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Connecting dots . . . wrongly

In my Acts of the Apostles course, one of the projects the students are required to complete is the Personal Application Paper, which requires the student to catalog twenty principles they have discovered in their study of the book of Acts. They are then required to formulate a plan to apply each of the principles to their lives.

An example of how this project works follows:

PRINCIPLE: Everything isn’t as it immediately seems, therefore, don’t draw definite conclusions hastily.

TEXT: Acts 28:3–6

BACKGROUND: En route to Rome according to his appeal to Caesar, Paul survived a treacherous voyage at sea and landed at Malta, battered but alive. Paul was among 276 survivors who were welcomed by the local residents. However, he was a prisoner, which apparently communicated certain things about him to his hosts; namely, that he was somehow shortchanging justice by surviving the shipwreck. This conclusion regarding their assumptions is based on what his hosts said in response to Paul being bitten on the hand by a viper,

“No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” – Acts 28:4 ESV

In the minds of those who were watching Paul, certain things were obvious: a) He was a prisoner who was guilty, likely of murder; b) he deserved punishment, though somehow he had apparently dodged it by surviving the shipwreck; and c) Justice (or fate) had finally caught up to him by way of the viper.

The dots were connecting very nicely . . . until Paul simply shook free of the viper and suffered no ill effects (28:5). However, being certain that “a” leads to “b” leads to “c”, their confidence was only slightly halted by the delay in any obvious effects of the snake bite. Because these dots were so easy to connect, they could wait expectantly for Paul “to swell up or suddenly fall down dead” (28:6). But, after waiting a long time and having none of their expectations realized, they had to reconsider their conclusions regarding Paul.

This time, though, things were more clear: a) a man who survives a stormy sea and shipwreck, b) which is immediately followed by a deadly snakebite that has no ill effect, c) is clearly “a god” (28:6). Paul must be a god. Yes, that has to be it; those dots connect very nicely! Or, . . . perhaps, there is still a better – more correct – explanation.

POINT: Sometimes, things aren’t what they seem . . . even when they seem so obvious or clear. For those of us who believe we can read people well, this is a difficult thing to accept. Better yet, it’s difficult to practice patience. And this lack of patience can be particularly harmful (to us and others) when we begin to assign motive for their actions. Here’s the truth: sometimes people do things for reasons that appear very obvious, but in reality, are for very different reasons or for no real reason at all. Sometimes we do dumb things or do things badly, just because we are people.

“Why did you throw a rock through Mrs. Jones’ barn window?” the teenager’s mother angrily enquired. “It’s because she told us she saw you smoking at the back of her property; it’s payback, isn’t it?” his dad accusingly interrupted, conveniently wrapping up the mystery. “No! I didn’t even think about whose window it was. I don’t know why I did it; Joe and I were walking behind her barn and we saw some rocks and a dusty old window, and without really thinking we thought, ‘let’s see who can hit the window.’ He threw first and missed. Unfortunately, I won; I hit it on my first try,” the teen explained.

In the fictional conversation above, the dots connected very easily for the teen’s parents: a) They knew their son, b) Mrs. Jones had reported his smoking, and c) that report obviously led to retaliation. Or did it? In reality – as much as a fictional story can portray reality – their son broke the window because: a) he is a teenage boy in the company of another teenage boy, b) with access to rocks and an old window, and c) it seemed like fun to see who could break the glass. Pretty simple. Pretty reasonable, … if you know teenage boys who have access to rocks and old windows.

But, if the glass is still broken, what difference does it make if it was broken for revenge or the result of a poor decision? It makes all the difference in the world in terms of how the matter should be handled. In this case, revenge is a matter of the heart; a poor decision is a matter of maturity. Furthermore, the revenge angle wrongly assigns evil intent to the teen, which unfairly harms his reputation and the relationship between him and his parents.

APPLICATION: I will endeavor to be slower and more considered (i.e., investigative) in connecting dots, particularly when the dots lead to negative conclusions about others based on their actions. Proverbs 18:17 offers wisdom to this end:

“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”

 

On the Day of Pentecost . . .

Acts 2 NIV

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:” ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.

I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'”Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:” ‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” ‘

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

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