Wednesday 22nd June 2022

ACTS 15

Today we witness a master-class in high-powered talks and negotiations over the future direction of God’s church on earth; talks which could so easily have resulted in schism, complete disunity, and huge recriminations.  The critical issue was nothing to do with ‘brand’, methodology, style, or leadership – things that we get so upset about these days – you cannot imagine one of those believers leaving Jerusalem in a ‘strop’ because there wasn’t enough ‘worship’ (or perhaps too much of it?)!  No, the big issue was emphatically one of doctrinal truth: can a person get saved without first effectively becoming a Jew?

As I said before, we read a master-class in reconciliation and Christian love between potential factions; inspired by the fact that the Master Himself was clearly present!  It is He who builds his church and what God joins, let no man separate! 

The matter at the heart of things was this: Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, certain men claimed.  The entire Old Covenant had been aimed at bringing reconciliation to God’s chosen people, by means of God’s Messiah.  The Laws of Moses, the wonderful teachings of the prophets, the passion of the psalmists, and the sublime wisdom of Proverbs, Songs, informed and embellished this Covenant.  Included in all this was the discipline of how you prayed, what you ate, when you rested, what defined generosity… all aimed at a preparation of a people for the coming of the Great One, culminating in the Return of the King, finally to set his people free and to establish the ultimate Kingdom on earth, as it is in Heaven.  The Pharisees who had received Jesus as Messiah were at the cutting edge of spiritual living; they had travelled this spiritual journey and had entered His rest.  Now they wanted the whole world to travel that same road!

And yet, these ‘upstarts’, Paul and Barnabas, claimed that now the great highway of Judaism was an unnecessary route to Christ; it was OK, apparently, for these Gentiles to come straight into a relationship with him without any regard for ceremonial holiness, for the requirements of the Law, circumcision or kosher food!  How could that be pleasing to the Lord?  And anyway, these converts would be missing out on so much important stuff!  If circumcision was good enough for Abraham, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and the Messiah himself, then it should be compulsory for all believers, surely?

Peter, the Apostle to the Jews, surprisingly came down strongly in support of the Gentiles.  His argument was simple: in both Samaria and in Caesarea, he had seen the full, undiluted power of the Holy Spirit fall from heaven and fill these various non-Jews before they had done anything relating to the Law of Moses.  Verse 8 is key: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us”.  Peter was essentially taking a pragmatic view, pointing out the evidence of his eyes.  If God accepted these Gentiles as they were, then so must His church!

Paul and Barnabas continued in the same vein, giving layers of personal testimony of the miracles that God had done among these Gentiles.  Finally, James, one of Jesus’ biological brothers, supported their case with some scripture (Amos 9:11-12) and made the decision on behalf of the entire church.  Salvation is by faith alone; circumcision is not required.  But in a wise diplomatic moment, he asked the Gentiles also to be conciliatory, by avoiding three ceremonial actions that the Jews would be very offended by (even though there was nothing inherently wrong with them), and by avoiding sexual immorality – and area in which many Gentiles were very weak.

How do we deal with disagreements and disputes in the church these days?  Do we just break away and do our own thing if we disagree with our leadership?  Do we insist on our own way?  Is our preferred style of worship the only way to please God?  Do we care that we are driving a wedge between God’s people, for whom he paid the ultimate price for unity?  Are we sometimes attempting to be holier than God himself?

What is the Holy Spirit doing in all this?  Where is he producing fruit, and how?  Since Jesus is the Builder of his Church, we can only succeed if we follow him.  Scripture is an important measure of how clearly we are hearing him, but it is not the only source of revelation.  We are called to love God and to love our neighbour, after all!  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  (Ephesians 4:3).

1 KINGS 10 and 11

One day the queen arrived in Solomon’s court, armed with a lot of tough questions.  To ‘sweeten the pill’ she also brought along camels, spices, gold, precious stones, and many other gifts.  Solomon’s reputation as a man of wisdom and a man of God had spread far and wide – so she came to see for herself, from Sheba, probably an ancient kingdom in southwest Arabia.  It is significant that she praised the wisdom and wealth of the nation, the happiness of the people and officials and most of all, the Lord for placing Solomon on the throne and giving him that wisdom.  She saw it as evidence of “the Lord’s eternal love for Israel”.  And Solomon showed reciprocal generosity by sending her back with many of his own gifts.

Then we have a large list of Solomon’s income and assets: there is perhaps some significance in the 666 talents of gold per year (about 23 metric tonnes).  The number 666 is also found in the Book of Revelation as the ‘Number of the Beast’ (Rev 13:18); in ancient times, the letters of the alphabet served as numbers and these kinds of riddles were common.  Seven, being the number of perfection, means that 666 is a continual falling short of perfection at every point.  Solomon, presiding over a kingdom that was the very pinnacle of the Israelite empire was still an imperfect king over an imperfect system.  So much was made of gold that it was hardly noticed in the end and, as for silver, you didn’t even stoop down to pick it up in the street!  By God’s grace, Solomon became the richest and wisest king in history.

Unfortunately, he disobeyed the Lord in at least two respects:  he accumulated large numbers of horses and chariots, as a defence – rather than relying on the Lord (see Deuteronomy 17:16) and he developed a taste for foreign women and had large numbers of wives.  Many of these were from forbidden people groups who worshiped other gods, and they duly led Solomon astray, turning his heart away from the Lord as he got older.  The great king of Israel started to include Ashtoreth and Molech in his worship – mixing that with worship of the Lord.  God became angry and followed through on his threat to tear away the kingdom from David’s line – but not until the next generation.

So the Lord raised up three individuals who became thorns in Solomon’s side: Hadad the Edomite, Rezon son of Eliada, and Jeroboam son of Nebat.  The ten tribes of what later became the Northern Kingdom would be taken away from the remaining nation of Judah (and Simeon) – leaving just those two parts of a previously great united nation.  And the Lord even promised to build a dynasty of comparable size around Jeroboam of the Northern Kingdom.

The chapter ends with Solomon’s death – almost an afterthought.  He was succeeded by Rehoboam, his son.

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