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What One Must Know to be Saved: Athens

April 9, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the sixth article in that series, and was first published in July 2008.

The most complete description in Acts of the gospel message as delivered to Gentiles is found in Acts 17, in the account of Paul teaching in Athens.

Here, Paul’s audience was quite different from those who heard his messages in the synagogues which we examined previously. Appropriately, his message was different as well. Paul began by making a connection between his message and their own culture and religion. He explained that God created “the world and everything in it” and is Lord over all that He made. He taught them that the duty of man is to reach out and find God. He pointed out the folly of their beliefs in gods made by human hands. And he called for repentance from their idolatry. Finally, he warned them that there would be a day of judgment through Jesus, who was raised from the dead.

It is striking how different this message was from those delivered in the synagogues. Here Paul was addressing an audience with fundamental ignorance of God and of the origins of man. Most of the instruction is about who God is and what he expects from man. Just at the end he introduced the idea of the resurrection and judgment.

Apparently only a few of these hearers were moved to respond to Paul’s message. Some of the audience wished to hear him again on the subject, and it seems likely that all who would eventually respond required further instruction before they would have sufficient understanding to believe in Jesus and thereby be saved. It seems that before one could have a saving belief in Jesus, some basic foundational understandings had to be taught as prerequisites:

1) There is only one true God, not made by human hands.
2) The true God created the world.
3) Man has foolishly disobeyed God, and needs redemption.

As an aside, notice that Paul also taught Gentiles in Ephesus that there is only one God.

However, even in this case, we see the instruction Jesus being raised from the dead and being appointed to preside over judgment. And we see a call for repentance. (Note that he also taught repentance to the Gentiles in Ephesus). But from what we learn in Acts 17, it appears that these Gentiles needed further instruction before they could have saving faith in Jesus.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Pisidion Antioch

April 2, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the fifth article in that series, and was first published in July 2008.

In Pisidion Antioch, Paul entered the synagogue and taught the gospel.

In his message, Paul summarized the period of Israelite history from Egypt through King David, and taught that Jesus was descended from David. He reminded them of what John the Baptist had said about Jesus. He told them about the crucifixion and resurrection, and how those events fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. He told them of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection. Finally, he told them about the forgiveness of sins available to everyone who believes.

So, similar to Peter, Paul included the following points in his gospel message:

  1. Jesus is the Savior, the Holy One of God spoken of in the Old Testament
  2. Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.
  3. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus with a message of repentance and baptism.
  4. Forgiveness of sins comes to those who believe in Jesus.

Subsequent accounts of Paul’s gospel message to the Jews include Thessalonica and Ephesus. In these accounts we learn that Paul’s message specifically included the facts that Jesus was the Christ and that repentance was a key part of his message. Paul’s gospel message to Jews was the same as that of Peter:

  1. Jesus is the Christ
  2. Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, in fulfillment of Old Testament propecy.
  3. Jesus is Lord
  4. In response we are called to repent and turn to God for forgiveness.

By now it should be pretty clear what made up the gospel message to a person with a knowledge of first century Judaism.

But what about Paul’s message to Gentiles?


Elderlink Atlanta 2011

March 27, 2011

As is our custom, this past Friday and Saturday my wife and I attended the Atlanta Elderlink program  for 2011 at the North Atlanta Church of Christ.  And as always, the program was rich with insights about shepherding God’s people more effectively.

How to Die Happy

Randy Harris started the program on Friday night, offering two principles for success in life at any level.

1) Define success.  In other words, choose the right goal (he used the Greek term “telos”).

2) Choose an appropriate strategy for reaching that goal.

Randy proposed that a possible goal for the church could be subversion, to train the members to implement subversion of the ways of the world in the community around us.  The idea is to go beyond simply living a counter-cultural life (which can be passive and isolationist) and instead to actively inject the Christian lifestyle into the world.  Preparing Christians to carry out this kind of subversion requires developing their critical thinking skills and to understand the ways in which Jesus subverted the world around him.  He suggested that, instead of measuring success through attendance and contribution, we should try measuring the subversion (perhaps by counting acts of subversion that have been carried out).

We may take following Jesus very seriously, but we haven’t been so good at living up to that.  We’re called to be the light of the world, the kind of people who model to the world what Christianity means.  We should just do that, and accept whatever results that brings.

Charles Siburt

A change to the original program was made to allow Charles Siburt to share about his very serious personal health struggles and the lessons he has learned from them.  I will not go into detail about the nature of his sickness.  But the ongoing, life-threatening issues he faces are teaching him lessons about

1) Clarity.  The doctor looked him in the eye and told him the truth.  Faith in God requires us to face the truth squarely, not to deny and pretend.

2) Courage.  Faith isn’t so much about experiencing a miracle. Instead faith is itself the miracle.

3) God Cares.  The song “Be still my soul” has been on his mind lately.

4) Community:  The encouragement of many people is powerful.  God comforted the downcast by sending Titus to Paul. And God has comforted Dr. Siburt through the encouraging words of many people.

The big-picture message of this session was the utter calmness with which Dr. Siburt described his health and his heart at this point in the ordeal.  His strength can be a source of inspiration to anyone striving to overcome a terrible obstacle.

I wish they had told me…

Chris Smith opened the Saturday morning session with some quotes from elders.  He asked them what are the things about the job of an elder that they wish someone had told them before they were appointed.  Here are a few that I caught:

  • “When people disagree they go for the jugular”
  • “People can be cruel”
  • “How far-reaching divorce can be”
  • “I went from being a nobody to a somebody, not ready for that”
  • “Those in crisis expect us to provide them the perfect spiritual lifeboat… if we don’t we’re failing them”
  • “Am I going to let the hardship in the church to dominate my life”
  • “When elders speak, people listen differently”
  • “Be careful, there’s an elder in the room”
  • “People treat you differently”
  • “I would have liked for the people to be different (more spiritual)”
  • “I was unprepared for going home and not being able to talk to wife about things.”
  • “I live in Corinth.”

He pointed out that elders can learn from other elders.  There’s no reason to have to learn every lesson through experience , especially in a crisis.  We can find someone who has dealt with that crisis before, and find out what was the best thing they did; what they wish they had not done;  etc.

He advised us to be prepared for handling a child molestation incident, not waiting until one occurs to figure out how to respond.

We can’t please everyone.  Sometimes we can’t please anyone.  Some people are impossible to please, and this can be divisive.  Identify those people and watch out for what they might do.

He shared that, as a minister, he had been unprepared for how “boring” things can get.  The challenge of delivering an impactful message every Sunday can wear a preacher out.

There is a saying “Ninety percent of life is showing up.”  Similarly, it could be said that 90% of leadership is showing up.  Who you are matters more than what you do.  In difficult times, people are desperate to see a calm, steady, non-anxious presence — someone who can de-escalate things and reassure everyone that things will be ok; someone who is not dysfunctional and will not fall “off the wagon;”  someone who knows a little more than they do.  They need a leader who demonstrates, “I know the way. Follow me.”

Panel discussion and breakout sessions

During the breakout sessions, the attending elders got a chance to interact with the speakers about what they had heard.  In particular, there was a lot of discussion about the “subversion” idea, and how to present that in a way that a congregation could accept it.

There was considerable discussion of the women’s role in the church, a topic that really wasn’t mentioned in the main messages but had been raised in the panel discussion.

Chris Smith advised that, if a congregation likes their minister and wants to keep him for a long time, then do something special, nice, and totally unexpected for them.  As an example he described a vacation that was given to him as a surprise over ten years ago, which he still remembers more than any salary increase along the way.

Leading for the long haul

To avoid burnout as a church leader, Chris Smith advised:

1) Manage yourself.   Take care of your own personal needs.  Don’t rely on someone else to make sure you don’t burn out.

2) Trust is everything.  Build and maintain trust between leaders in the church.  The way to build trust is to act in a trustworthy manner.   Visit at the hospital.  Show up at funerals.  Be there (literally) in a crisis.  Doing those things builds trust. People don’t forget those things.

3) Do not misplace your heart.  Beware of becoming cynical as you deal with the most serious spiritual issues in the church.   Sometimes you have to “bring the hammer.”  If you never have a hard talk, you are surely overlooking sin.  On the other hand, you need to be full of grace.  Instead of being “done with” the repeat violator, be the one who is always ready to offer a new start.

4) It is God’s church.  God loves his church more than I do, and will love it after I’m dead and gone.  Do I love the church?  If not, they will know. If I think I’m smarter than most of them, they know.  They have to know that you love them.  If you do that, then you can say hard things when you need to.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live together in Christian community.”

5) People can change.  Remember those times when a person’s life turned around.  Cherish those memories, and let them encourage you as you enter the next crisis situation.

Rules for Recovering Legalists

Randy Harris began the closing message with a couple of illustrations.

His first illustration involved a group of  kids he was teachign to play chess. He gave them three rules to improve their strategy:

1) fight for the center
2) develop your pieces
3) castle early
Those new chess players didn’t see these rules as legalistic.  Rather, they saw them as helpful to achieving their goal of being a good chess player.
His second illustration involved driving a car in “whiteout” snow conditions — such heavy snow that you cannot see the road at all.   In such conditions, the driver welcomes any indication of where the boundaries of the road are.  These indicators aren’t seen as confiining but as enabling.
The point of both illustrations is that we need rules and boundaries.  God provides law for our good.
Paul was not anti-law.  In Romans he says the law is holy, right, and good.  In Galatians Paul was not arguing that law is a bad thing, but that the Jews were clinging to the wrong identity markers.
Randy gave another illustration from sports.  Athletes put themselves through incredibly hard things that might in other settings get someone put in jail.  But they choose to do it in order to reach a goal.  There is a huge difference between legalism and discipline.
We need rules and boundaries and discipline.  It helps to apply them in community.
Randy then began to explain the subversion idea more fully.  He gathered from the breakout sessions that most people felt it would be hard to implement the idea.   Randy then laid out a strategy for achieving the subversion “telos”.
Start by developing a subversive lifestyle yourself.  Then form a small community of leaders who are willing to enter into a covenant with one another.  Agree on exactly what the group’s covenant should be — a rule of life that the group is willing to live under.   What do we need to do to live out the gospel we proclaim?   By identifying the rules of that life, and making a covenant to live by those rules, the leaders begin to lead the church by modeling the lifestyle — modeling the radical lifestyle of Jesus.  That kind of modeling is the only thing that makes a person a real leader in the church.
A suggested rule is that we need to be indifferent to some things:  to what people think of us; to material things; to power, politics, pop culture and the media.  We need to be indifferent to those things, not influenced by them and not giving our time to them.  Randy described the effect of some students fasting from those things for six weeks.  The biggest problem: boredom. They didn’t know what to do with all the free time they suddenly had in their schedules.  Imagine if that time in our schedules could be spent on things that advance the Kingdom of God!
Randy gave another illustration from one of his classes.  He had mentioned in class that it has been statistically proven that there is no such thing as a streak shooter in basketball.  One of his students, a member of the women’s basketball team, took issue with his statement.  She chose as her project to interview the members of the basketball team to see whether they agreed.  The result was that they strongly disagreed, and were even angry that Randy would challenge that.  Their response was based entirely on their interpretation of their personal experience, despite the factually sound proof that they were wrong.   Randy showed through this illustration that we tend to reject truth because it doesn’t fit with what we believe from our experience.  We are unwilling to be radically generous with our material possessions because our experience tells us we will need material things and we aren’t so sure God will deliver on his promises to provide what we need.   Can we commit ourselves to “downward mobility?”   The thought is scary to us because we rely on ourselves instead of on God.  We rely on our experience of taking care of our own material needs, rather than the truth that God will keep his promises.
The bottom line is that leaders must first model what we will call the church to do.  “What’s wrong with my preaching?  There are not enough passages that I can preach with authenticity.”  There are too many passages that I have not embodied in any meaningful way.


I have a lot more meditation and personal work to do before I can adequately sum up this year’s Elderlink.  I heard things that challenged my socks off.   Things that could change my life, if I will let them.

If you are a church leader and you have the opportunity to attend an Elderlink program, do yourself and your church a favor.  Go.  And bring your fellow leaders with you.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Cornelius

March 26, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the fourth article in that series, and was first published in July 2008.

In Acts 10, we read of the conversion of Cornelius. He was a Gentile, a devout and God-fearing man who prayed regularly to God. After being persuaded to come to Cornelius in a vision, Peter preached the gospel to him.

Peter’s message reveals that Cornelius already knew of “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” Cornelius already knew of the miracles and good works of Jesus. Peter further informed him that Jesus had been crucified and raised from the dead, as prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures, and that Peter as well as others were witnesses to the resurrection. He taught Cornelius that Jesus has been appointed by God as judge of the living and the dead. And finally, he taught him that forgiveness of sins comes through his name to all who believe in him.

Peter’s main points in his message to Cornelius, as recorded in Acts 10, are as follows:

  1. Jesus is the Christ
  2. Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.
  3. Jesus is Lord of all.
  4. Forgiveness is granted to all who believe in Jesus.

Paul’s message to Cornelius was essentially the same as his previous gospel messages to Jewish audiences. Although Cornelius was a Gentile, he was a devout worshiper of God, and apparently his background of understanding was similar to that of the Jews. Therefore the same points needed to be taught to bring him to faith in Jesus.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Solomon’s Colonnade

March 19, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the third article in that series, and was first published in July 2008.

Today we will continue our inquiry into what one must know to be saved, by looking at the message Peter preached to the crowd in Acts 3.

In the first part of the chapter, we read of Peter healing a crippled man. This filled the people who witnessed the healing with wonder and amazement. A crowd gathered, and Peter seized the opportunity to preach the gospel to them.

The audience on this day was similar to the one on Pentecost. Peter addressed them as “Men of Israel.” He spoke to them of the “God of our fathers.” And he bluntly held them responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. They were not merely responsible on some general or abstract sense, but apparently had been present in the crowd a few weeks earlier, calling for Jesus to be crucified.

Peter preached about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, crediting Jesus with the healing of the crippled man. He pointed out that Jesus was the Christ and that his suffering was prophesied repeatedly in the Old Testament. Peter then called them to repent and to turn to God. He alluded to Christ’s return. And he warned them that failure to obey Christ would result in their being cut off from the people of God.

The primary points of Peter’s sermon were strikingly similar to those in chapter 2:

  1. Jesus is the Christ
  2. Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.
  3. Obedience to Jesus is essential for his people (Lordship)
  4. In response we are called to repent and turn to God for forgiveness.
  5. Times of refreshing are promised.

Not surprisingly, fewer details were recorded about this second sermon than had been recorded about the preceding sermon. The important point is that the details which were recorded are completely consistent with those from the preceding sermon. In both cases Peter addressed a crowd of Jews in Jerusalem, and in both cases he taught the same basic message.

We see elements of the same message in his speech before the rulers, elders, and teachers of the law in chapter 4, and also before the Sanhedrin in chapter 5.

As we continue through the book of Acts, we continue to find the message emphasizing the eyewitness testimony that Jesus rose from the dead.

Next time we will examine what Peter taught Cornelius in Acts 10.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Pentecost

March 12, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This is the second article in that series, and was first published in July 2008.

The obvious place to learn what a person must know in order to be saved is the book of Acts. There we find a variety of conversion accounts, including the things that were taught to bring people to faith in Jesus. These accounts show us what the inspired apostles taught, and what the Holy Spirit considered important enough to record in the scriptures for our benefit.

Let’s begin with the first conversions, the 3000 in Acts 2.

God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven had come to Jerusalem to observe Pentecost (Acts 2:5) These Jews must have known the Old Testament scriptures, and in particular they would have been expecting the Messiah (Luke 2:26, Luke 3:15, John 1:41, John 4:25, John 7:26-31, John 7:41-42, John 12:34). They did not understand everything about the prophecies of the Messiah. But they understood much about the nature of God and the sinfulness of man. They understood the need for atonement.

Peter’s message addressed the following points:

  1. The miracles confirming his message and the message of Jesus (Acts 2:14-22)
  2. The prophecies about the Christ, which were now being fulfilled.
  3. The resurrection of Jesus, in fulfilment of scriptural prophecy. (Acts 2:22-32)
  4. The ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God, as Lord and Christ. (Acts 2:33-36)

Speaking to these Jews, Peter sought to prove three facts: that Jesus was the Christ, that he rose from the dead, and that he is Lord. Peter presented three pieces of evidence for these points. First, he presented the miracle they were witnessing, a fulfilment of prophecy from Joel. Second, he reminded them of the crucifixion of Jesus, and added the eyewitness testimony that Jesus was raised from the dead. Third, he showed them that the resurrection of the Christ was prophesied in the Old Testament scriptures.

By quoting those old testament scriptures, Peter was not saying that a proper understanding of prophecies from Joel, Psalms etc is essential to salvation. Rather, the purpose of all those proofs was to establish those three essential facts. He was using those prophecies to help persuade them that Jesus was the Christ, that he was raised from the dead, and that he is both Lord and Christ.

Act 2:36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Many of those present accepted Peter’s message. At that point, Peter called for action on their part:

Act 2:37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Act 2:38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Act 2:39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

They were called to repent and to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And they were promised a gift of the Holy Spirit. And they were told that this same promise is open to all whom the Lord our God will call. Finally, Peter used many other words to urge them to respond and to be saved.

So, in summary, we learn the following essential elements of Peter’s message in Acts 2:

  1. Jesus is the Christ
  2. Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy
  3. God has made Jesus Lord.
  4. In response, we are called to repent and to be baptized for forgiveness of our sins
  5. We are promised the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Everything in Peter’s message was designed to persuade them of those five points. Understanding and responding to those basic facts was sufficient for 3000 devout Jews to become Christians that day.

Next time we will look at the message Peter preached in chapter 3.


What One Must Know to be Saved: Introduction

March 5, 2011

In an effort to revive my blogging activities, I am going to re-post some “greatest hits” beginning with this series titled “What One Must Know to be Saved.”   This article was first published in July 2008.

Many passages in the New Testament promise salvation to everyone who believes (ie, has faith) in Jesus. Perhaps the most famous of these is this verse:

Joh 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

What a great promise, to everyone who believes in Jesus! It is obviously very important to believe in Jesus. But what does that mean? In order to lead someone to faith, what should we teach first? How much does someone need to know about Jesus in order to “believe in him?” How do we know when they have learned enough to be baptized into Christ as a believer?

In order to believe something, one has to know some minimal set of facts about that thing. There has to be some context for the belief. For example, I believe in the sun. I see it every day, and I have full confidence that it exists. Further, I believe that it will rise every morning and set every evening. But I don’t believe the sun is a god. To understand what “I believe in the sun” means, some context and some basic facts must be understood. Similarly, a statement that someone believes in Jesus has little meaning without some accompanying facts and context in which that belief operates.

The scriptures give us an incredibly deep set of facts and context about Jesus. The Old Testament is full of prophecies about Jesus, some which are explicit and others which are very subtle. And the New Testament provides much more of the meaning and relevance of Jesus to our lives. There are many truths about Jesus, in many layers. An entire lifetime of study is not sufficient to plumb all of the depths of the meaning of Jesus as revealed in the scriptures. And yet a person can reach a saving faith in Jesus in a relatively short time, as can be seen from the many examples in Acts. A person is not required to understand every truth about Jesus in order to become a child of God.

So a very natural question is, “What does one need to understand in order to have saving faith in Jesus?”

I want to survey the book of Acts, with support from the epistles, to see if we can find the answer to that question. In Acts we have accounts of many conversions. We can look at what was taught to people who were at different points in their understanding of man’s relationship to God, in order to bring them to the point of salvation through faith. Hopefully from this survey we can determine the salient facts that must be understood by any person in order for them to become Christians.