The Often Complicated Ministry of the Apostle Paul

February 22, 2018


The brief New Testament letter of 1 Thessalonians offers us a fascinating glimpse into the often-complicated ministry of the apostle Paul. His transition from hardcore Jewish legalist and Christian persecutor (see Acts 9:1-2 & Philippians 3:5) to special missionary and apostle to the Non-Jews came with baggage. Some in his former community did not appreciate his conversion and new emphasis. They opposed him at almost every stop along his missionary journeys—even seeking once to kill him (Acts 23:12-35). More often this opposition metastasized in the form of fierce criticism within the local church context in an attempt to undermine his credibility and authority. Such was the case in Thessalonica.

Dangerous Duty

Acts 17:1-15 chronicles the story of Paul’s experience in Thessalonica. After initially finding quite the receptive audience in the local Synagogue among a few Jews, some God-fearing Gentiles along with several prominent women, things turned ugly. “Jealous” because of Paul’s success, some Jews in the city rounded up some “bad characters” and created a mob scene by rushing to the house where they assumed Paul would be. This led to false accusations and more chaos before city officials. A man named Jason, who had hosted Paul, caught the brunt of the trouble. Paul, along with his traveling companion, Barnabas, was able to slip away after nightfall and escape to nearby Berea. This should have been the end of the story, but upon hearing that Paul was teaching in the synagogue there, the Thessalonian Jews followed him, “agitating the crowds and stirring them up.” Once again, Paul had to make a hasty departure—this time to Athens.

As a result of this dangerous duty Paul had to abandon his ministry in Thessalonica much sooner than he desired. This is evident when reading the first Thessalonian letter. Also evident is the continued attempts to harass Paul’s name and create doubt within the church about his motives and authenticity.

The Letter

It is a masterpiece of Paul’s writing. He wonderfully lifts up the Thessalonian Christians for their steadfastness in the face of opposition. He expressed his joy over the health and growth of the church in spite of the difficulties. He reminded them they were chosen by God to be his people and upheld them as a model church. He had some teaching to do as well in correcting some eschatological misunderstandings. He also addressed some moral concerns and church matters common to all infant churches, which were not necessarily related to the other circumstances.

He does express his regret in not being able to stay with them longer, but recognizes that in spite of that, his ministry among them was successful. His only agenda while among them was to share Christ and do God’s will. He reminds them that he and his team did not burden them in any way financially, but worked to support themselves. He was proud of their progress in the faith—much like a parent with a child. He wanted to make it clear to them that he and his efforts were above reproach unlike those who opposed him. He longed to be able to return and spend more time with them.

“Hard Pressed on Every Side”

This is how Paul described his ministry in 2 Corinthians 4:8. That too was in a context of heavy criticism and challenge to Paul’s authority in a local church context. Like in Thessalonica, some in Corinth were attempting to undermine his ministry. To defend himself against those critics whom he labeled false teachers, he reluctantly shared his substantial resume and concluded with this:

Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led to sin and I do not inwardly burn? (See 2 Corinthians 11:1-33 for the full context)

Slammed for leaving Judaism; opposed for introducing the gospel to the Gentiles; criticized for receiving support to spread the gospel and accused of preaching merely for financial gain; made fun of because of his appearance and lack of speaking eloquence; accused of teaching cheap grace; characterized as being a paper tiger—bold to write letters, but timid when face-to-face; and finally arrested for his proclamation of Jesus to all people; Paul’s ministry was indeed often complicated with forces opposing him from both within and without the church. Yet he constantly carried with him the daily  concern for all the churches.

The Thessalonian situation was certainly a part of this concern. Specifically his critics in that city and within that church accused him of exploitation, greed, and deception, of impure and improper agendas. The point of the criticism—like all of it—was to destroy Paul’s influence within the church so a takeover could occur. This happened repeatedly in Paul’s ministry. The motivation for the takeover varied. Sometimes it was monetary gain. Sometimes it was doctrinal. Sometimes it was ego. Envy and hatred were among the driving forces. It was never healthy.

The Jews attempting to cripple Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica were just another group pressing hard against Paul. They were among those making a career out of opposing the gospel; of opposing Jews who expressed faith in Christ; of opposing inviting Gentiles into a relationship with God through Jesus. The idea that they “always heap up their sins to the limit” (1 Thessalonians 2:16) was Paul’s way of saying that they were leaving no stone unturned in their fight against him and the gospel. They were going to use every measure and go to any extreme to stop the spread of Christianity.

Paul was willing to endure it for the sake of the church (see 2 Timothy 2:10). And about all of these complications that were pressing on every side? Here is the rest of that story:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Paul was opposed but never defeated. All attempts to short-circuit the gospel failed. God cut through the complications. He still does. There is no time for pity-parties in the kingdom. Capturing the singular passion and purpose of Paul is our challenge. We still have God’s treasures in our jars of clay. Nothing can stand against that all-surpassing power. Paul understood. Do we?


End Times or Something Else?

February 15, 2018


In Mark 13 we find Jesus in Jerusalem having just left the Jewish temple with a group of his disciples. This temple—marvelous in scope and structure—was the pride of the Jewish nation having been fabulously rebuilt by Herod the Great beginning around 19-20 BC (and not finally completed until 65 AD). Some of the disciples noted its size and magnificence (perhaps with an eye toward ruling from it with Jesus?). To this Jesus replied, “Do you all see these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” This statement sparked their curiosity. So later four of them approached him privately to find out more information. They asked, “Tell us when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus provides them a lengthy answer—an answer that even now continues to be widely and variously interpreted.

Many take these words of Christ as a vision for end times and certainly Jesus uses eschatological language, but there also seems to be more going on than just that. He says at one point, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vs. 30). If he was speaking exclusively about end times, then how does this statement fit into that context? Obviously, we are still here and still waiting for his return. So, just what is he saying? Is it about the end times or something else?

Another Perspective

Mark wrote his account of the life of Christ around 65-66 AD. Let’s consider another perspective from someone who shared this same story a few years after Mark. Matthew wrote his gospel in the early 70s AD. It is interesting to compare his recollection of the disciple’s query to Jesus. He records it this way:

Tell us, they said, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3; Luke also gives his account in Luke 21.)

There is a nuance here in Matthew not obviously present in Mark. Matthew’s account seems to indicate that, yes, actually there is something else going on here. The same eschatological language is present indicating an “end of the age” conversation, but also there is something more immediate to consider, that is, when these huge stones are going to be turned upside down (along with any possible signs connected to either event).

So, as Matthew indicates, Jesus actually answered separate questions. The first is all about the temple stones being overturned and if any signs were to accompany that. The second is about end times. Why Matthew offers this slightly clearer account has to do with timing. He wrote his gospel after the first event—the destruction of the Jewish temple—had occurred. Mark wrote his before.

“The Abomination that Causes Desolation”

Politically, Israel had long been a hotbed of rebellion against Roman rule. Jewish terrorists or zealots continued to be a thorn in the side of Pax Romana. This led to an explosive confrontation during the sixth decade of the first century. In 66 AD the Jewish nation was in full revolt against Rome and managed to vanquish the Roman presence from the temple and make other small gains. Emboldened by these limited victories they continued to openly defy Rome. Eventually Rome had enough. Under General Titus troops were sent to crush the rebellion and crush it they did as brutally as possible. One of their targets was the Jewish temple—not only the pride and symbol of Jewish patriotism but one of the strongholds of the résistance. After they finished demolishing it in 70 AD, not one stone was left standing on the other—just as Jesus had foretold. In all of this destruction, chaos rampaged through Jerusalem. Jews savagely turned on Jews. Horrific events unfolded. It has been estimated that over one million died during this period. It indeed was an “abomination that causes desolation” as Jesus had said.

This is what happened before that generation passed away—about 40 years after Jesus spoke the words. Luke phrased it this way: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). This then explains and puts into context his statements within the text such as “flee to the mountains;” don’t “enter the house to take anything out;” how “dreadful” it would be for “pregnant women or nursing mothers;” or “pray that this will not take place in winter.” If it were truly end times, why would any of that even matter?

As for signs of this impending doom, he shared several—wars and rumors of wars, persecutions; false prophets and the gospel being preached to the “world” (which according to Paul in Colossians 1:23 had occurred prior to 70 AD). He uses figurative language of judgment (Mark 13:24-27) to illustrate the total devastation that was to come for the Jewish people and nation. In fact, this was God’s judgment upon them. Never again would they have a temple. Never again would they be his exclusively chosen nation.

The End

After this discourse, Jesus responds to their other question about end times. About “that day” no one knows except the Father in heaven. There are no signs to foreshadow it. Matthew has Jesus speaking about it in terms of Noah’s flood. Everything will be as it usually is. He leaves his disciples (and us) with a warning—“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

Separate questions and separate answers. It is about the end times, but it is also about something else.

Other Viewpoints

But as might be expected, not everyone interprets this text the same way. Variations abound. One of the most interesting is called “preterism.” Full (or hyper) preterism interprets Mark’s story (along with all of Revelation and NT prophecy) as totally being fulfilled within the 70 AD time frame—including the second coming of Jesus. According to this view, he literally came during this judgment of Israel. What yet remains is the final coming of Christ and eternal judgment.

To further extrapolate, there is also a partial preterist viewpoint—which includes almost everyone else. This approach understands some of Mark 13 to apply to 70 AD, but not all. Partial preterists interpret the book of Revelation differently also—taking a-millennial, pre-millennial and post-millennial stances. With “end times” understanding, it can get complicated! The best advice is Christ’s: Always be alert and be ready!

The Servant of the Lord

February 12, 2018


From our reading in Isaiah and Mark, it is all about the Servant of the Lord. Here are some selected points of discussion.

  • Who wrote Isaiah 40-66? There is little doubt that the prophet wrote the first 39 chapters, but questions abound about the latter half of the book. It details events that happened 150 years after Isaiah’s death, that is, the return of the remnant of God’s people from exile in Babylon. The judgment of God to Judah in the form of Babylonian conquest and captivity that Isaiah had earlier foretold was over. Chapters 40-66 seems to speak in present tense about the exiles return along with the complications connected to that. Since Isaiah was long gone—how could he have written it? Three main theories exist. One, as a prophet, he simply saw the future via divine intervention and wrote about as if he were present in it. Two, using Isaiah’s own notations in 8:16; 29:10-12 & 30:8-9—he sealed up some of his prophecies, which were passed along among his disciples during the subsequent years—which were then later unsealed and used by disciples/scholars/prophets contemporary to the remnant return. Three, someone other than Isaiah living after the period of exile wrote it, making it another work altogether and not really tied to Isaiah at all. To add to this discussion, an almost complete scroll of Isaiah containing all 66 chapters was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in 1947. This scroll was one thousand years older than any previous Isaiah manuscript, being dated to 125 BCE. It demonstrated at that point at least, Isaiah was considered one book written by one author. Even more significant, the New Testament seems to have few problems attributing the entire book to Isaiah. (Here is but a small sample–Matthew 8:17; 12:18,21; Luke 2:32; Romans 2:34; 10:20; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:22.)
  • Who is the Servant of the Lord? Isaiah introduces us to him in chapter 49 and he becomes central to the narrative. God had not forgotten his promise to his people. Throughout captivity and exile a remnant had remained. They were returning (the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah) to their homeland to renew their calling as God’s people—a light to all nations. But stubbornness among them still remained. They claimed God had ignored and given up on them during captivity. Isaiah countered by insisting that he most definitely had not—that the judgment and exile was all a part of God’s plan for something bigger and better to emerge from the Jewish people to bless all nations. This is embodied in the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord. He would be the suffering servant (chapter 53) that would finally accomplish God’s will for his kingdom to be a place for all nations and people. The second half of Isaiah is about hope—hope for all people, for a New Jerusalem and it is only possible because of the Servant of the Lord.
  • Is everything really possible for them who believe? So says Jesus in Mark 9:23. Contextually this flows out of a conversation with the father of a young boy possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus is petitioned to help. The father says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds by stating, “If you can?” and then makes the firm affirmation of the place of faith for believers. So, is this a context specific remark only applicable to that situation or does it have a broader scope? Either evil spirits no longer possess us as they did in Christ’s day or we do not recognize them as such. Is this just a statement by Christ in connection to them? If it goes beyond context, then are we limiting the power of God to work within us due to lack of faith? Other texts (Romans 3:20-21 for example) indicate that God is ready to accomplish within us more than we “ask or imagine.” Could it be that we are not asking or imagining enough?
  • Can anyone “not one of us” serve the Lord faithfully? This was the concern of some of Christ’s disciples as recorded in Mark 9:38-41 (this story occurs only in Mark’s gospel). They witnessed someone not from their group exorcising demons in the name of Jesus and “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus countered that, explaining that anyone serving in that way was “not against us” but rather “for us.” No other information is provided except in the following discourse Jesus warns about “not causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” This seems to be a direct reference to the man casting out demons and the disciples attempt to stop him. Often we can drift into an exclusive attitude about who can and who cannot effectively and faithfully serve the Lord. If you are one of us—you are in. If you are not among us—you are out. Perhaps this brief story is included in Scripture to cause us to reconsider this kind of thinking and to realize that ultimately God knows who is in and who is not. Obviously, false teachers have existed from the very genesis of the church, but this story reminds us to be careful about making sweeping judgments as to whom God can use in his kingdom.
  • Divorce for “any cause?” Jesus was swept up into a controversial and somewhat convoluted debate over divorce in Mark 10:1-12 (see also Matthew 19:1-12 & Luke 16:18). It centered on different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 among the Pharisees. This OT text deals with a man’s right to divorce his wife because of “finding something indecent about her.” Two schools of rabbinical thought had emerged and been codified by the time of Christ around this phrase. One interpretation saw it as pertaining to any woman who had been sexually unfaithful during the time of engagement. If this was proven, the intended husband could divorce her (Joseph with Mary for instance). This was the minority view. The second had morphed this statement to mean basically anything a man found unfavorable about his wife—from bad cooking to a bad hair day. This approach was the widely accepted norm as divorce for “any cause” (Matthew’s account include this language ). To fortify this view the practice of Moses concerning divorce was also mentioned. Interestingly, Jesus does not really answer the question directly. Instead he attributes the action of Moses as a compromise because of stubborn hearts and harkens all the way back to the original concept of marriage from the beginning—one man for one woman for life. By so doing he effectively does answer their question without engaging in their debate over rabbinical teachings. Can a man divorce his wife for any cause? No, he cannot. Instead he needs to honor the original marriage covenant. Later privately he offers a further explanation to his disciples offering marital unfaithfulness as an exemption to the Genesis account. Notable here is that he includes the possibility of a woman being able to divorce a man—something not allowed under Jewish law at that time—and something that unfortunately would be needed as the gospel extended beyond the Jews. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 (which predates the book of Mark) concerning the different marriage situations in Corinth. What if an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse? Paul indicates that the believer—be it a man or woman—“is not bound in such circumstances.” No, a divorce cannot be sought for “any cause,” but there are exemptions. Both Jesus and Paul spoke into the complex situations of their context and complex situations continue to exist in our context as well.



When Jesus is in the Neighborhood

February 1, 2018

silhouetteThe gospel of Mark was the first written account of the life of Jesus. He starts it this way:

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (1:1)

Using a reference from Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) he introduces John the Baptist as a new prophet foretelling the coming of the Messiah. From there—as Jesus is baptized by John—Jesus quickly and rightfully takes center stage in Mark’s narrative.

In Galilee

The story unfolds as “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (1:14). The Nazarene starts at home to introduce himself as Messiah and to share the good news of God’s kingdom. He first went into his own neighborhoods teaching and healing. This is the focus of the first eight chapters of Mark.

The reaction Christ received was mixed. Some came to faith. Some opposed him. Many were skeptical. A few from his neighborhood—who knew his family well—completely dismissed him as trying to rise above his station in life. No way the son of Joseph the carpenter could ever be anything more than that.

Reading these chapters offers us a fascinating glimpse into what happened when Jesus went into those neighborhoods to proclaim his purpose and mission. As we observe, it would also serve us well to read ourselves into these texts. Just how would we have responded?

What Happened When Jesus Was in the Neighborhood

  • He demonstrated his power over the created order. Repeatedly in Mark’s narrative, the ability of Jesus to override and alter the created order is presented. From healing the sick, to exorcisms, to raising the dead, to calming the sea, to multiplying food, to even forgiving sins—Jesus did what no other could. Obviously this was an imperative for Christ in order to verify his claims of Messiahship and kingdom. (Later Peter in Acts 2:22 would affirm the essential role of these miracles in this regard.) The miracles gave Jesus a platform from which to speak and serve—and he did!
  • The people were amazed, but the disciples were stupefied. Repeatedly Mark notes how the people responded in amazement—and not just over his miracles, but also in reaction to his teaching. “At this they were completely astonished” is how Mark phrased it on one occasion (5:43). Why wouldn’t they be? They had never seen nor heard anything like this! (2:12) As a result Jesus became a must-see event with crowds flowing from every corner of the neighborhood to see him, hear him, touch him and be healed by him. Perfectly placed in the center of it all were his closest disciples, but instead of being transformed, they appear dumbfounded—not able to absorb the true meaning of the situation. Jesus asked them at one point, “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear?” (8:17-18). As we read ourselves into the text these questions remain crucial.
  • The compassion of God was on full display. Three times (1:4; 6:34; 8:2) Mark notes how the compassion of Christ motivated him to action. It was through the lens of this compassion that Christ viewed his neighborhood. While some stood by debating who was clean or unclean according to tradition, Jesus was “moved by compassion” to actually intercede and change lives. We should never underestimate the depth of God’s compassion and seek to always be instruments of it (Psalm 147:3; Luke 15:20; Ephesians 4:32).
  • The duplicitous nature of Christ’s enemies was revealed. From the start, Jesus posed a threat to some within the neighborhood. Among those who should have immediately and instinctively recognized and embraced him, these teachers of the Law and politicians instead opposed him. They even plotted to kill him (3:6) while trying to discredit him with accusations of collusion with Satan (3:20-30). Jesus knew them perhaps better than they knew themselves. As he confronted them he exposed their hypocrisy and evil agendas. They honored him with their lips, but their hearts were far from him. Ouch. Not a place any of us ever want to be.
  • The significance of simple faith was most evident. From the desperation of the woman with the blood disease (5:34) to his reaction to the Syrophoenician woman’s plea (7:24-30) it was clear that Christ put a high premium on simple faith. “Don’t be afraid, just believe” is how he succinctly stated it before bringing the dead back to life (3:36). Can it really be that simple? Some thought not—adding traditions to commandments until faith became burdensome. Jesus ably cut right thought that red tape—bringing back the rightful place of uncomplicated faith in response to God. Our challenge is to keep it that way—not being afraid to just believe—even when (or especially when) all evidence points otherwise.
  • Expectations need to be reset (8:31-9:1). Even as the excitement of Jesus being in the neighborhood unfolded; even as those healed were celebrating; those fed were satisfied; and those amazed were wondering what was next, Jesus shifted gears. It would not always be this way. He would not always be with them. Difficult days were ahead and tough choices would need to be made. Following him beyond the neighborhood necessitated a willingness to sacrifice. That was the real expectation of discipleship. It would not always be healing and feeding. There would be loss. He himself would die. But it was not to end The Story, only to further it. Anything lost would be more than recovered. No shame in that at all. The kingdom was coming with power—expect it, but also know what that truly meant. That remains a challenge for us to this very day.

“Jesus went around teaching from village to village” (6:6). Imagine him teaching in our village! Actually we do not have to imagine because he is! He remains in our neighborhoods—the same compassionate Savior challenging us to follow him.

Are we?