Learning to Listen

Question: How do I know the Holy Spirit is really working in my life? Does he speak to me in my dreams or do I get a tingling feeling when I am making a decision? How can I be sure I’m listening to his guidance? — Eutychus

The whole concept of Charismatic gifts and the working of the Holy Spirit today is quite complicated. While I believe the Spirit is working on our life, I believe he is so subtle we best catch glimpses of him in our “rearview mirror.” It’s so humbling to look back and see what he has done and believe I didn’t see it at the time. 

For example, Jan and I came to San Diego quite “by accident.” We were sailing to Mexico and parts beyond when the fuel filters on our boat clogged up stranding us here. What was intended to be a two-week layover for repairs became a whole new life. Who would have thought that was the work of Holy Spirit but now I’m convinced God had a hand in it!

On the other hand, I tend to be much more skeptical when people tell me “God told me to do this or that.” If God made the decisions for us, where would our growth and testing be? For example, when a child is given a math exam, what good would it be if the teacher stood by his side and whispered, “The hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the square root of the sum of the squares of the two other sides”? Instead, a good teacher might tell him to “relax, breathe deep and remember what we studied on Tuesday” but a good teacher won’t take the work away from the student.

So where is the Holy Spirit in all this? He is preparing us for the test! He is the Good Teacher and, if we have been faithfully studying the Word of God under his tutelage, when the time of testing comes upon us, we will be ready! To prove my point, do you remember reading Matthew 4:1? “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Did you see that? “… by the Spirit …” Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted (Also read Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1). This was the time of testing but Jesus had been listening to the Spirit before that, during the time of preparation. And so, when Jesus was tempted by Satan, when he was tested, Jesus knew the answers. He quoted the Scriptures and made the right choices. He was prepared by listening to the Spirit teaching and so should we! 

So how do I know the Holy Spirit is speaking today? By seeing his subtle hand in my past, by trusting in his help today as I study God’s Word, and by passing the tests along the way with the Spirit’s help.

Mnason of Cyprus

After these days, we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. And some of the disciples from Caesarea went with us, bringing us to the house of Mnason of Cyprus, an early disciple, with whom we should lodge (Acts 21:15 – 16).

The Apostle Paul and his friends stayed with Mnason of Cyprus. Do you remember, Paul’s first missionary partner was Barnabas? That’s the name the apostles gave him because he was such an encourager. His actual name was “Joseph the Levite,” and he was also from the island of Cyprus (Acts 4:36). Certainly, Mnason and Barnabas, both Cyprites, were friends. They shared their faith and the same spirit of encouragement.

This is the only place Mnason is mentioned in the New Testament, and we can be inspired by two of his qualities. First, he was “an early disciple.” Does that mean he was there on the day of Pentecost for the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Church? It’s possible. Some traditions say he was one of the seventy missionaries that Jesus chose some time earlier, but that’s just speculation. There is something refreshing about the enthusiasm of a new convert, but there is something comforting about a well-matured saint.

The thing that stands out about Mnason was his willingness to invite Paul’s Gentile companions to stay under his roof. Mnason’s Jewish neighbors (and many Christians at that time) would have been horrified to entertain Gentiles – even Christian Gentiles. Just a chapter later, the great Jerusalem riot and Paul’s arrest were caused just by the rumor that the apostle had invited a Gentile to visit the Temple (Acts 21:27 – 28). Mnason was a courageous believer!

By combining these two qualities – his years of faithful service and his hospitality – there is one more lesson to be learned. Sometimes, as we grow older, we leave the work of the church to younger members. Mnason could have left it to others to provide Paul’s company with hospitality, but he didn’t. Service should be as natural to senior saints as singing is to worship.

Hot Coals!

I didn’t expect yesterday’s devotional about “charcoal” to generate much discussion, but I was surprised. I concluded the article with a reference to Romans 12:20.
To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20, ESV).
Paul is quoting from Proverbs 25:21 – 22. The “coals” are probably charcoal, but what does the apostle mean? I often find it helpful to refer to the United Bible Societies’ helps for translators’ series of books. The focus of these commentaries is to aid scholars who are translating the Bible into different languages.
The imagery of the last clause in this verse is difficult, though all translations seem to prefer to retain the imagery rather than to change the metaphor into a non-metaphor. For by doing this you will heap burning coals on his head is perhaps best taken in the sense of “for by doing this you will make him ashamed.”[1]
What is especially interesting is how Paul doesn’t quote the entire verse from Proverbs. He leaves off the last phrase.
“… for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:22).
The apostle isn’t trying to motivate Christians to earn God’s reward by treating their enemies kindly. Instead, as Jewett and Kotansky explain:
There is a new motivation in a love ethic resting on God’s love for the undeserving, developed in earlier sections of Romans. There is no guarantee that giving food and drink will necessarily make a friend out of an enemy or that such actions will always produce the conversion of enemies, thus freeing them from the prospect of divine wrath; it is particularly unlikely that Paul hopes such deeds will increase the inevitability of wrath against those who refuse to respond positively. The actions of kindness to enemies flow from the transformed community (12:1–2), set right by the power of the gospel concerning God’s love for the ungodly. This involves being motivated by “genuine love” (12:9), and is consistent with “hospitality to strangers” (12:13). This verse therefore illustrates what might be involved in being “at peace with all persons” (12:18*)[2]
In other words, kindness is the best revenge. Invite them for barbeque!

[1] Newman, B. M., & Nida, E. A. (1973). A handbook on Paul’s letter to the Romans (p. 243). New York: United Bible Societies.
[2] Jewett, R., & Kotansky, R. D. (2006). Romans: A commentary. (E. J. Epp, Ed.) (p. 778). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

It’s Barbeque Season

The sound of lawnmowers fills the air, and people across America are cleaning up their grills in preparation for the Barbeque Season. People in Kansas take their barbeque seriously. Some are devotees of convenience and rely on propane. Others prefer pellet stoves (“even heat”), while still others are committed to that ancient medium, charcoal.

Jesus himself grilled fish and bread on a charcoal fire, John 21:9 (anthrakia, ἀνθρακιά), but what is charcoal and how was it made? The Smoked BBQ source explains:

On a basic level, charcoal is produced by burning wood or other organic matter in a low oxygen environment. Doing so removes water and other volatile elements, allowing the finished product, the charcoal, to burn at high temperatures with very little smoke.[1]

In small batches, charcoal can be made in either a pit or a pile. The wood is stacked, leaving a central “chimney” filled with highly flammable material. The stack is then covered with wet leaves, and dirt is packed around the outside. Once the central core is burning, it too is covered, so oxygen is excluded. The fire smolders for several days. The lump charcoal is then ready for use. Archaeologists believe people have been making charcoal for over 6,000 years.

Brisket, burgers, chicken, hot dogs, sausages, and fish all have their tasty place over a barbeque. Around 400 B.C., Creophylus of Ephesus tells us the fishermen in Asia Minor, as Jesus did later, preferred charcoal to grill their fish. The heat was even and produced little smoke.

I am always impressed by how little details in the Bible reinforce the stories. Hardwood makes the best charcoal, and Jesus, as a carpenter, would have had a ready supply. Is it possible that in addition to creating objects from wood, Jesus also produced charcoal from the scraps? This detail from John 21 gives the story the touch of an eyewitness.

I’m getting hungry as I write this article, but before we close, the Apostle Paul gives us something else to think about:

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:18 – 21).

And barbeque with charcoal!

[1] https://www.smokedbbqsource.com/how-to-make-charcoal/

The Lesson of the Cat

There is a great urban legend about two young men in college trying to impress their dates. One of the men borrowed his father’s fancy Lincoln for the occasion, and the other made reservations at the fanciest restaurant in town. The young men had scrimped and saved for this very special date, and everything was going well until the driver accidentally ran over a cat.

The girls were frantic and insisted they find the owner of this poor, dead pussycat. The boys were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They absolutely had to make the reservation, but they also wanted to do what’s right. Fortunately, one of the young men had a brilliant idea. “Why don’t we take the cat with us, and after dinner, we can find the owner?”

Reluctantly, the girls agreed, and the young man put the unfortunate cat into a Macy’s shopping sack, lovingly wrapped in tissue paper, and put it in the trunk of his father’s car. When they arrived at the restaurant, the young man wisely didn’t want to stink up dad’s Lincoln, so he put the sack on top of the trunk, and they all went inside and were seated by the window.

As dinner progressed, they noticed an obviously very wealthy woman walking by their car. She spied the bag, looked left, and looked right and deftly snatched the sack and carried it inside. The waiter seated her and took her order. She kept glancing down at her newly stolen treasure, curious to know what she had purloined. Finally, she couldn’t contain herself. As her salad arrived, she serendipitously pried open the bag, spied the dead cat, and screamed before she fainted face-first into her bleu cheese dressing.

The waiter rushed to her side and helped her up. She saw the bag again and passed out once more. The paramedics quickly arrived, strapped her onto a gurney, and wheeled her to the waiting ambulance. They carefully collected her purse and shopping bag and placed them by her side for the duration of the ride to the emergency room. Sadly, every time she regained consciousness on the way, she saw the sack, was reminded of her immorality and passed out again.

All of our actions have consequences. The book of Revelation concludes: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)

What deeds will follow you into glory?

Depth Perception

She was only a 90-lb schoolteacher, but she signed up for a one-day rock climbing course in Berchtesgaden, where I was teaching. Generally speaking, women are much better climbers than men, at least in the beginning. They seem to have a better sense of balance and don’t try to muscle their way up a cliff as men do. I have my students begin by climbing sideways along a cliff face just a foot or two off the ground. It takes the same holds and techniques to move sideways as it does to climb up, and the results of a fall aren’t nearly as severe.

She was an amazing acrobat and could cling to the tiniest holds with ease. Finally, after they learned the rope work, it came time to scale their first face. It was a little less than a hundred feet high, with a big pine tree growing on the top. I climbed first and then anchored the rope to this massive tree. I sat on the cliff’s edge and slowly took in the rope as the students climbed up. It was perfect. If a student did slip and fall, they couldn’t fall anywhere. The rope ran tautly to me on top. There was no slack, but heights can add a whole new dimension to the equation.

She began well. As long as she was only a few feet off the ground, she was fine, but as she climbed higher and higher, I could tell she was becoming more and more afraid. With only ten feet to go, she could climb no higher. Panic filled her eyes. It was honestly easier than anything she had done earlier in the day. She looked at me and pleaded. “I’m going to fall! I’m going to fall!” I held the rope tightly and tried to reassure her. “I’m going to die!”

“No, no. You’re fine. You can do it! I have you,” I said.

Then it happened. She closed her eyes and let go. I could see it in her face. In her mind, she was hurtling towards the rocks below. Her body was slowly turning as the ground reached up to meet her. At any moment, her short life would be over. Why was she so foolish as to sign up for climbing lessons? Why couldn’t she be content to teach her students in the safety of her classroom? “Why? Why? Why?”

Finally, she opened her eyes, and I smiled at her. She hadn’t gone anywhere. The rope held, and I winked. She looked around embarrassed and quickly scrambled to the top.

I think life can be like that. We build barriers in our minds. We focus on the obstacles and not the opportunities. God is good! Our Father loves us, and the Holy Spirit empowers us. Jesus has shown us the way. It is only left for us to follow. The Apostle Paul wrote:

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). We can’t do it by ourselves, but “through him who strengthens me.”

The Apostle with a Big Heart: Judas Thaddaeus

The lists of the names of the apostles can become confusing. Many apostles have two (or more) names. For example, Simon is also called Peter, and Levi is also called Matthew. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) include Bartholomew, while John calls him Nathanael. So also, Matthew and Mark list Thaddaeus, but Luke (and Acts) records Judas, the son of James. Judas was a very popular name in the days of the New Testament. One of the brothers of Jesus was called Judas, and two of the apostles are named Judas – Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot. The Apostle John distinguished “Judas (not Iscariot)” (John 14:22). Since the name Judas in English is associated with the man who betrayed Jesus, English Bibles tend to change the Greek word, Judas, to Jude for everyone who isn’t Judas Iscariot, but that is only common in English and French Bibles.

Who was Judas Thaddaeus, the apostle? From the Bible, we don’t know much. He is always one of the last four apostles and associated with Simon the Zealot in tradition so that he may have shared Simon’s revolutionary tendencies. On the other hand, Luke called him “Thaddaeus,” a nickname that means “big or courageous hearted.” During the Last Supper, when Jesus said, “And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him,” Judas asked, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” The answer is comforting:

“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

In other words, our obedience develops our understanding.

Beyond the pages of Scripture, legends abound. Tradition holds he was a vegetarian. A fourteenth-century writer, Nicephorus Callistus, claimed Judas was the bridegroom in Cana who ran out of wine. Legend claims his father was Clopas. He probably was a farmer and may have come from Caesarea Philippi north of Galilee, but there is no way to be sure of any of that. He was likely beheaded in Beirut, but definitive answers will have to wait.

Finally, in Catholicism, Jude is honored as the patron saint of lost causes. They reason that few people asked for Jude’s help in prayer because they didn’t want to call on Judas Iscariot by accident. As a result of being ignored, Jude is especially eager to help those who call on him!

The New Testament teaches that we are all saints – from the greatest apostles to the humblest disciple. Jesus answers all of our prayers, but we can look to the heroes of faith, like the courageous-hearted Jude, as examples to follow.

The Least Known Apostle: James the Son of Alphaeus

Among the twelve apostles were at least two groups of brothers: Peter and Andrew, and James and John, but it’s possible there was a third pair. Remember, Matthew is also called Levi:

And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him (Mark 2:14).

He is identified as “the son of Alphaeus.” Likewise, in Mark 3:18, James is also called “the son of Alphaeus.” While it’s possible there were two apostles whose fathers were named Alphaeus, is it also possible these two were also brothers? But, if so, why aren’t they identified as such? Do you remember the list of apostles is divided into three groups of four? The first four are always the same in each of the lists: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. The second four are always the same: Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, and Matthew, and the last four are always the same: James, Simon the Zealot, Thaddaeus, and Judas. Within those groups of four, the order of names varies, but they are always the same four. What ties them together in their groupings?

It has been said that the last four were revolutionaries. We know for a fact that Simon was a Zealot – a Jewish revolutionary, and many believe Judas was too (depending on the meaning of “Iscariot). It’s not a big step to believe James and Thaddaeus were as well. If that is so, then it would explain why Matthew and James, the sons of Alphaeus, were separated. One was a revolutionary, and the other was a tax collector – a traitor. They were a family divided, but the love of Christ, and his calling, brought them together again. Perhaps I’m becoming too speculative, but it is a precious thought.

Sadly, the rest of the story of James, the son of Alphaeus, is lost in the shadows of James, the famous brother of Jesus, and James, the brother of John, who was the first apostle to die. His story became confused with these more famous disciples and is lost. It is possible he was crucified at Ostrakine in Lower Egypt, but the details are not certain.

Nathanael: Skinned Alive!

I love the stories of the first disciples, but, sadly, after we leave the pages of the New Testament, their tales are often clouded by myths and legends. Some of them are truly bizarre. For example, it is said that Nathanael Bartholomew was martyred by being skinned alive before he was beheaded. In the sacred art of the Middle Ages, Michelangelo pictured Nathanael with a beard, curly hair, and holding his flayed skin! (Worse, because he was flayed, Nathanael is the patron saint of leather workers.)

The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, only give us Bartholomew’s name, and it’s his last name at that. “Bar-” means “son of,” and “Talmai” means “farmer.” Thus, Bartholomew means “son of the furrows.” Bartholomew is never mentioned in John, and Nathanael is never mentioned in the Synoptics. Therefore, most scholars refer both names to the same apostle. Nathanael and Philip were great friends and are always associated together in the Bible.

In John’s gospel, Jesus calls Philip to follow him, and Philip goes to find his friend Nathanael.

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

Rather than arguing with Nathanael, Philip invites his friend to see for himself.

“Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?”

What tone do you use as you read Nathanael’s words? Is he smug? “Yes, that’s me, an honest Israelite!” Is he suspicious? “I’ve never met you before. How can you make such a statement about me?” However you read those words, it is Jesus’ explanation that is intriguing:

 Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

What was so special about that fig tree? William Barclay speculated Nathanael was praying under the fig tree. Thus, Jesus is saying, “I heard your prayers, Nathanael.” Fig trees have leaves the size of your hand. (Remember: Adam and Eve used the leaves to make their clothing.) The branches bow down like a Weeping Willow tree leaving a private space shaded next to the trunk. That would be an excellent place for personal prayer.

Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:43 – 51)

Perhaps we won’t fully understand Nathanael’s response until we meet him in heaven, but we know Philip and Nathanael were faithful witnesses to the Messiah. The best traditions have them planting churches in India and Armenia which was probably the scene of his martyrdom.

Knowing What You Don’t Know: Philip the Apostle

Andrew and John sought Jesus out and then brought their brothers, Peter and James, to meet the Master. On the other hand, Philip was the first disciple that Jesus called to be His disciple:

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” (John 1:43).

What was it about Philip that caught Jesus’ eye? I believe it was his honesty and his self-awareness. Philip knew what he didn’t know. After Jesus invited Philip to follow him, Philip sought out his friend. “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45). Nathanael and Philip had discussed the Messiah before. Nathanael challenges Philip: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Philip doesn’t argue. He simply invited Nathanael to come see for himself.

Knowing your limitations is an essential quality. It’s important to know what you don’t know. Philip is an excellent example of that virtue. He won’t argue with Nathanael but invites his friend to see for himself.

Three years later, during the last week in the life of Jesus, a group of Greeks approached Philip asking for an introduction to see Jesus (John 12:20 – 21). Philip wasn’t sure if that was appropriate, but rather than put them off; he took them in search of answers. They all went to Andrew, and Andrew brought them to Jesus. When you know what you don’t know, ask for help!

There is one more incident to focus on today. Later, during the Last Supper, Jesus declared, “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6 – 7). It would have been natural to stay silent and nod your head as if you understood, but Philip can’t do that. Philip isn’t afraid to appear ignorant because he knows what he doesn’t know. “Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’” (John 14:8 – 9).

Philip may not have been a scholar or a leader, but he was confident of two things: his limits and how to find answers. 

Note: There are several apocryphal books concerning Philip. They may contain a kernel of history, but the truth is so buried in legends so as to be unusable. The best that we can say is Philip and Nathanael probably worked together in Phrygia, where Philip was martyred for his faith either by crucifixion or beheading. In 2011, Italian archaeologists claimed to find Philip’s tomb in Hierapolis (the neighboring town to Laodicea) in the Lycus River valley. See https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/38/1/21