A pandemic lament – but can despair be turned into hope?

“My body, my choice,” has been one of the mantras during the pandemic for those opposing vaccines, along with “my rights, my freedom and my privacy” expressed at many a protest march against vaccine passports and lockdowns. And a third mantra, “Over my dead body,” has been the powerfully emotional response by parents on hearing their children can be vaccinated without parental knowledge or consent. 

Each mantra is like a lament, a cry of despair in response to those who accept nothing but vaccination to end the pandemic and won’t accept any other view or treatment. It is so sickening to some that they cannot help wonder if there’s something sinister and maybe even evil going on.  

It was the same in Paul’s day too, because in 2 Thessalonians 3:2 Paul asked his fellow Christians to “pray that we may be delivered from unreasonable and evil people.” My King James Bible centre column mentions the word “absurd” for unreasonable, which has strong synonyms like “ludicrous, preposterous, idiotic, illogical.” But Paul was not only up against people who made no sense, they were also “evil,” which in verse 2 was based on the Greek word meaning “actively harmful.” So these people were also out to silence and oppose Paul by whatever sinister and nasty means they could come up with. 

And that made Paul lament too. The absurdities he faced from unreasonable and evil people had made him “despair even of life,” 2 Corinthians 1:8. He was close to being suicidal, or as he put it, “we felt the sentence of death within ourselves,” verse 9. But what was the point in continuing on when the absurdity of people had driven him and his coworkers “beyond our ability to endure,” verse 8

And it was despair that did that to Paul. It nearly killed him. So it’s really worrying to see despair doing the same thing during this pandemic, when highly qualified experts in the medical profession, for example, find themselves being shut down, censored and publicly shamed for simply trying to offer other treatments they’ve seen work on viruses. And now these doctors are lamenting too, because they see people dying who didn’t need to die.   

So how did Paul deal with his despair? Well, first of all, he recognized the source of the madness he was up against, because, following on in 2 Thessalonians 3:3, he writes, “But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.”

So Paul wasn’t shy about sinister forces at work. They were real. He also recognized that God allowed such forces to operate, so that, following on in 2 Corinthians 1:9, “we might not rely on ourselves but on God” who “has delivered us from such a deadly peril (of despairing even of life), and he will deliver us.”

On the one hand, then, Paul had been surprised by the depth of evil he encountered, but on the other hand he knew why it needed to exist – to discover there was a power far greater he could depend on to keep him sane that was just as real too. 

So for those today, for instance, who lament government, medical and pharmaceutical officials all pronouncing an experimental drug as “safe” for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, without any data or experience of its long term consequences and effects on babies, Paul is offering an answer: that evil is real, but so is God when we’re feeling sick at heart at the absurdities in our world and we turn to him for help.

For God “raises the dead,” Paul wrote in verse 9. That was how Paul described his experience of God lifting him out of his despair, And it was so real that Paul then wrote in verse 10, “On him we set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.” 

In vaccine terms, God would provide Paul with continuing immunity against the evil one drowning him in despair. And Paul’s belief in that being true and factual was backed up by solidly based data and the long term effects in his own life too, because in all his many other travels after 2 Corinthians 1 Paul never talks about being overwhelmed by despair again.   

So, yes, Paul would say, despair can be turned into hope, when it dawns on us, as it dawned on him, that we too live in a world that at times is “beyond our ability to endure,” but we have a God who enables us to keep our heads while all about us are losing theirs (from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If). 

To risk one’s life for others – yes, or no?

The pandemic has raised questions that have really made me think what my answers would be as a Christian. For instance, “Am I required by government – and by Scripture – to put my life at risk to save other people’s lives?” 

Scripturally, we have Jesus saying, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you,” John 15:12, which he then expands in verse 13 to “Greater love has no one but this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” And John repeats that point in 1 John 3:16 when he writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us,” so “we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” 

So Jesus was all for laying one’s life down for others, and many Christians have interpreted that to include risking life and limb going to war, or entering an area ravaged by a deadly disease to care for the sick, or being a missionary in a dangerous land. 

Other Christians, however, see these verses through a different lens, that in context Jesus was talking specifically to his disciples to dedicate their lives to him by living the same life of love he lived. It was more about a lifetime of loving and serving others, rather than putting one’s physical life at risk to save people from dying physically. 

And when Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:33, “For I’m not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved,” he wasn’t talking about saving people from physical harm and death either. Jesus had given him the job of rescuing people from “the power of Satan” and turning them to God, Acts 26:17-18, and Paul gave his life to doing that.  

Does that mean we shouldn’t put our physical lives at risk if someone is trapped in a burning car, or we shouldn’t choose a risky profession like firefighting or being a pandemic frontline nurse? But it’s also deeply embedded in us naturally to risk life and limb on behalf of others and do amazing acts of bravery. It looks like Jesus created that in us too, then. But is he asking us to risk life and limb for others when we also have family back home who depend on us being alive?    

It’s a dilemma, just like it must be when a nation declares war on other nations, and the call goes out to join up. Your government is now asking (or telling) you to put your life at risk for the safety of your nation. And the pressure applied is huge to do your part and be willing to die for others. 

What would God have us do in such a situation, then? Well, Christians can end up with widely different views, and very strong ones too when based on conscience and what we personally believe is right or wrong in God’s eyes (Romans 14). So we can’t judge each other, but we can learn from each other, and hopefully be able to reason together to come up with informed answers for what we do and why, rather than just emotional ones.  

And isn’t that especially important when facing life and death decisions like a virus that kills vulnerable people, and so do the prescribed vaccines? The risk of death in both cases may be small, but when someone dear to you dies from the virus or a vaccine, and huge pressure is also being applied by peers and government “to do our part as responsible citizens,” the risk involved becomes very real.    

And how many of us have had to face this kind of risk in our lifetimes? It’s probably treading new ground for most of us, which has probably made scriptures like casting all our cares on God, and seeking his wisdom, and knowing his promises, come alive. But isn’t that what this pandemic crisis, with all its conflicting information and evolving dangers, is teaching us? Surely it’s showing us that we have no foolproof solutions, no set of experts who know exactly what to do, and no one we can totally trust with an answer that fits our personal circumstances. In short we are faced with issues way beyond our control. 

But according to Paul, that’s good, because it teaches us to “not rely on ourselves but on God,” 2 Corinthians 1:9. And what God comes up with for us always fits in with his great wish to “present us before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy,” Jude 24. He will see to it, therefore, that no matter what we decide to do in a risky situation or how faulty our reasoning may be, it will never take away from that promise. As Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:24, “The One who called you is completely dependable. If he said it, he’ll do it!” 

“Loving our neighbour” in a pandemic 

In the early stages of the pandemic the most loving thing to do was “flatten the curve,” meaning obey all the government virus regulations so the hospitals wouldn’t be overwhelmed. 

Then came the catchphrase, “superspreader” events, where the most unloving thing to do was gather in a large crowd without masks and social distancing. When vaccines then became available the priority changed to being vaccinated as the best protection for the vulnerable and for the safety of the community in general.  

So there’s been an underlying desire and push to love one’s neighbour when deciding what actions to take personally. 

But then the rather disturbing news surfaced that even a double dose of vaccine did not stop a person being infected or being infectious.   

In love to one’s neighbour, therefore, it begged the question, “Is there anything else we can do, then?” If medical science has reached its limit at present in how to fully protect ourselves and others in times of highly contagious diseases, where else do we turn for help? 

Well, the nation that immediately took the lead in heading off and dealing with the Covid virus was Israel. Which isn’t surprising, because for many centuries Israel took what God had to say about contagious diseases seriously.  

Are there some clues, then, in the history of Israel in the Old Testament, in what to do when a contagious disease hits and the community is at risk? Yes, there are, provided for us by Moses, the very first public health official we know of whose medical education was taught to him by God himself.  

With that kind of credential to his name it gives Doctor Moses considerable credibility in the world of medical science. So, when he tells us it’s crucial with a communicable disease to quarantine, as he does in Leviticus 13:46, we’ve got a solid starting point. And as one Jewish website states, “we’re old hands at dealing with quarantines,” which sounds plausible, because the Jews have probably practiced quarantining longer than any other nation on earth. 

Quarantine is a place of isolation for an infected person until he or she is no longer contagious. And as a youngster in English boarding schools this was the practice I grew up with when a virus ripped through the school. A separate building on campus was set aside for quarantine and caring for the sick, while life went on as normal in the rest of the school; no locking down the entire school, and no masks or social distancing. 

Nor were they required in ancient Israel either. The sick were quarantined in care outside the camp, but life for the rest of Israel went on as usual. A mask was only worn by the contagious as an indication to others to steer clear of them (Leviticus 13:45). Those who weren’t contagious did not wear masks.    

So, when thinking about our governments wanting to keep everyone safe and focusing on caring for our neighbours, we have a solid starting point for doing that from Scripture as well. Because Scripture too is talking about taking our personal responsibility seriously, in going to a place of quarantine if we have any of the typical symptoms of a contagious disease. Ideally that would mean going to a separate building provided by our local community for quarantining the sick and caring for us until we’re better, or if that isn’t possible then willingly isolating ourselves until the symptoms have cleared.     

But that’s just the starting point. Should we also, in love for our neighbours, be willing to risk our lives for their safety too?….

Do governments have a right to “mandate”?

During the pandemic governments have mandated lockdowns, curfews, quarantines, vaccinations and vaccine passports, and imposed penalties on  those who did not comply. So governments wield that kind of power over us. But should they have that kind of power, and do they have such a right to mandate?

Scripturally, the answer is “Yes” to governments having the power and right to mandate. And it’s God who gives them that right too, as Paul points out in Romans 13:1 – “The authorities that exist have been established by God….For (verse 4) he is God’s servant to do you good” and be “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

As God’s servant, then, it’s a government’s job to keep its good citizens safe, and to mandate whatever it takes to do that. Our job as citizens – and as servants of God too – is to cooperate with and submit to what our governments mandate for our protection, and in doing so our conscience is free before God too (verse 5). 

And it would be nice if that’s all that needed to be said – that government does whatever is best for us and we go along with it. But what if our government mandates things that clash with other scriptures? The governing authorities in Acts 5:28, for instance, “gave strict orders (to the apostles) not to teach in Jesus’ name.” A strict order is the same as saying “mandated.” 

So, if Romans 13 is the last and only word on obeying mandates by governing authorities the apostles should have submitted, right? But in Acts 5:29, “Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” 

So here’s an exception, where a government authority gave a mandate but no way were the apostles going to obey it. And why weren’t they? Because those in authority – who were supposed to be servants of God – didn’t care a hoot about God’s will. Instead of acknowledging God’s authority they directly opposed it and even wanted to kill those preaching it (verse 33).

Their only interest was “you do what we say, or else,” as we see in Acts 4:18, “But,” verse 19, “Peter and John replied: ‘Whether it is right in the eyes of God for us to listen to what you say rather than to what he says, you must decide.’” 

Well, as God’s appointed servants it was obvious what the authorities  should decide, and the apostles weren’t afraid to remind them of it too, just like Jesus reminded Pontius Pilate in John 19:11 that “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Just remember, Pilate, whose authority you’re under too. 

And when a government today forgets that, or doesn’t acknowledge God in any way, and they go ahead and make mandates without even considering God’s will, they need reminding too, that they are servants of his will, not their own. 

Governments don’t own us either, a point that Paul also made clear when he wrote: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body,” taking into account that our bodies are also “a temple of the Holy Spirit,” 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. It’s God’s clear will, then, that we treat our bodies as belonging to him. 

So when a government wants to mandate something that could potentially harm our bodies, and there’s evidence to show it’s harmful too, can we justifiably reply like the apostles replied in Acts 4:19 – “Whether it’s right in the eyes of God for us to listen to what you say rather than to what God says, you must decide”?

Because someone needs to remind our governing authorities, as Jesus did and so did the apostles, that in whatever they decide to do in the use of their authority they answer to God for it, because their God-given job, as described in Romans 13, is to protect us from harm, not put us in harm’s way. Those who put us in harm’s way join those who “bring judgment on themselves,” Romans  13:2 and need “to be afraid for God does not bear the sword for nothing,” verse 4. So governments can also become recipients of that judgment and become “wrongdoers” whom God punishes (verse 4).  

So, when it comes to government resorting to coercion tactics to get us all vaccinated with experimental drugs with unknown long term adverse effects on our bodies, are we still obligated to obey? And when governments ignore, reject and even censor all other options, alternative treatments and preventive health measures, is it God’s will that we as Christians simply go along with their short-sighted pressure tactics and propaganda, or do we include what God says about our bodies and refuse to risk unknown and unnecessary harm to them? More on that next time….  

What Christianity is, and isn’t, in Acts 15

The controversy causing “much discussion” in Acts 15 was an objection raised by “some of the believers” in the Jerusalem church that to be saved “Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses,” verse 5

But why shouldn’t the Gentiles be circumcised and obey the laws of Moses when God had required those things of the Jews, and it was in their scriptures too?  

But in Acts 10 Peter had experienced Cornelius and his household receiving the Holy Spirit for simply believing “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is lord of all,” verse 36. Peter also realized in verse 43 that “All the prophets” had also made it clear that “every man who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” So that was in their scriptures as well. 

That’s why Peter was so adamant in Acts 15:11 that it was purely “through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved,” and especially since he’d seen what happened to Cornelius and his household when he’d taught that to them. It was also what Paul and Barnabas had experienced in Antioch, backed up by “miraculous signs and wonders” too, in verse 12.

It’s not surprising in verse 10, then, that Peter asked those pushing for obedience to the law of Moses, “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” In other words, why demand something you can’t even do yourselves, and nor could those before us either? 

It was “testing God” to make such demands, and especially after he’d made it abundantly clear through Peter, Paul and Barnabas – and scripture – that “he accepted the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them,” verse 8, with NO strings or requirements of any kind attached.  

Well, that brought the whole room to silence – and the readiness to listen too – as Paul and Barnabas told the story of what “God had done among the Gentiles through them,” verse 12.

Imagine being there as a diehard Jew, though, and having your entire belief system and cultural identity as God’s chosen people, and the anchor you’d depended on to secure your relationship with God, ripped out from under you. But it’s not that hard to imagine when a pandemic has done the same thing to us. It’s brought the entire system of Christian tradition and ritual to a grinding halt. 

But tradition and ritual have nothing to do with salvation anyway, just like Jewish tradition and ritual had nothing to do with the salvation of the Gentiles. Christian rituals like baptism and communion may serve as illustrations of the salvation that only Jesus can give us, but they are never “must do’s” or requirements, because Jesus saves us by his gift of grace alone (Acts 15:11).

And perhaps we discovered during the pandemic how much of a burden and a yoke we’ve put on ourselves in the past trying to keep up with all our rituals and traditions too. Could any of us have foreseen not being able to meet in a church building or take part in any other church tradition we’ve held dear? But it happened. And for some, perhaps many, it was a great relief.   

It came as a huge relief to those in Acts 15 too, when they too realized the unbearably burdensome system – that had consumed their lives, and set standards that even the great names in their history could not meet – was no longer necessary. And didn’t Jesus say, “Come to me, all you who are wearied and burdened….For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)?

Acts 15 then backs up what Jesus said too, because in showing what Christianity is, it’s all good. And all good in three clearly explained ways too. That all it needs to get started is a good heart (verse 8). God then gets the good news message to that good heart (verse 7), which includes the Holy Spirit purifying that good heart (verse 9), so that we can say “good riddance” – the third “good” – to anything else that people try to burden us with beyond that. 

In Acts 15, then, we’re given a simple and clear definition of what Christianity is, and isn’t, and the Gentiles loved it (verse 31). No wonder they were responding so favourably (Acts 13:48).  

Is Acts 2:38 a “must do” for all Christians?

This was a hard blog to write because for years and years I thought Acts 2:38 was the benchmark scripture that defined Christianity and what people must go through to become Christians. Verse 38 was Peter’s response to the Jews asking what on earth they were supposed to do on realizing they’d killed the very person God had sent to save them (verses 36-37). And “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” 

For more than forty years I took that to mean the process all Christians must go through to be formally classified as Christians – first repentance, then water baptism, then forgiveness, then the giving of the Holy Spirit. To be forgiven, therefore, we must go through repentance and a water baptism first. And only after a water baptism would we receive the gift of the Spirit making us into card carrying Christians.

And what confirmed that in my mind was Acts 10:47, in Peter’s response to the Gentile Cornelius and his household suddenly receiving the gift of the Spirit in verse 44. Because Peter’s immediate reaction in verse 47 was: “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” So there it was again, the necessity of water baptism, even after the Holy Spirit had been given. The order of events may have changed – baptism after the gift of the Spirit, rather than before – but the required steps for becoming a Christian remained.

It looked like nothing had changed, therefore, between Acts 2 and Acts 10. To become a Christian it was the same process: what made Jews into Christians in Acts 2:38 was the same process for Gentiles becoming Christians too.    

But then came Acts 11:16, when Peter “remembered what the Lord had said, ‘John baptized with water, BUT you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” This was the moment it dawned on Peter that the baptism required for people to become Christians wasn’t in water any more, it was baptism with the Spirit. 

And all it had needed for the Gentiles to be baptized with the Holy Spirit was “believing in the Lord Jesus Christ” too, verse 17. There was no repentance on their part required, no water baptism, and no need for forgiveness before receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. It then dawned on the whole group listening to Peter that “God has even granted the Gentiles repentance unto life.” Repentance wasn’t something the Gentiles had to do, because that too had been given to them by God. 

The process for becoming Christians, then, isn’t Acts 2:38. But in context verse 38 was only meant for the Jews at that moment anyway, in response to them killing Jesus. The “repentance” being talked about in that verse was the awful sin of killing Jesus that the Jews needed to repent of and be baptized in water for. And only then, after being symbolically washed clean of that sin, would they be forgiven for the death of Jesus they’d caused, and only after that would they receive the promised Holy Spirit too.    

But none of this was required of any Gentiles, because none of them had been responsible for Jesus’ death. Only the Jews had been, who not only didn’t recognize the obvious signs from their own scriptures that Jesus was the promised Messiah, they had descended into a mad mob to have him killed too. 

The process in Acts 2:38 refers only to Jews at that point in time, therefore. It isn’t what we all must do – today or any day – to become Christians. 

Acts 15:8 then confirms that when Peter explains to all the apostles and elders in Jerusalem how God had made it abundantly clear to him that he, God, had “accepted the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them” for nothing more than hearing the gospel message about Jesus and believing it (verse 7). There’s no mention of the process the Jews had to go through in Acts 2:38.  

It’s how the Gentiles were converted to Christianity, therefore, that defines Christianity and how people in all ages since then become Christians. And like me, Peter had to come to that understanding gradually. For him that understanding came from his actual experience with the Gentile centurion Cornelius. For me it came from reading about his experience and the surprise Peter got when he too realized it’s entirely “through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved,” verse 11, and not by anything that we, Jew or Gentile, do.   

Why do people become Christians? – part 2

Peter was the first person in the history of the world to discover how and why people become Christians. 

First and foremost, Acts 15:11, he understood that it’s purely “through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved.”  It’s not because of anything we do that we become Christians, it’s all God’s doing, as we see in the meeting God set up between Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10. 

The reason God set up that meeting was because, in Peter’s words in Acts 15:8, “God knows the heart,”and in Cornelius God saw a very good heart. The man and the timing, then, were just right for the first Gentile in history to hear “the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,” Acts 10:36

It all began, then, with God noting a man with a good heart, and God then sending Peter to get the message about “peace through Jesus” to him. So now we have two stages in why people become Christians – the first being a good heart, followed by hearing the good news about Jesus.

The “good news” part is then explained in Acts 10:37-43. This is the gospel in its purest state, boiled down to its raw basics, making it digestible and easy to understand for all people through the centuries. And in verse 44 this was all that was needed for “the Holy Spirit to come on all who heard it.” 

And the reason for the Holy Spirit coming on them was to “purify their hearts,” Acts 15:9. So the conversion of those first Gentiles to Christianity began with a good heart, was followed by hearing the good news about Jesus, which heard and believed opened up a lifetime of the Holy Spirit transforming their hearts into the very likeness of Jesus’ heart.  

So what was in Peter’s ever so basic message that got through to Cornelius and his household so quickly and so profoundly? According to Acts 10:38 it was what the Holy Spirit did in Jesus’ life. It gave him the “power” to go “around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”  And to people with good hearts that had a huge and immediate appeal. But why?

Because doing good and healing was what their good hearts were all about too. Cornelius loved doing good and helping people in need, and now he was hearing that the heart of God – displayed in bright, shining reality in the life of Jesus – was just like that too. 

And unlike their Gentile gods, the God seen in Jesus was very much into healing too, and healing in two striking ways – first of all in the “forgiveness of sins,” verse 43, but also in God “appointing Jesus as judge of the living and the dead,” verse 42

Both parts to a Gentile would have sounded amazing, because their gods weren’t about forgiveness at all. Their gods must be kept happy, or else, but Jesus pictured a God of mercy, kindness and compassion. And then to hear that Jesus was also a “judge of the living and dead” – well, what a huge relief that was, and what peace of mind it would have given them, to know that a great God really did exist who had the power to deal fairly and justly with every human, dead or alive, whether good, bad or evil. 

By contrast, think of all the innocent people who’d died at the hands of their Gentile tyrants, who’d been held back from their potential by the selfish and greedy, who’d never known love or appreciation, who’d lived in fear of punishment for every tiny infraction, whether guilty or innocent. That was the world and culture they’d lived in, as do so many people today, but here was wonderful news of a God with absolute power who was nothing like that.  

And the Gentiles loved it. And to know that this powerful Jesus chap was also alive and well, despite being killed, was icing on the cake. He was real, alive and powerful enough, therefore, to deal with everything that was so wrong in their world, and he could heal the damage done too. 

Combining Acts 10 and 15, then, we have two clear reasons why people become Christians: it’s two goods, a person’s good heart to begin with, followed by the good news about God’s heart seen in Jesus, leading to the Holy Spirit then healing and polishing their hearts throughout their lifetimes.  

Is that it, though? No, there’s one more “good” that explains why people are so drawn to Christianity. But more on that in part 3….

Why do people become Christians? – part 1

In Acts 15:4 Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem to report in to the apostles and elders about “everything God had done through them” on their journey through south western Turkey, and the Gentiles’ enthusiastic response to their message resulting in their conversion to Christianity.  

But, verse 5, “some of the believers (in the Jerusalem church) who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.’” 

The “believers” who’d travelled down to Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas in verse 2, however, had seen personally how “the Gentiles had been converted, verse 3, and it had NEVER required circumcision or obeying the law of Moses.

So who was right? Well, going back to the first ever Gentiles to become Christians – namely Cornelius and his household in Acts 10 – none of them were required to be circumcised or obey the law of Moses either. What stands out in their story of conversion to Christianity instead was Cornelius’ “prayers and gifts to the poor coming up as a memorial offering before God,” Acts 10:4

And it’s those two words, “memorial offering,” that are so important, because they help explain why people become Christians. But how, exactly?  

Well, a “memorial offering” goes back to the grain offering in Leviticus 2. When an Israelite brought an offering of grain to give to God, just a small portion of the offering was set aside for God, verse 9. This was the memorial offering, and God happily accepted it as representing the entire grain offering being given to him. 

In describing the Gentile Cornelius as a “memorial offering” too, therefore, it meant God accepted him as representing the entire Gentile world. In other words, what happened to Cornelius in how and why he became a Christian would be the how and why all Gentiles in every age become Christians. Peter understood it that way too, because later on in Acts 10 he realized in Cornelius that Godaccepts men from every nation who (just like Cornelius) fear him and do what is right,” verse 35

In this one man Cornelius, then, we can pinpoint why people become Christians, no matter what century they live in; it’s always the same. What got the ball rolling for Cornelius in his conversion to Christianity, then, is what gets the ball rolling for everyone else in their conversion to Christianity.

So, what does get the ball rolling? Well, it was Cornelius being a “God-fearing” man (verses 2 and 22) and wanting to do what was right and good that started the ball rolling for him. Like Jesus, verse 38, he “went around doing good.”  

Cornelius had a good heart that deeply respected God, which he expressed in his heartfelt desire to do what was right and good in God’s eyes. 

And that’s what started that first Gentile – whom God accepted as a memorial offering representing all us Gentiles – on his journey to becoming a Christian. It was his good heart. For simply having a good heart, therefore, he was already well on his way to his conversion to Christianity. And so is anyone else through the ages in all nations who has a good heart. 

And if this sounds somewhat shocking, it was shocking to those who heard it in Acts 15 too. Because this was totally different to what most of them had believed. That’s why the question of Gentiles being accepted as Christians without being required to obey the law of Moses or be circumcised had involved “much discussion” in Acts 15:7

But Peter now knew in Cornelius that God accepted Gentiles and set them on their way to becoming Christians based onknowing their hearts,” verse 8. And that was it. That’s all God needed in a person, just like the memorial offering was all God needed from a person’s grain offering. He didn’t need anything else, like circumcision or obeying the law of Moses.

A good heart, therefore, is the starting point of conversion to Christianity. And with that point firmly established in the story of Cornelius God then took Cornelius and his household on to the second part of their journey to Christian conversion, which he’ll do for all those with a good heart today as well, since Cornelius as a memorial offering represented all Gentiles “from all nations.” His journey is our journey too.

That’s why it’s so important that we talk about this second part of the journey to Christian conversion to those with a good heart today, because, like so many Gentiles with good hearts in the days of Paul and Barnabas, they will respond to it. More on this second part, then, in part 2….

Why would God let us make such a mess of things? – part 2

“In the past, God let all nations go their own way,” Acts 14:16, but why would he do that when it was obvious from the very beginning where it would end up?

God gave Adam and Eve freedom of choice, and what did they do with it? They did exactly what Paul said in Acts 14:16 – they went “their own way.” And what a mess of things came of it: In Genesis 6:5-6 “human evil was so out of control that God was sorry he’d made the human race in the first place.”

And things haven’t improved much since, have they? Not according to Paul, because he describes the end part of our history as well in 2 Timothy 3:2-5 when people will be “self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane, contemptuous of parents, crude, coarse, dog-eat-dog, unbending, slanderers, impulsively wild, savage, cynical, treacherous, ruthless, bloated windbags, addicted to lust, and allergic to God. They’ll make a show of religion, but behind the scenes they’re animals.” And we’re now stuck in this nasty human experiment of our own making too. 

But God had another story running alongside our story showing that we’re not stuck. And this was the story that many Gentiles were picking up on – as Paul and Barnabas discovered when visiting the Jewish synagogue in Iconium. They found several Gentiles attending the synagogue too, drawn to the story of Israel and Israel’s God. 

And what the Gentiles were learning from Israel’s story was how different Israel’s God was to their gods. Israel’s God had stuck with his people no matter what. And any time the Israelites turned to him for help he always graciously responded.  

And that was the story Paul and Barnabas told on their journeys into the Gentile world, because the story of Israel led to the existence of Jesus, who’d come to “confirm the message of God’s graciousness,” Acts 14:3, by his death providing forgiveness and assurance of God’s acceptance (13:38-39).   

But what really excited the Gentiles was hearing that God would “confirm the message of his graciousness” in their lives too. And he’d do it through very obvious “signs and wonders” as well, Acts 14:3

As Christians of many years, then, they’d be able to look back on a life of God’s graciousness providing all kinds of amazing things happening in their lives, just like he’d done amazing things in the lives of the Israelites.  

And God was already demonstrating his amazing graciousness with signs and wonders in healing a man in Lystra who’d been unable to walk since he was born. What, then, would God do in their lives too that was just as miraculous and just as easily recognizable as God’s doing?   

Because that’s what God wanted both Jews and Gentiles to see and recognize, that life as a Christian is filled with confirmation of God’s graciousness – and have it confirmed in signs and wonders too, like being freed from thoughts of revenge, hatred, bitterness, despondency and hopelessness, or being freed from the fear of death, or being freed from addictions to one-upmanship, money and power, or being able to forgive even one’s worst enemy, or viewing the world and people through Jesus’ eyes, not the eyes of the culture. And best of all, discovering our hearts are being tuned more and more to Jesus’ heart.   

In which case there will be many occasions when the extent and proof of God’s graciousness will really hit home to us, making the gospel message so real, just as it was for the Gentiles in Acts 14 when they heard it, and they then began to experience it personally too.  

So, why does God let us make such a mess of things? Because he has the story of Israel waiting in the wings for us, that tells of the Israelites “going their own way” and making a horrible mess of things too. But God was always gracious with them, because when they came to their senses and turned to him he always responded. And that gospel message is the same for us today (Hebrews 4:2).  

Why would God let us make such a mess of things?

It was in Lystra in Acts 14:8 that Paul told a man “who was lame from birth and had never walked” to “Stand up on your feet” and the man “jumped up and began to walk” (verse 10).

The people who saw it happen “shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’” (verse 11). Paul was horrified. He ran into the crowd yelling, “No, no, no, we’re human just like you. And we’re here to bring you the good news, that there’s a living God you can turn to rather than all these worthless gods of yours.” Which sounds a bit like an insult, but he then says in verse 16,“In the past, God let all nations go their own way.” 

Butwhy did he say that? Because it explains why these people in Lystra were so taken up with the idea of the gods appearing to them in human form. It was simply the result of God allowing entire nations to create their own gods in place of him – and end up trusting in these gods of their own making and imagination instead of trusting him. And “in the past” that was the way things had always been for these people – but – Paul was now showing them something entirely different. 

He was showing them a God who could heal a man who’d never walked. Their gods couldn’t do that. But these unfortunate people had been living their entire lives in utter dependence on gods that in reality had no power at all. It was just as Paul said, that their gods were “worthless.” 

Imagine being told that today too, that all the gods we’ve created and depend on for help and healing, or for guidance in how to live and make life work out well for ourselves, are completely useless and a waste of space. 

A person would well ask, then, “But why would God let that happen?” Why, for century after century, would he let us live under this delusion that we can handle life without him and depend on worthless gods instead? Or why, to echo Paul’s words in verse 16, would he “In the past, let all nations go their own way,” and we end up with gods that are no help to us at all?

The answer Paul gives is in verse 17, that “God has not left himself without testimony,” or as another translation puts it, “God never left us without evidence of himself and his goodness.” So, while letting us go our own way and create our own gods, and make a right mess of the planet and our own lives, he never hates us for it – or gets in a jealous sulk and makes sure we suffer for rejecting him. 

Amazingly, verse 17, despite us going our own way, “He has shown kindness by sending us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, giving us food and happiness to our hearts’ content.” He doesn’t hate us, and he never has. He’s always loved us, and here was this same living, loving God proving it yet again in Lystra by healing a man who couldn’t walk. Because that’s where God’s focus is; it’s on providing clear “evidence of himself and his goodness.” 

In other words, “dear people of Lystra, can you see why we, Paul and Barnabas as ordinary humans just like you, are here? We don’t come to you as gods, we’re here because there’s a living God who is showing you through us that this is what HE’S like, and what he loves doing.” And compare that to their gods too.   

So, lifting all this up into our day, when it’s our turn now to ask, “Why would God let us make such a mess of things?” – the same answer applies. We still experience all kinds of good things, good food, good friends, great memories as families, and lovely mornings when the air is fresh, or sunning ourselves and feeling the warmth seep into our stressed out bodies. 

The question then becomes, “But why would God let these things still happen to us too, after all the gods we’ve created and looked to instead of him?”

God’s answer to us is what he said through Paul and Barnabas to the people of Lystra: “It’s to show you what I’m like compared to your gods, because I’m all good news. I’m kind and good, because I love you and I always will, and I’m more than willing to show my goodness, kindness and love for you even more when you’re ready to dump your worthless gods and trust in me.”