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The Reluctant Evangelist

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Bible is full of stories of amazing occurrences, but sometimes, the narratives about very ordinary men and women are what attract our eyes.  For me, one such is the tale of Ananias the Damascene disciple in Acts 9:10-17.  Everything we know about this man comes from the book of Acts.  Indeed, it all comes from the various accounts of the conversion of Saul.  We’re introduced to him in this story, and after it concludes, we never see him again.

Nonetheless, the Scriptures do reveal some things about him.  He lived in Damascus (duh).  He was a devout, Law-keeping Jewish follower of Jesus.  He had a good reputation.  Apparently, he even possessed the miraculous spiritual gift of healing, so he had encountered an apostle at some point.

Jesus has a plan for Ananias, and He tells him about it.  He needs to seek out a man named Saul of Tarsus and lay hands on him so that he can regain his sight.

This plan does not thrill the soul of Ananias.  He has heard of Saul of Tarsus, as probably every Christian alive had.  Saul was Church Enemy Number One, responsible for the scattering of the Jerusalem church and the imprisonment or death of many innocent believers.  What’s more, Ananias knows that Saul has come to Damascus to dish out more of the same.

The Lord’s response to Ananias’ concerns is noteworthy.  He doesn’t pause to calm the fears of His understandably concerned disciple.  He says, simply, “Go.  This one’s Mine.”  Obedient to the word of the Lord, Ananias goes.  Saul obeys the gospel, and the world will never be the same again.

I am encouraged by Ananias.  I am heartened that he too had qualms about obeying God when it came to evangelism.  I often have had, and continue to have, those same qualms with much less reason! 

In fact, it may well be that Ananias’ conversation with Jesus is included in Acts 9 because we do find it so easy to identify with him.  Afraid of personal work?  Well, here’s your guy!

However, we should not focus so much on Ananias’ reluctance that we overlook Christ’s reply.  God is mindful of our frame, and there is much in His word that reveals His compassion for us.  Despite His compassion, He remains King.  When He says, “Go,” He means, “Go!”  It may well be that He has a plan for us too, and that as with Ananias, there is someone only we can help.

Ananias obeyed God, and when he did, he found that he had nothing to be afraid of.  99.9 percent of the time, when we speak up for the Lord, we will find the same thing.  I don’t have any idea how many people I’ve invited to study the Bible with me, and not all of them were willing, but I can’t think of one who even replied with an unkind word.  Fear of the unknown, especially when it comes to evangelism, is natural and understandable, but when God calls us to do His work, fear needs to take a back seat.

Guided to Christ

Friday, February 12, 2021

In this congregation, we are committed to imitating the simple faith and the simple practices of the church of the first century.  There are some things that distinguish our time from theirs.  For instance, none of us have miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit.  However, the essentials of our faith remain unchanged.  The same gospel that saved them still saves us, and it operates on the human heart in the same way.

There are many passages in the New Testament that illustrate this timeless truth.  Today, however, we’ll be examining a text from this week’s Bible reading.  It is Acts 8:26-39, and it tells the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. 

There is a miracle in this narrative, but interestingly, it happens after the eunuch obeys the gospel and has nothing to do with his decision to do so.  Everything that Philip did to bring the eunuch to the Lord is something that we can do too.  This morning, then, let’s see how we can learn to be more effective personal workers as we consider how the eunuch was guided to Christ.

There are three main elements in this story that lead to the eunuch’s salvation.  The first of these is AN OBEDIENT DISCIPLE.  We see the obedience of Philip described in Acts 8:26-29.  The Holy Spirit tells him to go hiking out into the desert.  He does.  The Spirit tells him to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger.  He does that too.

We might read this story and think that personal work would be a whole lot easier if we too got instructions from the Holy Spirit.  Of course, the thing is that we have received instructions about evangelism from the Spirit!  Just as Philip had to obey if he wanted to save the eunuch’s soul, we have to obey our instructions if we want to save the souls of those around us.

The first of these, according to 1 Peter 3:15, is that we have to be ready at any time to give a defense of the hope that is within us.  In some ways, this is easier for us than ever before.  As long as we’ve got our phone with us, we’ve got a Bible with us too. 

The question is whether we can use the word of God to teach others how to please God.  If we go out to eat after services, and somebody recognizes that we came out of church and asks us to explain the Bible to us, would we be able to do that?  Could we show them book, chapter, and verse that explains who Jesus is, what His death means, and how people can be saved from their sins through Him?  Brethren, if we can’t do that right now, we aren’t ready, and we need to study, study, study until we are ready.

Second, we have to be opportunistic.  As Colossians 4:3 shows, we have to pray for opportunities and have the love for others and zeal for the Lord to walk through those doors when they open.  Everywhere Paul went, he found opportunities to teach because he was looking for them.  If we have a heart like his, we will find opportunities too.

Our second main element in the salvation of the eunuch is AN EAGER SEEKER.  Let’s keep reading, in Acts 8:30-35.  Both in this section and in the context preceding it, the eunuch comes across as a stand-up guy.  He has several characteristics that add up to him being open to the gospel.

The first of these, and something that always will be present in those who come to the Lord, is zeal for God.  When the text tells us that the eunuch came from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship, we read right through that, but it’s actually really impressive. 

Anybody know how far it is from the capital of the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia to Jerusalem?  I didn’t either, so I looked it up on Google Maps, and it’s a little over 2000 miles, about the same distance as from Nashville to LA.  This is long before the days of planes, trains, and automobiles, too, so we’re looking at something like a month of hard, dangerous travel, one way.  The eunuch did all this to worship at Jerusalem, even though they wouldn’t even let him in the temple because he was a eunuch!  As if that weren’t enough, we see him spending his time on the journey back by reading from Isaiah.

Equal to his zeal, though, was his humility.  Despite his zeal, he doesn’t act like he’s got it all figured out.  Instead, he knows what he doesn’t know, he’s willing to ask Philip for help, and he doesn’t dismiss the truth about Jesus because of his preconceptions.

Now, this might seem like a fairy-tale prospect, but let me tell you—the vast majority of the people I’ve brought to the Lord have been like this.  They cared enough to learn, and they were humble enough to learn.  If either one of these attributes is absent, we aren’t going to get anywhere. 

The final element of our conversion story is IMMERSION IN WATER.  Let’s finish up our reading for the morning with Acts 8:36-39.  The first thing that strikes me about this story is that as Luke tells it, the one who introduces the subject of baptism is the eunuch.  Somehow, somebody who didn’t understand that Isaiah 53 was about Jesus now knows that he has to be immersed in water.  How’d he figure that out?

Once we ask the question, the answer is obvious.  In the course of preaching Jesus to him, Philip also tells him about baptism.  From this, we must conclude that it’s impossible to preach Jesus without preaching baptism, and that somebody who doesn’t preach baptism isn’t preaching Jesus.

Second, this passage is vital to our understanding of the nature of Bible baptism.  The eunuch is traveling through the desert.  It’s safe to assume that he had water with him.  If not, he’s not going to make it back to Ethiopia!  Nonetheless, in order to be baptized, he waits until he sees a body of water by the side of the road, goes down into the water with Philip, and comes back out of the water.  Despite the misuse of the word “baptism” today, that doesn’t fit with sprinkling or pouring.  It only fits with immersion, burial with Christ under the water.

Now, I’m sure that many of you have heard, as I have, that you can prove that Bible baptism is immersion by looking at the Greek word for “to baptize”, which is baptiz┼Ź, and means “to immerse”.  That’s true, but I don’t like using that argument, just as I don’t care for proving any point by arguing from the Greek.

Let me explain why.  None of us are ever going to study with a non-Christian who is fluent in koiné Greek.  As a result, they have no way to determine whether we’re telling them the truth or not.  Even if they believe us, their faith will be in us and in our Greek dictionary instead of in the Bible. 

However, we can take them to Acts 8 and show them the eunuch going down into the water and coming up out of the water, and they can understand that for themselves.  When we teach them that way, we’re not only teaching them the truth.  We’re teaching them how to find the truth in the word of God.

The Sad Case of Simon the Sorcerer

Thursday, February 11, 2021

When it begins, the chronicle of Acts 8:4-24 looks like another one of the success stories of the early church.  As often happens throughout the book, when someone (in this case, Philip the Evangelist) brings the gospel to a new location (in this case, the city of Samaria), it is received with joy.  As also happens, like Elymas in Cyprus, Sosthenes in Corinth, and Demetrius in Ephesus, an opponent of the gospel emerges, somebody who views the early church as spiritual competition.  In Acts 8, this opponent is Simon, a (stage) magician who had been leading the people astray for a good while.

However, in Acts 8, the narrative doesn’t go in the expected direction.  Rather than being blinded or getting beaten, Simon himself becomes a disciple.  He believes in Jesus!  He is baptized!  Indeed, he abandons his deceptive lifestyle, following Philip and being amazed himself rather than amazing others.

Tragically, events expose Simon to a temptation that he fails to resist.  Peter and John come to town and, as only apostles can do, begin to impart miraculous spiritual gifts to others by laying hands on them.  Simon’s reaction, though, reveals that despite his conversion, he has come to the Lord with significant baggage.  He offers the apostles money in exchange for the ability to pass along the Holy Spirit himself.  Though the text doesn’t say so, we can infer that Simon wasn’t planning to offer those gifts for free. 

Peter forthrightly condemns Simon for his covetous heart, and Simon’s ambiguous reply leaves us uncertain whether he has repented or not.  Ultimately, he proves to be little different than the other villains of the book of Acts.

Nonetheless, Simon’s example offers us two valuable spiritual lessons.  First, he shows us that it is all too possible for us to fall away.  This is denied by Calvinists, who hold to the doctrine of eternal security.  Typically, they will argue that Simon wasn’t really saved.  He only appeared to be.

However, rather than offering security, this argument merely replaces uncertainty about our ultimate fate with uncertainty about our initial salvation.  If Simon was not saved despite having believed and having been baptized, none of us can be sure that we were saved through belief and baptism either.  Additionally, if Jesus says in Mark 16:16 that those who believe and are baptized will be saved, who are we to disagree, even in the case of Simon?

Second, Simon shows how the flaws in our character before we come to the Lord can distort our service to Him.  He had been a con man, and despite his awe at the power of God, it ultimately meant nothing more to him than a way to make money.  So too for us.  If we are not careful, the lust, pride, or greed that ruled us before Christ will simply find a new expression in a religious context.  If we wish to inherit eternal life, we must succeed where Simon failed by making no provision for the flesh and its lusts.

Psalm 35

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Lord, fight with those who fight with me;
Take up Your shield and bring me aid;
Your spear must save me from my foes;
Let them be baffled and dismayed!
May Your good angel drive them on
And make their pathway slippery;
They spread their nets without a cause;
Repay what they had planned for me.

Then I shall glory in the Lord
Who saves afflicted ones from strife,
For lying witnesses rise up;
I helped them, but they seek my life.
When they were sick, I mourned and prayed
As for my mother or a friend,
But when I stumbled, they rejoiced
And slandered me without an end.

O Lord, how long will You look on?
From their destruction, set me free,
And I will praise You in the midst,
For they accuse me wrongfully.
They speak not peace but lying words,
Though I was quiet and at rest.
They opened wide their mouths at me
And testified that I transgressed.

You know the truth; O Lord, reply!
Stir up Yourself; defend the right;
According to Your justice, judge;
Do not abase me in their sight.
Let those who hate me be cast down
While those who love the truth rejoice;
Then I will tell Your righteousness
And praise Your name with heart and voice.

Suggested tune:  “In Christ Alone”

Women Participating in Bible Classes

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Recently, I’ve been engaged in an email discussion with a brother on the subject of women participating in our Bible classes.  He sees inconsistency in many congregations between Bible classes, in which women may read Scriptures, make comments, etc., and worship services, in which they are required to remain silent.  He believes that the appropriate way to resolve this inconsistency is to bar women from participating in Bible classes as well.

In a time in which all too many churches have chosen to ignore 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 altogether, I appreciate this brother’s zeal for God.  However, I believe his analysis overlooks some key aspects of our worship services and misunderstands the contextual meaning of silence in 1 Corinthians 14.

First, although many find it convenient to overlook the fact, I doubt there is a single church of Christ in existence in which women are literally silent during worship services.  They sing.  Indeed, according the language of Ephesians 5:19, they speak to the rest of the congregation in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  Women speak in our assemblies!

This practice is uncontroversial.   I’ve never heard anyone argue seriously that women should not participate in our song worship.  Indeed, I’ve never heard anyone argue against alto-lead choruses, during which women often are the only ones singing.  It’s impossible to argue that women literally are being silent in the churches during “Paradise Valley”!

This leaves us with two choices.  We can read 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as a flat contradiction of Ephesians 5:19, so that Paul is divided against Paul (and the Holy Spirit against the Holy Spirit).  Alternatively, we can quit using 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 as a proof text isolated from its context and consider if there is anything in that context that ought to inform our understanding of silence.

Indeed, though this commonly is overlooked, women are not the only group told to be silent in 1 Corinthians 14.  In 14:28, those with the gift of speaking in tongues are told to keep silent unless an interpreter is present.  In 14:30, if, while a prophet is speaking, a second prophet receives a revelation, the first prophet is to be silent and allow the second to speak. 

It makes little sense to take “silent” here literally, especially in the case of the tongue-speakers.  Tongue-speakers were allowed to participate in song worship.  If men, they were allowed to lead public prayers, as per 1 Timothy 2:8.  Paul means only that they were not allowed to be the sole speaker, to hold the floor in a situation in which they could not edify the church.  Similarly, Prophet #1 was not allowed to be the speaker, to attempt to maintain the floor in the face of Prophet #2’s revelation.

Contextually, then, the injunction of 1 Corinthians 34-35 to women to keep silent does not mean that women cannot speak.  It means that women cannot be the speaker.  They are not permitted to exercise authority in the assembly as a man may.

We glimpse the nature of the problem that Paul is addressing in the instruction of 14:35 for women to ask their husbands at home if they have questions.  Questions seem innocuous, but if I learned anything in law school, it is that the one asking the questions has the power!  The questioner is the one in authority, the one controlling the conversation. 

We see this displayed throughout the gospels.  Jesus uses questions to great effect to humiliate His enemies, and He commonly replies to trap questions by asking another question.  It stands to reason that women in the Corinthian church were using questions to similarly dominate assemblies, and it is indeed disgraceful for a woman to speak thus!

This reading of 14:34-35 resolves the apparent contradiction with Ephesians 5:19, and it also harmonizes more closely with 1 Timothy 2:11-12.  There, Paul instructs women not to teach or exercise authority over a man, but rather to learn quietly and submissively.  In times past, I made much of the difference between “quiet” in this passage and “silent” in 1 Corinthians 14:34, but a contextual reading of the latter minimizes the distinction.  Instead, both texts become about issues of authority and submission rather than 14:34 being about whether women are making noise or not.

Together, these two texts provide a useful framework for understanding the role of women in our assemblies.  First, it is firmly complementarian.  Men are men, and they are to behave like men, but women are women, and they are to behave like women.  As Paul’s analysis of Genesis 1-3 in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 makes clear, from the beginning it has been true that men, not women, are responsible for exercising spiritual leadership.  Though scholars may construct fanciful arguments about how these rules don’t apply to us anymore, we must seek the ancient paths and walk in them.

Second, it supplants an inconsistent bright-line rule (“Women can speak in Bible classes but not in worship services.”) with an opportunity to exercise spiritual discernment.  The woman singing an alto lead is behaving in a quiet, submissive fashion under the authority of the song leader.  By contrast, the termagant who is attempting to control the Bible class from the same pew where she’s been sitting every Sunday morning for the past 45 years is neither quiet nor submissive, even though she is talking during the women-speaking-allowed hour.

As with most of the law of Christ, this framework can be abused by those who want to act in bad faith.  I am reminded here of the Jehovah’s-Witness practice of essentially allowing women to preach sermons in response to open-ended questions from men.  Though formally complying with the letter of God’s word, such behavior is a Pharisaical perversion of its spirit, and we can expect it to be judged accordingly.  However, for men and women who sincerely seek the will of God, this reading will give them all they need to suitably honor Him.

This article originally appeared in the January issue of Pressing On.

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