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Archive for June, 2014

But a certain man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land? “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men, but to God.” And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came upon all who heard of it. And the young men arose and covered him up and after carrying him out they buried him.

ananias-sapphiraNow there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they shall carry you out as well.” And she fell immediately at his feet, and breathed her last; and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. (Acts 5:1-10)

Some might be wondering why I am including Sapphira in a series on early Christian women disciples. After all, if Sapphira and her husband Ananias did such a grievous thing that God punished them both with death, can they even be Christians? Should they be included in a series on disciples? I believe that they were Christians. They are really no different than other Christians. They just really blew it as they fell to the temptation of Satan. We all commit sin. Thankfully, God does not punish us as much as we deserve all of the time.

Why was Sapphira’s and Ananias’ punishment so severe?

First, we have no reason to believe that Sapphira was not a Christian. She was part of the community that “were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them” (Acts 4:32). This was the group that had just gathered to listen to Peter proclaim the Gospel. The new converts had believed Peter’s words and prayed and then “the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31). This was a group of Spirit filled Christians whose desire to follow Jesus was so strong that they willingly gave up even their own possessions in order to do as Jesus did – preach and serve others. Sapphira and Ananias were part of this group.

At this time in the early church believers were on a spiritual high. But that did not mean that they were perfect. The joy they experienced in forgiveness of their sins and a relationship with Christ caused them to respond in extraordinary ways.

Sapphira was not so different from other human beings; she wanted to be well thought of by the rest of her group. Sapphira and her husband had brought only a portion of the proceeds from the sale of their land to give to Peter but they lied and said they brought the whole amount. They did not need to lie; the money was theirs and they could have given only a part if they wanted to. The community would have been grateful for that.

But Sapphira lied to the Holy Spirit. Sapphira’s sin was “to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (Acts 5:9). Why did she an Ananias lie?

One commentator suggested that Sapphira was covetous and that her sin was that she loved money. But the Bible doesn’t really say that. Instead we have other clues as to what the trouble probably was – she wanted recognition.

Other disciples, such as Barnabas, had sold their land and brought the money to Peter to share with the community (Acts 4:36). No doubt Barnabas was seen as someone special because he was probably very wealthy. Ananias and Sapphira wanted this esteem for themselves. They wanted to appear very generous and receive the approbation of the entire community; hence the great show with which they brought the money to Peter and laid it at his feet.

Peter himself was filled with the Spirit and gifted as an apostle. The Holy Spirit prompted Peter as to the disingenuousness of the couple’s actions. Peter gave the opportunity to Ananias and Sapphira to confess. They both continued in their lie. Ananias was the first to drop dead. Luke tells us that great fear came on everyone who heard about it. This is one of our clues as to why God inflicted such a severe punishment on them. Lying to the Holy Spirit is very serious.

Perhaps in the new community made up of mostly Jewish believers a testimony that the Holy Spirit is God was needed. The Jewish converts were just getting used to the idea that Jesus is God; now they will see that the Holy Spirit has all of the authority of the triune Godhead as well. As Jews they were monotheists and thinking of God as a Trinity would take some getting used to. Luke presents to us the fact that the promised Holy Spirit has come. The evidence is that the community loves God and each other. And they show this with their actions. What Ananias and Sapphira did ran counter to everything the new church was experiencing.

Sapphira did not know what had happened to her husband when she came along three hours later. Peter gave her an Sapphiraopportunity to tell the truth. Sapphira told the same lie that she and her husband had agreed on. She immediately fell down dead. Again, we are told that great fear came on all of the church when they heard about this.

What can we learn from this story about Sapphira?

This sign to the whole church, that it is a grievous offense to lie to God, is one reason why Sapphira’s punishment was so severe. The new community in Christ would see that God takes sin seriously, especially when those who have been granted many blessings fall to sin. To whom much is given; much is required. Christians are held to a higher standard. Since Sapphira and Ananias wanted to be held up as examples in their community, God held them to a higher standard. Since we are held to a high standard our lives should show it. We should look different from the rest of the world – we should serve because we love Jesus and others, not because we are looking for a reward or the congratulations of others.

The new community was also committed to sharing with one another. Our commitments to each other should be sincere and honest. Our fellow believers should be able to trust us. The early church was doing so well as they started on the road to serving Jesus. They did not need a couple of rotten apples in their barrel. God rooted them out as an example to all that He takes our words and our commitments seriously. By taking the lives of Ananias and Sapphire, God showed that He allows believers to suffer the consequences of their actions. God still loves us and wants the best for us; we receive forgiveness after our wrong actions. We are grateful that He does not always exact such a severe punishment as He did on Sapphira. In gratitude, we move on towards being even more faithful in our lives.

 

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Now in Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which translated in Greek is called Dorcas); this woman was abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did. (Acts 9:36)

In the last few weeks we have been looking at the stories of early women disciples as presented by Luke in the book of Acts. In the new era brought about by the Lord Jesus, women will be included in ministry. Of all of the women whose stories are given by Luke, only Tabitha is officially mentioned as a “disciple”. Of course, all of those who follow Jesus are disciples, but Tabitha is given special designation. Luke honors her and there are many reasons why.

As we have seen when looking at the lives of the other women in Luke’s Gospel and in the book of Acts, Luke only uses a few sentences about Tabitha, yet he still tells us much.

First of all, Tabitha exemplified all that was most praiseworthy in a follower of Jesus. She was truly unselfish and spent her time meeting the needs of others. We are not sure if she was a widow or just unmarried, but there is no mention of a husband. We are not sure of her financial circumstances either. But it does not matter; Tabitha wasted no time sitting around feeling sorry for herself. Luke tells us that she continually did deeds of kindness and charity.

Tabitha lived in Joppa, an important port town on the coast of the Mediterranean about 35 miles northwest of joppa mapJerusalem. The new Christian faith was spreading at this time throughout Judea. At the time of our story, the apostle Peter was ministering in the nearby town of Lydda.

Like many port towns, Joppa had its poor and destitute. Perhaps Tabitha could see them wandering the streets looking for charity. Maybe she noticed abandoned widows walking along in rags. She was moved with pity and a desire to do something about it. Being very talented with a needle, she knew that this was a way that she could serve.

We can compare Tabitha to the godly wife in Proverbs 31:10-31. Tabitha must have had all of the strength and organizing capabilities of her counterpart. Both sought to do good works. Both were excellent with needlework and spent many hours making garments for others. Both had seemingly endless energy for showing love to others.

It is interesting that Luke gives this disciple a double name – Tabitha and Dorcas. Recall that a few chapters earlier in Acts, Luke tells the story of how the Greek widows felt that they were not receiving equal treatment with the Hebrew widows (Acts 6). The new young Church found a way to deal with the problem that made everyone happy by establishing the system of deacons who saw that all of the widows were taken care of. Perhaps Luke was accentuating the fact that Tabitha was such a generous and kind woman that she made garments for Hebrew and Greek widows and thus was one of the first in the new Church to take seriously Christ’s command to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. Tabitha’s big heart would not let her refuse anyone help. Certainly Dorcas/Tabitha was beloved by all.

Tabitha took God’s command to care for the poor seriously. “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10). God had continually asked the Israelites to look after widows, orphans, and aliens. (See also Ezekiel 22:7 and Deuteronomy 24:17, 20, 21.) When Jesus came, He ministered to the marginalized constantly – the poor, the widows, and the outcasts. Tabitha as one of Jesus’ disciples followed His example in ministering to those in need especially the forsaken.

Tabitha expressed her genuine love for the poor by making garments for them with her own hands. We can easily envision her pouring her love into every stitch and praying for each recipient. Many people began to depend on her and it is no wonder that they must have been devastated when she became ill and died.

And it happened at that time that she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her body, they laid it in an upper room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples having heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him, imploring him “Do not delay in coming to us.” So Peter arose and went with them. When he arrived, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them. But Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up. And he gave her his hand and raised her up; and calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive. It became known all over Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. (Acts 9:37-42)

Dorcas and PeterTabitha’s love and kindness were so great that the many widows that she cared for were at her home crying when she died. They honored her by carefully washing her body and laying her in an upper room in preparation for burial. When Peter arrived they wanted him to know what a wonderful woman Dorcas was. He was so moved by their love that he prayed to God for her restoration. Peter must have sensed that God would do a miracle, because after he prayed he said in a positive way, with no doubts, “Tabitha, arise.”

After he called her, Tabitha opened her eyes. She saw Peter and then she sat up. This miracle reminds us of several times that Jesus raised people from the dead – the raising of Jairus’ daughter and the raising of the son of the widow of Nain. Jesus sent the mourners out of the room at Jairus’ house. Peter did the same at Dorcas’ house. In all cases the raised person sat up and was given to their loved ones. These restorations were not only for the dead persons – the miracles were also to bless those who had loved the victims and missed them – such as the poor widow of Nain. And the miracles were for those who were standing around witnessing the event because many came to believe on the Lord Jesus after this miracle.

The widows’ sadness turned to joy when Dorcas was restored to them. This woman who had given so much to others was now given life back. Doubtless, Tabitha continued to sew and serve the widows and the poor. I can’t imagine this energetic, loving woman doing anything else! Tabitha is a testimony to us of unselfish love and gratitude.
So many churches have followed her example. Women for several centuries have started sewing circles called “Dorcas Societies” to provide clothes for the poor. As an aside, the first group was established at Douglas Isle of Man on December 1, 1834. This service began as an act of thanksgiving to God after they had been spared from a plague of cholera.

And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. (Titus 3:8)

 

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On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. (Acts 21:8,9).

In the last few weeks we have noticed that Luke the evangelist includes the stories of many women in his Gospel and in the book of Acts. In this story Luke makes a special mention of women, even though at first glance it seems so unnecessary to the story. But Luke has wider purposes in all of his narratives. He packs a lot of truth in each one.

In this part of the book of Acts, Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. Paul has taken the Gospel to many cities and preached many times about Jesus and salvation to both Jew and Gentile. He hopes to go to Rome some day.

Before Jesus ascended to Heaven, He told the disciples that they would take the Gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth (Acts 1:8). The remotest part of the known earth at that time was Rome. Paul would eventually get there. God would take him to Rome in an unexpected way. Paul would be arrested and tried unfairly. He would ask as a Roman citizen to present his case to Caesar. The Roman officials would send him to Rome as he requested. You can read all about this in the last 10 chapters of the book of Acts.

On the way to Jerusalem, a prophet named Agabus told Paul that he would be arrested and he begged Paul not to go there. Paul and AgabusAgabus gave his prophesy at the home of Philip the evangelist. Luke tells us that Philip had four virgin daughters who were living with him who also prophesied. We are not told exactly what they prophesied, or even if they also cautioned Paul about going to Jerusalem. We only know that Luke thought it was important to mention them.

Let’s give a little background to the story. Philip is said to have been “one of the seven”. This means that he was one of the original deacons that we read about in Acts 6. At that time there was a problem in the new young church. The Gentile widows were not given the same amount of care as the Jewish widows and some were complaining. The leaders of the church came up with a solution – men of good reputation, wise, and honest would be chosen to take care of the widows. These men were the first deacons, and Philip was one of them. We know then that he was a good disciple and must have had some leadership ability to have been chosen for such a responsibility.

Philip was also given credit for helping to start the evangelistic effort in Samaria. As Philip spoke to the citizens of Samaria many came to believe and “there was much rejoicing in that city” (Acts 8:8).

As usual in Luke’s writings, though we are not told much, we can infer a lot. Luke has a way of really telling so much more if we read all of the Gospels and Acts. Other examples of women that Luke has included in his writings are Anna, another prophetess, and Mary the mother of John Mark. If you read the stories about these women, posted on this blog, you will see what I mean. Careful study reveals much information. You must also pay attention to every word that Luke uses; each word is a description of a large portrait.

So there are some things we can deduce about Philip’s daughters thanks to Dr. Luke’s careful research and gifted writing.

If you had read Acts 2:17 for example, you would have learned that Peter told his Jewish hearers that a prophesy in Joel had just been fulfilled at Pentecost:

And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. (Joel 2:28,29)

When you read the passage about Philip’s daughters you will recall that Peter said this, and will see that Luke is assuring you that indeed it came to pass that “daughters shall prophecy”.

An interesting fact to note is that these women are already second-generation Christians. Their father was a devout, well-known disciple and he must have been a godly father too. These girls desired to worship and serve God as their father did.
Why did Luke make a point to mention that these girls were virgins? There is much speculation, but perhaps Luke wanted to show that God might call women to other tasks besides the traditional ones of marriage and motherhood. We do not know that these young women didn’t get married later. On the other hand, like Paul and other male disciples, they might have chosen to remain single in order to devote their lives to serving God.

New Testament WomenWe don’t know how many children Philip had, but these four daughters were following the Lord using the gifts that the Holy Spirit had given them.

What kind of prophesies were the daughters giving?

In its most basic meaning prophecy is giving the Word of God. In the Old Testament times, the prophets heard from God and delivered the message to the Israelites and sometimes to the nations around Israel. These prophecies were not only God’s current teachings but they also contained predictions about the future. The prophets reminded the Israelites that there were blessings for obedience and punishments for disobedience.

In the transition time for the new Church that we read about in the book of Acts, there are some predictions, such as the one by Agabus who warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Many of the references about prophecy are to prophecies that have been fulfilled. For example, all through Luke’s Gospel we read that the coming of Jesus was in fulfillment of God’s promises to save His people. The apostles and other writers spent much time showing how Jesus fulfilled those prophecies.

Prophecy today is still seen as “giving the Word of God”. However, we have the Word of God in the Bible. We don’t need any more special audible revelation from God. Today’s prophets are those who can take the Word of God and teach it clearly to others. In a way they can also “predict”. By that I mean that they can certainly still tell God’s people, as did the prophets of old, that there are blessings for obeying God and there will be big trouble if they don’t.

Philip’s daughters were at the very least encouraging the Church with their wisdom from God’s Word. These women were examples given to us by Luke that there were some changes in the new religion known as “the way”. Christian disciples will be made up of men and women. Women will be allowed to do many things that they were denied in Judaism. When the Holy Spirit came He gave gifts, including prophesy, to men and women. The Gospel will transform lives – religiously and socially. Women will no longer be second-class citizens. They will do their part in the life of the Church.

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“Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who for my life risked their own necks..” (Romans 16:3,4a)

aquila_priscilla_and paulWhen the apostle Paul came to the great city of Corinth, he went looking for a job. He found a couple that had set up business as tentmakers. He was happy about this since that was his own occupation, too. This evangelist team was Priscilla and her husband, Aquila. It is interesting that in all but one of the other references in the Bible to this couple, Priscilla is named first. And so, the Bible refers to them as a wife-husband team!

We usually think that in Bible times women had to be silent and stay in the background. Yet the apostle Paul gives great honor to Priscilla. Let’s see why. First, here is what we know about her.

Priscilla (or sometimes called more formally, Prisca) and her husband had apparently met and married in Rome. She had come from a noble Roman family. Aquila was a Jew from Pontus. They had a flourishing tent making business.

In 49 A.D., the emperor Claudius expelled all of the Jews from Rome. So, Priscilla and Aquila moved their business to Corinth. Corinth was the New York City of the first century. It was a major port with a very long history. The people there were as wealthy as anyone could be in those times. They were living there when Paul came around the spring of AD 51.

The three of them worked very hard at their trade. We are not sure if Priscilla and Aquila were converted to Christianity when Paul first met them, but they surely were converted very soon while he stayed in Corinth. Paul founded a church there and after eighteen months of ministry with his new team, the three of them left and went to Ephesus.

Because of their great wealth, Priscilla and Aquila were able to open their home for church meetings. They did this while living in Corinth, Ephesus and later in Rome.

Paul trusted Priscilla and Aquila enough to leave them in Ephesus while he went to Antioch. They opened another branch of their tent making business. They took complete charge of the mission in Ephesus.

A gifted man, named Apollos, came soon after. He was very knowledgeable in the Hebrew Scriptures (the only ones the New Testament believers had!) and he was an eloquent speaker. He was not completely up to date on the Gospel message however.

It seems that Apollos had participated in the “baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). What Apollos meant by this is that during the early times of the Church there were people who had received a baptism similar to the one that John the Baptist was doing a few years earlier while he was still alive (and before Jesus had fulfilled all the prophecies about Himself). During this baptism people were putting their faith in the promised Messiah but they had not heard about the Holy Spirit. These new believers had not heard about Pentecost. Paul came along and baptized these people in the name of Jesus. The Holy Spirit fell on them as He had at Pentecost. (Acts 19:1-6)

And so, Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos “the way of God more accurately.” (Acts 18:26) With their help, Apollos went onPriscilla boarder to be a powerful preacher.

The Bible says that Priscilla and Aquila took him aside. We can see from this that Priscilla played an active role in teaching him. She was not just in the background serving refreshments. She was teaching Apollos. Some churches do not allow women to teach males over the age of 12. I think that they are misinterpreting other verses in the Bible. This story certainly shows that women may be called to serve in the church with teaching.

Priscilla was also very successful at her business and there were other successful businesswomen mentioned by Paul as well. There was Lydia, whom Paul had already met in Philippi. (See last week’s posting about Lydia on this Blog.) There was also Chloe, who ran a business in Ephesus. These women all became zealous helpers for Paul. God used them mightily in this way to help spread the Gospel.

Eventually Priscilla and Aquila would end up in Rome. We know this, because Paul sent them affectionate greetings when he wrote a letter to the Roman Christians. There, he also greets the Church that is in their house.

Paul tells us that Priscilla and Aquila “risked their own necks” to save his life. We do not know the details of that story, but Priscilla is surely to be admired for her courage.

According to tradition, Priscilla and Aquila ended their lives as martyrs.

It is truly wonderful to see this example of a husband and wife team working together, not only at their business, but also in their mission. What a privilege it is for a woman when her husband has a business that she can be a partner in.

And in the Church we should be serving the Lord with the gifts He has given us. Priscilla certainly did!

 

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