Acts Wednesday: Chapter 23, Paul Before the Sanhedrin

The Roman commander, Claudius Lysias, felt sure Paul had done something truly reprehensible, otherwise why the city-wide upheaval? Why the melee, right there on the temple steps? Why the great bronze gates slammed shut? Now, he had Paul in chains standing before the Sanhedrin. It was his only recourse, for Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, from an important city. He was untouchable. This could be the tribune’s only way of getting to truth.

It was 57 AD, Paul was 53 years old, and the past twenty-five years had been hard on him. Just two years before, he had written to the churches in Corinth about what he had endured for the sake of Christ and the good news of salvation. He had undergone countless floggings and was often near death.

  • Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
  • Three times I was beaten with rods.
  • Once I received a stoning.
  • Three times I was shipwrecked.
  • For a night and a day I was adrift at sea.
  • On frequent journeys, in danger from rivers.
  • Danger from bandits.
  • Danger from my own people.
  • Danger from Gentiles.
  • Danger in the city.
  • Danger in the wilderness.
  • Danger at sea.
  • Danger from false brothers and sisters.
  • In toil and hardship.
  • Through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty.
  • Often without food.
  • Cold and naked.

And, besides all those other things, he had told them, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

Perhaps he thought of that letter now, as he faced these men who had once lauded him with such approval. Their approbation had turned to censure and condemnation. Who is weak, Paul thought, and I am not weak?

It must have seemed a lifetime ago when Paul had stood in silent support of Stephen’s stoning for speaking of Christ in seeming dishonor of the temple and traditions of his people. Soon after, Paul had approached this very ruling body for official papers permitting him to persecute the church, to imprison and have executed all those who subscribed to the Jesus sect.

Were some of the men sitting there now ones Paul had known as a young man? Would they remember he had been a Pharisee, the son of Pharisee, schooled in the most elite seminary available, Gamaliel’s Jerusalem University?

While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.”

Acts 23:1 (NRSV)

Ananias, the high priest, was so incensed that a Jew could claim a clear conscience after devoting himself to offering spiritual privileges to Gentiles, that he ordered Paul be struck on the mouth.

Jewish law was scrupulous about how a Jewish prisoner was to be treated. God had lain down strict rules that unless the prisoner was proven guilty, he was to be considered innocent. Remember that Jesus had been struck, too, for saying something the high priest didn’t like to hear. Paul knew the law and was deeply offended, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?”

But, when he was told Ananias was the high priest, even though the high priest had been brazenly unjust, Paul immediately bowed to God’s law in full, Christ-like submission. Nevertheless, just as Jesus had done, Paul got to the heart of the matter at hand: “I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” It was a canny move. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, or angels, or the Holy Spirit, or accept any of the Hebrew Bible as scripture except the books of Moses. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in all of it.

A heated debate immediately ensued, a theological fracas that swiftly grew violent. Strident voices rose up from scribes in the Pharisee faction, shouting, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?”

When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks.

Acts 23:10 (NRSV)

Paul must have felt so discouraged after two days of seemingly utter failure, his vows left incomplete, the Jerusalem church distanced from him, his missions team of largely Gentile Christians left without an emissary within the conservative Jerusalem atmosphere. Paul himself was badly beaten up, bereft of companions, legal counsel or mediator of any kind, hated by his own people whom he loved so much, God’s holy city in an uproar during Pentecost, and no fruit whatsoever, the gospel totally rejected.

Maybe that’s why the Lord Jesus came Himself to encourage Paul.

That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.”

Acts 23:11

Jesus fortified Paul’s resolve, and his courage, reassuring him he wasn’t alone, Jesus was standing by him. He approved what Paul was doing, and promised him he was going to survive all this because he had important work to do in Rome.

Jesus’ coming to Paul didn’t make the problem go away.

I think there’s something important in that. For Paul, believe it or not—especially considering everything he’d already been through—the ordeal was only beginning. I think we expect God will either aspirin our circumstances (make it stop being uncomfortable) or sitcom our situation (fix it with a few laughs, a nice, pithy slogan or two, and move on).

But the God of the Bible doesn’t seem to do things that way very often. Sometimes, yes, a miracle. But, have you noticed that even the miracles come in the midst of great suffering, and often only in the nick of time? What God is doing, and has been doing all along, takes time, and requires patient, enduring faithfulness.

In fact, matters would get worse, far worse, for Paul would not have such a close sense of Jesus’ presence again for the next two or three years.

[The Sanhedrin in Session | User:Wrongkind707 / CC BY-SA (

As We Near the End of Acts

In just a few short weeks, probably the beginning of May, we’ll finished reading Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry career. Luke wanted his friend Theophilus to have an accurate and reliable account of The Way’s beginnings.

From the birth of John the baptist, through the cross and onwards, Luke carefully researched every story, every quote, all the key people, places, times, events . . . and Luke’s details continue to pan out with new archaeological discoveries, and more recently unearthed, and discovered, chronicles from the 1st century.

What a great study it’s been!

And now, here we are, ready to open a different chapter in the New Testament, or maybe explore a particular topic, or . . . what would you like to read about?

These are just some of the ideas that popped into my head.

  • What will you be teaching about, that you’d like to see some material on?
  • What topic are you thinking about, and you’d like to see some perspectives on?
  • What book of the Bible have you been wondering about? (Especially Christian Bible, since I am doing a series from the Hebrew Bible, right now, on the twelve minor prophets.)
  • Have you been wondering about “extra” Biblical books—apocrypha, as they’re often termed—and how they might relate to scripture?
  • Would you like retrospectives on some of the people in the Bible?
  • Perhaps you’d like background on 1st-4th century theologians?

[Image courtesy]

Minor Prophets: The Book of Joel

Think about a time when your life was invaded.

Something had pushed its way in, you didn’t want it, you didn’t ask for it. Maybe it so devastated your life you found yourself asking, “what’s left?”

Maybe something or someone very dear to you was stripped away. Perhaps it was something tangible, like a beloved one, or a source of income, or your health. Maybe it was something harder to quantify, but no less disastrous—your hopes were crushed, your trust was violated, your love was wrung and twisted dead.

Or, perhaps you are beginning to see warning signs. You sense something is starting that will, in time, grow to become a big problem and you don’t know how to handle it. 

This is exactly what happened in Joel’s day.

Joel is remindful of the locust, as this insect features large in his prediction of a devastating cloud of locusts descending upon Judah, bringing catastrophic ruin. Yet, God would one day restore them.

Joel is next in the list of minor prophets in a typical Christian Bible, but he may actually have prophesied dead last to all the others. In fact, not that much is known about this prophet—he’s not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, except by Peter in Acts chapter 2, and neither is his father Pethuel mentioned.  Because of his great concern for Judah and Jerusalem, some theologians locate Joel in the southern kingdom. 

The dating of his prophecy is tricky. Bible scholars have suggested a range of about three hundred years in which his book could have been written. A number of academics put him with the reign of the good king Joash, 835-796 BC, who sadly ended his reign doing evil. However, there are no clear historical details to link Joel to that era.

Interestingly, Joel references material written by Isaiah, Amos, Obadiah, Zephaniah, and Malachi (who wrote during Judah’s exile), and refers to the Greeks (in 3:6), which would seem to place his prophetic ministry in the Persian era, 539-333 BC.

So which is it? Did Joel write such an influential book that five later prophets quoted him? Or, was Joel among the last of the prophets?

Perhaps the most important clue rests on what Joel didn’t talk about. Because, Joel wrote about the temple, priests, active worship, and elders, but didn’t mention a king, the evidence points to some time after Jews had returned to their homeland and rebuilt Jerusalem.

So, why is Joel placed so early in the line-up, right next Amos? Most likely because he quoted the beginning of Amos towards the end of his own book:

The Lord roars from Zion,

    and utters his voice from Jerusalem;

the pastures of the shepherds wither,

    and the top of Carmel dries up.

Amos 1:2 (NRSV)

Compare with

The Lord roars from Zion,

    and utters his voice from Jerusalem,

    and the heavens and the earth shake.

But the Lord is a refuge for his people,

    a stronghold for the people of Israel.

Joel 3:16 (NRSV)

Another seeming direct quote from Amos, in Joel, happens just two verses later,

The time is surely coming, says the Lord,

    when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps,

    and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed;

the mountains shall drip sweet wine,

    and all the hills shall flow with it.

Amos 9:13 (NRSV)

Compare with

In that day

the mountains shall drip sweet wine,

    the hills shall flow with milk,

and all the stream beds of Judah

    shall flow with water;

a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord

    and water the Wadi Shittim.

Joel 3:18 (NRSV)

It’s almost as though Joel had Amos’ scroll rolled out beside him as he was finishing his own prophetic work. Because they also both described a plague of locusts, I wonder if Joel, attuned as all prophets are to God’s voice was directed by the Lord to open Amos’ prophecy—now two or three centuries old—and read from it as led by the Spirit.

Joel, attuned to God’s vision, could see disaster brewing on the horizon, and turned to his people in trembling horror, calling for a national fast, for repentance, for courage to brace themselves. Whether by an actual event, or by a more metaphorical depiction, Judah was about to be invaded, stripped to the bone, robbed dry, and left for dead. There would be nothing left.

And yet, Joel said, out of ashes and death God would bring restoration.

With many thanks to a really wonderful resource on YouTube called “The Bible Project,” let’s begin our study of Joel with this overview.

The Bible Project: Overview of Joel

[Locust | courtesy]

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 22, The Temple Steps

Bloodied and bruised, his robes torn, his hair disheveled, sweaty and aching, Paul shifted his hands and feet, already chafing from the iron fetters wrapped around them. He had to raise both arms, chained as they were, and wave them with large, slow movements, his hands spread palms outward. He extended his feet as far as he could, the chains clinking, then tautening, as he steadied himself to turn towards the soldiers, then back to the rippling crowd before him.

Hot sun blazed against the brilliant white of the temple’s steps and glorious gold-clad walls. The giant bronze doors, thickly and intricately carved, had been clamped shut earlier by the priests when the crowd had dragged Paul out and down. Now the sun’s rays bounced off the gleaming gates behind Paul, creating an aura of light.

Slowly, the crowd quieted, suspicious and circumspect, yet also angrily curious about what the blasphemer might say.

Paul worked his lips together, feeling the dryness in his throat, feeling his tongue stick to his teeth. He could sense the Spirit helping him in his weakness, interceding for him as he sighed a prayer too deep for words. He was reminded of the letter he had sent to his beloved converts in Thessaloniki, years ago now.

“Brothers and sisters,” he had written, “pray for us, so that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you.” He could feel the tears catch in his throat. Pray, he had written them, pray “that we may be rescued from wicked and evil people; for not all have faith.”

I hope they’re praying for me right now, he thought, then he felt a cool waft of breeze swirl through him. It was the Spirit of Christ, he recognized, the Lord was with him and suddenly he knew what he would say.

Paul addressed the offended men before him as brothers and fathers, members together with him of the tribes of Israel, a kinship that went thousands of years deep. He spoke to them in Hebrew, the language of their forefathers together, the language of the scriptures, of every prayer spoken to God in the temple. And, “When they heard him addressing them in Hebrew, they became even more quiet.”

Paul knew he stood accused before them, so he pled with them to listen to his defense. Then he presented himself to them as one who appreciated, exquisitely, exactly where they were coming from.

  1. Paul’s credentials as a Jew, a theologian, and impassioned to protect all that was of God’s were impeccable. He had been, actually, the darling of the Sanhedrin, and very likely slated to become a member one day, perhaps not far off. He was an up-and-coming orator and rabbi, from the best possible seminary of his day. He was a shooting star, and they all knew it.
  2. Paul’s conversion came not from proselytizers, not from some strange new interpretation of Torah, not from madness…but from the Lord Himself. Saul, in all “innocence” and fervent dedication to eradicate the sect of the Jesus people, had been literally stopped in his tracks, mid-step, by an act of God. One miracle after another came in quick succession—

God’s light blinded Paul physically as a metaphor of his unenlightened spiritual darkness blinding his mind and soul to the truth about Jesus.

God spoke audibly to Paul, attuning his erstwhile deafness to God’s true word.

God then restored Paul, giving him inner and outer vision, and through baptism, a new purpose and a new call.

  1. Paul’s calling was given to him by the resurrected Jesus while Paul was in the temple, those years ago, praying so deeply he had fallen into a trance. Jesus overrode all Paul’s protests. He was to speak in every synagogue where before he had “imprisoned and beat those who believed in Jesus.”

“Then” Paul declared, “Jesus said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”

Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted,

Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live,

… while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air

Acts 22:22-23 (NRSV)

Once again, it looked like Paul was going to be beaten, but this time by the tribune’s soldiers. Tribune Lysius was sure, once he got Paul into the privacy of the Roman temple mount barracks, and had delivered him a good flogging, the full story would be laid bare.

But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by,

Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?”

Acts 22:25 (NRSV)

Imagine everything coming to a screeching halt for the second time. Paul was full of surprises, it seems! What followed was a very revealing conversation about the protections the Roman government gave to its citizens.

Though Pax Romana—the Peace of Rome—was extended to all its territories, the promise to put down uprisings, the promise to protect against marauding enemies, the promise to provide clean streets, running water, the rule of law, the protection of the courts, bath houses, bread and beer, gladiators and horse races, what Rome reserved for its citizens was even better. Roman citizens were afforded certain rights that protected them against graft, gouging, and the usual rough treatment reserved for others.

The centurion brought back a now worried tribune,

The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?”

And he said, “Yes.”

The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.”

Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.”

Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.

Acts 22:27-29 (NRSV)

The only way for Tribune Lysias to proceed now, was to gather the Sanhedrin together—every last one of them, all the chief priest, every single council member—and, bringing Paul with him, find out exactly what Paul was being accused of.

This would be the beginning of several very high profile trials in which all the leaders of Judea, and eventually the leaders of the Roman empire itself, would hear the gospel in no uncertain terms.

[Paul raised his hands | image courtesy]

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 21, What Do You Say?

If you had the kind of audience Paul had, they’re furious with you, they think you are dead wrong, they’re—literally—so enraged they would like nothing more than to throw rocks at you until you are dead, what do you think you would say?

I can hear your answer in my imagination, “Are you kidding me?! What kind of a situation is that? That is never going to happen to me!

Yeah, I know, probably not to me either.

As a matter of fact, I get all knotted up inside if I even –think– I’ve offended someone, that something I’ve accidentally done or said might have angered someone, or hurt their feelings, or in some way displeased them. Sometimes, I even lie awake at night, when I’m supposed to be falling asleep, wondering if something I’ve said or done has annoyed someone. I mean, I am the master at sins done in ignorance. (Did you know God set aside a whole chapter in Leviticus to cover unintentional sins?)

A more realistic scenario for you and me would be a community of people we respect, maybe even love, whose opinion of us really matters to us, and with whom, up to recently, we’ve agreed with politically, or theologically, or philosophically. But now, we’ve undergone something of a change, a profound metamorphosis, really. We’re not the same person as we used to be. We see things differently, we’ve evolved, it’s a new iteration of us, and our lives are transformed, as a result.

And. They. Are. Not. Happy. About. It.

Might be our family, or our church, or our hangout group, or our coworkers, or the people we meetup with, or volunteer with, or … fill in the blank.

At first, like Paul, we needed some quiet to just get our bearings, because the change was so profound. Remember, Paul spent three days at Ananias’ house after Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. But then, we wanted others to know, especially those who knew us, to understand that something momentous has happened, a good thing! We want our community to embrace the change, to not only accept the new us, but to explore and receive the agent of change, to also be changed as we are.

Real life, though, right? Some people will get it and be delighted with us. Others will be circumspect, but their affection for us overrides objections, and they accept the changed new us, though they’re not too interested in the source of change.

And then, there will be those who are absolutely, diametrically opposed, who are offended right down to their roots, aggrieved in their very bones. If you’ve ever been on the other side of that conversation, where you’re the one who’s disturbed and shocked, then you can at least sympathize with their emotion.

And that is exactly where Paul was, twenty centuries ago, on the blindingly white expanse of marble steps leading up to Huldah’s Gates, the entryway into God’s Holy Temple. He empathized with the enraged mob assembled before him, because he understood their zeal for the Lord, the hot fire of their fury towards anyone who would dishonor God, or the things of God, or the people of God.

He, himself, had been where they were, as he had watched with quiet approval at the stoning of Stephen, for the very same reason.

A lot had transpired in a short amount of time.

The Jews from Asia had quickly incited a furious uprising. In the tinderbox of Jerusalem, that comes as no surprise. Luke gave his eyewitness report, “Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.

The tribune, a man named Claudius Lysias, had to act immediately, or there would be rioting, bloodshed, mayhem, and insurrection. If he could shut it down now, they could avoid the ruthless Roman legions having to come in lock down the city. The tribune actually thought Paul might be “the Egyptian” who had been stirring up a revolt in Jerusalem, and had led 4,000 “assassins” into the desert to create a terrorist army. Sure enough, Luke wrote, “Immediately he took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. When they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul.”

Imagine being that tribune! He had to think swiftly and sanely. It only made sense to arrest and restrain the one person who was at the center of trouble: Paul. Eerily, Agabus’ prophecy was fulfilled as Paul was trussed up with two chains by the soldiers. Tribune Lysias tried to interrogate the crowd there, on the temple steps, no one could give a straight answer, and everyone was trying to talk at once. Finally, in frustration, the tribune order Paul to be taken to the barracks, where he could be questioned in a quieter environment.

But, “When Paul came to the steps, the violence of the mob was so great that he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, ‘Away with him!’”

Paul had to be carried by the soldiers, over their heads, I imagine, the crowd was so roiled up, like a pot of boiling water, and so pressed in tight there was no room to move. Evidently, they had not gotten very far up the steps to the barracks (which were situated on the temple mount, next to the temple) when Paul asked if he could say something.

Evidently, Paul must have spoken in either Greek, or more likely Latin, because he got the tribune’s instant attention, with his curiosity piqued. However way Paul had posed his question, it became rapidly clear he was not from Egypt, and couldn’t possibly be the troublemaker the tribune had been concerned about.

Paul pulled out all his i.d. “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city.” It’s possible Paul even had his certificate of Roman citizenship hanging from his neck. And he had but one request—” I beg you, let me speak to the people.”

The arrest party must have stopped right there, halfway up the steps, set Paul down, and gestured for him to say his piece.

Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the people for silence; and when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language.

Acts 21:40 (NRSV)

What do you say to an angry crowd that wants to see you dead, that can’t bear the very sight of you, that hates what you have to say even before the words depart from your lips? Jesus foresaw such a moment, and said to His disciples (and surely through them to all the believers).

You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.

When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time;

for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 10:18-20 (NRSV)

[Roman Legion | image courtesy]

The Minor Prophets: An Overview

When you’re looking at a new book, what do you do? 

Do you read the fly leaf, all about the author? 

How about the reviews? 

Or the column that tells you what the story is about? 

I often flip to the back few pages, I want to find out how the book brings everything together, whether the people I’m about to fall in love with, whose lives I am about to invest in, are going to survive this story. And if they don’t, why not?  If it’s a satisfying ending, then I know I want to read the rest of the story.

I wonder if the prophets whose books ended up in the Bible knew that about people.

When I started this series, I listed the prophets in the order the appear in the Christian version of the Hebrew Bible. But now, after we’ve had a chance to settle in with Hosea (who is listed first, and who also came first), it would be great to see who were contemporaries, who were probably having conversations with each other, and which prophets wrote about the same theme but ended their books very differently. (Much of what I’m going to write about in the next section comes from a great site called “My Jewish Learning.”)

Let’s start with Joel, who is difficult to place chronologically

Joel is next in the list of minor prophets in a typical Christian Bible, but he may actually have prophesied dead last to all the others. Some theologians place him in the reign of the good king Joash, 835-796 BC, who sadly ended his reign doing evil. However, there are no clear historical details to link Joel to that era.

Joel also references material written by Amos, Isaiah, Obadiah, Zephaniah, and Malachi, and refers to the Greeks, which would seem to place his prophetic ministry in the Persian era, 539-333 BC.  

Joel is remindful of the locust, as this insect features large in his prediction of a devastating cloud of locusts descending upon Judah, bringing ruin and disaster. Yet, God would one day restore them.

However, Hosea, Amos, and Jonah all have clear historical markers

All three of these prophets composed their books in the second half of the eighth century B.C, in the northern kingdom of Israel, during the reign of Jeroboam II (the son of Joash).

To get a feel for that king’s reign, read through 2 Kings 14:23-29. He reigned from 788-747 BC, just about sixty years, and built Israel into a wealthy trading empire by controlling the trade routes to Damascus on both sides of the Jordan. Nevertheless, both Hosea and Amos condemned Jeroboam for the social injustices he permitted (and probably promulgated) during his reign.

Hosea, guided by God, prophesied as the heartbroken husband of a faithless and wayward wife.

Amos approached matters from a completely different point of view. He lit into the wealthy in a manner very like what we are hearing today—denouncing the top 1% for hoarding 80% of all the wealth in the land, leaving the rest of the nation to struggle and die destitute.

Jonah has a single mention in Israel’s history, found during Jeroboam’s reign, but what he wrote about had little to do with Israel or Judah. Instead, Jonah took up for the Assyrians—how about that for a crazy way to end a Bible book!

Hosea has been likened to a dove, with God’s words of peace, restoration, and gentle, patient love.

Amos has been connected to the sheep, a social prophet, and a shepherd by trade, who had a tremendous concern for the downtrodden.

Jonah is associated with the giant fish, a reluctant prophet of hope to the enemies of his people.

Next comes Micah

Micah was the next prophet, historically speaking. He spoke the words of God towards the end of the eighth century BC in the southern kingdom of Judah, during the reign of the evil king Pekah, from 752-722 BC. Micah was a contemporary with Isaiah, prophet to the north during the reigns of good king Jotham and evil king Ahaz.

During Micah’s ministry, the Assyrian empire had risen to power and posed a serious threat to both Israel and Judah.

Yet, whereas Isaiah had a more universal, “End of the World” approach to this impending calamity, Micah took the practical and nationalistic approach. He promoted the simple equation of immediate repentance promising lasting prosperity.

Micah has been likened to a horse, thinking of the warhorses of Assyria pounding towards Judah.

Four prophets were contemporaries, Obadiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Nahum

All four of these prophets spoke forth the Word of the Lord during the time of Judah’s destruction, at the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries BC. Although some theologians tentatively place Obadiah during the reign of Jehoram, in 848-841 BC, Jewish scholars place Obadiah, Habakkuk and Zephaniah as contemporaries of Jeremiah and Ezekiel during the reigns of the evil kings Jehoiakim and Joiachin in Judah, reigning from 608-597 BC.

Nahum, prophet to the northern kingdom,had already been dragged into captivity by the Assyrians, along with the rest of Israel.

Obadiah saved the wrath of God for the people of Edom, who joined in on the looting and destruction of Jerusalem.

Habakkuk focused on the social injustice now rampant in Judah and predicted total destruction by the Babylonians.

Zephaniah, on the other hand, spoke of the complete transformation God would bring about in His people, from sin-filled and sin-loving to purified and glorified, from earth-bound to heaven-bound.

For Nahum, God likened the Assyrians to cruel lions, strangling and dragging their prey into their bloody city. Now the righteous lion, the lion of Judah, would put right all the wrong that Assyria had committed.

Obadiah perhaps can be best remembered as the eagle with which he opened his book. Though lofty in its flight, God would bring the soaring eagle of Edom down.

Habakkuk evokes the deer which nimbly “tread upon the heights,” escaping, in the end, the trampling horses of Babylon.

Zephaniah is associated with the butterfly, iconic for the transformation of God’s people.

Nahum has been likened to the lion, symbol of Judah.

Three more prophets were also contemporaries, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

All three prophets, along with Jeremiah, were hauled into captivity by the Babylonians when Judah fell, and Jerusalem was leveled to the ground. They experienced the heart-wrenching destruction of their beloved holy city, stared in horror as God’s holy house was looted and pillaged, and felt the heat of the blazing inferno the Babylonians made of Zion, God’s holy mountain. The unthinkable had happened.

Three prophets, three very different stories.

Haggai working in concert with the prophet Ezra, was part of the first wave of exiles who were permitted to return to the rubble of Jerusalem. He encouraged the people to rebuild the temple, despite their grinding poverty.

Zechariah, the longest of these three prophetic books, concentrated on the theme of God choosing and desiring Israel, of His promise to dwell among His beloved people forever.

Malachi spoke about the immediate social and religious ills that accompanied those who had returned to Zion—neglect and misuse of the Sabbath, and their sin of intermarriage.

Haggai can best be remembered with the bee, for bees build their home for their queen, honey was a symbol of God’s blessing, and as a swarm would do, God promised to drive their enemies away.

Zechariah is remindful of the donkey, bringing to mind his famous prophecy of the Lord coming in peace, riding on a donkey.

Malachi may be associated with the jackal, which appears early in his book, for God had left Edom to jackals, yet now His own people were acting like jackals.

[Scroll and table in antiquity | courtesy]

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 21, The Jews from Asia

There is little doubt the vow Paul had taken was Nazirite. The completion of the vow involved expensive sacrifices, a long ritual involving priests, a series of offerings, special preparations, and a symbolic cleansing of the previous life signified by shaving the head.

This is the law for the Nazirites when the time of their consecration has been completed: they shall be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and they shall offer their gift to the Lord…

Then the Nazirites shall shave the consecrated head at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and shall take the hair from the consecrated head and put it on the fire under the sacrifice of well-being…

This is the law for the Nazirites who take a vow. Their offering to the Lord must be in accordance with the Nazirite vow, apart from what else they can afford. In accordance with whatever vow they take, so they shall do, following the law for their consecration.

Numbers 6:13, 18, 21 (NRSV)

Both men and women could make this vow to the Lord, though the most famous Nazirite was a man, one of the judges of Israel, named Samson.

The completion of his vow required that Paul pray daily in the temple for seven days. At the end of this period, he would pay the fees for himself, and his four fellow Jewish Christians, fulfilling both his obligation to God, and to the requirements James and the Jerusalem council had asked of him, to prove his innocence. Every morning, Paul faithfully kept his vow and his promise, passing through the splendid white marble colonnade and glimmering gold walls of Solomon’s portico, and entering the massive bronze doors into the temple itself.

And then, in one of those horrible, slow-motion moments, all Paul’s efforts at reconciliation and humble generosity began to unravel.

When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd.

They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.”

For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple.

Acts 21:27-29 (NRSV

It isn’t certain who these Asian Jews were who recognized Paul, but remember there was a group of Jews who detested what Paul taught and they followed him from town to town, stirring up trouble wherever he went.

Possibly these were from that same group of people, determined to shut Paul down. It’s possible they also recognized one or another of the Gentile Christians who had accompanied Paul and wrongly assumed he was taking them with him into the temple for the purification rites.

They were right about accusing Paul of teaching the Gentiles they could receive God’s forgiveness through Jesus apart from keeping the Law. They were wrong to think Paul was was teaching against God’s people and word, or bringing Gentiles into the Jews-only section of the temple, which was an act punishable by death.

Paul was caught on the temple steps, all around there were angry people, but no loose stones, so they only had dust and their own cloaks to throw.

They were wild and infuriated but Paul didn’t think to condemn them or plead with them, instead he saw a wonderful chance to talk about the gospel to this huge crowd gathering around him. He wasn’t thinking about himself, but rather them, and what they needed, the love, grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

Paul gave them his credentials as a Pharisee, having studied under the renowned and well-respected Gamaliel. Paul expressed his empathy with how they felt about him, even calling on the high priest to testify on his behalf, that he used to be the same way, zealous to protect Judaism and to destroy Christianity. Then he talked about this glorious person, Jesus, Who had appeared to him, and impressed on him that He was the Lord, and had appointed Paul to preach the gospel.

Paul appealed to them, they could hardly blame him for obeying God. But they were enraged at the idea that he would preach God’s blessing and forgiveness to the despised Gentiles.

There is no record of the Christians in Jerusalem trying to help Paul.

Paul may have been tempted to think “If only I hadn’t gone along with James’ idea I wouldn’t be in this mess. I was trying to please God, but here I am, everybody hates me and wants to beat me up. I’m all alone, even God isn’t rescuing me.”  You know how that is when something terrible happens.

  • You wish you could roll back the clock,
  • if only you hadn’t said those words,
  • or done that thing,
  • or made that decision,

this crisis wouldn’t be on your hands. It’s tempting to think that you weren’t in God’s will after all, because He seems distant, and this trouble is so bad.

But the person who has put their faith in Jesus, who knows they are in God’s will, who prayed ahead of time and was satisfied they had received God’s clear direction, through the inward testimony of His Spirit, and through the outward confirmation of God’s written word and circumstances, doesn’t need to question whether they are really in God’s will when everything goes wrong.

God is at work.

He has a purpose in it.

At every place people had tried to dissuade Paul from going to the cross, from being in God’s will. But Paul didn’t let even the people who loved him most keep him from doing what God had called him to do.

Listen, if God has called you, and you are sure of it because of His confirming word and outward confirming circumstances such as those who have authority in your life giving you the go-ahead, then sticking with God’s plan shows character, especially when the going gets tough.

Circumstances do not limit God

Circumstances are not independent of God. God creates circumstances. God is the master of circumstances.

What is rattling your commitment right now?

When you find yourself in a similar situation, where you did what you knew God had in mind for you to do, and disaster appeared to be the result, do not look at the second causes: what someone said or did, or didn’t say or do. Keep your eyes on the First Cause, and say, Lord, You have allowed this to happen to me, and now show me how I am going to glorify You in it.

[Reconstruction of Herod’s Temple–“IL09 0857 Herod’s Temple at Israel Museum, Jerusalem” | Benjamin, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 21, Paul and James

The very next day after he had arrived, Paul offered the collection of money to James, as the head of the Jerusalem church, and presented the delegation of Gentile Christians as proof of the excellence of the gospel and the transforming power of Jesus’ Spirit within them. Luke, right there at his shoulder, wrote, after greeting them, Paul related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

Paul talked about what God had done, not what Paul had done. That’s what kept Paul from ever burning out—his perspective of his ministry was not on what he was doing, but always on what God was doing through him. Paul could completely exhaust himself in the Lord’s employ and still count it all joy because it was with God’s wonder-working power surging through him, and not with his own limited resources. He could enjoy with the same awe and wonder the fruit of his labors because it was really God’s fruit, born through Paul.

I’ve often read—and heard—teaching along the lines of observing regular rest, giving the body and spirit time to refresh and be re-energized. This is good teaching, in keeping with God’s institution of the sabbath, at the beginning of time.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Genesis 2:1-3 (NRSV)

Nevertheless, there are times when God asks the extraordinary, just as Jesus seemed to model during His own ministry.

As the apostle John noted years later in his gospel, “the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.‘” Later, Jesus stated an important truth about the pressing time, “We must work the works of Him Who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

When Jesus stole away to pray, it was in the predawn hours, or long into the night, always sacrificing what few hours He had to sleep in order to commune with the Father. He and His disciples ate irregular meals, even to gathering wheat kernels as they walked through a field on the Sabbath, since there was no time to prepare food. This happened so often, the gospels record three important points:

  • The famous feeding of 5,000, one of the rare episodes recorded in all four gospels (apart from Passion Week), occurred because Jesus had been teaching and healing nonstop, and the crowds had finally grown noticeably hungry. The disciples, by the way, had not had a break since Jesus had sent them weeks before on their first missions trip.
  • The feeding of the 3,000 happened after three days of nonstop teaching and healings, and everyone had grown weak with hunger and weariness.
  • In Mark’s gospel, news of the intensity of Jesus’ ministry got back to His family, “and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” This attempt by His own family to restrain Him is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels

Much as Paul practiced the spiritual disciplines of his day, worshiping on the Sabbath, observing the rites, feasts, vows, and sacraments of his Jewish heritage, and much as he regularly worshiped with believers, I think Jesus’ example was ever before him. He knew he “must work the works of Him Who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”

The Jewish Christians praised God after hearing Paul’s report, but it isn’t clear whether James and the Jerusalem church were that thankful for the Gentile Christians’ sacrificial love gift of money. There is no record of them thanking Paul, or even receiving the precious gift that had cost the Gentile churches so dearly to send to them. What is recorded was James’ and the Jewish Christians’ immediate concern and criticism of Paul.

You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law.

They have been told about you that you

1. teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses

2. and that you tell them not to circumcise their children

3. or observe the customs.

What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.

So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them, and pay for the shaving of their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law.

Acts 21:20-24 (NRSV)

Many theologians wonder if this is how the Jerusalem church chose to spend the gift of money Paul had brought to them. Paying for the expensive fees of four vows may have represented a compromise that would have enabled Paul to prove his innocence, while at the same time relieve the Jerusalem leadership of the burden of deciding whether or not to accept (Gentile) money from Paul.

What is remarkable is Paul’s gentle and humble spirit towards James and the Jewish Christians.

Paul was determined to illustrate with his life the truth about freedom in Christ, that he was as unified with them in Spirit and in God’s word as he had always been. As soon as James had urged Paul to cover the fees of his fellow Jews, he acknowledged the differences between the Gentile Christians’ observance of God’s Levitical law and the Jewish Christians’ observance, who had grown up with Levitical law.

Paul was eager to bring harmony and unity to the church, to be the leader God had called him to be in setting the tone for reconciliation. Since the sacrificial gift didn’t seem to be doing the great healing work Paul had hoped it would do, he immediately and willingly agreed to James’ suggestion.

James may have been wrong in what he asked Paul to do, but Paul was right to agree. This was living out the principles he had been teaching, to do everything in his power to be at peace with his brothers and sisters, to do what it took to help them grow in Christ.

[Image by moshehar | Pixabay]

Acts Wednesday: Chapter 21, Last Leg of the Journey

We pick Paul’s story back up as he was completing his third missionary journey, encouraging the churches he planted and collecting money to take to Jerusalem to help relieve the famine and poverty of the Jewish Christians there. Paul had hoped to heal the growing division between the Jewish and the Gentile churches by showing Jerusalem how deeply the Gentile Christians loved them and were willing to sacrifice for them. Remember back in chapter 20, Paul had brought with him a delegation of eight elders from the Gentile churches, each bringing the gifts from their area

As Paul and the delegation approached Jerusalem, they met with churches along the way, and people began to prophesy in the Spirit that Paul was heading into terrible danger. As God revealed the truth to these saints and to Paul, they feared for Paul’s life, and in their deep love for him, each church begged him not to continue.

Each prophecy was getting more dramatic and emotional than the last, until Paul found his heart beginning to break. Was he really in God’s will to continue on?Finally, as he met with his last group of beloved friends and coworkers, the elders from the assemblies in Ephesus, Paul cried out,

And now, as a captive to the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.

But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.

Acts 20:22-24 (NRSV)

There was no dissuading him as he set his shoulders and squared his jaw forward. Luke, careful to document every detail, recorded their progress.

When we had parted from them and set sail, we came by a straight course to Cos, and the next day to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. When we found a ship bound for Phoenicia, we went on board and set sail. We came in sight of Cyprus; and leaving it on our left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days.

Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.

When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city.

There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home.

Acts 21:1-6 (NRSV

I circled each of the place names, and pointed to Akko
Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions

You can see how Paul had to keep moving to make up for lost time due to his unscheduled detour (to avoid those who were seeking to kill him.

Ptolemais, incidentally, is called Akko today, and was the best natural harbor on the entire coast of Palestine. From there, Paul and his company continued on to Caesarea where they spent several days with Philip the evangelist and his four unmarried daughters who had all received the gift of prophecy. It was here Paul finally broke down in tears, as the prophet Agabus vividly portrayed to him what the Spirit was telling them all would come.

Thus says the Holy Spirit,” Agabus had said, employing the code language of prophets announcing a direct word from the Lord. He had loosened the belt Paul had been using to hold his robes together, and had taken it from him. As all watched in somber silence, Agabus first tightly bound his feet, then proceeded to knot his arms and hands together, trussing himself up as a prisoner. ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”

Even Luke was overcome with the heavy and frightening truth of Agabus’ message. There was no denying the voice of God had spoken. They had rightly discerned the Spirit’s message, for it was clear what lay ahead for Paul would be dangerous and dreadful. Yet, because of their great love for Paul and their shared passion to see the gospel spread to the ends of the earth, it seemed inconceivable God would provide such a unified and powerful report of calamity without expecting Paul to take heed and turn back.

Paul, by now, was crying openly. “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Stricken to the heart, the crestfallen gathering fell silent. All that was left was to continue their journey, the excitement drained from them, leaving only the residue of sorrow and apprehension. “The Lord’s will be done,” they said, with shaky voices and tear-filled eyes, swallowing hard.

Paul was absolutely convinced God had a purpose for him in Jerusalem, and he had to stand firm on that. In the same way that Jesus knew the cross was God’s will for Him, even though Peter tried to stop Him out of love and concern, Paul knew that this was God’s will for him, even though his beloved friends were trying to stop him.

It makes me think about when my own feelings and logical reasoning get in the way of what, perhaps, God is intending for me, or someone I love. There are times when we absolutely know the voice of God has spoken, but…we’re not sure what to do about it.

Shaken and subdued, Luke wrote in his journal, “After these days we got ready and started to go up to Jerusalem. Some of the disciples from Caesarea also came along and brought us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we were to stay.”

Remember who else was from Cyprus? Barnabas!

Mnason’s name, a variant of “Jason” and common to the Greeks, established him as a Hellenistic Jew. Because Luke identified him as an early Christian, it’s possible he was in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost, perhaps even with Barnabas, and was among those first few thousand who joined in faith. Alternately, he may have become a believer during Barnabas’ and Paul’s first missions trip with Mark.

Apparently, Mnason had relocated to the mainland in the larger Jerusalem district, as later texts place his village outside the city itself.

When Paul and his large entourage arrived in Jerusalem, Luke said they were welcomed warmly. What a relief! But it wasn’t to last long.

[Escapeguy / CC BY-SA (

Minor Prophets: Hosea, A Love Story

When God, out of love, had chosen Israel, His people, like Gomer, were young, beautiful, and God cherished them like a tender parent.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.

Hosea 11:1-4

But the more God called to His people, the harder they pushed Him away, so, like Gomer, He let them go to the ruin they were determined to experience. God’s judgment came through the natural consequences of their sin—corruption, decay, and death.

Then, there is an amazing turning point about two-thirds of the way through Hosea’s book:

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

Hosea 11:8-11

Aren’t those beautiful words? Aren’t the like a healing salve on a hurting soul? It helps, doesn’t it? No matter how far down the pit you and I go, God is still saying, “I love you freely, My heart is clenched within Me over you, My compassion grows warm, and My arm is still long enough to reach way down into the darkness you’ve found yourself in. I want more than anything to lift you up, and draw you close to Me.”

The compassion of God found its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ, for Hosea’s story is as timely now as it ever was. In a way, Hosea is a shadow of Jesus, Who will look high and low for us, and never stop searching until He finds us. And He is willing to pay whatever it costs, do whatever it takes, to restore us, and join His life with ours.

Still restoration will not happen without true repentance. God’s unfailing love to His people included the severe chastisement of Assyria. But during their exile, Israel did turn to the Lord in true repentance.

As you and I turn to the last page of Hosea together, we can see the prayer in chapter 14 is so different than the one in chapter 6. Now Israel was like Gomer at the slave auction, stripped bare so that sin and degradation could no longer be hidden, bereft of every lover, alone.

It’s easy enough to confess somebody else’s sins, isn’t it?  Well, they did thus and so, that was really awful, and oh Lord, I am so longing for Your healing from that.

And it’s easy enough to just make a blanket confession—Oh Lord, I haven’t been all I could be this week…

But to repent of our own, specific, sin, name it by name, is so difficult it’s actually impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit.

And Israel was ready, just as Gomer had been. “We will never again say ‘Our gods’ to what our own hands have made,” and they never did, once they returned from exile.

Fearfulness, pride, boastfulness, jealousy, envy, prayerlessness, discontent, outbursts of anger, gossip, slander, resentment, unforgiveness, smugness, anxiety and agitation, a critical spirit, forsaking our first love for the Lord Jesus Christ, rationalizing sin, yielding to temptation, grumbling, a complaining attitude, distrust of God’s working in our lives, lying, lust, lack of interest to glorify Jesus Christ, not desiring the best for another, withholding love from those who thwart us, or oppose us…

I had to stop. I tried to think of all the inner sins, all the ways we fall short of God’s beautiful shalom, God’s loveliness…and I had to give it up. It’s just too much.

The apostle John summed up the solution in one of his letters. He said, If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” It’s so good, I went ahead and memorized it. I need this one several times a day, sometimes.

God cleanses all of it. What others do to you and me, and what we do to others. What we do to ourselves. That’s the measure of God’s love.

True love is of God, Whose love is infinite. Love is sovereign, love defies reasoning, it is apart from reason. Love is not according to logic, love is according to love. Love goes all the way, and then love goes one step further.

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