[Nov 30]--So What About The Jews? Part Five: What’s Holding You Back?

Rom. 10:16-21

Have you ever wondered why some people respond to the Good News and some don’t? Two men can sit in the same congregation on a Sunday and listen to the same sermon. They might even be from the same family or come from similar backgrounds. And yet one of them listens and responds positively, and the other walks out the same as he walked in.

To answer that question definitively is beyond the scope of this devotional. There are verses which make it sound like God chose person A and didn’t choose person B, and some Bible teachers have latched onto those verses and said “OK, that’s all we need to know.” Other verses make an appeal to lost souls and plead with them to come to faith, and they sound like everything depends on the decision of the person hearing the appeal. Teachers who oppose the first group point to verses like those and say “You see, it’s all on the individual to make a choice.”

Like I said, I have no intention to resolve those arguments here. I'd like to say, however, that today’s passage can give us some perspective on what’s going on.

The reason I bring this up? Because Paul considered it extremely relevant in trying to figure out “What went wrong?” when it came to the Jewish response to Yeshua, which for the most part was rejection. According to this passage (again keeping in mind that this isn’t necessarily the last word on the subject), we can dispose of some things that might come to mind:

Was it that they didn’t have enough information? Absolutely not. They had God’s word, which put them heads and shoulders above the Pagans as far as knowing about the Lord. They had the Law of Moses, which as we saw yesterday was intended to show them the bankruptcy of their own righteousness and drive them towards Christ. They had the promises concerning David, which were fulfilled by Christ to the last letter. They had the prophets, who testified as one person as to what to look for in the Messiah.

Then we get into a little “inside baseball” concerning God’s plan. In vs. 19-20, Paul quotes Moses and Isaiah, who both predicted that God would make the Jews "envious" by revealing himself to the Gentiles. The Lord would be found by people who hadn't sought him, namely us. That was supposed to wake up the Jewish people as to their need for a personal relationship with the Lord.

But did this mean that God had abandoned the Israelites? Nope. Look at vs. 21. This is being applied here and now. Whatever the reason why the Jewish people aren’t responding to the Good News, according to this verse it’s not because of him. He’s holding his hands out to a disobedient and stubborn people. And not just once or twice and then it’s over: “All day long.” He’s holding his hands out to them right now. They just need to respond.

So what’s Paul’s explanation in these verses? Why haven’t the Jews turned to the Messiah? Well, from the context I think we can see one good reason. God focused his attention on and revealed himself to the Gentiles. Yes, he wants them saved, and ultimately the purpose is to glorify his holy name. But according to these verses, my relationship with the Lord is supposed to provoke the Jews to jealousy. That Jewish guy is supposed to look at my lifestyle, my kindness, my love for people, my joy, and my freedom in Jesus and say “I want some of that.”

OK, time for some tough love. To be brutally frank, the way the Church has acted towards the Jewish people has tended to turn them away from the Savior, not towards him. When you look at the persecution and bigotry which has been perpetrated in the name of Jesus, to some degree it's understandable if their reaction was “Um, no thanks. Think I’ll pass.”

This isn't just a matter of history. This has been the major stumbling block to reaching the Jewish people for quite some time. If you witness to Jews and bring up the name “Christian,” they tend to think of pogroms and Nazis. That needs to change. And it needs to change now.

Father God, I don’t know any Jewish people I come into contact on a regular basis, but I do know lots of other people who've been turned off because of the actions of Christians. Please make me an open door, not a closed gate. Change me into the type of person who makes them burn with jealousy.

[Nov 29]--So What About The Jews? Part Four: Zeal Without Knowledge

Romans 10:1-4

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth pointing out once again just how much Paul really loved his brothers according to the flesh. He reasoned with them, he preached to them, he answered their objections, and used every method within his disposal (except sin) to reach them with the Good News about the Messiah. And for the most part, they rejected it. Not just by telling him “No, not interested.” They typically responded with physical violence, and when that didn’t work they resorted to legal persecution and slander. And he certainly had some pretty harsh words for them as recorded in his epistles. But nowhere is it recorded that he wished them ill. On the contrary, as we saw in yesterday’s reading, he loved them with a sacrificial love. In fact, he claimed that if it were possible, he'd gladly give up his own salvation if that meant theirs. That’s love.

Again we see here his claim of that love. He said that it was his heart’s desire and earnest prayer to God that they might be saved. He knew that giving up his own salvation for theirs wasn’t possible, but he did want to see them saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.

That word—knowledge—is a great segue into something we need to understand about the Jewish people of Paul’s day. He said that he could easily testify that they had lots of zeal. They earnestly believed in what they were doing. The more devout Jews of his day—who tended to be his worst enemies—were sticklers for the Law. They had a whole set of rules and regulations so that they wouldn’t even come close to breaking God’s law. For instance, they forbade women from looking in a mirror on the Sabbath. If she saw her reflection, she might see a grey hair and be tempted to pluck it out, and thus work on the holy day.

Paul well knew this mindset, since he once shared it. He too had plenty of passion, but he now knew that zeal without knowledge is a deadly combination. It was this that led to the crucifixion of Jesus, and it was behind most of the persecution of the Church in those days.

What was the problem? They'd missed the main point of the Law. Yes, it’s supposed to let us know what God considers important so that we can order our lives according to his priorities. It also sets up a legal system by which to order society. But its main purpose is to show us how far we fall short of his standard. It’s like a mirror that we hold up to our souls. The mirror doesn’t get rid of the pimple or messed-up hair; it only shows you what’s wrong. If we look at the Law and say to ourselves “I guess I’m doing OK,” then we’ve totally missed the main point. It’s there to lead us to complete abandonment of our own righteousness, which will force us to accept the perfect righteousness of Christ.

How can we bring this into today? Is this directly applicable to most Jews today? Not really, at least not in America. Times have changed. Most Jews, quite frankly, don’t really care about their religious heritage and are secular. They might possibly celebrate the holidays and occasionally attend synagogue, but I guarantee you I know more about the Hebrew Scriptures (their term for the Old Testament) than most of them do. So the idea of them being zealous about anything Jewish is not really relevant.

Of course there are some Jewish people who are practicing and take their faith pretty seriously. They go to synagogue every Saturday and follow the dietary laws. They read the Scriptures regularly, and they actually fit into the model that Paul is talking about here—with the obvious difference that virtually none of them want to oppose the Good News through violence or slander or legal means.

But I think that these verses have a much wider relevance than we see at first glance. The paradigm of “zeal without knowledge” is very common today among people of all different faiths and even people who are committed to this or that political or trendy cause. If you ever hear someone say “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere,” then they’ve fallen into this error. No, sincerity without knowledge is not ok. Passion without knowledge is like a loaded gun going off at random; it’s extremely dangerous.

Yes, we need zeal. But that has to be coupled with a passion for the truth. We have to make sure that energy is channeled in the right direction. We can’t afford to settle for anything less.

Father God, I want both. I think I have some knowledge of your word, but sometimes I need your Spirit to rekindle that fire in my bones. Please.

[Nov 28]--So What About The Jews? Part Three: Not All Who Are Descended. . .

Rom. 9:6-13

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, we’re going to be using Roman 9-11 as a quick overview of how we need to respond to the Jews. The book of Romans is my favorite in the entire Bible, by the way. It’s the most complete summary of theology and Christian living that you’ll find in God’s word. Paul outlined the plan of salvation for us in the first eight chapters. But then he needed to address a really thorny topic: What about the Jews? Has God abandoned them? Are they still special in any way? Do they need to be saved like Gentiles do? By the time Paul wrote this, it was becoming abundantly clear that the vast majority of Jewish people, and especially the leadership, had officially rejected Yeshua as their Messiah. So how do we wrap our brains around this?

First and foremost, we need to understand that God’s plan has not failed. Gentiles are not his “Plan B.” And really this rejection of God’s plan is not exactly new. What we need to get into our heads is that one’s place in God’s Kingdom is not determined by DNA. It’s not now, and it never has been. Paul cites two examples for us, and this is extremely relevant.

The first is that of the fulfillment of the Lord's promises through Isaac. Abraham had a firstborn son before Isaac, namely Ishmael. Remember him? Sarah decided that Almighty God needed some “help,” so she convinced her husband to sleep with the servant girl in order to produce an heir. They decided to do things their way instead of sticking to God’s way, and surprise surprise surprise, it didn’t turn out well. The point is that by blood Ishmael should've been the child of promise, but he wasn’t. Blood does not guarantee someone a place in God’s Kingdom.

Then Paul ups the ante even further. You had two brothers in the same womb. Not just the same mother and father, but sharing a womb together. Actually, “sharing” might not be the best term, because they started fighting in there. They were born, and the conflict just continued. One son was the child through whom the spiritual heritage would continue, and the other was not.

You can see this today in plenty of examples. Parents do their best: They pray, they provide the best example they can, they raise their children in church, they try to teach Scripture in the home, and they get vastly different results in different children. One child grows up to be a minister or a missionary, while the other one winds up in prison.

So how does this apply to our understanding of the Jews? There might be a special place in God’s plan for the Jewish people as a group. I actually believe that there is. But that doesn’t mean that an individual Jew is in a right relationship with God. Paul's point here is that even before Christ, during the time of Abraham and Isaac, genetics was no guarantee of a good relationship with the Lord.

Is there any way we can apply this? Why, yes there is, and you can apply it without even knowing a single Jew in your life. If you—or anyone you know—is depending on your physical heritage to get you into Heaven, that notion needs to be cast out like rotten eggs. As I learned in Sunday School, God has a lot of children but absolutely no grandchildren. No one is going to get into Heaven based on the fact that their family is Christian. You must have a personal relationship with God through Jesus in order for that to happen.

Have you? And if you have, had you made this clear to the people in your family?

Father God, I thank you so much that you’ve cleansed me, forgiven me, adopted me, and claimed me as your own. Please help me to demonstrate that.

[Nov 27]--So What About The Jews? Part Two: Blessings

Rom. 9:1-5

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that I’m a talk-show junkie. My two favorites--actually the only ones I listen to on a regular basis--are Dennis Prager and Michael Medved. Both of them are practicing Jews, and they both integrate their faith with current events and their political views on their show. Medved has said something repeatedly about the nature of being part of the “Chosen People” which struck me as being very poignant. People hear the term “Chosen People,” and they think it’s a term that’s boastful or arrogant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Traditionally the term among Jews means that they are chosen not so much for a special privilege but for a special responsibility. You can find this at the very beginning of the covenant God initiated with Abraham: “All people on earth will be blessed through you.”

Let’s leave aside for a moment the blessings Paul lists in today’s passage. Let’s focus for a minute on just the physical blessings which the Jewish people have been to the entire world. Here are some facts:

• The Jews make up about 1/4 of 1% of the world population.
• Of 660 Nobel prizes from 1901-1990, 160 have been won by Jews.
• In the first half of the 20th century, despite severe legal and social discrimination (of course culminating in the Holocaust), Jews received 14% of the Nobel prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. In the second half of the 20th century, when such discrimination began to wane, that figure rose to 29 percent.

Blown away yet? I’m not done. Let’s just pick some names from the field of medicine, shall we?
• Dr. Jonas Salk, creator of the Polio vaccine
• Casmir Funk, who pioneered a new field of medical research and coined the term "vitamins"
• Dr. Paul Ehrlich, who won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for curing syphilis
• Dr. Simon Baruch, who performed the first successful operation for appendicitis
• Dr. Albert Sabin, developer of the first oral polio vaccine
• Carl Koller, the inventor of local anesthesia
• Alfred Einhorn, the discoverer of Novocain
• Charles Gerhardt, the inventor of aspirin
• Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering, whose research in diabetes led directly to the Canadian team's work that gave us insulin therapy for the disease.

I could go on, but you get the idea. In case you didn’t know, I’m diabetic. I have an insulin pump as I write this. I’m alive today because of some Jewish men.

Then we get to the incredible spiritual blessings. In today's passage, Paul lists some of the ways which the Lord blessed Israel, but keep in mind that God never blesses anyone  just for their own sake. He blesses individuals and nations so that they can bless others. Look at the list of blessings which the Lord has showered upon them:
·         the adoption to sonship
·         theirs the divine glory
·         the covenants
·         the receiving of the law
·         the temple worship and the promises
·         the patriarchs
·         from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all

These are not just blessings to Israel. They're blessings to all of us. Think about it. You pay tribute to their language every time you pray: “Amen.” When you say “Hallelujah,” you’re speaking Hebrew. A verse from Leviticus is on our Liberty Bell and a representation of Moses with the Ten Commandments is above our Supreme Court.

Here's what John Adams had to say about the Jewish people:
The Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations.

Yes, I know that it was the Lord who gave us all that. He gave us the Ten Commandments. He revealed all we know about where we came from and what went wrong in the book of Genesis. He gave us the thrilling stories of Joshua and the lessons from the life of David. But he gave us all these things through the Jews.

But most important, above everything else, God gave us our Savior through them. When he came to earth, he entered the womb of a Jewish teenager. He grew up in a faithful Jewish home, and all his first followers were Jewish.

So when I say that the debt we owe to these people is incalculable, I mean it.

Father, you’ve been so good to us, and especially through the people you chose to use to bless the world. There’s no room in the heart of a redeemed child of God for ingratitude. If you find any there, please let’s get rid of it.

[Nov 26]--So What About The Jews?

Luke 23:26-31

For the last six months or so we’ve been in the book of Acts, and over and over again we see how the worst enemies of the Good News were not the Roman officials or government but some of the Jewish people. Since it’s come up so often in the Gospels and Acts, and will come up again in the Epistles I thought this is as good a time as any to tackle this very thorny subject. Believe me when I say that I know I need to be very careful so that I won’t be misunderstood. We’re going to examine how we as followers of Jesus should approach the subject of the Jewish people. We’re going to unflinchingly look at what God’s word has to say about the subject.

First, let’s get the obvious question out of the way, shall we? Is there any justification for Anti-Semitism? Um, no. I really regret that I have to say this, but we need to just drop the crude and bigoted conspiracy theories. The Jews aren’t trying to take over the world. There is no world-wide Jewish conspiracy. Israel does not run the State Department or Congress or the White House. If you actually believe any of this nonsense, then I really don’t have much more to say to you.

But it is a fact that the New Testament has some pretty harsh things to say about the nation of Israel and the majority of Jews in the days of the Gospels and the early years of the Church. They--especially the religious leaders-- are usually enemies of the Good News of Jesus, both in the Gospels, the book of Acts, and frequently in the writings of Paul. But just to clarify, we need to get some of the cruder stereotypes out of the way:

They’re greedy or dishonest or deceptive. Well, I’m sure that some of them are. Just like I’m sure that quite a few Gentiles could be described as such. But the Jewish people I’ve met are wonderful and friendly people who are really generous to those in need. I worked for a Jewish guy for over a year, and he seemed to have a great head for business (which you might expect with someone who started their own company).

But I’m also sure there are plenty of Jewish people out there who—like me—have little to no business sense. There are all types of Jewish people in the world, and so even the stereotype of being great in business doesn’t hold up very well. Now I will concede this: Because of their culture and heritage they tend to be disproportionately represented in education, entrepreneurship, medicine, and science. But this isn’t because of any Jewish conspiracy. If you teach your children that education is important, then you tend to have a lot of people in those fields.

They have greater loyalty to Israel than to America. Um, no. In fact, the vast majority of Jewish people in America have very ambivalent attitudes towards Israel. They’re much more involved with politics—most of the time on the Leftward/Liberal side of the spectrum. Most of them are very secular and have little to no interest in the Jewish faith or religion. Most of them have never visited Israel and are highly critical of its government.

But what about biblical passages like today's? It’s the sad fact that the Church, or at least some who claim to represent the Church, have used passages like these to claim that the Jews today are under some special curse because they rejected Jesus. There is absolutely no biblical basis for that quaint little notion. You might make the case from today’s reading that God punished the Jewish people of the 1st century for rejecting the Messiah. At least it certainly looks that way, and it wouldn’t be the first time that the Lord punished the nation of Israel for rejecting his message. I mean, have you read the old Testament prophets lately? The conventional interpretation of these verses is that Jesus is predicting that because of their rejection of him, that the nation would intensely suffer. And they certainly did. Around the late 60’s, culminating in A.D. 70, Israel rebelled against Rome, and Rome destroyed it. It burned the temple down to the ground, it crucified many of the rebels, and scattered the Jewish people all over the world. They didn’t get an independent nation back for almost 2,000 years after that.

But in no way is God holding the Jewish people of today responsible for something that their ancestors did 2,000 years ago. There’s no evidence of that.

So if you’ve listened to any of these lies about the descendants of Isaac, please repent of them. Right now. They’re lies that the Adversary has whispered in your ear, and you need to stop listening.

But I will say something about today’s passage that does apply to people right now, today. If you’ve rejected the Savior, you’re in for some things that make the destruction of Israel look like a day at the beach. And if you’re holding hate in your heart for anyone, especially an entire group of people, then you really don’t know the Savior much at all.

Lord Jesus, I firmly and categorically reject any lies which the Enemy has told me. I don’t care what it is or how dear it is to me. I only have ears for your voice.

[Nov 25]--Meetings With Brothers

Acts 28:17-30

This is a phrase that keeps popping up in my head as I read the last chapter of Acts: anticlimactic. The last six chapters, which cover over two years, have led up to Paul finally arriving at Rome in order to face trial. He’s under house arrest but is able to receive any visitors he pleases. Of course he was totally encouraged by the sacrificial support which members of the Body showed him. And as we read today, he certainly wasn’t just sitting around twiddling his thumbs and catching up on his reading while he was awaiting trial. He managed to contact the local Jewish leaders and found—probably to his relief—that his reputation didn’t precede him. He presented the Good News to them, reasoning from the Scriptures that Yeshua was and is the Messiah.

But this of course raises the obvious question: What happened to Paul after this? What was the outcome of his trial? What happened to him after the events recorded here? Well, biblical scholars seem to be totally agreed that Paul was found not guilty of any crime and set free. He wrote several epistles to different churches, went on other mission trips, and continued to tell anyone who listened about his Savior. Church tradition has it—and there’s no reason to dispute it—that he died around the mid 60’s by beheading. He wouldn’t have been crucified, since that wasn't done to Roman citizens.

The rest of the chapter tells us about his conversations with the Jews who visited to him. There’s no indication of the bitter hostility he’s faced before, since his accusers apparently had not been there to poison the well against him. There’s no wholesale acceptance of his message, but there’s no blanket rejection either.

I think that this is a great picture of what happens when the Good News is presented to a group of people, by the way. A few will accept it, and most won’t. Jesus told us that the road to destruction has plenty of followers, while the door that leads to life is pretty lonely at times. We can’t expect that everyone will receive Christ, especially the first time they hear about him, but a certain number of people will. We can usually anticipate a mixed reaction.

Appropriately enough, the last words Paul is recorded to say to the Jews is a warning from their own prophets. During his own earthly ministry, Jesus warned that the majority of his own people wouldn’t receive his message, and he also quoted this same passage from Isaiah. But Paul’s warning ends on what’s bad news for them which is good news for us. If they wouldn’t listen, then God would turn to some people who would.

That’s why over the next few days we’re going to examine the issue of how the Church should approach the issue of the Jewish people. What’s their position before God right now? Are they saved because of being Jews? Is it insensitive to tell them about Jesus? We’re going to tackle those questions straight on, and I hope you’ll stick around for it.

Let me make one last point about the book of Acts. I can’t take credit for it, but I also can’t remember who first pointed it out to me. In very real sense it’s completely appropriate that Acts ends on a “cliff hanger” the way it does. The book of Acts doesn’t tell us what finally happened to Paul, because if it did then we might think the story ended with him. No, the book of Acts continues with you and me! We’re a part of the ongoing story of the acts of Jesus acting through his apostles, then through his Church, and on to today. What part are you playing in that? Are you part of Jesus’ reclamation project?

Yes Lord, I want to be. I know that what you started in the book of Acts continues with me. Whatever you want me to do, the answer’s “yes.”

[Nov 24]--Rome!

Acts 28:11-16

I remember when I was a kid, and I just absolutely had to have an Atari Game system. For those of you too young, this was the predecessor to Nintendo and Wii. I was just about to bust as I watched my friends play with theirs. I was just so set on getting it for Christmas and I’m afraid I wasn’t very subtle with my dad. On Christmas morning I got up early and had to wait for my folks to get up. Of course that didn’t stop me from shaking the box with my name on it. And then I finally got to open it, set it up, and play with it. But just like with everything else in this world, the thrill didn’t last nearly as long as I thought.

With all the years of anticipation, you’d expect Luke to provide more fanfare for the culmination of Paul’s longtime goal. But no, it’s pretty anticlimactic, just a note in one verse: “And so we came to Rome.” What’s really touching to me is what happened right after they arrived.

They discovered, once again, that God’s children tend to find friends from unexpected places. Dear siblings in Christ had heard that he was coming, and they had traveled from their homes and were waiting for him. The Three Taverns was 33 miles from Rome, and the Forum of Appius was 43 miles away. They'd heard that he was on his way in order to stand trial and appeal to Caesar, and they wanted to be there to support him.

Let me tell you, I’ve been on mission trips, and there’s nothing like a friendly face in a strange town. Paul had never been there before, at least as a Christian, and he faced lots of uncertainty. As far as we know, the Lord had only promised that Paul would make it to Rome, nothing about the outcome of the trial. He might literally find his neck on the chopping block (the standard method of execution for Roman citizens). He had Luke with him (you can tell from the first person plurals in the narratives), but he desperately could use some support from as many siblings as possible. They'd sacrificed quite a bit to be there for him—It’s not as if they could just take a train or plane there.

And we also see a little bit of mercy from God by means of the Roman government. Instead of being put into the worst prisons (which were hellholes), he was basically under house arrest. That meant that he could receive any visitors he wanted. Again, that meant that he could meet with his siblings in Christ and pray for each other, discuss Scripture together, and worship together. And as we’ll see tomorrow, the situation also was an open door for some more evangelistic opportunities.

To me this is another reminder that our Shepherd always knows what we need—moment by moment—and he always supplies what we need. When we need an embrace and a whisper in the ear that all will be well, most of the time our Savior does that for us through his Body.

So is there anyone in need around you who needs that embrace and whisper? Is there anyone going into unknown territory who needs support from the Savior? If you know about that person, it’s likely that that is your call to be the hands and mouth that Jesus wants to use. Will you do it?

Yes, Lord. I will.

[Nov 23]--Malta

Acts 28:1-10

After all the excitement of the last chapter, today’s reading actually seems a little anticlimactic, even mundane. We find out that they had shipwrecked on the island of Malta, which is about 58 miles south of Sicily (just off Italy). There are just a couple of incidents here, which we can note.

First, as they were gathering wood, a viper jumped out of the wood and latched itself onto Paul’s hand. Apparently the natives recognized the snake as extremely poisonous, since they expected him to fall over dead at any moment. Their theory was that although he survived the storm and the shipwreck, Divine Justice was not going to let him off the hook. But of course Jesus had said that this man was going to Rome to testify, so that wasn’t going to happen.

I just love his nonchalant attitude towards the snake. He might not have recognized the snake (not being familiar with the area), but he should've picked up the “vibe” that the natives exhibited. He just shook it off into the fire—“pesky vipers!” No fear. No anxiety. His Lord had said that he would make it to Rome, and that was good enough for him.

Then they were introduced to the governor of the island. Unfortunately dysentery—caused by lack of proper sanitation, was pretty common in the ancient world. Paul came in, prayed, and healed his father with a touch. Of course that opened the floodgates, so everyone who was sick came to Paul to be healed by him. They became the celebrities and heroes of the island.

So is there any application here? Well, once again we see that when the Lord tells us something, we can bank on it. Just like with Joshua’s experience, we’ll always find that “Not one of the Lord’s good promises” to his children will fail. Every one will be fulfilled. When he says something, none of the powers of Heaven, Earth, or Hell can say anything different.

Also it’s touching that even along the road to Paul’s great destination, he saw everywhere he was as an opportunity for ministry. Yes, he was on the way to Rome and everything was focused on that, but in the meantime he saw people in need and he did whatever he could for them.

When I see someone in need in front of me, do I see them primarily as a distraction from what’s important? The people along the road to my “big job” are not distractions. They're the ones to whom I’m supposed to minister, the ones whom I’m supposed to serve right now.

Yeah, I know I’m supposed to do that. And I’m working on it.

Lord Jesus, please change my attitude towards the people around me. They're my ministry. As much as I do for them, I’m doing for you.

[Nov 22]--Shipwrecked

Acts 27:27-44

So Paul had given them a message of hope. And the best part is that they actually started listening to him instead of doing whatever they felt like doing. On his advice, they headed towards land so they could run aground. They took soundings and were approaching land, which was the safest thing they could've done.

The sailors thought they could pull at fast one. Paul had promised them that they would live through all this, but they apparently sorta half-way believed him. They wanted to lower the lifeboats and sneak off the boat when no one was looking. But Paul was way too experienced with human nature not to have anticipated that. He warned the centurion that if they did that, all bets were off. God had promised them that they would make it out alive, but obviously that was not an unconditional promise. If they didn’t follow Paul’s counsel, then they couldn’t expect the Lord’s promises to be fulfilled.

I want to commend the centurion on two counts based on today’s reading. First, he had learned his lesson and showed incredible faith. He had learned the hard way that when Paul told him something, you ignored him at your peril. So he had the soldiers cut the ropes and let the lifeboats drift away. From a natural standpoint this made no sense. I mean, even if they weren’t going to let the sailors bail out on them, they could keep them in case they became necessary later on. But to his thinking (probably on the advice of Paul again), he didn’t want the temptation left around. Paul told him that they would all make it as long as they didn’t betray and abandon each other. Therefore, they didn’t need the lifeboats. That’s a great example of smart faith. Not just faith, but eyes-wide-open faith. That’s faith that has total reliance on God but little to no reliance in human nature.

The other thing to commend him is pretty obvious: His compassion towards Paul. If one prisoner got away in the confusion of the storm and the rescue operations, then the best thing that the officer in charge could hope for would be a swift death. That’s why the Roman guard back in Philippi was willing to commit suicide upon discovering the open doors and assuming that everyone fled.

So the logical thing would be to kill everyone to make sure no one escaped. But the centurion had grown close to Paul, so he didn’t want to see him killed. Of course this did entail taking a huge risk, because the possibility that a prisoner would try to flee was pretty reasonable. And it would be his literal neck on the line if that happened.

I love the image that Luke presents for us as Paul stood up in front of everyone. He not only preached a message of a sure hope. He lived it. In front of them all he ate something to show them that they were all going to get through this. And please note that in front of all these pagans he gave thanks to the Lord of all for what he'd provided. This one act alone presented a message so powerful that everyone was moved. His proclamation of hope—as demonstrated before them--had actually caught on. You can preach until you’re blue in the face about trusting God. But when people see you actually trusting in God and not just talking about it, you can expect an impact.

So what can you carry away from this? Do you need to have the right mixture of faith in God and skepticism regarding human nature? Do you need to take practical steps to ensure you don’t fall back into sin? Is God calling you to take a risk on someone, to maybe actually pay a price for said risk? Or maybe you need to demonstrate before a watching world that you really do trust in God and his promises. Wow, all this in just seventeen verses!

Lord Jesus, it’s really easy to say I trust in you. Do I? Really? Can people see that?

[Nov 21]--Darkness and Hope

Acts 27:13-26

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: I love how the Bible presents even its heroes as human beings who give into sin. This in no way condones sin, but it does give me comfort to know that my Lord knows perfectly well what type of people we turn out to be. It also gives strong evidence to me that the Scriptures are accurate. If I was making up a bunch of stories, I certainly would make my heroes a lot less prone to human failings.

Why do I bring this up? Because I can’t help grinning as I read today’s passage. Just as Paul—and any other reasonable person--expected, the ship hit the Mother of All Storms. For several days they saw neither sun nor stars. The storm-hardened men along with land-lubbers all despaired of making it through this alive.

In the middle of all this darkness, Paul stood up among them and gave a proclamation of hope. But he couldn’t help starting out with a “I told you so.” That’s why I smile as I read this, because I see myself doing exactly the same thing. But it’s what he said right afterward that I want to focus on. There are two points I see here.

First, I see Paul’s solid faith in God. Yes, he did have an angel come to him to repeat what Jesus had told him back in Caesarea—namely that he was going to Rome no matter what. But it looks like Paul didn’t need a whole lot of encouragement in this area, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. He knew that the Lord Jesus Christ had promised that he would stand in Rome, and he believed it.

The reason I don’t think his faith wavered all that much is actually the second point. I see here a great compassion for others. Please read carefully what the angel told him: God has granted to you the lives of the others on boat. He'd promised that Paul would make it to Rome, but he had said nothing about everyone else on the boat. But apparently Paul had been praying for their lives to be spared as well. Please keep in mind that these were the jerks who had not listened to his counsel. If they had, none of this would have happened. Can I say right here that Paul is definitely showing himself to be a better man that I am (yeah right—and the sun is hot and ice is cold). I’m just saying that when I see someone make a really foolish decision, and I warn them against it, and they go ahead with it, what’s my first reaction when the bad consequences appear just like I predicted? Let me tell you, my first inclination is not to pray fervently that the Almighty will spare them!

But Paul did, and the angel told him that the Lord had granted his request. But notice that God's grace and mercy didn’t protect the ship and its owners from personal loss. They were going to get out with their lives, but everything they had invested in that boat was going to disappear. Just because God spares our lives and our souls, that doesn’t meant that our sins are without consequences. Of course the greatest example of this was David's story.

So what’s your attitude when you see someone who, quite frankly, is getting what they really deserve? They were warned, they chose to ignore the warning, and lo and behold they’re suffering for it. It does happen. How do you react?

Well, let me point out something to you that might have already struck home. The Lord does the same for us. Yes, we can suffer in this life for the bad choices we’ve made. But those bad consequences are not because God has some type of vengeful attitude towards us. His only thoughts towards us are based on love. And I would hope that this merciful approach he has towards us would spill out in the same type of mindset we have towards others. What do you think?

Father God, after all you’ve forgiven me and how you’ve blessed me, there’s no room in my heart for “Gotcha” type thinking. Please forgive me, and please change me from the inside-out.

[Nov 20]--Setting Out

Acts 27:1-12

Finally finally finally! After several years of false starts and seemingly infinite obstacles, Paul set out for Rome. The great thing is that the Roman government was going to foot the entire bill for the trip!

Why was Paul so dead-set on going to Rome? It was truly the capital of the entire known world. It was the seat of the greatest empire ever seen on earth up till that point. Was he going sightseeing? I’m sure there was plenty to see if you were a tourist. Was his main objective to get himself cleared of the charges?

No. He had one main reason for going to Rome, and it had nothing to do with sightseeing. He was going there to present the Good News of Jesus Christ to as many people as he could. He especially wanted to testify before the highest officials he could. If he could make converts there, then that would open so many doors for the Message to the rest of the world. Who knows? Maybe even the Emperor himself would listen and believe.

Another thing to consider was this was the hub of information to the rest of the world. Just think if soldiers could become believers! They would then be stationed—again, at government expense—to the furthest corners of the world, where they would truly contribute to making Acts 1:8 a reality.

There was only one main problem: The weather. It was past the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), which was in late September to early October. By that time sailing was already dangerous, and the best thing to do was to wait out winter until the storms died down.

Unfortunately, the Centurion, along with the pilot and the ship’s owner, decided to chance it. Paul might have gotten a direct revelation from God, but quite frankly he probably didn’t need one to know that this was a bad idea. He warned them that by leaving the port they were endangering their ship and their lives.

So is there anything we can gain from this story? Well, I see Paul’s patience as something for us to emulate. Everyone was in a rush to get to Rome as soon as possible. Paul might have been tempted to join in the consensus. He was undoubtedly anxious to get there and see what strides the Message could make in the capital. But he knew that to go forward right now was foolhardy to say the least, so he tried to put the brakes on until they could leave safely. He didn’t let his eagerness overshadow his good sense and what he knew to be right. Jesus himself had promised that he would make it there, so he could afford to go on God’s timetable and not risk men’s lives and property.

So do I ever fall into that trap? Of course I’m mature, right? I never lose my patience to get something that’s promised to me? I never jump the gun and suffer bad consequences?

Yeah, I wish.

Father God, your timing is perfect. I want my schedule in perfect sync with yours. When you say “Go,” I’ll go. Until then, I’m staying right where I’m supposed to be. That’s not just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing.

[Nov 19]--Before Agrippa, Part Two

Acts 26:19-32

I don’t have any cute story or Star Trek reference to start out with today, so let’s just get back into Paul’s speech before Agrippa and those assembled with him.

Paul testified that he immediately obeyed the vision which God had given him. Yeah, that’s no joke. Do you remember the first city he preached in? Damascus. The city he had been heading towards in order to persecute Christians was now the site of something truly to behold: The one who'd been breathing out threats against the followers of the Way now boldly preached the Good News about Jesus. In fact, he had to be let down in a basket outside the city wall in order to avoid his would-be killers.

Then Paul wrapped up his address by specifically answering one of the major charges against him. His adversaries had claimed that he was blaspheming against the temple and against the Law of Moses. Of course even if the charges were true, Rome wouldn’t be interested in settling a dispute about Jewish theology. But just to be clear to his hearers, Paul wanted them to understand that he still completely believed in the Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament. In fact, he was more orthodox than many of his accusers. The very rulers of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, who completely rejected any Scripture outside the books of Moses. Unlike them, Paul believed in it from Genesis 1:1 to the last verse of Malachi.

The point where he parted ways was how to respond to Jesus of Nazareth. To the ruling establishment in Jerusalem, he was a false messiah who deserved death. To Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Scriptures. When Moses was talking about the Prophet like him who would someday come, to Paul that was referring to Jesus. When God through Isaiah predicted a suffering Servant who would suffer and die and then rise again, there was no mystery in Paul’s mind as to whom that was talking about.

At this point Festus interrupted him and claimed that Paul was off his gourd. Of course it sounds crazy. To a man without the Spirit, none of this makes sense. But apparently Festus wasn’t the main person Paul was addressing. His response to Festus was basically “I’m not saying anything beyond what the prophets say. The King (Agrippa) knows what I’m talking about. He knows the prophets and that I’m not just pulling stuff out of my head. Don’t you believe in the prophets, King Agrippa?” This is why he referenced the prophets so much. Agrippa, as half-Jewish, was at least passingly familiar with the Scriptures, so that was Paul’s connection point.

I love and respect the KJV. It’s what I was raised with, but we’ve improved on translation in the last 400 years. If you read Agrippa’s response in the KJV, it makes it sound like he “almost” became a Christian. That’s not what the Greek is saying at all. He’s actually mocking Paul. The NIV's rendition of verse 28 is a lot more accurate: He was discounting the possibility that in one short speech Paul could convince him to believe in Christ.

I love Paul’s answer to that: “I don’t care how long it takes. I won’t be satisfied until you and everyone in the room is a believer in Jesus just as I am.” Can I submit that I think that Paul might be utilizing a sense of humor here? “However long it takes, I’d like everyone in this room to be just like me. Minus these chains, of course.” I can actually imagine the slight grin on his face as he said that. If so, it would make sense to me, since it never hurts to use some humor to get past peoples’ guard.

Every lost person he encountered was an opportunity to lead another person to salvation. Have you figured out yet that this was pretty important to him?

The interesting thing about this is what they said about him after he left the room. Festus knew, Agrippa knew, the Jews knew, and Paul especially knew that keeping him in custody was all completely based on a sham from beginning to end. Personally I have reason to doubt Agrippa’s assessment of Paul’s legal situation. Yeah we all knew he was innocent, but political corruption insured that he was never going to get out of confinement alive as long as he stayed around here. But no matter what happened or who had what plans, it didn’t really matter. The Lord had determined and promised that Paul would be going to Rome, and nothing in Heaven or on Earth or in Hell was going to keep that from happening.

Lord Jesus, this is a great time to recognize that your word is true. Heaven and earth will pass away before one syllable of your word falls to the ground. Please help me to live like that’s true.

[Nov 18]--Before Agrippa, Part One

Acts 26:1-18

Festus had a problem. His prisoner Paul had appealed to Rome. The Jews were demanding Paul be sent to Jerusalem, and it looks like he was well aware of how that would conclude. So he had to send Paul to Rome to face his charges. Undoubtedly he was relieved to have this monkey off his back and to be able to pass the buck onto someone else. If the Jews complained, he could just point out that he was legally obligated by Roman law to do what he did.

But there was just one wrinkle. All of the accusations which the Jews leveled against Paul were in one of two categories: 1) Not credible. Their allegation that he was inciting sedition had no evidence to back it. 2) Not interesting. Rome didn’t really care about religious disputes. As long as the tax money came in and the streets were quiet, they had no interest in questions about theology. He had to give something in his report that could explain why Paul was being sent.

But Festus was lucky in that he could bring in a consultant. King Herod Agrippa (not the same Herod which you’ve read about in Scripture) was nearby, and he was part Jewish. He had some familiarity with Jewish law and tradition and culture, so he could provide some input into Paul’s case and could possibly help Festus in how to word the report.

That’s where we come to chapter 26 where Paul meets King Agrippa. This is not an official trial by any means, just an informal hearing to listen to what Paul had to say for himself. A lot of this we’ve already heard before: Paul’s fanatical devotion to stamping out the sect known as followers of Jesus, his encounter with that same Jesus on the way to Damascus, and his special calling and special mission. I’d like to focus for a little bit on how Paul describes his mission in vss. 17-18. These verses are so packed with truth. Each little point is a sermon in itself:

Who was doing the sending. Not any man nor a group of men. This was the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God. If any missionary or any pastor or any evangelist has been called by anyone else besides the Lord himself, then that “called” person needs to quit and do something productive. If you aren’t sent by the Lord, you’re not going to end up any place that’s pleasant.

To open their eyes. Every person outside of Christ is utterly blind to spiritual truth. It’s not an issue of ignorance that just needs the proper information. The Holy Spirit—using a human witness—opens spiritual eyes which were just as blind as Paul was on that road.

Turn them from darkness to light. What an image! Every person outside of Christ is bound forever in the Kingdom of Darkness. They don’t know what’s going on, and outside of God’s intervention through his children they never will. But once we come in and share the Good News, they’re carried out of that darkness into his glorious Light!

And from the power of Satan to God. Another way of saying the last phrase, really. All of Adam’s children are under Satan’s power. How sadly ironic that we’re all born in slavery to the one who hates us the most! Most of us spend our entire lives serving the Enemy of our souls! But then the Light of the Good News comes and we switch kingdoms and sides. And we’re now Under New Management.

That they may receive forgiveness of sins. In case you didn’t know it already, that’s the only obstacle to everything else we’ve mentioned. You can’t be transferred from Satan’s Kingdom to God’s until your sins are forgiven. And there’s only place where that can take place.

And a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. Remember what the word “sanctified” means? I actually wish we could just substitute the phrase “set apart,” since that’s a lot clearer to most folks. When you become a believer, you’re set apart not only from the rest of humanity but even from the rest of the Church. There’s a place in the Body which only you can fill. You were made for that place, and that place was made for you. You’re as unique as a snowflake, as unique as a fingerprint.

This was what Paul was called to. Even when he met Jesus and the details concerning salvation were being straightened out, the Lord made it clear to him what this was all about. Hopefully we’re clear about that as well, both in our lives and in our message.

Today, go over each phrase which I pointed out. Take a moment to thank the Lord for the truth contained in that little group of words. Ask him to set that truth on display in your daily life. For example, you might say Thank you Lord for opening my eyes to the truth about you.

[Nov 17]--Paul’s Defense

Acts 25:1-12

Have you ever been in the grip of real hatred? I don’t mean dislike or anger or even rage. No, I’m referring to the type of hatred that’s cold and calculating and is willing to wait as long as it takes. I’m talking about Khan in Star Trek II waiting for sixteen years to get his revenge on Kirk. When one of Khan's underlings points out that they have a starship and weaponry and really don’t have to risk going after his old adversary, his reply still sends chills up my spine:

That's dedication.

That’s the type of hate Paul’s enemies had for him. Paul had been languishing under house arrest for two years. He'd never been credibly accused of any crime, much less found guilty of anything. But because the last governor to handle his case (Felix) wanted to be on good terms with the Jews, he refused to release Paul.

By the way, it didn’t work. The Jews managed to appeal to Rome about his conduct in other areas, and he was recalled in disgrace. His replacement was Festus. We actually don’t have a lot of information about him, but what we do know seems to indicate that he was slightly better and more fair-minded than his predecessor.

So the new governor came to power, and the Jews are waiting for him in order to make an accusation against Paul and demand that he be remanded into their custody. These guys had been waiting for two years. As soon as the new official steps in, Paul’s case is apparently the first thing they bring up. Now that’s hatred.

They urge him to allow Paul to be tried in Jerusalem, but of course this was only a ruse to get him where they could assassinate him.

Festus knew quite well why his predecessor had been replaced, so with the same motivation as Felix (wanting to get on the Jews’ good side), he seemed inclined to grant their request.

Paul wasn’t a fool, so he knew what awaited him in Jerusalem: An assassin’s knife in his gut. He knew he would never get real justice in Caesarea, so he took the only course which looked best suited to keep him alive. He was a Roman citizen, so he officially appealed to Caesar, as was his right. And of course Festus had no choice but to grant his request and send him on to Rome. And thus was taken the first step in keeping God’s promise to Paul. The Lord had promised him that he would testify in Rome, and Heaven and Earth will rip apart at the seams before a promise of God fails.

I’d like to take just a moment to focus today to focus on Paul’s defense before Festus in vs. 8: "I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar." This goes along nicely with his testimony before Felix: “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.” This was his defense. His enemies brought lots of charges and accusations and insinuations and allegations but no evidence. They knew they had no case, Festus knew they had no case, and Paul knew they had no case. The only reason Paul wasn’t a free man was because of gutless Roman governors who were sucking up to Jewish religious leaders who had it in for him.

Now, obviously this doesn’t mean that Paul was sinless. He knew he wasn’t. But he knew that as far as the legal accusations went, he was innocent. He wasn’t instigating sedition against Rome. He wasn’t blaspheming the Temple or turning people away from the Law or the Prophets. He was a godly man who was trying to do what God told him to do.

Now here’s a piercing question for you and me. If someone tried to build a case against me like they did against Paul, could they do it? Would they have to make stuff up? Could they find someone with a legitimate gripe against me? Could I honestly say “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man”? Really?

Lord Jesus, I know I have a long way to go before I can make the claim in 24:16. Please forgive me where I fall short and change me into the likeness of you my Savior.

[Nov 16]--The Deadliest Sin

Acts 24:24-27

I heard a story several years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Of course it’s just an imaginary story to prove a point, but that point is a serious one to make. One day Satan convened a committee in Hell. The subject was what to do about the Gospel. Everyone agreed that it was making too much headway, and they had to do something about the souls lost to it every day. One demon suggested that they try to discount the Resurrection. That was immediately rejected, since there’s too much historical evidence that it happened. Another submitted that they should promote the rise of atheism, so that people would reject a belief in God and the Bible altogether. Of course that was tossed out, since anyone with a half-way open mind can see that all this didn’t all happen by chance. Another one tried to promote false religions. They all agreed that that course was making some progress, but not enough. The Gospel was just too attractive compared to anything they could create.

But then Satan motioned for silence. He said that they could never really fight the Gospel with any of these methods, since the truth was not on their side. So he commanded that they focus on their most tried-and-true method. Whenever someone was in danger of believing in Christ, they'd just whisper in his ear that he could trust in Jesus tomorrow. And that would eventually land the lost soul into the Abyss.

My friend, what’s the deadliest sin? Well, some say it’s murder. But there are murderers in Heaven right now. On earth they had blood on their hands, but before they died they threw themselves on the mercy of God’s court, and found Another’s blood which would cover them forever. Some might say adultery, and that’s pretty serious. But David was guilty of both murder and adultery, and he found forgiveness. And of course pride--being the ultimate anti-God state of mind--is a good contender.

I think a great case can be made that it’s procrastination. I honestly believe that this one character flaw will send more people to Hell than all the atheists’ arguments combined.

That’s the case with Felix. He seemed to have an open mind to listen to what Paul said. It looks like he wasn’t fooled too much by the false accusations from the Jews. Paul, like he always did, turned the subject towards his favorite one, namely that of the Good News about his Savior. It also seems like Felix showed some interest in this “Jesus” whom Paul couldn’t shut up about.

But when Paul started talking about things like “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come,” a cold sweat broke out on the governor and that was the end of the conversation.

Please notice that the governor didn’t end it with “Enough Paul! This is all a bunch of baloney!” He didn’t reject it outright. No, he put off the decision. He told him “When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” “When I find it convenient.” Yeah. Right. In case you didn't figure it out, there's no record of Felix ever becoming a believer. If that's correct, he ended up in the same place as any other lost person who died as a murderer or adulterer.

If you’re not a believer in Christ and you’re reading these words, that might be your response. You know you need to respond to him in faith and obedience. But it’s not convenient right now. Trust me, the only time you’ll ever be able to respond to Christ is now. Please don’t follow Felix's example and end up in the same place he did. If this applies to you, please read this.

If you’re a follower of Christ, then don’t think you’re off the hook here. Yes, you’re saved, but you can make the same sort of mistake. If you know someone who’s not saved, do they know about Jesus? Have you told them? Have you expressed to them the urgency of trusting Christ now? Or are you waiting until it’s more convenient?

Lord Jesus, I’m so sorry about being chained to the word “convenient.” Please forgive and change me.

[Nov 15]--Real Respect Vs. Kissing Up

Acts 24:1-23

A couple of days ago I mentioned the love-hate relationship the Church has historically had with the Jews. But that’s nothing compared to the troubled relationship we’ve had with the State. And as we’ve seen before, humanity is like Luther’s drunk man on a horse, falling off one side, dusting himself off, then falling off the other side when he “corrects” himself. We really have real trouble keeping our balance.

That’s really illustrated here in the stark contrast we see in the Jews’ opening statement versus Paul’s. Do you know the term obsequious? It’s a four-dollar word for a kiss-up. I could use other more colorful terms, but I'll forbear. You know what I’m referring to. And if you look up the word in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of these guys.

In case you’re wondering, Felix was not the greatest governor Rome ever had. They had worse, but he was recalled for misrule after two years. So when they’re starting their speech, they’re being extremely flattering.

Paul, on the other hand, displays a great balance here. He’s respectful for the man’s position. But he’s not a kiss-up, nor is he showing any personal animosity towards either the man or the Roman Government which he represents. Just a simple “I recognize your exalted position over this area” and then he gets to his point quickly.

The rest of this we’re pretty familiar with, so I want to camp out on that for a moment. All too often Christians fall off on one side of this issue or the other. As I’ve said, I listen to political talk radio quite often. If someone criticizes the President, you have people calling immediately to defend him, and quite frankly it almost sounds like those Jewish leaders in today’s reading. He can do no wrong, and any criticism of him has some other agenda besides what’s best for the country.

On the other hand, a lot of talk show hosts which I could name fell off on the other side a few years ago. The President is a secret Muslim or a secret Communist, and is in on a plot to destroy the United States or its economy. And don’t forget the fact that he was really born in Kenya and isn’t even qualified to be President. Uh huh. That’s the reason why I’m very picky about who I listen to.

Look, we can have a discussion on whether or not you agree with the President’s policies (maybe on my other blog). But whether or not you agree with him, you need to keep your discourse civil. Ask yourself how you reacted a couple of years ago when there was a President from another party in power. When the last President did something you heartily disagreed with, how did you talk about him?

What’s the biblical approach here? Again, you must respect the position of authority, even if you disagree with the policies of the person in that position. Even if, as was the case with King Saul, the man in charge is not worthy of that responsibility. That’s not a piece of advice. That’s what the Bible tells us to do.

And here’s a radical concept. Instead of just pining away for the next election when you can get rid of the jerk who’s in office, why not change him right now? There’s one avenue of doing that which most Christians haven’t tried, as far as I can see. If you're so dissatisfied with the man in office, why not try to change his character through prayer?  If he’s a Christian, then he’s your brother. If he’s not, then he’s a soul for whom Christ bled and died. Again, this is not Dear Abby giving you advice. This is a command straight from God through his servant Paul: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

So, do you need to do some repenting?

Father God, please set a guard over my tongue. May it be used only in your service, and never the Enemy’s.

[Nov 14]--Pagan Friends

Acts 23:23-35

I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it needs a little more examination. Yes, I know the Scriptures gives us warning that the default setting for the world towards true followers of Jesus is going to be hostility. We should be pleasantly surprised if a non-Christian doesn’t hate us, I guess. Jesus warned us often enough that the servant isn’t greater than the Master, and thus the former shouldn’t expect any better treatment than the latter.

However, the Lord can and does use in his own purposes even those who don’t claim him as their God. He even uses them to protect us at times: I mentioned before the examples of Joseph’s Pharaoh, Cyrus, and Xerxes. I wish it were different, but it seems that one of my all-time greatest heroes, Winston Churchill, doesn’t seem to have had a relationship with Christ. As we read today, not every single pagan leader and official is an avowed enemy of the church.

So we need to be grateful for this. When God, in an example of common grace, gives us relief or even something approaching friendship, we shouldn’t turn it down. Of course, this comes with some qualifications:

• I shouldn’t have to say it, but I guess I need to. Under no circumstances should we compromise the truth of the Good News for the sake of friendship with anyone. Unfortunately, that’s the pattern of friendship with pagans a lot of times: They see our willingness to acknowledge (and reciprocate) their friendship to mean we can now negotiate on Truth. Nope. We can’t. If a nonbeliever is waiting for me to nod my head and pretend that because of our friendship he’s actually in a right standing with God and doesn’t need salvation through Christ, then he can keep waiting. I’m glad that Billy Graham was invited to the White House multiple times. I’m also extremely glad that (to my knowledge) he never compromised on the exclusivity of salvation through Christ.

• Just because a nonbeliever helps us doesn’t give us an excuse to be na├»ve about human nature. I sin, and I have the Holy Spirit inside of me. He doesn’t. Notice how the commander, even as he’s saving Paul’s life, puts his own account of what happened in a light most favorable to him. No, he didn’t come to rescue Paul because he knew that Paul was a Roman citizen. He saw a riot forming, grabbed Paul out of it, and then had him strapped down for a good interrogational whipping. It was only when Paul spoke up about the illegality of the proceedings that the commander gave a hoot about what was just. I could be wrong, but my reading is that the commander was mostly caring about his own career and livelihood. He might've cared somewhat about Paul, but I really believe that if his interests and Paul’s interests didn’t coincide, he wouldn’t have hesitated to throw Paul to the wolves in self-preservation.

And of course this is a reminder that our Father has limitless resources to carry out his plan to our good. We have friends that we don’t even know about. And as someone once told me, Jesus might or might be the only friend I have, but he’s the only one I need.

Father God, I thank you that you do take care of your children. Even people who don’t acknowledge you still fit into your plan to bring glory to your Name and to do good for those you claim as your own. You really do know what you’re doing, don’t you?

[Nov 13]--Conspiracy Fact

Acts 23:12-22

Yes, I admit it. I’m a Radio Talk Show junkie. I like to listen to political talk radio, since the best of it jump starts my mind and sharpens my logic skills (remember, I said the best of it). I’ve mentioned before Dennis Prager, but my favorite—hands down—is Michael Medved. Most of the time he comments on political issues, but once a month he has my favorite type of show: Conspiracy Day. On the day of the month that has a full moon, he invites callers in to present the best case for their favorite conspiracy theory. Of course he gets the usual “9-11 Was An Inside Job,” “JFK Was Killed By The CIA,” and the old standby “Jews Are Taking Over the World.” He listens attentively, then proceeds to politely ask some probing questions which blow their theories out of the water.

The reason I bring it up is that even Medved recognizes that some conspiracies actually do exist. Just because most conspiracy theories are bunk doesn’t mean that all of them are. For example, Lincoln was actually assassinated as part of a conspiracy to kill him, his VP, and the Secretary of State all in one night. Some Conspiracy Theories turn out to be Conspiracy Facts.

If you’re a Bible-believing Christian, then you have to believe in a global conspiracy that most people in America don’t acknowledge. There’s a Puppet Master who manipulates events and people in order to serve his evil purposes. He has set determined goals, and he mostly works behind the scenes utilizing his minions. He’s been at work since humanity was created, but the good news is that his days of operation are numbered.

Paul himself, as we read today, was almost the victim of a human conspiracy. No doubt the Enemy of our souls desperately wanted him dead or at least silenced. So he inspired some zealous Jews to pledge themselves to not eat or drink until they killed this blasphemer. Literally they “anathematized” themselves, inviting the judgment of God upon themselves if they failed in their supposedly divine task. Once again, our Lord’s words came true: “The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.” They so hated this one man that killing him was literally more important than eating and breathing. Of course the irony here is that a few years ago Paul would've joined them in the same circumstances.

It’s kind of a pattern, isn’t it? The Adversary makes his plans, puts his servants into action, and ends up providing the catalyst for God’s plans that the Lord had made all along. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: God’s plans do not succeed in spite of the Enemy’s best efforts, but because of them. Paul’s nephew just happened to overhear what was going on, and he went to his uncle to warn him. Paul sent the boy to the Roman commander, who realized that he had to get Paul out of Jerusalem. He'd never even make it to an official trial before the Sanhedrin: He’d end up with a knife in his gut first.

Thus the commander sent the boy off and prepared to move Paul. Thus would begin Paul’s long journey to Rome to stand trial and present his testimony there. Our Lord had promised that Paul would go to Rome to testify. When our Lord promises something, it’s going to happen. The Enemy wanted Paul dead before he could cause any more damage to the Kingdom of Darkness. But the apostle was under the protection of the Almighty. So whether by means of a legion of angels led by Michael himself, or by means of a young boy--whose name we don’t even know--who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, God’s purposes will be fulfilled and his promises will come to pass.

You can bank on it.

Lord Jesus, when you tell me something, do I believe it? Really? Enough to stake my life on it? Please increase my faith.

[Nov 12]--Before The Sanhedrin

Acts 22:30-23:11

So now Paul was taken before the Sanhedrin, the highest official Jewish court in Jerusalem. Here his Lord was condemned and sentenced to death a few years ago, here he'd stood approving of Stephen’s death, and now here he stood with himself on trial.

He started out his appeal by testifying to his basic godliness in his lifestyle. Of course, he wasn’t claiming to be sinless. This was not a theological statement about his eternal standing before God, but a claim that he was innocent of the charges brought against him. He'd never tried to tell Jews to stop being Jews, he never advocated that Jews abandon the heritage of their fathers (notice how often they use that phrase in these chapters), and he never blasphemed the temple or the Law.

The High Priest Ananias, known for his cruelty, corruption, and violence, had Paul struck for his “insolence.” By the way, this was highly illegal under Jewish law. And on a side note, Paul’s condemnation, although made in the heat of anger, proved to be prophetic. Ananias was hated by his own people and was murdered during the Jewish revolt against Rome in the late 60’s A.D. As someone once said, the mill of God’s justice is slow but exceedingly fine.

Was he repentant about cursing the High Priest? Some say he was being sarcastic in vs. 5, but I personally don’t think so. It had been several years since he had been in Jerusalem, so I think he really didn’t recognize the High Priest. The man Ananias was despicable, but Paul believed in respecting people’s positions of authority, even if the man personally didn’t deserve it (just like David with King Saul).

Then things got really exciting. No boring day in the Sanhedrin today! Paul, following his Lord’s admonition to be as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove, drove a wedge and stoked a major division among his enemies. He knew about the theological (and bitter) divide between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and he took full advantage of it.

Now, was he being ethical here? Well, the Resurrection of Christ is an essential part of the Good News. He knew that he really was closer to the theology of the Pharisees than to that of the Sadducees. So he brought in some allies over to his side. And it seemed to work. At least it got him a chance to get a hearing among some of them, something he didn’t have before.

But then comes vs. 11, my favorite part of this whole story. Paul had been unjustly accused, nearly stoned, manhandled, and threatened. And worse was yet to come. But in the midst of all this craziness, his Lord and Shepherd stood by him. When we stand for our Savior, we’ll see him standing with us. He never lets his sheep face the wolves alone. Never!!!!

And not only did the Lord stand by him. He also gave him a wonderful promise. Paul was going to Rome to testify about his Savior. I want you to remember this verse, because this was going to be very important to Paul in the days ahead. Satan had his plans, his Jewish enemies had their plans, and Paul probably had his own plans. But as Proverbs tells us “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

Aren’t you glad?

Yes, Lord, I’m very glad. If my plans and yours are in conflict, then it’s mine that need to change. And they will.

[Nov 11]--Um, Before You Proceed With The Beating. . .

Acts 22:22-29

The Jewish crowd was listening to Paul and seemed to be willing to consider what he had to say. That is, until he related that God sent him to the Gentiles. When those words came out of his lips, they were ready to kill him on the spot. Notice that Luke says that they were throwing their cloaks on the ground, probably in preparation for stoning him. If you’ll remember, when we’re introduced to Paul in the book of Acts, he’s on the receiving end of those cloaks as they were getting ready to stone Stephen. Quite a change.

The Roman soldiers had to intervene to keep him from being murdered in the street. The commander rescued him, and took him to the barracks. And with irony on top of irony, it looked for a moment like Paul had been pulled out of the frying pan and thrown into the fire. The commander callously ordered him to be flogged with a Roman whip with bits of stone, glass, and bone at the ends. All this just to find out from Paul what had happened!

But then something occurred. As they were stretching Paul out for the flogging, he asked a simple question to which he already knew the answer. It was perfectly legal (and quite common) to interrogate an alien or a slave this way, but Roman citizens were exempt from this type of tortuous treatment. If word got out that the commander ordered the beating of a Roman citizen, the commander could lose his military commission or even his life.

So Paul used his Roman citizenship to get out of an unjust beating and torture session. Let’s take a look at that for a moment.

As I’ve mentioned before, human beings have real trouble finding the proper balance between extremes. There are Christians in the world who actually seem to thrive on persecution, and actually seek out conflict with the world. If anyone in the secular world shows them any type of kindness, their default position is suspicion if not outright hostility. And there’s virtue in that position. Quite frankly, I think the Church in America is waaaaaaaay too comfortable sometimes with the Powers That Be. Maybe we could stand to be little more suspicious and a little less entangled.

But today’s passage reminds us that it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way all the time. God has used pagans several times to protect his people: Pharaoh (in Joseph’s time), Cyrus, Xerxes, and others. We never want to be compromise what’s important. But martyrdom is something that God gives someone. It’s not something we should seek out, and there’s nothing wrong with using legal means to avoid it if we can do so without being unfaithful to our Lord.

You see, we’re in our Father’s hands. If he decides in his wisdom and perfect plan to let Satan strike us, then so be it. We’re certainly in the best of company. Our Master does all things well.

But if he decides--again in his wisdom and perfect plan--to give us some relief, then again so be it. He really knows what’s best. And we don’t have to feel guilty about using an “out” that he’s provided.

It all comes down to trusting in his plan. He knows what his children need. And he always provides it. Always.

Lord Jesus, please give me what I need. Please let me as shrewd as a snake and as innocent as a dove. It’s a dangerous world out there, and I desperately need you to guide me every step of the way.

[Nov 10]--Testimony Before The Jews, Part Two

Acts 22:12-22

So let’s continue looking at Paul’s speech before the Jews in Jerusalem. After recounting his encounter with the Messiah, he shifts for a moment to Ananias, the man sent to heal him. Paul is careful to point out that Ananias was also a practicing Jew: He tried to follow the Law and was well-respected as such by the Jewish people around him.

We get some details we didn’t get in chapter nine, but most of it we’re familiar with. But also we hear about his first opposition from his own people. He was in a trance when the Lord appeared to him and warned him to flee the city. Why? Because the Lord knew that the Jewish people in general wouldn’t receive his testimony. Paul’s response to the Savior, which he described before, was that he used to be a persecutor of the Church. Surely these Jews who'd try to hunt him down would understand that what happened on the Road was real. It would take the Lord God himself appearing to Saul of Tarsus to bring him to faith in Yeshua. Nothing else would've done it.

But then he mentions something to them, and that’s the end of the speech. He undoubtedly had lots more to say, but he never got the chance. He made the tactical error of relating how the Lord told him that he (the Lord) would send him (Paul) to the Gentiles.

That’s what set off another riot.

They listened once they realized he was (literally) speaking their language. They were impressed with his study of and adherence to the Law. His spiritual pedigree made an impact on them. They were intrigued how Ananias (another faithful Jew) came to him and healed him. The fact that his own countrymen wanted to kill him maybe shocked them, but this didn’t close them off to the possibility that Paul was speaking the truth.

Until he said that God sent him to the Gentiles.

Should we be surprised? Do you remember when Jesus came back to his hometown? They were also impressed with his message. They were a little skeptical, but they at least had something of an open mind. But when the Savior starting to point out to them that God loves Gentiles and has even dealt with them in the past, they went ballistic, started a lynch mob and tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. It was only miraculous power that saved him from death at the hands of the people he had grown up with.

Why do I bring this motif up once again? Because the Bible does. Repeatedly. Again and again in his word the Lord made it abundantly clear that his ultimate plan has always been to redeem people from all over the world. Peter said it best in his first encounter with Gentiles: “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.” But the Jews thought that their calling made them special and that all other people were bound for Hell and deserved to go there.

Oh but we’re past that, right? We don’t hate anyone of any particular race. We’re cured of the ethnocentrism that the early Church struggled with. Sure.

So are there any groups of people whom you have written off? Are there any people whom you don’t believe can be saved—and deep deep down inside you’re fine with that? How’s about Muslims? How’s about Chinese Buddhists? Or—and this is really ironic—how about the Jewish people?

If this doesn’t apply to you, if you can honestly say that you’re free of this, then fine. I’m not going to dispute you. And I hope it’s true. But if the Spirit is pricking your heart, you might want to give a listen. Because although the Jews of that time are long dead, I suspect that their spirit is alive and well.

Father God, please search out my heart. Any place where this rot exists, please root it out. And replace it with a Paul-like zeal to see every nation, every tongue, every people group represented before your Throne in worship.

[Nov 09]--Testimony Before The Jews

Acts 21:37-22:11

So Paul attempted to reason with the Jews. He loved his brothers according to the flesh, and always was yearning for any chance of reconciliation.

Always mindful of his audience, Paul specifically started his speech in Aramaic, an off-shoot of Hebrew. It was the most common language of the Holy Land. The NIV text note says it could be translated as Hebrew, but it’s not likely. His audience all spoke Aramaic, and he wanted to establish a connection with them.

And that concern continued as he spoke to them. He really emphasizes his background before he came to know the Messiah. He was born a citizen of Tarsus, but he was raised in Jerusalem, the most holy city for Jews. And even more importantly, he was trained in the Law by Gamaliel. This was name-dropping at its finest, because Gamaliel was considered by conventional wisdom to be one of the greatest rabbis of the 1st century. Notice that he brought up the common heritage he had with his audience of which he wanted to remind them: At the feet of Gamaliel he “was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors.” He was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee.”

And just how devoted was he? Well, when he heard about this new sect called Christians or followers of Jesus, he leaped into action. He started persecuting believers in Jerusalem, and was on his way to Damascus to round up more Christians when he was struck down on the road.

Paul here hammers home again and again just what type of man he was before he encountered Jesus. He did this to make a connection with them. But it also shows the incredible change the Lord had made in his life. Again, Peter was just a humble fisherman minding his own business when Jesus met him. But Paul was an active enemy of the Church and did everything he could to wipe it out. That’s the strongest evidence he presents that this Jesus was real, and his conversion was not a sign of a flaky personality who would change at the shifting of the wind. Something had happened on that road.

The rest of the story we’re pretty familiar with, so for the rest of today, I’d like to make another point with Paul’s character and what happens when the Lord gets a hold of a man.

We see what type of man Paul was before his conversion. He was dedicated, devoted, self-sacrificing, self-disciplined, and zealous for what he considered to be right. When he studied the Law, he would take no teacher less than the greatest, undoubtedly the hardest course he ever took. He was passionate in the extreme. In fact, that’s a great word that summarizes his personality pretty well: Extreme.

And what did Jesus do to him? Did the Lord temper that passion? Did he mitigate Paul's zeal? Did he moderate that extreme personality? Not in the slightest. All that zeal, all that passion, all that self-discipline was just channeled into a new direction.

That’s how the Lord usually works. Yes, there’s a sense in which he changes a man. At the very least, the Lord’ll refine a man and smooth some of the rough edges. But there’s another sense in which he merely changes the direction of the person.

That’s why this is so important for us to know. Perhaps you’re reading about Paul and think “I could never be like that.” Perhaps. But God doesn’t want to change you into a clone of Paul or Billy Graham or Augustine or Jonathan Edwards. He wants you to be like Christ. And Christ is big enough that each of us can reflect him in a unique way.

Be who you are in Christ, not who someone else is in Christ. Make sense?

Lord Jesus, I thank you for the incredible diversity in your Body, in your Bride. I don’t have to be clone of anyone else. I just need to be like you. That’s hard enough. Please let’s get on with it.

[Nov 08]--False Accusations

Acts 21:27-36

It’s such a sure thing that you can usually set your clocks by it. If you’re effective in reaching people with the Good News and in furthering God’s Kingdom, you can expect that the Enemy will give you his attention. And one of his favorite means of working against the Church has always been that of false accusations. During the early years of the Church—after the Apostles’ era—Christians were routinely accused of fomenting sedition against the Roman government, of cannibalism, and of incest. Of course none of these were true. Our foremost author of the New Testament told us to submit to governing authorities. The charge of cannibalism came from the fact that during the Lord’s Supper we recited verses in which we mentioned “eating his body” and “drinking his blood.” And the reason we were suspected of incest is because men and women referred to each other as “brother” and “sister”; even husbands and wives did so.

So when Paul’s enemies were on the lookout for anything with which to accuse him, they finally found something. They saw him with some men, and they'd earlier seen him with a Gentile walking through the city streets. So they accused him of bringing a Gentile into the temple area. But notice the first accusation, the one they hoped would really stir up murderous passions. Supposedly Paul had somehow taught “against” the Jewish people and law and temple. This was the real justification for rioting and murder!

But of course none of this was legitimate. True, Paul had taught that we’re justified by faith in Christ, not by observing the Law. And he taught that Gentiles were accepted before God on the same basis as Jews. But the real unspoken issue--the elephant in the room, so to speak--was the nature of Jesus. Was he a charlatan and a false teacher and a false Messiah? If so, then the religious leadership was perfectly right in rejecting and condemning him. But if he was who he said he was, then that changes things! The issue of contention always was, and always shall be, who Jesus is.

Please keep in this mind. Why was Paul at the temple in the first place? He was there to help some observant Jewish brothers keep to Jewish religious tradition. He himself was a practicing Jew, except in the matter of witnessing to Gentiles. He thoroughly believed in the inspiration of the Torah. He completely accepted the divine authority of the Prophets. His custom was to worship among fellow Jews whenever he could. So this accusation that he was counseling fellow Jews to abandon their heritage was pure nonsense.

Is there anything completely new for us here? Not really. I just thought we all needed a couple of reminders:

• If you’re falsely accused, then don’t be surprised. You might think from some peoples’ reactions that our Lord didn’t forewarn us about this. He did. Repeatedly. Here’s just one sample: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” I mean, they did it to our Savior at his trial, and we certainly can’t expect that a servant is going to be treated better than his master, can we?

• If you’re accused, please let it be a false accusation. Just like in Daniel's case, Paul’s enemies had to make something up against him. When our enemies attack us, I hope that they have to resort to the same tactics. I for one am getting really tired of God’s name being blasphemed among nonbelievers because of something a Christian actually did, aren’t you?

So how about you? If you actually got accused of some gross misconduct, would it be a false accusation, or would they have a legitimate point?

Father God, for all the times that my actual conduct brings shame to your name, I’m so sorry. Please help me to change, and please may everything I do and say point them straight to you.