1) Every day will be a new devotional. I have enough devotionals for every day for three years
2) Also as I can, I'll be posting on my new political blog (see bottom of page).
Some other housecleaning:
A) If you'd like to just get new postings sent to your email, just submit your address in the box on the left just below. There's just one possible downside, though. Occasionally I'll add a music video at the end that's relevant to the devotional, and you won't get them in the email sent to you. If I add a video though, I'll make sure to mention in the posting, so you'll know to come to the site to see it if you'd like.
B) I actually finished writing new blog posting for the TAWG at the end of 2016. So what I'm doing now is at the beginning of every month, I'll move the earliest month from 3 years ago ahead so that a "new" posting appears every day. That's why you won't find any postings for January 2014, for example.
C) When I started this Blog, I was using the 1984 edition of the NIV, and that’s what I linked to on the Biblegateway site. However, in 2011 Zondervan updated its edition and thus reworded a lot of the NIV translation. Therefore, all the links which went to the 1984 edition now redirect to the 2011 edition, which often has slightly different wording. Thus, part of my editing process has been to update my Scripture quotes in my postings. But I might have missed some, in which case you might see my quote in the posting as a little different from what comes up when you click on my citation link, since that redirects to the 2011 edition on the Biblegateway site. It's a good thing that we realize that the work of translation never ends, but it can be a kind of a pain on a site like this. If you see any difference in verbiage between my quote and what shows up as a link on the Biblegateway site, or if you hover over a link and it has "NIV1984" at the end of it, please notify me and I'll correct it.
D) I can't believe I have to say this, but here goes. At the end of every posting is a suggested short prayer that has to do with what we discussed. This is actually what I've prayed when I finished writing it. In no way am I asking you to pray the exact verbiage of my suggested prayer. It's just a springboard for your own prayer, nothing more. Quite frankly, I've never been a fan of praying rote prayers written by someone else. As with everything else I do here, to the degree it helps, great; to the degree it doesn't, chunk it.
As always, thank you so much for reading, even if it's to read one post. God bless.
For some years now, I’ve felt God’s call on my life to cross-cultural international missions. So what does that mean? If you’ve been involved in Evangelical circles, then you might have heard the term.
There’s actually a little bit of controversy concerning the concept. One of my favorite singers of all time is Keith Green. If you’ve never heard of him, then here’s his Wiki page. I hold him in such high respect it’s not even funny. Near the end of his life (just before he was killed in a plane crash), he took up the cause of international missions. He questioned the conventional understanding of missions as something that you need to be “called” into. His famous line about this: “Jesus commands us to go; it should be the exception if we stay.”
The man did have a point. Some of our Lord’s last words before he returned to the Father was the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This is not limited to a small segment of the Church who’s been called into it. If you’re a believer in Christ, then you've been called to this.
My friend, I wish more believers made the error of being too zealous for missions. I wish we had problems like that. However, I do have to slightly disagree slightly with his interpretation. Today’s reading is the quintessential passage on a calling to missions. And it isn’t something we just see in the book of Acts. Paul uses the phrase “apostle to the Gentiles” or some equivalent multiple times in his epistles.
So what do we mean by this term? What do we mean when we say that someone is “called” into missions? It’s usually defined this way: There are lots of people groups who have little to no exposure to the Good News, at least in a way they can understand and relate to. In order for that group to be evangelized, there have to be believers who can cross cultural lines to reach them. This takes a certain set of talents, skills, and spiritual gifts. Not everyone is gifted in this way.
I look at this issue similarly to evangelism. The gift of evangelism is something which is given to some (not all) believers. They have special abilities to present the Good News in an appealing way to a lost world. Of course the most prominent modern example is Billy Graham, but there are others rising to take his place.
But just because some have the gift of evangelism, does that mean the rest of us don’t have to worry about it? Um, no. Read the passage in the preceding paragraph that mentions the gift of evangelism, and you’ll see their main job is to equip us to evangelize. Every believer is called to be ready to share the Good News with those around them. This might just entail testifying to others about what Christ has done for you.
It’s a similar situation with missions. The Great Commission is for all of us. But some are called to cross cultural lines to bring the Good News to groups of people who don’t have it. If you don’t have that gift, are you off the hook? Of course not. You can support that work through your money, encouragement, and especially prayers. Yes, I do believe that’s more important than money.
Lord Jesus, where do you want me to go? What do you want me to do? Wherever and whatever, the answer’s “yes.”
What type of attitude should Christians have towards the world? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? There’s a case to be made for both sides. Our Father is Lord over all. There’s not a molecule in the universe which is not under his authority. He claims all, and owns all. When bad things happen they do so because they fit into his plan. As I’ve noted before--citing the cases of Joseph, Moses, and of course the Passion of our Lord--God doesn’t just accomplish his plans in spite of the Enemy’s best efforts. He accomplishes them because of the Enemy’s best efforts.
But there’s a dark side to knowledge of the world as well. John tells us that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” Anyone who needs convincing of the doctrine of human sinfulness only needs to pick up a newspaper—sorry, I’m showing my age: They only need to read a news feed off the Net.
When I read today’s passage, I have mixed feelings. First off, we need to acknowledge that today’s story is not typical. Unfortunately, most bloody dictators die of old age rather than direct divine intervention like this.
But incidents like this do happen, and some tyrants fall violently, even if by human hands rather than by invisible ones. Hitler is the obvious example. You can also read about some of them in the books of Kings and Chronicles.
Do I wish that God intervened more directly in human affairs? Part of me does. I read about human rights violations in places like Iran or Saudi Arabia or North Korea or China. I know that there are siblings in Christ right now who are being imprisoned and tortured. I know that there are plenty of blasphemers and false teachers and opponents of the Good News who are leading people astray.
But there’s another part of me that wants him to hold off. Why? For the same reason that Scripture gives. Why doesn’t the Lord just step in give people what they deserve? “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Every moment that he withholds judgment is a chance to for you to repent.
For the time being, he’s working behind the scenes. He usually doesn’t operate out in the open like he did during the Exodus or the time of Joshua. He works through his Church to plead with people to receive his Son before he finally decides to step in.
But every once in a while he gives all of us a little reminder like he does here. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Herod endured horrible pain for five days before he died. Yes, Herod died because he didn’t give glory to God. But he also stands as a neon sign to each one of us: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Another lesson we can learn from this is found in vs. 24: “But the word of God continued to increase and spread.” Herod murdered James at the beginning of chapter 12. He could imprison the messengers all he wanted. But eventually he died, and the Message continued to spread. The enemies of the truth come and go. They strike the Bride over and over. But the word of God continues to increase and spread.
So when you see injustice in the world and the Church being struck, take heart. Our Father really is in charge, and he really does know what he’s doing.
Father God, I trust you. I praise you that all of your enemies will one day be destroyed. But I also thank you that you prefer to destroy your enemies by turning them into your beloved children. I can certainly testify to that.
I’m sorry, but titles are not my strong suit. In fact, when it comes to writing or speaking, they’re usually the weakest part of my presentation. “Honestly, Keith, you couldn’t come up with anything better than a rehash of a title you used two days ago? Really?” Yes, really.
It might surprise you to learn that the main lesson I pull from this is not the miracle, or maybe not. I’ve tried to make the point over and over and over that the miracles we see in the book of Acts are not how he usually works. I’m sorry, it just isn't. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s a statistical fact that of all the Christians throughout history who’ve been imprisoned for their faith, more ended up like James than like Peter. Does he still perform miracles today? Absolutely. Can he still perform miracles today? Absolutely. Does he still perform unambiguous miracles today in the same frequency like he did back in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry or during the time of the apostles? No, he doesn't.
Having said that, I'm going to seem to turn right around and contradict it, but I don't think so. He's capable of doing whatever he wants. In his providence, however, he usually chooses to work behind the scenes in order to accomplish his plan. When we come to him in prayer, though, we should always come in a spirit of expectation that he's going to either do what we ask or something far far better.
Let me illustrate with a classic story about prayer and expectation. If you’re already heard it, I apologize. A rural community was experiencing a devastating drought. The crops were burning in the fields, the animals were collapsing and dying from thirst, and there seemed nothing anyone could do.
So the pastor of the local church called for a meeting to pray for rain. The congregation gathered in the sanctuary and eagerly awaited the pastor to start the ceremony. He stood in front of the assembly and with a loud voice called for everyone’s attention. His next words shocked them to their core: “All right everyone, I’m calling for this meeting to be canceled!! All of you might as well get out of here right now and go on home! You couldn’t pay me enough to stand in front of you and pray for rain! Why am I doing this? Because not one of you brought an umbrella!!!”
That’s a great modern illustration of what we see here. Peter was arrested and cast into prison. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to guess the outcome of his upcoming trial before Herod: He undoubtedly faced the same fate as James. But against all hope, an angel came in the middle of the night and transported Peter to freedom. Understandably he wanted to see the rest of the believers and show them the good news. He showed up at the door of Mary (not the mother of Jesus, but probably a relative of Peter's) and knocked.
What happened next actually is pretty funny, but there’s a serious point behind it. The servant girl who answered shut the door in his face and raced back to her siblings who were at that moment likely were praying for Peter’s release. What was their reaction? “It’s his angel!”
This was in line with a Jewish tradition that a person’s “guardian angel” took on a resemblance to the one being protected.
Um, no. It was Peter himself. God had graciously decided to answer their prayers not just in a positive way but in a miraculous way. And they were praying in a half-hearted way that didn’t really believe that the Lord would really do what they were asking.
I think the application is pretty obvious, don’t you? No, he’s not some genie that you get wishes from when you rub his lamp the right way. He’s Almighty God. But when you ask, ask big and expect great things. He's entirely capable of surprising you.
Father God, how often are my prayers small? How often is my vision of you so small and insulting? Enlarge them, please.
We’re going to skip chapter 11 because mostly it’s Peter telling the church at Jerusalem what happened in regards to Cornelius. I’ve beaten the whole “church at Jerusalem was prejudiced against Gentiles” motif to death, so I’ll let it rest for now.
Herod (not the same guy who killed John the Baptist) was on thin ice with Rome. He needed to curry favor with the Jews, so obviously the solution was to crack down on Christians. This leads into a grand miracle and angelic visit as described in the rest of the chapter, and which we’ll look at tomorrow.
But for today I’d like to use this as a springboard for some tough questions. Have you heard the story about the woman and the angels? There are several versions of it on the internet, and it’s gained the status of urban myth. It goes something like this: A woman, against her better judgment, walks home at night in a rough section of town. She prayed that God would protect her. She notices some bad-looking characters following her, but they keep their distance the whole time. After a while they go their separate ways. She reads the newspaper the next day and discovers that the gang members found another woman and raped her. She goes to the police station and asks them why they didn’t attack her. “Are you crazy lady?! You had those big bruisers walking next to you the whole time!!!”
You’re supposed to read that story, get chills up your spine, and go “Ooooooooohh!! God’s angels are protecting me.” OK, let’s assume for a moment that the story actually happened (and I have to point out that we're never given any name or details to check). What about the girl who was raped that night? Did she not pray hard enough? Did God just not care about her as much? Why was she brutalized and the first girl was spared?
I think of that story every time I read this chapter or think about today’s narrative. We read chapter 12 and think “Wow, what an incredible miracle!” An angel comes down and releases Peter from the prison. His chains fall off, the doors open for him, and the guards for some reason don’t respond to what’s going on.
What about James? Where was his angel?
That’s what we call the mystery of Providence. God in his wisdom allows bad things to happen to some of his children, and some of them he spares. Why some and not others? There’s a train wreck and some die and some live. A burglar picks one house to enter and tragedy ensues. Why that house and not mine? I’ve lost some friends to cancer. Why them and not me?
We don’t know. I don’t know.
But here are some things I do know:
1) God is perfectly capable of protecting us. He could easily prevent every scraped knee and every paper cut. When someone endures tragedy, he could've prevented it.
2) Let’s face it. Most of the time, there’s not an angel sent to rescue me when I’m in trouble. Of all the Christians who’ve been jailed for their faith throughout history, a lot more of them ended up like James than like Peter. When God does intervene (and I believe he does), it’s usually behind the scenes instead of openly like in chapter 12.
3) As far as tragedy is concerned, neither I nor anyone else deserve anything but judgment from him. If I undergo horrible experiences as a believer, it's not because of what I deserve. As a believer, he deals with me according to his perfect plan and what I need, not what I deserve.
4) He knows what he’s doing. If something terrible happens, then my Father is allowing it for a reason. It might be related to sin in my life, but it may not. Job’s a perfect example where it was emphatically not the case.
Why am I bringing this up? Is this my annual “Depress my readers day”? Of course not. But when we read the book of Acts, we need to keep in mind that most of the time our Father doesn’t act like he did for Peter. Good people die every day in horrible circumstances. Church tradition says that Peter was finally killed by being crucified upside-down.
But our Father knows what he’s doing. The tragedy that we encounter and hear about is not the end of the story. I promise you this: One minute after the sword left his body, James wasn’t complaining.
Father, it’s so hard sometimes to make it through tough times when I don’t know what the heck you’re doing. But you're in charge, and you know what you’re doing, and you’re good. I believe it, and I’ve seen it personally. Please help me to remember that.
So now we finally get to the big meeting between the great apostle and Cornelius. I hope you won’t think I’m being irreverent when I make this comparison, but it’s almost like God was the matchmaker between the two. The Lord told Cornelius exactly where to go to get what he needed, and the same God sent a not-so-subtle message to Peter that his prejudices had to be abandoned completely. All his life Peter had been told that Gentiles were evil, depraved idol-worshippers who all had a spot in Hell reserved for them. His willingness to stay at a tanner’s house reflected a slight loosening of his traditional Jewish upbringing, but his Savior planned to turn that early-spring thaw into a bright summer day. And just to make sure he got the message, the Lord sent the vision three times just as Cornelius’s men were knocking at the front door.
So Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house with the entourage, and the apostle made a wonderful statement: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” Oh, really Pete?! Ya think?! How long did it take you to reach that conclusion? OK, I’m going to stop bringing up Peter’s and the early church’s recalcitrance in actually obeying the Great Commission. The point of this is not to bash anyone, especially an apostle. The point is to sound a word of warning: If this could happen to an apostle of the Lord Jesus, then how can we assume we’re immune from our own biases?
I’m not going to get too much into the sermon. It’s a great sermon, but none of it is really anything you haven’t heard before. However, there’s one thing I’d like to point out. Do you see a major difference between this sermon and his first one on Pentecost? Well, for one thing, there’s a lot less Old Testament Scripture being cited in this one. Peter was all over the O.T. in his first sermon: He referenced the prophet Joel, and two Psalms of David. We’ll get into this a lot more when we get to Paul’s speech in Athens, but I’d like to touch on it here. When Peter was addressing a Jewish audience who knew and cared about the Old Testament Scriptures (they would just call them the Scripture), he cited a lot from that resource. When he was addressing a Gentile audience who had some regard for it (Cornelius was obviously a God-fearer), he cited it a little. When Paul addressed a Gentile audience who didn’t know or care what Moses or David or the prophets had to say, he didn’t bring them up.
When you’re sharing the Good News of Christ with someone, it pays to know your audience and tailor it to them. This has nothing to do with compromising the truth of the Message. It does mean you approach it differently and present it in a different “package.” As I said, we’ll get into that more at a later time.
And what a result! I have a term for things like this: a “Cadillac problem.” You know, if you had a mechanical problem with your Cadillac and tried to complain about it. It’s a problem you love to have, like not having enough chairs at church or having so much money you don’t know where to spend it all. Peter’s problem was that he didn’t even get to finish his sermon! He got to the part about faith in Christ bringing forgiveness of sin, and apparently that was enough!
While he was still speaking the Holy Spirit came down and visibly manifested his power and grace and the fact that these Gentiles were just as much saved and in the Kingdom as Peter or anyone else. The Spirit decided to duplicate an aspect of Pentecost (the speaking in tongues) to make it abundantly clear that here there was no longer any division between Jew and Gentile. And the amazing thing? Peter was surprised by his success! He and his companions were shocked by all this!
So when I’m doing things God’s way, things turn out better than we ever hoped. Hmmmmmmm. Do you see a pattern here?
Lord Jesus, if there’s any pride in my heart, any lingering notion that I’m better than someone else, root it out. If there’s any idea that I deserve anything good from you any more than anyone else in the world, please root it out. In any heart where you’re the Boss, there’s no room for any of that nonsense. By your grace, we’re going to clean house.
So the Lord sent his angel on a special trip to Cornelius’s house just to tell him whom to contact. The angel was forbidden to tell the man how to get saved, even while he was standing right there. For some mysterious reason, our Lord in his wisdom has chosen frail human vessels to carry the infinitely precious Message the world needs to hear.
Peter was on the roof of Simon’s house praying (which was commonly used for that purpose) when he saw a supernatural vision of his own. A sheet came down out of heaven and it held all sorts of animals on it, some of which were forbidden to be eaten under the Old Covenant law. Peter was hungry, so a Voice from heaven told him to go ahead and kill what was in front of him and eat it. Being a faithful Jew, of course, Peter refused.
Now the interesting thing is that some Bible teachers present the idea that this passage removes the distinction between clean and unclean food. With all respect, I couldn’t disagree more. It’s certainly true that, in Christ, there’s no longer “clean” and “unclean” food. Paul explicitly teaches us this in his first letter to Timothy. But that’s not the main point of the vision! God did not send this vision in order to get Peter to give up eating kosher.
He sent the vision to show Peter (and the rest of the church in Jerusalem) that the divide between Jew and Gentile was no longer necessary or appropriate. That’s why the Lord sent it right before the men from Cornelius showed up. What did the Lord mean when he told Peter “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean”? Who was it who determines “clean” and “unclean”? Who sets the standards on that? Man? Or God? If it’s God, then he’s the One who gets to change the rules if he so pleases. The Lord told them to make the distinctions in the first place. In fact, that’s the whole point of most of the Law: separation. The Law separated clean and unclean food, people, clothing, houses, etc. You couldn’t mix milk and meat or two types of clothing in the same garment, or two types of the crops in the same garden. Days were separated by common days and holy days.
If he said the barriers were swept away by the Cross, then that’s his prerogative. Not that the Lord changes, nor do the principles which underline the Law. We’re still supposed to be separated from sin, and the seriousness with which we take sin frequently leaves a lot to be desired. But now there are no “unclean” races or ethnic origins or nations. All of us come to the Cross on one basis: We’re sinners in need of a Savior. Here there's no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, White or Black or Asian or Latino or any skin pigmentation that I forgot to mention. There’s really only one color that matters: Red. That’s the color of the blood that flowed that forgives us and cleanses us and erases these distinctions once and for all.
There are two instances in this chapter which I’m glad that happened, but they shouldn’t have been needed. The first we saw yesterday: This was a man who was ready to hear the Good News if ever there was one, and no one had approached him about it. Now here’s another one. The Lord had to appear to Peter not once, not twice, but three times to hammer into his head that if God calls someone clean, he’s clean.
So what’s it going to take with you and me? Maybe we’re not prejudiced in the same way, but we all have our biases. Maybe there’s someone in your office that you just assume isn’t interested in hearing about Jesus. They’re living a lifestyle which is so far away from Christ that they seem hopeless. They’re living with someone, or they’re getting drunk every weekend, or they’re doing something else that really offends or disgusts you. Is the Lord going to have to resort to tactics like he did with Peter, or will you listen before then?
Lord Jesus, I’m so sorry for writing that person off. Show me how to reach him, and—by your grace—I will.
In a way, the events in Acts 10 shouldn’t have happened. I’ve already mentioned before that I really believe that the early church was being disobedient to the Great Commission by focusing all their attention on the Jews and in Jerusalem. It was perfectly understandable, and I certainly can’t claim total innocence in this regard, but we have to call a spade a spade.
If the church had been obedient to her instructions left by her Savior, then Cornelius likely wouldn't have needed an angel to direct him to a Christian. I’m glad Cornelius got saved, but the fact that God had to supernaturally intervene with angels in order to bring him into contact with the Good News is not a good sign. I really hope we’re doing better than that.
Let’s talk for a moment about angels, because I think this is a very important point to consider. When the angel appeared, the only thing he told Cornelius was where to go to hear the Message: “Go to this guy on this street and ask for Peter. He’ll tell you what you need to know.” I find that fascinating.
Right now, there are legions upon legions upon legions around the Throne in Heaven. Each one of these angels are incredibly more powerful than you or I could ever hope to be in this life. Almost every time you see an angel appear to someone, the first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!” They're luminescent with God’s glory. The stone-cold killing machines known as Roman soldiers fainted dead away at the sight of one. One angel—yes, one angel—killed 185,000 soldiers overnight.
And every one of these angels delights to obey and bring glory to their Creator. Let’s do a thought experiment: If the Lord on his throne said “I’d like to spread the news about my Son to this tribe of nomads in this area. Do I have any volunteers?” My friend, all the angels present would trip all over themselves in rushing forward to volunteer. And if one of them showed up to tell people about Jesus, I think they’d get a lot of attention, don’t you? It’d be hard to dismiss the word of a being like this!
But no. The Lord Almighty, in his wisdom, has chosen to bypass all those volunteers and has chosen. . . you. And he’s chosen me. Can I be frank here? An angel’s not going to chicken out of telling people. He’s not going to mess up the message. He’s not going to get caught doing something that undermines his witness. To my limited understanding, he’d make a much better evangelist and missionary than you or I would be. But God hasn’t chosen any angel. He’s picked us to be his ambassadors and representatives to a lost and dying world. Wow.
So what do we mean when we talk about a seeker? It seems pretty obvious: It’s someone who’s seeking God. Cornelius seems to be the perfect example of one. But we need to be careful here. Paul makes it abundantly clear: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” So is all the talk about “seekers” just baloney? No. But we need to get our definition right. On our own initiative, we'll never seek God. Like Lewis put it, talking about man’s search for God is like talking about a mouse’s search for a cat.
But behind the scenes, God can, through the Holy Spirit, be preparing someone’s heart to hear the Good News. Maybe a death in the family or problems in their marriage or a bad doctor’s report can be the catalyst. We have people in our church who were never interested in anything concerning God until they had children. That woke them up. Whatever it is, the Spirit can do his supernatural work (which only he can do) to soften someone’s heart. That’s a seeker.
So what does this mean? It means we need to pray for the Spirit to work in the hearts of the lost. And we need to be on the lookout for signs that the Lord is doing things in someone’s life. And we need a sense of wonder that the Lord of the universe has chosen me to be his representative. I have to say it again. Wow.
Father, to say I feel totally inadequate for this task is a real understatement. But you've passed by all those angels and picked me to be your messenger. OK, who’s ready? Whom do you want me to approach today? How can I be your hands, your mouth today?
I said before that Acts is a book of transitions: From the Old Covenant to the New, from Law to the Gospel, from a focus on Israel to the universal scope of the Church. Along with these, there’s another major transition we’re going to find starting at this point. When the Church was born on Pentecost, the spokesman before the world was Peter. His sermon brought 3,000 people to faith in Christ in one day.
But starting with this chapter, we’re going to start transitioning Peter out of the spotlight, to be replaced by Paul. Of course Peter continued to play a huge role in the church (and wrote two epistles for the canon), but Luke quickly shifts the story over to the newest apostle. Chapters 9-12 really are the last hurrah of his preeminence in Scripture.
We start today’s passage with two prominent healings, one of them particularly poignant. The healing of Aenas got a lot of attention from nonbelievers, and the Lord used that incident to bring a lot of people into the Faith.
But the story that really touches me is that of Dorcas/Tabitha. I’m sure the first readers of this book didn’t think anything of it, but quite frankly I like “Tabitha” a lot better than “Dorcas.” Actually I think I might have been called that in elementary school. Both names mean “gazelle,” a creature of beauty and sure-footedness.
We don’t know how old she was or exactly what was the sickness which claimed her life. But here’s what we do know: She was a special jewel in the crown of her Savior. When she departed this dark world for her new home in the presence of her Lord, she left behind a legacy of kindness, service, and practical compassion. One could look at a new robe or other clothing which had been lovingly crafted by skilled hands and given to someone in need, and immediately recognize it as “one of Tabitha’s works.” Lots of people were weeping for their loss of this wonderful woman, as they should have.
Have you ever wondered what went through the mind of the select few in history who've experienced this? I’ve always felt more than a little sorry for people like her or like Lazarus. They'd passed through the veil of tears. They were never again going to have to put up with pain or sorrow or loss or physical ailment or weakness. The people they left behind were crying, but the only tears these departed saints would've cried would be tears of ecstasy.
And they had to give it all up. All the wonderful glories in store for a saint who’s passed on had to be given up. The veil of tears, the barrier between this world and the next one was beckoning, and they had to go back.
This was a horrible loss for those raised from the dead, but the Lord chose to grant mercy to the loved ones who still had to live in this sin-wrecked world. Without people like Lazarus and Tabitha, this world is just a little bit darker than it would be with them. So the Lord, in his wisdom and grace and power, decided to hold off on Tabitha’s final entry into her rest.
So before we get to the second point in the title, let’s ask ourselves: What type of legacy will we leave behind? A string of people blessed for having known us? A heritage to the next generation, an example of a godly life? Or a legacy of having watched as much TV as we can fit into our schedule?
Now as to the crack in the wall, what was I referring to? Ever since the beginning of the nation of Israel, there’s always been a wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. Jesus had predicted that his divided flock would be made one, and it had happened in theory. But in practice, most Jews struggled with allowing Gentiles into the Church, at least without the Gentiles attempting to follow the Law. But here we have a hint that things were changing, and I didn’t even notice it until recently.
Where was Peter staying? At Simon the Tanner. I always just read over that without recognizing the significance. Yes, often people were known by their profession, which is why you have so many people with last names like “Smith.” But a lot of commentators I’ve read make note of the fact that tanners were not considered good Jews. All day every day they worked with animal carcasses, which made them perpetually unclean. Just by staying at a tanner’s house, Peter was indicating that his strict adherence to Jewish tradition was starting to slip. The wall was starting to crack, and the Lord was about to take a sledgehammer to it, starting with the very next chapter.
So Lord Jesus, the question’s pretty obvious. What am I leaving behind? Will I be known as a blessing, or as something less?
If you’ve read this blog for a while, then you might know that I like to keep up with how the “other side” thinks. I’m a talk radio junkie, and I especially like the ones where there’s lots of (mostly polite) disagreement on the air. I like to hear arguments from people who disagree with me, and I like to keep abreast of what Non-Christians are saying. I know names like Peter Singer and Christopher Hitchens, and I think you should too.
The main danger I face with my personality type, however, is that I tend to get caught up in caring more about the arguments than the person making the arguments. Behind every bad argument is a soul whom Christ loves and for whom he died. When I hear a debate and “our” side makes what I see as a “zinger” against “their” side, I feel like I’m at a hockey game and my team just sent the puck past the other goalie. I feel like cheering.
It’s kind of a paradox, isn’t it? In one sense, the Church has a lot enemies, and in another sense she only has one. You have the emergence of the “New Atheism,” or godless philosophy, or proponents of other religions. And of course there’s plenty of places where the state officially persecutes our siblings, so those would count as enemies as well. But in a very real sense, we only have one enemy. In fact, that’s literally his name: “Satan” means “accuser” or “adversary.” He’s the Father of lies, and every evil philosophy and every false religion and every state policy that works against the Church ultimately comes from him. This doesn’t diminish from an individual’s responsibility before God, but we should recognize that to some degree deception is involved. How much is the person’s responsibility and how much is Satan’s? That’s a call that’s above my pay grade.
But when we face an adversary (little “a”) of the church, we tend to hate the person and forget the bigger issues which are involved. No matter what the person has done, there’s hope for him/her.
Let’s do a thought experiment to illustrate what I’m trying to say. Imagine that you’re part of the first generation of Christians. You’ve finished your worship time in a brother’s house, and you’re heading home with a dear friend. As you’re walking towards your small house, you’re discussing the latest news and rumors, and of course that leads into the worry that plagues a lot of peoples’ minds.
“Have you heard the latest about this guy Saul of Tarsus? He’s been going from house to house and pulling Christians right out of their home, arresting them, and throwing them in prison. I tell you, I can’t wait for that monster to get what’s coming to him! In fact, rumor has it that he’s on his way here, to Damascus itself!”
I’m sure there were plenty of conversations that happened like that all over the area. There’s no way God could ever reach THAT man! He’s going straight to hell, and a lot of believers would be glad to see him going there.
But the Lord Jesus had other plans.
In the end, every single enemy of God will be destroyed. But his preferred method of destroying his enemies is by turning them into his children and beloved heirs.
That’s what we’re about, isn’t it? Not winning arguments, but winning souls. Just imagine with me, will you? Think about the foremost "enemies" of the church. Wouldn’t it be an incredible coup for the Kingdom if they became a believer? How's about the head of North Korea? Or the head of Planned Parenthood? Or the head of the A.C.L.U.? Or the head of GLAAD? Have you ever prayed for them? Do you want them to be saved, or is it easier to just dismiss them as another “Saul of Tarsus”? You know, God just might have other plans. . .
Lord Jesus, is there someone that you’re waiting for just ONE more prayer for? Just ONE more prayer and you’re ready to intervene in that person’s life in a big way? Well wherever you want me to stand in the gap, I’m ready.
Now we get to one of my favorite stories in the book of Acts. Philip was one of the Seven appointed back in chapter 6 to oversee the handling of charity to Grecian widows. He was also a miracle worker, as we saw a couple of days ago. Unlike some of his fellow (Jewish) brothers, he apparently was on the forefront of actually obeying 1:8. There was a lot of animosity between Jews and Samaritans, and unfortunately it looks like some of that antipathy carried over into the church for a while. But there’s no indication that any of this bigotry afflicted Philip.
So the Holy Spirit directed Philip to an appointment with someone who was ready to receive the Good News. Friend, if you’re doing what the Lord’s called you to do, and you have a heart for sharing the Message and seeing people come to faith in Christ, then you’d be amazed at the Divine Appointments you’ll experience. I have a challenge for you, if you’re not chicken. Every day for one week, I want you to pray “Father, give me an opportunity today to share the Good News with someone who needs it.” I promise you, you’ll see more doors open up than you know what to do with. Even if you’re not adept at sharing your faith (which is understandable), you can least drop Christ’s name into a conversation or invite someone to church. Do a good deed and tell the recipient that you’re doing it in the name of your Savior.
Philip came upon a man riding in an open chariot, and started walking alongside it. The Eunuch (a person of considerable political responsibility) was apparently a God-fearer—someone who believed in the God of Israel and the Scriptures but who'd not become a full convert to Judaism. Assuming that he was a true Eunuch, he wouldn’t have been able to really convert, since he wouldn’t be allowed into the Temple. This man longed for God, and was searching for him in God’s word, an excellent place to start.
Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, and the Eunuch asked the $64,000 question: “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” “Well, friend, this is your lucky day! By sheer coincidence, I’m willing and able to do that for you!”
I've heard of people coming to faith in Christ just by reading a Bible. They read through John’s Gospel, then got to Romans, and that was enough. God occasionally does that. But most of the time he uses people like you and me to explain his word to them. We’re not ultimately necessary—it’s not as if he actually needs us—but when the sovereign Lord chooses us to step in and make clear to someone from Scripture what they need to know, and they respond. . .WOW!!!! There’s nothing in this world that beats the thrill, trust me! And there’s no greater honor and privilege that humanity has ever been granted than to do that.
Philip explained the Good News about Jesus to the Eunuch, and the Lord had been preparing him for this moment. He was ready to officially place his faith in Christ. Philip was convinced that the man was ready, and they went ahead and baptized the new convert then and there.
Then to cap off this incredible story, Philip was whisked away (can we say teleported?) from the Eunuch’s sight and into Azotus. Church tradition says that the Eunuch went on to take the Good News into Africa, and I hope that’s true.
So are you ready for the challenge? Do you want to see doors open to share Christ’s love in word and deed, or are you stuck in your Comfort Zone?
Lord Jesus, I have a confession to make. Most of the time, it’s not that I don’t have open doors in front of me. It’s because I’ve ignored the doors which are not only open but have a great big neon sign over them. Please forgive me, and give me your heart for the lost.
OK, now we come to one of my least favorite passages in the Bible. I thoroughly believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and error-free. And there’s nothing wrong with these verses. But this passage has been used by some to confuse people about the nature and work of the Spirit. We went over this a few weeks when we were focusing on the Third Person of the Trinity. A lot of churches teach the doctrine of subsequence, the belief that gaining the Holy Spirit is a separate event from salvation. In other words, it’s entirely possible (and actually the norm) for someone to be saved, redeemed, adopted into God’s family, etc., and still not have all of the Holy Spirit. This second level of spirituality, the baptism of the Spirit, is something that every Christian has to seek and strive for.
Nope, not buying it. Here’s why:
This passage is Exhibit A as to why we need to be careful in applying the book of Acts. Acts is a book of transitions, from the Old Covenant to the New, from the Law to the Gospel, etc. Acts is not the final word on how God operates in the church, nor is it the final word on how we’re supposed to do things. For that, we have the Epistles. You use the Epistles to interpret the book of Acts, not the other way around.
So does Paul say anything about this? Well, yes he does. Romans 8:9 and 1 Cor. 12:12-13 couldn’t be any clearer, could they? Romans tells us that “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” There’s no such thing as a person who’s A) saved and B) does not have the Spirit of Christ. 1 Corinthians says that we were all baptized by means of the Spirit into the Body. Again, there’s no such thing as a person who’s A) Saved, and B) Not Spirit-baptized.
So how do we interpret today’s passage? Simple. Up to this point, there was a question in the minds of people if the church was going to be a “Jews only” club or open to everyone. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: It’s nearly impossible to overstate the animosity between Jews and Samaritans. To the Jews, Samaritans were half-breeds, and the term was synonymous with “person of bad character,” which was why Jesus was accused of being one by his enemies.
So the church in Jerusalem heard that a lot of Samaritans were coming to faith in the Messiah, and they sent a delegation of apostles to investigate what had happened. Peter and John arrived, and found out that the Lord had withheld the Spirit from these new believers until the apostles got there. Once the apostles verified that these were true believers, they placed their hands on them (in a symbol of affirmation and solidarity), and the Samaritans received the Spirit. What happened was similar to Pentecost (but not a repeat of it) so that the church as a whole could understand that the Church was now officially opened to half-Jews. The same incident happened when Gentiles believed for the first time, as recorded in Acts 10. Every time there’s a new phase of Acts 1:8 happening, you see an event similar to Pentecost in order to display proof-positive that God was behind what was occurring.
Now that we’ve got the controversial part out of the way, how can we apply this? Well, here’s one I see. It’s a wonderful thing that the Lord was now opening the doors to half-Jews and Gentiles, but it’s really sad that something like this was necessary. The Lord promised them multiple times that the wall between Jew and Gentile was not going to be an issue in the Body, but it took a trip made by apostles in order to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that God doesn’t care about skin color or religious background or ethnic identity or national affiliation. We're all one in Christ. A believer in China is my brother in Christ. A believing Arab woman is my sister in Christ. And there’s no people group in the world which is beyond the reach of the Good News. Have we got that?
Lord Jesus, you’ve laid claim to every people group, every nation, every person on earth. What can I do to be your instrument?
Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin and accused them of keeping up a grand tradition of rejecting and murdering God’s messengers, all of it stemming from resisting the Holy Spirit who sent them. These alleged men of God literally stuck their fingers in their ears and yelled at the top of their lungs to drown out the voice of the Spirit who was pleading with them. Then they decided to silence the Voice by killing his representative. And thus we have the first martyr of the church.
But today I’d like to focus on what happened after that. The death of Stephen was a catalyst for a wave of persecution that blanketed Jerusalem. The church was largely driven out of the City of David, and the followers of Jesus were spread all over the known world. Here’s an intriguing question for us to consider: Was this from Satan or God?
“How can you ask something like that, Keith? Of course it was Satan who did all this!” Well, I believe that the Enemy was the one who directly instigated this hatred of the Message, but I actually think it was the Lord who was manipulating events above it all in order to carry out his ultimate purposes.
Let’s remember a few facts. The Lord Jesus told us in Acts 1:8 that the church was to be his witness in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world. Well, we had a lot of work going on in Jerusalem, but we seemed to be hung up on that part and forgot the rest of the marching orders. Jerusalem was the point of origin of the Christian faith. Probably most of the believers counted it as home. They were comfortable there.
Can I go out on a limb here? I think the early church, quite frankly, was being disobedient to our Lord’s instructions. He wanted them to start going out to the ends of the earth, and they were stuck in their Comfort Zone.
And what happens when we disobediently stay in our Comfort Zone? Well, we saw it before at the beginnings of Israel. The descendants of Abraham had it great in Egypt: Joseph was in charge, they had their own land, and there was little danger of assimilation. They needed some time to grow in population. But Egypt was not the Promised Land. So when the time came, the Lord made their Comfort Zone less comfortable. Don’t believe me? Read Psalms 105:23-25: “The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes, whose hearts he turned to hate his people, to conspire against his servants.” That’s right. The Lord himself moved the hearts of the Egyptians and made them hate the Hebrews.
What am I saying here? It’s like the Lord is saying “OK, beloved. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.” My friend, if you don’t see Acts 1:8, you’ll likely see Acts 8:1 instead.
So what happened? The Good News spread, and the second phase of Acts 1:8 actually started. Philip shared the Message with Samaritans (which to be fair, was a huge step for a Jew to take), and they received it with joy. You start doing things God’s way, and things turn out better. What a concept!
So which way is it going to be for you?
Lord Jesus, doing things your way is not just the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing. Let’s do it.
We’ve been through both theories as to what’s the point of Stephen’s citations in his sermon. I think it’s pretty safe to say that his audience was already familiar with the stories of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. The two main theories I’ve been able to find are: 1) God isn't confined to any geographic location. He’s perfectly capable of working outside even the Promised Land, much less outside a building. 2) You’re repeating history here. Just like your forefathers, you’ve rejected the Lord’s messengers time and time and time again. You even rejected the Messiah himself. And you’re doing it again as I'm speaking to you right now.
Today I’d like to focus a little more on point #1, since it’s something I think Christians are in danger of. And by this I’m not talking about just American Christians. This is a trap I think every believer in virtually every age can fall into.
What is this trap? Basically it’s a denial of the truth of vss. 48-50.
A couple of days ago I mentioned the book The Summons by Dennis McCallum. Seriously, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and opened my eyes to a lot of stuff. But here’s one of the main theses of the book: Every religion in the world, except Christianity, has three things. These are: 1) Sacred space, 2) Sacred time, and 3) Sacred people. By “sacred” I mean “set apart as ‘holy.’”
Let me illustrate. Do you think that Sunday is somehow more “holy” than any other day? What evidence do you have of that? Well, in the book of Revelation John calls the day of his visitation from Jesus “The Lord’s Day.” Historians tell us that the tradition of meeting on Sunday started pretty early in the church, with good reason. It’s a great day to meet together as a church body and celebrate and worship together. Sunday was the day that our Lord rose from the dead, so that’s a good reason to pick it. But is it more “holy” than any other day? Not according to Scripture. The Old Covenant had the Sabbath, but we’re not under that obligation anymore, according to Paul.
What about sacred people? Well, is the Catholic Church right? Are there people who are more holy than the rest of us? Um, no. We’re all one in Christ Jesus. Every one of us has direct access to the Father through Jesus. Under the New Covenant (unlike the old one), we only have one Priest, one Go-between that we need. Let’s assume that Billy Graham is a lot more mature spiritually than I am, and he’s done a lot more for the Kingdom than I have (yeah, and the the sun is hot and ice is cold). Billy Graham has absolutely the same access to God through Christ that I do, no more and no less. That’s why Paul could call the Corinthians--the most screwed-up bunch of Christians you’ve ever met—“saints.”
And what about sacred spaces? That’s the big hang-up with the Sanhedrin, remember? Yes, under the Old Covenant, they did have sacred space. The Temple was the official place to meet God. Not that you couldn’t meet him elsewhere, but it was special. But when Christ came, things changed. On Pentecost, the Spirit came down and moved into his new temple. The Church—and by that I mean the redeemed people all over the world--is now his temple, as well as each individual believer.
Under the Old Covenant, as well as every false religion out there, you have sacred spaces, sacred times, and sacred people. But not the New Covenant we have in Christ.
So what am I trying to say here? Am I against church buildings? Of course not. But your church building is not God’s “house." “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” That can be both comforting and scary at the same time. It’s comforting when I remember and focus on the fact that God is here right now, living within me. I'm a temple of the Holy Spirit. It’s scary when I remember and focus on the fact that God is here right now, living within me. When I’m disobedient, he’s right there. When I say something unkind to my wife, he’s there, listening. And he doesn’t care whether or not I’m in the church parking lot at the time.
Father, you’re everywhere, and you’re living within me through your Spirit. I want that to be a comfort, not a source of fear. Please, by your grace.
Yesterday we examined one theory as to what’s the pattern in Stephen’s sermon in front of the Sanhedrin. I forgot to mention it, but I got the “God actually works outside the boundaries of Israel” explanation from a book entitled The Summons by Dennis McCallum. Today I’d like to submit another one which I found in the NIV Study Bible. I want to emphasize that both theories have arguments to support them. Stephen doesn’t explicitly explain why he’s pointing out these stories, so all we can do is try to pick out the pattern.
As I’ve noted for you before, anyone who tries to dismiss the Bible as a bunch of made-up stories has a slight problem. If you were making up stories about your people and nation, wouldn’t you make yourself look good in them? This was the common practice in the ancient Middle East: Setting down a true history of your king’s regime could easily get you killed. As far as I know, this tendency in America where we try to honestly face up to our early failures as a nation (slavery, Jim Crow laws, the way we treated the Native Americans, etc.) is a relatively modern practice.
But the official history of Israel is replete with failure after failure after failure. There’s only one fairly positive book of the Bible in that regard: Joshua. And even Joshua has its incident with Achan.
The pattern which the Study Bible finds is that of rejecting God’s messengers. Joseph was not just rejected by his brothers but was sold into slavery. Stephen makes a point about Moses’ early attempt to save his people and the famous quote by an unnamed Hebrew: “Who made you ruler and judge over us?” Then later out in the wilderness, the Chosen People couldn’t fall into idolatry fast enough. Moses had just been away on the mountain for a few days when Israelites went to Aaron and told him “Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don't know what has happened to him!” Throughout their history, the Lord sent prophet after prophet after prophet to them. The times in which the people in general actually listened to God’s messenger were few and far between. Have you ever heard the term “Don’t kill the messenger”? It’s more than just a figurative aphorism here.
And Stephen’s final barb is that in fighting the Good News, it wasn’t a mere man they were rejecting here but the Holy Spirit behind him. It was the Holy Spirit who called the prophets (starting with Moses) and told them what to say. Finally the Father sent Jesus, his one and only Son, to be the ultimate “Peace Offering,” and what happened? They nailed him to a tree.
And even now, while Stephen was still talking, they were being wooed by this same Spirit. The Spirit was speaking to their hearts, telling them “Listen to this man! He’s telling you the truth!” And they were resisting his voice.
The application’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? I believe that God is pretty much always talking to us. Mainly through his word, but also through the movement of the Holy Spirit through us. He speaks to us through siblings in Christ, and through circumstances. Am I listening? Are you?
Father, please open my spiritual ears when they get stopped up or when I let distractions drown you out. I’m listening, or at least trying to.
I know he’s not the most famous Bible hero, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Stephen. I don’t think I’ve shared this before, but I’ve planned for some time to name one of my children Stephen or Stephanie. The name is a Greek one which means “Crown.” He was appointed to help stave off a major division in the church before it became any more destructive, but apparently his major calling was in evangelism. As you know if you’re familiar with the story, Stephen was the first official martyr of the church.
The pattern’s one we’ve seen before: As soon as there’s an evangelistic movement, the Enemy moves in to squelch it. I’m sure he hates to hear the sound of true worship, and the sight of Christians trying to live in obedience disgusts him. But what really gets him riled up is the threat of losing some of his property, namely lost souls. So he inspired the religious leaders to haul Stephen into court.
What follows is a speech/sermon which Stephen delivered in front of the Sanhedrin. It’s pretty clear what happened at the end of it, but there’s a mystery which has produced some debate among Biblical scholars: What was the point he was making? Well, it’s obvious that his goal was to A) defend the Message and B) defend his teaching. But why is he bringing up these O.T. stories?
Please keep in mind that he’s delivering this sermon in front of the Sanhedrin. These men knew the Old Testament Scriptures backwards and forwards. Did Stephen really need to rehash the story of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses?!
In order to see his point we need to pick out the pattern of the stories. What did these characters have in common? What was the link that connected them?
I’ve done some research, and I’ve found two theories which seem to fit the facts. Today we’re going to focus on one, and then tomorrow we’ll look at the other one. Since the sermon takes up 53 verses, I thought it might be wise to split it up over two days.
Theory Number One is that Stephen was actually answering the charges against him. Twice in the official accusation they mention that Stephen was somehow speaking against “this holy place,” which was referring to the Temple. It’s hard to overestimate just how important the temple was to 1st century Jews. It was the center of their religious universe.
So what did Stephen point out? God appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia. The Lord looked after, provided for and protected Joseph while he was in Egypt. The God of Abraham first appeared to Moses while in Midian. The Almighty took care of Israel while in the wilderness, and “Our forefathers had the tabernacle of the Testimony with them in the desert.” They had contact with the God of the Universe.
Do you see the pattern? The Jews had an idea that the land of Israel was the main place where God met his people. The Temple in particular was where men and the Lord met. It might've been special in some ways, but to think that the Lord was limited to the Holy Land betrayed a very small view of God. He’s the God of the entire universe, not just the God of Israel.
So how does this apply to us today? Do you have the idea that God is limited to a certain building or a certain people group or a certain nation? Maybe you don’t say it openly, but by your actions and focus it might as well be true.
He’s the Lord of all creation, and every person and every square inch of this universe is claimed by him. Have you forgotten about it?
Lord Jesus, how small is my view of you? What can I do to expand it?
Today’s reading might not be as exciting as stories about the apostles being thrown into prison and threatened by the Sanhedrin, but there are some important lessons we can learn from this. Let’s look at it.
At various times in their history, the Jews were forcibly dispersed all over the known world. Israel was invaded multiple times, and often the conquerors would take huge segments of the population and carry them off to other countries. The empire in charge would give way to another, but often the Jews stayed where they'd been scattered. As a result, there were Jews in all the corners of the Roman Empire. So the question became: “How should we respond to the culture around us?” In the apostles' day, that meant Greek culture. The Romans conquered the Greeks, but it could be said that the Greeks conquered the Romans as well: The Greek language was the Lingua Franca everywhere, the Romans worshiped the Greek gods with different names, etc. Some Jews quarantined themselves against the prevailing culture and said “It’s all condemned by God, so we’re going to participate enough to survive, nothing more.” Others said “It’s not all bad. Let’s pick out the good and leave the bad behind.”
That difference is found in the first verse here. The “Hebraic” Jews were the ones who shunned the culture. They used the Scriptures in the original Hebrew, for example. The “Hellenistic” Jews spoke a lot more Greek than Hebrew, and they preferred the Scriptures as translated into the universal language at that time (also known as the Septuagint).
As you might've guessed, there was little love lost between the two groups in the Jewish (non-Christian) world. The Hebraic Jews saw the Hellenists as traitors to everything they stood for, and the Hellenists saw the first group as sentencing their belief system to a slow death.
Unfortunately, it looks like this animosity had some carry-over into the church. Hellenistic (Greek-oriented) Jews complained that their widows were being neglected when it came time to distribute charity. It looks like the verses hint at some suspicion that this wasn’t just an accident. So what happened? Was there a major rift in the church?
That’s what could've happened, but thankfully the Spirit’s wisdom intervened and plugged the hole before it became a real problem. The apostles didn’t get involved in the nitty-gritty details of the dispute. This was not their job. Macarthur says that it’s possible that the “tables” mentioned might refer to financial affairs, and not just literally food at tables. The point was that their purpose in life was preaching the Good News and caring spiritually for the church, not getting directly involved in administrative details.
So on the counsel of the apostles, they chose seven men to take care of the oversight so that no one was overlooked. I don’t know if you noticed it, but all the names of the Seven are Greek names. In other words, they appointed Greek-oriented believers to make sure that Greek-oriented widows wouldn't be neglected. Of the Seven, only two are mentioned later in Acts. Stephen was the first martyr of the church (which we'll discuss later), and Philip opened the door further to the Gentiles by leading the Ethiopian Eunuch to the Lord.
Now let’s be clear on this. I know that there are some people out there who claim that these are the first deacons. That’s possible but not likely. They had some of the characteristics of deacons: Taking care of practical matters instead of being spiritual guardians of the church. But they’re never called deacons anywhere in the passage. And it’s clear—from what we see later in Acts--that Stephen and Philip were primarily evangelists, not deacons of a church as we think of them.
Having said that, I think the principle is sound that the church needs people who are spiritual guardians of the church (elders) and those whose main tasks are the practical and administrative needs of the church (which we can call deacons).
And what happened? The word of God spread, and the number of disciples multiplied. Even quite a few priests came to faith in the Messiah. What’s my point here? When the Church is organized properly and its Spirit-led members work towards solutions instead of bickering and back-biting, it’s amazing what can be accomplished. We’re part of one Body, and if we function as such, the Church will grow. What a concept.
Lord Jesus, am I helping to add to the Body? Am I hindering anyone from participating by offending them unnecessarily? All I want is to glorify and please you. Please help me do that, by your grace.
Most of us in America are so spoiled it’s not even funny. OK, maybe a little funny. I have a smart phone with Google Maps. The other day I was searching for a certain route, and it took almost TEN SECONDS to come up with the map. I was about ready to throw my phone out the window, which would not have been a good idea. Or to take another example, our internet service really slowed down the other day. It took me almost twice as long as normal to download a web page. Meanwhile, some orphan over in China is really grateful because his two ounces of rice in his bowl is mostly worm-free tonight.
I’d like to think I take a nuanced view of suffering which is biblical. In order to really capture what God’s word says about this, I think we need to discount some wrong-headed attitudes. Here are some ways that people look at suffering which I don’t think represent the right approach.
All suffering is a wonderful thing and should be actually sought out. I don’t think there are a lot of people in America who would say this in public. But there are some well-meaning Christians who seem to have a martyr’s complex. If the world actually thinks well of or agrees with them on something, then they actually go out of their way to find some source of contention. There are people in this world who aren’t happy if they aren’t being persecuted. Hopefully I don’t have to prove to too many folks that this is not Scriptural. Nowhere in the book of Acts, nor in the Epistles, do you find any indication that we need to “pick a fight” with those in authority.
All suffering is a wonderful thing, and we should embrace it. As with many others, this subject calls out for context. If all you had to go on was today’s passage, I could see someone taking this position. But it’s not all we have. Later on in Acts, Paul officially uses his Roman citizenship to get out of a torture session. The apostle also said to slaves that if they could gain their freedom, they should do it.
All suffering must be avoided at all costs. Quite frankly, this is the creed--spoken or unspoken--of what passes for much of Christianity in America. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. If someone does me wrong, my first instinct is to hurt them back. Like I said in the first paragraph, if my fancy technology doesn’t work 100% right 100% of the time, I act like I’m being tortured on a rack. If today’s passage and its description of the disciples’ attitude towards suffering doesn’t rebuke you, then you either have a cleaner conscience than I do, or no conscience at all.
Now we come to what I think is the biblical view towards suffering:
Suffering—as long as it’s for the Name—is a blessing and an honor. It goes against every fiber in my American DNA, but it looks like that’s what this passage is teaching. Paul wrote to the Philippians that "it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him."Apparently, it’s not everyone who gets chosen for the honor of suffering for the name of Jesus. I’ve been made fun of by a few people for my stance for Christ, but that’s about it. There are plenty of faithful Christians in the world and throughout history who suffered relatively mildly compared to the first generation of believers.
One of my favorite stories about this subject concerns Larry Norman. You've probably never heard of him, but he’s considered to be the primary pioneers of what's known as "Christian Rock." During the 1970’s (his heyday), there was a lot of controversy about the appropriateness of using modern Rock music to further the Kingdom, and a lot of preachers called him horrible names and denounced him from the pulpit. Someone interviewed him and asked him about his attitude towards the “persecution” directed towards him. His response (paraphrased from memory): “Persecution?! Are you kidding me? Because somebody's saying something bad about me?! When someone pulls me out of my home, beats me up and throws me into prison because I’m a Christian, then we can talk about persecution.” Now that’s a refreshing attitude.
So I don’t think we need to seek out persecution, nor should we shun it if the tides turn here. If it’s for the Name, we should see it as very different as we normally do. I sure need to change my attitude towards this. Do you?
Lord Jesus, I stand rebuked by your servants. Please forgive me, and change me from the inside-out, as only you can.
It’s a law in the spiritual realm just as sure as gravity in the physical realm: As soon as a ministry or church starts to become effective, the Enemy takes steps to hinder or destroy it. He hates God with every atom of his being, and he can’t stand to see the Lord’s work actually succeeding. Add on top of that the fact that he can’t reach the Lord himself in heaven, and you can see why the Adversary loves to stir up persecution of the saints. Keep in mind that every single believer in the world is a reminder of his ultimate defeat at Calvary.
So the religious leaders decided to round up the disciples, but the Lord miraculously intervened and released them from prison. And did the apostles go back and hide in an upper room like they did before? Of course not—That's what they did pre-Holy Spirit. Now as soon they found freedom, they used it to proclaim the Messiah in the temple courts and anywhere else there were people to listen. The gauntlet was unambiguously thrown down.
So they rounded up the apostles and confronted them again. The main issue on the leaders’ minds apparently was that the apostles’ teaching indicted them (the leaders) of the murder of Jesus. As if that was the main point of the apostles’ message. Peter wasn’t squeamish concerning the fact that the leaders were responsible (in a certain sense) for the death of the Savior (although really it was you and me who nailed him to the cross), but that wasn’t the focus of the Good News. But in the leaders’ minds, every time the apostles preached about Jesus, it was a public accusation squarely aimed at them.
The apostles’ response to the command/threat was predictable: “We must obey God rather than human beings!” In this answer to authority they had some wonderful precedents: Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos, John the Baptist, and a host of others whose names we’ll never hear this side of Glory. All of these men stood before kings and was forced to choose between man’s authority and God’s command. And for them, the choice was clear. I certainly hope that if it ever comes down to it, I’ll make the same one.
Now we get to a very interesting part of the story, at least to me. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know that I’m pretty pessimistic about fallen human nature. In this regard I try to have a strictly biblical view, which presents a pretty gloomy picture of the subject. Even with the Holy Spirit within us, we're still pretty selfish and rebellious at times. And I’ve always emphasized the fact that—in the end—there's no middle ground concerning Christ. Everyone who ever met him on earth either ended up worshiping him or calling for his death. Oh sure, there are plenty of “seekers” who are curious and who didn’t know exactly what to make of this new Teacher. And the Church should always welcome seekers today. But that doesn’t change the immutable fact: Eventually everyone confronted with the claims of Christ has to make a choice about him. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, the one thing Jesus could not possibly be was a nice and good teacher whom you could respect. Either he’s a liar/fraud, a lunatic, or he’s Lord of all creation.
So what do we make of Gamaliel? He was the most noted Rabbi of his time. His most famous student was Saul of Tarsus, whom you might've heard of. He seemed to be somewhat open-minded concerning this new teaching, at least not willing to kill people over it. His reasoning seems perfectly sound, and it (and his prominence, no doubt) convinced the others to merely threaten the apostles and let them go. If this new teaching isn’t from God, it’ll come to nothing in the end. In case it is from God, then maybe we need to tread carefully. Was he a secret believer? No, there’s no indication of that. But he was a fair-minded man who cared more about truth than about politics or about his reputation before the people.
So how do we interpret his situation? He wasn’t saved, but he was what I call an “unexpected friend.” There are some other examples of this: the Pharaoh in Joseph’s time, and Darius in Daniel’s. Keep in mind, this changes nothing about the exclusive nature of the Good News. We just read it in the last chapter of Acts: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” But when God, in his mercy, decides to incline the heart of even a lost person towards our favor, that’s a good thing. And we should be thankful for whatever friends we can find in this dark and cruel world. In the most unexpected of times and most surprising of places, our Savior provides refreshing help for his Bride.
Lord Jesus, thank you for being so good to us. We recognize that when anyone in the world shows any true favor towards us at all, that’s from you.
In today’s passage we have an update on the growth of the Church, but there are a couple of verses here that cause us to scratch our heads if we’re paying attention.
The little episode with Ananias and Sapphira had at least three different effects on three different types of people, and I find it pretty interesting. The first group that was affected by this was the group of believers within the church at Jerusalem. This is actually a pattern we find repeated in Scripture. When the Lord’s ready to inaugurate a new era with his people, he sets up certain expectations. Then—and I’m sorry, but there’s no other word for it—he makes a very public example of the first knuckleheads who disregard his instructions. For example, near the beginning of life under the Torah, when Aaron’s own sons disregarded and abused their holy office, fire came from the Lord and burned them to a crisp. Then the Israelites entered Canaan, and Achan decided he didn’t need to follow the rules. He took some clothing and valuables from the city of Jericho, and he paid for it with his life. Often when the Lord is about to turn a corner in his dealings with his people, he shows at the outset that he’s not to be trifled with.
That was the case with this married couple. They didn’t murder anyone or commit adultery. They only lied about their gift to the Lord. They pretended to be more holy and generous than they truly were, and God dropped them dead on the spot. What was the lesson the Lord wanted to hammer into their heads at the very beginning of the new Age of Grace? Even in this age of grace and mercy, the Lord is not Someone to play games with.
And the Church got the message, at least for a while. Vs. 11 says that “Great fear seized the whole church.” Yes, we're saved by grace through faith. Yes, the Lord loves us and has bled and died for us. But he’s still God, the holy and righteous Judge of all creation. He’s not your buddy. He’s not your pal. He’s still the One before whom angels shield their faces lest they look directly at the Almighty. The believers within that church at Jerusalem learned to hold a healthy respect and a godly fear of their Lord. As the children in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe learned, he's good, but he's not safe.
The second group (vs. 13) heard about these things, and they were afraid as well. They weren’t believers, but they knew that something was going on. They “highly regarded” the church, but they weren’t ready to join. Why not? And how do we reconcile this with vs. 14, which seems to contradict vs. 13? What vs. 13 is referring to—when it says that “no one dared to join them”—it’s referring to half-hearted membership. Whenever the church isn't being persecuted and it’s slightly more popular to be associated with it, you’ll find plenty of “members” who show up. They come on at least some Sunday mornings, they contribute some money, but they aren’t true followers of Jesus. But this event with the dead couple hindered that trend. This incident put the stop to half-hearted discipleship. And quite frankly, I’d rather someone not be associated with the church than have that. Just like my Savior, I'm much more concerned with quality of disciples rather than quantity of Christ-followers.
But then there’s the third group. These are the brave souls whose fear of the Lord drove them to the Lord instead of away from him, which is at it should be. Their thinking seemed to be “This might be a dangerous place, but if there’s a God like this, I want to get to know him!” They figured that this God would be either their best friend or their worst enemy, and they knew they wanted to be on the right side of him.
So do any of these descriptions fit you?
Lord Jesus, you truly are the worst enemy and the best friend anyone could ever have. I thank you so much that because of the blood you shed, you call me your friend.
We looked at this passage when we were talking about the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, but there’s a lot more to be learned from this story. Let’s see what we can glean.
I’m a biblical conservative, meaning I take Scripture to mean what it says in the most natural means of interpretation. I've noticed that among a lot of my fellow conservatives, both biblical and political, there’s a strong tendency towards nostalgia, which I contend is largely well-meaning but wrong-headed. A case in point is the common bewailing of the current spiritual state of the church and attempt to compare it unfavorably to the first or second generation of believers. “Oh, if only we could be more like the early church! They were so pure, so close to the Lord, so wholeheartedly devoted to him! Not like today, when people are such phonies and there are so many problems!”
With all due respect, this is nonsense on stilts. People don’t really change. Human nature hasn’t changed. People are the same now as they were 2,000 years ago. Hopefully the influence of the indwelling Spirit has been a positive force, but the fact remains that the early church had pretty much the same problems we do. Sexual immorality running rampant? Factions threatening to divide the Body? People caring more about boosting their own egos rather than benefiting the church? Christians who just can’t seem to get along with each other? Heresy and denial of basic biblical truth spreading thru the church? I just described the things Paul was castigating the church in Corinth for.
And today we see another blatant example of human depravity. This is in Acts chapter five, so we’re talking about just a short time past the birth of the Church, while it was still supposedly not as “corrupted.” God had moved the hearts of his people to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the Apostles to help the Church and whoever was in need. And whenever the Lord starts to do something, you can count down the minutes before the Enemy puts forward his own counterfeit to sabotage what the Lord is doing.
The Tempter moved the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira to pretend to be more generous than they really were. The ones who'd sold all their property were extolled as heroes of the faith, and they wanted that adulation. But they wanted the praise without making the sacrifice others had made. They sold the property but kept part of the proceeds for themselves.
Now we need to notice a couple of things. First, please see what Peter did not condemn them for. If they had done what they did and had just been honest about what percentage they'd kept for themselves, apparently that would've been fine. God calls some of us to give up all our possessions and live a hand-to-mouth existence, completely trusting in his everyday providence. Most of us trust the Lord as we go about our jobs and give just a portion of our income to God’s work. That’s the norm: We give (as a bare minimum) 10% to God’s work, acknowledge that all of it belongs to him, and we maintain an attitude that if he called us to give up everything, we'd do it with a smile on our face.
No, the problem was that they'd lied about it. They were pretending to be more holy and generous than they actually were. And they had not just lied to men (which would be bad), but by doing this in the name of the Lord, they were bringing him in on their deception, and were in effect lying to him as well. Just a thought: Putting aside morality for a moment, how stupid do you have to be to attempt to lie to an omniscient Being?
And this deception and hypocrisy carried a pretty heavy price-tag, didn’t it? Every indication is that both of them were true believers, and based on what we know from the rest of Scripture, no one “loses” their salvation. But if a believer publicly and repeatedly and blatantly rebels against God and thus brings dishonor on the Name, he invites harsh discipline on himself, up to and including physical death. We see this repeated when some in the Corinthian church were abusing the Lord’s Supper.
One other thing I’d like to point out. In that culture, it was very uncommon to assign any responsibility to women. A wife was under the spiritual authority of her husband. Jewish culture frowned upon teaching women about God’s word, which made Jesus’ habit of teaching them so radical. This tells me that, contra the thinking of that day, the Lord holds each person, male or female, slave or free, no matter what ethnicity or cultural background accountable as an individual. When Sapphira came in and repeated the lie she and her husband had conspired to, neither Peter nor the Lord let her off. They didn’t say “Oh, you poor thing! I’m sure your husband coerced you into this.” No, they held her just as responsible for her decisions as they did her husband. When I get to heaven, and God asks me about something, I won’t be able to say “But God, my parents raised me that way,” or “But God, everybody else around me was doing the same thing!” Nope, won’t work.
So what have we learned from this? Lying to make yourself look good is never a good idea, and especially don’t bring the Lord’s Name into it with you. Each of us is accountable before him, and even as a believer I’m not exempt from harsh discipline if I’m being disobedient. Any questions?
Lord Jesus, to be brutally honest there have been times--as a believer--in which I deserved the same fate as this couple. I’ve pretended to be more devoted to you than I really am in order to get applause from men. Please forgive and change me. By your grace.
Since Barnabas is one of my favorite characters, I decided to skip ahead and finish out his story today.
I mentioned Andrew yesterday, and there’s a major parallel between the two men. Both Andrew and Barnabas were—by God’s providence—placed in a situation in which they had to watch someone close to them get a lot more attention. Remember, Andrew’s brother was Simon, better known as Peter. Peter preached one sermon in which 3,000 people came to Christ at once. He was one of the “Inner Circle” of three who experienced things with Christ which no one else did. In the book of Acts, it’s revealed that sick people lined up on the street so that Peter’s shadow could fall on them and heal them. He was the linchpin the Lord used to bring Gentiles into the Church. He then went on to write two epistles which became part of God’s inspired word, on the same level of authority as the Torah or the prophets.
Andrew never did any of those things. But he did something for which all of us can be eternally grateful: He introduced Peter to Jesus. He didn’t perform any grand acts for the Lord, but he brought into motion the events that led to all that God did through Peter later on.
It’s the same with Barnabas. Saul of Tarsus was on his way to round up more Christians to arrest and eventually kill. He was knocked to the ground by an appearance by the Lord Jesus himself. As soon as Ananias healed him, Saul (soon to be known better as Paul) immediately started teaching and preaching in the name of Jesus.
But there was a problem. In order to be effective, Paul needed to be vetted, approved and certified by the Apostles, and there was no way he was going to get an audience with them. I mean, what better way could the Church’s enemies sneak in someone to get close to and betray their leaders than by doing this? Paul was on his way to arrest Christians, and now he’s the most fervent spokesman for Christianity? Right. Tell me another.
But Barnabas had seen him in action in Damascus, and he believed in this firebrand. Paul undoubtedly had some rough edges that needed some polishing, but Barnabas saw past all that. And he was more than willing to take a risk and bring this new believer into the presence of the apostles. He vouched for Paul when no one else would.
And that led to all that we read about later. Paul became the greatest missionary who ever lived, and the door to the Gentiles which Peter had cracked, he burst wide open. He performed miracles which validated his ministry, and eventually it was recognized that he was called to be an apostle as an equal to the other Eleven. He fine-tuned the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Not to mention that he wrote half of our New Testament. I'd submit that there's been no one else who's had more of an impact on the Church of Jesus Christ save the Lord himself.
And it all started when someone with spiritual insight and courage stepped forward and did what God wanted.
Father God, is there a diamond in the rough around me, someone who needs a word of encouragement or someone to believe in them? What do you want me to do?
Over the last year and a half I’ve had a little miniseries going on called “Unsung heroes.” No, we’re not going off on another tangent from Acts. But we have come to someone whom I consider one of the most underrated guys in the entire Bible. That’s my definition of an unsung hero: Someone whose little attention which is paid to them is wildly disproportionate to their place in God’s redemptive plan. I’ve listed Caleb, Rahab, Jonathan, and Andrew, and there are a lot of others. Their stories are brief in Scripture, but God used them in a way in which one crucial decision moved the Great Plan forward. I guess I’m a little iconoclastic in that way: If you’re familiar with the Bible, then you know stories about the “Big Guns” like Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, etc. But if God decided to include a narrative about someone, then there’s something we can learn from them.
Barnabas is my latest addition to this honor roll. Like Andrew, he was destined to be on the edge of the spotlight but never to stay in it for very long. As far as we know, he never preached a sermon, and there aren’t any books of the Bible named after him or by him. He was partners with Paul on their mission journeys together, but almost from the very start he was overshadowed by the apostle. When they started out, they were known in the book of Acts as “Barnabas and Paul,” but very shortly, that changed to “Paul and Barnabas.” We only have silence as evidence, but there’s zero indication that Barnabas exhibited any jealousy or resentment over being pushed into “Second String” territory.
The first time he’s mentioned in Acts, he’s a ringleader of a trend that appeared in the early church. In order to meet some immediate needs, some believers would sell their property and present the proceeds to the apostles to use as they saw fit, and the first time he's mentioned he's putting his money where his mouth was. One interesting thing we see here is that he has something in common with Peter: Both of them are much more famous for their nicknames than for their birth names. Simon son of John would be forever remembered better as “Little Rock,” and Joseph the Levite from Cyprus would always be known as “Son of encouragement,” or “Encourager.”
You know, I’ve had some nicknames in my younger days, and most of them were not nearly as nice as “Encourager.” I'd love to have that name, wouldn’t you? When you’re feeling low, the Lord in his mercy often sends us a Barnabas just when we need him/her. They might encourage you by participating in a ministry like this guy did, but quite often they do their job by not speaking at all (or very little). They might just wrap their arms around you and whisper in your ear “I’m here for you, and I’m praying for you.” It’s pretty rare for God to use them to encourage you by giving you a lesson in theology. Unlike Job’s friends, they instinctively understand that the time for that is pretty rare when encouragement is needed.
If you’re a Barnabas to someone else, then I want to be an encourager to you for a moment. You might always be looking at and applauding someone else in the spotlight. You’ll never get the attention that a preacher or a pastor or an evangelist gets. But your Shepherd knows your name. He sees the embraces you’ve given. He hears the words that you’ve whispered to someone to pull them out of darkness. And when the right time comes, you’ll be applauded by nail-scarred hands, and you’ll know it’s worth it.
If someone has been a Barnabas to you, have you been thankful? First you need to thank your Father for sending them. That person is his grace and mercy in human flesh. And second you need to thank them. That gift is often a lonely and draining one. I promise you, they need a pick-me-up too.
Lord Jesus, who around me needs this? To whom are you sending me?
The religious leaders of course didn’t take the admonitions from the apostles positively, but they didn’t react as strongly as they could've. Naturally there were more than a few of the leaders who would love to shut the apostles’ mouths permanently, but they were afraid of the public reaction. There was no denying a miracle had taken place, but instead of reconsidering their position, they hardened their hearts and only took into account how the people would think of them.
So they brought the apostles back in and countered the divinely inspired threat with some of their own. They warned the men to stop teaching about this Jesus of Nazareth. The two men knew that the Savior in whose Name they were teaching had risen from the dead, so how could these men threaten them? Just like David, they could say
“The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?”
Can I just take a moment here to remind you of something very important? Miracles do not produce faith. The people of Israel under the leadership of Moses saw miracles on a daily basis: They saw the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, a cloud to shade them from the heat of the day and a pillar of fire to give them light at night. They walked outside every morning and collected their food off the ground, and then complained because it wasn’t what they wanted. After all these physical and public demonstrations of the Lord's power and presence, they came to the very edge of the Promised Land and said that the he--Almighty God--couldn’t conquer it for them. So why should we be surprised when their spiritual heirs ignored a lame man’s healing and only looked at it from a cynically political viewpoint?
I love the prayer the Church prayed when Peter and John returned. Notice that there are two sides in this conflict: The world’s kingdom and God’s kingdom. The kingdoms of the world conspire together and take their stand against the Lord and his Anointed One (Messiah). The culmination of that stance was when they crucified the Lord’s own Son. Please note what they prayed for. They asked the Lord to “consider their threats” and. . . what? Remove the threat? Destroy the enemies of the Kingdom? At least give them some relief from the fear and persecution? No. That’s not what they asked for.
They asked for boldness. In the face of ever-mounting hostility and threats, they asked for boldness in sharing the Good News. And they asked the Lord to show himself in ever-more public ways and thus draw more people into the Kingdom.
That’s quite a rebuke for you and me, isn’t it? When the world puts just a little pressure on us, we pray for relief. Most of the time we don’t ask God to smite down the enemies of the Kingdom, but we at least want the persecution to stop. What if, instead of asking for relief, we asked for boldness?
Well, the Lord heard their prayer. He came down and physically manifested his presence. But even more importantly, he manifested himself in the lives and message of his children. Physical evidence is nice, but what’s more lasting is the unflinching courage of God’s people as they tell a lost world about the Savior.
Lord Jesus, please change my attitude. Instead of whining about persecution, give me boldness. Yes, that’s what I want.