The Little Tribulation That Could

Acts 11:19-26

So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

Everyone wants to talk about an alleged, future, great tribulation. No one talks about the little tribulation that happened after the stoning of Stephan, even though it’s our most meaningful model. Did you notice any figures of speech in my last sentence? Hyperbole; many people talk about the stoning of Stephan but many more don’t and if they do, they don’t consider the context. Metaphor; the persecution of Stephan is not a literal model. And as always I am abundant in alliteration.

Even in the genre of a historical narrative authors are apt to use analogies and metaphors. For instance, while recalling the heat of last summer one might say, “it was hot enough to fry an egg.” Or, one could use the simile of, “it was sweltering like being inside of an oven.” Perhaps personification is used; “mother nature had a fever last summer.” In this particular passage personification is preferred by Luke. We read things such as, “hand of God,” “ears of the church,” and “with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord.” The Bible is literature and should be read in that way. It is not a owner’s manual to a 2006 Toyota Corolla but a literary masterpiece that spans thousands of years and several genres. To best understand this, we use the CAGED method of Biblical hermeneutics, where; 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. We have caged the Scripture by our traditions and presuppositions, letting the mega-church pastors preach on parts of verses, promising peace and prosperity. Unless you are learning for yourself you only know what you have been taught. Here, we encourage daily Bible reading, mining for gold, reading the Bible for all its worth. We doubt dubious dogma, pounce on problematic preachings and trample on tenuous traditions, so that we will grow in grace and not be anchored to legalism or false promises. Are we promised persecution or prosperity? Ironically, we are promised both but we misunderstand the meaning of both. More importantly, we misunderstand the methods.

“So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.” The bad news: people had to flee from their homes because of persistent persecution. So that it sinks in; some of the people who lived in houses that their grandparents built with their own bare hands, where their father was born, where they were born and where their children were born, full of memories and nostalgia, had to abandon them and run for their lives based upon nothing other than Jesus was their Messiah. We remember  the stoning of Stephan; he was a circumcised, Jewish person who knew the Scripture. He was a descendant of Jacob, well respected, a servant but he claimed Jesus to be the Messiah and they stoned him for that. Because of their bloodlust, they went after the rest of the followers of Jesus, driving them out of  Jerusalem. The good news: they preached the gospel in their new cities. The bad news; most preached to ethnic Jews only. The good news; “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch.”

We tend to forget about Barnabas but without the working of the Spirit in Barnabas their would be no Paul. We will see, Lord willing, that even though Barnabas and Paul changed the world together, they were not inseparable. There is an ebb and flow in life. But in today’s text we see the beginning of a  great partnership. We also tend to gloss over the context, let’s zoom in and see if we can ascertain the author’s aspiration to his audience.

Notice, “So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.” Those persecuted by their own, supposed brothers in Jerusalem, went out and preached to their own, supposed brothers in Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch–and that’s all we are told yet the focus is on the fact that they preached “to no one but Jews alone.” But​ then there’s the “but” and powerful personification. We don’t desire to read anything into the context but rather to draw it out. Luke writes and abrubtly ends his first sentence with the following: “speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone.”

“But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch.” We cannot say, because we are not told, how the gospel faired where it was preached to “the Jews alone.” Nevertheless we see that where it was preached to the “Greeks also,” the “hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem.”

Rather than jump to the conclusion that the gospel failed miserably where it was preached to “Jews only,” we draw out what Luke wrote without reading anything in to it. Nevertheless we certainly see a subtle yet significant shift. Notice the metaphor of personification indicating that the Lord was with those who preached to “the Greeks also.” “And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem.”

Now we notice the juxtaposition between the two groups–while very little is said about those who preached to the “Jews only,” much is said about those who preached to the “Greeks also.” Notice that Luke doesn’t write, “the Greeks only,” but “the Greeks also.” The world is not distinguished by ethnic or religious groups as far as the gospel is concerned. The hand of God was with those who understood this. This may be one of the most misconstrued, misinterpreted and misunderstood moments in the Bible even though Luke, who is the most prolific writer of the New Testament, does an incredible amount of writing to demonstrate; as does Paul, a prolific writer as well; as does John, another prolific writer of the New Testament; along with Peter: the gospel was presented to the Jew first because of Abraham, David, Jacob, Jeremiah, Jesus and other individuals who believed God. Nevertheless, the gospel is for all people and it is the only way. Even the devoted, dogmatic dispensationalists discourse has no division on this, Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life, no one gets to father but through” him. Yet they still see a different method for 21st century Jews than for the rest of the nations.

When the Jews left in Jerusalem heard that the Jews who had fled Jerusalem, who were originally not from Jerusalem (context is king), had preached the gospel to Jews and Greeks in Antioch, the Jews in Jerusalem sent Barnabas, a Jew, to the Jews in Antioch, to assist the Jews in Antioch, and also the Greeks who had believed in the Lord Jesus, a Jew. Where then can one possibly point to the possibility of antisemitism of any kind? On the contrary, we see that without apostate Israel, who represent the world, and without true Israel, who represent and, indeed are, true Christians–first called Christians in Antioch, we wouldn’t have a gospel. God’s hand was with those who preached Jesus to the Jews and Greeks–a big, happy family made up of Jews and Gentiles. Paul, a Jew who preached to the gentiles, was an expert on this, as were the Old Testament poets.

“All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.” And; “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth…” The kingdom of God includes all peoples, tongues and tribes, including ethnic Israel. I would hope that we are to the point where we would stop making distinctions but clearly explanation is in order.

Because Paul writes and the King James wrongly translates, “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.” The dogmatic dispensationalists, without considering the context and without consulting confirmation from a concordance, say that “God has blinded Israel, the devil blinds the nations, until the great tribulation when God will open the eyes of Israel.” But that is not what the psalmists have said and certainly not what Paul wrote to the Romans–context is king. First, consider what the King James version got right, it’s a partial “blinding.”

Partial: not whole; incomplete, part of. A partial hardening of Israel is quite ambiguous in and of itself. Which is why we consider the context and Paul’s aspiration to his audience. When Paul makes the statement, “For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery– so that you will not be wise in your own estimation– that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;” he is not intending for this to be a stand alone statement. Paul has been building on something–God’s gracious choice apart from the works of the Law, yet his understanding is that Israel was instrumental in this cause. Paul goes all the way back to Abraham; “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: ‘THROUGH ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS WILL BE NAMED.’ That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.”

When considering the content of Romans 11, one must remember where Paul begins in Romans 9, and remember that Romans 9 relates to what was written in Romans 1-8. We certainly see a shift in Romans 9, but the body of Romans flows from the beginning until the end. Nevertheless, seeing the slight shift from doctrine to methods in Romans 9, we must see how Paul builds to Romans 11. Paul is grieved over apostate Israel, because of all people, they should know Jesus. But he then states that it is not all Israel who are Israel. This is foundational to his argument that a partial hardening of Israel has happened, leading the dogmatic dispensationalists to argue that the nations are blinded by the devil but in general, Israel will reject Jesus until the time of Jacob’s Trouble, otherwise known as, The Great, literal seven years, Tribulation by God’s “blinding” of them. If this were the case, why didn’t Paul write that? Notice; “For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.’ So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.” The devil didn’t “blind” Pharoah, God did. Therefore consider the full context of what Paul wrote, not presuppositions and preconceived notions made by stringing verses together out of context.

In high school I was assigned a book to read, and I read it, partially. How do you think I did on the test? If you came to my house for dinner, and while cooking the chicken breasts I promised for dinner, the power went out. If I served you the chicken saying that it was partially cooked, would you eat it? What if as you walked in I sneezed into my hands and as I began to wash my hands the water pump failed, leaving my hands partially washed–would you want to shake my hand? My point and our problem is that we treat this partial hardening of Israel as an almost complete hardening of Israel. I have spent an inordinate amount of time witnessing to jehovah’s witnesses, compared to the rest of the world. Admittedly it is because it’s easier, geographically and strategically speaking–they come to me. But also, I have gone to them. Like Paul writes about his Jewish relatives, they have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge. I have witnessed to, or been present when others witnessed to the witnesses, to the likes of hundreds and possibly thousands. Our conversion rate–0. I am fairly sure that we are on their “no go” list at this point. No problem; now the LDS come. Conversion rate–0. I write consistently to the dogmatic dispensationalists to change their minds; conversion rate–0.

Would we then say to everyone who disagrees with me? A partial  hardening has happened to the jehovah’s witness, the LDS, and the dispensationalists? Of  course not, it makes no sense. They are fully hardened. (Joking) I hope you can see my point. As far as I can tell their are as many Jewish Christians as there are Hawaiian Christians. Both of these numbers are way up compared to 3000 years ago.

Zoom back in on today’s text: “So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. And the news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he had come and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord. And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”

The first time Christians were called Christians was in Antioch, where Jews preached to any ethnic group who would listen. But how did this happen? In the beginning God created man to walk with him–man failed (all of us). Slowly and completely man becomes exceedingly wicked, except Noah. A new “race” was born from the righteous man, Noah (by the way, that’s all of us). Except sin still reigned. Enter Abraham, a lying man in whom God found favor, yet sin still strangled. Jacob, the twelve tribes, Moses and their chosen “race” would certainly be faithful to God; yet sin increased. Enter the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

John the Baptist, who said this, was more than a Jewish man. He was of priestly descent, full of the Spirit, prophesied about and was a prophet himself. John saw Jesus for who he was–we should as well. In today’s text Luke demonstrates what we read from Genesis 3 up until today’s text. Jesus did not come for a parenthetical people separate from the Jews until the time of a rapture so that he could focus on Israel once again. Jesus fulfils all the Law and prophets, including John the Baptist. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

“So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.”

What did Jesus tell his apostles before he left the earth? Go, make disciples, you will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the remotest parts of the world. But first, wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. Many Jewish people present became followers of Christ. Then a persecution arose–a tribulation following the stoning of Stephan. Because of this tribulation the word of God spread to the gentiles. History repeats itself and we are terrible teachers and witless witnesses. Ironically the dogmatic dispensationalists argue that the great tribulation will see a return of Israel to the Lord. Don’t be deceived, the opposite is true; tribulation brought the gospel to the gentiles.

“But Russell P, you argue that history repeats itself as we progress toward the end. Doesn’t this mean that the tribulation could come to Israel to open their eyes?” Look closely at dispensationalist dogma, that would not be history repeating itself. Consider the Babylonian exile. Which of the people of Judah were cursed and which were promised a hope? The ones that remained in Jerusalem were cursed and the ones who built in Babylon were blessed. “Russell P, you are proving the dispensationalists correct. After exile the Lord will bring them back to their father’s land.” On the contrary, the dogmatic dispensational argument is that two thirds of them are slaughtered. That’s not a partial hardening that’s genocide. Notice also the effects of the diaspora in Babylon.

The dogmatic dispensationalists love this passage but always forget the last part. Nebuchadnezzar had a dream, none of his people could tell him the dream so that he would not let them interpret the dream. But Daniel could tell him the dream and interpret it. Four kingdoms made up of lesser and lesser quality materials. Here’s the part we miss: “And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. Inasmuch as you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold, the great God has made known to the king what will take place in the future; so the dream is true, and its interpretation is trustworthy.”

I should probably give a little more context from the dream: “The head of that statue was made of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay, and crushed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed call at the same time, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.

The dogmatic dispensationalists will fuss and fight over which kingdom is represented by these elements. But do they ever speak on the rock that destroys all these kingdoms and becomes a great mountain that fills the entire earth? Again we see a kingdom that starts small but grows. We do not see a fledgling, little kingdom that tries hard but ultimately falls into apostasy. Long story short: a partial hardening of Israel has happened, they fall into apostasy but true Israel as portrayed by Paul in an olive tree, and seen growing out of tribulation in the book of Acts, made up of Jews and Greeks, will overcome the world. One catch; Jesus is the king. Jesus is truth, therefore we are like Israel when we read things into the context rather than drawing out the truth.

Therefore tribulation was not to witness to Jews alone, but to witness to the world. Does history repeat itself? It does and yet we have been blessed with relative peace and prosperity. Can we advance the olive tree, rejuvenate the rock, leaven the lump and water the mustard tree without tribulation or persecution? While possible it is extremely unlikely because, as we have seen, we, like the Jews in Jerusalem, prefer to stay in our comfort zones. Metaphorically speaking, we should all be going to Antioch, preaching to more than our own people. Because that is what the Lord has ordained, that we become one nation, under God, indivisible, with truth and justice for all. Now don’t jump to conclusions, pledging allegiance to a flag is total idolatry, and to a nation made of straw, blasphemy. Yet I understand why it was written. We’re looking for that rock that was not made with human hands to become a great mountain that fills the earth. Ironically, the dogmatic dispensationalists are afraid of a one-word government. What if its king was Jesus?

 

 

 

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