Monday, December 29, 2014

Never Stop! Acts 28


What would it take to get us to stop sharing about what God has done for us through Christ and what He wants to do for every person we come into contact with?

Do we stop talking when we feel awkward?
Do we stop when it is uncomfortable?
Do we quit when we meet resistance?
Would we quit if we were warned we could lose our job?

Would we quit if we were warned we would lose our life?
Would we keep our faith to ourselves if we knew we might lose our family by speaking?
Would we get frustrated and give up if we lost some of our freedom because of the cause of Christ?


What would it take?

As we come to the end of the year and to the end of the book of Acts, I can't help but think back to the overwhelming sense that the first century Christians would stop at absolutely nothing to serve their Lord. They endured beatings and imprisonment. They rejoiced in persecution. They deliberately disobeyed the authorities who tried to silence them because they claimed a higher Authority.

Here at the end of Luke's record of the early church, we see Paul under house arrest in Rome. It's incredible to me that Luke just leaves Paul imprisoned! But I think it speaks volumes that Luke concludes his history of the early church by saying that Paul just simply continued to proclaim the kingdom of God and continued to teach about the Lord Jesus Christ.

That mission was his everything.

It consumed him and it drove every decision he made. It set his purpose in every day. His words, thoughts, and actions all flowed from the one supreme force in his life- the grace of Jesus that he met on the road to Damascus so many years before.

As you look toward the New Year and begin to think of resolutions and plans for the future, I want to challenge you to think of one question. Is there anything in the coming days and in the coming year that will keep you from proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching someone about the Lord Jesus Christ? Will your circumstances or your family? Will your time constraints or your finances? Will your pride or your selfishness?

If there is anything at all that you can think of that would keep you from proclaiming Him...I want to challenge you to knock that idol down and start 2015 with the passion and the purpose that we read about in the book of Acts.

May we not let anything ever stop us from proclaiming the kingdom that we have been given entrance into. And may that kingdom spread and God be glorified because of it.


Don't forget to post a response to this week's VOW or last week's with your suggestions for future VOWs. I am looking for promises of God from scripture to write about in the coming weeks. I really love researching and writing about things that other people hold dear because it challenges me to grow and study passages that I may not already be familiar with. May God bless you in the coming year!

Friday, December 26, 2014

What are you afraid of? Acts 27:25


What are you afraid of?

In Gary Smalley's book The DNA of Relationships, Smalley points out that almost all fights and confrontations follow a very familiar path to destruction. He calls the process "the fear dance." Without going into too much detail, let me try to summarize the main thought.

When people are afraid of something, they react...or better, they over-react in order to try to protect themselves. In a family relationship, as in a husband and wife or a parent and child, each person tends to know instinctively what the other persons "fear buttons" are. Without even being aware of it, we fall into patterns of reacting when our fear buttons are pushed by pushing others fear buttons. And the dance escalates until it is out of control and the damage is irreparable.

I don't really want to focus on relationships...although it might be highly appropriate as you head to family gatherings this week! But I do want to focus on the idea of how we typically lose control the most when we are afraid.
A parent's wrath is the worst when the child runs into the middle of the road and is nearly hit by a car.

A superviser begins attacking and abusing employees because he is afraid of not hitting his mark and losing his position.

A child fears losing independence and rebels hatefully and spitefully in small and large ways to ensure keeping control.
A father fears he will not make enough money to provide adequately for his family so he begins to make business decisions unethically.
A girlfriend fears losing her boyfriend so she compromises her purity to attempt to save the relationship.
Why do I point to all of these bad decisions stemming from fear when talking about this verse?

Because if we could have the faith of Paul, that everything will turn out exactly as God has already said it will, then we will finally be able to have courage. And people of Godly courage make courageous Godly decisions.

The context of Paul's statement is a storm while he is a prisoner in transport to Rome. He tells those on board this in order to boost their courage. What he refers to is that God had already told them that if they all remained on board, then no lives would be lost. It was a very specific promise of God given to Paul for a very specific moment.

I want to be fair to the application of this verse. I would love to hear the voice of God in my dreams giving me specific promises about specific situation that are coming up in the next few days. But that is not typically how God works. That is the exception.

But God most definitely has made some very specific promises about our future and our security in Him.
  • Promises that he will never leave us or forsake us.
  • Promises that he will never allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able but with the temptation will also provide a way of escape.
  • Promises that he will be with us to the end of the age.
  • Promises that if we will confess our sins, the blood of Jesus will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 
  • Promises that if we are faithful unto death, we will receive the crown of life.
  • Promises that if he is going to prepare a place for us, then he will come back to get us so that where he is, there we might be also.
And those are just a few of the promises that I can think of quickly.

How different would we act throughout each of life's trials, both big and small, if we could remember those promises and have courage because we believe it will turn out exactly like God told us?

I want to ask for your help in the comments to wrap up this post and provide direction for the upcoming year (or at least part of it.)

What promise of God means the most to you and why? I am thinking that I will do the VOW on some of those promises of God with this statement from Paul as a constant reminder tagged with the promises you submit.

Have courage...for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told [us]


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Lasting Christmas Wish- Acts 26:29


Have you sent out or given any Christmas wishes lately? Or have you asked any children what they are wishing for for Christmas?

This time of year in our culture is consumed with trying to figure out the correct gift to give someone. We want to pick out the perfect gift and we want to enjoy the look on someone's face when they open a present from us that they really are excited about and don't have to fake it!

We also change our greetings during the holidays. Instead of "See ya later," or, "Hey, How's it going?" now we say, "Merry Christmas!" If you've gone caroling, you've probably even sung, "We wish you a merry Christmas."

In all of the merry wishing and gift giving and holiday parties, have you wished for the one thing for the people you love that actually matters?

In Acts 26, Paul is on trial...unfairly. He had a right to be upset about it. People were accusing him falsely and maliciously. His life was on the balance. But as you read Paul's defense before Agrippa, Paul quickly pivots from defending his actions to placing Agrippa on trial in a way. Paul's very defense is focused solely on winning the souls of those who are listening! And after he talks about the prophets pointing to Jesus as the Messiah, he challenges Agrippa to see the truth for himself. I'm sure you've heard Agrippa's famous response before.
“Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”                                  -  Acts 26:28
And that is the statement that provokes Paul's wish that whether it happens quickly or it takes a lifetime, he wishes that Agrippa and everyone else within earshot would gain everything that Paul had gained through Christ...except of course the chains!

I point to that verse, because as we get close to the end of the book of Acts, I hope one of the reasons the early Christian church spread as rapidly and as powerfully as it did has become extremely clear. I think Paul's comment sums up his entire life after conversion. It was all about the saving love of Christ! He saw no one whom he didn't wish for their soul to be saved! Why? Because HE HIMSELF HAD BEEN SAVED!

I'm not sure who said it, but I have a quote hanging on my door that says,
To be a disciple of Christ is to make disciples of Christ. It is impossible to know Christ without having an urgent desire to make Him known.
So here's my challenge as we close out this year. The next time you say "Merry Christmas" to someone...or the next time you ask a child what they are wishing to get from Santa. Let that be a trigger that reminds you to think about the one gift that really matters. It's not peace during the holiday season. It's not toys or sweaters or egg nog or fruit cake. It's the gift of salvation.

And when you think about that during your conversation. Say a quick prayer for that person right there on the spot. And then let that prayer guide your comments and your conversation. Is there anything you might say or do that would confront them with the love and truth of the Good News? Is there something you might do for the parents of the child that would allow them to grow up in a home that is filled with grace and love instead of just filled with presents under the tree?

It is impossible to know Christ without without having an urgent desire to make Him known.

Do you have that desire? If not, then my wish is also for you to know Him in a new way.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide- Acts 24:16


"Always let your conscience be your guide."

You can probably actually hear the voice of Jimminy Cricket saying that to Pinocchio. It may be one of the most recognizable lines from any movie...although we are so far removed from the movie now, that I would say there are several now who would attribute the line to the Bible instead of to the cricket!

And for the most part...in ideal circumstances, it is a reasonable piece of advice to live by. After all, God created our consciences for a reason. They are designed to call us to higher moral ground. Paul even speaks in Romans 2 about the conscience that God put in everyone in the world to guide them even when they were not specifically given the Law (Romans 2:11-16). Having said that, of course, we also recognize that consciences can be seared beyond the point of working any more (1 Timothy 4:2). Therefore we need a higher authority, and the only real higher authority is God.

So how do we use the conscience that God has given us while not relying on it solely? I love the way Paul words it here in Acts 24 when he is on trial. Notice the verse starts with "In view of this..." So we really need to back up a few verse to find out what is in view that motivates him to keep a blameless conscience.
12 My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. 13 And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. 14 However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, 15 and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.                        - Acts 24:12-15
 Notice that there are three things- all bound together- that guide every decision that he makes.
  1. He worships God.
  2. He believes everything in accordance with the Law and Prophets
  3. He has the hope of the resurrection
 It is physically impossible to really strive to worship God in the assembly and in life and not take care to guard your conscience against offending sin. When you are focused on God's beauty, the feeling of filth and guilt that a healthy conscience inflicts because of the violation not so much of the law of God as much as a violation of the love of God is simply not acceptable to you anymore!

When you really believe that the Bible is God's inspired message for us...that it helps us to understand Who God is, how we can know Him, and what kind of life he wants for us, then the message of the Bible is what guides our consciences. We live by faith!

And when we are living by faith in Jesus and His word, then we are overwhelmingly living by the hope of the resurrection! That one day I won't even need a conscience as a warning system for when I have stepped outside God's plans because I will be perfected as I am surrounded by the very presence of God Himself!

May we strive to live by those three tenets today as well. Worship, and faith, and hope. And may those give us the motivation to live before both God and the people around us in such a way that we can also have a blameless conscience.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Worthles Life- Acts 20:24


I don't know about you, but I tend to avoid pain. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a sissy...at least not unless you talk to one of my brothers! I can handle pain if it's a necessity. But on a typical day, if there is a fairly simple way to avoid the pain, I usually do. And if someone warns me that there is going to be a lot of pain involved, then you'd better believe that I will avoid it if possible!

There just aren't a lot of people around who actually enjoy and invite pain. And those that do are usually referred to a counselor! But if there is something that is more important to us than avoiding the pain...we will take it. The old saying, "no pain, no gain" just doesn't work out well when we can't see the gain! That's why Paul's statement in Acts 20:24 is even more impressive when you consider it's context.

While saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders, Paul tells them,
“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me." Acts 20:22-23
And that is the context for his declaration in verse 24 that he considers his life worth nothing to him. His only aim is to do what Jesus asked him to do. And what Jesus asked him to do was to tell people about the incredible grace of God!

That challenges me in my faith. Do I have that kind of unwavering devotion? Am I that single minded and intent on fulfilling God's will in my life? I'm afraid to say that I often avoid even just a conversation that might become uncomfortable because I am unsure about the other person's belief system and how they will react to me talking about my God. How pitiful is that? Paul was warned by the Spirit of God Himself that he would face prison and hardship by continuing his journey of obedience to the message of God's grace. I have to convince myself to overcome the fear of the pain of an awkward conversation!

Can I honestly say that my life is worth nothing to me? I love my life. I love the family God has blessed with me. Both the family of my childhood and the wife and children He has given me. I love my friends. I love being able to stay in my car and pay a couple of bucks to get a taco or a hamburger. I love being able to go to the grocery store without worrying too much about having the funds to cover the food I need. I love being able to watch TV online. I love playing disc golf occasionally. I'm very blessed and I love my life. But do those things get in the way of the mission that God has for me?

I know they are neither good nor bad things. But when I hold them up next to the mission of God, can I honestly say, "my life is worth nothing to me."

To be honest...I'm not sure what my answer is. I know what I want it to be. I pray for it to be. I don't want to take God's grace for granted, but I am most definitely going to have to rely on God's grace because I still find myself avoiding pain at times because my view of the gain still isn't quite where Paul's seems to have been. I pray that God will keep working on me and transforming me into His image so that I can confidently say with Paul, "my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me."

And yes, I believe God gives us different specific tasks. But in the end, whatever the specifics are, they all boil down to testifying in whatever way God gives us to the good news of God's grace.

All of those other things about my life are simply icing on the cake of a life lived for God expectantly waiting and working toward an eternal life in His presence.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Paul's Lock-In- Acts 20:7-11

Original picture by Kumar83 and obtained from wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
You know, I've never really liked the idea of a lock-in. Well, I should clarify that. Since I've become a youth minister I've hated the idea of a lock-in. When I was a kid, of course, I loved the idea. But something happens when you get out on your own and you don't have parents telling you to go to bed all the time. You start wanting to go to bed! Not only that, but I also realized several years ago, that nothing really good comes out of a lock-in. I've had one where a kid tried to light the carpet on fire in my parent's house. I've had lock-ins where the chaperones had to be specifically assigned to track the movements of a teen or two because we didn't trust them. The last one I had for the youth group here before I banned them ended with a bunch of grumpy teens back talking their parents when they came to pick them up in the morning because they were too tired to speak respectfully. Ever since that day, I've decided that if teens and parents want to host a lock-in, they are more than welcome to! I just probably won't be there! :)

But whatever else has happened at lock-ins under my almost ten years of youth ministry, I have never had to take a kid to the E.R. because he fell out of a window and everyone thought he had died!

So I'm kind of happy to report that I may actually have a leg up on the apostle Paul in that one specific category!

But I don't really want to focus on this pretty interesting story of the young man Eutychus (who was probably around the early teen years) falling out of the upstairs window. What I want to think about briefly is what led to him falling out in the first place. Paul preached until midnight! And then after the commotion about Eutychus got settled down, they went back upstairs and kept talking until day break!

What we have here is the original lock-in! But instead of the parents trying to hold their eyes open while the teens run wild, it was the teen who couldn't keep his eyes open while all of the adults stayed up all night talking and sharing about their faith!

The reason I'm pointing to that is because their willingness to stay all night points to a couple of things. It points to their excitement about being together! They were truly a family. They weren't there to punch a time clock because good Christians are supposed to "go to church." They weren't watching the sun-dial (or the moon!) to make sure Paul stayed within his 25 minute sermon time slot. They were absorbed in the moment and they realized that whether or not the pot roast burned, the conversation they were a part of and the praise they were giving God and the encouragement they were giving each other to spur one another on to good works was the absolute most important thing in the world that they could be doing!

Just think about the reaction in most of our congregations if the service lasts more than 15 minutes over the usual time! Can you even begin to imagine the bickering that would happen if it went a full hour over time? 2 hours? Most of us head for the doors as soon as the amen is said because we are ready to move on to the next thing. Where is the sense of community? Where is the passion to be with people who are passionate about the same thing(s) you are? Where is the desire to lift each other up and be lifted up?

I don't know what the answer is to these questions. How do we change the culture of the American congregation? How do we recapture the sense of excitement and expectation that enables a group of adults...not just teens...to willingly stay cramped in an upper room all through the night because of a shared salvation, and a shared mission?

I'd love to hear your comments below. When was the last time you were a part of a meeting like this in your church? What can we do to encourage it again? Let's pray that the fire of the Spirit will burn just as brightly today when we meet together as the oil lamps had to burn 2,000 years ago when this church met in the upper room all through the night.

I can't believe I'm gonna say this...but let's get back to the passionate type of Christianity we read about in the book of Acts where Christians of all ages rejoice instead of groan about the idea of a lock-in!


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Time to Start a Fire! - Acts 19:18-20

Original picture by Flickr User LearningLark and obtained under Creative Commons License 2.0

A while back I was studying with someone who was upset because a different congregation had refused to baptize her some years earlier. They continued to study with her and never told her that they would not baptize her in the future, but they could not, in good conscience baptize her at that moment. Without going into all of the details, from what I could gather from her side of the story years removed from the incident, the reason for the caution in taking her to the baptistery was because of a living situation that she was not ready to leave.
So we talked for a while about her past. And we talked for a while about her present and her future. The situation she had been in had ended and she could at least recognize that it was, in fact, a sinful situation. But she just couldn't get to the part that being willing to give up willful sin is actually a prerequisite for baptism. In fact, I asked her during our study if the circumstances worked out just right if she would be willing to compromise and go back into that situation provided their was an eventual plan to fix it in the future. And she was.

I tell you that story because I think it illustrates incredibly well a mindset of what it means to be a follower of Christ in our culture. In short...it's pretty easy and it doesn't cost very much. Most of the people that we know at least claim belief in Christ even if they never worship Him. Most at least pray to God even if they never listen to Him through Bible Study. Most claim to be followers of Christ even if there is no actual following. So when a new convert is contemplating baptism, the death and burial that is what it is all about is oftentimes simply missed.

That was certainly not the case in the book of Acts. I love this story about the conversion of the Ephesians. And one of the reasons I love it is because there are some really incredible miracles recorded. There's a super cool story of a demon possessed man beating up some false prophets who were claiming the name of Jesus as the magic words necessary to drive demons out but they were not actually in Christ nor using the power of His Spirit...so they ran out of the house naked and bleeding! (I say cool because my sick sense of humor kind of laughs at the absurdity of the situation when I picture it in my mind! It obviously was not cool for those running away!)

And the result of all of these miracles and demons being driven out only by the true followers of Christ?
"When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor." (Acts 19:17)
But while the name of Jesus was held in high honor. I want you to notice the phrase that Luke uses after he recounts the true repentance that was demonstrated by the Ephesian brothers and sisters who had once practiced witchcraft.

In the verses above, we see that they came out confessing their past sins in witchcraft. And they were so serious about leaving their lives of sin that they burned all of their spell books. Luke even points out the total value of the scrolls they burned-- 50,000 drachmas! Now I know next to nothing about ancient Greek drachmas so I've been trying to figure out how much that was worth. I haven't found a good answer but what I seem to keep coming to is that most people think it was worth somewhere around a day's wages. Of course a day's wages looks different in different parts of the world, so it's kind of hard to put a number on that value, but let's break it down like this...50,000 days divided by 365 days in a year = almost 137 years worth of wages for one person!

If you know something about the Greek drachma and can enlighten us more I'd love for you to post a comment below, but here's the point...however much it was worth...IT WAS A LOT OF MONEY! We can know that just by the fact that Luke bothers to point it out. Why am I going on about this?

Because immediately after Luke records the extent to which they repented, he says this:
"In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power." (Acts 19:20)
Now remember...after recording the miracles that had been taking place and the story about the demons who recognized the power of Jesus, but pounced on someone claiming the name falsely, Luke said, "the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor" (Acts 19:17b). But now he says that it wasn't just held in honor...but that the word of the Lord actually spread and grew in power!

What's the difference? Well, maybe I'm making too much out of it, but I think there is a lot to say about the power of the gospel to change lives. And I think we have grown too comfortable praising Jesus' name and holding it in honor on Sundays  because we believe the stories we have heard about Him in the Bible, but not living like we have actually repented on Monday. And I think that lack of repentance is one of the main reasons we have such a hard time spreading the word of the Lord and allowing its power to grow in us and around the world.

The new Ephesian Christians recognized the glory that they had found in Christ. They wanted nothing to do with anything that was in opposition to the new abundant life that they had found. They weren't content to leave it in a closet or sell it to someone else to get it out of the house. They burned it...at great cost to themselves.

Perhaps there are some things that we need to burn today. No, not literally (unless of course what you are holding onto from your past life is in the form of tangible things like movies and cds and magazines... then maybe there would be some real value in starting a fire in the back yard!). But maybe we need to completely burn some bridges to sin that have constantly tripped us up in the past. Maybe there are some attitudes that we have been content to keep in the back of our personalities for when someone really steps on our toes that we need to completely purify out with the fire of the Spirit. 

May we be a truly repentant people. May we not think about the cost of what it means to repent and be sad. May we think about the riches that are ours if we will only give up those temporary things and be joyful in our repentance! And may the word of God spread and grow in power as Christians everywhere start living on Monday what we are singing about on Sunday.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Finding Common Ground- Acts 17:22-23

Original picture by Oliver Dixon and obtained from wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic 

If you were to walk through a town...say Las Vegas, or New Orleans...and you were bombarded by sexual inuendo and advertisements and temples built to greed and gambling, how would you start a conversation with someone about the religious and spiritual state of that town? Better yet, let's make it more personal instead of just thinking about an entire city. Let's talk about seeing those things evidenced in a person's life. How would you react?

I hope, first of all, that you would be deeply saddened and upset because of the evidence of lives lived so far separated from the God who loves them and wants them. But what would you do with that feeling of revulsion, anger, and sadness that would come because of the sin and idolatry that you witnessed?

Would you lash out in anger at the disgusting state of affairs? Would you turn around and get out of town as quickly as possible? Would you warn others to stay far away?

Or would you look long enough to find some piece of evidence of something good...some deep religious inclination and spiritual leaning that you had in common with the people of that place and then use that to compliment them and establish common ground in order to share with them the glorious eternal alternative of the truly good life that they are currently missing out on because of their obsession with the very temporary "good life" that they are living now?

When Paul walked into Athens, that is pretty much what he walked into. The city was full of idolatry and with idolatry came sexual immorality. Luke says that Paul was "greatly distressed" when he saw the extent of the idolatry that the people of Athens lived in (Acts 17:16). It's worth asking before we move further into the text whether or not we experience the same pain that Paul did when we see evidence of separation from God. Or have we become so comfortable and accustomed to the sin all around us that we are perfectly content to laugh along with the rest of the world at acts and attitudes that are causing people to lose their eternal souls every day? If you are not concerned with the sin that you see around you, then there is no point in continuing to read. Instead, spend some time thinking about the greatness and the righteousness of God and then compare that to the world and ask God to break your heart over the rebellion that you see.

But if you are heart broken by the things that kill souls as Paul was, then keep reading, because I think we can learn from how Paul addressed the lost people that he so desperately wanted to save. First his began reasoning with them in a somewhat private manner in the synagogue where the people who had already denounced idolatry were. But before long, word of his teaching got out into the general public and he was invited to address the rest of the town in the Areopagus. So he did.

And did he blast their idolatry? Did he condemn their sinfulness? Well...not right off.

First, he complimented them on their deep religious inclinations and he pointed to the fact that they were so religious and concerned to please the gods that they even had altars to an unknown god. And he went from there to proclaim to them the truth of the One True God that they had never known. In his address, he even quoted some of their poets because because truth is truth no matter where the source. And what was the result of Paul's straightforward yet gentle approach to explaining that they had been worshiping many gods in ignorance but could now worship the One True God in truth?
"When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed."    - Acts 17:32-34a
May we first have our hearts broken every time we see someone who is living in a way that evidences their separation from God. May we be so distressed by their situation that we are forced to speak out about it. But may we have the wisdom and the love that Paul had when he stared at their situation long enough to see the good intentions. May we not assign false motives and labels to the people who are lost. May we see that the only difference between them and us is that someone had the grace and the love to bring us out of our ignorance so that we could know and worship the true God that is unknown to the rest of the world.

Some will still sneer at us. That's ok. They cannot possibly be any more lost. Others will be interested and just might continue to seek until they find Him. But some will believe. And your love and your wisdom in proclaiming the good news to them in a way that they can hear and understand will make an eternal difference in their lives.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Believers Who Wouldn't Even Trust Paul- Acts 17:11-12a


Have you ever been absolutely chock full of yourself about something only to find out later that you were actually dead wrong? Amber makes fun of me all the time for this about celebrities. Apparently I have a complete inability to recognize actors/actresses in different roles. We'll be trying to figure out who was in such and such a movie and I will be absolutely sure that it was the same person who played in the other such and such a movie. And I will argue until I'm blue in the face that it is this person...until I finally actually look it up and have to crawl back to her and admit again that I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to pop culture!

But what about when it's something a little more serious that someone tells you is different than what you've always believed to be true? What if someone tells you something about God or God's will for man and it is completely different than what you and your parents and your grandparents and your preacher have always believed and known to be true?

When that happens...how do you respond?

I know my natural inclination is to argue. I set out to prove that I'm right. I've believed this all my life and a lot of other people that I really really respect have believed this all of theirs. It must be right and whatever you say that contradicts it must be wrong!

You know, I kind of think that was part of the hang up with the Jews about Christianity. Paul came into town and completely contradicted everything they had always believed about the Messiah. He contradicted their preachers and their parents. He boldly proclaimed that the path to the Father was not through the Law, it was by grace through faith in Jesus the Christ.

This upset some of the religious leaders so badly that they chased Paul out of towns and even followed him to the next town to make sure they didn't buy into the "heresy" that Paul was preaching. But Luke records an incredible- and sadly a relatively rare- characteristic about the people of Berea. They were of "noble character"- I read that "honest enough"- to consider that maybe they didn't have all the answers...but they knew exactly where to look. In the word of God.

Not only did they not take what they had always believed to be true to be God's absolute truth, they didn't take what the Jewish leaders had always told them. And they didn't take what Paul was telling them either! They went to the scriptures for themselves to see what was true and what wasn't! What a beautiful and freeing attitude toward seeking truth! And do you know what the glorious result was?

As a result, many of them believed!
I said earlier, that Luke's description of them being noble enough to search the scriptures for themselves was a rare thing. And I'm sad to say that I believe it still is. I beg my teens in class on a regular basis to study the scriptures for themselves. I beg them to not even take what I'm telling them as truth until they search it and decide whether what I'm teaching is valid. Why? Because I'm trying to deceive them and I have some cockimamey scheme up my sleeve to lead them into falsehood? NO! I want to see them all in heaven....but I've been wrong every once in a while about my Bible facts and my Bible interpretation!

I know for a fact that there are some things that I see differently today than I did a decade ago because of studying some of my previous beliefs in a little more detail. I feel pretty confident that in another decade, there will likely be a thing or two more that I have come to understand more fully or more correctly because I have continued to study.

But here's the deal....

what if someone tells you the absolute truth and you accept it. What if everything I teach about and I write about is 100% accurate and my students and readers accept it blindly. Have they accepted truth? Yes they have. But has it changed their life???? Not likely.

Paul told the truth when he went to Thessalonica. Some accepted it but most did not because they wanted to keep believing what they already believed. He also told the truth in Berea.  More eagerly received the message in Berea because it was great news! But great news can sometimes be incorrect news. So they searched it for themselves.
and as a result, many of them believed.
I think that line is significant. Because biblical belief is more than just acknowledgment of the truth. It's trust that the truth should guide every aspect of my life...trust to the point of radical obedience to it. 

May we be believers...not because of the convenience or comfort of the message...not because of the persuasiveness of the speaker...not because of the compulsions of tradition and history. May we be believers who truly live the gospel because we have searched it for ourselves and become true believers.

May we be noble.
 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Upside Down World- Acts 17:6-7

What an incredible statement! I read at least one commentary that says that the idea of turning the world upside down is probably not the greatest translation because the idea is actually that they were causing trouble everywhere. Either way, in my mind, the meaning is the same. The accusers and enemies of Christianity recognized that the gospel spreading around the world was a force to be reckoned with. Everywhere Paul went a riot was sure to follow! Of course the truth is that it was the enemies of the gospel who were causing the riots and not those spreading the gospel. But the fact remains that when those who were living and preaching the gospel moved into a town, people knew it! Stuff changed! Demon possessed girls were given freedom. Cripples walked. Idolaters repented of their idolatry. Witches burned their sorcery books. STUFF HAPPENED!!!

And why did it happen?

If you look in verse 7 above you see the unfair and untrue accusation that the Jews brought against the Christians. (It's interesting to note that they didn't even find Paul and Silas at Jason's house so they just dragged out the Christians who were there and caused trouble for them as well!) I say it was an unfair and untrue accusation because Christianity did not teach rebellion against the decrees of Caesar. If anything the principles and dictates and teachings of early Christianity led citizens of the kingdom of God to be better citizens of the Roman empire...not worse.

But in another sense, the words of the jealous Jewish antagonizers couldn't have been more accurate and complimentary. The world was being changed by God through the church so much so that it could be said "they were turning the world upside down" (or causing trouble everywhere) because the church said that there was another king- Jesus!

And they didn't just say it with their words. They said it with their lives. Everyone who came into contact with a Christian knew where their allegiance really lay. They were passionate about their new found freedom in Christ. They were excited about their adoption as sons of God. They were insistent that they were now aliens and strangers in this world because they were now citizens of heaven!

I have to think that the power of the gospel to turn the world upside down in the first century has not diminished in any way today. However, I do believe that the power is limited by the extent to which those who claim faith in that gospel allow their own personal lives to be turned upside down for the sake of the gospel. We shy away from the word "radical" because of all the political associations with the word today. But what if the only type of Christianity that the first century world knew was a "radical" kind. They sold everything and gave it to the poor. They walked the extra mile. They turned the other cheek. They refused to give verbal allegiance to Caesar as a god to save their lives even if they didn't mean it. They were willing to be burned, to be eaten by lions, to be tortured...because Jesus was their king!

When you were confronted with the gospel i the first century, you were forced to make a choice. There was no partial commitment or half-hearted verbal acknowledgement that Jesus was the Son of God. There was a very real understanding of taking up the cross and following him. But taking up that cross was not bad news to them! They didn't view the Christian life as a life of burden and misery. Because they knew that the cross that you carry today, no matter how painful would not compare to the glory and the riches that you would get in the future (Romans 8:18)!

Let's turn the world upside down again! Let's unleash the power of the gospel in our churches and in our communities. Let's ring the message out to the farthest corners of the world that there is another king- Jesus! And let's do all of that by being truly converted to the idea ourselves! May our own lives be turned upside down by the power of the gospel so that we can have the same accusations made about us that were made about the early Christians. May those who are enemies of God and lovers of darkness quit tolerating our beliefs because we are content to stay in our pews. May they hate us and persecute us, not because we hate and persecute them, but because we love them and make very effort with our actions, our choices, and our lives to shine the light of the gospel around the world.

May the world be turned upside down again through us.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Second Secret to Effective Evangelism- Acts 16:23-30

Original pictureposted toWikimedia by Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing
and used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Last week I wrote about the secret to effective evangelism. And the secret is that it's up to God! We do our part and we trust God to do His! He is the One who opens a heart to respond to the gospel. He is the One that convicts someone of sin. Those things are outside my control. My responsibility is to simply confess my faith before others. To be prepared to give an answer for the hope that lies in me. To look for opportunities every day to bring praise to the name of God so that others might come to praise Him as well. But anything beyond what I can personally control about the interactions I have every day with anyone I come into contact with is strictly and completely up to God and that person.

Having said that...

I do think that God has used a certain aspect about His followers to break through the thick skin of unbelievers' hearts over and over again. And I'll tell you right now...it has nothing to do with their preaching or teaching ability. It has nothing to do with their incredible personalities. It has nothing to do with their connections or their abilities.

It has EVERYTHING to do with their commitment and integrity.

Consider the story in Acts 16. Paul and Silas are thrown in jail on false charges given by selfish, greedy slave owners who were upset that their chances for profit were gone because Paul and Silas had freed a young girl from demon possession. They were beaten with rods. They were flogged. And they were thrown in the stocks. I've never been in stocks. But I'm pretty sure they are not very conducive to sleep. So what did they do while they were cold, in pain from the beating, exhausted, and angry about their mistreatment?

They did exactly what they did in every aspect of every day and in every other circumstance whether good or bad. They praised God. In this case, their praises took the form of song and Luke points out that the other prisoners were listening. I have to wonder what was going through their minds as they listened to these two radical Christians who were so deluded by their faith that they were willing to praise a God who had let them be beaten and thrown into prison for their service to Him. I have to wonder if the guard was not also listening to them at some point.

You remember the rest of the story. There is a supernatural earthquake that throws the chains off the prisoners and the doors off the walls. All of the prisoners were free if they wanted to be. If it were me, I would have assumed that this was God's answer to prayer. I would have left as quickly as I could thanking God for His miraculous intervention. But they didn't. They knew what their mission was and they knew that the power of God combined with the faithfulness of Christians is an unstoppable force.

The guard came in and saw the open doors and loose chains and pulled his sword to kill himself before before his higher-ups killed him for his lack of ability to keep the prisoners in prison. But thanks be to God that Paul and Silas had stayed where they were! In fact, so had the rest of the prisoners too! You might miss that in focusing on the conversion of the jailer and his family when he immediately asks what he must do to be saved. But don't read past it too quickly. We aren't told how many people were in prison with Paul and Silas. We don't know exactly why they didn't run when the doors were open. I have a hunch that the jailer wasn't the only person in the jail that was converted to the true freedom in Christ that night.

And it happened because two men sang praises to God and stayed true to their mission even when they were mistreated. Even when they could have taken an easier road and technically still be in the will of God. Even when their lives were potentially on the line. They praised...and they stayed.

What about you? Does your temper at the office or in your home betray your allegiance to the God of peace? Does your insistence on the easy life of sitcoms and football games sell your talk of "he who would keep his life will lose it, but he who would lose his life for my sake will find it" short? Does your self preservation and refusal to let someone "walk over you" belittle your stated faith in a God who says to walk the extra mile and pray for your enemies?

Can you honestly and sincerely praise God when the chips are down and you are stuck in the stocks of worry and anger and hurt to the point that you can't sleep at midnight?

May we be a people who can sing through the blackest midnight so that when God's miracles happen, others will be paying attention.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Secret to Effective Evangelism- Acts 16:14

Last night in our LIFE Group, we talked about reasons Christians have trouble sharing their faith with others. We get nervous. We feel unprepared. We worry about how they will view our message in light of our past mistakes. We feel awkward about bringing it up. We fear we will offend them if they believe differently. There are a million different reasons...I should say excuses.

But the truth is that none of them are worth missing an opportunity to share the gospel with someone. As atheist entertainer Penn Jillette pointed out in a video a while back, how much do you have to hate someone to not tell them about Christ if you believe that He is the way to salvation from death!?

And yet, knowing the command of Jesus to go into all the world...knowing He said that whoever acknowledges me before men, him will I acknowledge before my Father...knowing that He promised to be with us always as we were going throughout the world with the Good News...knowing all of that, we still hesitate!

I love passages like the one above because it reminds me that I am not responsible for the response of the person with whom I am sharing the gospel. I am responsible for sharing. Just look at the verse again and take comfort in it and courage from it! "The LORD opened her heart to respond to Paul's message!" Luke doesn't record what persuasive words Paul used. In fact, Paul said in other places that he purposefully didn't use persuasive words. Luke doesn't record that Paul was meticulous in his presentation or that Lydia was overwhelmed by Paul's history of righteousness. I'm not saying those things aren't important. A message given by someone who doesn't care to walk the talk can be one of the most damaging things in the world! Luke records that Paul passed the message on and GOD OPENED HER HEART TO RESPOND TO IT!

What difference does that make?

Can we just sit back and wait for God to work? Well...no. He typically works through His people as a first resort for spreading His message.

Paul said, "we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20).

The difference that it makes is that we can confidently and thoughtfully open our mouths to speak the life-giving words to those around us without fear of messing it up! Should we take care to speak with love so we don't turn others away? Absolutely! Should we try to craft our messages in ways that others have an easier time seeing past us to God? Without a doubt! Why do you think Jesus told so many stories? But should we be paralyzed into silence and inaction out of fear of doing more damage than good? BY NO MEANS WHATSOEVER! 

I can't convince anyone to put away their sins. I can't convince anyone to put their faith in Christ. I am not capable of that. Jesus, himself, was rejected by people during his ministry way more often than he was accepted! Do we really think we are incapable evangelists because we don't have better results than the Word of God, Himself!?

The pressure is off. We plant. We water. But it is up to God to give the increase. The question is will we trust God enough to follow Him and work with Him in planting and watering.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Paul was a hypocrite...or was he? Acts 16:3

Original picture by Wikimedia user RĂ©mi Jouan and obtained from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
The rest of this passage in 1 Corinthians may be a little more familiar to you. It goes on to say:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (emph. mine)                  - 1 Corinthians 9:20-23
You may be wondering why I'm posting a passage from 1 Corinthians instead of from Acts this week. And there's a very simple answer for that. The passage I am scheduled to write about today is Acts 16:3 which says, "Paul wanted to take him [Timothy] along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek."

And let's be honest...that's just not a typical verse we think about to memorize! But I do believe the principles and the decisions represented in the passage are extremely important and worthy of looking at and thinking about. Let me give the background information and I think you will understand what I'm talking about and you will see the relevance for today as well.

We learn from the first few verses of Acts 16 that Timothy was the son of a Jewish mother and a Greek father. We also learn that he had a great reputation among the believers. We've discussed the last couple of weeks the broader context. In Acts 15, there was a vigorous debate about whether or not Gentile converts had to be circumcised and keep the ceremonial Old Testament law in order to really join the church. In fact, Paul was preparing Timothy to travel around with him to the infant gentile churches delivering the good news reached at Jerusalem. That news was that they were not obligated to keep the Old Testament law. Paul had been vehement in his arguments against requiring anyone to be circumcised as a condition of salvation. Together with Peter's account of Cornelius' conversion and James's recount of the prophecies, the Jerusalem council made the wise and correct decision not to burden new converts with laws that never had the power to save anyone anyway. The question, then, when you get to chapter 16 and Paul's having Timothy circumcised, is what in the world happened to change Paul's mind!?


And the answer is nothing at all. In fact, Luke records in the verse after telling of Timothy's circumcision that he and Paul traveled around to the churches telling of the decision in Jerusalem! (Acts 16:4) How could Paul joyfully tell others they were not required to be circumcised while standing next to Timothy whom he had asked to be circumcised!? Were they being hypocritical? Were they being wishy-washy? Were they being politically correct and trying to please everyone?


Absolutely not! They were being all things to all people so that by all means they might save some!


Here's the deal as far as I can see it. They were very different circumstances. By no means would Paul stand by quietly and let someone add requirements to salvation. He would not keep quiet while Judaizers tried to pervert the gospel of God with man-made requirements and restrictions for younger believers or new converts. But in the case of Timothy, he did not ask Timothy to be circumcised as a requirement for salvation. He asked Timothy to be circumcised in order to remove a stumbling block for Jews who did not already believe! Paul knew that Timothy's effectiveness as a missionary would be severely dampened any time they went into a city. Think about it. The first place they usually went was to a synagogue. Why? Because God-fearing Jews met there. It was a great place to start preaching. But if they had to fight a battle about Timothy's heritage and lack of circumcision every time they walked into a city, when would they have time to talk about Christ!


I think this passage and context that it comes in is an incredibly illuminating example of what it means to be all things to all people and to not lay stumbling blocks in front of others. Let's be honest when we are talking about stumbling block issues. Stumbling blocks are things that keep young Christians or those who have not converted yet from being able to see Christ. They are never issues that are about placating mature Christians in order to keep the peace. They never involve adding requirements to those who come from a different background before we can grant them salvation or consider them a brother. Paul and Jesus both fought tooth an nail against those types of things.


On the other hand, let's be honest about how far we are willing to go to bring others to the God who loves us infinitely. What barriers exist between you and your unsaved neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family? Is it a style of dress? Is it a matter of comfort? Is it a political stance? Is there anything that is worth maintaining comfort and self over accommodating someone's limited perception of me so they can quit seeing the differences between us and start seeing Christ?


I'm not saying that we fake who we are. I'm not saying we are disingenuous. I'm saying we seek out and remain vigilant about any non-Biblical barriers that stand between us and anyone else that hinders them from seeing and hearing the message of Christ in us...and we destroy them.


Let's become all things to all people so that by all means we may save some. May God give us the wisdom and discernment of Paul so we may know when to fight the slavery of extra-biblical religious requirements and when to accommodate the sensitivities of non-believers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The problem with teens- Acts 15:37-39


Ever been frustrated by the lack of follow through in a teenager? You give them a chore and they "forget" to get it done. You entrust them with a responsibility and they drop the ball. You celebrate their commitment to Christ only to be frustrated with their seeming apathy about carrying out that commitment.

You don't have to get a group of adults together long with "kids these days" as the subject matter before someone will inevitably start bemoaning their lack of work ethic, lack of motivation, and lack of maturity.

Why do I bring this up? Because in all likelihood, we get a glimpse of a 1st century conversation in Acts 15 about those exact problems.

Here are some things you need to know about Mark:
  • He was a cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10)
  • He was the son of Mary whose home had been one of the meeting places of the early church (Acts 12:12)
  • He was probably in his teens when Jesus was killed and was a young man when he deserted Paul and Barnabas (Mark 14:51-52; 1 Peter 5:13)
  • As inferred from the passage above and as recorded in Acts 13:13, Mark had accompanied Paul and Barnabas of the first missionary journey but had deserted them. And that was the rub.
(These passages all assume that the John Mark spoken about is the same Mark as the one in question. There are different theories about that, but it seems that since he was referred to several times in the New Testament and no further description was given to clarify which John Mark was being referred to, then the church would have known to think about this Mark in particular.)

When Paul was ready to set out again and revisit the churches they had established the first go around, he was simply unwilling to let Mark have another chance. I'm sure he was weighing the pros and cons of trying to help an individual at the expense of the mission. Barnabas on the other hand was trying to give Mark a second chance and believed in his ability to follow through. Both men were so insistent on their well-reasoned and good intentioned points, that they eventually parted company.

I want you to think about Mark as a person a little more. Since the church was meeting in his mom's home (Acts 12:12), it was likely that they had a large home in Jerusalem. He was probably a fairly wealthy kid and was very devoted to his mother who was a Godly woman. I have to think that was part of his reasons for desertion on the first trip. Perhaps he wasn't used to the rigors of travel. Perhaps he missed the comforts of home. Maybe he was simply not emotionally able to handle life away from his mother and home yet. We don't know exactly what led to his decision.

Get another earlier glimpse of Mark's personality from the gospel that is likely from his hand. Mark 14 tells the story of a "young man"  wearing only a linen sheet who was following Jesus after he was arrested in the garden. His following turned to fleeing very quickly, however, when the soldier tried to grab him as well. He let them keep the sheet and he ran away completely naked! Most people think the evangelist was referring to himself in this story. Let's think through this . The young man must have been asleep in bed when he got the news of Jesus' arrest. He must have jumped up impulsively to find out what was going on. He didn't even take time to get dressed! He was a young man that was so timid, he would rather run away naked than claim allegiance to His arrested Lord.

Why do I want you to think about Mark as a person? Because he reminds me a lot of the kids that fill our churches. They are impulsive. They are fearful. They often fail on their commitments and give every indication that they cannot be counted on. They are often more concerned for comfort than for Kingdom work. They quit when the going gets tough. But deep down they love the Lord!

I am so thankful that Mark had a friend and mentor in Barnabas. Someone who was willing to give him another chance. Someone who was willing to bring him alongside him in his own ministry. Someone who was willing to stand up for him in spite of his failure. Paul, himself, was thankful for it. He would later ask for Mark personally because Mark had become someone that was very useful in ministry (2 Timothy 4:11).

But would Mark have become useful for ministry...would he have become Mark the evangelist whose words we still read today, if Barnabas had not first been Barnabas the encourager?

What if Barnabas had let Paul convince him not to give Mark a second chance? What if Mark had felt the sting of rejection because of his past failures and never recovered from it?

I ask you about Mark, because I want you to think about the teens you see in the auditorium. Some of them seem more concerned about the girl sitting next to them than the Lord sitting in their midst. Some of them are currently more committed to their sport's team than to their body of Christ. Some of them treasure their cell phone more than the word of God. But I believe from the bottom of my heart that some of them LOVE THE LORD!

The question is whether or not there will be a Barnabas who will vouch for them in spite of these weaknesses of youth. Who will include them in their own ministry? Who will give them space to fail and then shove the responsibility right back on them giving them absolute proof that people still believe and count on them? Who will wrap their arms around them and teach them how to praise and how to serve?

Of course, having someone to do all of that for a teen requires first of all that we adults have a work and a worship to include them in ourselves!

Who will you be a Barnabas for? I'm not asking you to take all of the teens in your congregation under your wing. But I am asking you to be intentional about taking at least one of them under your wing. Let them know you believe in them. Let them see your work and your relationship with God. Challenge them to be true. Challenge them to live with purpose and not just comfort. And then praise God that they have become useful for ministry. Who knows what they will leave behind them that people will still be reading in another 2,000 years!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Removing the yoke- Acts 15:10-11

Original picture by Gveret Tered and obtained from Wikimedia under GNU Free Documentation License
Did you know that the Restoration movement began with the intent of rejecting man-made creeds and determining to live solely based on what was written in the Bible? If you are a descendant in the Restoration heritage, then you are undoubtedly familiar with the phrase "speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent." You may have heard another one; "In essentials, unity; in opinions, liberty; in all things, love."

I wonder if the Restoration fathers didn't think about this passage in Acts 15 when they were considering these principles and determining to teach them to others.

I want to be careful in applying Acts 15 to our context because there is one notable difference between the immediate context and today. In Acts 15, the debate was very narrowly and very clearly defined to the issue of whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity were also required to be circumcised and to keep the Old Testament Law of Moses. Of course, many of the Jewish Christians were already circumcised before faith in Christ and simply continued to keep the Old Testament laws of purity, fasting, and spiritual cleanliness. When Christianity was expanded to the rest of the non-Jewish world, i.e.- the Gentiles, all sorts of questions began to pop up. How could a Jewish Christian fellowship with a Gentile Christian if the Gentile were ceremonially unclean? How could a Gentile Christian actually be acceptable to God if they were not keeping the law that was known to be from God? That was the essence of the debate that brought Paul and Barnabas back to Jerusalem from Antioch.

And of course, the end result of the conference in Jerusalem was the truth that God's intent as expressed through OT prophecies, through His pouring out of His Spirit on Gentile converts, and through His blessing of Paul's work among the Gentiles was that it was not right to bind the Old Testament law on anyone because "we believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are."

For most of us, the issue of observance of Old Testament laws- and specifically of circumcision- is no longer an issue. We understand that Jesus completed the law of Moses. As Paul says, He has "wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it our of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (Colossians 2:14). So what is the relevance of this passage today in our churches?

I think it is still incumbent upon us to be sure that we do not "put God to the test" by "putting on the necks of gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear." The yoke that Paul was talking about was the yoke of slavery to the Old Testament law. One could only be right with God under the Old Testament by following it exactly. Paul affirms that not one person throughout history had done that except Jesus. Law-keeping is simply not a feasible route to heaven. Only the grace of Jesus could secure that entrance. And grace is a free gift.

Fast forward to today and the yoke that we sometimes wear and try to put on other's necks is the yoke of having to be absolutely right in our beliefs and interpretation of scripture. Christians today do not claim that we must keep the Old Testament law in order to be saved, but we do occasionally fall in the trap of thinking that if someone honestly misinterprets a scripture then their salvation is in jeopardy! If that were the case, then Paul would have had to sever fellowship with Peter and Barnabas because of their misunderstanding of God's plans before the Jerusalem council ever happened! (See Galatians 2:11-14). He certainly never would have written Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8, in which he addresses differences of opinion about what constitutes righteousness and sinfulness and teaches that love should govern interactions where it is neither wrong nor right to do something unless it offends your conscience.

Is it important to follow God's word and be obedient to it? Absolutely! Jesus said very plainly, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). The fact of the matter is that I am just being downright dishonest with myself and with God if I say that I love Him yet willfully disobey Him and His word. But what if I miss something? What if I misinterpret something? What if I was taught something incorrectly? What if I spend my entire life searching honestly and sincerely for God because I have fallen absolutely in love with the risen Christ whose death paid for my righteousness...what if I do my best through whatever time God give me on this earth to both discern His will from scripture and to obey it to the best of my ability and yet, in the end, there is still some piece of the Bible that I do not understand? Or even worse, what if I think I understand it and I apply it in the way that I think it is supposed to be understood but I have misinterpreted it? Does Jesus pronouncement of blessing on those who are pure in heart and will therefore see God not count for me (Matthew 5:8)? Does His promise that those who ask will receive and those who seek will find and those who knock will have the door opened to them knock apply to me at any point in my life if I have not yet found all the correct answers (Matthew 7:7-8)? Does James' assurance that God will draw near to those who draw near to Him (James 4:8) only count if I have already drawn near enough that I have already filtered out 2,000 years worth of false doctrine and misapplied and misinterpreted scriptures?

I pray that I will never place the yoke of "keeping the New Testament law" on someone else because it is without a doubt a yoke that I am unable to carry myself. And neither can anyone else. In fact, if at any time we come to a point that we think we have everything perfectly figured out, I think we had better heed Paul's warning to "let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Do we teach doctrine? Absolutely. Do we discuss differences of interpretation with hopes of arriving at the same belief? Without a doubt. Do we make matters that the New Testament is suspiciously quiet about a test of fellowship and condemn each other when we find a point of disagreement? I pray God that the answer is no. And I thank him that "we believe that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are." Because as much as I will try the rest of my life to do everything in a manner that is pleasing to Him...I have to humbly admit that I am 100% confident that my human error will occasionally slip in and botch those good intentions. And I am therefore also 100% confident that someone else's human error will also slip in and botch their equally good intentions.

Let us speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.
In essentials, unity; in opinion, liberty; in all things, love.

I say "Amen" to that.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

God's PR plan- Acts 14:22

Image retrieved from https://wiki.logos.com/Biblia_Verse_of_the_Day_images
Jeremiah was beaten and mocked. Elijah was threatened and hunted. James was imprisoned and beheaded. Peter was whipped and imprisoned. Paul was stalked, beaten, whipped, imprisoned, slandered, snake-bitten, and shipwrecked. Jesus was ridiculed, mocked, beaten, and crucified. These are just the names that come immediately to mind. If we really studied, we could probably come up with an unending list of people who went through tribulations...serious tribulations...because of their faith in and obedience to God.

The context of this verse in Acts is immediately following a ridiculous swing in the mob mentality that saw the people of Lystra and Derbe trying to worship Paul and Barnabas on one day following a miraculous healing and then stoning Paul and dragging him out of the city thinking he was dead the next! (Acts 14) And yet we seem to think that we are being treated unfairly compared to God's people throughout history when courts rule against us, media mocks us, or laws are passed that contradict our values.

Don't get me wrong, I am thankful for our religious freedom. I pray that we will not lose it. But I do pray that we will lose our sense of entitlement about it. Let me explain what I mean about that by sharing a conversation I overheard.

I am in nursing school right now and it has put me in contexts and conversations that I have never had the privilege to be in before. I've been a minister for the past 9 years, and you wouldn't believe how differently people act around ministers! Well...maybe you would. I'm just finding out! I'm finding out because for the first time in my adult life, I am not being introduced as "this is our youth minister." On one particular day, I was in a hospital observing surgeries for my clinical assignment. No one there knew me from Adam, much less knew that I am a minister. When the OR nurses were standing around the desk waiting for the next surgery, a couple of them began to talk about their church and another said that she wanted to find a church...but she didn't want to be bothered and she didn't want to have to do anything! She was very emphatic about that. To my astonishment, the other two began describing their congregation in a way to convince her to come check it out. All three of these women had used less than wholesome language throughout the day and had joked about several things that made me blush. And the biggest selling point in trying to bring someone to a lifestyle of following Jesus was that you could slip in and out and enjoy a lively and spirited service with minimal interaction with people.

How different is that style of recruitment into the body of Christ compared to Jesus saying, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34)!!??

I'm not saying we should go looking for persecution. I'm not saying we should intentionally antagonize people about their sin in a way that brings their wrath. I'm not even saying that we should feel guilty if we are not being persecuted the way most of the followers of God throughout history have been persecuted. What I am saying, is that Jesus described the road to heaven as narrow and difficult and said few would find it compared to the broad and easy way that leads to destruction. He said there would be denial and a cross involved in following him. His earliest followers understood that very well. They, like Paul, echoed that truth in places like Acts 14:22. Maybe we do a disservice by trying to make the Way seem easier than it is. All of our problems will not go away in Christ. But we will have Christ in us through our problems. No we do not earn our way to the kingdom of heaven and that is why it is difficult. We are given free entrance into the kingdom of heaven through the blood of Christ, but that is when the battle begins! 

May we start rejoicing in our tribulations as the early Christians did. May we recognize that while God's grace is free, the way is still filled with denial and with difficulties. But may we realize that it is infinitely worth it!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"FREEDOM!!!"- Acts 13:38-39


"FREEDOM!!!"

Of course that one-word line as screamed from the lips of the nearly dead William Wallace as played by Mel Gibson in Braveheart, is one of the most powerful lines in a movie. Of course that's just my opinion, but if you disagree, then you either haven't seen the movie or you are just plain wrong;) (I guess I should go back and re-read the definition of an opinion, shouldn't I?)

Whatever your favorite line, I think if you've ever seen this one, you would agree at least that it is a pretty powerful moment. It's powerful, not because it was such a clever line- it's only one word- but because it sums up the entire motivation for the movie...and really for all of life. It resonates with every person who has ever struggled under anything that they desired desperately to be free of. It's powerful because the mangled body of William Wallace is on display for everyone to see. You can see his torture and almost feel his pain. And as you are worried that his torturers have finally convinced him to lose his resolve, everything gets quiet as he gathers his strength to say something. And then he yells, "FREEDOM!!!"

You could watch any number of epic movies and most of them will be centered somehow around the theme of freedom. We are proud to be Americans because we are so proud of our freedom. We believe every individual has the right to be free so we try to spread our belief systems around the world. But no matter how many battles are fought, no matter how many people sacrifice their lives, no matter how many people stay the course and remain true to their cause of freedom from...whatever or whomever, there is only ONE who has ever granted true freedom. There is only ONE freedom that really matters in the end. And there is only one path to that freedom.

Of course, the freedom that I'm talking about is the freedom from sin. And as Paul is wrapping up his Old Testament history lesson about all the ways God had worked for and through his people, the Israelites, he states in no uncertain terms, that the law of Moses was never able to obtain the freedom that is found only in Christ.

The truth is that if Paul were preaching today to us, he might point out a lot of other ways people try to find justification and through that justification, forgiveness of and freedom from sin. He might say that wealth was never able to justify. Or popularity. Or behaving children. Or a good job. Or financial stability. Or whatever else we search in vain to find "freedom" in. There is NOTHING that can make us able to stand in front of the all-righteous God...nothing to justify us. Because there is nothing that can completely take away our sins so we are able to stand in His presence. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

But in Him, in His blood, we can be freed! We can be forgiven! We can be justified! We can finally realize the only freedom that will actually matter 5 seconds after we quit breathing.

Would to God that the world would be moved by the picture of the tortured body of Jesus as he uttered one of His last remarks before he died. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." In the movie, William Wallace inspired a revolution because of his life and the way he died. In real life, Jesus inspired a revolution because of the way he lived, and died, AND ROSE FROM THE DEAD! But the revolution he inspired was not so we could be free from other people. It was so we could be freed from the eternal consequences of the taskmaster Sin.

Do you really believe that? Do you live like you believe it? May we realize that freedom from sin does not just mean forgiveness from consequences. It means freedom from sin! And may we fight on God's victorious side to claim the victory that he has already given us with his death and his resurrection! May we join the revolution!

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Strong Answer to a Weak Prayer- Acts 12

Original picture by deviantart user navalatanjjnn and used under a Creative Commons License
Have you ever prayed for something only to be disappointed that you did not get the answer you prayed for? If you've prayed very much at all, then I doubt very seriously that you would answer "no" to that question. So let me ask another. When a prayer is not answered the way you had hoped, have you found yourself asking if you possibly "prayed the wrong way" or if you didn't "pray with enough faith?" I've admitted it before, and I'll admit it again, prayer is not something I feel I understand well. I will teach about it from what I can gain from the scriptures. And I try to apply that teaching to my life. But I have become convinced that if faith itself is actually one of the spiritual gifts of the Spirit (Romans 12:3), then that is not one of the gifts I have been blessed with. At times, I would say that in a complaining way. I wish that I had more faith. I wish I could emulate the faith I see in others and make courageous decisions and "pray dangerously" as some talk about. And at times, I do. But more often than not, my prayers are burdened with doubt.

And it is for that reason, that I draw such great encouragement from this story of the church praying for Peter.

In case you are unfamiliar with the context, you can read it here. The cliff's notes version is that Peter had been arrested following the death of James and his execution was imminent. So the church did the only thing it could do, which was also the most powerful thing it could do. They prayed earnestly. 

From the comfort of our homes and church buildings 2,000 years later, we can read that statement in verse 5 without batting an eye. We already know the end of the story because we have already read Peter's letters that he wrote much later in his life! We already know God answered their prayers to save him. The way in which he was saved is pretty amusing in itself as we see Peter being led out of the prison in a half stupor until he is finally free and realizes what has happened! But the part that encourages me and my lack of faith is the brutal honesty with which Luke records the church reacting when they are in the act of praying itself and are told by Rhoda that not only had their prayers been answered, but that Peter was standing outside!

A more self-righteous group of people might have been persuaded to have left the details out. They might have been tempted to boast about their confidence in the power of prayer. Luke might have recorded them as celebrating and talking about how they just knew God would grant their requests. But that is not what happened, and it is not what Luke recorded.

What Luke did record is that when Rhoda slammed the door in Peter's face and kept telling the others who were gathered in prayer that he was outside, they told her she was crazy! When she insisted, they decided maybe she's not crazy...so it must be his angel! In other words, Peter had been killed and his angel was now appearing to them! It's actually kind of humorous to me that Luke even records that Peter just keeps knocking until they finally come see for themselves! I have to wonder if Peter wasn't tempted to repeat with a joyful twinkle in his eye what Jesus had said to him so many times before, "Oh you of little faith! Why did you doubt?"

Now, if their assumption about what they were being told was that Peter was that Rhoda was crazy or that Peter was dead, I have to ask, what were they praying for!? Weren't they praying for Peter's deliverance? Or had they already given up praying for deliverance and begun praying merely for his courage and faith to remain intact? And if the latter was their prayer, were they praying that because they did not believe God had the ability to save him?

The only thing I feel confident in saying is that the church most certainly did believe in the power of God to do whatever the will of God wanted. And yet, they were astonished when their prayers were answered by a direct act of God's intervening power.

That gives me the courage to keep praying in spite of my doubt because I know that God's answers to prayer do not depend on my ability to pray well. They don't even depend on my ability to pray with no doubts. Yes, I know the verses about praying with faith and not praying with doubt. But I also know that Jesus Himself was told "no" in the garden! And I am sure that I will be too, no matter my level of faith! And I am also confident that God's power is in no way affected by my weak faith!

And so I will pray. At times I will doubt while I pray. I will not doubt that God has the power to work; but more so that God will choose to work through my prayers. But He has told me to pray. He has told me that He answers prayers and that His will is always for the good of those that love him. And when I can remember those things, I will also occasionally pray with great faith.

But whether in weakness of doubt, or in greatness of faith, I will pray. And I will trust that God knows how and when to save His people in the best way physically and spiritually and emotionally possible.