We are in Day 53 of our expedition through the NLT Chronological Bible and today we begin the book of Acts.  Written by Luke, this book has been referred to in church history as “The Acts of the Apostles,” but in reality it should be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

There is a radical and fundamental change that overcomes the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and we know exactly when this change takes place.  On the Day of Pentecost (which came 50 days after the Passover, when Christ was crucified) while the fledgling little group that Jesus left behind when he ascended into heaven is meeting, the Holy Spirit comes upon them suddenly and they are changed.

Peter gets up to speak to the crowd that is gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost and this is not a Peter with which we are familiar.  He is bold.  He speaks frankly and directly.  He does not appear to fear the authorities any more, nor, we come to find out, does John.  Indeed, when the pair are arrested for preaching in the temple some time later, at their trial Peter and John proclaim to the council (who happen to be the same people who interrogated Jesus, then had him crucified!):

“Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19–20, NLT)

This is the work and power of the Holy Spirit within the disciples.

Persecution of the believers begins and it is led by a young, fervent, (self)righteous man named, Saul.  While on a trip to Damascus to find and imprison followers of Christ, Luke recounts what happens to Saul.  After being surprised by a sudden bright light in the sky, Saul:

“Fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, lord?” Saul asked. And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! (Acts 9:4–5, NLT)

Saul is radically and fundamentally changed also by his encounter with the living Jesus on the road to Damascus.  This will have wide-ranging consequences for the church, for church history, and in a weird way for us 2000 years removed, because Paul will become the apostle to the Gentiles, of which I myself am one.

It takes Jesus wrestling a self-righteous Pharisee to the ground and humbling him and drawing him to faith, for me to be reached with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ some 2000 years later.  I am grateful for this.

 

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We are in Day 52 of our rapid trek through the NLT Chronological Bible.  Like the crucifixion, all of the gospel writers cover the resurrection because they understood that Christ’s resurrection from the dead was central to our faith.  Paul (whom we haven’t met yet) will capture this fact in his first letter to the Corinthians: “And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17, NLT)

One of the chief reasons that we believe that the resurrection actually happened is because the first people to witness it were women.  Some of Christ’s women followers go out to the tomb to anoint Jesus on the Sunday after his crucifixion.  They find the stone to the tomb removed, Jesus is missing and a strange man tells them that Jesus is risen from the dead.  In the culture of the time, women couldn’t be witnesses in court, so either women really were the first witnesses to the resurrection and the gospel writers were recounting facts as they happened, or the gospel writers constructed the least likely to be believed testimony of the resurrection.

Jesus immediately begins appearing to those who knew him.  He appears to the disciples twice, then to two disciples walking to Emmaus, then again to the disciples when they had spent (yet another) useless night fishing. Paul tells us how many witnesses there were to the resurrection of Jesus:

He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him. (1 Corinthians 15:4–8, NLT)

Just before Christ is taken away from the disciples ascending into the clouds he gives them this command:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19–20, NLT)

What will become of the fledgling body of believers now that their leader has left them?  Will they be crushed by the strength of the opposition to this new “sect?”  We will find out soon.

Meanwhile, it is pretty clear that there is sufficient evidence and enough witnesses to prove that Jesus really did rise from the dead, just as he had predicted that he would.

We are in Day 51 of our rapid journey through the NLT Chronological Bible.  We are in Jesus’ final week, although chronologically what exactly happened scholars are not sure because the gospel writers didn’t feel compelled to write their testimonies of Jesus in consecutive life order as biographers do today.

What is Jesus concerned with as he approaches the cross?  We find him speaking to the disciples about his return, although they still do not understand where he is going and therefore why he would return.  It is only after this week in hindsight that the light goes on for the disciples.  Jesus was telling them to be ready for his return, that even if it was a long while, they should always be prepared because his return would come suddenly and be a surprise, much like his first coming had been.

Then suddenly in the gospel narratives, things take a dark turn.  We watch while Judas Iscariot agrees to betray Jesus to the authorities, knowing how this story ends (it does not end well for Judas).  We shake our heads as Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him three times and Peter swears that he would never, ever, ever do that. We sit in on the great prayer of John 17, where we see Jesus so concerned about the future welfare and faithfulness of his followers.  There is a dark foreboding about these words that we don’t fully understand (nor do the disciples) until Thursday night, when the betrayal takes place in Gethsemane.  Jesus’ words to those who arrest him are shocking: This is your moment, when the power of darkness reigns.

And the power of darkness did reign on Thursday night and Friday.

John Piper once tweeted on Good Friday: “Betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, abandoned by the eleven, forsaken by God. Darkness, you get one hour. Then you die.”

Darkness got one hour, but only one.

We are in Day 50 of our quick expedition through the NLT Chronological Bible.  Today we see that the end approaches quickly as Jesus enters Jerusalem in what followers of Jesus have come to call The Triumphal Entry.

Just before the entry into Jerusalem, Jesus has an encounter with a wealthy, devout Jew.  This man comes to Jesus and, no doubt impressed with Jesus’ miracles and teaching, asks him what he needs to do to be saved.  Jesus’ answer is startling, both to the wealthy man and to the readers of the gospel:

Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:21–22, NLT)

Now, understand that Jesus is not saying that every person must sell all they have before they can come and follow Jesus.  He knew that this man had one thing that was all important, that was preventing him from the path to eternal life.  Jesus says he must give up that thing.

The point is not money per se, although the desire for wealth often comes between us and following Jesus.  The point that Jesus is making is that, if we are to follow him, nothing can come between us and Jesus.  If there is anything that is more important, that thing must go.  This is a difficult lesson for all of us, because we are all prone to idolatry.

Then comes the Triumphal Entry. Jesus comes as the King of the Jews…on a young donkey.  The powers that be in Jerusalem have no conception that he is coming, nor that he is the King of the Jews, they will clash this very week, and the powers that be in Jerusalem will think on Friday that another threat to the throne has been destroyed…but Sunday is coming.

Here is an amazing thing.  John tells  us: “Despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him.” (John 12:37, NLT) Jesus has raised three people from the dead, he has healed a man who was blind since birth, he has made the lame walk and the deaf hear, and yet most of the people still do not believe.  John connects this lack of belief directly to the prophecy of Isaiah: “This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted: “Lord, who has believed our message? To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?” (John 12:38, NLT)

Here is the thing, though.  Should we judge the Jewish people at the time of Christ who did not believe in him?  Aren’t we much like they are?  Our hearts are just as hard.  We have the witness of the whole Bible, we can read about Jesus’ miracles whenever we want to, and yet we still have to be dragged to faith, because we want to pursue things that God has created rather than God himself.

 

We are on Day 49 of our trek through the NLT Chronological Bible, it looks like we will finish in about 63 or 64 days.  Today we have my favorite story in all of the gospels: the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

We read this story in John 11.1-44.  We had already met the siblings, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus before.  Jesus is not near Bethany, outside Jerusalem, where the trio live, when Lazarus gets sick.  His two sisters send a message to Jesus, “Lord, your dear friend is very sick.” 

Jesus of course hurries to his good friend’s side in order to heal him.  Oh wait, no he doesn’t: “So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days.” (John 11:5–6, NLT) Whatever else we can say about Jesus, it’s obvious that he is not sweating Lazarus’ illness.  But wait, Lazarus dies and Jesus knows it, but he is even nonchalant about that: “Then he said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but now I will go and wake him up.” (John 11:11, NLT) This sounds pretty easy, right?

Jesus and his disciples are approaching Bethany when word gets to Martha that Jesus is coming, and oh-by-the-way, the reader is informed, Lazarus has been dead and buried four days.  Jesus is just a little bit late, or is he?

In one of my favorite encounters in the gospels, Jesus tells the grieving Martha: “Your brother will rise again.” (John 11:23, NLT)

Martha’s responds that she knows Lazarus will rise again “when everyone else rises, at the last day.”

Now, dear reader, soak up these words from Jesus who can apparently give hope even when someone is dead:Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” (John 11:25–26, NLT)

Go back and read what we wrote yesterday about Jesus and outlandish statements, here is another one. Jesus seems to think that death is no barrier to his power, “I am the resurrection and the life!”  Absolutely astounding and incomprehensible.

Jesus goes out to the gravesite with the two grieving sisters and guess what he does next, after they remove the stone covering the entrance to the grave.  He speaks!  He says, “Lazarus, come out!”

Jesus seems to think that a man who has been dead four days will respond to, get this, words.  And, um…Lazarus does respond. “And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth.”

Mary and Martha believed that death had the last word here, but in reality Jesus has the last word, and even death must obey him.  Lazarus is restored to his sisters alive and in full health.

Here is something interesting.  Do you know what the Arabic name is for the city in which the trio lived?  El Eizaryia, which translated means: “the place of Lazarus.” Now there is a happy coincidence.  Why do you suppose, dear reader, that Bethany was named “the place of Lazarus?”

We are in Day 48, making our way quickly through the NLT Chronological Bible, reading it continuously like we would read a novel.  Today we meet a Jesus who seems obsessed with one thing, and that one thing is pretty weird.

Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead.” (Mark 8:31, NLT)

Again and again in the gospels, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to suffer and die, but not to worry because he would rise from the dead.  Exactly zero of the twelve disciples have any comprehension of what Jesus is talking about before he is actually crucified and rises from the dead three days later.  It’s only after all of these unexpected and amazing events that Jesus’ disciples begin to look back and say to themselves, “Oh. So this is what he was talking about.”

All through the gospels, indeed, all through our readings on this day, we find Jesus making outlandish, unexpected, surprising, and difficult to believe claims.

  • Example One: Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” (John 8:12, NLT)

    “I am the light of the world.”  Who says stuff like this and actually seems to mean it?

  • Example Two: Jesus continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You belong to this world; I do not. That is why I said that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I Am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins.”” (John 8:23–24, NLT)

    May I humbly submit that your normal, average, everyday, run-of-the-mill human does not make statements like this one.

  • Example Three: Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I Am!” (John 8:58, NLT)

    The name “I Am” as both Jesus and those who were listening fully understood was the name of the self-revelation of God to his covenant people.  This was a straight out claim that Jesus was God.

All three of these statements were from only today’s reading.  Jesus was making these claims continually throughout the gospels in word and deed. These are not statements that normal people make.  Jesus is going to make us face his claims and either accept them or reject them.  There is no way that he will allow us to be neutral.

I once heard Bill Gates comment on the Sermon on the Mount that he liked the morality contained in it, but of course he certainly did not believe that Jesus was God.  Mr. Gates should have read everything else that Jesus said, because this is the one choice that Jesus does not allow us.  C. S. Lewis puts it this way:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

We are in Day 47 of our journey through the NLT Chronological Bible in as expeditious a manner as possible. Today we have a little girl with a surprising wake up call.

A leader of the local synagogue asks Jesus to come see his little daughter who is dying.  On the way there Jesus is interrupted when he heals a woman who touches his garment in the middle of a jostling crowd (another memorable miracle about which I do not have time to comment).  When Jesus reaches the leader’s house, the leader’s daughter, sadly, has died.  Death, however, has not reckoned with Jesus.  Mark recounts what happens next:

Holding her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means “Little girl, get up!” And the girl, who was twelve years old, immediately stood up and walked around! They were overwhelmed and totally amazed. Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell anyone what had happened, and then he told them to give her something to eat.” (Mark 5:41–43, NLT)

Jesus raises the little girl from the dead!  This should perhaps remind us of a similar miracle performed by both Elijah and Elisha in the Old Testament.  They each raise a child from the dead. This cannot be a coincidence.  Elijah and Elisha, both prophets of God who performed miracles, point us forward to the coming of Messiah.  When he raises the little girl from the dead, we know that this is the Messiah. We need look no further for the coming Deliverer, for he is here.

Sometime after this, we have a Pyrrhic victory if there ever was one. Herod Antipas is married to Herodias who just happens to have been his brother, Phillip’s wife.  John the Baptist demonstrates no compunction at all in condemning this marriage and for this Herodias hates him.  She has one little problem, Herod Antipas really likes John the Baptist, even though he does have him in prison.  Herodias, using her daughter as a pawn, manages to get Herod Antipas to chop John’s head off.  This Herod reluctantly does, gruesomely handing John’s head over on a silver platter.  No doubt Herodias thought that she had finally won her war with John the Baptist.

This was a Pyrric victory.  God’s mills of justice grind slowly, but we can be sure that Herodias does not, and will never escape justice for her perfidy in having John the Baptist murdered.  She no doubt basked in perverse joy thinking that she won their war, but in the end God will win that war, and Herodias will answer to him.

Finally today, we have the only miracle of Jesus that all four gospels record: Jesus feeding of the 5,000(ish), with–get this–five small loaves of bread and two small fish, basically a lunch for a hungry, young boy.  All we are told is that Jesus blesses the food and begins to break it while the disciples distribute it.  Afterwards 5,000+ people are so well fed that the disciples collect 12 baskets of leftovers!

If nothing else this miracle should tell us that God is never constrained by supply, that he always has not only an abundance, but a superabundance to supply every need.

This is the nature of the kingdom of God which Christ ushered in when he came to earth.  The dead are sometimes raised, evil never ever ever finally wins, and in God’s kingdom there is always not only enough, but more than enough, which reminds me of something that Jesus told his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount:

That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are?” (Matthew 6:25–26, NLT)

Yes, dear reader, you are.