Acts 21:4-14; Paul Goofs?

In my coursework we are going through the book of Acts and I've developed a renewed appreciation for Paul and his ministry. But what has really grabbed my attention has been incidents where it seems that Paul has actually made a mistake.

Now let's get this straight: Paul was not infallible, he could and did make mistakes. The Bible records those (and the mistakes - even sins - of others) inerrantly. While Paul is legitimately a role-model (1Cor 11:1), he isn't perfect and even said so (1Tm 1:15).

When Paul comes back from his last missionary circuit, he stops by and has a quick off-site briefing with the leaders from Ephesus and admits to them that everywhere he's been recently the Spirit keeps saying that 'bonds and afflictions' await him. Paul says good-bye, sails back towards home, and then lands in Tyre.

In Tyre, the prophesies are a bit more explicit (Ac 21:4): "they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem." Now I don't know if there might be something hiding in the text, but it sounds like - from these words - that the Spirit is trying to tell Paul "Don't go to Jerusalem!" Now, what's the difference in Paul's reaction between this and Ac. 16:6-7 where Paul hears from the Spirit to not go to places, Paul obeys, and does not go to those places?

Paul then goes to stay with Philip and his four daughters (all prophetesses) in Caesarea. Agabus, a prophet who seems to have a good track record, makes a special trip up to Paul and warns him, again, things aren't going to go well if Paul persues this course of action. All the folks (including Philip and his daughters) take this news and beg Paul to not go further. Paul doesn't listen.

Finally, in the face of a remarkably intrasigent Paul, the folks there say, "Well, we sure hope that God can do what he wants with this situation." Now a couple of commentators I've read both see that as the folks "finally acknowleged that it was the Lord's will for Paul to go."

Really? In the face of five prophets, a Proto-Deacon who helped to break the gospel into Samaria, and the words of the Spirit from many believers for the last few months, am I to read this narrative and see that the vast majority of Christian leaders (including reliable and respected prophets) all saw it the other way but only Paul had it right?

Any thoughts out there?


Paul's Miscalculation?

As I read both first and second Corinthians and one of the minor themes was how Paul interacted with this church he’d planted. After he left, they got into a habit of disrespecting him. Paul, in both letters, has to reassert his apostolic and pastoral authority.

What’s interesting is that Paul figures this out and he identifies the cause. He jokes with them: "You guys don’t respect me because I didn’t abuse you financially." Now it’s only half a joke because, from Paul’s perspective, that’s actually a big bit of what’s going on between him and them – and that’s pretty messed up.

Paul got to Corinth and was supported by other churches in order to do his church planting work there. He had very good reasons for doing so, but the Corinthian church consistently misread Paul’s generosity on their behalf.

What is really annoying about the church is that, once the church was established, they still weren’t willing to give to support the work of the gospel! (We see that in 1Cor.9:9-14) Finally, in 2Cor.11:7 Paul says, “Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God without charge?

And I wonder, seriously, was that an error in judgment on Paul’s part?

I remember a while back when we were getting ready to launch a really important ministry initiative that would involve people buying a book. Most of the people in the room said, “This is so important and so beneficial to our people that we should make sure there is absolutely no barrier for them – have the church pick up the tab and give the people the books for free!” But a couple of folks said, more wisely I think: “No, they should be made to pay a few bucks for the book. If they don’t pay even a little bit for it, they won’t value it.”

I wonder if Paul, who would certainly understood this dynamic of human nature, realized what trouble this would eventually cause for him as he worked to effectively minister to Corinthian church.


History III

History is important to Christianity.

But, oddly, history isn’t very important to Christians these days. Most believers in my tradition have a passing understanding of Jesus’ biography, the events surrounding the Apostles, know there was something called “The Reformation,” and then think of Billy Graham. That’s all the history about the church they know.

And that’s a shame, it seems to me. Of course, we could observe how many Christians of my tradition are barely aware of what they believe (and, much worse, if what they believe is truly in line with the faith they "profess"). There are many reasons for this: an underlying suspicion of ‘intellectual stuff;’ an emphasis on felt needs and experience; an emaciated theology of the person that believes that Jesus was just joshin’ when he told us to love God with our minds; and a teaching-pulpit tradition that encourages all those weaknesses.

In any case, my point is this: we ought to pay more attention to church history. During my couple of years in seminary, I’ve been challenged by my good friend, Johnmark, to give a bit more weight to the early Patristics.

Now “Patristics” is another word for “church fathers” and they, as a group, are kind of Christianity’s ‘founding fathers’ (a term most Americans know). When I talk about the early Patristics, I’m thinking of those influential church leaders who helped guide the church as it transitioned from the Apostles commissioned by Jesus to the ‘institutional’ church that Constantine ushered in. For about two hundred years, most of these early church fathers worked very hard to preserve and teach nothing but the teachings of the Apostles. The church fathers of the first hundred years after the last Apostle died are of particular interest to me.

My current hero from this time is a man name Irenaeus who was raised in Turkey, actually was a protégé a bishop named Polycarp. Polycarp was a protégé of John, the Beloved Disciple. So it was John (Jesus’ best friend on this earth) who taught Polycarp, and then Polycarp taught Irenaeus. During that era, we don’t see much speculative theology. No, the emphasis was on conservativism: teaching what the Apostles taught – no more and no less.

Now the value of these Patristics to us is that when we have certain questions about, say, church organization or baptism, or engagement with worldview philosophy our proper, right, and God-honoring response should be to go to the Bible. But what if there is ambiguity there? I realize that’s a hot-button statement. But still, I have to acknowledge that some ambiguity on those matters exist. The next place to go is, seems to me, to those early Patristics.

For example, to those who insist that baptism is only valid if it is done by immersion might be surprised to learn that the Apostles and their protégés were not nearly so rigid. From “The Didache,” a very early document that dates from the 100’s, the understanding of Apostolic practice was that how a believer was baptized was a matter of circumstance. That is, there was an order of preferred 'modes:' immersion in cold flowing water (river or beach) was the best, second best was cold still water, third best was warm still water, fourth best was to pour water over the head three times. All of those were legitimate modes of baptism to the very early church. What was really important was that the person being baptized and the one doing the baptism to fast one or two days before. These days, we don't even think about doing a fast before baptism.

Hmmmm. Folks, that’s what was important to the Apostles: not how the person got wet, but whether they were spiritually prepared to engage in the ritual.

We say that our faith is built upon Jesus and the Apostles’ teaching but we conveniently neglect to see what the Apostles actually taught. We make ambiguous Biblical passages into doctrine and ignore Apostolic teaching.

Now I am not – read me well – in any way suggesting that early Patristic writings have the same authority as the canon of scripture. I am suggesting that they should be influential in our understanding of some ambiguities which I believe God has allowed to be in scripture.

Here's another thing; I realize that there's a current faddish re-discovery of the Patristics among Evangelicals. I applaud that movement as an attempt to get reconnected with the church's history. However I would exhort Evangelicals to go beyond the faddish find-a-quote-from-a-Patristic and thoughtfully engage with those men who struggled to carry on the Apostles' teaching.


History II

History; well, that’s a tough thing.


First, because many people didn’t have my good experience with history classes in school. For them, history is boorrrrinnngggg – a real snoozer and anytime history is brought up, their lights go out. If you ever tried to pay attention, your likely response was: “What-ever.”

Second, history is, well, old. In our modernistic culture new is good and old is bad. Progress is the goal and “history is bunk.” We have lots of clichés for that attitude: “That was then, this is now;” “What have you done for me lately?,” "What's next?," “Let’s not dwell on the past,” “Forget the past, look to the future,” and so on. Really, our culture truly, viscerally, and with extreme prejudice believes with all its heart that history is, well, evil. I don't think I'm overstating here. People these days have an allergic reaction to history.

Third, history, …. "Dude, there’s just so much of it!" Humans have been around for a long time and even within ‘recorded’ history there’s just a lot of stuff to know. History can be overwhelming and it can be really difficult to place events, people, eras, movements, and cultures in coherent context.

Fourth, history is depressing. Face it, there’s not a lot of happy news in history. A lot of it is about meglomaniacal warlords in love with their own legends; wars, battles, killing, plagues, famines, dying, and a constant theme of trajedy, injustice, and oppression. History is frequently not a happy place. Here's something from Brennan Manning: "How does one dare to propose the way of trust in the face of raw, undifferentiated heartache, cosmic disorder and the terror of history?" Followers of Jesus see that matter differently, by the way.

Fifth, Yes - history can be prey to ‘perspectivalism.’ Yes, many historians wrote with almost comically transparent agendas and biases. Even those part of the ‘modern’ historical movement have been shown to be unconsciously influenced by their times, societies, and mores.

Yet, badly told history should be a motivation to demand well-told history.
  • As to boring; even in our narcissistic culture, if we want to know ourselves even better, we should want to know where we came from, how we came to be, and what shaped us. History is our own story - it is interesting.

  • And, yes, there’s a lot of history! But there have been a lot of people who have come before us and we owe it to them to try and capture their times and a small sliver of their lives.

  • For Christians, who are deeply wounded by the injustices done in the name of their savior Jesus, we see history as a painful, yet needed, reminder that people are broken and have needed Jesus all this time.

  • Lastly, that even noting the failings of historians, we still are motivated by a sense of objective truth. Those laughable ancient writers may have been engaging in covert sarcasm. Ever consider that? We become sympathetic with those who have struggled hard to get a handle on their times and occasionally came short. We applaud their efforts and ourselves take up the banner to even better understand the times.
We do history because humanity is a historical species. It is deeply ingrained in our overly large cerebral cortex.


History I

I’ve always enjoyed history. That, right there, marks me off as different from lots of other people in my society. Maybe I was just lucky, but my history teachers were good. They always seemed to be able to show how where we are now is because of what happened before. I specifically remember a professor at my Community College, Mr. Haydu, who I realized lectured in history like he was telling a story: characters, plot twists, motivations – all of those things were what made up history.

As I advanced in my education, I got the typical undergraduate stuff about perspectivalism: “All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon” – Voltaire. My favorite is the African proverb, “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.” But that attitude never satisfied. There has always been perspective, sure, but one reason why we tend to trust some historians over others is that those we trust seemed to work hard to eliminate their biases.

In any case, when it comes to history about the church, things get fun. Christianity places a Very High value on objective truth. Yet, because another high value is the recognition of human fallibility, Christianity is ‘realistic’ and recognizes that historians – operating by themselves – can record with unrecognized bias.

Christianity itself is a religion based on history: the historical facts of Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. In fact, Paul states that if the historical fact of the death and resurrection of Jesus is not an objective fact, then Christianity itself is just plain false. Without history, Christianity evaporates. For millennia, this has been known as the ‘soft underbelly’ of the faith. And yet, dispite this notoriously known fact, there’s been no soft underbelly to be found. Archeology and high-confidence history keep revealing more and more strength where the soft belly is supposed to be.

Judaism and Christianity both affirm the importance of history and note that the writing of history is left to its most capable people. Moses, equipped with the best education that civilization of his time had to offer, recoded a purposeful history of humanity to show how his people came to be. Unnamed prophets compiled histories of the Jewish people using the reign of kings as their narrative structure. Ezra, an extremely gifted priest, compiled a brief history of Jews returning to their homeland. Luke, a gentile physician, used his scholarly bent to compile a systematic biography of Jesus and early history of the Apostles.

And we also believe that all these writers were not operating by themselves. They had supernatural guidance. Because, even with the most gifted of people, God was there to work with those writers to not only make sure that the facts were correct, but also that the writing would accomplish the purposes that God ultimately had for those writings.

History is important to Christianity.