The Surprising Bible Passage That Launched the Church

Imagine you were given one opportunity to speak to a group and convince them that something brand new was breaking through. Consider what you would say if you were given the opportunity to speak on behalf of a radical shift in thinking, and you had one shot at it. What would you say?

Now, consider if you had to speak on behalf of something brand new in the world of faith and God and religious practice? If you were afforded the opportunity to inaugurate a new work of God, how would you do it?

That’s exactly what Acts 2 tells us that Peter did. On the Jewish Day of Pentecost, with faithful people gathered in Jerusalem, coming from all points of the planet — we read that Peter is the primary spokesperson of a brand new work of God, never before seen. And what is striking to me is the passage that Peter begins with. In the very first message about the work the Messiah has come to unleash, Peter and the early Church have one chance — and only one — to ground this new movement in Scripture.

That passage? It’s not from the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy). It isn’t even from a major prophet such as Isaiah or Ezekiel; instead, it’s from a “minor” one, Joel — one who fills a whopping 4 pages in the Bible. With a veritable smorgasbord of scriptural references, the fact that Joel is chosen can’t be a coincidence; it’s clearly not chosen at random. Instead, the words from this minor prophet must be considered major in the re-formation of the people of God, and in this new work that the Spirit is doing.

And so, quoting Joel, Peter tells any who will listen: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit upon all people” (NIV). Hmm, that’s interesting. Seems like this new work of God is going to be bigger than before; reach way farther than in the past.

Peter continues with his quotation from Joel: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy; your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

In this new work being unleashed today, Peter says, it is no longer just about the Jewish people; Gentiles are included, too. If that weren’t earth-shattering enough, he goes on: this new work also will not be focused on status or social standing; ALL people from all walks of life will experience AND speak of this new work of God.

This includes not just the old, but the young. This involves not simply the influential and important, but the overlooked and disregarded. And, Peter makes clear, it involves both men and women.

What Peter speaks of in Acts 2, Paul powerfully summarizes in Galatians 3.26-28: Because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, all who have been baptized into him are now his children. And among his children there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. Paul, like his predecessor Peter, is not saying those differences no longer exist; instead, he is saying, they are no longer determinative for our place in God’s family. Instead, as Paul makes clear to the Galatians: “All of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

It’s a wonderful principle, one that hardly any Acts 2-believing person would dispute. But what does it mean in practice?

Well, I think we get to see exactly that as Acts and the New Testament unfold. Take, for example, Acts 21. In a casual aside, we read in verse 9 that Philip the Evangelist has four daughters who prophesy. In this verse, not one, but two words are exactly the same as we see back in Acts 2: daughter and prophesy.

And though this passage is easy to miss, I would suggest that, for this very reason, it is worth our attention. Because Luke can mention these 4 women without any further comment demonstrates how these daughters are a natural (and unsurprising) fulfillment of Peter’s quote of Joel in Acts 2. The fact that Luke can casually mention them is a testimony, I believe, to the fact that they weren’t alone. Apparently Luke doesn’t have to spend a lot of time here because these women weren’t the only female prophets. If anything, I think Luke would say: What’s the big surprise here? Weren’t you paying attention to what happened on the Day of Pentecost?

Another example is found in the married couple who first appear in Acts 18. In verse 2, Luke makes a point of telling us that Paul meets a man named Aquila. And, almost as if an afterthought, Luke tells us that Aquila recently came to Corinth with his wife Priscilla. Paul forms a bond with these folks, not just because of their common faith (all 3 are Jewish believers in Jesus), but also because they share a common trade (tent-making).

That’s all we know of this couple until they show up again in verse 18, when Paul decides that, on the next leg of his missionary journey, he wants to invite Priscilla & Aquila to join him. Note how quickly it goes from meeting Aquila (and oh, by the way, his wife), to: Paul enlisting Priscilla & Aquila as fellow missionaries. In a casual but clear inversion of names, Luke is making a point: Paul is taking Priscilla and Aquila along as partners in the work. And by the end of the chapter, Priscilla & Aquila are teaching a guy named Apollos; together, they are sharing the way of Jesus and mentoring a new disciple.

And that’s it. That’s all we learn of this couple in the book of Acts. But they do show up 3 other times in the New Testament — with all 3 passages easy-to-overlook if we’re not paying attention. In 1 Corinthians 16.19, Paul mentions that Aquila & Priscilla have a church meeting in their home. In 2 Timothy 4.19, Paul sends them greetings.

Finally, the 2 show up in Romans 16. It’s a fascinating chapter; again, full of names easy to overlook. But each name — each person — has meaning to Paul. The chapter begins with Paul vouching for Phoebe, a woman Paul calls a deacon, and who is apparently delivering the letter of Romans. (By the way, in ancient times, delivering a letter wasn’t a postal duty; it also had an explanatory role, as well. Phoebe was likely the one Paul entrusted to read Romans and communicate its message to the gathering of the church in Rome.)

And after Phoebe, Paul then starts saying ‘hello’ to his friends and co-workers in Rome. And the first ones he thinks of to greet are Priscilla & Aquila, calling them “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” Later, Paul will use that same term to describe Timothy (Romans 16.21), and elsewhere, Titus (2 Corinthians 8.23), along with Mark & Luke (Philemon 24). Paul references Apollos (the same one Priscilla & Aquila taught) as a fellow worker (1 Corinthians 3.9). In Philippi, Paul mentions Euodia & Syntyche, calling them “my fellow workers,” describing how these women have struggled with him in the cause of the gospel (Philippians 4.3).

All of this to say: Paul uses “my fellow worker” to describe, not simply folks who hang around with him, but who are a vital part of his ministry — men and women who are working alongside him in the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ.

In other words, they are fulfilling the very words Joel spoke about and Peter preached about. This new work of God, from its very first days, was intended to be a family where all people of all backgrounds used their gifts and talents to share and speak and serve in a way that brings glory to Jesus.

So, the challenge, as I see it, for any church that strives to be an Acts 2 church; a New Testament church, is this: How can we be a place where everyone is invited to be changed and transformed by Jesus? And how can we be a family where everyone is then encouraged, equipped, and fully unleashed to use their gifts?

2 Things the Early Church Did on Day One

As one who has spent all of my life in the Christian Church (also known as the: Restoration Movement, Reformation of the 19th Century, Stone-Campbell Movement), I have spent a lot of time in one particular chapter of the Bible. More than any other, for the churches I have been a part of, the 2nd chapter of Acts has defined what church is and what church is supposed to be.

But here’s the thing: usually, when we focus on Acts 2, we go to the end of the chapter, where it describes the response to Christ (Acts 2.38) and the reality experienced in the very first days of the church (Acts 2.42-47). But before we get to the end, the beginning also gives us some rich insight into being the church.

In the first four verses of Acts 2, we see the Spirit come upon the first followers of Jesus – and that same Spirit then lead the people to immediately begin sharing the story of Jesus with everyone who has gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. There are people there from Asia and Europe, the Middle East and Africa. And the author Luke tells us that all of them hear the message of Jesus in their own language.

So, right out of the gate, as the Church is getting started, we see 2 very important things:

  1. The Spirit leads;
  2. The Spirit leads the Church to share Jesus with ALL people.

Of course, we have to note that this early group consisted entirely of Jews and Jewish proselytes. But even as Luke describes what is unfolding in Acts 2, he is clearly pointing forward to a time in the not-to-distant-future when it will become clear to these Jewish followers of Jesus that their tribe will grow to make room for (surprise, surprise): the Gentiles.

A New Testament church, then, must value all of the stuff at the end of Acts 2; but it also must place a high value on what happens at the beginning: where the Church begins with a Spirit-led calling to take the good news to everyone.

I had lunch one time with a guy named Reggie. We had met each other at a ministers meeting, and then decided to get together and get to know each other a little better. He told me that the church where he ministers is a part of the Christian Methodist Episcopal denomination — the CME church, for short.

Now, I don’t know much about them; so Reggie gave me a little history lesson. He told me that when the Civil War ended, the Methodist Episcopal Church decided they would allow African-American folk into the church. But they decided to do that by letting former slaves start their own churches. So, in 1870, the ME church started the CME church – which, at the time, stood for the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.

I’m sure they did that – starting a new branch of their church — because the differences seemed too substantial to have one church for two races. It had to be hard – downright impossible – to imagine how former slaveowners and former slaves could worship and serve as one.

And I think they were right. It had to seem impossible. In many — most — places and settings, it still feels that way. But what seems unattainable is described in Acts 2 as possible; but only if we start where Acts 2 starts: with the Spirit.

Now, not every church is going to be a rainbow color of differences; but each church should strive to reflect its community. If someone lives within, say, ten miles of your church building, your church needs to seek how the Spirit would use you and your congregation to reach out to them and let them know that Jesus is for them. And that there is a place for them in your church.

For some churches, this means that there should be Asians and white folks worshiping together. For others, it might mean making room for folks who speak Spanish. But for some, the variety of folks in your community might be less about skin color and more about economic status, or marital status, or age. If there are a fair number of single people in your church’s community, is your church doing things that aren’t just for families? Does your preacher use illustrations that aren’t always about marriage and family?

But even if most people in your immediate community look a lot like your church people, there are ways to let the Spirit lead you to express unity with those who are of different ethnicities and races. Partner with a church in another part of town. Invite a guest preacher to speak who has a different background. Invite someone to lunch who does church different than you, and just listen.

For, as I read Acts 2, it seems abundantly clear: any church that wants to reflect the earliest church must be Spirit-led. And one of the very first things the Spirit did (and does) is lead the people of Jesus to make the good news of Jesus available to everyone.

The Most Important Thing I Share With Couples I’m About to Marry

This summer, I will be officiating at two weddings. I won’t be able to do either ceremony like this (though I did once, at the request of the bride. Really.)

Whenever I do a wedding, I sit down with a couple 3 or 4 times — in preparation not just for the wedding day, but even more, the wedded life. Over the years, I have probably married 20 or 30 couples — which has given me 20 or 30 opportunities to help couples walk through the joys and struggles, the challenges and the opportunities of marriage.

But here’s the thing. I’m rarely happy with what we talk about. I am constantly tweaking what I do in those sessions, forever in search of a better way to prepare a couple to share a lifetime of love together. So, after a recent conversation with one of the engaged couples, I went home and immediately sat down and typed out what I want to do the next time I marry someone. This is now the format I want to use; this is the outline that will cover every important detail; these are the subjects that will give them every thing they need to know before saying “I do.”

Except, after I’ve written it down, I come to realize: this isn’t the perfect outline. I mean, why should it be? After all, it wasn’t “the perfect outline” the eight other times I revised it.

And why should I be surprised? For there is no perfect outline to prepare for marriage, just as there is no perfect marriage. There is no way to address every question, just as there is no way to anticipate every question that will arise over 40 or 50 or 60 years of marriage. Instead, I am learning that the most important thing I can do for couples about to step into the great unknown is help them to see that they are, in fact, stepping into The Great Unknown.  The one thing we can say about what marriage brings is that we don’t know what marriage will bring.

Well, there is one thing. The author and psychologist Brene Brown says that her pastor  believes there IS one thing he can tell couples that he counsels: This much I know: in marriage, you will hurt each other.

Sounds like a positive guy. I’m sure he’s swamped with marriage requests.

But I think he’s on to something. And that something is the reality that the risk of relationship (be it marriage, family, close friendship, or even a church small group) is that we tend to hurt each other. And the closer the relationship, the easier it is to hurt each other.

Now, please note: I am NOT talking about physical or verbal abuse; I am not describing harm that must be held to account. I am speaking of the reality of the everyday hurt that is involved when we “do life” with someone.

Even so — even with the reality that marriage involves hurt feelings, hard conversations, and stretches of yawning apathy — why marry at all? For that matter: why get into close relationship with anyone? If hurt will result, why take the risk?

Well, in short, because that’s how we grow. We don’t grow in isolation. We don’t flourish by avoiding risk. In fact, not only do we mature despite the pain and problems that relationships bring, it’s in fact in the midst of the struggles that we grow.

And so, what I want to say to anyone who is dealing with the frustrations of relations (be it marriage or parenting, co-workers or close friends): Relationships are hard; it’s foolish to think otherwise. But through the challenges, we have the opportunity to grow. Through the hard work of learning to love imperfect people, we become more like our perfect Savior. Through the challenge of loving people through the difficult times — and being loved through our difficult times — we become more like Jesus.

Marriage isn’t the only way for this to happen, of course, but it is one way — one that, if married couples will let it, will shape them and mold them in ways that are both painful and powerful. So, even though I don’t have a magic formula, at the end of my conversations with couples getting married, I share these 10 principles — ten guidelines I believe that, if they spend a lifetime practicing, will help them grow (through the good times, and the bad):

  1. Commit to a life time of growing together.
  2. Be ready for it to be hard.
  3. Love like Jesus, trust in Jesus, depend on him to guide you.
  4. Work for unity.
  5. Find an older, mentor couple. (Or, for older couples: Be that mentor couple.)
  6. Laugh together.
  7. Pray together.
  8. Learn to listen well.
  9. Guard your marriage by guarding your heart.
  10. Love each other through life’s changes and challenges.