If We Make Too Much of A Name Change, What Else Do We Do?

The last thing his mother told him was to “be careful”.  She didn’t want him to go to Damascus.  Damascus wasn’t the kind of place one wanted to stay overnight.  Despite her advice, Saul left, the world went black, and now he’d come through the other side.  Up was down, right was left, and the mad hatter was serving tea to Jesus’ disciples in Antioch; among them Saul from Tarsus.  If this was Wonderland, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay.

We know how Saul arrived in Antioch.  There was a horse, fishy scales on his eyes, and a bucket somewhere along the way.  I’m not certain he believed the story of his own journey.  The transition from mean guy to missionary was so radical and rapid the adjustment couldn’t have been easy.  Within days of his conversion he found himself coming clean, like an addict hitting rock bottom.  There were no more secrets. Saul told all the stories he knew.  There were no gifts of immunity.  For the first time in his life, he acknowledged his life was unmanageable.  The higher power he thought the he knew wasn’t real. What was the value of living a life of guilt when you’d heard the voice of God?  It was time to turn his life around.  People looked at him differently now when he told when they told he’d heard God.  Sure, they’d claimed to seen the risen Jesus but he was the crazy one for hearing voices.

Saul was paired with a man named Barnabas for his first preaching mission.  After a time of fasting and prayer, Barnabas and Saul were sent to the island of Cyprus.  Lying just off the coast of Lebanon in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus has always been a hub for commerce between the east and west.  Jewish synagogues were well established in the major cities of the island.  As became his practice for most of his ministry, Saul contacted Jewish leaders and began to preach using the network he knew best.  Early on, we see the Roman authorities develop a curiosity about Saul’s message and ministry.  The local Roman administration will either be outright hostile or willing to give a hearing to visiting missionaries.  In Cyprus, there are “magicians” who see Saul and Barnabas as threats to their economic well being.  It’s hard for them to differentiate between their work and the message of the Gospel.  While trivial to our ears, this was a major problem for the early Church.  This means the local religious power structures with an economic self interest would try to turn the Romans against Barnabas and Saul.  This is going to be a way of life for Saul until he’s arrested and taken to Rome.

In the midst of this conflict of trying to find a way to preach to the Roman proconsul, something amazing occurs.  If you blink, you’ll miss it.  It’s in Acts 13:9, right after Paul has gone one on one with a “magician”.  Here’s the verse, “But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit.” Did you get that?  It’s the first time Saul is ever referred to as Paul!  From there on out, Saul is Paul.  Now why is this significant?  Because you probably thought, were taught, or believed that it has something to do with Paul have a new identity after his conversion to following Jesus.  Perhaps you think Jesus told him his new name was to be Paul.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  It just happened.  He was always known as Paul and Saul and one day, in the midst of Acts 13, for no theological or religious reason in particular reason at all, he starts using his other name.

For some reason, somebody made up a story, years ago, that most Christians believe is true; a story that’s clearly not true.  To realize how untrue the story is, one only need to read the Bible.  It’s a story that’s no truer than Paul’s mother telling him to be careful on his way to Damascus.

Yes, Paul changed his name.  It’s not the big religious deal you’ve been led to believe.  It’s the story of a simple name change to which we’ve attached deep theological significance.  Are there other things we’ve taken out of context from the Bible and made into untrue truths that we keep passing down?  Yes.  Are these alternative facts hurting Christianity?  Yes. Are we talking about the Bible without reading it (especially Jesus’ words)?  Yes.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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So How Many People Attended the Feeding of the 5000?

inauguration_crowd_size_comparison_between_trump_2017_and_obama_2009

Somebody was counting.  I don’t know who counted or what motivated them to start.  However, somewhere along the way, it was important to the gospel writers to remember how many people were following Jesus.  Numbers of people weren’t important to Jesus.  We do not have accounts of Christ-led staff meetings in which PowerPoint presentations were given on numbers of people healed, fed, and converted.  Nor do we see Jesus make any attempt to create statistical projections for the growth of his movement.  Crowd size appears irrelevant to Jesus.  Yet, at some point, the crowd size begins to appear in the text.  Someone wanted to make numbers of people an issue.  After all, who wouldn’t be impressed by a man who could easily draw 5,000 people in 1st century Galilee?

It’s the only miracle, apart from the resurrection, found in all four gospels.  To a literalist, that’s proof, the event occurred:  five thousand people were fed with five loaves of bread and two pieces of fish.  You don’t get that kind of scriptural conformity without something having along those lines having happened.  Who can deny the testimony of five thousand witnesses that were fed by Jesus?   Do large numbers not add credibility to Jesus’ movement and message?

Five thousand is an awfully large number.  Why not ten, twenty thousand or a million?   If Jesus’ message and ministry is judged on the number of people he miraculously feeds on any single occasion, pick the largest possible number.  This is what the gospel writers have done.  By placing undue emphasis on the size of the crowds the gospel writers have missed the point of the miracle and turned Jesus into a circus act.  Jesus, the charismatic caterer who works miracles with bread crumbs and fish to feed thousands:  this is how we normally talk about a passage built on a “numbers are beautiful” premise.

What is the point of this widely attested miracle?  I believe it’s a testimony to Jesus’ ability to take the smallest resources, what others consider scraps, and use those to feed individuals who’ve come up short on compassion and love.  In Mark’s retelling of the feeding, he writes, “As he (Jesus) went ashore he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  People are not fed in groups of 5000; they are served one at a time.  To Jesus, each person matters.  Individual lives are precious and cannot be lumped together in manmade categories: saved or unsaved, those to feed and those who remain hungry, or lost and found.

The disciples seemed to care about the headcount.  Jesus, he wanted to make sure the last person got fed.  There is a huge difference.

Food for Thought-5 Ways to Stay Cool When You’re in a Heated Argument

Soccer Referee Showing a Player the Red Card

1.  Ask the other person to explain why they believe what they believe.

2.  Evaluate how well they can make those explanations.  Simply listen.  Understand that someone’s thought may be evolving right before your eyes.  As the other person explains what they believe, if there are inconsistencies in their views, they are more likely to moderate their positions as they try to verbalize their beliefs.  This process is much harder to realize if you’re still trying to speak.  Ask, listen, then respond.

3.  Determine if the explanations you are hearing are opinions, assumptions, or facts.  This can also be done without speaking.

4.  When you do speak, refocus and re-frame the discussion on the facts.  Focus only on the facts and what is true.

5.  Be gracious to those with whom you disagree.