by Al Maxey
Issue #763 -------
January 14, 2019
Everyone who got where he is
had to begin where he was.
Robert Louis Stevenson [1850-1894]
As Jesus prepared to ascend back to the Father, where He would send forth the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which had been foretold not only by Himself, but also by the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32), He gathered His eleven remaining apostles and commissioned them to "be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The desire of the Lord was that the people of Israel, the nation chosen by God, be given, yet again, the opportunity to receive the Good News. Time and again they had rejected this offer of grace; their history was filled with such rejection. Yet, the loving patience of the Father remained steadfast. He desired for none of them to perish, but for all to repent (i.e., make that life transforming turn from darkness to light). The Lord Jesus, their promised Messiah, was that Light. "He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11). How this must have grieved the Lord, yet He remained patient; He remained hopeful. In His commission, He instructed His apostles to begin with the Jews, the very ones who had rejected Him, as they shared the grace of God through the telling of the "Jesus story." The desire of deity was that they would turn to Him; indeed, that all men would. He would then extend "glory, honor and peace" unto them, "to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 2:10).
When seeking to understand the New Covenant writings, we far too often fail to factor in this divine imperative: It was to the people of Israel that the Gospel was first to be extended by the Spirit-filled and -led ambassadors of Christ Jesus. Yes, all men would be welcome, and all men would be called, but it was to begin with the Jews. Failing to perceive this fact will cause a failure to perceive the true meaning and significance of the early days of the church, and it will lead to some erroneous conclusions and false theology. When you and I examine these early events through "Gentile eyes," rather than from the perspective of the Spirit's operation to effect an initial transformation within the house of Israel, we will err greatly in the understandings we reach. This is seen dramatically, for example, in Acts 2 as we examine the "sermon" of the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the disciples in the upper room. That proclamation had a very specific audience in mind; it was never intended to be a proclamation for all men everywhere until the end of time. "But Peter, taking his stand with the Eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: 'Men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give heed to my words'" (Acts 2:14). "Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know..." (vs. 22). He ended this speech by saying: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ -- this Jesus whom you crucified" (vs. 36).
The first proclamation from the apostle Peter had nothing to do with Gentiles. He and the others were to go first to the people of Israel, and that is exactly what he did. This message was to the JEWS. Even more specifically: it was to the Jews of that time and that place, many of whom had been the very ones calling for the death of their Messiah. It was a powerful repudiation of their rejection, and it was a call to repentance for that specific denial of what God had graciously done for them in the person and work of His Son. The words of Peter lashed them painfully, as the whip had lashed the back of the One they denied. They were pierced to their inner core, as the spear had pierced the side of the One they had denounced. This message would have been lost on the Gentiles; not so with the house of Israel. The arrows of this powerful message were directed right at the heart of these Jewish men and women. "Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart" (Acts 2:37a). They were convicted of the enormity of their crime. They had "blown it" big time; they had "screwed up" ... this was not a minor infraction. They had called for, and actively participated in, the murder of their own Messiah! How could there possibly be any hope for them after this?! Surely, their doom (individually and as a nation) was assured. God would never forgive this affront to His grace and mercy! Right?! Why would He?! All of this was most assuredly running through their minds as they realized that Jesus was indeed the Messiah ... and they had murdered Him!! In their sense of horror at this revelation they had only one plea to Peter and the other apostles: "Brethren, what shall we do?!" (Acts 2:37b).
We today, as we view this whole passage through "Gentile eyes" (and, too often, also through sectarian eyes), view this question as an appeal of "the lost" on how to "get saved" (i.e., how to get into "the one true church" and thus avoid the fires of hell). In fact, many of you who read the above question by these Jews probably felt I misquoted it. After all, we generally ADD a phrase to it: "What shall we do to be saved?" That is NOT what they asked, however. A good many, at this point, may not even have been fully convicted that they were "lost." What they were convicted of, however, was a horrific failure to perceive their Messiah, and even worse: they had called for His execution. Had they as a nation now forever forfeited the blessing of having their Messiah among them? Was this a one time offer, never to be repeated? Their question was: "Men and fellow Jews, what shall we do now?!" (Acts 2:37b, The NT in Modern English, J.B. Phillips). These were Jews appealing to "fellow Jews" for some enlightenment on how to FIX this and facilitate the return, if that was even possible, of their Messiah. It is interesting, and often overlooked, that Peter, in his second sermon to a Jewish audience (he begins it with the words "Men of Israel, ..." -- Acts 3:12, just as he had in the first sermon), assures them that if they repent, then their sins will be wiped away and their God would "send Jesus, the Messiah appointed for you" (Acts 3:20). Yes, there was hope for the Jews who had rejected and killed their Messiah. God had raised Him up from the dead, and He was still willing to share the gift of His Son with these Jews, if only they would turn to Him. Jesus was still willing to be their Messiah; were they willing to receive Him as such?! And if they are, are they willing to visibly, publicly manifest that conviction and commitment to Him?
James spoke of the necessity for genuine people of faith to reflect that faith in their daily lives. There are many ways to do this, one of which is to recreate through one's own action the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. If these Jews were now believers in who Jesus was, and what He accomplished for them, then there was a way to make this new relationship (acquired by grace through faith), to which they had turned to embrace, visible. It was a ritual of washing; something the Jews were all familiar with, although now it would be a ritual of washing in the name of, by the power and authority of, Jesus the Messiah. They must, in addition to saying they believe, SHOW that they believe. What better way for a JEW to do this than to be immersed in and raised up from "a watery grave," an action that in a very visible way recreates the very atoning work of the One they rejected, but who they now accept. It is this Peter advises them to do as an evidentiary act of faith and repentance. Faith and repentance occur within the heart and mind of a person, but if they are genuine then they will be evident in our daily walk in the light with Him. Immersion is only one of many such manifestations. James, our Lord's brother, tells us that true faith will SHOW itself (James 2:18). Such acts are not done to acquire faith, any more than such evidentiary acts are done to effect repentance. Such acts show the reality already within one's heart. If these "men of Israel," therefore, desire to bring the Messiah, whom they had rejected, into their midst, they must turn in faith from the "perverse generation" (Acts 2:40) of which they were a part, and turn toward the Lord with fullness of faith and devotion. When this conviction takes hold in their hearts, then God takes hold of them in love and mercy. They are, then, by grace through faith, freed of their blood-guiltiness for taking the life of Jesus, and the Father sends forth both the Spirit and the Son into their midst. This is the significance, within this context and to this people, of what is written in Acts 2:38. It was the FIX that would bridge the gap between these "men of Israel" and their Messiah.
We have taken a beautiful "Jesus story" showing the love of God to a rebellious people, and we have reduced that redemptive narrative to a few lifted texts (lifted out of their context to become proof-texts) that we then seek to employ as validation of our sectarian sacraments. In so doing, we have missed the whole point and purpose of this account, forcing it instead to revolve around baptism in water, thus elevating this one act to the level of law for all men for all time. The only thing we reflect by this abuse of the text and context is our own sectarianism and sacramentalism, and our own failure, like the pre-Pentecost Jews, to perceive our Savior. The question of the Jews to Peter and the apostles that day was not about how to get into the right church, or how to "be saved" from "burning in hell." It was about how they were going to FIX the fact that they had murdered their Messiah, and what they needed to do, both individually and collectively, to have that sin removed, in the hope that the Messiah might return to them. It is this question Peter answered that day.
This is why Peter, in his second sermon (Acts 3), makes no mention at all of baptism in water, even though he is essentially repreaching that first sermon (see my discussion of this in Reflections #758 - "Peter's Colonnade Sermon: Reflecting on an Apostolic Revision: Pentecost Sermon 2.0 and Acts 2:38"). He points out to the "men of Israel" that although they have murdered the Messiah, such action was nevertheless predetermined by the Lord God. "The things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Messiah should suffer, He has thus fulfilled" (Acts 3:18). He gives the "men of Israel" a word of hope: "Brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also" (vs. 17). This opens the door to a heartfelt repentance based on the enlightenment they had received as to the identity of Jesus. It paved the way for their acceptance by God, for the coming of a refreshing renewed relationship with the Father, and for the return of the Messiah to their midst (although this would be at present in a spiritual sense rather than a physical sense). Now we come to the Acts 2:38 parallel in this second sermon: "Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Messiah appointed for you" (Acts 3:19-20). Baptism is never mentioned in this passage. It is never even hinted at. Peter certainly would not deny its worth as a manifestation of the reality of one's faith and turning, yet he shows us that this particular act was never meant to be the precise point of one's salvation from the "second death." What is important in this context with these "men of Israel" is that they all must now TURN TOWARD the Messiah, rather than continuing along that crooked path AWAY FROM the Messiah, a path the Jews had traveled far too long.
The people of Israel who heard Peter on these two occasions were indeed called to "salvation," but it was a salvation of another kind. Peter said, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" (Acts 2:40). Peter's focus was on that generation; the one in which these people lived; these descendants of Israelites who, like them, had repeatedly spurned the grace and mercy of God. The word translated "perverse" is the Greek word "skolios," which means "crooked, curved, twisted." From this word comes the medical term "scoliosis," which refers to an abnormal curvature of the spine. We've all heard the Mother Goose nursery rhyme: "There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile, ..." The generation of Jews assembled before Peter that day were "men of Israel" who were walking a twisted path, spiritually speaking, rather than the "straight path" that led to the Light and Life of men. It is in this sense that they were characterized as a "perverse generation." Those Jews on Pentecost who were now aware of the true identity of Jesus needed to get off that "crooked path" upon which the "crooked people" were walking, and they needed to return to the "straight path." That straight path to the Father was Jesus the Messiah. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 14:6). Peter called them to be "saved" from that blind mass of twisted people walking a twisted path, and turn to the straight path of Jesus. Even Jesus Himself characterized the Jews of His day with the same words: "O unbelieving and perverse generation; how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?" (Luke 9:41). Later, Jesus said that He would "be rejected by this generation" (Luke 17:25), which certainly constituted a spiritual perversity. Even Moses spoke of the faithless Israelites thusly: "They have acted corruptly toward Him; to their shame they are no longer His children, but a perverse and crooked generation" (Deuteronomy 32:5). In essence, Peter was telling these "men of Israel" to come out of and be separate from the unbelieving generation of Jews around them. Don't continue to be a part of their unbelief, for unless you extricate yourselves from their midst you will experience the same fate that must befall them for their disbelief. The apostle Paul would later urge the brethren in Philippi to evidence within their own walk the attitude and actions of Jesus the Messiah (Philippians 2:5), "so that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world" (vs. 15).
Peter calls these "men of Israel" to preserve themselves from the perverse disbelievers around them. Paul, quoting from the Old Covenant writings, wrote, "I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate. And do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you. And I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me" (2 Corinthians 6:16-18). What was the SIN of these people that was before their eyes as they appealed to Peter on that Pentecost almost two millennia ago? It was the sin of rejecting, plotting against, mocking and murdering their Messiah. In his second sermon, Peter would graciously state that they did so in ignorance. Nevertheless, they had "missed the mark" of the Messiah about as far as it could be missed. They now sought a way out of the hopelessness they felt by being party to such a godless deed. The way out was simply to turn from that path in genuine faith and begin to walk in the light with the Anointed One of God.
"They were pricked in their heart; stung with remorse at the exceeding wickedness of their crime in the crucifixion; they must have been amazed at the stupid blindness with which they had acted" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 45]. The words of Peter to them that day stung them deeply and fiercely. This particular Greek word is "only used here in the New Testament; the word does not even occur in profane Greek. It was the sharp, painful emotion, the sting, produced by Peter's words. Cicero, speaking of the oratory of Pericles, says that his speech left stings in the minds of his hearers" [Dr. Marvin Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 455]. These men of Israel were inwardly pricked or stung by the indictment of Peter. Their sin was enormous, for they had not only refused to listen to or follow the teachings of Jesus, they had gone so far as to call for and insist upon His DEATH. "They now believe that Jesus is the Christ, and they are pierced to the heart with the thought that they have murdered Him. ... The idea of salvation from their sins in general could scarcely yet have had a place in their minds" [J.W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, vol. 1, p. 37]. The concern of these individuals that day was far more focused than "heaven or hell" theology. They had killed the Son of God!! What now was going to befall their beloved nation?! How could this possibly be fixed? "What shall we do to escape the penalties which must fall on the nation that has so sinned against light and knowledge; who have had the true Light in their midst, but have comprehended it not, and have crucified the Lord of glory?" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 90]. For a people whose theology was tied intimately to the land and the nation, this was HUGE! Their sin was against GOD, and they could only assume the fire from above was about to descend upon them with a fury they could not even imagine!! What hope could they now realistically experience when they had crucified the very One who was their hope of a bright future?! "So, with deep anguish they cried out, 'Brothers, what shall we do?!'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 282].
When all seems hopeless, when darkness seems to overwhelm us, when we can perceive no way out, no ray of hope -- it is then that God's grace, mercy and love shine the brightest! "Incredible as it must appear, Peter told them that there was hope for them even now" [Dr. F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p. 75]. They thought all was lost, but some divine qualities remained: "Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). His great eternal love plus our faith in Him results in a HOPE that will never fail us. It abides, as will we, if we embrace by faith His gracious free gift of life. That free gift of grace, however, has a high price: it cost Jesus His life, and it will cost us ours as well. He died for me that I may live for Him, both in active service here to His cause, and then forevermore with Him in the new heavens and earth. There is nothing I can DO to merit this free gift, but I can resolve to spend my life showing my gratitude for that gift. What was the FIX for the "men of Israel" that day? It was plainly and simply "a complete change of heart, a spiritual right-about-turn" [ibid]. As Peter would later explain, "God made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith" (Acts 15:9 - see Reflections #587 - "Simon's Sect Silencing Speech: A Reflective Study of Peter's Proclamation to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:7-11"). When they were pierced by the word of grace, they believed; a belief that led to a transformational turn in their life-journey. As Peter told the "men of Israel" in his second sermon, "Repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and He will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah" (Acts 3:19-20, New Living Translation). Hallelujah, what a Savior!!
From a Reader in Hawaii:
Al, do you remember the joy I had when learning Greek under your tutelage (during the six years you were our minister here)? I'm still working on a complete contextual translation of the NT, while simultaneously creating my lexical work. Once the translation is complete, the plan is to consider deeply some of the concepts found within. My prayer is that I can collaborate some with you, and others, to better comprehend the subject matter. Then, as I complete my work on this book, my plan is to dedicate part of this work to you. But, please understand: although I do this work to help facilitate understanding within those who read it, yet I do it more to glorify God! Al, I am sincerely hoping that you will continue to serve our Lord for many years to come. So, even though you stated recently that you are "slowing down" as you turn 70, please do not ever stop! I too will make every effort to do the same. Your son in the Faith, ------.
From a Minister/Elder in Kenya:
Brother Al, is it possible for you to make a trip to Kenya this coming fall to speak at our annual Conference at the Christian Academy for which I serve as the Director? I was just wondering, since I have been following your Reflections for years, and we are so blessed by them!
From a Minister in New Zealand:
Thank you, Al, for your article titled "Musings on the Magi: Study of a Seasonal Story" (Reflections #762). Very interesting! It highlights once again God's eternal plan of universal salvation for both Jew and Gentile. I am presenting my first lesson of the new year on the 6th, and I have simply titled it "Change." I was inspired to call it this from a good friend of mine who is anticipating good things to come in 2019. Change is so necessary to so many things in our lives. Change takes place in the natural world all the time, yet being "born again" necessitates spiritual change as well. I am really looking forward to presenting this lesson. Please pray for us here, as our congregation is anticipating change in the coming year! God bless you!
From a Reader in Nova Scotia:
I used to be the very legalistic preacher at a very conservative congregation here. However, almost two decades ago I came across your writings, and the change in me began. Now I am a real man of love and spirituality. Who would ever have believed it?! The truth is: I now feel more at peace with my beliefs than at any time in my life! And that is all due to having a loving biblical scholar (a fellow named Al Maxey) who was/is willing to share his reflections with others. I had never searched subjects as deeply as you do, yet I shared many of your convictions. Your writings gave me the grace and courage to share what I believed, even when I knew the local preachers were at a very different place in their studies than I was. Your writings also gave me written materials that I could pass along, and I am so thankful for that material. Al, I believe I love you more than anyone I have ever been blessed to know within our brotherhood. I expect you will be sharing less in the future as you slow down some; also I believe you need to put time into your extended family so that there will be a whole new generation of little "Al's" still teaching years from now! God bless you, brother, and thanks for the lesson on the so-called "Three Kings" of Christmas.
From a Reader in Iowa:
Your study "Carpentry or Stone Masonry? The Earthly Work of the Eternal Word" (Reflections #745) was a very interesting one! Have you ever considered that maybe Jesus and Joseph were boat builders? "Peter, put your boat back out in the lake!" Did Jesus perhaps hold the title to this boat? Jesus' cousins were fishermen. Jesus made His home in Capernaum. Just my hypothesis.
From a Reader in Louisiana:
About three months ago I dropped the proverbial bombshell in the young adults class that I am currently leading on the Book of Acts. That bombshell was regarding the meaning of Acts 2:38 (specifically, as to when a person is saved), and I shared a lot of the material you have written on the subject, plus that of a few others. I may have stirred up a hornet's nest with my comments. Hopefully, however, perhaps I have challenged some of them to rethink their traditional "Church of Christ" beliefs. Thank you for your time, Al. I continue to enjoy your challenging writings. They are a real encouragement to me!
From a Reader in Texas:
"Musings on the Magi" is a good article, Al. I think that the Magi of Matthew may have been the first God-fearing Gentiles mentioned in the NT. They would have followed what I would call the "School of Daniel," or at least Jewish influences were a part of their lives. Add to this a book that came out last year by Catholic scholar Dwight Longenecker called "Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men" (published by Regnery History). It is a history book with some very interesting connections to the Hebrew Scriptures. It is available through Amazon.com.
From a Reader in Georgia:
It is always good to read your perspectives because you spend so much time making sure your thoughts are based on accurate information rather than just tradition. It seems to me that the Magi were just another group in the "melting pot" of people to whom God announced the birth of Jesus. These were "common" folk and Gentiles. Not so much the "big shots" of the day. Thanks again for all that you do, and I hope you have your most productive year ever!
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