Acts and the Gospel of Hope

In him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28)

The Book of Acts records the earliest proclamations of the gospel after the time of Jesus. Peter, Paul and others preach to Jews, Greeks, philosophers, politicians, kings and foreigners all around the Middle East. Extraordinarily, Peter and John were “ordinary, uneducated men” (4:13), working in the face of intense opposition from political and religious leaders.

In his famous sermon on the Areopagus, Paul preaches to the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, the through-leaders in first century Athens (17:23-31). Paul tries to contextualize the gospel for intellectuals who “spend their time simply and solely in telling and hearing the latest novelty” (17:22). Academic discussions often veer into obscure topics, of interest to only a few people. How does the gospel enter into these spaces? The sermons in Acts affirm a multi-faceted gospel message, expressed in different ways for different people.

Contemporary Christians have often shortened gospel message to “Jesus died for your sins.” While calls for repentance are an important part of the gospel (3:13), this statement fails to capture the breadth of the message of Jesus found in the gospels, especially as it pertains to Old Testament history and prophecy (7:1-53). Gospel preaching in Acts reveals more details about The Way (18:24, 26) and the extent to which “Jesus Christ is Lord of all” (10:34).

In Acts, the Gospel message is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the expectation of a messiah to rule over God’s people: “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (3:13). For example, Peter discusses the hope of God’s personal presence in Psalm 16 (2:25-28) and the hope of God’s spirit in Joel 2 (2:17-21).  This means that the gospel is a continuation of the covenant made with the God who created of the universe (14:15, 18:24) and liberated the Israelites from Egypt (7:35-36, 13:17). Along with forgiveness of sins (5:31, 13:38-39), the messianic reign brings God’s Spirit to all flesh (2:17, 2:33), healing for the oppressed (10:33) and the resurrection of the dead (17:18, 23:6, 24:15).  The expansive good news found in King Jesus establishes an entirely new way of being human: by living in the kingdom of God.

Several conflicts with authorities in Acts are a reaction to the proclamation that Jesus is king. The believers’ prayer for boldness (4:24-30) recognizes that “the kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have governed together against the Lord and against his Messiah.” When ordered by the chief priests not to preach in the name of Jesus, the believers proclaim “we must obey God rather than any human authority” (5:29). Later earthly authorities fall Herod Agrippa dies suddenly he flaunts his charisma in front of a crowd (12:20-23). While earthly authorities see the Jesus movement as a threat to their power, Christians recognize that Jesus used his royal power to be a servant (Phil 2:6-7).

The Book of Acts also demonstrates that there is room for everyone in the kingdom: disabled people (3:2), the sick (5:16) and sexual minorities (8:26-40). As Peter exclaims, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (10:34). As much as we like to believe that “Christian values” inform our policy making and interactions with other people, our modern societies sill fail to support the same groups of people that early followers of Jesus embraced.

My hope is that church will return to the vision of the blessed community that shares their possessions (2:44), breaks bread (2:46), confronts unjust authorities (3:14-15, 5:29-30) and appoints servant leaders (6:3-5). The “acts of the apostles” demonstrate that a sense of solidarity and community rooted is at the heart of the Gospel. We live in the kingdom of God and the reign of Christ and await the “restoration of all things announced long ago” (3:21).

– Mitchell Eithun, campus pastor intern.

Reading the book of Daniel

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by how much I’ve appreciated looking at the first part of the book of Daniel. As much as I love the Bible, I associate the stories of Daniel with Sunday school stories that tended towards primarily encouraging us to be good moral people. Such a simplistic understanding of the stories (and the Bible) doesn’t fit with the complexity of real life today.

Yet the conversations we’ve had in our studies and the commentaries we’ve been using have been encouraging. Both commentaries (Wendy L. Widder’s The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel and John Goldingay’s Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone) have challenged us. I’ve been convicted about how much culture (and empire) can form us. I’ve also been comforted by how God continues to be present in our lives.

First, some words of conviction. Goldingay, in speaking of Daniel 3 and the actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego notes that

“Their unwillingness to live by other people’s conventions and expectations raised questions about those conventions and expectations. It’s one of the ways in which Jewish people have fulfilled their vocation to draw the rest of the world away from its usual assumptions about religion and life.” John Goldingay, Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone, 20.

Widder, in talking about how Daniel 3 might apply to our lives today, highlights how idols are not always as obvious as the one that appeared in that chapter. Bowing down to the idols of today can happen in very subtle ways:

“Sometimes when I sit down to write, facing my computer screen with outstretched hands, I wonder if I am bowing before the god of prestige. When I lie prostrate on the couch during primetime, it occurs to me that the god of entertainment and leisure might have taken up residence in my living room. In the glow of the refrigerator as I partake of unnecessary and even unhealthful calories, I realize I might be fellowshipping with the god of gluttony. . . Perhaps the most pervasive idol is human autonomy – the right to do what we want, how we want, when we want, with whomever we want. If something makes us happy, we are entitled to it. If something makes us unhappy, we are entitled to get rid of it. Human autonomy is the god of gods, and we worship it fervently.” Wendy L. Widder, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel, 81.

While I found the story to be convicting, I also found it encouraging. Surprisingly enough, the encouragement is not because on account of how, in the book of Daniel, it appears that God always shows up and rescues those who follow God. In fact, the rest of the Bible (and even the situation of the Israelites in Daniel who have been carried off to a foreign land) indicates that God does not always rescue people. Instead, God is present with those who follow God.

We, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are invited to follow God, not simply because “the God we serve is able to deliver us” but “even if God does not.” (Daniel 3:17-18). As much as I sometimes want a God who will simply and always intervene in my life to deliver me, I know that this doesn’t reflect reality. Deep down, I’d also rather follow a God who does not simply follow my whims but instead is present in the midst of the complexity and suffering in life.

Judges: God uses the weak and unexpected

We’ve been looking at the book of Judges in our studies at Campus Edge. The book of Judges is strange and violent, and it’s not always clear how these ancient stories apply to our lives today. Yet, the book of Judges is clear in telling us that God raises up judges from the weak and imperfect and uses them to save the people of God. The judges do impossible things: Samson killed hundreds with the jawbone of a lion. Barak took on 900 iron chariots and Jael killed the army commander with a tent peg, Gideon took down an entire army with 300 men blowing trumpets, smashing jars, and yelling at the top of their lungs.

Knowing our own weaknesses, we are encouraged by how God uses those imperfect people, people like Samson, Gideon, Barak and Jael. After all, if God can use these people, then God can use us despite our own weaknesses and incompetency.

The challenge, though, is that we often move from gratitude that God can use to us to focusing on all that we have done: we tend to become the hero of our own stories. While Judges proclaims loudly that God uses the unexpected people, it’s helpful to remember that most of the time that unexpected person isn’t me.

Why talk about difficult topics?

The studies in the second half of the spring semester focused on difficult topics in Christianity and the Bible. As many people avoid these conversations because of potential conflict, it’s not always obvious why we should talk about these things. Yet, studying these difficult topics can help us love God and those around us. Reading the Bible carefully, as well as listening to those around us, makes us aware that knowing and understanding the Bible isn’t easy. How could God command the Israelites to destroy all the Canaanites when they went into the promised land, an act that people today would consider genocide? Why would a caring, all-powerful God allow people to be attracted to people of the same-sex if it’s sin to act on those feelings? What about gender dysphoria? Hell?

These are hard questions that many struggle with. Not talking about them doesn’t make the struggles go away; in fact, it often makes it worse and may even cause people to question faith. Looking for answers to these difficult questions allows us to use our God-given intellect to know God better. At the same time, sometimes the answers are unclear, as witnessed by how differently Christians address these questions. The Bible also seems to suggest (in the book of Job) that as mere humans, it is not our place to understand all things. So sometimes the questions do not need to be answered so much as they need space to be voiced. When address the problem of suffering, Mike Wagenman, a campus minister at University of Western Ontario, notes that sometimes it’s not about answers so much as providing a “listening ear and open heart” in the middle of the pain and the struggles.

How historical is the resurrection?

We’ve been talking this last semester about difficult topics in the Bible, and one of the topics has been how historical certain events in the Bible are.

One event that presents a challenge to our understanding of how historical the events in the Bible are is the flood. After pointing out that “a global deluge does not fit the evidence,” we have, Andy Walsh at The Emerging Scholars Blog suggests that

“perhaps the Flood narrative is about a regional event or is meant to convey truth about the kingdom of God but not necessarily the history of Earth. I do recognize that once one heads down that road, it shifts the boundaries around what parts of the Bible to consider history. Thus some prefer to stick with a more traditional interpretation, in part to preserve the interpretation of other passages, and instead focus on finding clever solutions to the practical challenges a literal Ark presents.”

Walsh captures well the challenge of questioning the historicity of one event in the Bible: how does one then determine which events really happened and which ones didn’t? How does one not get to the point where one even questions if the resurrection really happened, even though belief in the resurrection is a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith (see 1 Corinthians 15)?

It’s thus reassuring to hear that there is a lot of corroborating evidence for Jesus’ life and death, alongside of evidence that the disciples and early church believed that Jesus rose from the dead and that this belief deeply changed how they lived (and died). Gary Habermas highlights some of this evidence in a recent article. While he acknowledges that this evidence “does not prove that the resurrection happened, it does indicate that the disciples thought that it had occurred. Further, these believers were the only ones in position to know whether or not they had seen Jesus alive after His death. That they were willing to die for these experiences is certainly significant in that it shows that they were utterly convinced of these facts. That goes a long way towards providing the best explanation of what actually happened.” Thus while one cannot prove without a doubt the historicity of certain events in the Bible, it is reassuring to be reminded that it is still reasonable to believe in Christ’s resurrection.

Worse than the nations around you

Ezekiel 5:6-7 says that Israel has been worse than the surrounding nations. Such an accusation seems strange, as it doesn’t seem merely to say that Israel was worse in not obeying the special laws that God gave them, but instead that Israel was objectively worse than those around them. How is this possible?

First, Ezekiel 16 and 23 provide a rather distressing picture of God’s accusations of what happened: Israel had rejected God and run after other gods. In no nation would it be appropriate to reject your own god.

Secondly, there is something about religious systems that allow for a certain type of abuse. The beginning of 1 Samuel speaks of how Eli’s sons, priests, were taking advantage of their religious positions to take the best meat and sleep with the women serving at the temple. In light of what we know about power (cf #metoo and #churchtoo movements) the sexual favors were most likely not consensual. All of the abuse scandals within the church show us how easy it is to turn a blind eye when we believe that good people wouldn’t do that sort of thing. So the words ‘you have been worse than those around you’ are distressingly applicable not only to the Israelites in Ezekiel’s time but also to the church today.

On top of this, many people who are not Christians have a distressing image of Christians as being judgmental and unloving, especially to LGBTQ+ folks. In other words, we are perceived as being worse than those around us.

The book of Ezekiel is trying to get the attention of the people of Israel so that they realize how bad they really are. What will it take for Christians today to recognize our own shortcomings? Furthermore, what actions can we as Christians do to help believe that we are not worse than those around us? Those are the questions that our study of Ezekiel left us with, questions that are not easy to answer.

Applying Ezekiel to today

We’ve started a study on Ezekiel. The stories in Ezekiel are fascinating and peculiar, and so it is a joy for me to talk about what is going on in the text.

However, the strange-ness of the text makes it difficult to see how the text might apply to our lives. Going out and being like Ezekiel is not exactly an option: in the first five chapters, Ezekiel eats a scroll, is told to lie on his side for more than a year, create a mini-enactment of a siege, and run around the city hacking at a chunk of hair with a sword. Doing any of these things today would more likely result in somebody wondering what is wrong with you than having people assume such actions are God’s way of speaking today.

And yet, there is something to the startling nature of Ezekiel’s actions. They make people wonder (cf. Ezek 24:19). When we think about applying Ezekiel to today, the question we’ve been asking is what sorts of actions (or even words) we can do that would make people wonder about who God is and what it might look like to follow God.

Perhaps, as in the book of Ezekiel, it will appear as if those around us do not hear us. Yet, “whoever would serve as the messenger of God must recognize that the calling is not to success but to faithfulness.” (Daniel Block, Ezekiel 1-24, 131). In light of this, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we are not radically changing the world or bringing more people to Jesus. At the same time, we can trust the Spirit is working in the world around us (including the university) and that people will indeed ask us who God is and what faith and spirituality look like.

God who cannot be seen, known, or spoken about properly

Our discussions on Lauren Winner’s Wearing God and who God is have led us to recognize that despite being the God who sees us (and who we see), we can never see God fully. It is like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle where “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known.” In relation to God, Winner describes what that might look like: “I cannot describe God in the same way that I cannot describe a picture I am holding millimeters from my eyes – the picture is made strange and unknowable not because it is distant but because it is close.” Winner, Wearing God, 235.

She notes further that:

“God is boundless and perfect; human language is precarious and contingent and decidedly small. Perhaps, say some philosophers, the only true things you can say about God are what God is not – God is not unjust, God is not finite- because to say anything positive is to limit a limitless God. To speak about this boundless being with our pockmarked words might be insulting, or deceiving, or just plain false. Maybe we would come closer to telling the truth if we said very little, or nothing at all.” Winner, Wearing God, 228.

But since I do need to speak of God and definitely want to speak to God, I appreciate Winner’s wisdom in how to go about doing that:

“It is only through prayer that I become able to speak about God at all; it is only in speaking to God that I can say anything about I remember this morning how prayer is first and finally a confession of dependence on God, and it is that confession alone that drains my speech of the power and argument and self-assertion that speech usually implies.” Winner, Wearing God, 234

God as laboring woman

While there were many images in Winner’s book, Wearing God, that helped us grow in our understanding of God, the image of God as laboring woman (or nursing mother) wasn’t one that many people at Campus Edge could appreciate. This is probably due to the fact that most people at Campus Edge do not have children; yet, it is likely also due to the fact that birth and nursing are often hidden away from most people in Western society.

At the same time, through imagining God as a laboring woman with all of the messiness of birth, we recognized that we have often sanitized aspects of God. We sanitize how easy redemption was, including death on the cross. Should we not have the same unease with the picture of Jesus on the cross as we do with God as laboring woman? As Winner points out:

“The Crucifixion has become so sanitized in my mind, so normalized and familiar, that thinking of it does not shock me or disturb me or really produce much reaction at all, because I, along with much of the church, have turned a bloody state punishment into nothing more or less than tidy doctrine.” Winner, Wearing God, 154.

How does evolution affect the image of God as Creator?

Steve, one of Campus Edge’s board members, has spent a lot of time pondering how evolution affects our understanding of God. Two pieces of work that he has written explore how evolution can point to God’s power and awe-inspiring work.

He put together a blend of the words of David (Psalm 8 and 104) and Darwin, which is titled “Psalm 1859” (Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published that year). This was published by BioLogos as part of a two-part blog post about his trip to an evolutionary biology conference in the Galapagos Islands a few years ago. Part 2, which includes Psalm 1859 at the end, is here: http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/evolution-and-faith-in-latin-america-part-2. He borrowed directly from Psalm 8, Psalm 104, and The Origin with my point being that Darwin expressed the same wonderment at creation as did the Psalmist.

A more original piece that he wrote considers the past, present, and future of God’s creative work and our role in it: http://godandnature.asa3.org/poem-the-new-plant-and-animal-kingdoms-by-steve-roels.html.