Monday, June 13, 2011

The Life of Peter

Peter means “the Rock;” but Simon was anything but a rock before Jesus changed his life.

Bethsaida was likely on the northwestern end of the Sea of Galilee.Peter was from Bethsaida (Jn 1:44), a small town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. On the west side of this large lake was the region of Galilee, which was settled mostly by Jewish people, living under the rule of the Herods – the supposedly Jewish family who had sold out to the Romans, governing Judea as a puppet state of the Roman Empire. Visible on the opposite side of the lake were some of the cities of the Decapolis – these Greek cities also served as a base for Roman legions, and would have been a stark contrast to Peter’s simple Jewish life.

Bethsaida literally means “fish house,” which gives you a clue about what its main income was. Like many others in the area, Peter and his brother Andrew earned their living at the family business: fishing. Just like many fishermen today, they were uneducated (Acts 4:13), hard-working, blue-collar workers, who were often crude (Peter was a self-described “sinful man,” Lk 5:8), and prone to causing trouble (James and John, Peter’s business partners, were nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder,” Mk 3:17). so, they weren’t uninterested in learning about and following God; in fact, Peter’s brother Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist (Jn 1:40), and the first thing he did when he met Jesus was to tell his brother they had found the Messiah – he must have known that Peter would want to know.

Imperfect as he was, Peter is also something of a leader.  He is always listed first among the Apostles, and often speaks on behalf on their behalf when they want to ask Jesus something.  When the disciples fall asleep at Jesus’ last night, only Peter is singled out for taking responsibility.  Even after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter is the one who says “I’m going fishing,” and the other disciples follow his lead.

Early on, Peter becomes part Jesus’ inner circle, even within the Twelve. Only Peter, James, and John were present at several key moments of Jesus’ ministry:

  • when Jairus’ daughter was raised (Mk 5:37; Lk 8:51)
  • at the transfiguration (Mt 17:1; Mk 9:2; Lk 9:28)
  • in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:37; Mk 14:33)
Yet, even though he is privileged to have such intimate glimpses of Christ’s glory, Peter often fails to live up to the calling he has received. His personality seems to make him predisposed to extremes --
    • He is brave enough to step out of the boat onto the water towards Jesus, but almost immediately loses his faith. (Mt 14:29-39)
    • Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Son of God (Mt 16:15-16), and moments later proceeds to tell him what to do (Mt 16:22).
    • In John 13, he first refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet, and when Jesus insists, wants him to wash him all over!
    And then, of course, is Peter’s most famous failing of all – his denial of Jesus.  John’s gospel gives us a unique, eye-witness insight to this story:  Peter first declares that he will follow Jesus to the death, and even attacks a servant of the high priest to defend his Lord. 
    But after Jesus is taken, Peter – typically – swings to the opposite extreme; afraid of being arrested himself, and follows at a distance to the house of the high priest Caiaphas, and his father-in-law Annas (a former high priest himself). And as Peter is outside, waiting to hear what will happen to his Lord, nervous about his own fate… you know what happens. Three times, someone recognizes him as disciple, and three times he denies it.  Forget going in to the courtroom, never mind testifying before Annas, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin -- he is so afraid of being associated with Jesus, he doesn’t even want to admit that he’s a follower to a teenage servant girl. 

    But the story doesn’t end there; after Jesus restores his relationship with Peter (Jn 21:15-18), and charges him to “feed my sheep,” we see a very different Peter. In Acts 3-4, Peter and John find themselves in trouble with the Jewish authorities after publicly healing a paralytic and preaching Christ at the Temple.  And look who comes to deal with them:
    They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. … The next day the rulers, elders and teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”
    Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is
             “ ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’
    Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
    Acts 4:3-12, NIV
    (emphasis added)

    The contrast is amazing – not only is Peter now willing to speak boldly, he does so to the very men who put Jesus on the cross!  In the very next chapter, they are in trouble again, and challenge the priests – who could kill them just like they did Jesus – “We must obey God rather than men!” When Peter and John narrowly escaped with their lives, receiving a flogging instead,
    The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.

    Ac 5:41

    Before writing his letters near the end of his life, Peter grows the Church, pastors those in the Way, and spreads the Good News through missionary journeys.  He was executed for his faith by Emperor Nero in AD 67-68, by crucifixion.  And while there is no way to know for sure, legend has it that when Peter was told how he was to be executed, he asked to be crucified upside-down, because he didn’t consider himself worthy to die the same way as his Lord.
    Peter lived and died a far cry from his beginning as a country bumpkin who abandoned his Master when it mattered most.


    Discussion Questions:

    • How do you think Peter (and the other people of Galilee) felt about where they grew up?
    • Why do you think Jesus called a lowly, coarse fisherman as his chief disciple?
    • What made Peter so different in Acts than he was in the Gospels?
    • What would it take for God to change you so dramatically? 

    Thursday, March 31, 2011

    Dinosaurs, Haters, and Free Will

    Click for larger image
    We had some great discussion last week at our open-forum Question Box.  We didn't get to all of them, so we going to continue this coming Monday. Here's a list of the questions; what's your opinion?

    Questions we discussed:
    1. How do you handle a person who hates on you and can’t let it go, how do you handle haters in a Christian way?

    2. Should all of the stories in the Bible be taken literally?  (Noah’s ark, the Garden, etc)
    3. If dinosaurs were around before people, and God made people on the 6th day, does that make dinosaurs fake?

    4. Did Jesus sacrifice any animals in His lifetime?

    5. My pastor talks a lot about singling out a day every once in a while, fully dedicated to praying. What are your thoughts on that?

    Questions we'll tackle next week:
    1. When is someone considered Christian? How can I help people know or realize they are?  On a sort of off topic side (could these be linked?), how do I /we help someone who has authority over other people but has trouble having them actually listen to them?

    This is following the example of Jesus?
    2. How do you respond to hatred toward Christianity? People who have had a bad experience with someone and are taking it out on the entire religion? How do you respond to people who believe that religion may as well be the pinnacle of evil? That those who are religious are all ignorant?
    3. How do you deal with Christians who have so much hate? Christians who hate homosexuals, and adulterers, just about every sinner… How do you deal with the Christians who make other hate Christianity?

    4. How come there is so much killing for God’s purpose when he commands us not to? (Jael killing Sisera, Judges 4:21; the [killing of all the city’s residents at the] fall of Jericho)

    5. What happens to those who are ignorant, children, people who were never reached by the Gospel? Do they find the Kingdom of Heaven?
    6. Why did Jesus get baptized?

    7. Where did natural evil originate (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes)?
    8. Why did God make the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when He knew Adam and Eve would sin?

    9. How is the idea of God having a “plan,” “using people,” or having “complete control” over all life align with the idea that we have a free will?

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    The World is Ending Tomorrow

    If you want to understand the Bible, don't look for hidden messages; believe that it says what it means.  Believe it has something to teach you about how you actually live your life.

    Last night's lesson got postponed when the discussion turned toward Judgment Day -- which, despite some misconceptions, is neither a cyborg invasion nor a professional wrestling smackdown.  The End Times discussion has been getting a lot of attention lately, due to billboards and signholders which have popped up all over the county and the country. 

    "The Bible Guarantees It"
    Billboards like this one have been
    popping up in Whatcom County.
    Why May 21? How do they figure that after almost 2000 years, Christ will return on precisely that date?  The argument can be summarized this way:
    • Premise One: God's Judgment Day is going to come exactly 7,000 years after the Great Flood.
      • God told Noah that the Flood (ie, his judgment) would come in 7 days, on the 17th day of the 2nd (Biblical) month. (Gen 7:10-11)
      • 2 Peter 3:8 tells us that with the Lord, "a single day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a single day."
    • Premise Two:  We can learn by "careful study" of genealogies in the Bible that the Flood happened in 4990 BC.
    • Conclusion : 4990 + 2011 – 1 = 7,000 = Judgment Day will come on May 21, 2011.

    Is It True?
    First of all, this is nothing new; people have predicting Christ's return ever since he left.  Obviously, none of those have been right, and the Bible is very clear that "no one knows that day or the hour" (Mt 24:36 / Mk 13:3; see also Mt 25:13; Ac 1:7; 1 Th 5:1-2; 2 Pe 3:10).  But is it possible that the clues above have been in the Bible all along, just waiting to be solved?  There is so much wrong with this logic, I almost don't know where to start; every step of the argument is flawed. Let's just focus on one:

    When Peter says "a thousand years are like a single day," he doesn't mean that this is a decoder ring for understanding God's time; all you have to do is read the context to realize that his point is just the opposite!  For starters, look at the rest of the sentence: it goes both ways.  To paraphrase, 

    One of your days is like a thousand years to God, and
    a thousand of your years are like a single day to God.

    Does that make any sense? No, it doesn't.  Not to us, anyway, and that's the point: God lives on a different level of reality, and his time is not like our time. (Actually, remember, even our time is not like our time.)  Peter isn't saying anything here about how the word "day" is used anywhere else in Scripture. 

    You can't just snip sentences out of the Bible and make them mean what you want them to mean; take the time to understand the message of the writer.  Claiming that the Bible "guarantees" judgement on May 21 will only damage the credibility of the Bible (and believers) when May 22 rolls around.

    How Should We Be Ready?
    What bothers me even more, though, is the attitude this reveals in Christians.  It's very easy to slip into a mindset that's dismissive, skeptical, or even mocking.  "Jesus is coming?" we think, "Yeah, right. I hope there's something good on TV tonight."  Yeah, we don't know that Jesus is coming on May 21. But we don't know he isn't, either.

    The whole reason that Peter writes this is to warn the believers that they need to be ready.  It's the same reason that Jesus tells the parables of Mt 24:36-25:13. If you knew when He was coming, of course you will be ready! But since you don't know, it could be any moment. You need to be ready all the time.

    Katie raised an excellent question: How do we be ready? Jesus answers that question, too.  He continues to teach, through the parable of the talents, that God has invested us with certain gifts, that we should use our lives for his glory.  He goes on to spell out exactly what is expected from us:
     “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me... ’ (Matt 25:31-46) 
    Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is a love God with everything, and second is to love your neighbor as yourself.  With these words, he combines them; your love for Christ is revealed by how you treat others.  It's in how you spend your time. It's in how you spend your money. It's in how you live your life.

    When someone wants to debate when the Lord will return, understand that it doesn't really matter. Tell them that you are doing the best you can, every day, to live a life that honors God and cares for others.  If you really are, then they will have no answer to that.

    And if you aren't caring for "the least of these"... read to the rest to see if you are really following Jesus.

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Hardening Pharaoh's heart: God's influence on our free will

    In response to our 90-Day Challenge to the read the whole Bible, we had some great questions on Monday night. What does it mean that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart"?  Does God sometimes override our free will for his own purpose? And if so, is it really free will?
    But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment.
    Ex 7:3–4, ESV

    The Problem
    This passage, and the twenty other references to Pharaoh's hard heart in the following chapters, have long been concerning to critics, and even some believers.  It seems to imply that God will force the king of Egypt to make a sinful decision, and then punish him for it -- ultimately killing him and his whole army in the sea.  If so, this is the height of injustice; even more disturbing, it would mean that God can revoke our free will at any time -- which really is no free will at all.

    Who hardens his heart?
    Joel's answer on Monday is a good place to start: it's vital to note that Pharaoh first hardens his own heart.  The first place we see any reference to hardening is Exod 4:21; but in this verse, God only tells Moses what is going to happen, at some point in the future.  The first time we see Pharaoh's heart actually hardening, he does it on his own, with no help from God.  And in fact, he does six times in a row! the next seven references Pharaoh is said to have hardened his own heart (Exod 7:13-14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7) before God is said to have hardened it (Exod 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8). God’s first hardening came after the sixth plague. Pharaoh hardened his own heart six times by his refusals. Then later he hardened it again in response to the seventh plague, and God hardened his heart after each of plagues 8-10.
    As a side note, it's significant that there are seven references in each case; numbers often (but not always) have symbolic meaning in the Bible, and seven is the number of fullness.  Pharaoh is fully committed to harden his own heart, apart from any action that God takes.

    But does the fact that God also "hardens" his heart take away from Pharaoh's free will? I don't think so.  If you look at the translator's note on 4:21 in the NET Bible, you'll find an important insight to the word usually translated "hardened":
    tn Heb “strengthen” (in the sense of making stubborn or obstinate). The text has the expression (va’ani ’akhazzeq ’et-libbo), “I will make strong his will,” or “I will strengthen his resolve,” recognizing the “heart” as the location of decision making (see Prov 16:1, 9).
    This implies that God is making stronger the intent that Pharaoh already had in his heart; rather than making the choice for Pharaoh, God confirms the choice that Pharaoh has already made.

    Pharaoh's heart is hardened both as a result of his own decision and God's action. To look at it in another sense, God influences Pharaoh's heart simply by giving him instructions.  Anytime anyone is told what to do, they will have one of two reactions in their heart: either they will listen and obey, or they will be stubborn and refuse.  Sometimes, depending on what they are being told to do, being stubborn is a good thing. Other times, what they are told is for their own good, and they refuse simply for the sake of refusing. And, as anyone who has ever put a toddler to bed knows, the more they are told to do it, the more stubborn they become. Every time God repeated his command to Pharaoh, it made him more resolute not to comply.

    This true for all of us; what has God prompted you to do? Have you responded with obedience, or have you hardened your heart against his voice?

    Wednesday, January 12, 2011

    The 90-Day Challenge

    It's Day 2 of our challenge to read the whole Bible in three months. It's not too late to join us! Here are some tips for staying focused on our goals. 

    Reading the whole Bible in 90 days is more than an idle attempt to see if we can do it.  And it isn't about checking off a list so that we appear more righteous before God or our friends -- or, conversely, feeling guilty over failure if we don't make our goals.

    Don't worry too much about "getting behind."  Yes, we want to challenge ourselves, and that's the reason we are following a reading plan in the first place. But don't be so focussed on "staying on track" that you lose sight of our real goals:

    Goal 1: To gain an understanding of THE OVERALL STORY OF SCRIPTURE and a  MORE COMPLETE PICTURE OF GOD. 
    I encourage you to do your reading from a Bible with study notes, that you can refer to for things that don't make sense to you.  Or for online reading, I recommend the New English Translation (NET), which includes translators' notes (t) and study notes (s) to help you understand better.

    For each story, ask yourself, "What does teach me about God's character? about the plan that he has for the world? about human character? about me?"

    Goal 2: To have a DAILY DISCIPLINE of spending time with THE LORD AND HIS WORD
    Don't just read for the sake of reading; ask the Lord to open your heart to what he has to teach you. Share your problems with him; pray for unbelieving friends.  Keeping a journal is another great way to record what God is teaching you.

    Goal 3. To CONNECT with other believers through A COMMON EXPERIENCE
    Something powerful happens when people do things together, and there are several ways helps us do that.
      1. Accountability. Find a partner to encourage you and can discuss what you've been reading. YouVersion can also be set to automatically email a friend whenever you do your reading.
      2. Notes. You can add notes to verses  you find interesting, inspiring, or confusing. You can find your friends' notes under My>Friends' Activities.
      3. Connections. Connect to your Facebook/Twitter account, and share your favorite verses with your friends.

    I'm really excited to see where this leads.  Please be praying with me!