Shout for Joy
In the days following the resurrection of Jesus, the early church grew rapidly. That appears to be the reason why some of the needy widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. What interests me is the way the Twelve approached the problem. They gathered all the disciples together and . . . and here is a lesson in wise and effective leadership: They understood that their particular task was not to “wait on tables” (Acts 6: 2) but to “give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (v. 4). Somehow I can hear several possible responses in today’s church: “Don’t you care for them?” . . . “That’s what we hired you for” . . . “Too good for that?” No, the leadership understood a very important principle in effective governing — delegation.
So the first thing they did was to have the people choose from among their own number seven men to handle the responsibility. They could have done the choosing themselves, but gone immediately would have been the sense of camaraderie. They did, however, give them some guidance. Those selected were to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3). Certainly these are the essential qualities for everyone involved in any aspect of ministry. It is not enough to have been successful in business or well known in one’s field to serve as elder or deacon today. The work of the church is spiritual and requires the presence of the Spirit and the wisdom He provides.
The congregation was pleased and chose Stephen and six others and took them to the apostles who prayed and laid hands on them. The result is what one you would expect, given how they went about it: (1) “the word of God spread,” and (2) “the number of converts increased rapidly” – even a number of priests became obedient to the faith (v. 7).
What strikes me is the wise and effective manner in which the church in its very first days tackled the problem of growth. One could note that they were being led by the Spirit, and that is true, but in addition they simply did it right! The procedure they followed could be used in a modern textbook to illustrate effective leadership. The lesson is two-fold: First is that the absence of any pettiness made the entire procedure go ahead without trivial opposition. Significant advance is often retarded by personal grievances that somehow “must be taken into consideration.” The wheel of progress grinds slowly when there’s dirt in the gears. And second: No one is rewarded for the gift they are given, only how well they use it. It appears that this group of believers enjoyed a sense of unity so genuine that each could enjoy exercising their own gift and together with the others they could rejoice in what God was doing through them as a group.
I know it’s not fair to pick on an idea that is down and out (theoretically, that is), but there is one organizational system that keeps expanding anyway – bureaucracy. Talk about resiliency: Einstein called it “the death of all sound work;” Chris Salcedo defines it as “the art of making the possible impossible;” and it’s portrayed as a new game sweeping the country in which everyone stands in a circle and the first person to do anything, loses. The term, but not the concept, goes back to the German sociologist Max Weber who held that the ideal bureaucracy was a hierarchical organization with clearly delineated lines of authority and a set of regulations that would answer every possible exigency.
Most scholars who work in the field acknowledge that bureaucracy may be technically superior to other forms of organizational theory, but recognize that the human element makes it ineffective in the long run. Even Weber saw it as a threat to individual freedom and feared that it could lead to a “polar night of icy darkness.” Let’s look at how bureaucracy works in our own democratic system.
Every bureaucratic system seems to have the incredible ability to grow no matter what. In fact, growth appears to be its major purpose. As academic dean in a state university, I found myself at budget time looking for ways to spend unallocated money so next year’s budget wouldn’t be reduced. There is nothing wrong with growth except that isn’t the purpose of an educational institution (at least that kind of growth.) Further, the larger and more complex a bureaucracy becomes, the less able it is to get something done. There are too many levels of oversight that must give their okay to even the simplest task. And that costs time and dollars better spent elsewhere.
Then there is a certain loss of individuality that accompanies bureaucracy. The very structure discourages creativity and innovation. It’s hard to move ahead with an idea if that idea must be okayed by a hierarchy of professional managers who may or may not have any interest in the contribution you wish to make. It’s nobody’s fault, just the way the system works. Bureaucracy creates its own jobs. Relatively insignificant agencies in the federal government have double or triple the number of employees that would be required by the private sector for the same task. While the current health care act is 960 pages in length, the necessary regulations (as compared to the bill) run 30 to 1, or some 588,500 words. That is a monumental task even for a bureaucracy!
In the final analysis, bureaucracy is the organizational expression of a world-view that tends to place the welfare of the group over that of the individual. It runs contrary to the Christian emphasis on the supreme importance of the individual, made in the image of God created to live in a vital relationship with others, but not under the supposed superiority of the group.
The book of Proverbs has to do with wisdom. Its concern is not knowledge in the sense of information about the world, but moral insight into life’s deeper issues. Wisdom teaches us how to live so as to escape the follies of a thoughtless life and discover in our day the satisfaction of time well spent. Here in chapter 4 a father spells out to his son the benefits of acquiring wisdom. In verses 4b–11 are listed three of the most important, with the first having to do life itself: “Live by the principles I am teaching you and you will experience life as it is meant to be lived.” Life is not the passing of time, but our opportunity to experience, in the deepest sense, the rewards of living as God desires.
A second benefit of wisdom is protection, not simply from the dangers connected with living, but from missing out on all that could have been ours if we hadn’t forgotten what we have learned (v. 6). Wisdom has a tendency to be overlooked when some immediate pleasure appears.
Then in verses 7-9 we see that wisdom desires to honor us – “Cherish her and she will exalt you; embrace her and she will bring you honor.” So, when we focus our energies on becoming wise (i.e., doing the right thing on every occasion) we will (1) discover real life, (2) be protected from all that would harm, and (3) enjoy the honor justly given to the wise.
Well, that all sounds really good. Let’s just learn from God and we will enjoy the benefits that follow. My question is, “Then, why in fact aren’t we all filled with wisdom?” I believe the answer is that wisdom is not that high a priority for most. The NIV translation of verse 7 is right on target: “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom!” The wisest thing a person can do is to determine to become wise. Wisdom isn’t acquired by the passing of time or a laid back approach in the process. Wisdom begins by wanting it. “Though it cost you all you have,” says the NIV, “get understanding.”
We admire the athlete who trains for years to compete in the Olympics; should not we put the same dedicated effort into living life as God intended, that is, becoming wise?” Wisdom begins by the desire to be wise and rewards us, as we learned, with life, protection and honor. God’s ways are inevitably the best.
When the religious authorities understood that Peter and his ilk were determined to continue spreading their “heretical ideas,” they became furious and decided to put them to death. But one of their own, a teacher by the name of Gamaliel, advised them against such action. He reasoned, “If what they are doing is of human origin, it will come to nothing,” but, “if it is from God, you’ll not be able to stop them” (Acts 5:38-39). They were somewhat persuaded, so after flogging the disciples they let them go, but warned them to stop preaching.
Good advice! Good reasoning as well. If God’s in it there is nothing anyone can do about it. Their theology was sound at that point; to oppose what God is doing puts you at a distinct disadvantage. How often are we aware that God is well and at work in our daily life? That man who needed a different job was suddenly hired by an excellent firm. That woman who suffered terribly with a life-threatening illness came upon a medicine that really works. These members of God’s family were not facing the unexpected hardships of life by themselves; that same God who closed the lions’ mouths to save his servant Daniel, and told Jonah how to build an ark to survive the coming flood, did not abandon them, nor does he abandon the contemporary believer who finds himself in need. Our God is not simply an “awesome” God, but a “constantly present” God as well. Right now he is waiting for our requests (in prayer, of course) so he can bless us, his children.
I’m impressed by God’s involvement in every aspect of life. Peter and the others didn’t have the faintest idea of what God would do in view of the opposition that was already on the rise, but they knew that God was up to the challenge. He would direct the affairs of mankind in such a way that his purpose would emerge victorious. Isn’t that helpful in a day when our entire world is threatened with nuclear annihilation. We wonder at the emotional instability of certain foreign heads of state and can’t see with any clarity how it can possibly work out. But then, remember that God is still working out his plans for those he created in the first place. What I am recommending is a significantly higher degree of God-consciousness. He is Emmanuel, “God with us.” He is right there by your side as you read this column. And what happens if you decide to go outdoors? That’s right, he will still be there as you head to the park for a stroll. We used to sing, “God be with you till we meet again” and whether or not we are aware of it, he has been with us from then right up to this present moment. Why not take a moment and enjoy his companionship!
“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me.” Sounds like the proud boast of the young bravado about to storm the castle to rescue fair maiden. We admire the dauntless courage of the hero taking on the impossible task, unwilling to be cowered by overwhelming opposition. The quotation is from Ayn Rand, the Russian/American novelist, play writer, philosopher, best known by most for her novel Atlas Shrugged. Like every pronouncement of this sort, its validity depends on context. Here is one that makes the quotation look really good.
I know a young man who, after several years of substandard grades in college, decided he wanted a degree after all. The registrar said, "Take another semester and get your grade average up to 'B,' not an easy thing to do, given three years of work significantly below that level. He studied diligently and earned almost all A’s, but it still didn't bring the grade average up to the mark. At this point they wouldn't "let him,” but could they "stop him?" That was the question. He said No, beat down the doors, pled his cause, got another chance and graduated, not summa cum laude but on the president's list for his final year. Ayn, you are exactly right - they wouldn't let him, but they couldn't stop him. And we admire that kind of vigorous approach to life.
But is the theorem universally applicable? Is it wise, in certain situations, not to challenge opposition? And of course the answer is "Yes.” Common sense tells us that in the real world there are "mountains too high to climb" and "oceans too wide to swim.” Speaking to the crowds, Jesus said, "What king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who was advancing against him with twenty thousand?" (Luke 14:31)
So everything depends upon context. The who-can-stop-me mentality is praiseworthy when the goal is worthwhile (even though it might require enormous personal effort), but foolish when the goal has no particular value. Sometimes the impossible is challenged for nothing more than the supposed approval of others. And that's sad. Personal worth is the result of doing what is worthy, not of conjuring up ways to make others think so. When opposition is faced, it is wise to consider not only the cost, but also the importance of that which is pursued. Don Quixote's quest to revive chivalry was romantic, but Sancho Panza, his squire, had a better grip on reality.
You have probably noticed that in scripture the worshippers were always said to “go up” to Jerusalem. The reason that you “go up” is that Jerusalem is located on the top of a chain of mountains that runs through the center of the land. It was an arduous journey and fraught with danger — who knows what beast or bandit might be lying in wait? So the Psalmist looks up to the route ahead and asks, “Where will I find help for what I now face?” The answer for all “the mountains of life” is, of course, the Lord — always present to provide the needed help.
You will remember that following the resurrection, the disciples of Jesus boldly proclaimed the Good News and shortly found themselves in prison. In the account in Acts 5, an angel opened the prison doors at night and led them out. In the morning the officers found the doors securely locked, but no one inside. So the disciples were taken to the high priest to explain what was going on. Peter and the others defended themselves simply saying, "We must obey God rather than any human authority" (v. 27). One might think that was enough, but they went on to point out that God had exalted the very one they had hung on the cross and that Peter and others intended to continue proclaiming the message.
And so, civil disobedience became a part of this new movement of bringing people to repentance and forgiveness. For the believer, there is a "law" higher than the jurisdictional code of any city or state. When a legal requirement violates a principle that we hold to be true, there is no option, but to take the high road.
It may be helpful to think a bit about the nature of law. A law is not a rule created in a moral vacuum, such as, "I think it would be a good idea not to drive faster than 30 mph in town.
Every law is an expression of a moral concern. Take the speed limit in town: Behind it lies the principled concern that people be protected from being injured by cars out of control. Practice shows that 30 mph is a reasonable limit in town. So the law is written, not in isolation, but as an expression of a humane concern. So when you get a ticket it is not because you drove too fast but because the social order desires safety for all. You may have to pay the ticket at the DMV but ultimately you did something wrong against a neighbor.
And how does this apply to the disciples preaching the message when they were told not to? It was a clash of two moral principles: the town's, which was general and the disciple's which was specific. Civil disobedience allows a person to live out their understanding of what is of genuine importance even though it may, for at least a time, put them at odds with the authorities. It is anything but risk free. We allow people to follow their conscience although not with our blessing. Peter and his fellow spokesmen would gladly have followed the orders of the Sanhedrin, but unfortunately that would have made them disobey God, and of course they couldn't do that. How grateful we are that the early Christians were men and women of conviction. Were they here today, I believe they would refuse having anything to do with such current practices as same-sex marriage, abortion, and like practices. To be a stalwart example of commitment to principle will have its problems along the way, but it carries with it the smile of God.
Albert Einstein wrote that if you "try and penetrate with your limited means the secrets of nature ... you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.” The apostle Paul wrote, "Since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Rom. 1:20).
Both references are to what theology calls general revelation. While Einstein recognized only the "force" behind nature, Paul correctly identified it [Him] as God. Biblical theology teaches that with the coming of Christ, general revelation has been supplemented by special revelation. Through creation God revealed his existence; through Christ he revealed his love. The incarnation is God invading his own creation and through Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corin. 5:19). Nature reveals the "eternal power" and "divine nature" of God; the incarnation demonstrates his love. He revealed himself as redemptive love by sending his Son as the necessary sacrifice for sin. A correct translation of the Greek houtos in John 3:16 has the verse correctly read, "For this is how God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son . . . Now that is special!
It is interesting that a renown scientist is comfortable speaking of “something subtle, intangible and inexplicable” that lies behind nature. It takes a generous mind for those, who for the most part deal with what can be quantified, to acknowledge the existence of another sphere. Should it trouble the conservative scholar to grant a measure of believability to aspects of science that seem to run contrary to scriptural teaching, e.g., the age of the earth, the nature of the flood, etc. If both approaches maintain their basic assumptions, I would think that science and theology could work together, not to come to agreement (they deal in separate “worlds”), but to discover the extent of common ground. I believe this is possible since both agree that truth by definition is exactly what it is, not something that merges into something else. Long live the pursuit of truth!
The sequence I will be following for a while will be use three sources: (1) Reflection on a secular quotation from a Christian worldview (2) Insight from the book of Acts (3) Psalm in meter or the application of a Proverb)
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, not in what you understand from your limited perspective. Consult him about everything in life and he will keep you on the right path.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)
We have come to a verse of scripture that is almost as well known as John 3:16. It would be hard to find a Christian adult who has not recited this verse in a time of decision. Should I or should I not? Is this what God wants me to do? What about its impact on family? Then comes the verse and we hear God telling us to trust him completely in the decision. It’s okay to think about the options but when push comes to shove, don’t trust your own insights. What you know is only a part of the story; God knows the entire story and wants to help you make the right decision. And it doesn’t matter whether that decision is really big and important or relatively mundane; he knows best. Our role is to “submit to him” (NIV) so he can direct our lives as he wishes.
I have the feeling that quite often, when teaching a portion of scripture or using it for a sermon, it would be best for the expositor to step aside and allow the reader to use the time for personal meditation on the text. In the long run we really know only that which is revealed to us. Spiritual truth is personal and fulfills its purpose when it becomes active in a person’s life. So I will stop here . . . or should I risk interfering with how God may be speaking to you through the above verses of scripture? Perhaps we may be able to achieve both.
I suspect that my decisions throughout life have not been much different than yours. When faced with the reality of sin and it’s penalty, I quickly headed down the aisle. I questioned where to go for higher education, what professional job I should take in life, who I should marriage, etc. As I look back there is one thing I can say with certainty and that is, when I did what our passage for today says, I found that the result was always good. And I mean always! But when I didn’t listen, I got into trouble. Christian’s agree that God’s plan for life is the best, and the fact that we sometimes veer from this path simply validates the scriptural teaching that the old nature is flawed and wants us to repeat indefinitely the mistake of the Garden of Eden.
So let’s reflect for a few moments on what God has to say about guidance in these two verses.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”
“Don’t lean on your own understanding.”
“Submit to Him in all your ways.”
“He will keep you on the right path.”
I’m glad you took my suggestion and if you jotted down what God has said to you, it would be interesting to compare notes – one sinner saved by grace to another.
Jesus lived a perfect life and they crucified him. Is it any wonder that those who took up his cause would get the same kind of reaction? By only chapter 5 in the book of Acts, these new “fanatics” were facing persecution. The story is laid out in verses 17-20:
*The religious authorities were “filled with jealousy” (v. 17)
*The apostles were “arrested” and “put in jail” (v. 18)
*An angel “opened the doors of the jail” and the apostles were “released” (v. 19)
*The apostles were charged to proclaim this “message that brings new life (v. 20)
It is the familiar sequence repeated throughout history of opposition followed by divine empowerment. Truth will always be opposed by the forces of evil, yet in the long run it will triumph. The New Testament brings it altogether in the book of Revelation — God wins!
As a Christian believer living in the United States, it is difficult to grasp the fact that around the world right now there are fellow believers who are being persecuted. And by that I don’t mean minor incidents like, “They laughed at me at school because someone found out that I went to Wednesday evening prayer meeting.” Awkward, but not life threatening. Fox news recently reported that in 2016 some 600 million Christians were prevented from practicing their faith in that year. In Iraq alone the Christian population has dropped from well over a million to about 275,000. The magazine Christianity Today reports that the killing of Christians in Nigeria saw an increase of more than 60%. For 14 straight years, North Korea has remained the most dangerous country in the world for Christians. The Voice of the Martyrs records incidents too graphic for this article, except to say that the persecution goes way beyond social opposition — in involves the burning of houses and churches, physical beating, torture, starvation, cruelty to one’s children to cause a parent to convert to the faith that is behind it all.
The question is, “Will Christian believers here in the United States ever be subject to persecution of that sort? All I know is that toward the end of what we call time, there will be a great apostasy and the anti-Christ will be revealed (2 Thess. 2:3). That apostasy will result from severe opposition to the Christian message. That is what Paul predicted in 2 Thess. 3:12 when he wrote, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Some form of opposition has been going on since the beginning; whether it will be in the more violent form for believers here in the United States is yet to be seen.
Robert H Mounce