There is a sermon in Acts chapter 3 that strikes at the core of modern western Christianity, and, I fear, is exactly the kind of sermons many pastors need to hear, and refuse to preach.
Several years ago when I was in seminary, or rather, attempting to be in seminary, I was dealing with a constant temptation toward bitterness and complaining.
“They prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen 25 to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” Book of Acts 1:24-26
I know a young man who put his ipod on shuffle mode, and prayed to God that if a certain love song came up first, he would ask out a young woman he liked.
The song did not come up first, so he shuffled again. It still did not work.
On the third try, the magic song came up, and he asked me if he should ask her out or not, or if his trick was a good indicator of God’s will. I will tell you what I told him, but first I want to look at something in the book of Acts, which was quoted above.
What you just read in the few verses above was the last time in the Bible that people had to guess God’s will. It was the last time they had to cast lots, shuffle their ipods, or use generic tricks to find out God’s will.
In the Old Testament, there was a lot of guesswork in finding God’s will. In those days people frequently did something called “casting lots” to find God’s will. This was a practice similar to drawing straws or shuffling your Mp3 player. They would each toss a pebble into a sack, and then someone would pull out a pebble. Whoever’s pebble it was was the winner (or loser as the case may be, see Achan and Jonah).
Other times they would make a series of concentric circles on the ground, or a grid, and whichever pebble landed in the right area would be chosen.
Now, in most cases in the Old Testament the Bible is clear that this trick worked. God would bless the casting of lots to ensure that the right person was selected, and the people seemed to trust God on the matter.
However, at its core this system is nothing but a lottery, and always impersonal. It was pebbles and sacks and grids, and the results were the results. It was math, it was luck, it was a roll of the dice, it was pure chance… It was a lot of things, but it was not personal.
If God was behind it, fine, but it had the appearance of superstition and dumb luck. It is not a system that a personal God would devise. It is a system that would be used by someone who had no idea what God wanted, and had no personal connection with him to find out.
The passage in Acts 1 is the last time the Bible discusses casting lots as a viable means of finding God’s will.
Why do you think that is?
Think of the context of Acts 1. Jesus had just ascended into heaven a few verses prior, and the disciples were sitting alone wondering what would happen next. They waited there for a few days at least, going nowhere, having very little direction, and not knowing what to do next.
Peter, always the first to action, announces that they have to find a new disciple to replace Judas. He finds a scripture that supports him, and, having nothing else to do, they set out to find a 12th disciple of Jesus, who is not actually among them anymore.
The command had been clear ” You will be my witnesses throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.” But in the meantime they didn’t have anything to do, so they found another disciple.
Their technique was as good as you could ask for from a group of people who didn’t know what they were doing. They knew they needed someone who had followed Jesus from the beginning and was trustworthy. (This was higher standards than Jesus had when he selected them, but they felt they had to start somewhere.)
They found two guys, Matthias and Joseph, and couldn’t decide between the two.
So they decided to cast lots. They had never seen Jesus cast lots, but Jesus was gone now, and what else were they going to do?
The lot fell to Matthias, and that was the end of that.
In the next chapter the Holy Spirit comes upon them, they preach boldly, and the church is begun. There is never another mention of Matthias or Joseph again, and nobody in the Bible ever has to cast lots again.
The Holy Spirit is the game changer. There is no magic in having a 12th apostle. There is no magic in rolling dice. The only thing they needed was the Holy Spirit, which is probably why Jesus told them to wait for the Holy Spirit before they did anything.
The Holy Spirit convicts of sin, the Holy Spirit sets the direction, sends visions, gives the power and ability to speak in other languages for the purpose of evangelism, gives prophecy, knowledge, discernment, and all other necessary giftings that the church needs to function. The Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, the Holy Spirit gives life to our bodies, the Holy Spirit knows the will of God. The Holy Spirit is personal, indwelling us. We don’t need to roll the dice or shuffle the ipod. We need to be connected to the Holy Spirit.
We don’t need to cast lots anymore.
Back to the confused young man with a crush.
I told him to look for a woman who loved the Lord, lived honorably, and was compatible with the call of God on the young man’s life. He told me this girl was all of the above.
I said, “then why are you shuffling songs on your ipod instead of running full speed after her?”
You see, with the Holy Spirit we not only have the wisdom and word of God indwelling our hearts and minds, but we also have and obligation towards boldness and courage.
By the power of the Spirit we do not have to live in uncertainty and timidity. We can look over our situation, analyze it by the Word of God, pray for wisdom and courage, and then go and DO THINGS. In fact, when it came time for me to propose to my wife, I did not really have to pray about it at all. I prayed that God would bless our marriage, that we would pursue him in it, and that we would honor him. But I didn’t pray “is this the girl for me?”
I prayed, “God I want this girl, she is right for me, and I know it. Bless our marriage with Godliness.” I prayed that a lot. I still pray it. I didn’t need to pray a tentative “is this your will?” kind of prayer because by the grace of God and the Power of the Holy Spirit I knew very well how to honor God and what Jennifer was all about. It was a no-brainer. Why make it harder than it needs to be?
The apostles did not hesitate once they had the power of the Spirit. They rushed out of their house in Acts 2 and immediately began the work of building the church. From that day on they never hesitated, even in the face of fear and strong opposition.
You can know the will of God in your life simply by having the Spirit in your life, listening to him, and obeying him directly. It is a skill, much like any other, that if you consistently listen to the Spirit, you will grow in your understanding, and if you consistently ignore or fail to hear the Spirit, you will lose your bearings, and before long you will be casting lots, shuffling your ipod, and failing to live the victorious life God has planned for you.
Get courageous, get to work, and keep in step with the Spirit. Don’t go back to Old Testament pebble tricks. Go personal. Go with God.
There is a parable in Luke 18 and 19 that is about two approaches to God. Jesus says there was a Pharisee who went to the temple to pray, and his prayer was a very self-righteous prayer. He approached God believing he would receive God’s favor if he recited all the good things he had done. At the same time, a tax collector prayed outside the temple because he was afraid to enter too close. Looking up to heaven he simply said from the bottom of his heart, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus looks at those around him and says it was the tax collector who went home justified before God, not the self-righteous man, even though the tax collector was a sinful, corrupt man and the self righteous man was a religious ruler.
Immediately after this parable there is a very famous story about a rich young man who approaches Jesus asking what it takes to be saved. Jesus tells him to obey the law, and the young fellow responds that he has been obedient to everything since his youth.
Jesus then tells him to sell off everything, give to the poor, and start over following him, and the young man walks away sad.
How to Understand the Rich Ruler:
Many people try to understand the story of the rich young man apart from the parable that preceded it. That is a mistake. The parable is a story Jesus made up to make a point. The rich young man is a real person who perfectly demonstrated Jesus’s story. You have to read them together. They are directly related, and Luke tells both stories back to back for the clear purpose of keeping them together. They are related, and you can’t understand the parable or the rich young man correctly unless you read them together.
You see, the story calls him a “rich young ruler.” It is important to dig into characters in the Bible, especially ones like this who have no names attached to them. In scripture there are a lot of stories about people who are never given names, only titles. You see this in Jonah, in which the entire book of Jonah only names one person, while everyone else is simply a job title (“the sailors,” “the king,” “the Ninevites”). In the Gospels, nearly all the Pharisees, Priests, and Scribes are simply given their titles, without naming names. This is so you will pay attention to what they do, say, and stand for, not who they are specifically. When you don’t know their names, it helps you draw a broad conclusion that might apply to you personally, rather than a specific lesson about that person, that doesn’t apply to you.
In fact, Jesus does exactly the same thing, making a general conclusion about it in Luke 18:24-25 “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
See that? Its not personal. It is not about this particular man. It is about this mindset, which is a very broad mindset held by many. Therefore, by avoiding being personal about that particular man, Jesus (and Luke) make it personal to all of us.
So, back to the story, we need to dig a bit into this to make sure we have the lesson right. We have to figure out what kind of “ruler” this guy was. First, we know he is Jewish, because he tells Jesus he has been obeying the law since his youth. Gentiles would not even know what law Jesus was talking about.
Well, what kinds of things were law-following Jews allowed to “rule” over? We know the Romans ruled the land and cities, and used puppet Jews like Herod, but Herod would not have said he obeyed the law since his youth. This young ruler was not a sell-out Romanized Jew. He was a religious Jew.
There was only one thing in ancient Israel that religious Jews were allowed to rule.
If you read any commentaries about this, virtually all scholars are in agreement. This man was a religious ruler, not a political ruler. He was the leader of a synagogue.
In other words, he was a Pharisee or priest. Probably a Pharisee because he came to Jesus with a question (which Pharisees often did.)
So we have the exact embodiment of the parable. Jesus said in the parable that there was a righteous Pharisee who went to God proud of how good he had been. This is exactly what the young ruler did with Jesus. When Jesus challenged him to flip his mindset off of himself and onto others, he went away sad. He had missed the whole point of the parable. Not only that, but he was the exact embodiment of the parable.
Jesus said the Pharisee did not go home justified with God. What did the rich man do? He “went away sad.” He was not justified with God. He had attempted to get right with Jesus by his own works, and went away unjustified when it didn’t work.
What about the other half? The half about the tax collector?
Well, guess what happened next?
Jesus heads off to the next city, and immediately after that he meets another guy who concludes the embodiment of the parable.
It is Zacchaeus.
Who is Zacchaeus? He is a tax collector.
He is the second half of the parable.
What does he do?
He gets up into a tree to wait for Jesus because he can’t get close to him. Just like the tax collector in the story, who did not even enter the temple, but prayed outside, Zacchaeus is waiting far away from Jesus, hoping for a chance. He is a tax collector, and a rich one at that, so he stood virtually no chance of getting to Jesus on his own, and he knew it. Everyone hated tax collectors, especially rich ones. The richer a tax collector was, the more money he had stolen.
Zacchaeus was the opposite of the rich ruler. Both were rich, but one was respected and the other one was hated. The rich ruler had approached Jesus directly, and people got out of his way and let him come. Zacchaeus could not do that, because nobody would let him through and he wasn’t big enough to force his way through.
So Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house, and in the middle of the meal, Zacchaeus decides (purely on his own accord) to give away half his money to the poor and pay everyone back four times what he took from them.
In other words, exactly the thing the rich ruler refused to do. The one thing Jesus asked him to do, and he refused. Zacchaeus simply chose to do it on his own, without even being asked.
And the best thing? He went away justified. “And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house” – Luke 19:9.
There is more about Zacchaeus, the rich ruler, and the blind man Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho (sandwiched between the stories). A lot more. Their names, their jobs, their words, etc. But it will have to wait for another time.
For now the question is why?
Why did Zacchaeus go away justified?
Is it because he gave his money to the poor?
No. It is because he humbled himself before Jesus and was ready and willing to give him his whole life. He did not come to Jesus with something to offer, but rather with something to get rid of.
The rich ruler came to Jesus offering to do something for him. Zacchaeus came to Jesus looking to unload his sins and burdens, to start over.
That is the difference. It is available to all of us. We can give our lives over to Jesus, signing off on everything and quitting our old life. Or we can hold on and pretend we have something to offer the king of Glory, as though he will welcome us because of what we offer.
It requires humility, and that is all. That is the point of the parable, and the rich ruler and Zacchaeus.
This is the third part in a series of blog entries related to the First, Greatest, and Last law of God, the command to make, multiply, spread, and steward life.
The command from God comes from Genesis 1:28 which says “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
This command from God has three parts. First is the command to multiply, then the command to fill the earth, and last the command to replenish and subdue the earth. I have said before that each of these three laws correlate with one another in such a way as to be impossible without their own mutual support.
This third law, to subdue and replenish the earth is probably the most misunderstood. Many translations have used the word “steward,” in place of “subdue,” while others use the word “Master” and others use “dominion,” or even “dominate.”
Obviously the word creates difficulty in translation, but the general theme is clear. Humankind is to have a leadership role over the creation. A good way to understand what kind of leadership is expected is to look in Genesis 2, when God’s creation of Adam is clearly explained. After creating Adam, God says to him “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” Other translations says “care for it and keep it,” in place of “cultivate.”
However, the intention is clear. Adam’s job description given directly by God is to care for the garden. God has created it, and Adam’s job is to take care of it, to make sure the plants are living in harmony, they are pruned well, they are producing fruit and seeds, etc.
As such, the command in Genesis 1, to “subdue and replenish” the earth is much easier to understand. We are to to be gardeners, weeding out the trash and keeping everything in line.
God desires his creation to not only create and spread life, but he wants that life to be beautiful, complete, healthy, and thriving. He wants his garden to spread to the whole earth, and he wants it to do so in a healthy way. He created humankind to tend it and ensure that it thrives.
This is why, after sin enters the world, among the first things it effects are the earth itself and the life on the earth. God curses the ground, saying that instead of springing up new life, it will resist Adam’s work, and will grow weeds and thorns instead. Rather than a world that Adam can cultivate, he will get a world that resists him.
Adam, the one who was supposed to make the world better by replenishing it, instead made it worse by introducing sin into it. This is why in Romans 8, the apostle Paul tells us “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” The creation itself is waiting earnestly for the sanctified children of God to come back and subdue, replenish, and cultivate it.
The creation was made with the original intention of yielding to God’s image. Now it is broken, because God’s image is broken, but through Jesus we can have God’s image restored in us, and as it is restored in us we are able to bring the earth back into its right position.
The earth is waiting for it eagerly. The command is still in play. God still desires us to have a right position under him and a right position over the earth.