely implausible.  For one thing, it’s not consistent with the way that forgers of the era operated.  Others who wanted to add credibility to their false gospels inserted a major early-church figure (Peter, James, Thomas, etc.) to do it.  They didn’t switch to first-person plural and hope somebody noticed.

Second, if a forger wanted to write himself into Luke-Acts, why do it there?  The “we” passages are travel narratives with an occasional miracle sprinkled in.  They are among the least doctrinally significant portions of both books.  Why make yourself an eyewitness to the journey from Chios to Samos, but not an eyewitness to the empty tomb?  Why put yourself on the Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy but not in the upper room?  Even lying about having seen the Ascension would have been more meaningful!

By far the most reasonable explanation for the “we” passages is that they are what they seem to be:  the travel diary of a first-century Christian who happened to be a companion of Paul during part of his travels and, consequently, happened to be kicking around in Palestine for two years a couple of decades after the crucifixion.  None of this is terribly significant on its own, but it reveals Luke as an early historian of the most important events of human history. 

Faith in the Storm

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Our lives often are hard.  Indeed, I believe that without God, they are unbearably hard.  However, our heavenly Father comforts us through His direct intervention, the love of our brethren, and His witness in the word.  The Bible contains numerous stories of God’s people enduring suffering and trial.  When they overcome those things through God, it reveals His faithfulness and gives us confidence that we can overcome too.

We often gain such inspiration from the life of the apostle Paul.  He had a downright miserable life by earthly standards, but with God’s help, he made it through.  This evening, let’s consider his perseverance through the perils of Acts 27 to see what we can learn from his faith in the storm.

Because this is such a long story, I’m not going to follow a conventional outline.  Instead, I’m going to read the chapter, pausing from time to time to make application.  Our first chunk of narrative is Acts 27:1-12.  From this, we should learn that SOMETIMES OUR TROUBLES ARE OF OUR OWN MAKING.

In this, I’m not talking about Paul and his companions, but rather about the centurion.  By the time they reached the south coast of Crete, it was too late in the year for safe sailing.  Paul was an experienced seafarer.  He warned the centurion that continuing on likely would lead to the loss of the ship and their own lives. 

However, the captain and the owner knew that staying where they were would be hard on the ship, so they advocated for one more short voyage that would lead to a better harbor.  The centurion listened to them, and off they sailed into disaster.

The same often is true for us.  We end up in trouble not because of bad luck or the wickedness of others, but because of our own foolishness and evil.  I’ve known people who never have had a problem that was their own fault, and they invariably live horrible lives because they never take responsibility for their own actions.

Instead, we must make a habit of relentless self-honesty.  We have to look straight at ourselves in the mirror and ask how we are contributing to difficulties in our families, problems at work, or struggles at church.  Rarely are we guiltless, and only when we own our own share of culpability can we progress toward greater wisdom and godliness.

Let’s keep going through Acts 27:13-20.  Here, we see that GOD CAN GIVE US MORE THAN WE CAN HANDLE.  We’re dealing with competent sailors here.  They do everything they can think of to make it through the storm.  However, the last thing they do is to throw the ship’s tackle overboard.  They’ve given up hope of being able to control the ship’s movement anymore, and everyone on board has lost hope of survival.

All of us have heard the saying, “God never gives us more than we can handle,” but this is one of the many places in Scripture that proves the saying is untrue.  There was no way for anyone on that ship to handle the fix they were in!  The lesson is not for us to rely harder on ourselves; it is to stop trusting in ourselves and start trusting in God.

Our next reading is Acts 27:21-26, and it teaches us that WHEN WE ARE FEARFUL, WE SHOULD PRAY FOR OTHERS.  I’ve been talking about this one for several months like I figured something out, and I have to admit that when I was studying for this sermon and realized what Paul was doing, I was chagrined.  I could have saved myself a lot of misery if I’d been a better Bible student!

Look at the evidence.  First, note that the angel tells Paul not to be afraid.  I like Clay’s rule of thumb here—whenever God tells somebody not to be afraid, it’s because they are afraid.  Likewise, notice that the angel says that God has graciously given Paul the lives of everyone on the ship.  What can that mean except that Paul has been asking for the lives of everyone on the ship?

Praying for others when I’m afraid is something that I do regularly these days, especially when I wake up in the middle of the night with ALS on the brain.  Frankly, I love everything about it.  It calms my spirit, and it gets me focused on my love for others instead of on my fear for myself.  The next time you find yourself being anxious, fearful, or depressed, try it, and keep trying it.  I think you’ll be amazed at how well it works.

After this, we come to Acts 27:27-38, which shows us that FAITH SHINES IN TIMES OF CRISIS.  This affects not only brethren but also unbelievers.  Before, the centurion ignored Paul’s advice.  Now, he listens to everything Paul says.  When Paul tells the ship’s crew that they all will survive, they are encouraged and eat for the first time in two weeks.  They can tell that he has a Rock that they don’t.

This is no less true today.  Over the past few months, Lauren and I have gotten to know my home-care nurse pretty well.  She’s good to us, and we like her a lot, but she’s not a religious woman. 

However, last Thursday, before we got to the alcohol-swabs and poking-with-needles part, she made a little speech about how impressed with and inspired by me she was.  She sees a lot of terminally ill patients, and she said that usually they just curl up and die, but I’m not like that.

Of course, we know that the credit doesn’t go to me.  It goes to the God who strengthens and sustains me.  Through Him, we can bear up under anything, and when we do, we shine to those who don’t have what we have.

Let’s finish up with Acts 27:39-44.  It reveals that GOD CAN DO MORE THAN WE CAN IMAGINE.  Let’s think for a moment about what a ridiculous story this is.  The storm wrecks their ship on an offshore sandbar.  There are 276 people on the ship, many of whom can’t swim.  Nonetheless, every one of them makes it safely through the storm-tossed surf to land.  That only can be explained by providence verging on miracle!

So too, we can face every crisis in our lives secure in the knowledge that God will deliver us.  It might not be our preferred deliverance on our preferred timetable.  It might be safe deliverance to His heavenly kingdom.  In no case, though, does God forsake His people.  If we put our trust in Him, at the end, we will have no complaints.

Too Rotten for God

Monday, February 14, 2022

One of the beauties of being the devil is that you don’t have to be logically consistent.  To some, Satan whispers that they don’t need God, that they are sufficiently wise, capable, and righteous all by themselves.  He tells others that they’re too rotten for God.  They have done too much, wandered too far, sinned too greatly.  Surely, if such a one as they started going to church, the Holy One would turn His nose up in disgust!

The word of God exposes the falsity of both of these lies.  Anyone convinced of their own righteousness never has looked closely into the mirror of the perfect law of liberty.  Anyone who trusts in their own strength never has been swept away by one of life’s great storms.  Even Jesus relied on His Father.  Who are we to think that we can go it alone?

Those who believe that God wouldn’t want them likewise are deceived.  Many passages highlight this error, but one of the most powerful is 1 Timothy 1:12-16.  In this text, we see the spiritual resume of the most wretched sinner of the New Testament, Saul of Tarsus. 

Saul was so arrogant that he rejected the Messiah that God had sent.  He blasphemed the name of God’s Son.  He persecuted God’s people, dragging them off to imprisonment and death.  It took nothing less than the appearance of the resurrected Christ to bring this ravening wolf of a human being up short.

However, on that road outside Damascus, something incredible happened.  Jesus didn’t blast Saul of Tarsus to atoms, even though his hands were stained with the blood of the righteous.  Jesus showed him mercy.  Not only that, but Jesus made him an apostle.  He called the most unlikely candidate imaginable into service and used him for His glory.

Looking back on his conversion decades later, the apostle Paul explained why Jesus did it.  His example proved that the Lord could and would show grace to absolutely anybody.  Jesus’ love is so perfect and His sacrifice so powerful that Saul of Tarsus could be redeemed, and so can every sinner.  All they have to do is seek, and they will find.

Today, the grace of Christ has lost none of its ancient power.  I know preachers who used to be drug addicts.  I’ve baptized drug dealers and strippers.  I’ve worshiped with a murderer.  The world would call all those people irredeemable.  God sees things differently.

Maybe there’s a drug addict, drug dealer, stripper, or murderer reading this.  Maybe you’ve done something else that you think is just as bad.  Doesn’t matter.  God has a place in His kingdom for you.

For that matter, maybe you’re clinging to salvation with your teeth and fingernails.  You can’t imagine that God would want to use somebody with your past.  Wrong again.  God wants to do amazing things with you, and He will if you let Him.  It is not in the man who wills or the man who runs, but in the Lord who has mercy. 

You might think you’re too rotten for God, but take Him at His word instead.  You will find what Saul of Tarsus found—that He is faithful.  Of all those who come to Him, He will turn none away and cast none out.   

Devoted to the Teaching of the Apostles

Friday, February 11, 2022

As hopefully everybody is aware by now, our theme for the year is “Devoted”, and we will spend the year in extended contemplation of Acts 2:42.  The first topic of the four in the verse is “devoted to the apostles’ teaching”, and over the past couple of weeks Clay has done a fine job of highlighting examples of apostolic teaching.

This morning, though, I wanted to return to our keynote verse in an attempt to broaden our understanding of our subject.  “Devoted”, “teaching”, and “apostles” all have dictionary definitions, but all three concepts appear frequently in Scripture, and a study of these Scriptural uses will help us with everything else we study for the rest of the quarter.

It's not enough for the Jackson Heights church to have the theme of “Devoted”.  I applaud the elders’ decision in selecting that theme, but that decision pales in comparison with the decision to be devoted that each of us must make.  Devotion is personal, and if you personally are not devoted, the devotion of the congregation will not help you at all.  Let’s consider, then, what devotion to the teaching of the apostles means.

Naturally, the first idea we examine will be DEVOTION.  Let’s start with Acts 18:1-5.  Here, we learn that when Paul first came to Corinth, he met up with Aquila and Priscilla and started making tents with them.  This wasn’t because Paul wanted to make a fortune with his tentmaking; instead, he was out of money and needed a job to keep body and soul together.  This affected his preaching and teaching.  He was limited to proclaiming the gospel on Saturdays because he was working the rest of the time.

However, in v. 5, Silas and Timothy show up.  We know from Philippians 4 that they brought money with them from the church in Philippi.  Because of this gift, Paul was able to devote himself to preaching.   He was out there preaching that Jesus was the Christ seven days a week.

From this, there’s a simple conclusion that we can draw about the nature of devotion.  If you aren’t devoted to something, you only will do it part of the time.  If you are devoted to it, you will do it all the time.

At this point, brethren, it’s time for me to bring up a sensitive subject.  Let’s talk about how the attendance patterns of this church have changed since COVID.  Sunday morning numbers are closer to where they used to be.  Sunday and Wednesday evening numbers are not.

If devoted is full-time and not-devoted is part-time, what does the record of your attendance say about you?  If you’re not sure about how you’ve attended, talk to Dave Ledford.  He keeps records for every member here, and he would be happy to show you yours.  Can you personally look down at your sheet and say, “This is the way a devoted Christian would have attended?”

I don’t say these things to shame you.  I say them because I love you and believe in you, and I think that for many of you, those numbers are not who you want to be.  I think you want to be devoted because you know this is most important, but since the pandemic, it’s been easy to lose the habit.  It’s time to go back to that habit.  I’m not going to lie to you.  A positive change is going to take a lot of time and effort, but isn’t God worth it?

Next, let’s explore the concept of TEACHING.  Our text this time will be 1 Timothy 4:13-16.  Note that other translations here will say “doctrine”, and both “doctrine” and “teaching” come from the same Greek word.  For some reason, doctrine has gotten a bad rap among many Christians today.  They’ll try to make a distinction between gospel and doctrine, or they’ll say that they care about Jesus, not doctrine.

Frankly, this baffles me.  I don’t know where they’re getting it, but they’re not getting it from the Bible.  The Scriptures do distinguish between sound and unsound doctrine, but they don’t distinguish between gospel and doctrine.  Everything we know about Jesus or the gospel is doctrine.

Look at what Paul says about the importance of teaching here.  Timothy is supposed to give his attention to teaching.  He’s supposed to practice it, be committed to it, and progress in it.  He’s supposed to persevere in it.  Though the text doesn’t use the word, it’s entirely justified to say that Timothy is to be devoted to doctrine.

Paul justifies this emphasis at the end of v. 16.  This devotion to doctrine will save Timothy and those who listen to him.  This is how important teaching is.  It’s life-and-death important.  It’s heaven-and-hell important.  Devotion to teaching will save us.  Indifference to teaching will cost us our souls.

All other things being equal, then, the more doctrine we have in our lives, the better off we will be.  What kind of doctrine?  Any kind, as long as it’s sound.  It’s possible to emphasize one part of sound teaching to the detriment of other parts, but the more teaching we consume, the more we protect ourselves from this problem.  Our assemblies are a great place to hear teaching, but for the rest of the time, all of us have Bibles and Internet connections at home.  “Too much doctrine” simply is not intelligible as a spiritual problem.

Finally, let’s ponder what it means that this teaching is from the APOSTLES.  As a starting point, let’s read 2 Thessalonians 2:13-16.  This passage begins by describing what God has done for Christians.  He has chosen us for salvation through the Spirit and the word.  He has called us to glory through the gospel.  However, if we want to receive these blessings, we must do two things.  We must stand firm and hold fast to the traditions.

“Traditions” here is interesting.  Usually in Scripture, traditions are negative.  Jesus frequently warned against exalting human tradition.  Here, though, “traditions” is positive.  Paul is talking about the traditions handed down by the apostles and their closest followers through the Spirit, the things they said and wrote.

Today, everything we know about apostolic tradition is contained in the word of God.  We know what Paul said to the Ephesian elders on his way to Jerusalem because of the Bible.  We know what Peter wrote to Christians in the Diaspora because of the Bible.  At this point, 2000 years later, there is no other reliable record of apostolic teaching.

This answers a question some of you may have noticed in the last point.  Sound doctrine is vital, but how do we know whether doctrine is sound or not?  Simple.  Doctrine is sound if it’s apostolic and unsound if it isn’t.  If we are holding fast to apostolic tradition, we are holding fast to the things in the Bible and only those things.

Why does this matter so much?  Why are we such sticklers for following the Scriptural pattern?  Why are we devoted to the doctrine of the apostles?  The answer is in the text.  Holding firm to the traditions is the only way to ensure that we hold fast to the salvation to which God called and chose us.  If we let go, we’re letting go of God too.

A Man Is Judged by His Strength

Thursday, February 10, 2022

In Judges 8:12, during the aftermath of his crushing victory over the Midianites, the Israelite leader Gideon captures two Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna.  Because they played hardball in those days, in v. 20, Gideon commands his son, Jether, to execute the captives.  Jether, who is still young, shrinks back from the unpleasant task.

In response, the kings taunt Gideon.  According to v. 21, they tell him, “Strike us down yourself, for a man is judged by his strength.”  Gideon promptly complies, which seems like a counterproductive outcome for Zebah and Zalmunna.

Nonetheless, strength has been an essential attribute of masculinity ever since God created them male and female.  Though there are exceptions, men generally are the ones with the big muscles.  It changes the way we think and think of ourselves.

Though nobody ever would have confused me with Charles Atlas, I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to keep in shape.  I’ve worked out regularly for years, even taking my exercise regimen on the road when I travel.  It allowed me to do things that I valued:  lifting heavy things for my wife, helping brethren move, and being able to throw my body into any task without fear of failing or getting hurt.  Being strong and capable made me feel good.

Those days end for every man.  For me, they ended early.  I found myself unable to gain strength and muscle without halfway killing myself to get there.  On the other hand, losing strength became very easy.  Spend a week sitting on the couch, and boom!  98-pound weakling. 

I figured it was middle age.  It wasn’t.  It was ALS.

Since my diagnosis, my decline has continued.  I can stroll, but I can no longer walk briskly, much less jog or run.  I’ve lost most of my pinch strength in both hands.  I used to open stuck jars for Lauren; now she must open food wrappers for me.  All the body-weight exercises I used to perform regularly are out of reach.  Barring a miracle, whether medical or otherwise, my condition will worsen until I become a quadriplegic and eventually die.

There have been many lessons in this.  First, it showed me how strength has shaped my worldview, even in matters not involving physical strength.  If you are strong enough to rely on direct action and bulling your way through, that will affect the way you solve every problem.  I spent 40 years of my life doing that without realizing why.

Conversely, my recent experiences have taught me greater sympathy for women.  I simply didn’t understand what it was like to belong to “the weaker sex”.  If you can’t rely on your own strength, if you are surrounded by people who are stronger than you are, and if you often have to ask for help, all that will shape the way you behave too.  It will make you less direct, more cautious, and more concerned with maintaining relationships. 

Being forced into a position of weakness is hard, especially if you are used to a position of strength.  I hate, hate, hate having to ask Lauren for help when I’m getting dressed Sunday mornings.  Buttoning a shirt used to be a trivial matter; now it is an exercise in hand-cramping agony.  Any rational person would get somebody whose fingers still work right to do it, but if I have time, I will fight with those buttons for 20 minutes or more.  My pinch strength has left me, but I apparently am determined to cling to my self-reliance.

Finally, of course, this experience has transformed the way I see my relationship with God.  It is evident to me now that I’ve spent my preaching career not understanding 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.  I knew what all the words meant and thought I understood it, but I didn’t get it.  Yeah, yeah, thorn in the flesh.  That’s like when your knee hurts, right?

Not exactly.  It was a messenger of Satan.  It tormented Paul.  I believe that when Paul says he pleaded with the Lord three times to remove it, that doesn’t mean one-two-three prayers.  It means praying about a subject so comprehensively that your prayer is complete in the same way that the triune God is complete.  Paul prayed thus; Jesus said no.

Therefore, when Paul says in v. 9 that he intends to boast in his weaknesses, that’s not a well-OK-then-moving-on.  It represents the wrenching acknowledgement that strength that mattered desperately to him is never going to be restored to him, and he is going to have to spend the rest of his life without it.  Indeed, more subtly, the weakness that is the subject of Paul’s boasting is not only the thorn in the flesh.  It is the pride that only could be defeated by the application of the thorn.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why God allowed me to have ALS.  I know there’s a reason.  Christ doesn’t keep us from suffering, but He does make our suffering meaningful if we seek Him through it.  Is it because my ALS is supposed to teach me to be kinder and more compassionate to others?  Is it because I’m supposed to use my writing about it to enlighten and inspire?

Those things may be true, but I must at least entertain the possibility that I needed to develop ALS for my own sake.  When I was strong, it was awfully easy to trust in my own strength, not merely for the lifting of heavy objects but for making my way through life.  ALS has rubbed my nose in the foolishness of such a delusion.  It’s hard to be self-reliant when you can’t button your own shirt. 

I must learn to boast in my own weaknesses too.  I must learn to embrace them and the emptiness they leave in my life.  As with Paul, only then can my weakness be filled with the strength of God.

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