[Sept 30]--Angels and Demons: Power On A Leash (Most of the time)

2 Kings 19:35-36

As I’ve pointed out over and over, we need to keep a proper balance concerning the spiritual realm. I hesitate to assign praise or blame for every good or bad thing that happens to angels or demons. If my car breaks down, my first instinct is to look at what’s going on with the engine, not to try to exorcise a demon out of it. If a car nearly hits me on the highway, I have no way of knowing whether or not there was an angel involved in my safety.

The reason is that, for the most part, angels and demons have something in common with God. They all mostly work “behind the scenes,” out of the range of our physical senses or scientific knowledge. But occasionally we see them act openly, and when we do, it can be pretty startling.

I didn’t want you to zone out on me, so I didn’t have you read the entire passage that lends context to today’s reading. Here’s the story in a nutshell: Judah—along with all the neighboring countries—was invaded by the King of Assyria, who went by the name Sennacherib. He'd steamrolled over every other nation he had encountered. It seemed like nothing could stop him. He then entered Judah and proceeded as he had always done: taking over cities, destroying anyone who opposed him, and claiming all the land for his kingdom. Then his army approached Jerusalem, the capital of the nation. Before he arrived, he sent an envoy/ambassador to discuss terms. The envoy insulted not only the king and any attempts to resist Sennacherib. In the king’s name, this ambassador insulted—indeed, held in complete derision—the God of Israel. His reasoning was thus: None of the other gods of any of the other nations saved them. The God of Israel is the same as the others. Therefore it doesn’t matter if I insult this God like any other.

The King of Judah, Hezekiah, was a godly king; in fact, he was one of the godliest in their history, and actually rivaled David in following the Lord wholeheartedly. When he was handed the terms in writing which insulted the Holy One of Israel, he went straight to the Temple and laid them down in front of the Lord. Here was his argument he presented to God: Of course none of the other gods saved them from Sennacherib. They aren’t real. They’re idols. They’re blocks of wood and stone and metal. But you are the one true living God, and you’ve been insulted. I don’t care if I’m insulted; what matters to me is your great Name. Your reputation among the nations is at stake. Are you going to do something about this?

And today’s passage reveals the Lord’s response. The Bible is very clear about what happened. In fact, the Spirit wanted to make sure we got the message, so he repeated this story in 2 Chronicles and in the book of Isaiah. One angel, overnight, killed 185,000 men in Sennacherib’s army. And in a wonderful bit of irony, the king himself was spared so that he could see what happened. He woke up the next morning and probably wondered why no one was attending him. He goes out of his tent and sees the reason. “I’m sorry, your Majesty. We would've served and reported to you this morning, but we were too busy being DEAD and all.”

My friends, this is what one angel did. When Jesus was arrested, do you remember what Peter did and how Jesus responded? Peter cut off a guy’s ear (apparently aiming for his head) in order to protect his beloved Master. Jesus immediately healed the man--probably doing it quickly so that few people noticed—and thus averted the arrest of his disciples. What was his rebuke of Peter? “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” That would not be a fight. That would be an execution. One word from the Son of God and there wouldn’t be enough of his enemies for their own mothers to identify.

But he never gave the word. Undoubtedly there were legions of angels waiting for the command to defend their beloved Creator. And they would do a heck of a lot more than cut off a guy’s ear! But that command never came, and our Lord was arrested and hauled off to his fate.

I don’t know the physical limits of angels. I don’t know what they can and can’t do when they interact with this world. But I do know this: They're a LOT more powerful than we could ever dream of being. These are the unseen friends all around us. Most of the time, their power is on a leash ordained by our Father. They could introduce brute force, but according to God's plan they hold back what they could do.

Why? Well, there’s one good reason I can think of: “The Lord. . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” And one day, all that power will be set free. We’ll get to see firsthand what’s been held back for so long. The only question is, what side will I be found on?

Lord Jesus, thank you for being patient with me for so long. I thank you that I’m surrounded by unseen friends, and I thank you that even more importantly, you surround me with your power and love and grace. Wow.

[Sept 29]--Angels and Demons: Flaming Guardians

Genesis 3:21-24

So we know that the angels were there near the beginning of creation, praising God and worshipping him as he finished up. Undoubtedly they watched as he created the first man out of the dirt and infused it permanently with his image. This was the height of creation, and the grandest display of his wisdom and power. Like the angels (to some degree), this new creature would have freedom of choice as to whether or not to serve the Maker.

Presumably sometime between what Job 38 refers to and the creation of mankind there occurred the fall of Satan. We also don’t know how long Adam and Eve spent in the Garden before they fell—It could've been mere days or thousands of years.

Today’s passage gives in some detail some of the consequences of the Fall of our first parents. Again, last year we went over some of those: Destroyed intimacy between husband and wife, destroyed intimacy between God and mankind, shame, the blame-game, and a host of others. A lot of these bad consequences manifested immediately, but most of the worst of it wouldn’t be displayed until years later.

This passage gives us some insight into what changed once we left the Garden. As long as Adam and Eve were in that perfect environment, they'd never experience death or sickness. Yes, we were originally designed to live forever. There were two trees in the middle of Eden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. Only one was banned, namely the Tree of Knowledge. We had free access to the other one, so we would've lived forever as long as we ate from it.

Once sin entered the picture, however, that was no longer a good option. Can you imagine growing older and older and older and never dying? For insight into this, I need to turn to C.S. Lewis (as I regularly do). He points out that my bad temper is pretty bad if left untended. It just gets worse and worse, but eventually I die and it can’t get any worse than that, at least not in this life. But if I live on and on and on, then a few thousand years later, if left untreated it will only be worse on an order of magnitude. In fact, that’s the definition of Hell: Hell doesn’t make a sinner reconsider and repent. He only hates God more and more. Lewis compared our sin to a hemorrhage that goes on forever and forever; death is God's tourniquet. Time heals a lot of wounds, but it doesn't heal a sinful nature.

Or if you want a modern example, consider Gollum/Smeagol from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He'd lived for hundreds of years past his normal lifespan due to the Ring he'd owned. In the end he was just existing on lust for the Ring and hatred for anyone who kept it from him. There was no joy, no peace, no love (not even for the Ring), no rest. He wasn’t living, not really. He was just existing. There’s a huge difference.

So what does this have to do with angels? Note that they’re God’s tools in this instance to keep a bad situation from growing worse. In their fallen state, our first parents would never have been able to resist the temptation to live forever in this world. So the Lord, in his incredible mercy, used angels as his enforcers to keep them away from that which would've destroyed them.

I could be wrong, but I believe that’s still a role for them today. We’re supposed to ask the Father to keep us out of tempting situations, right? Even with the Spirit living inside me, I’m weak. And I believe that sometimes the Lord uses his agents to answer that prayer, to keep a bad situation from getting worse.

Whether they do that today or not, we need to ask the Father to use whatever means he deems necessary to keep us out of sticky situations. What did Paul say? “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!” Sounds good to me.

Father God, I won’t know until I reach glory how many times you kept me from sinning worse than I do already. For all those unknown times, thank you. May they be less and less needed.

[Sept 28]--Angels and Demons: Near the Beginning

Job 38:1-7

I’ve been looking for an excuse and the perfect time to introduce this subject, and since the whole story from yesterday started with a demon-possessed girl, I guess this is as good a time as any. For the next few days we’re going to take a break from Acts in order to study what the Bible actually says about the spiritual realm, specifically angels and demons.

Quite frankly, I’m approaching this topic with some trepidation. First off, I need to be very careful not to say more than what Scripture actually says. Or if I do slip into speculation, I need to make it clear that this is what I’m doing. The other reason I’ve been slightly reluctant to do this is because of the very real danger that we’ll focus on them to the detriment of what’s really important.

Before we get to today’s passage, I need to submit a reminder which is very relevant to this issue. When I’ve been reluctantly volunteered as the “Bible Answer Guy” in Bible studies and other settings, someone will inevitably ask some question that’s meant to stump me. There are tons of questions out there which betray an ignorance concerning the purpose of the Bible. Please hammer this home in your brain. Tattoo it on your forehead if that would help. Here it is: The Bible is there to tell us everything we need to know about life and the afterlife. It’s not there to tell us everything we’d like to know. It’s there to tell us how to relate to God and to others. It’s there to tell us how to prepare for the next life.

It’s not there to tell us about dinosaurs. It’s not there to tell us if there are aliens on another planet. It’s not there to tell us every detail about the afterlife (“Will I see my dog there?”).

This goes for angels/demons as well. The Bible tells us what we need to know about them, and that leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. How do they perceive reality? They apparently don’t have eyes or ears or skin like we do. How do they “see”? What do they “see” when they look at a human being? What are the limits of their power? Were the demons ever given a second chance, and if not, why not? I’d like to know the answers to questions like this, but apparently they aren’t important enough for us to know in this life.

So what’s the first mention of them in Scripture? You might have expected me to cite Genesis chapter 3. If you’re reading the Bible cover-to-cover (which I recommend), then that's certainly the first mention of them. But that’s not the first chronological mention of them.

That would be today’s passage. After a long period of silence and suffering, Job finally got the audience with God that he’d been demanding. In the ultimate example of the cliché “Be careful what you wish for,” the Lord Almighty showed up and gave Job the third degree. Basically the Lord’s main point in the final chapters of the book are “Who do you think you are? I’m God, and you’re not.”

In making his point, the Lord asks Job “Where were you when I made the universe out of nothing? When I created the mountains and the oceans and the deserts and the plants and the animals and everything else? If you think you can actually challenge the way I do things, then obviously you know better than I do.”

He then lists a few examples, and he just presents what I call a “throw away” line. That’s where the author of Scripture just casually mentions a subject of deep mystery and then moves on to the next topic. It would be like me talking to my wife about my day: “Yeah honey, I studied for my classes for a while, checked my email, went to the store, ran over a couple of school children and came back home. Does Chinese food sound good for dinner?” In examining this topic, a lot of what we know depends on verses like this.

The Lord just casually mentions that as he was finishing up creation, the angels “shouted for joy.” As he was creating the earth and everything on it, these spirits saw what he was doing and clapped. As he was moving land masses around, they “oohed” and “awed.” And when he created man out of the dust of the earth, they were awestruck. They watched in wonder as the Lord himself made this creature of dirt into his own image. As he made things, they worshiped.

So when angels were created, the first thing on their agenda was worship of their Creator.

So what’s the point here? What can we learn from this? The same point which the Lord was making to Job: Stand in awe and wonder before God. He deserves all praise and honor and glory and worship. For the act of Creation alone, he deserves all this.

Father God, I’m going to follow the angels’ example. I’m going to gaze at your creation today, and worship.

[Sept 27]--Singing in the Darkness

Acts 16:16-34

Quite frankly, I think this is just about my favorite story in the book of Acts. So what can we learn from the passage?

First off, let’s ask a question. Why was the demon within this poor girl going around and proclaiming that Paul and his group were “servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”? Obviously it didn’t want people to come to saving faith in Christ, did it? We can only speculate, but my guess is that it was meant as mockery and as a distraction. God’s Message doesn't need any positive testimonials from demons, thank you very much. As long as Paul and his friends were followed by this girl, they couldn’t concentrate on actually sharing the Good News with those who were ready to hear it. So Paul had enough and forcibly removed it from the girl.

Wonderful employers, weren’t they? They couldn’t care less about the obvious torment the spirit was putting this poor girl through. All they cared about was money. So they rounded up Paul and company and had them arrested. The authorities had them “severely flogged” (a decision the leaders would later regret) and had them cast into prison. The jailer fastened their feet with chains and stocks.

My friend, sometimes you get punished for doing the right thing for God. Paul and Silas hadn’t robbed anyone or beaten anyone or killed anyone. But here they were in a dark cold dungeon awaiting a certainly unpleasant fate. And what’s their reaction? Moan and whine and complain about their unfair treatment? No. Pray to God for deliverance? That was undoubtedly part of it, but there was more than that.

They sang. They praised the Lord. That cold dark dungeon was turned into a sanctuary for worship. And Luke makes sure to point out that the prisoners heard them. What was their response? Probably mixed. But we do know God’s reaction.

My friend, this shames me. How do I react when I go through any hardship, much less punishment for doing the right thing?

Again, we have to keep in mind that he doesn’t normally operate like this. We have no right to expect a physical deliverance when he hasn’t promised it. But he’s certainly capable of acting. He’s the Lord of the entire universe. He’s God Almighty. And he sent an earthquake which was precisely calibrated to shake off the bonds on their limbs and the doors off their hinges but not so severe as to cause the building to collapse. He can do things like that when he wants to.

When the jailer saw that the doors were open, he assumed the worst. He drew his sword, because he knew that if any prisoners got away, then suicide would be a much better alternative than anything his superiors would impose on him. But amazingly, Paul stopped him and told him that all the prisoners were still in their cells, a miracle in itself. And the jailer asked the most important question anyone will ever ask: “What must I do to be saved?” And the apostle gave him a straightforward answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Yes, it’s that simple.

Like I said, an amazing story. The Enemy planned to use trumped-up charges to put Paul’s ministry to a halt. And just like always, the Lord used the Enemy’s own plans to bring about his own. It’s an amazing story, but an even more amazing God whom we serve.

Ray Boltz has an incredible song based on this (“I Will Praise the Lord”) which never fails to bring tears to my eyes when I hear it. Here it is.

Father, it’s so hard when I get punished for doing the right thing. I really need the attitude of Paul and Silas. By your grace, please change me.

[Sept 26]--Team Effort

Acts 16:11-15

OK, you knew it was only a matter of time before I found another one. Of course I’m referring to what I call “tension verses,” where within a short verse or two we find two truths in tension. The reason I love them so much is because they provide balance. Remember Luther’s analogy? Humanity is like a drunken guy on a horse: He falls off one side, gets back on and then proceeds to fall off the other side. Each of us has our own background, prejudices, biases, strengths and weaknesses. Thus each of us are subject to different failings and shortfalls. Tension verses or passages speak to people on opposite sides of a spectrum.

When it comes to bringing people to Christ, who has the greatest responsibility? There are Bible passages which make it sound like it’s all on us to reach people using the best means possible. We need to plan. We need to research the targeted audience: Are we reaching Baby-boomers or Gen-X’ers? What rung on the economic ladder are they on? Churched or unchurched? The best way to reach X is not necessarily the best way to reach Y. Paul exemplified this philosophy with his own ministry: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” You can see this in the book of Acts. As I’ve pointed out multiple times, whoever’s preaching the Good News often tailored their presentation to their audience. When speaking to Jews and God-fearers, you’ll see a lot of quotes from the Old Testament, particularly the prophets. When speaking to pure pagans, you’ll see other methods used.

But is that the end of the story? Not quite. The same apostle who said he would become all things to all men had quite a bit to say about God’s role as well. The Christian teachers in the Calvinist tradition—who claim that it’s just a matter of God choosing whom he wants to save—have several passages in Paul’s epistles that they point to.

I’m not here to lay out exactly the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human decision. The main reason for that is because the Bible really doesn’t lay out the details either. There are verses that make it sound like it’s all God’s choice, and there are others that make it sound like it all depends on human decision.

But here’s the perfect balance, and I think just about every Bible-believing Christian would agree with what follows: We can’t bring people to salvation in Christ without God’s specific intervention, and God refuses to do it without us. Verse 14 describes Lydia’s conversion this way: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message.”

You see the perfect balance here? You and I and Billy Graham and anyone else can shout from the rooftops about Jesus. We can use every method to make the Message as attractive as possible to the intended audience, just like Paul did. But if the Lord doesn’t open their heart, we’re wasting our time.

At the same time, the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. The Lord has chosen people like you and me to be his messengers. He won’t do it without us. If he allowed angels to do it, they'd trip all over themselves rushing forward to volunteer. But he’s passed over each and every one of them, and has chosen you and me.


Lord Jesus, I want to be your megaphone, your ambassador of peace, your signpost. Whatever you want me to be, the answer’s “yes.”

[Sept 25]--Where Do We Go From Here?

Acts 16:6-10

The world is so full of need. There are hurting people all over the globe. Untold billions—yes, billions with a “b”—who are trapped in darkness. They’re enslaved in this world to an unseen Enemy of their souls, and they have no prospect in the next world except for an eternity without Christ.

If you let the knowledge really sink in, it can easily overwhelm you. But here’s the good news (with small letters) for those of us who take the Great Commission seriously. We’re not called to save the world. I’m not called to witness to the entire world. I’m called to be a witness for Christ in the small corner of the world where God has called me. Now, for some that includes a calling to go to another country and cross cultural lines in order to bring the Message and help the Church where Christ isn’t known. But even for those called into international missions, it still doesn’t mean that they're called to share Christ with the entire world. Nobody bears that responsibility.

Having said that, I think today’s passage contains some good lessons for all of us, whether we’re called to cross-cultural missions or not. Here are some things I’ve managed to glean:

1) Paul was planning on checking on the churches he had started which were in Ephesus, Smyrna, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Colosse, Sardis, Pergamos, and Thyatira. But God changed his plans. It wasn’t that Paul’s plans were bad or wrong or sinful. They just happened to be different from God’s plans. Just like David, Paul learned the lesson that God sometimes supersedes our plans.

2) God’s not in the habit of teasing us. If he hasn’t shown us what to do, then we just go off of his last orders until he changes them. When he points us in a certain direction, we keep going in that direction until he changes us again. But don’t worry. If he hasn’t made clear what he wants us to do, then he knows that. When he wants to be clear, he will be. If you’re trying to do what God has told you to do, then don’t worry about the future. If you’re heading in the wrong direction, then he will change it for you.

3) That leads me to an uncomfortable question. Am I that type of person? Most of the time it seems that God has to continually spur me on forward instead of changing the direction that I’m already going. Let me borrow an illustration someone gave me several years ago. Most cars today have power steering. If you’re parked, then the steering wheel is hard to turn, right? But if you’re moving forward, then it’s easier to turn the wheel. If we’re going forward in God’s plan as best as we can discern, then it’s easier for him to “steer” us in another direction if we need it. Make sense?

If you’re going in the direction that God wants you to (as best as you’re able to tell), then relax! Concentrate on what God has placed in front of you right here and now. Don’t let the weight of the world stay on your back. That’s meant for much broader shoulders than you’ll ever have.

Lord Jesus, so often I worry about things I shouldn’t be concerned about, and I neglect the simple duties you’ve put right in front of me. Reset my priorities, please.

[Sept 24]--When Friends Part Ways

Acts 15:36-41

After the big dust-up with the controversy concerning Gentiles coming into the church, Paul made a proposal to Barnabas. What that proposal entailed and what became of it are two issues worth considering.

First, let’s look at the proposal itself. Paul and Barnabas had started several churches in several different towns. They went into a town, usually went to the synagogue to preach and present the Good News, and used that as a base to reach others in the town with the Message. The synagogue was a great place to start for other reasons besides sentimental ones (an attachment to one’s fellow Jews). Any city or town could establish a synagogue if there were ten Jewish males. It'd be pretty rare, however, for a rabbi to take up residence and teach on a regular basis. Therefore, the Jews and God-fearers in attendance would welcome itinerant preachers/teachers to serve on the Sabbath as a guest speaker. As well-trained in the Law as Paul was, he'd be very attractive as a guest speaker—unless and until there were Jews from other towns to oppose him and stir up trouble. As some of the Jews and God-fearers became believers, they would be the best option for approaching the pagans in town.

It should be noted at this point that Paul was not a “hit and run” evangelist. He usually stayed about 2-3 years in a town (if possible) in order to get the church firmly established before they left. They'd appoint leaders and make sure they had at least the rudiments of basic apostolic doctrine down.

Now Paul wanted to return to some of their church plants and check up on them. There’s one word that comes to my mind when I read this: Accountability. He wanted to check on them to make sure they were staying true to the Good News, that they were abiding by the decision of the Jerusalem Council’s decision, and to take care of any other spiritual need. Most importantly, he wanted to make sure they were growing in their faith and becoming more mature in Christ. In order to be accountable, there has to be a system in place for checking up on someone. That’s the essence of making disciples. This followed the pattern set by the Master: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.” Let me repeat—Accountability is an essential aspect of discipleship.

Now we come to the less than pleasant aspect of today’s passage. Barnabas replied to Paul’s proposal with enthusiasm, but there was a catch. Just like last time, Barnabas wanted to take along his cousin John Mark. Paul insisted that they not take Mark along this time; Mark had left--Paul probably would've characterized it as “abandoned”--them on an earlier missions trip. Paul didn’t consider Mark reliable. I can understand the thought process: "The Mission is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing. It’s much more important than my own life, so it’s even more important than some kid’s feelings. We can’t let the mission depend on undependable people. The fact that he’s your dear cousin doesn’t change anything I’ve just said."

Barnabas understandably stood by his cousin. I can see his thought process as well: Yes, he did a horrible thing by abandoning us before. But he’s repented of it, and he deserves a second chance. He was pretty flaky before, but I see a lot of potential in him.

To be totally frank, I’m of two minds concerning their dispute. I can actually see both sides, and I don’t think either man was completely wrong. Yes, the mission was all-important. On the other hand, Barnabas had a history of seeing “diamonds in the rough” and standing up for them while others were reluctant to accept them. Remember, he'd done this for Paul. Despite Paul’s history and others’ reluctance to forget that, Barnabas had vouched for him and brought him into the inner circle.

As it turned out, his vision of Mark’s potential was spot-on. Church tradition states (and there’s no reason to dispute it) that this is the same guy who collected the teachings of Peter into what we know as Mark’s Gospel. Yes, that Gospel. And at the end of his life, Paul was apparently reconciled to him. In the final days before his execution, Paul asked specifically to have Mark by his side.

What can we learn from this? Your past doesn’t have to define your future unless you let it. And don’t be too quick to write off that person who made a mistake and even let you down. Could be you’re discarding a diamond in the rough who needs someone to believe in him.

Father God, is there someone around me who needs that? You’ve done it for me. You’ve demonstrated over and over in my life that you’re the God of second chances. Can I pass that along to anyone?

[Sept 23]--No Additions or Subtractions

Acts 15:1-21

Here we have the first ever Church council. Church history records seven within the first couple of centuries, but this is the only one which is actually part of Scripture. The later ones were important: They helped clarify what the Bible tells us about the nature of Christ and the Trinity. But they don’t have the same authority as this one does.

So what was the question at hand? Simply put, what must a person do to be saved?

What started it all was some false teachers who came into the church and started teaching that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Now to be fair, there was some honest confusion on this point. Once again, this was a time of transition. We were transitioning out of the Law into the Gospel, and from a total focus on the Jews to a worldwide Church where there’s no difference between Jew and Gentile. It would be understandable for some people to be confused.

So we clarified it. The apostles and other leaders of the Church sat down and discussed the issue. They received testimony from three major parties.

First we got testimony from Peter. He was the first one to actively share the Good News with Gentiles back in chapter 10 (Cornelius and his house). He didn’t even finish his sermon before the entire household believed in Christ and God publicly put his stamp of approval on what was happening by performing a “Pentecost-lite” right there and then.

Second they heard Barnabas and Paul relate how the Lord was working through them to bring multitudes of Gentiles into faith in Christ. Just to make it clear that this was from God, the Lord was verifying what was happening through various signs and miracles.

Finally we hear from the chairman of the Council. Quite a change from when he didn’t even believe in his brother as the Messiah! He stood up and presented the official consensus that Gentiles are saved by faith in Jesus. No ceremony is required, nor are they required to follow the Law of Moses. The only thing they asked of the Gentile converts is that they abstain from food associated with idol worship, sexual immorality, from blood and from meat from strangled animals. The reason they asked this is clearly laid out in vs. 21: In considerate sensitivity to their Jewish brothers, the council asked them to avoid public activities which would be most offensive to the Jews. This is not a requirement for salvation, but just an issue of sensitivity to fellow believers who came from a different background.

I wish I could tell you that this was the end of the controversy, but you know I’d be lying. Paul fought for the rest of his ministry against legalists who wanted to add something to the Good News of Jesus. The entire book of Galatians (probably his first epistle) is a refutation of this nonsense.

And it continues to this day. There are plenty of churches which call themselves Christian but don’t present the simple Good News of Christ. There are churches that teach that you need to be baptized for salvation. There are others that teach that unless you’re a member of their church, you’re not saved. Or they hold that unless you take the Eucharist regularly, you’re not saved. Why? Why is this so hard to get? It’s not as if Paul isn’t clear enough.

Simply put, it’s human nature. There’s something inside us that rebels against the Good News. It can’t be that simple. There has to be something more than simply putting your trust in Christ. It actually offends our pride to think there’s absolutely nothing--zip zero nada--we can do to be saved. It's offensive to my sense of self righteousness to hear that when I come to Christ, I bring nothing to the transaction but my sin and my need.

That’s the key, isn’t it? Every other religion in the world tells us we need to do something in order to be right with God. The Good News of Jesus tells us done.

In this world, it’s pretty unpopular to say that not all religions are the same. It’s not politically correct to say that the details of how to be saved are really that important. But this is something for which Paul was willing to lay down his life. I’m sorry, but this is something on which we can’t negotiate.

Once again, if this is a point of confusion to you, if you're not absolutely sure that if you died today you'd be in Heaven, then please please please read this.

Lord Jesus, there’s nothing I can do to be made right with you. There’s nothing I could ever do to take away my sin or add to what you did on the Cross. Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to your Cross I cling. Please give me the strength to stand for what’s right.

[Sept 22]--Encouragement?

Acts 14:21-28

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Luke is very much a historian. Yes, he has an agenda beyond just giving us information about the early ministry of Paul. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he's extremely meticulous about the cities which Paul and Barnabas visited. We need to keep in mind, however, that every word in the book of Acts (just like the rest of God’s word) is there to teach us something. As my pastor once told me, the Holy Spirit is incapable of small talk.

There’s one little point I’d like to make about today’s reading. I’m always a big fan of “tension” passages, which hold seemingly contradictory truths in tension for us. They tend to provide perfect balance for us. Martin Luther once compared humanity to a drunk man on a horse: He falls off one side of the saddle, gets himself off the ground, sits back on his horse, rides a little further then proceeds to fall off the other side.

Before I get to the verse I’m thinking of, let’s look at the verse preceding it. Verse 22 tells us that Paul and his companions were “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.” That sounds wonderful, Paul. What did you tell them?

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” That’s nice Paul, wonderful word of encouragement for us to live. . . saybuhwhat?! What was that again?

This was meant as a word of encouragement?

Now I hate to have to do this, but there are people out there who need some clarification. Paul is not teaching that we’re saved by undergoing hardship. This is the apostle who laid it out for us oh-so-clearly multiple times in his epistles: We're saved by grace through faith in Christ plus nothing. He’s not teaching them how to get their sins forgiven or how to get into heaven.

So what’s he talking about?

He’s saying that before we get into our final rest, there’s going to be trouble along the way. This is a fallen, nasty and dark world. We have an Adversary who never takes a day off. He plots and schemes and attacks and infiltrates every good thing the Father is trying to do within and through us.

Our Savior promised us that we can’t expect better treatment than he got. The world rejected and killed him. Is the servant expecting better treatment than the Master?

And on top of that we suffer the normal slings and arrows of just living in a fallen world. Christians get sick. Christians lose their jobs. Christians get into bad car accidents.

But we can’t forget the other half of the thought, the tension which pulls us back from despair. We're going to end up in the Kingdom of God. It’s going to be a rough ride at times, but we're going to get there. It’s something so outside our experience that we have to define it mostly by what’s not there: tears, pain, sickness, loss, injury, death.

That’s the wonderful thing about tension verses. They contain perfect truth wrapped up in just a very few words. We’re going through hardships here, and there’s work to be done. But in the end it will all be more than worth it. Every tear. Every rejection. Every heartache. Every sacrifice. Every loss. This same apostle later told us “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

OK, so that’s encouraging.

Lord Jesus, it’s awfully hard to keep my eternal perspective at times. Please give me better vision, or at least better staying power.

[Sept 21]--Silent and Not-So-Silent Testimony

Acts 14:8-20

Today’s passage marks a real turning point for the ministry of Paul as recorded in the book of Acts, and it’s really important to us today. From this point forward, his sermons and speeches are directed towards pure-D Gentiles. Not the God-fearers who respect the Hebrew Scriptures and who try to worship the God of Abraham. No, he’s really speaking to pagans. The word “pagan” literally means a “country dweller” from the Latin, but the word was used metaphorically as someone who’s “outside.” We’re here in the city, where it’s safe and people are more cultured, and the pagans are “out there.” It’s someone who’s far away from the God of the Bible.

I really can’t wait for us to get to Acts 17, since it’s really pivotal in reaching out to a lost world. But here we see a taste of what’s to come. Please notice that Paul never mentions Moses or Abraham or the prophets. What does he appeal to?

It’s time to remember another theological term I’ve mentioned before: General revelation. If you recall it easily, then I apologize. But for those who need a refresher or who aren’t familiar with the term, it’s pretty important. The best way to understand it is by contrasting it with its opposite, Special revelation. Special revelation is truth which God has granted to us by direct communication, and we'd never have known it any other way. Here are some examples: The nature of God, the story of creation, what’s wrong with humanity, the way of salvation, the afterlife, and a host of others. By direct communication I’ve referring to his spokespeople like the prophets, and of course the record of that revelation which is the Bible.

So now we can grasp what general revelation is. It’s revelation which God has given virtually everyone on earth. There are things we can know about him just be observing the world.

That’s what Paul is talking about when he says that God “has not left himself without testimony.” He goes on to specify exactly what he means: “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

The Lord has provided a wonderful and prosperous world for us in which to live, hasn’t he? Yes, even with all its problems (caused by sin entering it) it has a lot of beauty. He didn’t have to do it, you know. He didn’t have to design taste buds which can discern sweet from sour. He didn’t have to plant sensors in our nose which can fill us with ecstasy in a rose garden. He didn’t have to make. . . um. . . marital intimacy so wonderful (this is a kid-friendly blog).

But he did. And that’s supposed to lead us to him. But here in this very passage we see a microcosm of mankind’s response to general revelation. Paul pointed out these things, and it didn’t stop them for a moment from their idolatrous intentions. General revelation isn't enough. Why not?

There are two reasons. First, general revelation is incomplete. We can figure out there’s a Creator out there, but we can’t tell much about him from nature. Do I need to point out how cruel nature can be at times? There’s very little compassion for the “other” in nature. And yes, we get rain but we also get floods and drought. Life is full of pleasures, but for most it’s also full of suffering and pain. We need more.

But that's not the highest hurdle. If someone actually did pursue God, if they really sought him out, wouldn’t he reveal himself? Of course he would. Jesus promised that if we seek we’ll find. That leads us to our second problem. On our own we’ll never seek the true God. We’ll hide from him behind our idols. We’ll try to fill that hole in our hearts with a thousand different things.

But the Good News is that he's seeking us. That’s why we need missionaries. Every missionary is an agent of a Shepherd seeking his lost sheep. And he won’t be satisfied until every single one of them is on his shoulders on the way back home.

Lord Jesus, thank you so much for seeking me out. I ran from you for quite a while, but you didn’t give up. You hunted me down with your unfaltering and unrelenting love.

[Sept 20]--Why So Surprised?

Acts 14:1-7

This passage starts another pattern which we’ll see in Acts. Through the rest of the book (and really the rest of the N.T.), the Jews tend to be the main opponents of the spread of the Message.

I’d like to take this moment to speak about Anti-Semitism. If you aren’t aware of it, then you should be. The hostility you see here between the Jews and Message of Jesus has been used as an excuse for “Christians” (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense) to persecute Jews, especially in the Middle Ages. It got to the point that Jews actually fled parts of “Christian” Europe to Muslim-held lands because they knew they would be better treated there.

That is a shame. I mean that literally. The fact that Jews at any time in history were persecuted in the name of our Lord is a shame on us which will never be completely erased in this life. It’s a hindrance to sharing the Good News with Jewish people to this day. There’s a reason why Messianic Jews (those who believe in Jesus) don’t call themselves "Christians." That word is forever associated in the minds of too many Jews with pogroms and other acts of hatred towards the Jewish people.

Why did I put the word “Christian” in quotes above? Because I can’t think of anything more antithetical to the Message than a hatred of anyone, especially the Jews. Here are some quick reminders: 1) All of our Bible except for two books (Luke and Acts) were written by Jews, 2) All of the Lord’s apostles were Jewish, 3) The entire first generation of believers was Jewish, 4) In no way are the Jewish people of today responsible for how a small number of people interacted with the early church 2000 years ago, and finally 5) Our Lord could have chosen to take the flesh of any ethnic identity he wanted. He chose to identify himself with the children of Abraham.

Now, it is true that the book of Acts and Paul’s epistles have some pretty harsh things to say about the Jews. It just so happened that the Enemy was able to use this group of people in order to oppose the Good News. But they're the channel through which the Lord has blessed the world over and over and over. And this might be controversial to some, but I believe that God isn’t finished with them yet.

And as for the harsh words with which Paul lambasted them, here are a couple of salient points: 1) This is the same man who said he would give up his own salvation if it meant they could be saved, and 2) As I once read from a Messianic Jew, “If you think Paul is bring rough on the Jews, have you ever read the prophets?” Paul loved his brothers according to the flesh. He wanted them to come to faith in the Messiah like he did.

Enough about Anti-Semitism. I think I’ve made my point for now. I’d like to just examine one more thing about today’s passage. Paul’s enemies weren’t satisfied with driving him out of their city. They followed him around from city to city so that they could oppose him.

Let me let you a little bit into the mind of Satan. He’s not thrilled when you pray. He hates to hear God being worshipped. When believers care for each other and get along, that’s a stench in his nostrils. But when you start sharing the Good News with the lost, that’s when you’ve whacked the hornets’ nest. That’s an explicit assault on--and invasion of--his territory.

My friend, if you’re trying to actually reach out to lost souls and don’t encounter opposition, I’d question your effectiveness. And if you’re encountering bitter opposition which makes no logical sense, then take heart. You just might actually be doing something right.

Lord Jesus, this world seems to be getting more and more hostile to the Truth. Please give me boldness. Please help me to speak the truth in love.

[Sept 19]--Turning of the Tide

Acts 13:13-52

We’re going to skip vss. 4-12, since I don’t really have a lot to say about it. It’s a wonderful story about a “power encounter” between God’s power and Satan’s power. These things do happen, especially on the frontier of the Good News. Talk to just about any missionary and they can tell you stories like this.

We’re going to get into this topic a lot more when we study Paul’s presentation in Acts 17, but I'd like to note it here as well. Paul was addressing a group of devout Jews and Gentile God-fearers. They knew and believed the Old Testament Scriptures. So what does he start his sermon with? The Exodus, then Saul, then David, and then the prophets. He quotes from the prophets twice and a prophetic Psalm once, and brings it back to Christ.

Someone once asked Charles Spurgeon, the greatest preacher in 19th century England, how he came up with a sermon. He said it was simple: He just picked a passage in Scripture (Old or New Testament) and went over hill and countryside to bring it back to Christ. Every time you read the Old Testament, figure out how it leads you back to Christ.

Instead of focusing on the content of the sermon itself, I’d like to examine more the response to it, because I think it holds a strong and disconcerting lesson for us today. We see here a pattern which is repeated in Acts: The Gentiles welcome the Message of Jesus, while the Jews largely reject it.

If you read Paul’s letters, especially chapters nine through eleven of Romans, you see his heartache concerning this. He loved his Jewish brothers, and said he'd give up his own salvation if it would mean theirs. But he realized that the Lord was telling him to move on. There’s a point, directed by the Spirit, when you have to move on to riper fruit. It’s pretty unfair to keep on pounding away at someone who doesn’t respond and neglect someone who’s ready to drop into your hand at the slightest invitation.

How does this apply to us? Well, I hope it doesn’t. I hope I’m completely wrong. But here’s my theory, presented in the sincerest hopes that I’m totally off my gourd.

For the last 200 years this nation has been the forefront of international missions. The founders of this country saw us as a “Shining city on a hill,” a new Israel on earth. We were supposed to be the example for the rest of the world. We certainly didn’t live up to that ideal all the time, but we made a sincere effort.

Are we still? I don’t know. Maybe. But I see the desire to see a lost world come to Christ rather dimming as of late. And I hear such incredible things going on in Korea, China, and Latin America. Let me focus on Korea for a moment. That’s the home of the largest Christian church in the world. Pastors of churches routinely walk up and down the aisles and pray for hours (yes, hours) for the people who will sit in the pews on Sunday morning. My friends, this is the same mindset that caused a Buddhist monk to set himself on fire in order to protest actions by his own government. If you take that misguided but fervent devotion and point it in the right direction, what can the Enemy do to stop it?

Right now Korean missionaries are going into China to spread the Message. They’re going into the Middle East. They’re going where I wouldn’t even be able to go. God is doing an incredible work among them.

That brings us back to Paul’s warning. Israel was meant to be the light of the world. They were supposed to reflect God’s glory to the nations. When they stopped doing that, the Lord shifted his blessing away to others who would do the job.

I don’t know if God's doing that today or not. I don’t pretend to know his mind. But I do know this: America will only continue to be great as long as she is good. And if you don’t think the reverse could happen, keep in mind he’s done it before.

Father, I love my country. I know you’ve done incredible things through her in the past. Please bring her back to you. May her devotion to you light up the world once more.

[Sept 18]--God’s On Line One For You

Acts 13:1-3

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.”

[Sept 17]--Dropped Dead

Acts 12:19-25

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.

[Sept 16]--Surprised By Success, Part Two

Acts 12:5-19

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.

[Sept 15]--Why Me?

Acts 12:1-4

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.

[Sept 14]--Surprised by Success

Acts 10:23-48

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.

[Sept 13]--Don’t Make Me Come Down There!

Acts 10:9-23

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.

[Sept 12]--On Angels and Seekers

Acts 10:1-8

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?

[Sept 11]--A Legacy and Another Crack in the Wall

Acts 9:32-42

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?

[Sept 10]--Can You Imagine. . . ?

Acts 9:1-19

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.

[Sept 9]--“How Can I. . .Unless Someone Explains It To Me?”

Acts 8:26-40

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.

[Sept 8]--Proof Positive

Acts 8:9-25

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?