A Man Called Paul (Wide Angle): Before Saul Became Paul

(Reading Time: approximately 4 minutes.)

At the trial of St. Stephen’s trial, Saul of Tarsus must have sat shaking his head. “This heretic! Who does he think he is, lecturing us!” When Stephen accused his peers of resisting the Holy Spirit, Saul was beside himself. When he charged them with disobeying the Torah, Saul came unglued.

Luke tells us what happened next: “When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. . . they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”3

What happened next made a profound impression on Saul, who would later change his name to Paul (or use the Romanize version of his name). “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.”4

This, as I say, made a profound impression on Saul but, as is the case so often, it took other events and the passing of time for it to come to fruition. In the meantime, Saul launched a campaign to snuff out the church. Stephen had been the spark that set Saul and his colleagues ablaze in an inferno of religious fervor. Saul genuinely believed that he was serving God by ridding the earth of heretics like Stephen. He thought he was preparing Israel for the day of God’s visitation.

Saul’s colleagues held him in honor for his zeal and his daring disregard of Roman law. The chief priests – who were Sadducees, and of a different political philosophy – had no choice but to cooperate with him; he was driving a popular movement that was building momentum, and they wanted to make sure that they didn’t get run over by it.

After Stephen died, Saul and his cohorts went on a rampage. Every person who confessed Jesus as messiah was in peril. They were excommunicated; some were beaten, arrested, and even killed. The church went into hiding. People fled the city. In weeks – maybe even days – the synagogues were emptied of Jesus’ followers. Acts 8:1 says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”

That must have made Saul happy. But the persecution that drove the sect of Jesus out of Jerusalem had an unintended consequence: it drove them into synagogues elsewhere. Jesus’ people were pouring into synagogues in Caesarea, Antioch and Damascus, and wherever they went people were believing in Jesus. Saul saw this as a threat to the integrity of Judaism, and with the consent of the high priest, he and his team began going to other countries to drag these people back to Jerusalem for trial.

If I had lived in these years of the first century and had to vote for the person least likely to become a follower of Jesus, I would have cast my ballot for Saul of Tarsus. Old Cowper was right when he wrote, “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” The choice of Saul of Tarsus to be Jesus’s spokesmen is not one anybody could have predicted.

To quote Cowper again:

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sov’reign will.


               3 Acts 7:54, 57-58

               4 Acts 7:59-60

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The Reason Art Got Ugly

Edvard Munch, The Scream

In earlier times, according to Stephen Hicks, professor of philosophy at Rockford University, artists focused on beauty and originality, but that changed at the end of the nineteenth century. Under the influence of the philosophies of skepticism and irrationalism, artists began to see their calling in terms of truth-telling; and the truth, from their perspective, was ugly. “The major works of the twentieth-century art world,” says Hicks, “are ugly.”

The performance arts have also become enamored with ugliness, preferring darkness to light, and antiheroes to heroes. Today, antiheroes are artistically interesting, but heroes are boring. Antiheroes represent truth. Heroes are a fantasy. These days, no one is making films with “High Noon” plots or Will Kane-like heroes. Darkness – think of the recent Batman films – is in vogue.

Literature, too, is filled with dark, tortured protagonists. Anne Shirley of Green Gables is false, Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye is true. Literary fiction is by dark by necessity. One of the worst things a critic can say about a writer is that they produce “lightweight, commercial” fiction.

The philosopher Roger Scruton illustrates this trend in his book, “Beauty: A Very Short Introduction.” He brings up Mozart’s comic opera, “The Abduction from the Harem,” which debuted near the end of the 18th century. The opera focuses on the love of Belmont and Constanze. When she was shipwrecked along the Turkish coast and forced to enter the harem of the ruler Selim, her lover heroically went to rescue her.

In 2004, 222 years after its premier, the opera was staged in Berlin. This time, the Turkish ruler was an urban pimp, his harem a Berlin brothel, and Mozart’s beautiful music was juxtaposed against wanton violence, mutilating torture, and nauseating sexual narcissism. All this, while words of faithfulness and compassion filled the hall.

In the contemporary art world, wanton violence, torture, and narcissistic sex are truth. Faithfulness and compassion are a lie. And since art is about telling the truth, many artists (and perhaps, even more art critics) think that art must be ugly.

Think, for example, of some of the art that has been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. There was “Fiction Collective 2,” which an NEA spokesperson called “a highly respected, preeminent publisher of innovative, quality fiction.” This quality fiction featured works about sexual torture, incest, and child sex.

Yves Klein IKB191

Then there was Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of his own urine. Whether the piece was blasphemous, as many think, or a commentary on what society has done to Christ, it was ugly. That may explain why, when it was featured at an NEA-funded art competition, it took home the $25,000 prize.)

Ugliness in the arts reflects philosophies in the academy. If, as some in the academy have claimed, there is no truth or truth is all that is left after ontological reductionism has finished its work, then Yves Klein’s 1962 work, IKB 191 (a monochrome blue rectangle) was truth—for whatever truth is worth. Which is not much. Which is the point.

Ugliness in the arts not only reflects the theories of the academy, but it also expresses the darkness of our hearts. Jesus said bluntly: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

Perhaps antiheroes attract us because heroic qualities are absent from our hearts. Perhaps we seek out darkness in the arts because it is in the darkness we feel least exposed. Perhaps every culture gets the art is deserves.

But thankfully, God gives us more than we deserve. He gives us beauty, and beauty is a signpost that leads to him. It invites us to believe there is more to this world than dark hearts and squalid ugliness – that there is light beyond the darkness and meaning beyond the emptiness. As long as we can delight in beauty, there is hope for us, for the beautiful God still beckons.

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A Man Named Paul (Wide Angle)

In this Wide Angle series of posts, we have been surveying the mountain peaks of biblical revelation – the most important people and events in the history of God’s interaction with humans. We have been skipping from one mountain of revelation to the next, like adventurers who enjoy the luxury of being shuttled by helicopter from peak to peak. But we mustn’t forget that there is much ground between the mountains we have explored. The spiritual terrain, like geographical terrain, does not usually rise abruptly.

Today, we take out first look at the conversion of a mountain of a man: Paul the apostle. He towers over the foothills like some colossal landmark that guides pilgrims on their spiritual journey. But even Paul does not arise from nowhere. Between Pentecost and Paul lies one of the most important men in the early history of Christianity: Stephen, the martyr.

Stephen was a layman who was involved in a church ministry to the needy. With a name like Stephen, it is possible (and perhaps even likely) that he was a Greek-speaking Jew. Besides providing for the needy, he frequently taught other Greek-speaking Jews in the synagogues around Jerusalem.

In the Synagogue of the Freedmen (which was Greek-speaking) Stephen got into a heated debate. He wanted to prove to his hearers that Jesus was the Messiah, and he used the Old Testament to do it. Luke writes that “. . . men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (Acts 6:9-10). His reasoning was unassailable.

His reasoning was unassailable, but he was not. Some of his opponents began misrepresenting Stephen’s teaching. They accused him of speaking against two of the treasures of Judaism: the temple and the law. “This fellow,” they said, “never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:13-14).

Stephen probably did teach that Jesus had superseded the temple as the meeting place between God and his people. He understood that Christ’s death and resurrection would bring changes to their long-held traditions. But Stephen never suggested – never even thought – about destroying the temple. That was just ludicrous.

But the accusation didn’t have to be true to land him in a world of trouble. Imagine that you are of Saudi origin, and a number of people you hardly know call the FBI to report that you have been making plans to blow up the Capitol Building. You would find yourself in maximum security, talking to Homeland Security before you knew what was happening. The charge against Stephen was totally false, but that was all it took to cause people to think of him as a deranged terrorist.

It is likely that one of his accusers was a prominent young rabbi named Saul. He had, perhaps, heard Stephen speak in the Synagogue of the Freedmen, or elsewhere. He may even have been the one to file charges against him with the Sanhedrin. He, too, was a Greek-speaking Jew (though he also spoke Aramaic or Hebrew, see Phil 3:5-6), but he had lived in Jerusalem since he was young. He had trained under one of the most prestigious teachers of the day.

Saul was a single-minded zealot. He, and others like him, believed that God was withholding his blessing and his Messiah from Israel until the nation repented and started living according to the Torah. People who did not know or practice Torah disgusted Saul. They stood in the way of the restoration of Israel. And he believed that Stephen was one of those people.


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Why We Can’t Seem to Forgive

Viewing Time: 26 minutes (approx.)

Why do we have so much trouble forgiving? We either don’t want to forgive or, wanting to, we find ourselves incapable of it. It probably not that we aren’t trying hard enough, but that we aren’t in a place in our lives where forgiveness is possible. This message is the first of two intended to help us forgive.

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The Cross: Biblical Theology Class #17

A Biblically Wide-Angled View of the Cross of Jesus
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God Loves You Just the Way You Are

Reading Time: 4 minutes (approximate)

“God loves you just the way you are.” I have frequently heard that said and have said it myself. The Scriptures support such a view: Jesus declared that God loves “the righteous and the unrighteous.” St. Paul wrote that God demonstrated his love for sinners, and reconciled humans to him while they were acting as his enemies.

St. John goes one step further. Instead of conditioning God’s love on the worthiness of its objects, he locates God’s love in his own unchanging nature. “God,” he writes succinctly, “is love.”

Another common Christian cliché is this: “God will never love you any more than he does right now.” This, it seems to me, is also true. If God’s love is not conditioned on the worthiness of its object, then neither is it conditioned on that object’s unworthiness. Hence, the correlate to this claim is also true: “God will never love you less than he does right now.”

These claims regarding God’s love have their place. If God’s love were conditioned on our good behavior, there would be times when it would not be extended to us, for we are not always well behaved. If it were contingent upon our character, the situation would be worse, for our character is flawed. We can only be secure if love depends on God rather than on us.

While these avowals of God’s love are true, they are also incomplete and potentially misleading. For while God loves us unconditionally, our conscious reception of that love and the personal and spiritual growth that results from it, is conditional. It is true that God will never love me more than he does right now, but my experience of that love will be relatively richer or poorer depending on what I do.

I have an infant grandchild who lives in another part of the country. I could not love her more, even if she lived next door. I would willingly lay down my own life for hers. But that grandchild has not experienced my love as fully as she would if she lived next door. It is not that my love is lessened by the distance between us, but her experience of my love is.

The same sun that is reflected in the drop of dew that lies on the flower’s delicate petal is mirrored on the surface of the vast sea, but the beauty and grandeur of that reflection differs in each. Likewise, the universal love of God comes to everyone, good and bad, but not everyone experiences it as richly as everyone else.

What bearing does this have on the statement, “God will never love you any more than he does right now”? Just this: we can think that because God will never love us more (or less) than he does currently, it doesn’t really matter what we do. If we act unjustly or unlovingly, if we are self-centered, malicious, greedy, and exploitative—so what? God will not love us any less!

Of course, what we do or fail to do makes a difference, and it is foolishness to think it does not. If I build a roof over my garden, the sun will not shine less often, nor the clouds bring less rain; but the growth of my garden will certainly be less. It is true that my bad behavior cannot stop God from loving me, but it can stunt the personal development his love brings.

In Jesus’s remarkable “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” a father’s love for his son remains constant even after the son turns away from him. The father’s love is as rich as ever, yet the son withers as a person. He loses all certainty of his father’s love.

Yet, the father’s love remains undiminished and welcoming. This, Jesus wants us to know, is what God’s love is like. We can run from it; we can reject it; we can stop believing in it; but God will just keep on loving us. And, when we come back, he will welcome us with open arms and a glad heart.

But how will we know that if we don’t come back?

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The Baptism of the Spirit (Wide Angle)

Reading time: Approximately two minutes.

There are some things in Acts 2, regarding the coming of the Spirit, which we would do well to note. The first is the meaning of the word baptism as it is applied to what happened at Pentecost. The word is used six times with explicit reference to the activity of the Holy Spirit. Five of these uses refer to the Day of Pentecost. And the sixth use is explanatory: Paul tells the Corinthians that all believers are baptized by the Spirit into Christ’s body.21

Why is that important? It is important because in none of the six texts that speak about the baptism of the Spirit (or any other text) ever instructs people to get baptized in or by the Spirit. This baptism is not something we are told to seek nor is the terminology used here ever repeated of any other group of people. This is God’s work by which the Body of Christ was birthed and by which it grows as believers are joined to it.

But baptism in the Spirit is not the only thing that happened at Pentecost. We also see individuals “filled” with the Spirit. And that is something that does reoccur. We see people filled and refilled with the Spirit, and we are told to be filled with the Spirit.

The baptism of the Spirit brings us into Christ and unites us to his body, but the filling of the Spirit brings Christ into us. Warren Wiersbe put it this way: “The baptism of the Spirit means I belong to His body; the fullness of the Spirit means that my body belongs to him.”22 Hence Paul urges us, “Be filled with the Spirit.”23

There is something else here that we must understand. The baptism of the Spirit not only unites us to Christ, it unites us to each other. Following Christ is not a sonata written for a solo instrument, but a symphony. We live this life together. That fact is patently clear in the early chapters of Acts. The church met together, joined together, were together, ate together and prayed together. They met daily, took care of the needy daily, and studied Scripture daily. Christ was living through them in daily life, and they were living that life together.

May it be so with us.


               21 1 Corinthians 12:13

               22 Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books

               23 Ephesians 5:17


               21 1 Corinthians 12:13

               22 Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books

               23 Ephesians 5:17

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How to Honor Your Parents

Viewing time: 24 minutes (approx.)

How do we honor our parents? Can we honor parents who are, or were, dishonorable? Why should we honor them? This message is for people who have (or had) honorable parents and for those who have (or had) dishonorable ones, for people to love to speak well of their parents and people who would rather forget them. It addresses three questions that arise from Ephesians 6:1-2: What does honoring parents entail? Why should we honor our parents? How can we honor them?

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The Kingdom of God: Biblical Theology Class 16

Shayne and Kevin Looper discuss Matthew 4:17

Everyone who read the Bible looks at it through some interpretive lens. The lens of kingdom – provided by the Scriptures themselves – allows us to look at the Scriptures and see truths we might otherwise miss.

The kingdom of God was Jesus’s favorite topic. St. Paul, nearing the close of his life and being held in Roman custody, is proclaiming – what else? – the kingdom of God. It is vitally important that we understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

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A Mother’s Worthy Life

My mother was born 95 years ago this month. She died twenty years ago. In this season of honoring mothers, I wish to honor her.

We didn’t have the kind of relationship that inspires men to tattoo, “Mother” on their upper arm. It’s not that our relationship was bad. It’s more like it was tertiary. My relationships with my authoritarian dad and my brother – who was my teacher, protector, and friend – took priority.

My mother was born two-and-a-half years before the Great Depression began. Though I am sure her family had to deal with its privations, they were probably better off than many of their peers. They had a farm in the hills of southern Kentucky, a rich vein of coal on their property, and acres of woods in which to hunt wild game.

My mother was a twin. She and her brother were the last of ten children. Her father died when she was nineteen. When, at the end of the war, her brothers and sisters moved north to find work, she went with them.

My mother waitressed in various restaurants in the Cleveland area, then moved to Florida for a time and waitressed there. In Florida, she did not receive a salary, just tips. I remember hearing that she had to pay the restaurant owner for the privilege of working. That didn’t last long and back to Ohio she moved.

She and an older brother opened a diner-type restaurant two doors down from my dad’s barber shop, and it wasn’t long before he invited her out. He took her to a nearby beach, which was a hangout for all the young people, and preceded to get soused. He disappeared and she didn’t see him again that evening. She had to get a ride home with someone else.

He later apologized and asked for the chance to make it up to her. They went out on a second date, and then a third. He eventually asked her to marry him, and she said yes.

I only learned about how he proposed after he died. According to my mother, he said: “If you’ll marry me, I’ll change.” When she told me this, I blurted out, “And you said yes? What were you thinking?”

Her life with my dad was undoubtedly trying. He did stop drinking, but things did not improve as quickly as we might have hoped. In fact, they got worse. Doctors diagnosed my brother with a terminal illness.

There followed a year-and-a-half of hospitalizations, blood transfusions, chemotherapy, fears, hopes, and more fears. And then my brother died. My family had no medical insurance at the time – my dad had impetuously quit the union weeks before the diagnosis – so my mother went to work in a local factory to help pay bills. I don’t remember ever hearing her complain.

My mother went through seventeen major surgeries, including an arterial transplant, cardiac bypass surgery, and a radical mastectomy. And then my dad, who had become a kinder, gentler man – indeed, an indispensable one – was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died, and she grieved.

Six years, one heart attack, and several surgeries later, my mother died. Her life never had been easy. Sometimes it was painfully difficult. As I think of her now, I think of a woman who resigned herself to life’s difficulties without complaining and without losing her determination to do right by others.

She became a woman of faith, trusting God despite her hardships. She never stopped loving my dad or me, though we both gave her reasons to do so. As she aged, her faith grew stronger. I have two of the Bibles she used, and her marginal notes reveal an intellect alive to God and to spiritual realities.

My wife and I were fortunate to be with her for the last week or two of her life. She kept her sense of humor. She remained thoughtful of others. She did not rage against the dying of the light, as she had not raged against the hardships of her life. She died with a peaceful mind, and with confidence in a better future.

She was and is worthy of honor, I am grateful to call her my mother.

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