Apostles: First Followers and Their Faith

From the introduction to a new book in the Vision Collections series:

The account of the life of Jesus by the first-century doctor-biographer Luke has its parallel in the continuing history of His early followers. Luke wrote not only the extensive Gospel that carries his name but also the second-longest book in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles.

This sequel begins with mention of the previous account, indicating that the history now continues, and is addressed to a man named Theophilus. Luke had written his Gospel to the same person, whose name means “lover of God.” This is either a general term indicating later followers of Jesus, or the name of a specific convert and perhaps the author’s benefactor. Luke acknowledged that others who were “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” had produced similar accounts. But, he says, “it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account . . . that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:3–4).

It seems the second part of the history had no title but was simply treated as a continuation of Luke’s earlier account. The first record of it having a name comes around the middle of the second century, when the Greek word Praxeis (Acts) was applied to it. Only later was this expanded to Praxeis Apostolon (Acts of the Apostles). The Greeks, whose language was the lingua franca of the Roman world, used praxeis to describe the achievements of leading figures.

If the book’s first title was simply Acts, whose acts was Luke talking about? From the name by which we now know it, you might think the account celebrates only the apostles’ achievements. Some have gone as far as to say that the focus is really on the accomplishments of only Peter and Paul. But as we will see, many other individuals achieved a great deal.

Asking the question “Whose acts?” allows us to focus on the central point that Luke is making—that men and women empowered by God accomplish more than they could ever imagine. In reality, it is God’s acts through human beings that are demonstrated throughout the book. Because it is about people and not primarily a statement of beliefs, the book is a rich tapestry of human endeavor in the fascinating multicultural world of the first-century Roman Empire. Here we see belief in action, faith in practice. Luke speaks about the followers of Jesus as people who practice “the Way.” They are not known as Christians but as followers of the way of life that Jesus represented. In this book, we can expect to find practical examples to guide us if we want to emulate those first followers.

 

 

The second title in the Vision Collections Series, Apostles: First Followers and Their Faith, will be available on Amazon in November 2010.

Tags: life of jesus, first christians, jesus' teachings

The Greatest Moral Discourse, Part 3

Next in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned to the reconciliation of people: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). God is a peacemaker. Strife, contention, disagreement—these are not the fruits of the mind of God at work. To be recognized as children of God, we have to practice the ways of God. One of them is peacemaking.

Of course, living in today’s world, we’re often challenged by the opposite spirit, the spirit of animosity and hostility. And that can lead to great pain. But Jesus taught: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (verse 10). Inevitably in a society gone wrong—one that is running off the tracks—those who are trying to live by godly principles will experience opposition. But returning to the theme of the first blessing, Jesus said the persecuted will obtain “the kingdom of heaven.”

In a postscript, He added that false accusation because of belief in Him shouldn’t stop anyone. It is to be expected in a hostile world, but the result is God’s blessing and a place in His kingdom.

The beatitudes—the blessings—summarize a state of mind that evidences humility, repentance, teachability, righteousness, mercy, pureness, peace, and patience in persecution. All of these characteristics are tied to a godly perspective and an assurance of a right and beneficial relationship with God.

This was just the beginning of Jesus’ discourse. The entire message, though forgotten by most, is strikingly relevant today.

 

David Hulme covers more of the teachings of Jesus in his book Gospels, available from Vision Media Publishing.

The Greatest Moral Discourse, Part 2

Another of the famous beatitudes or blessings pronounced by Christ is this one: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

Spiritually speaking, here mourning is sorrow over the effects of sin. It leads to a repentant state of mind before God. It includes the recognition that ultimately sin is against God.

The Psalmist, David, said, “Against you [God], you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” He petitioned God, “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:2–4). This signals a genuinely repentant attitude. In the Sermon on the Mount, we find that Jesus often drew the contrast between the genuine and the artificial, between true spirituality and human vanities, between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law, and between pleasing God and wanting to look good to our fellow human beings. A willingness to admit our sins and to turn from them is central to the meaning of repentance. It is a turning from wrong ways and returning to God’s way as originally intended for humanity. How often have we done that?

Next in His discourse on the mountain, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).And here, perhaps, is the source of a common misconception. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” goes the children’s Sunday school rhyme. The picture so often painted is of a soft, delicate Messiah—certainly not the former carpenter and stone mason who worked with His father around Nazareth. The concept of meekness, it seems, is much misunderstood.

Meekness is a quality denoting the quiet strength of teachability. A teachable spirit—one willing to learn—is a meek spirit. It is an extension of being poor in spirit, of humility. The result of such an attitude will be, according to Jesus, possession of the earth, or the land: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

In expressing this principle, Jesus was reiterating the same thought found in Psalm 37:11, which says “the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.” This is in contrast to “the wicked,” who will “perish . . . vanish like smoke” (verse 20).

But when will that happen, you might ask. No doubt the listeners in Jesus’ time asked the same. Clearly He was pointing to a future time—the time of the kingdom of heaven on earth; a time when Jesus Christ would be ruling in His kingdom on the earth; a time of future restoration.

Looking out on His disciples, Jesus continued: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Jesus knew that only those who really search for the right ways to live with an unusual earnestness will gain such fulfillment. It requires a strong determination to seek out God’s ways. The reward is great, because such people are going to have their desire for the right way to live before God fulfilled.

Next Jesus said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (verse 7). We all want mercy when we are wrong or have done wrong. No one wants the penalty to be exacted; we all prefer to have another chance—but sometimes we are unwilling to extend that second chance to repentant others. Jesus’ words are very telling, cutting to the heart of our inadequacies, our meanness, our vindictive spirit: to obtain mercy, we must show mercy.

A category that Jesus emphasized next is those whose innermost being is honest and upright: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” When we meet such people, we usually know it. The pure in heart have integrity. Their intentions are good, their faces are open, and such people, Jesus said, “will see God” (verse 8). Their reward will be closeness with God that is one of the richest of blessings.

Psalm 24:3–4 tells the story: “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart. . . .”

Tags: moral teaching, teachings of jesus