[August 31]--Three Groups

Acts 5:10-14

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 prospects for membership. Whenever the church isn't being persecuted and it’s 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 might 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.

[August 30]--Liar Liars

Acts 5:1-11

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.

[August 29]--Barnabas Part Two: Taking a Risk

Acts 9:23-28

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?

[August 28]--Unsung Hero: Barnabas

Acts 4:32-37

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?

[August 27]--Threats and Prayer

Acts 4:13-31

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.

[August 26]--Before the Sanhedrin

Acts 4:1-12

It’s nice to know that some people are consistent. Do the first few verses of today’s passage seem familiar? They should, since it’s a similar pattern to the Gospels. Jesus would heal a man, and the religious leaders, standing off on the sidelines—unable to heal anyone, of course—would carp about how he was doing it all wrong. Quite frankly, I think our Savior purposefully provoked them at times in order to spur clarity as to what the true issues were. With all their complaining about Jesus’ alleged desecration of the Sabbath, that wasn’t the real heart of the dispute. There were two issues which lay at the foundation of this irreconcilable conflict: A) What type of God do we really serve? and B) Who is Jesus?

And the conflict continued past the Passion and Resurrection and Ascension into the age of the Church. Why shouldn’t it continue? The religious leaders (for the most part) never accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and they were convinced that their view of God was biblical and accurate. Now the apostles came along and were teaching publicly that this same trouble-making Jesus whom they'd crucified recently was risen from the dead and Lord of all creation. And worst of all, they were succeeding in their mission: Peter’s Pentecost sermon brought 3,000 people into the Body of Christ, and now the teaching of Peter and John brought about the conversion of 5,000 people. How did the apostles expect the leaders to react?

So they hauled them into court and demanded to know in whose name the apostles were teaching. As if they didn’t know already! They either wanted to give the apostles a chance to recant or to get them on record of following Jesus of Nazareth, recently executed by the Roman government for sedition.

I love how Peter responds. A few weeks (or maybe months) ago these two men were hiding like little girls from the bogey men of the Sanhedrin. They'd seen their Master tortured and crucified, and they'd been terrified at the prospect of the same fate, a common occurrence when the Romans squashed an insurrection. Peter had thrice denied that he even knew the name of Jesus. No question about whether or not he knew that Name now!

And not only did he say that the Master had risen from the dead and was the Messiah whom everyone had been waiting for. As if eager to twist the knife, he points out that Jesus was the One “whom you crucified.” Way to make friends, Peter!

Why would he do something like this? Why would he needlessly bring up the “sore spot” and provoke them? Should we always be bold like this?

I don’t think so. There are times to be a lot more subtle than Peter here. We’ll see some later sermons by Paul in that regard. But under the guidance of (or “filled by”) the Spirit, Peter knew that this was the time for confrontation. He could've danced around the main issue, but that would be a disservice in this context. The main sticking point, the main point of contention was—and always will be—who is Jesus? Was he a crazy person who was misleading the people? Or was he really who he said he was?

And ultimately there's no middle ground here. There’s no other name under heaven that can save us. Not Moses, in whom they trusted. Not Mohammed or Buddha or Krishna or any other name. In this age, to claim that is to invite being called “narrow minded” or “bigoted.” Well, I don’t know about bigotry, but it’s certainly narrow-minded, just like our Savior: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Like I said, there’s no middle ground here, at least not on a long-term basis. If you’re a believer who’s trying to witness to someone, it might just be time to stop tap-dancing around the real issues. There’s such a thing as being too bold at the wrong time, but I'd venture that there are few of us who are in danger of it. Most of the time I think I'm too far on the other extreme, keeping silent when I should be speaking up. What do you think?

Lord Jesus, how many opportunities have I missed because I don’t want to offend anyone? Please forgive, and make me as bold as necessary to lovingly confront people who are in desperate need of you. By your grace.

[August 25]--Marks of a Healthy Church

Acts 2:42-47

I just talked a couple days ago about how we can’t blindly follow the example of the 1st generation church, and now it seems like I’m going to contradict myself. I hope I don’t, and that you don’t think that I am. But today we’re going to look at this passage and use it to note five marks of a healthy church.

Does this contradict what I said before? I don’t think so. I think the key is this: If something from Acts is repeated in the epistles, then it’s a safe bet that what we’re looking at is the norm for modern churches and Christians. Let’s list them.

First we see that they were “devoted to the apostles’ teaching.” This means that what the apostles--the ones who'd lived and ministered with Jesus while he was on earth—taught was the source of their information about Christ. This oral teaching was passed from church to church until it was collected and written down starting around thirty years after the ascension of Christ. This was the equivalent to Bible reading. Paul repeated this precept in 2 Thes. 2:15: “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”

Second they were also devoted to fellowshipping with each other. No believer is meant to be on his own, and we’re there to encourage each other and challenge each other, just like the author of Hebrews tells us: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching..”

Third they regularly participated in the “breaking of bread,” in other words the Lord’s Supper. This is an act of communion with both our Lord and with each other. You’ll never experience what the Christian life has to offer without it. If you really need it, here are Paul’s writings on the subject.

Fourth we see that they committed themselves to prayer. Personal prayer-time is important, but we also gain spiritual strength from praying with and for each other. Paul told us to “keep on praying for all the Lord's people.”

Next we see that they had the right attitude towards their possessions. The Lord instituted property rights for society in his 8th Commandment, and one of the jobs of government is to protect those rights. Your neighbor doesn't have the right to walk up to your house and start hauling stuff away. But in our personal lives, we need to see our possessions as on loan from our Father. As mentioned before, I don't think that the "voluntary communism" we see here is the universal norm for all believers at all times. The norm--the final word we have on our possessions--is from Paul in his Epistle: "Be generous and willing to share." When there was extraordinary need, this passage demonstrates that they were willing to give up anything necessary to help their siblings.

And finally we see that public worship, both in small groups and in larger settings, was considered vital to the health of the Body of Christ. Of course the entire book of Psalms is filled with admonitions to worship the Lord with other believers.

On a side note, you might be wondering about the subject of miracles, which this passage also mentions. Perhaps later we’ll get to it, but for the moment let me point out that it was the apostles who performed miracles, not the rank and file members. Do I believe that God performs miracles today? Absolutely. Does he perform miracles in the same way (through apostles) that he did in those days? No.

So what was the result of doing things God’s way? You know my favorite saying, don’t you? If you’re not familiar with the devotional, then maybe not. If you're familiar with what I’ve written before, then you know what’s coming: No one in the history of humanity ever did things God’s way and ended up regretting it. As they did things God’s way, God grew their church. He didn’t do it apart from their efforts. Vs. 47 is not an excuse to just sit back and let him do all the work. As we do what we’re supposed to do, he'll do what only he can do. Wonderful how that works, huh?

Lord Jesus, I praise and thank you, because verse 47 is being fulfilled today. Every day you are adding to your Body. So what can I do?

[August 24]--Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

Acts 2:38; Eph. 2:8-9; John 1:12-13; Eph. 1:13-14

I promise, I promise, I promise we will actually start going through Acts starting tomorrow, with no more distractions for a while. But yesterday we went over a verse that’s engendered a lot of controversy and has inadvertently caused some confusion. Not that there’s anything wrong with God’s word, but our human understanding can cause some problems sometimes.

I’m of course referring to Acts 2:38. There are some churches out there (and at least one major denomination) that teach that you have to be baptized in order to be saved. The name for this doctrine is baptismal regeneration. They contend that there are four steps to being saved: belief, confession, repentance, and baptism. If you fall short and don’t finish step #4, your salvation is questioned if not outright denied.

My Grandmother actually had a slight confrontation over this. She was saved during the winter-time, and there was no hot water available at that time for baptism. She related this story to a friend of hers years later, and her friend was astonished: “What if you'd died before springtime?!”

As you might've guessed, they love Acts 2:38. I’ve been in some “discussions” (which I’m ashamed to admit turned rather heated) with some dear siblings in Christ who make this claim. I showed them verse upon verse upon verse that teaches that we’re saved at the moment of faith in Christ, and they'd keep going back to this verse like a mantra: “But what about Acts 2:38?” Well, since to some folks this is such a pivotal verse on how to get saved, let’s take a closer look at it.

First off, there are some points about the original Greek to consider. It all hinges on one little word: “for.” The crowds of new converts asked Peter what they should do in response to the Good News, and he told them to be baptized in the name of Jesus "for [eis] the forgiveness of [their] sins." At first this sounds like baptismal regeneration is correct: Peter told them to repent and be baptized in order to get forgiveness of sins. That's certainly one way we can interpret the word "for" in English: "I went to the store for [i.e. in order to get] some milk."

The problem is that the Greek preposition here—eis—can be translated other ways as well. Most interestingly, it can be rendered “because of” or “in view of.” Here are some samples: Matt. 12:41 says that the Ninevites repented “at” (eis) the preaching of Jonah. They didn’t repent in order to get the preaching of Jonah. They repented because of—or in view of—his preaching which already existed before their response. John the Baptist told the crowds that he baptized with water “for” (eis) repentance. He wasn’t saying that he would baptize them with water in order for them to get repentance. He said that he would baptize them because of the repentance they already had.

Someone might say “But you can translate it as ‘in order to get’! Here’s another passage where eis is used in the sense of ‘in order to get.’” And that’s absolutely true. As I mentioned a couple of paragraphs above, Eis can be translated that way as well.

Here’s a great time to remind us all of another great principle in biblical hermeneutics: You interpret hard-to-understand passages by easy-to-grasp passages. You can read the other passages in today’s reading, and they're perfectly clear: You're saved by grace through faith in Christ and are a child of God at the moment of faith. There's no “step by step process.” No one is “three quarters” saved. In Ephesians one Paul said that they were sealed by the Holy Spirit once they believed in Christ. It'd be hard for the Apostle to be any clearer. And I just picked some of the more familiar passages. The book of John and the Epistles (especially of Paul) teach this over and over and over and over and over.

Why do I bring this up? Because Paul was very zealous for the purity of the Good News. All you have to do is read the book of Galatians to get that immediately. The reason he was so adamant about stuff like this is because he cared about two things: 1) The glory of God and 2) The well-being of people. Adding anything to the Good News as far as a requirement diminishes from God’s glory. Salvation is from him and by him, and we can’t add anything to that. And telling people they need to do X in order to be saved when God tells them all they need to do is trust in his Son doesn’t do them any favors either.

If you happen to be reading this posting and aren't sure if you are saved or not, please read this. It's so simple a child of six can grasp what's needed: You place your trust in Jesus and submit to him, and you're in. He loves you, and the last thing he wants is for you to be confused on this.

Lord Jesus, I praise you because salvation is completely from you. I don’t bring anything to it except for my sin and my need, and all the glory goes to you, and none of it to me. What can I say, except “Thank you,” and “I’m yours”?

[August 23]--Peter’s Debut

Acts 2:14-41

Now we (finally) return to Acts and pick up where we left off before. The Holy Spirit came down and filled all the believers, placing on them tongues of fire. The Spirit was now taking up residence in his new temple, the church. The first members of the body of Christ spoke in different languages and proclaimed to all the people around them the glories of the Good News of the Messiah.

As is often the case, the world misunderstood and maligned what God was doing, and the crowd was ready to write off this phenomenon as public drunkenness. Peter, however, stood up and delivered his first sermon in explanation of what just happened. I won’t go into every single detail about his sermon, but here are some of my notes:

He starts off by citing Joel 2:28-32. Just to avoid misunderstanding, this is not a complete fulfillment of that prophecy. There’s no record of signs in the heavens or on the earth, and the sun and moon stood unaffected by the events of Pentecost. I do tend to take those prophecies literally, by the way, whenever I can. Therefore I conclude that the complete fulfillment of Joel’s predictions will come when Jesus returns.

Why did Peter mention this passage, then? Because what they were seeing was a partial fulfillment of Joel. Up to that point, the Spirit—as I’ve hammered again and again—was only placed upon certain individuals at certain times and for certain missions. Most believers up to that point had never experienced the Spirit in a personal way, at least not in the same way we do today. Now that was changing: Every believer now had access to the Holy Spirit. The fact that he was manifesting himself so publicly in so many people at one time was showing them that a new era had dawned.

And how had this been brought about? By the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. He used this name because it would be the name by which Jesus would be known by most people. Jesus, as Peter claimed, had performed miracles to show his accreditation by God. Then he was crucified at the hands of the Jewish leaders by means of the Roman soldiers. This is an interesting “tension” verse: On one hand Jesus’ Passion was preordained by God the Father before time began. On the other hand, this in no way exonerates his human murderers.

But he was raised again, as predicted by David in the Psalms. When talking about how God would not leave the “Holy One” in the grave to see decay, David couldn’t have been just referring to himself, since his own body had been lying in the grave for hundreds of years and had certainly decayed to dust. No, David had been referring to his greatest descendant, the Messiah.

Then Jesus ascended to the Father’s right side and had sent the Spirit, the result of which the crowd could see right now. The crux of Peter’s sermon was quite simple: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

What was their response? The same Holy Spirit who had caused the uproar in the first place now “cut” them “to the heart,” and 3000 people received Christ right there and then. How did they all get baptized at one time? According to MacArthur, archeologists have found several large mikvehs, or large pools used for ritual cleansing before entering the temple area. These baptismal-like facilities could've accommodated the large number of converts.

What about 2:38? Is this verse, as some would have us believe, teaching us that baptism is necessary for salvation? We’ll examine that question tomorrow.

In the meantime, let’s focus for a moment on the grand reversal of Babel. When sinful men wanted to unite themselves in arrogant rebellion against the Lord, he came down and scattered them all over the earth by confusing their language. Now, he came down again and started the reunification process. People of all different languages were all united into one church in submission to Christ as the language barrier was broken down. This is truly the dawn of a new era, in which people of all cultural backgrounds, all languages, all skin colors, and all places on the economic scale could be one in Christ. And it all began on Pentecost.

Lord Jesus, I thank you and praise you for making me part of your worldwide Body. I have brothers and sisters all over the world, of all skin colors and from all types of cultures. Help me to find my place in your Body.

[August 22]--How Do We Interpret Acts?

Acts 4:32-35

Tomorrow we’re going to return to a systematic study of the book of Acts, but there’s one issue I want to address before we return to it. In order to do that, we need to do a quick review on interpreting and applying narrative portions of Scripture.

The first principle is really important to grasp: Narratives only tell us what happened. They don’t always tell us what should've happened. You might read about one of our heroes--such as Abraham--doing something questionable, like lying about his relationship with Sarah his wife. He had lots of qualities we need to emulate, but he displayed wretched cowardice on a regular basis, risking his wife’s virtue in order to save his own skin. But Abraham is one of the top three in the O.T. (along with Moses and David), so how do we know that what he did was wrong?

Here’s where the next step comes in: You have to interpret narratives by didactic (teaching) passages. These would include the Mosaic Laws, Jesus’ teachings, and Paul’s epistles.

When we come to the book of Acts, we have extra reason to be cautious. This is another interpreting tool which we need to keep in mind: The book of Acts is a book of transitions. It’s a record of the transition from Law to Gospel, from the Old Covenant to the New, from a virtually exclusive focus on national Israel in God’s redemptive purposes to a worldwide church, from a small group of Jewish believers to a church made up mostly of Gentiles. You need to keep this in mind any time you’re studying any portion of Acts. There are stories in Acts which will really confuse you otherwise.

Because of these considerations, the book of Acts has been used to confuse a lot of believers throughout history. Some teachers, some well-meaning and others not so much, teach that if the church did X in Acts, then we need to do so now. If the church in Acts had a certain practice, then it’s normative for all churches everywhere and at all times.

For example, a trend started in the early church for members to sell their property and give it to the apostles to distribute as they saw fit to provide for those in need. There have been several teachers, many of them cult leaders, who've pointed to this verse and said “The early church did it, it looks like Luke is commending the practice, so we need to do it too!” They take this activity in the early church to promote a kind of voluntary communism: No one owns any property of his own, and in order to join the church you have to sell all your possessions and give the proceeds to the church leaders.

But the Bible doesn’t end with the book of Acts. Paul tells us specifically what attitude and actions people should take towards their wealth: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” There’s nothing in there about selling all your possessions and giving it all away to the church leaders.

So apparently not everything in the book of Acts is precisely normative for all believers at all times. What Paul wrote is (generally) normative for all believers at all times and in all circumstances. As the church was growing and transitioning, there were specific needs that required special action. This was not a long-term or sustainable procedure. If the church just continued to be supported by people selling their property and giving the proceeds, eventually that money would run out. There’s no way to organize or budget properly or really plan at all with this method. The norm for most Christians is to hold jobs and support the church through regular and consistent giving. God might move certain individuals at certain times to follow the example in Acts 4. But that’s not the expected norm for most believers. Make sense?

Why am I making such a big deal over this? Because if we’re going to study the book of Acts, we need to know how to study it correctly. Trust me, this will avoid a lot of confusion.

Lord Jesus, your word is shallow enough for a child to swim in and deep enough for an elephant to drown in. As we study the early records of your precious Bride, help us to interpret it correctly. All we want to do is please and obey you. By your grace.

[August 21]--The Spirit at Work: Why the Gifts?

1 Pet. 4:10-11

OK, today we’re (finally) wrapping up the mini-series (some of you might call it a “mini-epic”) on the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. I don’t have anything totally new today, but I just wanted to spend some time emphasizing a really important point regarding spiritual gifts before we continue with the book of Acts.

Yesterday I mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating: We need to pound into our heads why God the Spirit chooses to give certain gifts to certain people. Paul was extra clear that there's no gift that everyone is expected to have, just like the body needs all its parts and not just the eye or nose or arm or leg. Each member of the body has its part to play, and each is essential. Just like a person without an eye is not whole, neither is a church if each of its members is not fulfilling his/her role and exercising their gift(s). You need the Body, and the Body needs you.

Time for a pop quiz. Today’s passage gives us the two reasons for the gifts. Read the passage again carefully and see if you can pick them out. Come on, it’s only two verses.

All right, time’s up. What are the two reasons listed in 1 Peter 4:10-11 for why we receive spiritual gifts? If you listed 1) To serve others, especially the church, and 2) To glorify God, you win the prize. Let’s examine them one at a time.

The immediate reason why the Spirit gives gifts is to help us serve others. Peter mentions speaking and serving, probably practical service. This leads to the church body being built up. Paul discusses this in Eph. 4:11-16. The apostle tells us that God gave some people gifts in order to equip the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors/teachers (from the Greek it looks like the two are linked as one gift). The reason for this is to build up the body of Christ, just like an infant grows into maturity. As the child matures, he gains height and weight. This is done by adding mass onto his body.

Actually, someone gave me this new perspective on the gifts some time ago, and it really opened my eyes: Actually my spiritual gift is the Spirit’s means of giving me to the church. It’s not teaching or preaching or administration which is given to the church. It’s me. I was given to the church. The so-called spiritual gift is just a way for me to contribute. I'm a way for God to manifest his grace. My sister Sally is another way for God to manifest his grace. So is Juan and so is Saeko and so is every other sibling in Christ I have.

The second reason Peter gives for the gifts is for glorifying God. Actually this is the ultimate reason for everything we do. The reason we want to see the church being served and the body growing is in order to give glory to our Savior God.

How does this work out in daily practice? Well, there’s at least one application I see right off the bat.

In this passage which tells us the reasons for the gifts, do you see anything about stroking your ego? Anything about making you feel good about yourself? Anything about bringing attention to yourself? Um, no. The Holy Spirit of God does not bestow a gift on person X for the sake of person X. If your spiritual gift is being used to build yourself up or make you feel better about yourself, then something is horribly wrong.

This is an especially important warning to people like me who have been given some of the more “showy” gifts. I teach, but there are a few others which are really dangerous in this regard: Preaching, evangelism, and pastoring. If someone has the gift of mercy or administration or acts of service, then they aren’t in the spotlight nearly as much. Anyone reading this who’s got one of the gifts which put you in front of other people, be careful. These type of gifts, like fire, can be very dangerous if not watched constantly with vigilance. You’ve been warned.

Father, please give me a servant’s heart. May the breath in my body, the beating of my heart, the longing of my soul be to glorify your name. Please.

[August 20]--The Spirit at Work: Gift-giver

1 Cor. 12:4-20, 27-31

Now we come to a topic which has caused a lot of division in the body of Christ, namely the gifts of the Spirit. Again it’s sadly ironic that this topic, like the work of the Spirit in general, is a cause of division instead of unity. The gifts are meant to unite and grow the church, not hurt and divide it.

I’ve gone back and forth as to how to handle this subject. I have some strong beliefs about the gifts, especially as regarding the most controversial one (tongues). I don’t think I’m ready to tackle that sticky topic in this forum, and I’m not sure if I ever will. But there are some principles upon which every fair-minded Christian—no matter your view on tongues—can agree.

First, we need to understand that our gifts are given in relationship to the body of Christ. Notice in today’s passage that Paul links the two concepts together. Your place in the body is defined by what role you have to play. We’ll get into this more tomorrow, but your gift is not given for your own personal use and enjoyment.

Second, we need to get it in our head that one’s value in the body of Christ is not dependent on which gift(s) we possess. The Spirit sovereignly distributes the gifts according to his own purposes. I think a problem a lot of Christians have (especially the less mature ones) is that they place waaaaaay too much value on the more “showy” gifts. They tend to think that because they don’t preach or teach or do great acts for the Kingdom, then they aren’t as valuable. Nonsense.

I don’t have the gift of administration, but find me a successful church without it. There’s a gift of mercy and a gift of hospitality. There’s a gift of giving and a gift of service. As today’s passage points out, there are parts of the body of Christ which we tend to overlook, but we'd immediately miss them if they were gone. You probably never think about your little toe unless it hurts (or somehow got cut off or damaged), but it helps correct your balance as you walk.

Third, this passage tells us that everyone has a place in the body, and the body is hindered or even crippled without that person fulfilling that spot. And the Spirit is the One who put you there to fulfill that role. He chose you for that specific purpose, and there’s no effective substitute for you.

You need the body, and the body needs you. A hand lying on a table by itself is useless (as well as gross), but a hand attached to a body has incredible uses. And no part of the body can say to any other part “We don’t need you.”

Now read the last portion of Scripture again. You might be told by some people that God intends that everyone exhibit a certain gift. If you don’t have gift X, then you’re a second-class citizen in the Kingdom. I don’t know how Paul can make it any clearer: We’re not all supposed to have the same gift. The notion that everyone is expected to exhibit gift X is completely against Scripture, as best as I can tell.

And finally we need to understand that we have to work in unity. I’m not talking about agreeing on every minor issue. But we need to be one in purpose and all going in the same direction under our Head, namely Christ. My hand is there to fulfill its purpose in the body, not doing its own thing on the side.

So what’s your gift? Do you know what it is? Are you using it to participate and aid the body of Christ? Do you feel less significant because you don’t have a certain gift? Hope this helps.

Holy Spirit of God, you’ve picked out a place in the body which is just perfect for me. Thank you. Lord, it’s all for your glory, not mine. Not to me, oh Lord, not to me, but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.

[August 19]--The Spirit at Work: Filling

Eph. 5:18-20; Col. 3:15-17

Yesterday we looked at the baptism of the Spirit and how it’s a present reality for every believer. At the moment of salvation, you were baptized (immersed) by Christ by means of the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, namely the church. And of course by the church I’m not referring to a local body of professing Christians (like the 1st Christian Church of wherever) but the universal mystical organism which is made up of all people who've truly received Christ. Today we’re going to look at something which is sometimes confused with Spirit-baptism, namely the filling of the Spirit.

My friends, a lot of confusion about the Bible can be cleared up with some simple grammar. Remember when we were discussing soteriology and I brought out the difference between declarative mood and imperative mood? When someone makes a factual statement which is either true or false, that’s in the declarative mood: "Christ died for my sins and rose again," or “As far as God is concerned, when Christ died and rose from the dead, you died and rose with him.” The imperative mood is when someone issues a command or request: “Do not steal,” or “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God.”

Why am I harping on this? I promise it’s not to bore you or run you off. This is something that will clarify this issue of Spirit-baptism vs. filling of the Spirit: We're never commanded in Scripture to be baptized by the Spirit. We are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. Whenever baptism by the Spirit is mentioned in Scripture, it's always in the indicative mood. The baptism of the Spirit was something that was settled at the moment of salvation and isn't determined by any further choices you make. But we're commanded (imperative mood) to be filled by the Spirit. To be filled by the Spirit is heavily influenced by your daily—actually your moment-by-moment—decisions. Let’s look at it.

Paul here starts by commanding us not to be drunk with wine. Instead, we’re to be filled with the Spirit. The Greek indicates a continuous--not a once-and-for-all--filling. Think about being drunk for a moment. When you’re smashed, you’re under the control of alcohol. You do things you'd never do while sober. It’s sort of the same thing with the Spirit. By allowing the Spirit to control you, you’ll do things you’d never do if he wasn’t in the driver's seat.

How do you do this? Well, the rest of the passage tells us: 1) Speak to one another, 2) using psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (worship), and 3) giving thanks to God (a grateful attitude). If you look at the verses from Colossians, you’ll see the same parallel phrases, which link being filled with the Spirit with letting Christ rule in our hearts (apparently different terms for the same thing). So to be filled with the Spirit, we also need to be 4) letting God’s word fill our thoughts and hearts, 5) teaching and admonishing each other, and 6) doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.

This isn’t some grand mysterious mystical experience on top of a mountain in some monastery. It’s not rocket science or some secret which only the elite know about. Letting the Spirit take control is as simple as doing what you already know you’re supposed to be doing: reading and/or listening to God’s word on a regular basis, praying and asking him to make you more like Christ, confessing and repenting of sin, fellowshipping with other believers for mutual encouragement and accountability, worshiping him in public and in private, and focusing your thoughts on how good God is to you. As you do those things, the Spirit will use those tools to control more and more of you.

The sticky part of this is that none of us do this perfectly. I certainly don’t. But as you do them on a consistent basis, he’ll change you. Not overnight, but gradually.

I can’t take credit for these little clich├ęs, but there’s a lot of truth in them—The Holy Spirit is resident, but is he President? It’s not a question of whether you have the Spirit, but whether the Spirit has you. Does he?

Lord, I get so out of focus sometimes. I desperately need you to fill me to the point there’s no room for anything that doesn’t come from you. Please.

[August 18]--The Spirit at Work: Baptism

Matt. 3:1-12; 1 Cor. 12:12-13

OK, now we’re going to go into some territory on which Bible-believing Christians disagree. It’s sadly ironic that the Spirit, who is supposed to unify all believers in one body, is the subject of such division in that same body. I’ve said it before, and I have no hesitation in repeating it: I have plenty of dearly-loved siblings in Christ who disagree with me about some of this stuff. I have no problem worshiping with them, and I have no doubts about their salvation or their sincerity. But I'm thoroughly convinced that they’ve misinterpreted Scripture on some things regarding the work of the third Person of the Trinity.

This is one of those issues on which we’re just going to have to disagree, namely the baptism of the Spirit. A lot of churches and denominations and sincere believers teach that there's some kind of tier system regarding the Christian life. They contend that it’s entirely possible for someone to get saved and then go through a period of time in which they don’t have all of the Holy Spirit, or at least all that the Spirit offers. They believe in a “second blessing” of some type, in which the Christian’s growth goes into overdrive. And they call this the “baptism of the Spirit.” Once you’ve been baptized in the Spirit, you’re on another plane of discipleship and close fellowship with the Lord.

The kindest word I can use for that notion? Nonsense. Let’s take a look at the phrase as Scripture talks about it.

The first time it’s mentioned is in the Matthew passage above. John the Baptist promised the Messiah would come and—in stark contrast with himself—would baptize people with “the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Considering the context of the passage, I'd interpret the “baptism with fire” to not be referring to Pentecost but the Last Judgment. Remember that baptism is actually kind of a made-up word. When scholars were working on an English translation, they basically transliterated the Greek word baptizo into baptism. It literally means “to immerse” or “submerge.” If you take an Oreo cookie and dunk it into milk until it’s completely submerged, that’s “baptizing” it. The only reason you don’t see it as just rendered “immersed” in the English translation is because some translators came from a church tradition in which they sprinkled water on infants. They didn’t like the fact that the Greek word simply means “immerse,” so they--quite frankly--made up a word in order to fit their church tradition. You can guess how I feel about that.

Let’s look at 1 Cor. 12:12-13. In any church that’s been established and growing for a while, you have a wide variety of maturity among members. You (hopefully) have members who are new Christians who just got saved recently, and you have members who've walked with the Lord for decades, and people in between. Unfortunately, the Corinthian church, which you know if you’re familiar with this epistle, had more than its share of immaturity. Most of the book of 1st Corinthians is made up of Paul ripping them up one side and down another. But he can say, unequivocally, that “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.” Not some, not most. All. The guy who got saved last week and the one who could give Paul a run for his money in walking close with the Lord.

Friend, let me make this as clear for you as possible. If you're a believer in Christ, then you've been baptized by the Holy Spirit. It's not dependent on your performance or your day-by-day decisions. It was decided once and for all once you received Christ. You don’t get saved and then sometime later undergo Spirit-baptism.

Now, just to clear up any further confusion, you aren't baptized into the Spirit. Take a close look at vs. 13, and substitute the word “immersed” for the word “baptized.” We know from Matthew that Jesus does the immersing, but apparently he does this by means of the Spirit. You are submerged--and permanently merged—into the body of Christ, like a drop into an ocean.

Now, why am I making such a big deal over this? Remember, I’m a practical theologian. I don’t raise an issue just to start an argument with my fellow believers. You're told by certain well-meaning people that if you don’t exhibit certain signs or certain gifts, you're basically a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom. You might be saved, but you haven’t really experienced the Holy Spirit until you’ve experienced “Spirit-baptism.” That’s not only nonsense; it's destructive nonsense.

If you’re saved, you’ve already experienced all the Spirit-baptism you’re going to experience. You have all the Spirit now that you will ever need. Right now. You are not a second-class citizen in God's Kingdom. Tomorrow we’re going to look at the real problem, something you do need to do after you're saved. But's it's not being baptized by the Spirit.

Lord Jesus, thank you for placing me within your body. I know some of my siblings drive me nuts sometimes, but I’m sure I do the same to them. Please give me patience with them, and please give them patience with me.

[August 17]--The Spirit at Work: Keeping Us Out of Sin

1 John 3:9-10

We discussed this topic a little bit back in May when we discussed soteriology, so some of this might seem familiar to you. But even though it’s sort of the same topic, there are some aspects of it I didn’t get to back then which I’d like to address now.

As you’ll recall, John wrote his epistle--along with some issues regarding a heresy called Gnosticism—for one main purpose. He wanted truly saved Christians to be assured of their salvation, and he wanted nonbelievers who'd fooled themselves into thinking they were saved to be stripped of any false assurance. He presented three tests for anyone thinking they were truly saved. If you passed the tests, you’re fine. If not, then you need to examine yourself. The tests were: 1) Right beliefs, 2) Right affection (love for siblings in Christ), and 3) A right direction in your lifestyle.

Again I need to make this point, since some Christians and even some denominations are confused on this. We still sin as believers. I’m going to struggle with sin until I see Jesus face-to-face, and there are few days I can remember in which I didn’t need to confess and repent of something.

But please note the careful wording I made in point # 3. The question is not “Do you still sin?” The question is “What direction are you taking in this area?” Are you heading towards better obedience and more faithfulness, or are you wallowing in a sinful lifestyle?

That’s how most Evangelical teachers interpret today’s passage, and that’s why the NIV translates it as “continue to sin.” The NASB renders it “practices” sin. If someone claims to be a saved, blood-bought redeemed child of God and still practices an unrepentant sinful lifestyle, then the Bible offers him no assurance of salvation. Actually it does quite the opposite.

How does this work out in my own life? I know I placed my trust in Christ as a young adult, but I still screw up. Here’s what's happened: I can’t get away with sin anymore. There are things I used to be able to do with impunity, like cussing, which I can’t do anymore. I used to love pornography. Now any lustful look I afford to a scantily clad girl on the street brings enormous guilt. I can’t enjoy sin anymore.

That’s the difference between a child of God and someone who’s not. My favorite illustration that someone gave me years ago is that of a fish and a man. A fish doesn’t mind being in water. If he could actually think like we do, he wouldn’t even have a word for "wet" in his vocabulary, because he’s never experienced or even dreamed about any other environment. It’s his natural element. But a man’s natural element in not underwater. He can’t breathe water. If he fell into a pool, he couldn’t just sink to the bottom and continue his normal activities. He might even swim around for a while, but he can’t live down there. That’s not his home.

That’s the work of the Spirit. We have a new life implanted within us at the new birth, given to us by the life-giving Spirit. The same Spirit who breathed life into the first man (Adam) and the corpse of the Lord Jesus (the second Adam), breathes life into us. He plants his life in us. That’s why we can’t just keep living like we once did. I don’t mean “we can’t” in the sense of “we shouldn’t” or “It’s really bad if we do. . .” I mean it in the sense of “We can’t jump into the water and breathe in it like a fish.” He won’t let us.

All of this, by the way, is a wonderful act of love. Aren’t you glad that he won’t just let you wander off into a self-destructive life of sin? As someone once told me, “He loves you exactly as you are, and too much to leave you that way.” That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Holy Spirit of God, you won’t let go of me, will you? No matter what I do, no matter how much I deserve it. Thank you.

[August 16]--The Spirit at Work: Getting Rid of Teachers--saybuhwhat?!

Jer. 31:31-34

Yesterday we looked at the first characteristic of the New Covenant which God promised, namely that instead of writing his Law on stone, he'd write it on our hearts. Once we place our faith in Christ, God the Holy Spirit starts the process of changing our attitudes which will eventually overflow into our actions. Your thoughts will--sooner or later—express themselves in how you live. Only the New Covenant as initiated by Jesus Christ can actually change you from the inside-out.

But there’s a second characteristic, and it deserves a day of its own, since it can be a little confusing. What does the Lord mean when he promises that "No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest"?

First, let’s clear this up by clarifying what it does not mean. It doesn’t mean that under the New Covenant (under which we live right now), there’s no further need for teachers. Teaching is listed multiple times as one of the gifts the Spirit gives the Church. Until Christ returns, there will always be a need for people to take God’s word and help God’s people understand and apply it. I’d like to think I have this gift; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this blog.

So what is the verse referring to? Think about the situation under the Old Covenant and contrast that with today. The Holy Spirit didn’t come inside and make each individual believer a permanent residence like today. He came upon certain individuals for a certain length of time for a specific purpose, and then he might or might not leave. The average believer didn’t have the Spirit to illuminate the Scriptures for him. That’s what the priests were for. They studied the Law (or were supposed to) and were God’s representatives among the people. If you had a question, you went to a priest.

Or if the nation needed a new word from God, that’s what the prophets were for. They were God’s messengers, and the words from their mouths had equal weight and authority to the Torah. But unless and until one of them showed up, the regular believer just had to go with what the priests told him. Keep also in mind that most people would be illiterate and would have little or no direct access to a copy of the Torah anyway. So do you see why the Lord was so hard on priests who went astray?

All that changed when the New Covenant in Christ was initiated. Now every believer has direct access to God through Jesus, our great High Priest. We can come to him anytime day or night to his throne of grace and ask him for answers or direction. Through his complete word and through the guidance of the Spirit, we can know everything we need to know. No earthly priest is needed! That's the sense in which there's no more need for teachers in this age.

And in the next age, I think this verse will be completely fulfilled. Everyone on earth will know God on a personal level, so there really won't be any need ever again for anyone to tell his neighbor "Let me tell you about the Lord!" Witnessing will be obsolete once Christ comes back.

Before we get to the last characteristic, I’d like to make a quick application here. Maybe we need a reminder of this sometimes: You have as much access to God through Jesus Christ as I do. I’ve been a leader in my church, and for some reason some people have seemed to think my prayers carry more “weight” than those of a lay person. Absolutely not. I’m more than happy to pray for them, but I’m not a priest, at least not one as distinguished from anyone else. We have only one priest here, and we need only one. You have access now. Use it.

Finally there’s the one aspect of all this which really is essential. There’s a Latin phrase that’s actually pretty helpful here: Sine qua non. It literally means “Without which, not.” Without this one thing, nothing else works. It’s there in the last phrase of the passage: “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Notice that little preposition here: “For.” All the other benefits of the New Covenant (knowing God personally, having his Law written on my heart, etc.) only can take effect if the one problem is taken care of: my sin. Once that’s dealt with, once my sin is forgiven and forgotten, then we can have the intimate fellowship these verses describe. This is a little off-topic, since the Agent of this is mostly Christ instead of the Spirit, but I thought we could all use a little reminder. Our sins are forgiven and forgotten. He’s not going to bring them up again. Ever. Aren’t you glad?

Father, thank you for your Spirit, which is the connection between you and me. I have an intimate relationship with you that the believers in the Old Testament could only dream of. Let’s take advantage of that, shall we?

[August 15]--The Spirit at Work: Writing on Our Hearts

Jer. 31:31-34

Throughout history, there've been lots of theories about how to make a better world. Some politicians seem to think we can make a better society by instituting better government programs. The Soviet Union used to boast about how they were building a “new man.” Every religion out there has a new set of rules or a new program to follow to make you a better person.

They’re all missing the point, and this is best illustrated by one of my favorite Bible-based movies of all time: The Prince of Egypt. Produced by Steven Spielberg, it presents in awe-inspiring detail the story of Moses as told in the book of Exodus. It goes through the parting of the Red Sea and the devastation of Egypt’s army. For the most part, it’s either faithful to the Scriptures or at least doesn’t contradict them, and its depiction of his first encounter with the Lord at the burning bush sent chills up my spine. I had one major problem with it, however. The final scene shows Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments in his arms. He returns to the Hebrews, and they are all staring up at him in awe, eagerly waiting for the word from God that he’s about to give them.

Is that what really happened? Um, no. Quite the opposite. When he came down from the mountain, he found them in a sexual orgy as they worshiped a Golden Calf. That’s right: God hadn't even finished giving the Ten Commandments to us before we broke them. I understand why Spielberg wouldn’t want to show that in an animated movie for kids, but his depiction of what occurred when humanity received the Ten Commandments is not just deceptive: It illustrates the fundamental difference between how all religions view our problem/solution and how the Bible views it.

You see, as far as the world is concerned, all we need are the right set of rules. These set of rules don’t work, so let’s try another set of rules. No, those don’t work either, but surely these will do the job! Friend, if all we needed were the right set of rules, then the Torah would have succeeded long ago. I mean, really—Do you think we’re going to come up with a better set of rules than ones which came directly from the mind of God himself?!?!?! As Paul put it, “[If] a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law,” referring to the Old Covenant.

Is the problem with the Torah? Of course not. Again, as Paul said, “[The] law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” In this one case, just to repeat and clarify, the “rules” were given directly by God himself. Today’s passage gives both the problem we have and the solution he offers. Let’s look at it.

The Lord here promises that one day he'd make a new covenant with the house of Israel (and with all humanity). This wouldn't be like the old covenant, which was instituted at Mt. Sinai. Why would he make a new covenant? Why would there be a need for a new one? The simple answer is found in vs. 32: “They broke my covenant.” The problem was—and is—us.

We failed. We rebelled. We wouldn’t listen.

So he promised a new covenant, a new contract, a new formal agreement. What would be the characteristics of this?

First, there would be the contrast in what’s being written upon. The first covenant was written on stone. It was permanent and unchangeable. It was a wonderful set of rules. But just because a law is written down in the books, that doesn’t mean people will keep it. The speed limit laws are on the books, but anyone driving on the highway can see how closely followed that is. But what if. . . the government could make you want to follow the speed limit?

That the difference. That’s what the Lord is talking about here. Instead of just telling us not to steal, he can change our hearts so that we don’t want to steal. He places within us a desire to obey and please him.

That’s one of the works of the Spirit. Yes, I still sin and fail. But he’s written his wordnot on tablets of stone, but on my heart, and I want to please him. I don’t want to grieve him anymore.

We’ll save the second characteristic until tomorrow.

Holy Spirit of Truth, thank you for writing your word on my heart. You do what only you can. No one else can change me from the inside-out. Please keep it up.

[August 14]--The Spirit at Work: Teaching and Reminding

John 14:25-26

I know I’ve said before that the Bible doesn’t have a lot of humor in it, and there’s a good reason for that. But it’s also true that the disciples produced some unintentional humor by their lack of understanding and comprehension. I mean, how many times and how clearer did Jesus have to tell them that he was about to die in Jerusalem? With all reverence and respect, it’s like a Saturday Night Live skit sometimes: He tells them “I’m about to go to Jerusalem, where I'll be betrayed, arrested, tortured, and die. But the good news is that three days later I’ll be coming back from the dead.” And he might as well be Charlie Brown’s teacher from the TV specials for how well they were listening—“What was that, Jesus? You said that you’re going to diet? What type of diet are we talking about? I hear the Adkins works wonders.”

Why was this so? Was it a case of lack of spiritual enlightenment, or was it just a case of someone telling them something they didn’t want to hear and tuning him out? I suspect both are partially true. The O.T. had made it clear that the Messiah had to die for the sins of God’s people in order to be reconciled to him, but most Jews either weren’t paying attention to it or reinterpreted it to fit their theology. Paul later referred to non-believing Jews thus: “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts.” Today practicing Jews read through the O.T. on a rotating basis every Sabbath, but some of them actually skip over portions like Isaiah 53 for some odd reason.

But after Jesus ascended, the Spirit came on Pentecost. On that day, everything changed. The same Spirit who breathed truth into the prophets now did the same for the Gospel writers and the authors of the rest of the N.T. For a few years the church depended on orally passing down the truth of the New Covenant, but quickly it was recognized that we needed to write these things down, especially as the apostles (and the first generation of Christians) started to die off.

That’s the work of the Spirit that Christ is referring to in today’s passage. He reminded the apostles of what Christ had said and did and oversaw the process of writing it down so that were no errors in what was recorded. He used the backgrounds, vocabularies and writing styles of the various authors, but he made sure that they only wrote down what he wanted them to write down.

But just as importantly, he also taught them to make perfect interpretations of what they remembered. When John makes parenthetical comments in his Gospel, that is just as inspired and authoritative as the words of Christ themselves. The rest of the N.T., which is basically commentary on what we read in the Gospels, is also just as authoritative as the words of Christ. That’s why it bugs me when someone calls himself a “Red-Letter Christian,” as if the words of Paul are any less inspired than something from the mouth of Jesus in the Gospels.

Why is this important today? Because this is describing to you and me how we got the N.T. When the church was officially confirming what books belong in the New Testament, the standard was that the author had to either be an apostle (like Matthew or Paul) or a direct associate of an apostle (like Luke or Mark). This is not the “gossip” game where you whisper in someone’s ear who then whispers the same message in someone else’s ear who then repeats the process in a circle.

There are two questions for you to answer then. First, do you actually believe in this book? Either you do or you don’t. If you don’t, then please don’t pretend that you do. It’s either the inspired inerrant word of God, or it has no more authority than Dear Abby in telling me what to do. Second, if you do believe it, does that fact show up in your life?

Holy Spirit of God, I thank you so much for breathing your word into these men and perfectly preserving its truth for us. I know I grieve you pretty frequently, and I’m sorry about that. May my faith and my actions be in perfect sync

[August 13]--The Spirit at Work: Another One

John 14:15-21

Yesterday we talked about what the Spirit does for the world, referring to nonbelievers: He convicts them of sin, righteousness, and judgment. He’s the one who draws people to Christ, shows them their need for them, and makes clear the Good News to them. Today we’re going to examine what the Spirit does for believers. Actually, we’re going to spend a few days on this topic, since that’s the bulk of what the N.T. says about his work. The Spirit was involved in every physical aspect of our salvation (the Incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, etc.), but he’s involved in every spiritual aspect of our salvation as well.

The Last Supper was their version of the Passover. Since they were having it a day early, there were some modifications that were necessary, but it was supposed to be a celebration. It should've been, but it wasn’t. Jesus’ mood was very dark, as if a cloud hung over every piece of the conversation. He kept telling them what was going to happen to him, but they couldn’t understand, or they didn’t want to. But he kept trying to give them the hope they needed to make it through the next few days.

Like I said yesterday, John 14-16 has the most complete of any section of any teaching on the Spirit. He was trying to impress on them the necessity of his departure, and his main appeal was the imminent arrival of the Spirit after he left. Let’s take a brief look at it.

He says that when he returns to the Father he will send “another advocate” to them. There are two very important points to make here from the Greek. First, the word translated as "advocate" in the NIV, although it's been rendered various ways in different translations: "counselor," "helper," and "comforter." The Greek word is Paraclete, literally "someone called to walk along beside [to help someone]." It was used as a legal advocate, roughly equivalent to a defense attorney in a trial (used of Jesus in that sense in 1 John 2:1), or it could be used in the sense of "encourager" (used in that sense of Barnabas, the "son of encouragement" in Acts 4:36-37). So it's a really rich word which defies simple one-to-one translation . The NIV chose to translate it as "advocate" in today's passage, and that's as good as any. However you translate it, the Spirit was sent by the Father and Jesus to be the One called to help us, counsel us, comfort us, and encourage us .

The other major point is regarding the word "another." The Greek is very clear that it's "another of the same type." What Jesus was to his disciples while on earth, the Spirit is about to become to them and to us. Our Savior walked along them, providing comfort, power, encouragement, instruction, and rebuke to his followers. And he always did so in exact measure of what they needed moment by moment.

His promise is that the Counselor will do that same type of work for us. In fact, it'll be better. Jesus, under the Father’s plan, limited himself to time and space in a physical body. He could only see and help so many people per day. His personal attention was a zero-sum game: If he paid attention to person X, it could only be at the expense of person Y.

Not so the Spirit. If there are umpteen kajillion believers out there, the Spirit lives in each of them and gives them as much personal attention as if he only had one believer to attend.

The other reason it’s better than what the disciples had is because of internal instead of merely external instruction. We’re going to discuss this in further detail in a couple of days, but we can mention it here. The Holy Spirit has always been with believers in one sense: He’s the Spirit of truth, and no one knows God at all apart from his revelatory action. But Jesus here talks about something never seen before in human history: He was “with” you, but once this happens he’s going to be “in” you. He’s coming to live permanently. Not just until you screw up. Not just until he’s finished some task. Forever and forever and forever.

This is pretty comforting to me. The disciples certainly felt like Jesus left them as orphans over the next few days. Even his resurrection appearances, as wonderful as those were, were only a temporary respite until he ascended. But he would return in the sense of coming back in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is how Jesus comes to us. His presence is as real to us now as it was when he walked the planet with his followers.

We certainly don’t experience as intimate a fellowship as we’d like or as God would like. But he’s here. Right now. You can have a taste of his presence right this second. Why don’t you?

Lord Jesus, I thank you so much that I’m not an orphan. You are here in the Person of the Holy Spirit. I know I have you, but I want more. Please.

[August 12]--The Spirit at Work: J'accuse

John 16:5-11

I love God’s word, but it’s not always arranged in the way I’d like it. I love systematic theology: setting out what you believe in an orderly fashion. With a few exceptions, the Bible doesn’t have that. If you want to know what God has to say about, say, money, then you need a concordance and use it to look up verses which are scattered here and there. The main exception I can think of is the book of Romans, which—not coincidentally—is my favorite book of the Bible. It’s not styled like a letter so much as a theological treatise.

That’s why I’ve needed to skip around a bit in discussing the nature and work of the Holy Spirit. There are no sections of the Bible to which you can point and say “This is what the Bible says about him.” However, John 14-16 is the closest thing you’ll find in the Scriptures to it. It contains more information and teaching about his work than any other section.

In today’s reading, Jesus is trying to comfort his disciples about his imminent departure, and he reveals to them that it’s absolutely necessary for him to return to the Father. It’s all one seamless plan, and if one part isn’t completed, then everything else falls apart. He’s about to return to the Father’s side, and when he does, he’s going to send another “Helper,” obviously the Spirit. Then he reveals some things regarding the Spirit’s activity to come.

You might've noticed that I didn't use the NIV for today's reading. The reason is because I disagree with them about the translation of a certain phrase. In the NASB the word is "convict," which other translations (e.g. NIV) render it as "prove wrong." John MacArthur says "This word has two meanings: 1) the judicial act of conviction with a view toward sentencing (i.e., a courtroom term-conviction of sin) or 2) the act of convincing. Here the second idea is best, since the purpose of the Holy Spirit is not condemnation but conviction of the need for the Savior. The Son does the judgment, with the Father ( 5:22, 27, 30). In v. 14, it is said that He will reveal the glories of Christ to His people. He will also inspire the writing of the NT, guiding the apostles to write it (v. 13), and He will reveal "things to come," through the NT prophecies (v. 13)."

What does the Spirit convince the world of? He reveals to them three things. He shows them their sin, Jesus’ righteousness, and the judgment to come. The interesting thing is that Jesus doesn’t just leave it at that. He’s very specific about further details.

The sin the Spirit convicts people of is not just any sin, like murder or adultery or theft. The sin that the Spirit reveals is that of not believing in Christ. In a sense, any sin will keep you out of heaven, since all of it is worthy of eternal condemnation. But there’s another sense in which there’s only one sin which is a complete "deal breaker": failure to put your trust in Christ. I firmly believe that if today someone can actually commit the “unpardonable sin,” then this is the only way to do it. There will be murderers in heaven (David and Paul, just off the top of my head), and there will be adulterers (ditto on David).

The righteousness which the Spirit reveals to us is not (at least in this context) just whatever Jesus did which was righteous. There was a specific sign that Jesus had perfectly obeyed the Father and had fulfilled everything he had come to do in order to save us. When Jesus returned to the Father’s side, that was the final “stamp of approval” on who Christ is and what he did.

The judgment to come refers to the fact that the “Prince of this world” now stands condemned. Not just in the future, although that will be the complete fulfillment of his condemnation when he’s thrown into the Lake of Fire. But he’s condemned now. You ever hear the term “dead man walking”? It was popularized in The Green Mile, a movie about prisoners on death row. As they were walking the last “Green Mile” to the electric chair, they were considered dead men, even though they were still technically alive. It’s the same with Satan’s kingdom. His authority was on its way out even as Christ was about to be arrested, tortured, convicted, and executed.

And why does the Spirit point this out to the world of lost souls? Because if you don’t belong to Christ, you share in that condemnation. You’re a part of his system. You’re a citizen of the Third Reich as the bombs are falling on Berlin. The Spirit is telling you that you desperately need to hoist the white flag and openly switch allegiances.

So what’s the application here? There’s one thing that sticks out to me: Quit trying to be an amateur Holy Spirit. It’s his job to convince people to follow Christ. Your job is to be a witness for Christ. Your job is to present the claims of Christ and live a Christ-like life as much as possible before the world. As someone once said, Jesus isn't issuing any general call for defenders. He's calling for witnesses.

Here's another application: If you’re scared to death about telling people about your faith, relax. It’s not your job to convince anyone of anything. Learn how to share the Good News as effectively as you can, and leave the results up to him. Isn’t that a relief?

Lord Jesus, I confess that sometimes my mouth and actions don’t mesh. I’m a pretty sorry witness for you sometimes. Please change me, shine through me, and let there be a LOT more of you and a LOT less of me in front of the world.

[August 11]--The Spirit at Work: Dead and Alive

Heb 9:13-14; Eph. 1:18-21; Rom. 8:11

It’s my contention that the Spirit is an integral part of--and active participant in--every aspect of our salvation. The Spirit conceived Jesus within Mary’s womb, and he anointed our Savior at his baptism. He led Jesus and was the means by whom the Father instructed Jesus every step of the way. There are indications that Jesus performed his miracles and preached in the power of the Spirit. How does all this jibe with the fact that he’s the Son of God and can therefore do whatever he darn well pleases? The best explanation I’ve found is that within the Father’s plan, he somewhat limited himself, and utilized the power of the Spirit in order to accomplish that plan.

Now we come to the reason why Jesus came. He didn’t come primarily to teach, although his sermons and teaching sessions are the best human ears have ever heard. He didn’t come primarily to heal, although his miracles were astounding. Find someone who can raise up someone else who’s been dead for four days. Find anyone else who can heal blindness or deafness or paralysis with a touch and/or a word. Whatever Jesus does, he does it extremely well, actually the best that anyone ever experienced. When he made wine, he didn’t make some stuff that only tastes better after you’ve “had a few.” He made the best of the best of the best. That’s the type of God/man he is.

No, he came primarily to die. Behind all this was his all-consuming desire to glorify and obey his Father, but in practical terms it came down to him dying a horrible death. He offered up himself as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. I mean the word “ultimate” literally: Not just in the sense of “most important ever” but “final.” His once-and-for-all sacrifice was all that was needed to cover all the sins of humanity, yours and mine.

Now, I can’t go into too much detail here, because Scripture doesn’t. In fact, the Hebrews passage is the only one I can find which even mentions this. In some mysterious way (there’s that word again!), Jesus offered up himself to the Father through the Spirit. Just as all the members of the Trinity were included in his Incarnation, baptism and earthly ministry, now they were each involved in the actual act of atonement for our sins.

And of course you know what happened three days later. One moment you have a cold, dead, lifeless corpse lying in a tomb. No breath, no heartbeat, no synapses firing in the brain. Then the Spirit brings our Savior back to life. Air comes back into lungs and is expelled in respiration. A heart starts to pump blood once more. The once-dead body of Jesus stands up and steps out of his grave clothes. And this is the Spirit’s doing.

Again the Savior’s actions are the pattern for us. We can never atone for sin, but right now the Father still desires sacrifices. Not dead ones—That train has left the station. No, he wants living sacrifices. Think about it for a moment. Once you set fire to that body of a lamb or goat, it was given over to God. There was no going back. Whatever use I had for that animal was gone forever. Whatever was on the altar now belonged totally to the Lord.

As believers, we're to be living sacrifices. I’m walking around, I’m breathing, etc. But I’m supposed to be as much given over the Lord as that barbecued animal on the altar. And how is this accomplished? Through the work of the One who lives inside me, the Holy Spirit of God.

I’m supposed to be offered up to God through the Spirit just like my Savior was, and the pattern continues after that. The same Spirit who raised up Jesus lives inside me as well. In fact, there are two ways in which this is fulfilled in my life. First, this all-powerful Spirit gives me the strength I need to accomplish God’s will. Think about the power that it took to raise Jesus from the dead. That’s the power we have access to when we’re tempted or under assault from the Enemy or the world. Second, the same Spirit who raised Jesus will someday do the same thing to us. If my Lord delays his return, then one day I’ll be laid in a grave. My body will be as cold and lifeless as my Savior’s once was. But the same Spirit who breathed life into the first man (Adam), and who breathed life into the Second Adam (the Lord Jesus) will breathe life into me. Seems like kind a pattern with him, huh?

Holy Spirit of God, you are the Life-bringer. Would you please blow through once more this dusty temple? Would you breathe new life into me? Please?