Thursday, January 31, 2019

Acts 24 God is Not in a Hurry

Acts 24 ends with these words, "When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison." Two years! Two years talking with Felix about the Lord with no apparent fruit. Two years of little freedom. Two years not able to travel and preach. Two years with no progress toward Rome.

I get impatient. I want to know what decision I need to make, where I need to go, what I should be doing next. Waiting is agony when we feel like we're stuck in limbo. But just as God never stops being God when things feel out of control, so He never stops being God when things feel stalled. God is not in a hurry.

The older I get the more I should understand that, and in some ways I do, but I also see that the older I get the narrower my options become. A ministry that didn't want me in my 20's, because of too little experience, may not want me now because of too few years of ministry left. An opportunity that might open up if I had a little more education, will no longer be available by the time I can get that education. An opportunity to talk to my neighbor about Christ may never come about because he's got cancer, or she's got heart disease, and may die unexpectedly.

We are often driven by the shortness of time. Don't Blink is a Country Western song talking about how short life is. Preachers often use the danger of lost opportunities as a motivation for obedience and evangelism. There is truth in that, so why does God have Paul sitting in Caesarea for two years? Doesn't He know time is short?

Apparently, God is not in a hurry. He is not bound by all the limitations we can see and imagine. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, seems to be okay sitting in a Caesarean prison. Perhaps we need to spend less time worrying about time and decisions and more time focused on the God who is not in a hurry.
Father, I confess my lack of patience and my anxiety over the future. I never want to be lazy and lethargic, but neither do I want to get ahead of you. By your grace, lead me clearly and intentionally, and may I rest in you and your timetable even when it doesn't seem to make sense to me.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Acts 23 But God...

The Apostle Paul was arrested in Acts 22. In Acts 23, he is brought before the Sanhedrin.  Paul, realizing that there are both Pharisees and Sadducees present, makes a statement about the resurrection which he knows will divide the crowd. The resulting chaos causes the Roman soldiers to intervene.

"The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, "Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome."" (Acts 23:11) Paul's life, his future, is beyond his control. He's in a Roman prison. Forty Jews are plotting his demise. But God! But God has other plans. But God puts Paul's nephew in the right place at the right time to overhear the plot. But God gave that boy the courage to talk to Paul. But God gave that boy favor in the eyes of the Romans who listened to him. Paul's life is out of his control but God is in control.

Sometimes life feels out of control. Sometimes things don't make sense. We feel like we should be involved in a particular ministry but the door is slammed shut. A gifted missionary has to come off the field because the financial support isn't there. A pastor preaches his heart out and the people don't seem to hear. A family finally gets their financial woes in order only to have the car break down or a child get sick. Life is out of control. But God is still God.

We preach that truth. We tell each other that truth. We talk in church like we believe that truth. But in the darkness of those moments when life comes undone, we sometimes wonder if it's really true. It's in those moments that the grace of God pierces the darkness and reminds us that God never stops being God. He is in control and we are in His hands. Whatever happens will be to His glory and by His grace.

Father, thank you for faithfully meeting me in those dark hours. Sometimes you have sent a flood of joy through the valley of despair. At other times you have given a beam of hope burning through the fog of depression. Sometimes you have used my wife, my children, or others to speak a word of encouragement, when all I could hear was the din of confusion. But, you have always been there and you have promised never to leave. Thank you that no matter what the world and the enemy can throw my way, you are there and you never stop being God. I rest in that fact.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Acts 22 Contextualization

I wrote this a few years ago, but it seems appropriate. @edstetzer talks about contextualizing the gospel. The Apostle Paul understood that concept. On being arrested, he asks to address the crowd. He has been arrested for allegedly teaching Jews to break the law and for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the temple. Neither accusation is accurate, but given the accusation, and his audience in Acts 22, Paul goes out of his way to contextualize his message. First he speaks in Aramaic (Acts 22:2). Then he emphasizes his Jewish background (vss 3ff). He reminds them of his initial violent opposition to the "Way" and tells the story of his conversion. Even in telling of his conversion he makes mention of the fact that Ananias, who came to see him "was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there." Paul is attempting to identify with his audience and break down the cultural barriers that might keep them from hearing his message.

Yesterday in a tweet Ed Stetzer wrote something that my wife has often heard me say, something to which, I believe, the Apostles would agree. Ed wrote, "We often forbid N. American churches from doing the very thing we require of international missionaries." (@edstetzer tweet Mon, Aug 23, 2010)

Father, I never want to compromise your truth, but neither do I want to be guilty of tying your truth to my culture in such a way that I cannot communicate it effectively to anyone outside my circle. Give me wisdom, discernment and a heart tender to your Spirit and to those around me, so that I might clearly demonstrate Jesus to those around me and effectively communicate His truth.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Ezra 2

The Gospel is a free and open invitation to move from captivity to freedom. It brings together people from different backgrounds, different perspectives and abilities, and different experiences. What unites the church is not our homogeneity (i.e. everybody is the same), but the truth that we are all captives freed by a benevolent God who acts in grace and mercy. That sometimes brings together the most unlikely people to work as a unit, a body with one head. It is our brokenness apart from grace, and the healing truth of the gospel that unites us.

The gospel not only unites us, it changes us. It transforms stingy people into generous givers, bitter individuals into loving care givers, masters into servants and slaves into free men and women.  The gospel is not about us, it is about the grace of the God we serve who takes captives and turns them into a free people. It turns broken people into whole individuals. It takes separated people and turns them into a single unit that exercises and demonstrates acceptance and love in truth and holiness.

But the gospel doesn't turn unique individuals into homogeneous automatons (i.e. robots that all look and act alike). It leaves room, indeed it makes room for the fullness of our uniqueness expressed in a holiness that is in perfect harmony with the person, nature and character of the God we serve and yet looks slightly different for each one of us. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "If the whole body were an eye where would be the sense of hearing?" (1Cor 12:17)

The purpose of the Book of Ezra is to remind the people of God’s faithfulness in restoring them and to warn them to live as a covenant people of God. That means we answer the invitation with faith, embracing a unique and diverse body of brothers and sisters in Christ in a spirit of unity and love looking for opportunities to freely and willingly give and serve because God has changed our hearts by his grace. What is he calling you to give? Who is he calling you to serve?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Acts 21 Warnings & Troubles

In Acts 20, we are told that the Holy Spirit was warning Paul in every city. When we get to Acts 21, we find more specifics of those warnings. Agabus clearly says that Paul will be bound and arrested in Jerusalem. Why does the Holy Spirit give these warnings? My first inclination is to think that he's warning Paul in order to protect him. But if that's the case, Paul isn't listening. To no avail, his friends plead with him not to go up to Jerusalem. He is insistent on going. 

If we look closer at the warnings though, we realize that the message from the Spirit is not, "Don't go to Jerusalem or they will arrest you." The message is simply, "You will be arrested." Perhaps these prophecies were not so much a warning as they were a preparation for Paul and his friends. When bad things happen, one of the first questions we ask is, "What did I do wrong?" Another is, "Where is God?" Sometimes, it has nothing to do with what we did and, God never stops being God. By warning Paul and his friends, the Holy Spirit has prepared them for this trial. They are now able to say, "The Lord's will be done." (Acts 21:14) 

It seems difficult for us to accept, but sometimes hard times are a part of God's plan. Paul is arrested in Jerusalem even though he does absolutely nothing wrong. In fact he is fulfilling a vow according to the law so that everyone will know that he has not been teaching Jews to ignore the law. He is arrested for the very thing he's trying to avoid. But God had other plans. Through this arrest Paul will have an all expenses paid evangelistic tour to Rome. God is in control. 

Father, I confess that sometimes I have a difficult time seeing past the problems to your sovereignty. I'm not asking you to give me a warning before every problem I'll face, although, I wouldn't turn that down. I am just grateful that you have promised your grace to always be sufficient. In the end, by your grace, may I be found faithful. With the early believers, in faith I say, "The Lord's will be done."

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Acts 20 - Relationships

The Apostle Paul's life and ministry was about relationships. Acts 20:4 lists the names of several people who were traveling with him. Even when he decided to go overland and meet up with the ship later, he took several people with him. I think by that time, I would have been looking for some alone time.

Paul's last words to the Ephesians also reveal the importance of relationships to his ministry. Acts 20 ends with Paul reminding them of the time he had spent with them. He then warns them about false teachers that will come, commends them to the Lord, and prays for them. Then, "They all began to weep loudly, and hugged Paul and kissed him." (Acts 20:37) Not only had Paul preached to them, he had invested in their lives.

We were designed for community. Relationships are a fundamental part of who God is. They are foundational to our humanity having been created in God's image. They are therefore essential to ministry. For some of us people are energizing. For others people can be draining. But we were never designed to hide away from people and be alone. "It is not good that the man should be alone" (Gen 2:18). Relationships were important to Jesus. They were important to Paul. They are important to us as well. May our relationships and interaction with people always reflect our God. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

Is Ministry dependent on finding the right method?

Acts 19 chronicles Paul's ministry in Ephesus. It is attended by great miracles, imitators, many converts,  and strong opposition. The great number of miracles and the nature of those miracles is quite unique. Notice that Paul's ministry looked different in every city. We tend to lock in on methods and assume that ministry should look the same everywhere. That's a mistake. Ministry is not about method as much as it is about understanding what and how God is working in each individual situation.

We don't know the motives of the imitators. They could have seen casting out demons as a potentially lucrative business. They could have been looking for attention and a sense of significance. They may have truly had a desire to help people. Whatever their motive, they failed because they didn't understand that ministry is not a profession, it's a calling that is powerless apart from the power of God.

There were many converts in Ephesus. The message Paul preached in Ephesus was no different than that which he preached in Athens but the response was much greater. Again we see that this is about God. In Ephesus, God chose to work powerfully in the hearts and lives of people. In Athens, not so much. Why? I have no idea except to say that it wasn't about Paul. It was about God. It wasn't that Paul finally figured out how to reach people or how to effectively evangelize. In some ways, Paul was just along for the ride. In fact, Paul's ministry in Ephesus was built on the previous ministry of others. When he arrived in Ephesus he found believers who simply needed further instruction. Had it not been for the foundation of ministry that had already been laid, it is possible that the results of Paul's ministry may have been quite different. Do we recognize the value of seeds sown when we don't see immediate responses?

I'm beginning to see a pattern here. We have not been called to produce successful ministry. We have been called to faithful ministry resting in the power, leading and sovereignty of God.
Father, by your grace, may I rest and minister in that truth.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Let the Professional do it... Hmmm, that doesn't seem right.

Aquila & Priscilla came to faith through Paul's preaching. They were discipled by Paul as they worked together making tents. They traveled with Paul and watched him minister in the name of Jesus. When they encountered Apollos, who was preaching and teaching Jesus but didn't yet understand the whole story, they could have responded in two ways. They could reject him because he wasn't teaching like Paul teaches, or they could say, "Listen, you need to sit in on some of Paul's seminars or maybe even enroll in his traveling seminary before you go preaching any more." Instead, they chose a third option.  "When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately." (Acts 18:26) This is second generation discipleship.

We too often approach ministry like this, "You need to come and hear my preacher." Why? Don't we know the scriptures well enough to teach them ourselves? Do we believe that somehow people come to faith in Christ because of the charisma of the teacher instead of by the grace of God? We often blame preachers for professionalizing the ministry, and sometimes we're right. More often, however, we in the pews are to blame because we're not willing to step up and minister ourselves. We prefer to let the professionals do it. Thank God for people like Aquila and Priscilla who were willing to take Apollos under their wing and teach him further.

Thank God for Apollos who was willing to submit to the instruction of Aquila and Priscilla. He was obviously a gifted speaker and a learned and intelligent student of the scriptures, yet he was willing to sit with these tent makers and learn. In our arrogance, or perhaps our insecurity, we are often unwilling to listen to and learn from others. Because he was willing to learn he had a powerful ministry for Christ.

Father, forgive us for the times we have been unwilling to do ministry ourselves, opting for sending people to the professionals instead, and forgive us for the times we have been unteachable. By your grace, would you continue to mold us, teach us and use us for your glory.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Some Thoughts on Acts 17

As is common it seems, three random thoughts occurred to me as I read through Acts 17. The first is found in verse 6, The Jewish leaders, out of jealousy round up a mob. They grab some new converts when they can't find Paul, and drag them before the officials. Here is their accusation, "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here." Now first of all, it's the mob causing the commotion, not the believers. Second, it's Paul who has been traveling around preaching, not these new converts. But the thing that I've been thinking about is the cultural shift that inevitably occurs when the gospel arrives. Wherever the gospel went, the world was shaken up. Cultural anthropologists hate that. Watch a few movies and you'll see that. They don't see the freedom from fear and bondage; they just see that there are no cool looking witch doctors any more. It's interesting that the same people who will scream about changes to those cultures are on the frontlines in the attempt to destroy the church culture many of us grew up with. Now I'm not one to try and impose or enforce the culture of 1950 on anyone, but the hypocrisy is glaring.

The second thought that occurred to me from Acts 17 was that twice in this chapter the conversion of men and women is specifically mentioned. In Thessalonica "not a few women" believed. In Berea "a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men" believed. In Athens "a few men became followers of Paul and believed ... also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others." I'm not sure if the emphasis here is on the men becoming believers, or on the fact that women were becoming believers, but this follows the story of the gospel coming to Phillipi, where the first convert was Lydia and her household. The church met in her home. Women were prominent in the life and ministry of Jesus, and in the beginnings of the church. That is important to recognize and celebrate. On the other hand, reaching men seems to have always been a challenge.

The third thought that occurred to me from Acts 17 is found in verse 16, "While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols." Paul is in Athens waiting for his friends, but his distress over the idolatry of the city moves him to engage them with the gospel. He wasn't in Athens to intentionally evangelize; it is just so much a part of who he is and how he thinks that it happens. It makes me wonder about how we see our own community. Do we see the need? Does it compel us to engage people with the gospel and the love of Christ? That's convicting.

Father, I know that there are those who will oppose the church and the gospel. They will paint us in a bad light whenever possible. By your grace, may we remain faithful. Jesus said, "I will build my church." Father, I thank you for the women who have sustained ministry over the years, often in spite of the men. By your grace may we men step up to the plate. Open our eyes to understand even what that means. Finally Father, help me see my city and my neighborhood through your eyes. Give me your heart, your compassion for those around me. Send your Holy Spirit to open eyes and hearts to faith in you, and give me eyes to see and feet to pursue the opportunities for ministry you place before me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Fallible Humans & the Sovereignty of God

Acts 16 is the story of fallible humans serving an infallible and sovereign God. I find this chapter fascinating. Questions and observations swirl in my head. First, we find Paul circumcising Timothy. Why, after the recent decision about circumcision in the previous chapter? The answer seems to lie in the fact that Timothy was half Jew, and Paul's method of operating was to go to the Jews first. He didn't want an uncircumcised Jew to be a hindrance to the gospel.

Second, we find Paul wandering around with plans, but no clear understanding of where he was supposed to minister. Apparently, even when he had the Macedonian vision he wasn't sure what it meant at first. Luke writes, "After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." (Acts 16:10) They "concluded" that they were supposed to go to Macedonia. It sounds to me like they discussed the vision and concluded that was what it meant, but do I detect a little uncertainty there?

When they are followed by a demonized slave girl in Philippi, why didn't they cast out the demon right away? Why did Paul wait until he "became so troubled..."? It sounds like he was frustrated by her pestering and finally had enough.

When they were arrested, why didn't he mention that they were Roman citizens right off? When he was released, why did he make the Magistrates come personally to release him? How did that further the gospel or demonstrate the humility of Christ?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. What I do know, is that in the sovereignty of God two households were saved, Lydia's and the jailers, and the foundation of a church was laid. Paul would later write to this church. We call that letter the book of Philippians in our Bible.

That gives me hope. There are times when I wonder whether I'm doing anything of value for the kingdom. There are times when I question my call, my ability to effectively minister, my clarity in hearing God's leading, the decisions I make. But, I find rest in the assurance that God never stops being God and will accomplish His purpose in and through me despite my personal misgivings and lack of clear understanding. Thank you Lord! In my fallibility, I rest in Your infallibility and sovereignty.

Monday, January 21, 2019

You May not Like This One, but Think About it

It's interesting, the conclusion of the council in Jerusalem. The question has risen, can you be saved without circumcision? After much discussion, Peter's testimony, Paul and Barnabas' testimony, and finally the affirmation of the scriptures, they are agreed that circumcision is not necessary. So what message do they send to the church in Antioch where the controversy began? "You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things." (Acts 15:29)

Notice they didn't say, "You will be saved if you avoid these things" but, "you will do well..." These were not requirements for salvation, so what were they? The answer is found in verse 21, "For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath." In other words, these were restrictions placed on Gentile believers so as to not offend the Jews living in their communities. This could be a real hindrance to Jewish evangelism if they are doing these things.

Our culture is changing. I recently read a story of a High School football team practicing in the middle of the night because most of their team were Muslim and they didn't want to make them break Muslim law during Ramadan. Christians are complaining because the coach is forcing the whole team to live according to Sharia law. I wonder, are these the same Christians that insisted that there be no games on Wednesday night because that's prayer meeting night? And our Bible doesn't even require us to meet on Wednesday night. Hmmm... I understand their anger and frustration, but it also makes me wonder what Peter, Paul, and James would say.

Father, I don't want to roll over and let Secular Humanism, or the Muslim faith, or any other false belief system destroy this country as I have known it. But Father, even more, I don't ever want to be an offense or a hindrance to your gospel. Give me wisdom and discernment in these matters. Send your Holy Spirit before me to prepare hearts for the gospel, and make me sensitive to what your Spirit is up to. All, for your glory.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Deification, Canonization & Persecution

I've been reading Acts 14 this morning and three more or less unrelated thoughts come to mind. Why it's always three? I have no idea. Maybe my brain just can't handle more than three thoughts. Hmmm... At any rate, the first thought was spurred by verse 11. "When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!"" It struck me again how easy it is for us to deify the messenger, and what a temptation it is to start thinking highly of ourselves when God uses us. May God forgive us but, "That was the best sermon I've ever heard" is really fun to hear, particularly if you're a pastor who gets little affirmation. And for those of us in the pews, how often have we been guilty of canonizing our favorite preacher or author? If John Piper, or John MacArthur, or Scofield, or the Puritans, or (you name your favorite) said it then it must be true. Even the Apostle Paul commended the Bereans for testing what he taught against the scripture. We must be careful not to deify and canonize men.

The second thought that occurred to me was the fact that when Paul fled as persecution arose, he left behind new believers who still needed to live there. Were they persecuted? Did the furor die down when Paul left? How did they deal with this opposition to their new faith? The order of their community was disrupted with them embracing this new faith. They had to learn a whole new "normal". Clearly we must take the "good news" to the lost, but I wonder if we realize how traumatic the "good news" will be to their lives.

That brings me to the third thought that occurred to me from Acts 14. It came from verse 22 where Paul says to these new disciples, "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." We have gotten spoiled in this country. If we can't find a Gideon Bible in our motel, we think we're being persecuted. If we can't pass out tracts in the local shopping center, we think we're being persecuted. If our government officials won't allow us to open their meetings with a prayer in Jesus name, we think we're being persecuted. I don't think we have a clue, and I wonder whether we are ready, willing, or even able to accept Paul's teaching here. I fear we're not. I fear I am not, but I rest in the hope (in the biblical sense of hope) that God's grace will be sufficient when that time comes.

Father, by your grace may I accept affirmation as an indication of your grace. May I always test even the most reputable authors and speakers against your Word. May I do so with great discernment. And Father, may I always find your grace to be sufficient, as you have promised, no matter what you call on me to experience or endure. To your glory!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Opportunity for Joy

Acts 13 ends with these words, "And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit." What great event preceded this experience of joy? Well, it's not what I would have expected. It wasn't another conversion of 3000 people. It wasn't the miraculous healing of the sick and infirm. It wasn't the supernatural protection and provision of God. Rather, it was the fact that "the Jews incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium." (Acts 13:50-51) Persecution and the need to leave a new and exciting ministry prompted this kind of joy!?

Granted, there were many Gentiles saved, and "the word of the Lord spread through the whole region." (Acts 13:49) But, it seems to me that the fact that they had to leave, due to the opposition of the very group that should have been most accepting of their message, would have been occasion for grieving, even anger, not joy. Yet, they rejoice. God has done a work which the enemy cannot stop and they have been counted worthy of opposition because of the name of Christ. They shook off the dust from their feet and went on their way. "And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit." (Acts 13:52)

Father, way too often I allow my circumstances to dictate my mood. I neglect to see your sovereign hand behind the scenes. Lord, by faith help me see what I cannot see with my eyes. You are God and nothing can change that.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

God's Power and Answered Prayer

In Acts 12, we have the story of Peter's imprisonment and miraculous release. When those who have been praying for him are told that he's at the door, their response is, "You're out of your mind." When they finally let him in the house, they are "astonished." (Acts 12:15-16)

The normal take I hear on this story is, "Here they are praying, yet they're astonished. What unbelieving people they were." But three thoughts occur to me as I think this through. First, is the fact that their prayers were answered in spite of their lack of faith rather than because of great faith. Yes, Jesus told us that we should pray believing, but there is nothing intrinsically powerful about our faith. Our faith does not "make" God act, nor does it manipulate him into a position where he "must" answer. God is God. Our faith must always be in the sovereign God, not in our faith.

Second, it occurs to me that astonishment at answered prayer is better than presumption and "ho hum, God answered another prayer." We never want to take God and answered prayer for granted.

Third, it occurs to me that they may have expected God to answer their prayer; they just didn't expect it in the middle of the night when prisoners aren't normally released. I have discovered over the years that God rarely does things the same way twice and he often works in ways we don't expect. James was just recently killed. I expect they had prayed for him too. Peter had been in prison and released before. They may have been praying that Peter experience God's grace in his death, or they may have expected him to be released in the morning. God had other plans.

I think that our response should be astonishment at the power and grace of God when we read this story, not condemnation of an "unbelieving" church. God's power is sovereign, infinitely variable, and should never be taken for granted. It's not about us!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

More on Comfort and Mission

In Acts 10, Peter went into the home of a Gentile, preached the gospel, baptized them and spent several days there. As is the case in many of our churches, after a great victory comes an attack, often from those who ought to be most joyful. In the very next chapter, as soon as Peter gets home, he is chastised for entering the home of a Gentile. But here's where the story differs from so many of our experiences. As soon as the brothers saw that Peter's actions were from God they stopped attacking him and rejoiced.

"When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."" (Acts 11:18)

Good for them! For many of us, either because of pride or because we're more interested in our familiar and comfortable social constructs than we are God's mission and purpose, we don't back down. To our shame many a church has been split over an issue far less important than the one being dealt with in Acts 11. Because they were willing to listen with hearts and ears tuned to the Spirit and the mission of God, they were able to back down from their criticism and rejoice.

The cool thing is that the story doesn't end there. The gospel continues to spread among the Gentiles, and the chapter ends with those new Gentile believers ministering to the Jewish church in Jerusalem. The gospel unites. The Spirit of God unites. Choosing comfort or familiarity over the Spirit and the mission divides and destroys us as well as others.

Father, I've seen this too many times. I have to confess that I've even been party to it. Forgive us. Don't let us get away with this pettiness. Tenderize our hearts again to your Spirit. Fill us again with a zeal for your mission. May we reflect the church in Acts 11, and maybe we'll find that, although it wasn't initially comfortable, in the long run it was in our own best interest.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Comfort or Mission

What an amazing story! In Acts 10, we find the story of Peter and Cornelius. Peter has already been stretched way beyond himself. He is preaching instead of fishing. That in itself is huge. On top of that, he is staying with a tanner. Tanners deal with dead animals and their hides. Living in his house would make Peter ceremonially unclean. Peter is way outside his comfort zone, and then God calls him to be stretched further.

God told him in a vision, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." (Acts 10:15) Then Peter is sent to preach the gospel to a Gentile. I'm not sure we really get how significant this is. When Peter first encounters Cornelius, he reminds him that it is not lawful for him to even associate with a Gentile. Then he proceeds to preach to these Gentiles, baptize them and spend several days with them.

I watched my grandkids wrestle with their comfort zones. If Grandpa doesn't say the prayer over the meal the same as Mom and Dad, they're not sure it's right. If their schedule is a little different than at home, or if they are faced with something they're not familiar with, they're not sure whether it's okay.

Moving beyond that which is familiar is difficult, but sometimes necessary if we are serious about being involved with God's mission. Peter was stretched way beyond his comfort zone. The older I get the more I have to wrestle with this myself. I recently heard a pastor say, "I often have to remind my wife that the music is not for us. It's for our target audience." How willing am I to worship in a way that is not familiar or comfortable to me if it means ministering to others? How willing am I to hang out with people I don't know and am not comfortable with if it means furthering God's kingdom? How willing am I to lay aside my own will and desires in order to get on with the mission to which we have been called?

I fear that we are more interested in our comfort than in our mission. I fear that the older I get the more I am concerned about lack of pain in my life and the less willing I am to sacrifice for the cause. God forgive me! That's not the road I want to go down, but it seems to be the road to which I am inexorably drawn. Father, never let me be satisfied with my own comfort when the mission isn't finished. The song "The Gambler" goes, "there'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done," and there'll be time enough for my own comfort when the mission is over and I'm called home.

Friday, January 11, 2019

In Acts 9, we find the story of Saul's conversion. What struck me as I read through that chapter this morning was the fearless actions of two men. First is Ananias, who goes to see Saul first. When God instructs him to go to Saul he responds, "Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem."  Yet in obedience he goes, and Saul is healed, accepted by the church, and immediately begins preaching about Jesus.

The second is Barnabas. When the believers in Jerusalem fear Saul, Barnabas is the one who goes to him and introduces him to the apostles. Imagine what might have happened if these two men had chosen to act on fear instead of faith. Young Saul may have become disillusioned with the church and walked away. He may have become bitter with the church and started his own splinter group. But because these men chose to act out of faith, not fear, Saul eventually becomes the Apostle Paul.

I think back to how many times I have acted, and I have watched churches act, out of fear rather than faith. Do we need to be discerning? Yes. Should we be careless? Certainly not. But, when the first question we always ask is consequence related rather than mission related, there is a problem. When potentially effective ministries are cancelled, or never even considered because of what might happen, we have a problem. When effective new ministries are cancelled because of an off chance that someone might come in that wouldn't understand what we were talking about or why we were meeting in the back of the church instead of in the front, we have a problem. When fear of consequences outweighs faith in God's mission and call, we have a problem.

Father, I know that there have been times where, in my zeal, I ran out ahead of you. But, I also know that there have been far too many times when I have dragged my feet because of fear. Father, give me the wisdom and discernment to see clearly your call, and the faith to act on it no matter what. By your grace may my life be characterized by faith, not fear.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

God Ordained Encounters

It seems that we work so hard at figuring out exactly how to present the gospel, what words to say, what event to use, how to strategically win (i.e. manipulate) people to Christ. Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch didn't meet any of our criteria for a well planned evangelistic campaign. But God was in it.

They were in the desert. (Acts 8) Philip hadn't set up a prayer team. In fact, to our knowledge, no one even knew where he was. He started the presentation of the gospel with a passage in Isaiah that certainly refers to Christ, but it's not the typical place to start. He baptized the Eunuch without any witnesses that we are aware of. And he left the guy without any follow-up. That's just not how we do it. But as a result, the gospel went to a whole new continent.

I think sometimes we don't really believe our own sermons. We preach about the power of God to change lives, but we act like God is powerless without our methods of manipulation. We pray for the healing of people on their death bed, but we rarely pray for the salvation of our neighbors. We celebrate stories of bold evangelists, but we secretly hope that the stranger beside us won't look our way so we don't have to talk to them.

Sometimes I don't think that we really believe Jesus when he said, "I will build my church." He will build his church. We are to be witnesses. Maybe we need to worry less about doing evangelism "right," and be more concerned with just being sensitive to the Holy Spirit and open to what God is doing. I pray for more desert encounters with lost souls whose hearts have been prepared by the Spirit, and less orchestrated, manipulated efforts on my part. Father, may it be so.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Four Lessons from Acts 7

In reading Acts 7, four thoughts come to me. First is the fact that although Abraham and his descendants were given a great promise, every major move, change or decision necessary to the promise being fulfilled was accompanied by crisis. Wouldn't it have been better to just listen to God? But then, how often is that true of me as well? 

Second, is the fact that God is not in a hurry. He tells Abraham that his family will be in Egypt 400 years. Moses is in the wilderness 40 years before leading the people. They spend another 40 years in the wilderness under his leadership before entering the Promised Land. I'm in a hurry. God isn't.

Third, is the violence with which Stephen is attacked and killed. When people don't want to hear the truth, they cannot be reasoned with. How often we think that if we could just sit down with some of those who are opposing truth and godliness we could explain things and they would "get it." But, only God can change a heart. They need a "road to Damascus" experience like Saul. No explanation, in and of itself, will work. That's why we need to pray.

Fourth, is the grace with which Stephen died. He was a man described as being full of the Holy Spirit. His last words as he fell to his knees and died from the stoning were, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." (Acts 7:60) Father, by your grace and your Spirit, may that kind of grace characterize my life as well.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Making Sense of Circumstances

Effectiveness is not the only measure of success. Sometimes faithfulness trumps effectiveness. In Acts 6, Stephen has a powerful ministry. He is described as being, "full of grace and power ... performing great wonders and miraculous signs among the people."   (Acts 6:8) This is pretty amazing. Certainly God would make sure a ministry like this continues for a long time. Yet these words are followed by a description of Stephen's arrest and martyrdom. Did God make a mistake? Did He lose control? Why aren't things going the way we would have expected? Because God, in His great and sovereign wisdom, had a better plan.

The martyrdom of Stephen started a great persecution that pushed the church out of Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. This was what Jesus had originally instructed the disciples to do. He said, "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth."Stephen's powerful ministry had its place, but his death did more to further the fulfillment of the Great Commission than his preaching and miraculous signs ever did.

Sometimes things don't go the way we've planned. Sometimes circumstances don't make sense to us. But God knows what he's doing. We can rest in that truth.

Father, I have friends right now who are struggling to make sense of their circumstances. They want to be about your business but circumstances don't seem to allow it. Give them the grace to rest in your sovereign control of all creation. Prepare them and use them in ways they could never imagine. All for your glory!

Sunday, January 6, 2019


In Acts 5, Ananias and Saphira lose their lives because they lie to the Holy Spirit and the people of God. Why do they lie? The property they sold was theirs. Peter acknowledged that after the property was sold the money was theirs to use as they wished. The issue wasn't that they kept part of the money for themselves, but that they lied about the sale price so that they appeared to be giving 100%. Apparently, they were more interested in appearing holy than in being holy.

The next thing that happens in Acts 5 is the arrest of the apostles, not because they are doing miracles, or because they are preaching, but because, "the high priest and all his associates ... were filled with jealousy." (Acts 5:17) Isn't that the same basic issue that Ananias and Saphira were dealing with. Barnabas sold his property and gave all. (Acts 4:36-37) They apparently wanted the glory of being a Barnabas without the sacrifice. The Jewish leaders wanted the attention without the truth.

This is so insidious. The scriptures teach that the heart is deceitful. How much of what we "do for God" is really done for personal glory or attention? How often do we fool ourselves into believing that our motives are pure, when deep down we know they are not? I often hear people say that they love to preach and so they think perhaps they should be in ministry. Perhaps, but they would do well to ask God to search their hearts for why they love to preach before they interpret it as a "call."

"O Lord, you have searched me and you know me." (Ps 139:1) Now, "search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Ps 139:23-24) By Your grace may I serve you from a clean heart and pure motives, for Your glory, not mine.

Reflections on Psalms 77-78

Psalms 77:7 (ESV) [7] “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?   The first nine verses of this psalm express abso...