Martin Collins suggests that the Book of Acts, tracing the activities of the apostles in advancing the Gospel, displays God's dissolving all hindrances, even in the darkest hours. Luke records God's rescuing Paul and Peter from a series of near-death episodes, indicating that when things appeared the most ominous, He was not far away. Paul demonstrated inner peace during turmoil, showing consistency in times of instability and faith in God during persecution. As Acts concludes, Paul is no longer in chains, but has rented a house to meet with Jewish leaders and members of the Roman congregation, apparently for the express purpose of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles after many of the Jewish assembly rejected the Truth. When God closes one door (completing one phase of His plan) He opens another. Paul fulfilled the role God gave to him, appearing before kings and bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles and Israelites alike. Today, the Church, the Israel of God, is receiving the same Gospel that Paul and the other apostles preached to Jew and Gentile. At times, it seems we have reached a dry-spell, where we do not see God's hand at all. During these times, we need to see blessings in small things, realizing that the darkest time is just before the dawn. We must patiently wait, purging any iniquity which may be estranging us from God, trusting God even when He appears to be silent.
John Ritenbaugh, examining the socio-cultural milieu before the writing of the Epistle to the Hebrews, explains the difficulties experienced by the new Jewish converts to the Gospel. The powerful testimony of the recently risen Christ, combined with the apostles, who had spent 3 ½ years under His tutelage, were the main factors behind the fast growth of the church to 6,000. The Jewish leadership deemed these converts to be traitors to the of the religious heritage of Judaism. The estrangement these people felt is similar to that experienced by today's people of the true God. Christ told His Apostles not to become fixated about the fulfillment of prophecy, but instead to engage in the work He had given them. God's people today have the same no-nonsense orders Christ gave to His original Disciples, namely to take the Gospel to all nations. God's worldwide institution, the Israel of God, makes a transition to a New Covenant, not 'doing away with the law' but making it applicable to both Jew and Gentile. Repentance and baptism replace circumcision as the spiritual sign of the New Covenant. The Council of Jerusalem indicated that Jesus Christ's words and behavior proved the final word on New Covenant decisions, bringing about a significant change in practice.
John Ritenbaugh, re-iterating that internal evidence substantiates the high probability that the Apostle Paul authored the Book of Hebrews, stresses that Christ's ultimate goal is to bring the entire creation under the Father's subjection when God will be all in all. The recipients of the book of Hebrews consisted of converts from Judaism suffering estrangement from family and community, excommunicated from the temple. The etymology of Hebrew denotes someone who has "crossed over" a boundary (such as a river) and by extension connotes moving from one idea cluster to another (such as carnal to spiritual- requiring living tenaciously by faith), as demonstrated by our Patriarch Abraham. The intended audience of Hebrews was not exclusively descendants of Judah, but those who were called by God the Father into the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16) which would include a large influx of gentiles. Because the Israel of God has departed from cultural expectations from both Jewish and Gentile communities, they suffer intense persecution. The Jerusalem Church, the headquarters congregation, had to meld the gentile and Hebrew elements together, deciding whether things like circumcision were still mandatory. The solution was to concentrate on the things Christ taught by example to the Apostles, granting the ability to apply God's law in gray areas as well as clear black and white distinctions. The New Covenant requirements outlined by Christ demanded that God's Called-out -ones must learn to worship in "spirit and truth" without the 'security' of a brick and mortar temple. The sacrificial system of the Old Covenant has not been done away but will re-instated during the Millennium for those who failed to learn its purpose the first time around. For God's called-out ones, the sacrificial system has certainly not been done away, but requires a living sacrifice of lifetime service, yielding to Christ's words and example.
John Ritenbaugh submits that the Book of Hebrews is crucial for understanding that our relationship to Christ as our Savior, High Priest, and King is the key to salvation. As our High Priest, Jesus has qualified to intercede on behalf of those the Father has called, preparing them to be at one with God the Father, to the end that we will be all-in-all under God's dominion when we are all transformed into His image. In His current role as High Priest, He is metaphorically filling out His body; As He is the head, we are individual parts in His body. In another metaphor, Christ the Bridegroom loves us as His Bride, cleansing us with His word to be at one with Him, as husband and become one flesh. The Father has granted Jesus Christ all authority over His Creation and given Him all the tools necessary to sanctify His called-out ones. In Hebrews, we learn that nothing is so important as developing an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. God calls and works with His people as individuals. The Book of Hebrews establishes (1) the superiority of Christ—indicating He is the communicator with whom we should establish a relationship, (2) the superiority of the New Covenant, and (3) the superiority of Christ's Church. The lesson to the disciples who experienced the Transfiguration, and the lesson to us now, is that we should listen to Christ, to the end that He will show us the way to the Father and prepare us for our ultimate transformation into members of God's family.
John Ritenbaugh reiterates that the tumultuous time recorded in Acts is analogous to the current factional secularism, where God's Church is operating in the shadow of religious structures claiming to be "faith-based," but in fact denying God's Laws. Like the original audience of the Book of Hebrews, who battled a hostile established main-stream religion [Judaism] and persecution from an equally hostile secular Roman government, God's Church today faces a curtailment of tranquility. Like Paul and Nicodemus, God has pulled His people from pagan traditions practiced by the mainstream religion. As we are individually called by the Father (John 6:44), and the spiritual scales fall out of our eyes, we are just as disoriented and bewildered as the apostle Paul, finding our former friends and family members estranged from us. We learn that counting the cost means putting Christ ahead of friends, family, and especially self. At the time of the writing of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the newly converted Jew to the Way encountered persecution from the established religion and culture similar to what God's called-out ones experience today from established religion, family, secular culture, and government, all militating against God's Truth. Although textual criticism, citing stylistic differences in style between the Book of Hebrews and the identifiable Pauline Epistles, casts doubt on Paul's authorship, compelling internal evidence points to Paul as the actual author of Hebrews.
John Ritenbaugh affirms that, in these times when innovation and knowledge are increasing, time appears to be speeding up as well, and that the emerging, Satanically-inspired Beast is already beginning to wear out the Saints. If we have not yet experienced persecution, it is around the corner. To combat our weariness, we must turn to God's Word, a document which is totally enigmatic unless we have the power of God's Holy Spirit to put it together slowly like a jig-saw puzzle, understood a little bit at a time. To the carnal mind, the Bible reads like gibberish. But, God's Word has both story line and theme, most prominently including 1.) the prophecy of the promised Seed, 2.) the holy line, beginning with Seth and culminating with Christ, and 3.) the "I will" promises to Abraham. The Bible also contains mysteries (best understood as God's invisible activities on our behalf) which have been 'hidden' in plain sight, but made clear by revelation from God's Holy Spirit. The spiritual cleansing and grafting in of the Gentiles, motivating Judah to jealousy and, ultimately, to repentance, is an example of one such mystery. Another mystery is the revealing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that is, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, attended by God's granting to those He calls the ability to understand the Gospel's message—God's reproducing Himself, creating the family of God.
John Ritenbaugh, focusing on Ephesians 1:13-23, reminds us that as God's Called- out ones, we are recipients of the promised seed made to Adam and Eve, the Holy Line, beginning with Seth leading through Noah, Abraham, Jacob, David, and Jesus Christ, the promises given to Abraham which include being a blessing to all nations. The Gentiles would be grafted in as spiritual descendants of Abraham, as was seen in Cornelius' household receiving the Holy Spirit in a similar fashion as on Pentecost. As we examine the obscure details of God's promises to Abraham, we see how He engineered the boundaries for all of Jacob's children, and later the migration patterns for physical Israel, literally filling up a virtually empty continent with people seeking religious liberty and improving their economic status from serf to landowner. Where the Israelitish people are right now came about as the result of God's blessings to Abraham's offspring, even though they did not prove faithful to the covenant. Though the United States was not established as a Christian nation, the Puritan forbears implanted a sense of morality and the founding Fathers established a legal system, based upon biblical ethical standards of British common law. The Protestant Reformation and the revolt against Roman Catholicism ignited the unsettling of Europe and the population of the North American continent. Desire for better economic circumstances motivated the completion of the migration to America. God has a purpose for where He has placed all peoples. In the fullness of time, the reason for the population distribution patterns of God will become clear as final preparations are made for the return of Jesus Christ.
John Ritenbaugh focuses upon God's management of mankind. God has consistently moved His creation toward its ultimate purpose, setting the bounds of nations, motivating rulers (Proverbs 12:1) to pursue a certain course of action, sometimes against their will. It is God's will that we submit to governmental authority (legal or illegal), obeying God, of course, rather than men (Acts 5:29) to the end that by doing good, we provide a good example, silencing the foolish accusations of men. God has chosen a tiny fragment of weak individuals, rescuing them from Satan's rebellious mindset (Ephesians 2:1-3) to fashion into obedient and submissive vessels of glory.
Through Acts 1-15, God (primarily through the work of Peter, Paul and James) has removed His work out of the Judaistic mold, creating the Israel of God (the church) designed to spread to the Gentiles. Though certain ceremonial and civil aspects of the law were (for a time) suspended, the Law of God was never suspended, especially as it relates to defilement of conscience or disregarding of scruples that could cause permanent spiritual damage or unwittingly place one in communion with demons. We must always conduct ourselves with the long —term spiritual interests of others paramount on our minds, being sensitive to conscience and scruples of others as we exercise our 'rights.'
After explaining the context in which Paul advocated going from house to house, John Ritenbaugh reiterates that Paul, who understands clearly that God alone calls (John 6:44), makes his initial contact with non-believers in public places (synagogue and forum), going later to private dwellings by invitation only. Chapter 15 focuses upon the Council of Jerusalem, discussing the controversial subject of circumcision and its relationship to salvation. Peter, speaking from his experience working among the Gentiles, realized that some aspects of the ceremonial laws (including circumcision) were not obligatory to Gentiles for salvation, but that the entire Law of God (given by Jesus Christ), far from done away, is to be kept in a more responsible spiritual sense (respecting the boundaries or constraints of conscience) by both Jews and Gentiles. It had become apparent to the apostles gathered at Jerusalem that God had made a parallel visitation and calling to the Gentiles as He had originally concluded with Israel. The new spiritual tabernacle (the Israel of God) would be composed of Gentiles as well as people of Israel.
John Ritenbaugh spends some time explaining the phenomena of lying wonders and visions (such as those seen at Lourdes and Fatima) predicted to become more frequent at the end times. This kind of spiritism involves the deceptive work of lying demons rather than disembodied "souls." In chapter 13, the first time Saul is called Paul, the false prophet Elymas is cursed with blindness, providing the witness prompting the Proconsul Sergius Paulus to become converted. It was Paul's custom to initially seek out the Jewish populations in Greek- populated Cyprus, attempting to connect their history, prophecies and tradition to Jesus Christ's Messiahship. Paul declares that Jesus Christ's death and resurrection did not occur in a vacuum, but attended with an overwhelming number of witnesses. Paul and Barnabus make the case that the sacrifice of Christ provides the justification which animal sacrifices could never accomplish. Paul's success with the crowds (both Jew and Gentile) inflamed the rulers of the synagogue with jealousy, leading to persecution and banishment.
John Ritenbaugh initially explores the work of Paul and Barnabas developing the church in the cosmopolitan city of Antioch, the location from where the term Christian originated. The twelfth chapter, an apparent flashback, focuses upon the execution of James (at the hands of mad Herod Agrippa), Peter's miraculous escape from prison followed by the dramatic death of Herod as a result of blasphemy, an episode showing the relationship between prayer and God's response. The episode also had the effect of driving Peter from Jerusalem. Chapter 13 begins a concentrated effort on the part of the Antioch church to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles through the efforts of Barnabas and Saul.
John Ritenbaugh explores the conversion of Cornelius, a Gentile. This event is nearly as pivotal a benchmark as the original Pentecost because the Gentiles at this point are given the same portal of salvation (repentance, belief in Christ, and receipt of God's Holy Spirit) originally offered to Israel. This portion of Acts highlights: (1) The church's initial resistance to Gentiles fellowshipping in the church, (2) God's leading the church into the right understanding of Gentile conversion, (3) God's using Peter (originally relatively rigid and unyielding in his scruples) instead of Paul (more cosmopolitan), and (4) Jerusalem's acceptance of Gentiles (originally considered ceremonially unclean from the Jewish point of view) apart from the influence of Judaism. Peter's vision about the unclean beasts is to be interpreted metaphorically or symbolically rather than literally: Gentiles are not to be regarded as impure or ceremonially unclean.
John Ritenbaugh reiterates that the martyrdom of Stephen, largely instigated by Hellenistic Jews, actually had the paradoxical dramatic effect of spreading the Gospel into Gentile venues, enabling individuals like Cornelius and the Ethiopian Eunuch, upon repentance, belief, and baptism to be added to the fellowship. Even more remarkable in this section of Acts was the miraculous dramatic conversion of the zealous learned Pharisee Saul (virtually handpicked by Jesus Christ and rigorously trained in Arabia for three years) into Paul the Apostle, fashioned (his intense zeal redirected or refocused) for great accomplishment as well as great suffering. Like Jeremiah and John the Baptist, the Apostle Paul was sanctified in his mother's womb, set apart for a specific purpose. At the conclusion of the chapter we find the account of the resurrection of Tabitha (or Dorcas) following Peter's fervent prayer.
John Ritenbaugh continues to reflect on Stephen's incendiary message to fellow Hellenistic Jews (ostensibly given in hopes of their repentance), chastising them for their perennial rejection of prophets and deliverers, including the greatest Deliverer ever sent (namely Jesus Christ), clinging instead superstitiously to the land, the law, and the temple. Stephen's 'untimely' martyrdom and his compassion on his persecutors, followed by the protest reaction against his brutal murder (all part of God's divine plan) resulted in a rapid spreading of the Gospel. The study then focuses upon the influence of Simon Magus, a noted practitioner of sorcery or magic who became impressed with the power of God's Holy Spirit, presumptuously offering Peter money to purchase this power for selfish purposes to control others rather than to serve them. Peter recognized the hypocritical, deceitful, impure motives of this request and responded appropriately.
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