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Rise and Walk November 16, 2013

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Economics, Philosophy and Religion.
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Silver and Gold

“Silver and gold, I have not…”

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “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!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (Acts 3:1-10 ESV)

We in the United States are the wealthiest country in the world. I guess. I’ve heard that all my life, and I admit I sometimes wonder what that means exactly. Our currency sets the global standard. Our GDP is the highest in the world (now rivaled by the EU). We have greater gold reserves than everyone else, and serious oil reserves. English is still somewhat a universal language of trade. Etc.

But so what?

I’m not against money in any way. I do understand that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. (See 1 Timothy 6:10) Money isn’t. Loving it is. I also understand that many things that tout their own greatness are not worth what they cost. Many of the things we can buy in life are like that toy you get so worked up over having, and are so excited about when you find it under the Christmas tree, but when you finally get it open and play with it for a months or weeks or even hours, it leaves you cold.

Things do that. Period. They cannot satisfy. Those who see and feel that reality might feel like it’s a curse, but that’s actually a blessing. If you feel like your stuff is doing it for you, that’s when you’re really in trouble.

So, back to the story… Peter and John were personal friends of Jesus. Followers. Disciples. Apostles. Jesus had gone into heaven, sent the Holy Spirit to anoint and activate them, and now they walked about in the power and Name of the Living God, Jesus Christ, whom they saw crucified, dead, buried, and then risen again in power. These were changed men.

LiliesThey had nothing. No jobs. No status. No real earthly treasure. I’m sure they owned little more than they carried around on their backs that day. They were probably even dirty. Certainly somewhat unkempt.

Walking into town that day, they met a man who was born lame. In our day, someone who can’t walk can still have a very fulfilling life, hold down a good job, own a home, and roll his wheelchair up ramps mandated by the government to make everything from grocery stores to office buildings accessible to him. Having legs that don’t work or no legs at all doesn’t necessarily translate into going hungry in our day. In Jesus’ day, it did.

So, Peter and John meet this man. He has nothing, and asks them for financial help. No doubt he would have bought a bit of bread or some other basic sustenance if they’d offered him a few coins. But the truth is, Peter and John likely had little more than he did, from a monetary point of view.

And this is where the story gets good.

Peter and John get the man’s attention. I’m sure he thought he was going to get some cash out of the deal, so he becomes very focused. Can you feel his dependence? His hanging on their every word?

But they surprise him: “I have no silver and gold…”

Can you feel his disappointment and deflation? His utter helplessness?

Then the real surprise: “But what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”

Now, can you imagine his amazement and utter joy?

None of these men had money, but Peter and John had something far greater: power. Jesus had promised it just a few chapters earlier (See Acts 1:8), and kept His word.

Sparrows“Rise and walk,” they said.

And he did!

Wow.

Do you think the man cared in that moment that they had no money? That he had no money? I doubt it. Something far more valuable was being freely given by the God who provides for our needs, if we’ll let Him.

Did the lame guy earn this gift from God? Not at all. In our day, we study and work and research and toil and educate and purchase insurance and build hospitals and pay deductibles. And we make the lame walk … sometimes. At least, the lame who can afford it. And there is a very real sense in which that too is a miracle. God uses doctors every day to heal the sick. But I wonder sometimes if there isn’t a bit of self-worship and idolatry in it. Like money, the power to heal isn’t bad at all, until it becomes the means by which we trust ourselves more than we trust God.

Now, tougher question… Did the crippled man only experience the miracle and the amazement because he first experienced the helplessness and dependence?

And that’s where I want to dwell for a second…

Thomas AquinasIt is said that, in the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas once visited Pope Innocent II while he was counting a large sum of money. The Pope proudly remarked to Aquinas, “You see, Thomas, the church can no longer say, ‘silver and gold have I none.'” And Aquinas replied, “True, holy father, but neither can she now say, ‘Rise and walk.'”

In our age of wealth and science and (perceived) knowledge and power and self-reliance, are we in God’s way? Are we deaf to His voice?

If Peter and John had been sporting expensive suits and fat wallets, on their way to the office that morning, then it would have been a great … good … helpful … what’s the right word? … nice … gesture to drop a couple alms in the lame man’s cup, right? Or maybe a coupon book for a local fast food place? Or a hot cup of coffee? That’s all great. And helpful. But in that version of the story, it’s also highly unlikely that they would (or is it more to the point: could they?) have offered the man a miracle. Can someone with a high-paying job and enough cash in their pocket to afford a great healthcare plan have the faith to allow God to miraculously heal them or use them to heal their neighbor? Can God work miracles in us when we’re that self-sufficient? I’m not sure.

What if we didn’t have the fat wallet, or the high-paying job, or the expensive suit? What if that all went away? What if the healthcare system goes to the dogs under a new government-run approach, or interest rates spike, or China has us for economic lunch, or the dollar collapses, or the next terrorist attack is worse than the last one, or whatever? What if all the stuff we thought was making us secure was suddenly gone?

Maybe then, God would do more miracles because I’d have more faith, borne out in desperate and dependent face-down prayer?

Maybe we’d read Luke 17:6 or Matthew 6:28-33, and actually believe them … taking Jesus at His word when He says our faith has real life-changing power and that if God takes care of sparrows and lilies, He will take care of us.

Maybe the church would act more like the church… sharing what we have, being a real part of each others’ lives, taking the time to care for one another, caring for the poor and needy, and loving our neighbors. You know, acting like Jesus.

And maybe more people would rise and walk.

If I do not wash you, you have no share with me November 15, 2013

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Philosophy and Religion.
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Basin and Towel

Basin and Towel

In the Bible, chapters 13-17 of the Gospel of John are entitled by scholars as “the upper room discourse”. The scene is Jesus’ last supper with the 12 disciples – His closest friends. This meal takes place the day before Jesus is nailed to the cross for the sins of the world … mere hours before He would be betrayed by Judas (one of His inner circle) and arrested.

The first half of John 13 (verses 1-20) is devoted to the story of Jesus’ washing the disciplines’ feet before supper. In the culture of the day, it was customary to do so. Back then, there were no Converse Allstars. No Timberlands. No Nikes. And no sidewalks or paved roads. No cars. Instead, the disciples no doubt walked around in open-toed sandals (if they had shoes at all) on dirt paths and roads, amid horses and oxen and donkeys and … all the stuff left behind by horses and oxen and donkeys. So, I suspect their feet were … um … disgusting. In that day, it was the horses that “just did it” … all over the “sidewalk”.

Reclining at the TableTo exacerbate the need for washing, tables and table setting were not the same either. In modern western culture, we are accustomed to high tables and chairs, which orient us upright at the table with our feet under it. If you come to supper tonight barefoot with dirty feet, your family might not even notice. However, in Jesus’ day, in their culture, the table was lower to the ground. You would essentially lie on the floor or on cushions, propped up by more cushions, and lean over the low table to eat. So, now my disgusting feet are way too close to the head of someone else “reclining” at the table. In that environment, there’s no way you’d want your Aunt Sally’s feet left unwashed for the meal.

So in one sense, Jesus’ act of service to wash the disciples’ feet is very practical. He’s preparing them for their meal together, and giving a radical demonstration of servant leadership in the process. John quotes Jesus as explaining this after he’s washed their feet… “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:13-17 ESV)

But as radical and exemplary and instructive as that was, it’s not my focus. Neither do I think it was Jesus’ only focus. Rather, back up a few verses, and observe Jesus while making His way around the table to wash His friends’ feet. Ostensibly, it was easy going until He got to Peter, who stopped him and objected to what he was doing. First of all, it’s always Peter, but we’ll come back to that. Secondly, it’s amazing no one else objected. I can imagine that the whole group was absolutely stunned that He was doing what He was doing. Maybe they were silent because they felt guilty that nobody had done it first. That would have been me (feeling guilty). Maybe they felt like one of them had failed in some aspect of preparation. Maybe someone was supposed to have a servant there. Maybe the servant was late. Maybe it was Matthew’s turn that night, and he dropped the ball. Who knows!? But I’m quite sure that what Jesus did was unexpected. So much so, that Peter reacts and creates a second teachable moment inside Jesus’ lesson about serving one another…

Peter gets a bad rap. I love Peter. He could never be accused of being lukewarm. (See Revelation 3:15-16) And I bet God loves that about him too. He’s broken and fallible, hot-headed and impetuous, overly eager, dramatically overestimates his abilities at times, and more … but … he’s definitely hot. I hear a lot of people in my world throw around phrases like “sold out” or “on fire for God”. Whenever they do, I think of Peter. If 10% of the people that boast that level of devotion to Jesus in our day were 10% as “on fire” as Peter was, our whole world would be different.

Getting back to the scene… Jesus is trying to wash His friends’ feet. He gets through a few of them, but Peter stops Him and objects. Jesus then used some pretty harsh and specific language in response to Peter’s objection: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8b) This is what I wanted to talk about. I contend that three things were going on…

I know best!

First, Peter had to humble himself and obey the Lord, even though it didn’t make sense to him. Peter thought he knew best, and Jesus was making clear to Peter (and to us) that in fact, Peter had no idea what he was talking about. What a great example / lesson for us:  Whether it makes sense to us or not, whether we understand why or not, whether the path is clear to us or not, whether it will cost us something or not… In all things, obey the Lord. If God says “jump”, we say “how high?”. Like we concluded above, it doesn’t work to tell God “no”. Period.

If you refuse God in that way, or interrupt what Jesus is doing to explain your superior wisdom to the God of the Universe, then in that moment you’re the God in your own heart, not Him. And in that position, you have no share with Him. You cannot serve two masters. (See Matthew 6:24) It’s His kingship or yours, but it can’t be both.

Me before you!

Secondly, in that moment, Peter was preaching a different gospel than Jesus was. Peter says, “You’ve come for us to serve you!” Jesus was saying, “I’ve come to serve you!” God is truly high and lifted up. Above all things. Majestic in beauty. All powerful. And we are absolutely created to serve Him! But that infinite and almighty God stepped into time to die a criminal’s death on the cross for us. He came to serve us. In the same way satan had a point in saying that Jesus could command all the nations to bow down to worship him (See Matthew 4:1-11), Peter was saying that Jesus should be served, not serve. There’s a truth in those things, but that doesn’t make them right. Peter didn’t realize it, but in that moment, he was singing satan’s song…  “Don’t worry about the cross or some lesson about us serving each other. You’re above that. Be worshiped! That’s what you were meant to do and be, right?” Satan wanted Jesus to put Himself first, and so did Peter. Me before you!

But Jesus’ unrelenting will was to fulfill the plan … the purpose for which He came to earth, and the vision He and the Father had together from the beginning. If Jesus had again said, “Get behind me, satan!” (Matthew 4:10a), it wouldn’t have been uncalled for. Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (See Philippians 2:3-8)

Wow.

Love is selective!

And lastly, Jesus was and is determined to sanctify those who follow Him. God desires that we would become more like His Son. The plan in Peter’s heart when he interrupted and tried to redirect Jesus was all about how Jesus was above washing Peter’s feet. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch, therefore, to assume that Peter too was above washing others’ feet. Maybe not everyone. He’d have jumped at the chance to wash Jesus’ feet, and probably been quick to wash the other disciples’ feet as well (although you’ll notice that neither he nor anyone else around the table beat Jesus to the punch on that). But what about beggars and lepers, tax collectors and sinners, adulterers and prostitutes, drug dealers and cruel overseers? What about gentiles or Samaritans? What about all the people in your life that you don’t particularly like or value or think much about? Who’s washing their feet?

Well, simply put, Jesus would. Would Peter? Would you?

And here’s the harsh truth: If we won’t wash their feet, then Jesus would say that we have no share with Him. You want to be like Jesus, Peter? Well, then you shouldn’t be thinking about thrones in heaven or streets of gold or Palm Sunday. Being like Jesus means thinking Good Friday … about being despised and rejected by men, being nailed to a cross, and washing the feet of those who would kill Him but whom He loves anyway. That night, Jesus washed Judas’ feet too.

So, do we “have a share with Him”?

If we do, then…

  1. God knows best. We say yes to God. No questions. With or without understanding. Even when it’s hard.
  2. You before me. We understand God’s true, servant nature. We do not stand between Him and the cross. And we love others the way Jesus loved us.
  3. Love one another. Even when they’re different or we don’t like them or it costs us a lot to do so, we serve them. They’re not beneath you, whoever “they” are.

Jesus’ lessons are hard. May God grant me (and you) the grace to even be the moon and reflect the brilliance of the light of His example! Glory to the Most High King! Amen.

Capernaum, Jesus’ Adult Home November 9, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Capernaum

After lunch, we back around to the northern end of the Sea of Galilee to visit Capernaum. One of the things I have definitely been finding disturbing is that every place Jesus did anything significant in Israel now has a church, gift shop, and parking lot built on top of or next to it. Their version of being respectful and keeping the site holy is to require everyone to cover their shoulders and knees when we visit the site, but I’d much rather they forewent building something on top of the site and selling Coke for $3 a can. But when it really turns my crank is when they offer little urns of dirt or bottles of water that’s supposedly blessed because it came from that site. Ugh. I don’t see Jesus being happy about all that.

But anyway… We visited the site of Capernaum. There’s nothing there now, but in Jesus’ day it was a thriving fishing village on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. Peter lived there before he was called to be an apostle, and it is probable that Jesus stayed in Peter’s home often, using it as a home base for his ministry in the Galilean region.

There is of course a church there, along with the ruins of ancient Canaanite temple, covered over by Jewish synagogues and pagan temples (read 1 and 2 Kings), covered over by a church (the Constantine era), covered by a masque (the Byzantine era), etc. So lots of layers and ruins and fun for archeologists. By the way, evidently Jesus did quite a few miracles in the synagogue that existed on this site in His day. Remember how Jesus condemned Capernaum in Matthew 11:23-24? “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

One thing I found interesting was that the new church built over the site of what was thought to be Peter’s home looked like the flying saucer from the movie Chicken Little. It has legs which suspend an octagonal spaceship-looking building over the archeological dig site. Weird. We later learned that the eight sides are significant because they represent the eight beatitudes with which Jesus opens the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5.

Fish Heads at Ein Gev November 9, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Food, Travel.
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After our detour in the Golan Heights, we headed south along the east side of the Sea of Galilee to a little port village of Ein Gev, maybe 2/3 of the way down the lake. This was a place that served “Peter’s fish”, we were told. We were also warned that it would be served the way Peter would have eaten it to. So, when I got there, I discovered what this meant… The default order at this restaurant was a whole tilapia. Head. Tail. Bones. The whole deal. Plus a bunch of sides and salads served family style. Of course, that included pita and humus. (What doesn’t in Israel?!) However, if you felt you couldn’t handle the “Peter Special”, then you could get the head and/or tail removed in the kitchen, or just get fillets (which would be frozen not fresh), or even order a burger or pizza if you really couldn’t take it.

My philosophy… When in Israel, do like Peter did. Plus, the Philippines had numbed my senses. So I’m the only person I know of that ordered the default. And it came out whole, starring at me, and soaked in oil. Normally I like Tilapia, but I’m used to eating it grilled with mango chutney (long live Bone Fish Grill). But if pita and humus comes with every meal in Israel, then oil comes with every dish served at every meal. Sometimes I’m surprised I don’t see people walking around drinking the olive oil out of a glass.

So, I was once again the party guy. Everyone wanted pictures of my whole fish. A guy at my table, pretended to bite the head off his already-decapitated fish for a classic picture pose. I couldn’t be left totally out in the cold without a clever picture, so even though it was a distant second, I posed for cameras kissing mine. Yes, the fish. We made a cute couple. Here’s a picture…

Kissing Peter's Fish ... before I ate it

After doing my traditionally poor job of cleaning the bones of my dinner and supplementing it with 3 massive pieces of pita slathered with humus, we were back on the road heading for Capernaum.

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads……..

Caesarea Philippi November 9, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Military, News, Politics and Culture, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Caesarea Philippi

From Tel Dan, we headed east just a few miles to Caesarea Philippi – founded by Philip, one of the three sons of Herod the Great during the time Jesus walked the earth. Since then, it has been renamed Banius (after the Greek god “Pan”, but there was no “P” in the (I think it was) Arabic language, so they changed it to “B”).

Just outside Caesarea Philippi is the site of the second fountainhead of the Jordan river. A large rock face exists halfway up Mount Hermon, in the northern region of the Golan Heights. There, out of a large cave/opening in the rock face, flows a fresh water stream which feeds the Jordan. Beneath this cave is the largest underground fresh water reservoir in all of Israel. Yet again a good reason to not want to surrender this strategic territory.

Philip, being a fan of multitheism and Pan in particular (can’t remember what he’s a god of), also wanted to create a multi-cultural temple of sorts with a place for all manner of foreign gods. So, even today, if you visit the base of the rock face near Caesarea Philippi, you can see indentations in the rock wall. In Jesus’ day, each would have been home to a bust or figurine or other statue representing a false god. At one point during his ministry, Jesus took his disciples on a 30+ mile trip from Capernaum (home base to him for much of his ministry life) to Caesarea Philippi to teach them at the base of this cliff.

You can read about it in Matthew 16. Jesus walked boldly into one of the very centers of paganism at the time, and boldly asked the disciples who they thought He was. Peter answered correctly that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

While we were there, James taught on this passage in a powerful way, calling us to make the decision who Jesus is in our lives and then live like it. It was his first time he was with us as a group, having arrived late the night before from speaking at a marriage conference in California. Lindsay McCaul was also there leading worship, which I greatly enjoyed. I felt like I was one of the few in the audience who was also a musical leader, so I was helping to guide the group from within the audience. Especially since Lindsay didn’t have a mic.

The experience at Caesarea Philippi really was a powerful and interesting one. In fact it was James’ description of this setting and the impact it had on him when he came to Israel the first time last year that first got me thinking about wanting to go to Israel myself. If only Faith were with me.

Caesarea by the Sea November 8, 2009

Posted by Jeff Block in Bible Stories, Philosophy and Religion, Travel.
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Caesarea by the Sea

During his reign as a governor in the Roman empire, Herod the Great turned Caesarea from a simple fishing village into a large, prosperous sea port. He was called “the Great Builder” by some, because he undertook amazing construction projects in this Mediterranean port city. Strategically positioned on the Via Mares (the way of the sea) — the major commerce highway of the ancient world connecting Africa, Europe and Asia; an intercontinental bridge — Caesarea became a booming center of commerce.

Herod built a palace there — where Paul was imprisoned after standing before Felix and Aggripa in Acts 24 and 25. We toured the ruins of this palace, which jutted out into the sea, seeing among other things the in-ground stone swimming pool he’d built in the residence area of the palace. We sat in the theater where Paul likely presented his testimony before Roman officials. We saw the Hippodrome, where horse races and gladiator matches took place. We saw where Herod built a temple using the latest in Roman technology in arch building (this was right after they invented the keystone, which was the secret of the strength of the Roman arch). And we saw the site of the roman bath houses built by Herod. And we saw the site of the great water break and harbor Herod built, using cement for the first time in history.

And of course we saw the ruins of a great aqueduct that stretched 10-15 miles from a fresh water source north of Caesarea down to the city. I’ve always heard that the aqueduct is one of the wonders of the ancient world, but seeing it up-close really confirmed that for me. Amazing!

After Jerusalem was destroyed in the 1st century AD, Caesarea became the capital of Israel. When Constantine “christianized” the roman empire in the 4th century, the Christians put an end to the theater and the games (races, gladiator battles, etc), and built churches in or on top of the amphitheaters. When the Muslims invaded in the 7th century, it was more of a cultural takeover, so (at least in Caesarea) there wasn’t much destruction of the existing buildings / architecture. And the crusades in the 12th and 13th century didn’t really change enough to worry about.

However, when Israel was reborn as a nation in 1948, Caesarea was covered in sand. Most of the ruins we saw today were uncovered and carefully excavated by the Jews after their nation was restored to them.

Another interesting note: the second largest library in the ancient world was in Caesarea. While the museum in Alexandria, Egypt was destroyed, the one in Israel survived and thrived during the Constantine era, helping to support Christianity as it spread throughout the known world. Very interesting!

But the most interesting thing about Caesarea for me was the rest of the story of Peter and Cornelius…

As a Roman centurion, Cornelius was the commander of 100 Roman soldiers (from the Latin, 100 = century). This was a very prestigious position. When Peter got to his home, he found that Cornelius had “called together his relatives and close friends”. According to our guide, this likely meant that he had gathered his family, friends, the 100 men who served under him, and their families. They would almost all have been gentiles.

When Peter entered the room, he immediately realized that these were not people with whom he should be socializing. But when Cornelius shared the vision he had had from God, Peter realized that his vision about unclean foods had really been about the gentiles. God had said, “Do not call unclean what the Lord has called clean.” So, Peter shared the gospel with them, and hundreds (ostensibly) came to a saving faith in Christ. And the movement to take the gospel to the entire world was born.

The most amazing aspect of this story is the global significance of this event. This was the last of 3 events that changed the world forever in terms of the spread of the gospel. First, Philip was sent by God to share the gospel with the Ethiopian Eunuch on the Gaza road in Acts 8. The Eunuch, a descendent of Noah’s first son Dan, believes in Christ and is saved.

In Acts 9, Saul is confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus. Ananias faithfully preaches the gospel to him, the scales fall from his eyes (both literally and figuratively), and Saul becomes the mighty apostle Paul. Saul was a descendant of Shem, Noah’s second son.

And lastly we have Cornelius, who is a descendant of Noah’s third and last son, Japhath. In Acts 10, he too receives Christ as a result of Peter’s faithfulness. So, in three chapters of Acts we see the gospel spread to every tribe of the whole world. Amazing!

Every gentile Christian can trace his roots to one of these three events.

In addition to learning a lot of history about Israel and this place, as well as connecting it to the Bible, Gary Frazier, the Director of Discovery Ministries, our tour company, spoke to us to welcome us to Israel and orient us about the trip. He talked about how Paul – an impressively scholarly man – could have spoken on anything before Felix and Aggripa, but instead he chose simply to share his testimony, and bear witness to what God had done in his life. Read the story yourself in Acts to see. Gary emphasized how this is true of us as Christians in the 21st century as well. His point was basically that we shouldn’t try to be impressive or smart, but rather should simply share with others the love of Christ – both in our actions and in the words of our testimony, when we point others to what God has done for us. He then shared his story with us, prayed over us, and sent us out into our tour with the admonition to be focused less on buildings, history and architecture, and more on what God is doing in our lives.

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