An Oriented Abiding
In John 15, Jesus teaches the foundational spiritual principle that apart from him, we are unable to accomplish anything. Eleven times he repeats the word “abide,” the highest concentration anywhere in the entire New Testament, in order to stress the reality that our lives will never carry any lasting significance unless we abide in him, just as a branch abides within its vine.
In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul borrows this same language, and then offers a definition of this “fruit of the Spirit,” characteristics such as love, joy, peace, and patience. He explains that the only means of producing such fruit is “walking by the Spirit.” Translation: only through abiding.
Abiding is the only path to spiritual maturity, and for that reason, much has been written on the subject. And yet it often seems that there is a missing strand within the conversation—God’s mission.
Just as foundational as the principle of abiding is the idea that God is seeking to accomplish something in this world, and that we’ve been assigned vital roles within that mission. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” In John 20:21, “As the Father sent me, even so am I sending you.” And in Acts 1:8, “you will be my witnesses...”
Clearly, there is a work that we’ve been called to. And yet, we’ve also been called to abide.
Too often, these strands are separated, because many of us tend to focus on one, unfortunately to the exclusion of the other. In doing so, we miss the warp for the woof, like someone attempting to separate the strands of a single cloth, missing that the pattern necessarily moves in both directions.
Because as we see repeatedly the book of Acts, when we hold these together, remarkable results follow.
For example, in Acts chapter 4, we’re presented with a story of remarkable evangelistic boldness. At every turn, the circumstances would seem to dictate a response of fear, and yet repeatedly, evangelistic boldness issues forth from the believers. This boldness is the fruit of “an oriented abiding.”
Evidence persists in every early chapter that the believers were engaged in fundamental spiritual practices—Scripture, prayer, community—the means by which we abide. But they engaged in them, specifically in a way that was oriented to the Great Commission. Meaning they spent time in prayer abiding, delighting in God, enjoying His presence. But at the same time, they understood prayer is an avenue through which we pursue our mission. Hence their request:
“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness...”
Their example should instruct all of us, and lead us to engage in our own spiritual practices with “an oriented abiding.” Because in doing so, we align our lives to God in such a way that fruit flows naturally. But also, we orient the direction of our lives so that the particular fruit which follows is in line with what God is seeking to do in the world.
The truth is that when such an orientation takes hold within a community, there can only be one result.
“...they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
And when this result occurs, there’s no telling what God might do.
Holy Spirit Empowered Improvisation
What makes jazz music unique to other styles of music is that it has retained improvisation as a core value. When you listen to jazz music you're generally hearing something that is twenty percent prepared and eighty percent improvised - made up on the spot. Which is not to say what you are hearing has come about without practice and tradition - rather, the melodies, rhythms, and harmonies have all been instilled through the habits of learning. Yet, you'll rarely hear the same jazz song played exactly the same way twice because jazz music gives musicians the freedom to take the rhythms and melodies and go make them their own.
At the end of Acts chapter two we read a description outlining how three thousand new believers formed new habits that were formative in setting them apart as a distinct and new humanity in Christ. Habits of devotion to the apostles teaching, prayer, attending the temple, partaking in the Lord’s Table and sharing their possessions. It is then immediately after reading these habits that Luke tells a story demonstrating the kind of life these habits should produce.
The story goes like this. Peter and John were attending the temple together when they came across a lame man outside one of the temple gates who asks them for alms. Peter and John stare intently at him and tell him to lock his eyes with theirs, which grows his sense of expectancy for the money he may receive, when Peter says to him, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” Then reaching down Peter lifts the lame man to his feet and “immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.” Not long after this newly healed man is clinging to Peter and John in Solomon’s Portico when the crowds gather around them giving Peter the opportunity to proclaim the power of Christ - that “by faith in his name - this man has been made strong.”(v16)
If in hearing this story it sounds familiar to you you’d be on the right track. The going to the temple. The seeing. The healing. The touching. The leaping. The wonder. The clinging and following and the crowds gathering, all sound familiar because Jesus has already played all the same notes.
In Luke 2 we find Jesus at the temple. In Luke 19 we read of Jesus seeing Zacheus. In John 5 we see Jesus healing another lame man at another gate. In Matthew 8 we see Jesus encounter a similar social outcast with leprosy whom Jesus touches. In Mark 5 we see Jesus rid a man of demon possession who then clings to Jesus, and in John 10 we find Jesus at Solomon’s Portico addressing the people, the very same place that Peter in our story is standing and addressing the people.
What Luke does at the end of Acts chapter two and beginning of chapter three is not only reveal the habits of learning that exist within the life of the church, but also offers a story demonstrating the true christian life against which the success of these habits should be measured.
The Christian life is not one of rote repetition, yes we are formed by good habits and need them, but the habits are not the essence. The Christian life in essence, at its core, is one of holy spirit empowered improvisation - wherever you find yourself, wherever you go - to on the spot bring the melodies of Jesus into the world today.
To believe the Spirit of Christ is running through our veins, that is the essence of the Christian life. As Dallas Willard says, only you can be who Jesus would be if Jesus was you. That is the christian calling, to take the rhythms, and melodies of Jesus and make them yours.
Pentecost is far from the first biblical incident with a strange occurrence of fire. Exodus alone records several, such as Moses’ encounter with the God of Israel in a crackling, fiery bush; the fiery pillar that descended upon the Israelites as they crossed the dried ground between the towering walls of the Red Sea; and the blazing cloud, shining in brilliant glory, that filled the tabernacle, the ornate tent Moses and the Israelites had constructed.
In each occurrence, the message from God was the same, “I am with you.” It was both an affirmation of God’s presence with Israel and a declaration to the world that the place of God’s presence is here, with these people, in this land, and eventually, in this temple (and not elsewhere).
For these reasons, Pentecost is both another occurrence in the repetitious pattern, but also a departure from its previous meanings. This Pentecostal fire is somehow different.
In each prior occurrence, no matter how mammoth in size or magnificent in exhibition, there was always only one single body of glorious fire. The difference is that at Pentecost, there were several, perhaps even upwards of 120 bodies of flame, each one flickering above the head of a disciple.
The departure from the previous message was plain. From God, to each recipient of those flickering tongues of fire, “The place of my presence is now in you.”
Jesus had instructed them to wait for a power that would enable them to be his witnesses. This power was the presence of God himself in their very beings, the Holy Spirit. This departure is pivotal because now, instead of God’s presence being hidden away within some sacred, beautiful structure, it is displayed within the life and witness of every one of his followers. Now the presence of God does not merely wait for others to search for it, but it flows outwardly, delivering the possibility of receiving that presence to those who would never seek it.
We continue to live within the story of this everflowing delivery, and our mission is the same. To be His witnesses, “from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Our existence alone, as people who follow Jesus, removed from Pentecost by two continents, an ocean, 2,000 years, and several different languages is a testament to the power that drives this mission. And this power, as testified to by each individual flickering tongue of Pentecostal fire, inhabits every single one of us.
There is a world full of people waiting for their chance to become the recipients of that same fiery glory. And the power to deliver that possibility, to be witnesses, is in us. So this day, have confidence in His power, His presence, and His word, as you join your life to His story as His witness. Because the place of the presence of God is in you.
William Faulkner famously said, "The past is not dead. It hasn't even past." He puts in words something that is often going on in our hearts unseen to those around us and maybe in even unacknowledged by our very selves. That our pasts have shaped who we are today and continue to impact how we see the world around us.
In Acts 1 we see the beginnings of a new community being formed for the sake of a movement of the gospel expanding across the world. Christ has promised them “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And so, the Apostles are in a season of waiting and preparation for the coming Holy Spirit - and are centering themselves and developing their sense of expectancy for the fulfillment of Christ’s promise through their devotion to prayer.
Peter then stands amongst them and brings up the elephant in the room. The memory of what had happened in the past - that had not past - that there were only eleven apostles in the room (not twelve) because one of them had betrayed Jesus.
In v17 Peter emphasizes the personal nature of Judas’s betrayal, that he was their friend, that he was a partner with them in ministry. On top of which, in v18 we read of how Judas’ betrayal was not only personal but an ugly and public stain at the very outset of their leadership. And so, why does Peter bring it up?
Because we all have Judas’ in our pasts. Stories of betrayal and disappointment. Dead-ends and failures that continue to linger in our minds dulling our sense of expectation for what God has still prepared for us.
Peter brings up the painful memory of Judas to renew the Apostles' confidence in the Holy Spirit in preparation for the Holy Spirit's coming. He points the Apostles back a thousand years to when the Holy Spirit prophesied through King David (v16) of the one day betrayal of Judas, and in so doing he reminds them that when the Holy Spirit speaks all of history bends in line with His purposes.
Peter reassures the Apostles that although Judas was responsible for his sin, although the betrayal was real, and they will likely never forget it - the betrayal - was not outside of God's purposes. And so the hurt, and disappoint, and ugliness , that we have experienced - is not outside of God's purposes either. Peter is giving us (along with the Apostles) a framework for accepting our past disappointments - so we can look ahead without being held back.
This passage ends with the Apostles replacing Judas. They bring forward Justus and Matthias who are both qualified as Apostles. Both have heard the teaching of Jesus and both have seen the resurrected Christ. Then in v24 the Apostles pray, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen…”
After Christ has chosen the original twelve, and even though one of His choices led to hurt, betrayal and disappointment - the remaining Apostles are willing to recognize Christ’s authority to choose once again.
Come what may - their confidence is renewed - and by casting lots they are willing to roll the dice and bet their lives afresh on the indomitable purpose’s of God. And only then does their season of waiting and preparation end - only then does the Holy Spirit fall.
Why Theophilus Prays
“In the first book, O Theophilus…” reads the opening line of the book of Acts, a dedication of interpretive significance. On the one hand, we see that the book was written to a real historical person. But on the other, we’re given a clue as to how to read this narrative.
Theo = God
Philus = Lover
Therefore, Theophilus = Lover of God.
Meaning, the proper way for us to approach Acts, is as people who are reading in order to grow in our love and understanding of God, which is a conclusion that holds true when weighed against the contents of the book.
What we receive in Acts is an account of the dawning of a new period in the mission of God. A period which to this day is still unfinished. Meaning, Acts presents us not with an ancient story, far removed from our own lives and concerns, but rather, with what our current context truly is, the larger story we’ve all fallen into. And in doing so, it presents us with the opportunity to play our roles intentionally. We’re given the chance to live with an awareness of that story, and to choose real meaning and significance by shaping our lives according to it. By shaping our lives according to His mission.
Which clearly is significant. But even more than that, what that interpretive clue housed within the dedication provides is not just our place within the story, but what the catalyst for the story is altogether. God is on a mission, and as those who are seeking to grow in our love and understanding of Him, we need to know the reason why. The answer is Love.
“Why is God on a mission?”
“Because God is love.”
“What is the grounding of God’s mission?”
“The love of God itself.”
“What else would compel one to such lengths of pain, suffering, and sacrifice?”
“Nothing. Nothing other than love.”
Because love is the foundation of God’s mission.
This matters because while today the story is still being written, eventually, God’s mission will be finished. It will cease, as will our parts within it. Then, we’ll enjoy the love of God for all of eternity.
Until that day, Mission continues because Love continues. And as “theophilus-es” (lovers of God), the book of Acts is a guidebook for growing in our love and understanding of God. The consistent advice it offers is to join God’s mission. If you want to grow in your love for God, join His mission. It’s that simple. Practically speaking, the very first activity it recommends for doing this is prayer.
The narrative flows as follows. Jesus teaches. Jesus ascends. The disciples are alone. The disciples pray. And that’s it. The dawning of this entire period opens with a few disciples huddled together in prayer.
Jesus himself, after providing the details of the mission, instructs them not to launch out into more obvious forms of missionary activity, but first, before they do anything, they’re to wait. While they wait, what do they do? The only thing they have left, after he leaves. They pray.
The implication being that there is something generative about prayer. Prayer changes things. Because in prayer we plea with God to act, and real consequences result from those requests. But also, in our moments of prayerful silence, as we offer not words but merely our quiet attention to God, He speaks. Often, in prayer, God calls forth hidden aspects of ourselves. Gifts and characteristics, things latent within, are drawn forth in unexpected ways as we engage with the one who first put them there. These things being opportunities given to join His mission.
So, the first lesson of the book of Acts is that if you are seeking to grow in your love for God, join His mission. And the first activity we’re presented with, as an opportunity for doing just that, is prayer.
So whether you join a call, along with a few dozen other people scattered throughout our city, to pray for 30 minutes, or whether you carve out time to be with God while you walk, scrub dishes, or scribble out prayers on a lined sheet of paper—however you find to do it, pray.
Because in doing so, theophilus (lover of God), you are growing in your love for God. You are shaping your life according to the only story that gives true meaning. You are joining His mission. And there’s no telling what might occur as a result of your time spent praying, in the presence of the one whose love you will enjoy for all of eternity.
So start praying, theophilus (lover of God), and don’t stop either.