You may remember that in this blog post I looked at Acts 4 before then speaking on it in the Christian Fellowship at work.
I've now reached the end of the book and am now into Exodus, about which more in due course I'm sure. But I wanted to pause at the end and make three points which come out. My thanks once again to Ajith Fernando for his quite superb commentary on Acts as part of the NIV Application Commentary series, he said in the introduction that he found it a difficult book to write, my goodness was it worth the effort.
The gospel is for everyone In Acts we see the gospel being preached to Jews and Gentiles, with the idea that Gentiles need not convert to Judaism first - so, for example, male circumcision is no longer required. Following the idea that women were some of the first witnesses of Jesus' resurrection, at a time when women were not regarded as reliable witnesses, we see women in a number of key ministry roles, eg. Priscilla in Acts 18.
We also see ministry going on to everyone, including mass preaching - eg. Acts 2 - and also we see Paul quite specifically working with the intelligentsia, eg. in Acts 17:18 when he is debating with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. Cornelius, who was instrumental in developing ministry amongst Gentiles, was a well to do centurion. This mirrors Jesus' own ministry amongst both the rich (eg. Zaccheus) and the poor (eg. the widow and her mite).
Speaking as a Christian who is, relative to the people around me, much richer here than in the UK, I am very aware that Christianity is for everybody - rich and poor, black and white, male and female, young and old. In tension with this is the idea that living as Christians brings different opportunities and challenges to different people, both on an individual and also on a group basis. Whilst it is right in general to come together to praise and worship, there are times, I think, when we need the help and support of people facing broadly the same challenges from the same cultural standpoint as ourselves. I would want to suggest that both Acts, particularly Paul, and the ministry of Jesus support this line of thinking. Very happy to hear the views of anybody who would wish to argue the opposite!
The miraculous alongside the mundane I've sacrificed accuracy in this heading for a bit of alliteration, hope that's OK with you, long suffering reader! My point here is that, on the one hand, we see miraculous goings on, including the 'place being shaken' in the room where the disciples prayed in Acts 4, we see many healings, including, as reports in Act 19:12, handkerchiefs which Paul touched then being taken to the sick to touch that they might be healed. We read of two miraculous breakouts from prison (Acts 12 and 16).
But alongside this are other instances where events are allowed to take their course. Shortly before the first prison break in Acts 12 we read (verse 2) that James, brother of John, was put to death by the sword on the orders of King Herod. There was no miraculous saving of Stephen who became the first Christian martyr (chapter 7). And there are a number of instances of the apostles being beaten including before they were released following Gamaliel's intervention in Acts 5. And in Acts 14:19,20 when Paul was stoned to the point that the crowd believed he was dead, he must have been very severely injured. Not to mention that, following the first prison break, we read that the guards on duty were put to death afterwards (12:18). Since they were in no shape or form at fault here, one might consider that if anybody deserved divine intervention, they did!
In this blog post looking at Jonah, I noted that in chapter 4 Jonah presumed to tell God that He should demonstrate his wrath against the Ninevites when God was showing His mercy following their repentance, and that it really is not for us - or Jonah - to tell God what to do. In the same way it is not for us to tell God when to intervene miraculously and when to allow events to take their natural course. And alongside huge demonstrations of God's power in Acts, we see also huge suffering for the faith. Our Almighty God is in charge, it is right to come before Him in prayer asking that His will be done, we need, I think, to be wary of assuming that we know exactly what that is.
With regard for or regardless of safety? When looking at Acts 4 I noted that the apostles were in a highly dangerous position, but when they prayed, they prayed for boldness to continue speaking out for Jesus, irrespective of the consequences. Similarly, towards the end of the book, Paul travels to Jerusalem knowing that doing so will put him in harm's way (eg. Acts 21:10-14) which indeed it does.
But there are other times when we do see the apostles taking reasonable steps to ensure their safety. So, for example, when Paul and Barnabas were in Iconium they heard (14:5) that there was a plot to mistreat and stone them, so they fled to Lystra and Derbe to preach there. Paul used his Roman citizenship to stop himself being flogged (22:25). And in Acts 16, after the prison break in Philippi before which they were flogged, it would appear that the reason they do not just leave as requested by the magistrate (verse 35) is to make the point that the law has been broken in beating Roman citizens, to try to ensure the safety of the Christians still there when Paul and Silas left.
How do we make sense of this? Let me suggest an answer, as always, very willing to listen to alternative views! It is right to consider our lives and our health as precious gifts from God, so it is right to take reasonable steps to ensure our well being with exercise, proper food, etc. Similarly, it is right to take appropriate steps to safeguard our own safety and that of people around us. There is a time and a place for being bold for God in a manner which jeopardises our safety, but this is the exception rather than the rule, for which clear guidance is needed before going down this line.
So, pleased to spend time in Acts, look forward to returning in due course - several years at my current rate of progress. Meanwhile, in a rash moment last week I agreed to speak to the Christian Fellowship under the heading, "Is it right to ask God for a sign?" in a few weeks, I did indicate that I needed some time to prepare. Starting point will be Gideon and the fleece. I've got some ideas in a muddled half-thought out way which I need to clarify considerably before speaking, any thoughts on this point gratefully received!
And finally to say, if you're in Dar es Salaam on Easter Sunday, please do come to St Alban's Anglican Cathedral for a 6pm service looking to reflect on the Good Friday and Easter Sunday message through music and readings. And very welcome to my flat (apartment?) afterwards for drinks and light snacks. If you come from outside of Africa, you're very welcome to a bed for the night, or maybe even two!