Acts 19

Every chapter in Acts is a keeper, but none are more fascinating than chapter 19 for a variety of reasons.

CAUTION: The first lesson we encounter right off the bat is not to construct a doctrine or our theology on an isolated event, no matter how intriguing we find it.

In Ephesus, Paul encounters some disciples of John the Baptist who have had no teachings since the death of that wonderful servant. They’ve not heard of Jesus and know nothing of the Holy Spirit and Pentecost. So, Paul teaches them, then baptizes them “in the name of Jesus.”

I’ve known for religious groups to build an entire interpretation of how the Holy Spirit comes and works just on this story. Not a safe thing to do. In fact, most commentators on Acts will point out that, just as Jesus said in John 3 the Holy Spirit moves like the wind — you do not know where it came from or where it will go from here, but you simply see the effects at the moment — the Lord works in various ways and uses various methodologies throughout Acts.

A little later (19:11-12), we see people healed by handkerchiefs taken from Paul’s body. Take that verse out of the Bible and half the evangelists on television would go out of business.

FUNNY: The little story in Acts 19:11-16 may be the funniest thing in the New Testament. Granted, the Bible was not given as a comedy routine and anyone reading it seeking humorous material are pursuing a fool’s quest, but it does have its moments.

Paul has been mightily used of the Lord in Ephesus for miracles of exorcism and healings. Seven sons of a Jewish priest named Sceva watched him and decided they could do that. They found a demon-possessed person — apparently they were plentiful — and gathered around him. One said, “I know how to do this. I’ve seen that Paul fellow work.” As they all laid hands on the poor fellow, the leader of the seven sons intoned, “We command you in the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches to come out of this man.”

The demon inside the man said, “Jesus I know and Paul I know, but who are you?”

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The Burden of Leadership

An interviewer asked the celebrated Western author Louis L’Amour about discrepancies in some of his novels. “In one place, you’ll have six bad guys getting killed, and later in the book, one of them is alive and shooting.” L’Amour, who prided himself on accuracy of place (“if I say there is a rock in the road there, you can find a rock in that road”) and led readers to believe his stories were authentic and true-to-life, answered, “The people who read my books don’t care about that sort of thing.”

In an old western movie I remember, the good guy is chasing the bad guys or vice versa. As they gallop across the plain, viewers can see the shadow of the film truck and the cameramen standing in back flash across the ground. In a more recent movie, Kirk Douglas runs up and hops on his horse and rides away. Just to the bottom right of the screen, though, we saw that he actually had jumped on something — a step or stool or something — and vaulted himself into the saddle.

Sloppy film-making and sloppy book-writing are ever with us, but I expect Mr. L’Amour is correct: few people care. We were not reading his books or watching those movies for educational purposes.

Some things don’t matter.

It’s a wise leader who knows what matters — what is crucial and essential — and what doesn’t — the things that are for cosmetic purposes or simply add-ons or for amusement.

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Open My Eyes

As I drive to work in the mornings over the same route I’ve used for five years, sometimes I arrive and cannot recall a single thing I saw. Familiarity does that to us.

The same process occurs when we turn to the Scripture. Those who have read the Bible for years — particularly who have read it cover to cover several times — tend to see what they have always seen, to hear the words they’ve read again and again, and to rush through without seeing anything fresh.

It’s a hazard we should watch out for in all of life, but especially in reading the living Word of God. The dangers are numerous and serious, from missing out on some truth God planted for us on this particular day to eventually laying aside the Bible with a bored “been-there-done-that.”

“I’ve never noticed that before!”

Ever say that about something in the Bible? Most of us have, even after multiple readings of the Word. The reason for this “aha moment” is simple and enlightening and even encouraging: we’ve changed, we’ve grown, and we’ve moved. God’s eternal truth stands where it always has, but now we are in a position to see some portion that has eluded us until now.

Stand outside and watch the evening sunset. Now, press the ‘pause’ button and let’s freeze that image. (You with me here?)

Now, move a couple of miles toward the sun. The way you view that sunset has radically changed–the colors, the images, everything is different. Move to the north a few miles or to the south, and the scene is different again.

Or, even if you don’t move, just wait a few minutes and everything about the sunset changes.

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Tearing Down Walls

In recent years, the City of New Orleans has been blessed by church groups traveling here to walk the streets and pray for our people. In most cases, they will divide into teams and accompanied by a pastor of one of our churches, walk the neighborhood around his place of worship and intercede for the residents.

It’s a faith venture from start to finish. The prayer-walkers do not know the people inside the homes and may never know what effect their intercessions had. Yet they come, they walk, and they pray.

We’re so grateful for these spiritual warriors.

Prayer-walking is not a new phenomenon. It may go back to the time of Moses when God’s people were tramping around the wilderness marking time until the older generation died off and the youngsters could inherit the Promised Land. Since the Lord was with them, it only makes sense that many of the people talked with Him as they walked.

As they crossed the Jordan River under Joshua, this younger generation of believers found themselves facing the “city of palms,” Jericho. Its massive walls sent a clear signal that taking this fortress would be no piece of manna. Clearly, some kind of divine intervention would be required. So, God stepped in with the strangest command.

The people of God were to walk around the city — that is, on the outside of its walls, of course — once a day for six days in complete silence. Then, on the seventh day, they were to repeat the process seven times, for a total of 13 laps. At the completion of the last lap, the people were to shout and the priests were to blow the trumpets.

At no point did the Lord tell the people what to expect at that last moment. The only thing Joshua said was, “Shout, for the Lord has given you the city!” They shouted, the horns blasted, and to everyone’s amazement, the walls of the city crumbled before them.

Is that the precedent for prayer-walking, circling a city in order that walls might crumble before the Lord?

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Anchored in the Sky

As I write, today’s “Morning Joe” program on MSNBC, reported an AP/Gfk poll which found that a majority of Americans are worrying themselves sick. They worry about retirement, they worry about paying their bills, keeping their jobs, and sending the kids to college. They are worried to death about the shape the economy is in, frightened that Congress and the President will not be able to fix it anytime soon, and scared for the future of their kids.

I googled “men’s hearts failing them for fear” just to see if people are picking up on that prophecy from Luke 21:25-26. Sure enough, it’s being quoted everywhere. Some preachers are saying it’s the sign of the end.

As with almost everything, calling this a sign of the end reminds me of a funny story. (Sorry. Hope that doesn’t offend anyone.) The fellow hanging over the rail aboard a storm-tossed ship had lost everything in his stomach and was now turning a ghastly shade of green. A crew-member came over, put his hand on the fellow’s shoulder, and said, “Cheer up, buddy. No one ever died yet of seasickness.” The passenger said, “Oh, don’t tell me that. The hope of dying is the only thing that keeps me going.”

We have learned — to our distress — that the bubbling and bobbling of the stock market in this country has less to do with actual economic indicators and rather is more closely tied to the ebbing and waning of the hopes and fears of the American people.

That’s how we are to understand the Dow Jones Average dropping on the day Congress passed the greatest economic stimulus bill in history. We would have thought an infusion of nearly a trillion dollars into today’s economy would have spurred enthusiasm and provoked a new round of investing. Nothing about this makes sense any more.

People are losing hope. Their hearts are failing.

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Examining Ourselves

If a pastor wanted to take a good look at himself and assess his ministry and do so thoroughly and effectively, he might need some outside help. It’s hard to be objective about ourselves and see our own areas of need and weakness. We adjust so easily to our problem areas and handicaps that, in time, they’re just a part of us and we work around them so easily it feels like they aren’t even there.

There is a hole in the linoleum in our kitchen floor we never notice, but which would give a visitor pause. The day we returned from Hurricane Katrina evacuation in late September, 2005, we were moving our ruined refrigerator out of the house and the tiny little dolly — too little for such a mammoth load — ground its wheels into the floor. We borrowed a stronger one from a neighbor and completed the job, and with so many other things to do to make the house livable again, just never got around to repairing or replacing the linoleum.

In the same way, flaws in ourselves which we overlook and even accept as part of our makeup, an outsider might find horrendous and insist be dealt with.

We did something last week that was a first for my ministry, either in a church or association. At our request, the North American Mission Board brought in a team of six interviewers who spent two full days and evenings in one hour sessions with some sixty of our pastors. The arriving pastor would complete a written confidential questionnaire dealing with how he sees the association, the state convention, and the national denomination. Then, he and an interviewer would spend the next hour in a closed-door session.

After the session ended, the interviewer required another 10 or 15 minutes to jot down his personal conclusions. Then he came out into our auditorium, met the next pastor and repeated the process. My job — a really hard one — was to stand around and drink coffee and eat snacks and greet the pastors when they arrived. I am uniquely qualified for this assignment.

In a few weeks, NAMB’s Hugh Townsend, the leader of last week’s team, will return to New Orleans and assemble with our association’s leaders for a “prescription meeting” during which he will present the findings of his team. Not having done this before, I have little idea what to expect, but we are confident the next Director of Missions will find this to be a tremendous asset. It should give him a head-start in beginning his work with our churches.

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The Best Forgivers in Town

At some point in the distant past, whether in an old movie or television program or even a book I can’t tell you, but I recall Dr. Watson complimenting Sherlock Holmes on a brilliant deduction concerning some clue he had seen no one else had noticed. “Of course,” Holmes remarked. “It’s what I do.”

Forgiveness and grace—that’s why we believers do.

Here is one page from Ruth Bell Graham’s 1989 book, “Legacy of a Pack Rat,” with a parenthetical, explanatory remark of mine.

“Someone has said, ‘If there had not been a Stephen, there might never have been a Paul.'” (We recall how Paul watched Stephen being stoned to death for nothing more than preaching Jesus. As the stones beat the life from him, with his dying breath, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” ((Acts 7:60)) Paul never got over that.)

“A tribal war was raging in Uganda. The soldiers led a line of prisoners to a bridge over a crocodile-infested river where they could shoot them and dump their bodies into the water for the crocodiles to dispose of.

“Among the prisoners that day was a young Christian. When his turn came to be shot, he asked permission to say a word first. ‘Make it quick,’ his captors ordered. The young man looked at them calmly, without fear.

“‘I am a Christian,’ he said. ‘I am not angry with you, for the same Jesus Whom I shall see in a few moments died for you as well. I forgive you. May you accept His forgiveness also.’

“They shot him. Turning to the next in line, they recognized a man from another tribe. ‘What are you doing here?’ they demanded. ‘We are not at war.’ And he was abruptly dismissed.

“But that young man was never the same again. He spent the rest of his life sharing his new discovery of the risen, transforming Savior.

“He had watched a Christian die.” (Page 211)

As followers of Jesus Christ, you and I are not perfect, only forgiven. After receiving God’s grace, we are sent into the world to bless others. One of the best ways we accomplish this is by extending our own forgiveness and love..

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What Characters Do

“I went to school in upstate New York and graduated magna cum miracle. I didn’t make the top half of my class, but I was one of those who made the top half possible.” — H. A. Thompson

More of him later.

My friend Chris, a lawyer of the female persuasion, is taking some seminary courses. Her pastor asked, “Are your just doing that for fun or are you working on a degree?”

Until that moment, Chris did not know those were her only two choices. (What about, “To improve my mind? To grow in my understanding of God’s Word?”)

Since she owns a bachelor’s from college and a doctorate of jurisprudence from law school, and without plans to go for ordination, Chris has no special need for a master’s in theology or divinity. So, she said, “For fun.”

The pastor teased, “You’re going to seminary for fun? Chris, you need to get out more!” They laughed.

I told her, “Seminary can be fun — depending on your definition. If you enjoy a great challenge, get a kick out of pushing yourself to the limit, balancing unreal schedules, and such, you’ll have a ball!” My best memories of the five years I spent in theological school center around great class times with outstanding professors and casual discussion times with classmates.

My friend Danny is the administrator at our church and owns bachelors and masters degrees in fields related to his earlier career which was managing plants for Dow Chemical and Union Carbide. Last year he took early retirement and went to work at the church. These days, he is enrolled in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, working on a masters of arts in worship leadership.

I asked him why.

“I’m trying to stave off Alzheimer’s!” he laughed. I said, “I do Sudoku for that reason.” He said, “It would be cheaper!”

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What Exactly is Typical

Read the fine print. In television ads, Charlie M. of Dubuque bought this sales program and made $100,000 the first month. At the bottom of the screen: “Results not typical.” Ha. I coulda told ya that!

Elsie B. of Carbondale went on our diet plan and lost 38 pounds the first month. Results not typical.

Bob R. of Macon developed 6-pack abs in 5 minutes a day on our exercise-a-tron. Results not typical.

You want to scream at the television set: So, what is typical?

What’s typical is that the average purchaser of these products never listens to the whole program, never reads the fine print, tries a few times and finds it difficult, and eventually sets the package on top of the garbage can.

So, you’d like to get into your community with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, would you? You’d truly like to bear a witness for the Lord and reach a lot of people, huh? Maybe start some new churches? Then, turn to your New Testament, to the Acts of the Apostles.

What we would expect to find there would be a perfect case scenario, and everything but the words underneath saying “results not typical.” But — good news, friend — God does not play these little games. The experience of the believers in Acts will be typical of what you and I will find, to a great extent.

Consider some of their experiences….

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My “Neat Little Theological System”

I call it my NLTS, and it works like this: I have my understanding of God worked out so that everything fits, and any reality that tries to intrude, I deny or ignore.

A pastor friend introduced me to the concept, without realizing it.

I was on his church staff, the newest assistant among several young ministers. After having pastored three small churches, serving on the team of the largest congregation in the state was a heady experience. The governor was one of our deacons, former governors sat in the congregation, and state denominational leadership filled many of the pews. Television cameras beamed our live services throughout the state. I knew it would be a rare thing for me to be asked to preach in this church. But it happened, sooner than I expected.

One Saturday night, the pastor called. “I’m coming down with something. Be ready to preach tomorrow morning. I’ll let you know.”

I ended up preaching both services the next day, morning and night. It was the Sunday night sermon that offended the pastor.

With so little advance notice, I had pulled out a couple of sermons I’d used before in previous pastorates, ones I felt confident about. The Sunday night sermon asked the question, “What about those who die without having heard the gospel?” Often when I would speak on college campuses, that question was raised, and I felt I knew the biblical answer.

The answer, for anyone who takes the Bible at face value, is clearly that no one is going to Heaven without believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible is consistent on that, the Holy Spirit verifies it in the Word, the testimonies of missionaries through the centuries bear it out, and sheer logic confirms it. For example, if people who never have heard of Jesus go to Heaven when they die, then ignorance is the best plan of salvation there is. Call in all the missionaries, shut down the mission boards, and cancel all the outreach programs; leave everyone in darkness and we all end up in Heaven. Simple. Also dead wrong.

A day or two later, the pastor, now recovered from his weekend ailment, called me into his office. “I do not agree with your message Sunday night,” he said. He was sure that God had ways for people to be saved and go to Heaven without the precise requirement of knowing of Jesus, trusting the cross, and praying some version of the sinner’s prayer. I was stunned.

He added, “Joe, I have my theology worked out. It’s a circle. And if one part of it is wrong, it changes everything else. And what you preached Sunday night does not fit.”

To his credit, he did not insist that I preach his convictions and silence mine.

When I left the office that day, I determined to proclaim the message of the Scriptures and to let nothing change that. I also committed myself — and this is equally important — to continue studying this subject and to be open to whatever the Holy Spirit wished to teach me on this, or any other, subject.

His NLTS. The pastor had his, and excluded anything that did not fit it.

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