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.

Another unemployment lesson

In my last post, I shared some lessons that I learned through 7 months of uncertain unemployment. Of course, the truth is: I’m still learning. And the lessons continue. Here’s one more that I don’t want to slip through the cracks, unnoticed.

And this lesson starts with this simple idea: Be careful of pious phrases. We church people are really good at church lingo and spiritual slogans. Sometimes these phrases are true, and deeply so. But sometimes we speak words we want to be true, we hope are true, but they’re not — at least not in the way that we think.

So, sometimes we say things like: Don’t worry. Just trust God. Pray harder.

Are these words true? Of course. Nobody wants to worry. We all need to trust God more. And who among us thinks our prayer life is ever good enough?

Speaking phrases like this, while true, are usually not helpful. They can often have the opposite effect of what’s intended — instead of helping people connect more with God, they may in fact make them feel as if they are the reason for their struggles. If only I had more faith, or prayed more diligently, I wouldn’t be in this situation.

No. No. No. That’s not how life works. We don’t pray ourselves out of bad stuff, and into good stuff. Instead, we learn to trust God IN the difficult circumstances; oftentimes it’s the hard stretches of life that stretch us beyond pious platitudes, into surrender. A surrender that recognizes that, more than quick fixes and simplistic answers, we need to simply hold onto God right where are. And sometimes it’s a steel cable that seems to bind us to God; and other times, it feels like a thread.

In fact, maybe what God wants most for us during times of duress isn’t clear; maybe the only thing we can say for sure is that He wants us to cling to Him, to trust Him in the darkness, and just take the next step.

Which leads to a couple of other phrases I find of questionable help: God’s got a plan. It will all work out in the end.

Just the other day, I heard about a person in prison for his faith in a country known for its opposition to Christianity. Separated from his family, he has faced 361 days a year in solitary confinement. Now, imagine that on one of the 4 days a year he is given an opportunity to talk with people, you are one of the ones who gets to visit with him. What are you going to say? God’s got a plan? It will all work out in the end?

What if he never gets released from prison; never gets to see his family again? Is that God’s plan? Is that how it all works out in the end?

Now, on the one hand, we have faith that God is working through even the worst of circumstances. And we know that things will work out in the end — even if the end is the End of All Things. But lots of bad stuff happens in this life, and some of it doesn’t get fixed in this life. God will work out all things in the end; we have this promise. But it might be that, in this life, His plan is not to open all the doors we want opened; to make smooth all our paths; to make clear every step we take. In fact, as I heard John Ortberg say recently: sometimes God’s plan is that we use the freedom he has given us to make a choice. It might not be the best choice; it may not take us down the path we hoped it would. But, as Ortberg points out, God is more concerned with our character than our circumstances. And His plan might be less about walking through the “right door,” than it is about the kind of person we are becoming as we make the choices that take us through the doors we decide to walk through.

But overall, my concern isn’t so much with what well-meaning people say; it’s why. And often, I think we toss around pious phrases to people because we don’t know what else to say. In fact, I think that oftentimes we speak a spiritual cliche — like, at a funeral home: She’s in a better place — because we are trying to remind ourselves that this is true. Standing next to the casket with a mom who has to bury her child, we don’t know what to say because there is no way to explain this.

So I wonder if what we are doing when we offer a religious cliche is, in fact, speaking to ourselves. Running into a friend whose husband just walked out, we have no answers. So we give voice to what WE need to hear. It’ll be okay. God’s in control. All things work for good, after all. Speaking these words to our friend, we are in fact also seeking to console ourselves; to make sense of the senseless. To try to hold onto truth when the world is falling apart.

But when we stop trying to speak to ourselves, or come up with the perfect words to speak to our friend in need, we might find this deeper truth: what people need in times of need are not words, but someone to walk with them. Not pious phrases, but presence. Because, it’s easier to drop by and say something spiritual than it is to come alongside and do something practical. It’s easier to speak a cliche than it is to walk with them through the uncertainty.

As I think about the season of life I just went through, the people who were the most helpful were the ones who didn’t have all the answers — but were there for me, anyway. There were times they didn’t know what to say — but they stayed there for me, anyway. The reminded me of biblical truth, by words, yes; but even more by what they did. They showed me God is faithful by their faithfulness.

There was an episode of “CSI: New York” about 10 years ago where one of the detectives, Mac Taylor, befriends a neighborhood kid. The two are walking home from a community event when Mac notices a thief escaping the scene of a crime. He tells Ruben, the 10-year-old boy, to go straight home. The detective begins to chase the criminal, but doesn’t catch him.

Later, Mac is at the crime lab, and he sees Ruben’s dead body; he had been killed by the escaping thief. As he walks away, one of the female cops come up to Mac, looking for advice. What do I say?, she asks. I’m not good at this kind of thing. To which Mac Taylor responds, Just tell him you’re not good at this kind of thing.

Here’s the truth: None of us is good at that kind of thing. But not having the right words to say is, I believe, one of the first steps in acknowledging that words don’t change the reality that life can sometimes be downright crappy. Recognizing that doesn’t mean that our faith is weak or shallow; it doesn’t mean that God isn’t real and present. It simply grabs hold of the fact that maybe, when we stop talking, we give ourselves, and those walking through the Valley, an opportunity beyond hearing truth — to experiencing it.

For when we were in our deepest valley, when we as creation were in our greatest need, God Himself moved beyond words, to presence. God moved beyond giving Law, to showing Love. For when we had no answer, God answered most clearly, showed Himself most powerfully, by walking with us, becoming one of us — for the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.