Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Death of a Deacon and the Birth of an Apostle

The Sanhedrin was in an uproar. A man had been brought before them on charges of blasphemy, the same crime they had killed Jesus for so recently. Had Jesus blasphemed? No. Now Jesus’ follower Stephen was in trouble for the same thing, and he was just as innocent.

A Pharisee named Saul watched the liars called onto the witness stand who pretended Stephen had been speaking against Moses’ Law. They claimed he had said that Jesus would destroy the Sanhedrin and change the Jewish customs. Saul got angrier and angrier at Stephen as he heard the charges. Then Stephen got up to speak. His face was glowing as the high priest asked him if the charges were true.

Stephen reminded them that God had led Abraham to the Promised Land. Abraham lived there, as did his son Isaac, his grandson Jacob, and his great-grandson Joseph. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, but God used that to save Egypt, Canaan and the surrounding countries from a terrible famine. His whole family came to Egypt, where they could get food to eat, and they and their descendants lived there for 400 years. A new Pharaoh came to power, and he was cruel to the Israelites and made them slaves. Moses was born, and he was raised in the Egyptian palace. Thanks to an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, Moses fled to Midian, where he got married and had two sons. After meeting God in a burning bush, Moses returned to Egypt and led the Israelites out. On Mt. Sinai, God gave Moses the Law, but the Israelites refused to obey. Instead, they built a golden calf and worshiped it! Because of their disobedience, God made them do laps around the desert for 40 years. Joshua eventually led them into the Promised Land. During their time in the desert, they had the tabernacle, and they had it until many years later when Solomon built the temple.

At this point in his speech, Stephen got to the point. “You are so stubborn! You’re just like your ancestors! You insist on resisting the Holy Spirit, and just as your ancestors murdered the prophets, you murdered the one they prophesied would come! You received the Law, and you’ve refused to obey it!” Basically, Stephen turned the charges around and proved that the Sanhedrin was guilty of the very thing they were accusing him of doing.

That got the Pharisees furious. They were trying hard to control their emotions, but it was getting harder and harder. Their teeth were bared. How dare he accuse them of disobeying the Law they thought they were enforcing?!

Then Stephen looked up. Light from above shone on his face as he said in awe, “I see heaven! The Son of Man is standing on the right side of God!”

That was the last straw. The Sanhedrin could no longer control their rage. Yelling at the top of their lungs, they grabbed him and furiously dragged him out of town. The witnesses handed their coats to Saul, and Saul watched in anger as his fellow Pharisees hurled heavy stones at Stephen. He heard Stephen pray for God to receive his spirit, and that God would forgive the Pharisees for this terrible sin of murder – almost the same thing Jesus had said on the cross! If Saul hadn’t been guarding the coats, he probably would have joined in on throwing the stones.

Stephen’s death really rattled the new Church, and they started to scatter. Stephen’s fellow deacon Philip went to Samaria, and then south where he met an Ethiopian official, and Jesus’ message spread to Africa. Peter and John followed him to Samaria when they heard how successful his ministry was there.

Meanwhile, Saul went on a mad rampage. He went searching for followers of the Way (which was what they were calling this new religion Jesus had founded), and he arrested them and made sure many of them were executed. Pretty soon he broadened his search to other countries! He was on his way to the city of Damascus when the brightest light he had ever seen stopped him in his tracks. It was even brighter than the sun! As he fell to the ground in shock, he heard a loud voice saying, “SAUL, SAUL, WHY ARE YOU PERSECUTING ME?”

“Who are you, Lord?” he asked.


“What should I do?” he asked.


Saul got up, and when he opened his eyes, he discovered the light had blinded him. His companions had to lead him by hand the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the followers of Christ in Damascus had heard about the ruthless man who was on his way to arrest them and have them executed. So it really scared a disciple named Ananias when God appeared to him in a vision and told him to go to the house of a guy named Judas and ask for Saul of Tarsus, who was praying, so he could restore his sight. Saul had seen in a vision that a man named Ananias would come.

“Um, Lord,” said Ananias, “are You out of Your mind?? I’ve heard about this guy, and he’s come here to have us killed!”

But God said, “Go! I’ve chosen him to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles!”

So reluctantly, Ananias went. When he got to the house, he said, “Brother Saul, God has sent me here so you can see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Scales fell off Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He was baptized, and he didn’t waste any time. He immediately started preaching. People were shocked to hear this man preaching the opposite message from what he had just been forcing down people’s throats. In fact, the Jews in Damascus got so mad at Saul for turning that Jesus’ followers had to let him down the city wall in a basket so that he didn’t have to go through the gate, where he might be ambushed.

That is how the evil Pharisee Saul became Paul, one of the most powerful messengers for God who lived. He would go on to spread Jesus’ message throughout the Middle East, and even into what is now Europe! We know he got to Greece and Italy, and it’s possible he even got as far west as Spain!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Jesus' Message Spreads to Africa

Sunday school lesson from this morning...

Jesus' message was really starting to go viral. People all over the place were turning away from their sins and following God. It was an amazing time, and God blessed them. But in all this, the apostles were crazy busy, and some important things got neglected. The widows weren't getting enough care, and Jesus had been very clear that we need to take care of widows and orphans. So they decided to do something about this problem. They met together and chose seven deacons to take care of this important responsibility: Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas. The deacons did their job well, and the Pharisees started to notice. The Sanhedrin had killed Jesus, and then they had arrested Peter and John for healing a lame man. Now they were so mad at Stephen for spreading Jesus' message that they stoned him to death. This set off a chain reaction that scattered the Christians. An evil Pharisee named Saul led the charge against the Christians, and he was merciless. We’ll learn more about him next week. Philip the deacon went to Samaria, where he continued to preach, and many Samaritans turned to Christ.

One day, an angel appeared to Philip and told him, "God has got a job for you. Go south on the desert road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza." So Philip went. He didn’t even know where he was going! As he was walking along, he saw a chariot, and the Holy Spirit told him, “Go hang out by the chariot!” It was clear by the fact that the chariot was a foreign style, and the fact that the rider had black skin, that he wasn’t from around those parts. As it turned out, the guy was an important official of the Candace of Ethiopia.

Flashback. Thousands of years ago, there was a region in Northeast Africa called Cush. It came to be called Nubia, and they had neighbors to the north that you might have heard of. The Nile River flows from the Mediterranean Sea, south through Egypt, and ends up in what was once called Nubia. By Jesus’ time, the part of Nubia where the Nile ends had become known as Ethiopia, and it’s still called that today. Nubia also included what is now Sudan and part of Egypt. The Egyptian King was called the Pharaoh, and the Ethiopian Queen was called the Candace. The royal treasurer of Ethiopia, in charge of the Candace’s money, had heard about the country called Israel, and he had gone to Jerusalem to worship. Now he was on his way home, and Philip could hear him reading Scripture! He recognized the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

So Philip asked him, “Does that make sense to you?”

“No,” he replied. “Can you explain it to me?” He invited Philip to get up on the chariot and have a seat. Then he said, “I’m confused. Is the prophet talking about himself or someone else?”

So Philip started with that passage and explained all about how Jesus came to earth to save our sins. Just like Isaiah prophesied, Jesus was led to the cross and killed like a lamb being sacrificed. He didn’t answer the people charging him falsely, and he was humiliated, spat on, cursed, beaten, and he did not get justice. Philip went on to explain how Jesus rose from the dead and defeated sin and death so everyone could be saved.

They had gone quite a ways while they were talking, and they came to a body of water. “Hey look!” said the official. “Water! What say you baptize me?”

Philip replied, “If you believe with all your heart, let’s do it!”

He said, “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.”

That was enough for Philip. “Stop the chariot!” the official said to the chariot driver. With a crack of the whip, the horses came to a stop, and Philip and the official got out and went into the water. Philip baptized his new friend, and when they came out of the water, Philip disappeared! His job was done, and the Holy Spirit had taken him away. Philip found himself in the town of Azotus, and he continued to travel and preach the good news.

Meanwhile, the royal treasurer of Ethiopia returned home with the best news he had ever heard! According to Irenaeus, an early Christian, the official went on to preach this great news throughout Ethiopia. He told his countrymen that there was one God, and the prophets had foretold that He would come to earth as a man. The prophecies had come true, and Jesus had been the man. He had been led like a sheep to the slaughter just like Isaiah had foretold. That is how Jesus’ message spread to Africa, and the Church in Ethiopia was born. It’s still around today!

Just think…God used Philip to help found the Church in Africa, and he didn’t even have to go to Africa to do it! Sometimes God sends missionaries to other countries, but there are people from all over the world right here in the US. You never know how powerful it can be when you share your faith, or just do something nice, for another person.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Peter and John Heal a Lame Man and Jesus’ Message Starts to Go Viral

Jesus had taught His disciples for 3 years. They went through a lot together. They watched Jesus do miracles, tell stories called parables, and do all kinds of cool stuff that changed their lives. He taught them to live lives that pleased God. After three years, they were with Him as He was praying in the garden. They were shocked when Judas, one of their own, led the authorities to where He was and let them arrest Him. They ran away. Peter denied he even knew Jesus. Judas was so sad when he realized the terrible thing he had done that he killed himself. Some of Jesus’ disciples watched Jesus die in one of the worst, most painful ways possible. John took Jesus’ mom in and took care of her from then on. Imagine watching your best friend, or your son, die on a cross! Then three days later, Jesus’ disciples got the surprise of their lives when some women discovered that His tomb was empty, and Jesus showed up, alive! Most of the disciples didn’t believe the reports of Him being alive at first, but they believed when they saw Him. Jesus continued to teach and do miracles (including appearing out of thin air to prove to Thomas that He was alive) for 40 days. Then He had them gather on a hillside and told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He also said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Then He began to rise into the sky. They watched in amazement as He went higher and higher and disappeared behind a cloud. As they were standing there gaping into the sky, two angels showed up and asked them, “What are you doing looking at the sky? Jesus will be coming back someday in the same way you saw Him go!”

After Jesus went into the sky, the disciples’ first order of business was to find a replacement for Judas. There were only eleven disciples left, and they needed twelve because of a prophecy that said one follower would leave and he would need to be replaced. They had some very specific requirements. They needed a man who had been with them the whole time, from John’s baptism to Jesus’ ascension into heaven. They came up with two men: Joseph (also called Barsabbas or Justus) and Matthias. After they prayed about it, Matthias joined their group.

Ten days later, the Jewish celebration of Pentecost arrived, which celebrated the time Moses gave the Law on Mt. Sinai. Just as Jesus had promised His disciples before He left, the Holy Spirit came on them in the form of tongues of fire. Pentecost was a big deal, and there were people from all over the known world in Jerusalem. They didn’t all speak Aramaic like the local Jews, so they were quite surprised to see Jesus’ disciples with flames over their heads and hear them speaking their own languages! God’s power helped them to speak in languages they didn’t even know! God gave Peter the words to speak, and many people listened to his witness of Jesus and believed that day. So the new Church was born. They loved each other and shared everything with each other. They lived in love and awe of God’s goodness, and with God’s help, the Church continued to grow, more every day.

One day, Peter and John went to the temple to pray. It was about 3 in the afternoon. As they got to the Beautiful Gate (that was its name), which led into the temple courts, a beggar sitting on the ground saw them and asked for money. He had been born unable to walk, and his friends had been carrying him there every day for many years so he could beg for money to stay alive. (Remember how they didn’t have wheelchairs at the time?) He was a pitiful sight, and he was most likely used to people ignoring his pleas for money. So it was a bit of a surprise to him when Peter and John stopped and looked straight at him, and Peter said to him, “Look at us!”

Ah, finally someone who will give me some money! Cool!

Then Peter said, “I don’t have any silver or gold to give you, but I’ve got something even better. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up! Walk!” Keep in mind this guy had never walked before. Ever.

He stood up!

Then he began to jump! He walked around. The people in the area recognized him as he walked and jumped around the temple courts, and they were shocked! Hadn’t they just seen him sitting there, as he had been for years? What in the world had happened?? He was praising God for healing him!

So Peter spoke up. He said, “Fellow Israelites, why are you so shocked? You look like you think we did this! The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has raised Jesus up. You betrayed Him to Pilate, and you murdered Him on the cross. You killed the one who created life, but God raised Him from the dead! We saw that with our own eyes. It is faith in Him that has healed this man.

“Now I know that you and your leaders didn’t know what you were doing when you treated Jesus like a common criminal. The prophets told us ahead of time that Jesus would suffer and die. Great news! You can repent of your sins, and they will be wiped clean! God used Samuel and all the prophets to tell us about these days. He even promised Abraham that He would use his descendants to bless the world. You just need to turn away from your sinful ways and follow Christ!

Needless to say, the Pharisees weren’t too happy about this. They arrested Peter and John and threw them in jail overnight! But that didn’t stop Jesus’ message from continuing to go viral. More and more people were continuing to believe.

The next day, the same Pharisees who had so recently put Jesus to death dragged Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, their court, and asked them, “By what power or name did you do this?”

Just as Jesus had promised, Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit. He said, “So let me get this straight. We’re in trouble for an act of kindness to a man in need. Right? OK, so here’s the rub. It was done in the name and power of Jesus. You executed Him, and God raised Him from the dead. You can see with your own eyes that Jesus’ power has healed this man! He’s standing! Jesus is the only one who can save us. God hasn’t given any other name in heaven or earth to save the world.”

The Pharisees were surprised that Peter and John talked that way when they hadn’t gone to school and learned public speaking, and they had clearly been with Jesus. They were upset, but they could see that the guy had been healed, and everyone was happy about it. It wouldn’t make them look very good if they punished the guys for an act of kindness! They were confused and weren’t quite sure what to do.

So after talking amongst themselves, they came up with a plan. They told Peter and John, “OK, we’ll let you go this time. But you better stop talking about Jesus.”

To which Peter said, “So what do you think? Should we listen to God or to you? You tell us. We’ve got to keep spreading what we’ve seen and heard. You want us to stop? Not gonna happen.”

The Sanhedrin threatened them some more, but they couldn’t punish them without looking bad, and the man had clearly been healed. People all over the place were praising God for what had happened! This man, who was over 40, had just started walking for the first time in his life!

So they let Peter and John go.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

High Noon on the Israelite Front

This morning's Sunday school lesson...

There were evil queens, and then there was Jezebel. She was a special kind of evil. She was born the daughter of the King of the neighboring kingdom of Sidon, and Israel’s King Ahab thought she was so beautiful she was irresistible. He married this Sidonian princess, and she became Queen of Israel. To honor his new bride, Ahab built a temple and statue of her god Baal. Remember him? In addition, Ahab built a pole for Jezebel’s goddess Asherah.

Painted by John Byam Liston Shaw
Oil on canvas, 1896

The one true God was furious.

God sent His prophet Elijah to Ahab and Jezebel to tell them that God was so angry that He would send a severe famine to Israel, and it would last for several years. So Elijah obeyed God and gave that message to the King and Queen. Sure enough, the famine came, and it was a doozy. 

Jezebel was so angry at God that she decided to take her own revenge. Maybe she couldn’t kill God, but she could kill His prophets. There were a lot of prophets at the time, and she hunted them down and murdered them. In fact, if it weren’t for the undercover prophet Obadiah hiding a bunch of them in caves and giving them stuff to eat and drink, many more prophets would have died.

So God sent Elijah with a challenge for Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah stood before the King and Queen and said, “Tell you what. You send 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. We’ll meet on Mt. Carmel and see whose god is greater.” So Ahab sent word for the prophets of the false gods to come to the showdown.

Mt. Carmel
(I pointed out that there were no roads or poles in Elijah's time)

The day of the showdown came. Elijah said to the people of Israel and all the prophets of Baal and Asherah, “Come on, guys! Either God is God, or Baal is god! You can’t keep changing your minds! Either serve God or Baal!”

Then he laid down the rules. “We’re gonna have a contest. I get one bull, and the 450 prophets of Baal get another one. Team Baal gets to build an altar, and I’ll build an altar, and we’ll each put our bull on it. But don’t set fire to the wood. Whichever god is real will send fire down from heaven and burn up the offering.”

Team Baal was getting pretty smug. These were great odds! 450 prophets against one man. Elijah didn’t stand a chance!

And so it began. Elijah let Team Baal go first. They built their altar and put their bull on it and cried out, “Baal, listen to us! Send fire to burn up the bull!” They had been dancing, chanting, pleading and doing other stuff for a few hours when Elijah decided to start cheering them on. So around noon he called out some suggestions. “Come on! If Baal is god, he can’t hear you! You gotta yell louder! He could be thinking really hard! Maybe he didn’t get the memo about the contest today and had a conflict! Oh, I know! Maybe he had to go to the bathroom! He could be traveling! Look at that idol of him! Don’t you think he looks tired? Maybe he’s asleep! You should yell louder and wake him up!” So their dances and shouts and other stuff got louder and more intense.

The same picture as above,
but darkened in Photoshop
to indicate that it was getting dark

It was getting on to evening, and still no response from Baal. Finally, Elijah had had enough of that. He said, “OK, my turn.” By this time, all the hubbub had done some serious damage to Elijah’s altar that he had built. So he put it back together using twelve stones, one for each tribe of Israel. Then he dug a trench around it, and put the wood and his bull on top. He said, “OK, now I need someone to get four big jars of water and pour it over the altar!” When they had done that, he said, “Do it again!” So they did it again. “Do it a third time!” So they did it a third time. By this time, the water had drenched the wood, the bull, and even filled the trench. There was no way this was gonna set on fire, no matter how hard anyone tried setting it.

Then Elijah prayed. He asked God to show His power so that nobody would have any doubt who was God.

And it happened.

Fire fell from heaven and burned up the soaked wood, the bull, and even the stones and the mud around it, and it completely evaporated the water!

PowerPoint slide - I animated the fireball when it came in.

The people of Israel fell down and worshiped God. Now they could see that the Lord was God and Baal wasn’t. At God’s command, Elijah told them to capture the prophets of Baal, and those prophets didn’t live to tell the tale.

And for the first time in three years, it rained. The drought was finally over. In fact, there was a big storm. God gave Elijah strength to run all the way to Jezreel, which was a long way away.

The next day, Jezebel got the news. The jig was up, and her evil minions were dead. She could hardly contain her rage, and she swore to her gods, “I don’t care how badly my gods punish me, but let them do their worst if Elijah isn’t dead by this time tomorrow!”

Elijah had obeyed God, and now he was on Jezebel’s Most Wanted List! When he got the news, he was terrified and ran for his life, way far into the wild. Finally he couldn’t run any more and he collapsed under a bush. He was so desperate and scared and exhausted that he prayed, “God, I can’t take it any more! Just kill me!” And he fell asleep.

Der Prophet Elias
Painted by Daniele da Volterra
Oil on canvas, c. 1550-1560

Pretty soon, an angel touched him and said, “Get up! Eat!” He opened his eyes and saw some bread baked over hot coals and a jar of water, and he ate and fell asleep again. Later, the angel woke him up again and said, “Get up and eat. You have a long journey ahead of you.” So he ate and drank again.  God gave him enough food this time that it was enough to keep him going for forty days of walking. After about a month and a half, he finally reached Mt. Horeb (Sinai). 500 years earlier, God had spoken to Moses on this mountain, and now it was Elijah’s turn. He went into a cave and went to sleep.

When telling about the earthquake, 
I made this shake in the PowerPoint.

When he woke up, God said to him, “What are you doing here?”

So Elijah answered, “I’ve lived my life for You, obeyed You, and all I’ve seen is the people of Israel turning away from You to Baal, tearing down Your altars and killing Your prophets. Now they’re trying to kill me!”

God said, “Go out onto the mountain. I’m gonna pass by.” Suddenly, the wind picked up. Elijah could hardly stand, it was so strong! However, he didn’t hear God passing in the wind. No sooner had it died down, then the earth beneath him started to shake violently! They didn’t have a Richter Scale back then, but it would have been pretty strong, as earthquakes go. It broke rocks and tore mountains apart! But once again, Elijah couldn’t sense God. The earthquake died down, and a wildfire sprang up! Still no sense of God.

Then the fire died down and he heard it in the calm after the wild weather. A whisper.

Man standing in front of a cave entrance
Stock photo

So Elijah came out of the cave and listened to God whisper, “What are you doing here?”

He repeated his lament: “I’ve lived my life for You, obeyed You, and all I’ve seen is the people of Israel turning away from You to Baal, tearing down Your altars and killing Your prophets. Now they’re trying to kill me!”

Then God laid out His instructions. “Go back to Israel. On the way, I want you to anoint Hazael King of the neighboring kingdom of Aram, and find a guy named Jehu, the son of Nimshi. Jehu is my choice for you to anoint king of Israel to replace Ahab. Not only that, but I’m giving you a helper. Go to the farm of Shaphat and get his son Elisha. He will be your apprentice and your heir. Hazael, Jehu and Elisha will do some amazing things. Oh, and you think you’re alone? There are 7000 people in Israel that I’ve been saving for this day. They haven’t worshiped Baal. Don’t worry. You are not alone.”