The Ebb And Flow

Acts 9:19-31

Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul. And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. And he was with them moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death. But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus. So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.

Peace. Increase. Comfort. That is not what Jesus promised, he promised persecution, perils and pestilence. This is why I write, Context is king, Author’s Aspirations to his audience are apex, Genre is the general, Expository Exegesis of Examples enlightens and Dividing rightly the word of truth either confirms or cancels our preconceived notions and presuppositions. Unless you are learning for yourself, you only know what you have been taught. Clearly there exists an ebb and flow in the life of the Christian. There is a back and forth between prosperity and persecution, perseverance and pain, peace and peril. There is a give and take and the results will often times be the exact opposite of what we think. Many modern missionaries have recalled that their devotion was rewarded with little, obvious fruit. Yet they inspire future generations, and they reap the fruit from which that seed was sown. 1,977 or so years later, we are still, repeatedly reaping seeds sown by Saul, henceforth in my missives, Paul.

Paul chose to write in his Greco Roman moniker, and we know him best as Paul, therefore I will use that name. Nevertheless, I will not change the text. “Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?'”

The ebb and flow: Paul immediately began preaching and proclaiming that Jesus was the Son of God, to the Jewish people in Damascus, the oldest city in the world. This is no coincidence. It is fairly easy to misunderstand the Scripture, I know this. For the majority of my life, I held to a dogmatic, dispensationalist discourse. I was willing to debate (argue) with anyone about eschatology. I was regurgitating that of which I had been taught. I didn’t dig deeper into the sacred Scripture. The problem with the dogmatic dispensationalists is that they dig too deeply, mining what is not there. They impose on the Scripture rather than expose the context. Most of Scripture is sublimely simple, but sometimes digging deeper enlightens us as to how deep the word of God truly is–how all of history has been manipulated by God. Damascus is one of those hidden jewels.

In Genesis 15, Abraham, then Abram, had no offspring, yet God promised the aging Abraham a great reward. “And Abram said, ‘O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.'” If only for a very short time, Abraham’s faith ebbed and he assumed that his reward would go to Eliezer a descendant of Damascus. Notice also the slight blame-shifting, the tiny little jab that Abraham poked towards the Lord; “since you have given me no offspring.” It sounds fairly reverent, acknowledging that God is in control yet it is quite irreverent considering the context. Read Abraham’s words once again: “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” Abraham assumed that the blessings of his seed would go to Damascus, not his own seed. In a way, he was right, considering today’s text, yet he couldn’t have been more wrong.

As we discussed last time, land wasn’t the promise to Abraham, Jesus was. Let’s look at the promise. “This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir. Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be. To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.”

Problem, descendants literally means “seed.” Paul himself explains; “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” One verse breaks down the dispensationalist dogma. The land was not the focus of the promise, Jesus was. Even after Abraham’s faith ebbed, it then flowed, “He believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham was saved by faith in God, not law or land, therefore while interesting, neither Jerusalem nor Damascus are the “seed.” Yet Paul sows the seed in Damascus.

Paul preached Jesus as the Son of God in the synagogues of Damascus. Yes, that Damascus, the capital of Syria. Remember that Rome ruled. As far as religion, in the region, at that time, Rome was fairly “tolerant.” As were some of those in the synagogues. They couldn’t believe that the persecutor Paul, was now the preacher Paul. “And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” Abraham was worried that his blessing might go to Damascus because he had no offspring of his own. Before there was not even Isaac, much less Jacob (Israel), there was Damascus. Ironically, Paul preached to Damascus first.

The Flow: Paul was “increasing in strength and confounding the Jews;” I didn’t say it, I am reading it with you. But again, based on the context, everyone was amazed and even confused because Paul was the one who once persecuted the same people with which he now walks and worships, proclaiming Christ. Nevertheless, many in the synagogues were confounded by Paul’s proclamation and proof that Jesus was the Son of God. We have seen this before in the stoning of Stephan. The context bears witness that it had the same results.

The ebb: “And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul. And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.”

I wouldn’t believe he was a disciple either. I would figure that it was some sort of trick or ploy to infiltrate the Way, to destroy it from the inside. Like the American atheist infiltrated every aspect of society, especially the schools, Paul could be trying to take down the way by subtle sabotage. Two problems; atheism didn’t creep into our hallowed halls, Christians opened the doors and fled. And Paul was not one for performing subtle sabotage, he was bold and boisterous, breathing in his ability to persecute. Paul wasn’t slow and calculating when it came to his hatred, he went for the proverbial jugular. Nevertheless, what better way to stamp out a startup than to cut off its head–in Jerusalem.

Speaking of Jerusalem and an ebb and flow, have we not read that the disciples all fled from Jerusalem? We remember that Luke doesn’t write entirely chronologically but will zoom in and out on particular people and events. Also, there was an ebb and flow in Jerusalem–mostly an ebb. Paul fled from Damascus, after preaching there until his welcome was worn out. “And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul. And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.” Paul found himself surrounded and walled in. They kept watch at the city gates so that they could catch him trying to escape. Who does that? But being let down by a basket, Paul escaped with his life and went to his second hometown of Jerusalem, only to find that he wasn’t welcome there either.

The flow: “But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. And he was with them moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord. And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews.” The Apostles accepted Paul, or at least the testimony of Barnabas. And although the context of Acts 9 doesn’t tell us how much time has passed since the conversion of Paul, and actually seems to indicate that it has been a seemingly short time, Paul himself clarified this in his letter to the Galatians. Luke is demonstrating the ebb and flow, zooming in on the early ministry of Paul. For time’s sake we won’t look at Galatians, but you can read it for yourself if you desire a timeline. Though a thorough reading of the New Testament from Acts to Ephesians is needed, and even then, some periods are still hazy. Time is rarely the focus.

The ebb: “And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death.” What would first appear to be the chickens coming home to roost, is actually only a small sample of what Jesus promised to Ananias. Paul persecuted the Way and now that he is a participant, it would seem likely that he would be threatened with death. While true, the deeper detail is that Paul is slated to suffer. First, the Jews in Damascus wanted him dead, and now those in Jerusalem, who were Greek cultured, want him dead as well. But these are only the very beginning of Paul’s sufferings; only the start of the ebb and flow.

The flow: “But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus. So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” While promised persecution, without a doubt, the Scriptures also promise relative peace and prosperity. That is, the gospel wins. Isaiah records God saying, “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” Isaiah also recorded, “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” Also, in our beloved Matthew 24, Jesus said, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” In Parables Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.” And, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.”

I will be the first to admit that at least the first part of the book of Acts takes place during a special epoch, the overlap between the Old and New. The Kingdom has come, but the temple and sacrafice remains. Nevertheless we see eternal truths and patterns of said Kingdom–while promised to increase in Isaiah, there is an ebb and flow. Timeless truths are abundant in Acts, as are certain things intended for only that epoch. How can we discern the difference? We consider the context and continuation, or lack thereof, in the New Testament. Christ’s increasing Kingdom is prevalent throughout all of Scripture, as is the ebb and flow.

Which has more coastline, California or Maine? Do you detect a RussellPmissives trick question? Excellent, you are correct–what is the answer? They couldn’t have the exact same amount of coastline so it has to be one or the other. Is it California with its long, sweeping sands and cliffs that go on for miles and miles? Or is it Maine with its jagged peninsulas and many islands? The answer is “it depends on how you measure it.” This is what is known as “the coastline paradox.” If one measures the coastline with straight, mile long increments, California would appear to have more coastline. Yet if one could measure in millimeters, the thought of which confounds us, Maine’s jagged coastline would crush that of California. Then we throw in the fact of ebb and flow, and that coastlines are constantly changing and we see the paradox.

The United States of America is not the gold standard for growth. There exists to this day an ebb and flow. Our proverbial coastlines continue to change, between immigration and emmigration, mega-churches, home churches, the silent majority, baby-booms, and a great misunderstanding of history, how do we measure gospel growth?

Like a best-fit-line graph, the gospel is growing. Because of some seemingly semblance of scriptural structure in America’s founding, most believe ​that we are on a highway to hell because of our degradation. Because we see crossdressing drag-queens in public libraries, we assume that the Lord is in heaven appalled, as in the days of Noah, about to pull us out in a rapture rescue.

To those who are appalled by drag-queens: If you desire to measure America’s demise by the sin of a few marginalized men, how would you hold that up against the middle passage and the slave trade? America’s downfall will be because we, as christians, will be judged by the manner in which we judge. That is, the way in which we measure our proverbial coastline, will be the same measurement used to measure us. “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.”

Are we in a ebb in American culture? I think it is difficult to disagree with that. Nevertheless, we have seen this throughout all of history and certainly in the early church. The dogmatic dispensationalists can’t believe that we are still here because of the sins of some. But they are measuring wrong. If we survived slavery, civil war, WWI, WWII, Jim Crow, Roe v. Wade, 9/11, surely the gospel can survive the rising tide of a few drag-queens, can’t it? But now I am getting to the heart of the matter, we have been taught wrong. It’s why I write, unless you are learning for yourself you only know what you have been taught. Consider the context and see the sublime string. Then engage the crooked culture with wisdom and love. Look at Paul, one day everyone was amazed and the next day everyone wanted to kill him. We have it so much better now, that I wonder what our problem is?

One last thing: notice that in the life of Paul, and this particular passage, there exists more flow than ebb. Then realize that some in the early church used temple prostitutes as part of worship. We need to change our minds about the world around us. Jesus came to save, not rapture rescue. We are to bear fruit, not stare into the sky expecting a rescue, no matter how well the dogmatic dispensationalists string verses together out of context.

 

 

 

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