Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Buying Power- Acts 8:20-24

Original picture by Flickr user Waiting for the Word
This is somewhat of a strange verse to have for a verse of the week. I was actually surprised when I got to it yesterday and wondered why I had picked it in the first place. As I studied on it though, it came to take on a new warning for me than what it has previously held. If you are not familiar with the story of Simon the Sorcerer, let me give you some background.

Phillip had just gone to Samaria preaching the word after the persecution in Jerusalem broke out. The power of the Gospel and the power of the witness of the signs Phillip was performing convinced many of the Samaritans to believe and be baptized. One of those people was Simon. The fact that Simon was convinced based on what he saw and heard is testimony in itself as to the power of the Spirit of God working in and through Phillip. You see, Simon was a sorcerer. Just listen to how Luke describes him:
"Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, 'This man is what is called the Great Power of God.'"      - Acts 8:9-10
How is that for a con artist!? If there was anyone who could spot a deception, it should have been Simon! But when he saw and heard the message of Christ, he knew he was seeing the real thing. Luke tells us that he believed, he was baptized, and then he began following Phillip.

Not long after, the apostles in Jerusalem heard what was happening and they sent Peter and John to lay hands on the new Christians so that they too would receive the Holy Spirit. And when Simon realized that the Spirit was giving through the laying on of hands, he asked to buy the ability to do that so that he would have the power to pass the Holy Spirit on to others just as Peter and John did. And that request is what drew such a strong rebuke from Peter.

Most who read this story have said that Simon's fault was that he wanted to purchase the power of God for selfish reasons. He wanted to profit from the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. But the text doesn't say that. It simply records his request...and then it records his repentance when he is convicted by Peter. I may be wrong, but I believe Simon had good motives when he tried to pay for the "gift of God with money." We know Simon really believed and was converted. We know he was convinced that he really would die at the hand of God if Peter did not pray for his forgiveness. This does not sound like a man who is still full of pride and thinking of selfish gain. It sounds more to me like a man who is confused about how things work in the kingdom of God.

You see, before his conversion, he was used to big displays of power that captivated his audience and made him somebody important. In order to hold their attention, he had to rely on his ability as a magician. And he was very good at it. So good, in fact, that they called him "the Great Power of God." I believe Simon was simply trying to bring his old manner of doing business into the kingdom of heaven, not realizing that the power seen in the kingdom of heaven must always rest in the hands of God and not man or his ability.

I think he was very unfamiliar with the concept that Paul would write about later when he said,
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God....I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.          1 Corinthians 1:17-18; 2:3-5
Simon did not realize that dependence on self- on money, on talents, on abilities, on reputation, on "cleverness of speech," and "persuasive words of wisdom"- would make the "cross of Christ void" both for himself and for those whom he tried to influence through only those means. The fact that even after conversion to Christ he did not understand his dependence on Christ made it all too clear to Peter that he was still "in the gall of bitterness and captive to sin." How could he not be if he still pridefully thought that God's power could bought similarly to how I'm sure he must have paid for magic tricks in the past!

Don't get me wrong, I believe it is very clear that God has given us both natural and spiritual gifts and abilities and expects us to use them for His kingdom and for His glory. But we are to use them in a way that is fully dependent upon God instead of thinking that we can "buy the gift of God with money." I heard a speaker describe the gospel spreading like wildfire through a third world country  because a few local men who had become Christians simply began walking through villages asking people if they would like to study the Bible. He asked those men why they were being so successful. They told him they didn't know at all other than the fact that it was the work of God. This speaker- who is a very talented speaker and author- then said passionately, "I long to be a part of something that can only be attributed to the power of God!"

Perhaps sometimes in our churches, we fall prey to the mistake of Simon, too. It wouldn't be hard to argue that we fall pray to his mistake even if other interpretations are correct and his mistake was using the gospel for selfish gain! But that is not what I'm referring to here. What if we have focused so much on the ability of well-crafted programs, and golden-tongued preachers, and comfortable seating, and highly efficient and streamlined orders of worship that will suit the tastes of all present that we, too, could be accused of trying to "buy the gift of God with money." No, not literally trying to bribe someone for some gift (although, to our shame, that often also goes on in some of our churches in the form of preferences and decisions made through knowledge of the donations given...or withheld) But buying the gift of God in the sense that we rely on slick marketing and talented speakers and trips to Six Flags to convert people to Christ instead of relying on the message of the Gospel and the power of the Spirit.

I long to be a part of something that can only be attributed to the power of God. I will use my gifts and abilities to serve Him. But I pray that I will stop using them in a way that they could ever be thought to be independent of Him. I cringe at the thought of the "cross of Christ being made void" in my life or anyone else's based on my dependence on human means instead of Godly means.

May our churches be filled with people who are filled with and in awe of the power of the Spirit of God. May others who have seen gimmicks and magic in the past in the form of marketing and great sales pitches recognize in us the real Thing. And may they be converted to Him in the same way we have.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Surefire Church Growth Method- Perscution! Acts 8:4

God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable minds Of never failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs, And works His gracious will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take, The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break In blessing on your head.
His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.
(God Moves in a Mysterious Way- Words by William Cowper)

This song is always difficult for me to sing because I get lost in the language. But as soon as I read the passage for today, the first line of the song came to my mind as I thought about the failure of Saul and the Jewish leaders to crush the Way and the providence of God that used persecution to spread the life-giving message of the resurrection. The song is beautiful when I take time to really look at it instead of just go through the motions of singing it. The only line that I might take issue with is "His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour."

I think it would be easier to trust in God if that "fast" were the case. But we know that often is not the case. At least it doesn't feel like the case when we feel like God should be intervening in a situation NOW!  

But if you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was using every situation that you were ever going through to gain glory for Himself and souls for His kingdom, would it change your outlook on those situations?

Just think about the situation described in Acts 8. Stephen has just been murdered. But his dying breath was one of forgiveness. It would have been a beautiful story if Saul/Paul had seen the error of his ways then and been converted to Christ based on Stephen's powerful testimony. But he didn't. In fact, Saul's appetite for persecuting the church seems to have been only whetted by Stephen's death and he began "ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he put them in prison" (Acts 8:3). And because of Saul's hardness of heart after the death of Stephen...the church began to spread! Wait a minute, that wasn't supposed to happen. Persecution is designed and intended to stop things, not speed them up!

If only we could read God's intentions and God's providence as quickly in our own lives! Wouldn't it be nice if you could see God's clear plan during the next trial of your life in the same amount of time it takes to read from Acts 7:60 to Acts 8:4! 

The truth, though, is that our discernment of God's ways is not always necessary;
our obedience to God's is.

In other words, how different would the book of Acts been if Acts 8:4 read, "Therefore, those who had been scattered became fearful for their lives and for their families and they stopped speaking about the name until the dust had settled." Would the people of Samaria have received the word from Phillip (8:5-24)? Would the gospel of Christ have spread to Ethiopia by the Eunuch (8:25-39)? Would Saul have been converted on the road to Damascus if he didn't even felt compelled to go to Damascus in the first place because the Christians had already shut up!? Would the gospel have spread to the gentile world through Paul and reached us today?

Of course, we know that God's over-arching and providential will would have happened somehow anyway. But the point is that His providential will happened the way it is recorded in the book of Acts because people were obedient to His already revealed will from the book of Matthew. 
"Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go (literally- as you are going!) and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'”    Matthew 28:18-20
What are you going through now that you question "why, God!?" I wouldn't for a minute critique someone for asking God why! But if we are convinced that there is a God big enough for us to ask, "why," then what I would challenge all of us to do is to say "Yes, Lord," with every single "Why, God?" that ever comes out of our mouths!

I wonder how many times I have forced God to change his plans of salvation for the people around me because I was too self-absorbed or too depressed during my "Why, God?" moments to also say, "yes, Lord."

I pray that we will never "scan His work in vain." I can't wait to get to heaven and hear about the way God worked in and through my life that I was not even aware of because my vision is very, very near-sighted. I have to think that will only happen if I obey Jesus command to "make disciples of all the nations" in the same way the church in Acts 8:4 did. And I pray for forgiveness and mercy for the untold times that I have let my circumstances overcome my faith instead of having enough faith to trust that God is in control even in the midst of the worst of circumstances.

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters."
Romans 8:28-29 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Choice to Forgive- Acts 7:59-60

Compare that prayer for forgiveness to some of the Psalms...take Psalm 109 for instance where David is praying about some of his enemies:
6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
    let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
    and may his prayers condemn him.
May his days be few;
    may another take his place of leadership.
May his children be fatherless
    and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
    may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
    or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
    their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
    may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
15 May their sins always remain before the Lord,
    that he may blot out their name from the earth.
I couldn't help but think of the contrast between these two prayers when I read Acts 7:59-60. David and Stephen were both doing the will of God. David had people who were out to get him for the job he was trying to do as king of God's people. Stephen had people who got him for the job he was trying to do as God's ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). David prayed for vengeance. Stephen prayed for forgiveness.

What was the difference between the two men and between their prayers?

I'm not sure I understand that question completely. I know that David was a man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22). His prayer for vengeance is included in the sacred scriptures that God's people have used to draw closer to God and to worship God. Someone pointed to the difference in their roles. David was instructed by God to fight battles against wicked people. He was a man of war. Perhaps that lead to a different type of prayer against someone who was opposing the kingdom of God.

What I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt about Stephen, was that he was a follower of Christ. And that didn't just mean he claimed his name. It meant that, to the best of his ability and with the help of the Spirit of Christ who lived in him, he also claimed Christ's life and attitudes as his own. I wonder if Stephen actually thought about Jesus' prayer on the cross "Father, forgive them for the know not what they do." I wonder if he was simply so connected to Christ that it flowed out of him without thought and without effort.

I think without a shadow of a doubt that the peace that controlled his life and his mouth and his emotions to the point that he was able to pray for God not to hold the sin of his murder against his murderers was that he knew exactly where he was going after the stones had finished their work. He had just been given a vision of heaven and of Jesus at the right hand of God. And before he prayed for God to forgive his murderers, he prayed for God to receive his spirit when the murdering was completed.

I've always been impressed with Stephen's faith and his compassion for his enemies, but I had never caught one of the answers to his prayer. William Barclay quotes the early church father Augustine as saying, "The Church owes Paul to the prayer of Stephen."


Look again at the picture above. Find Saul in the bottom right-hand corner with the coats underneath him. And thank God that He forgave Saul and changed his name to Paul. Think about the passages that Paul wrote that have comforted and strengthened you. Think about the Christians that were converted by Paul that passed their faith down through the ages until it reached you. And thank him for the courage and the compassion of a Christian named Stephen who believed in God's grace through Christ so much that he offered it even to his murderers...one of whom was Paul.

Look around at the people in your own life. Think about the enemies that you would rather pray for vengeance to come upon them. I'm not sure what the theological implications of Psalm 109 are for a Christian today. Can we pray that same prayer as David did? Would it be right? Would it be wrong? Would it be dishonest not to and to "force" a prayer of forgiveness for my enemy when I would rather pray for revenge? I won't try to answer those questions. I'll just say that I praise and thank God that Stephen chose to pray Christ's prayer for Paul instead of David's prayer for his enemies.

Which will you choose?

Monday, June 2, 2014

The First Church Complaint- Acts 6:1-4

Original Photo posted to Flikr under creative commons license. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
"You get what you get and you don't throw a fit."

That's a line that I've stolen from my mother-in-law. I'm not sure if it's original to her or not (she's an elementary school teacher!) But we use the line at my house all of the time!

It would be tempting to simply use that line any time we field complaints in any area of life, wouldn't it? I'm sure that most of our complaints should be responded to with that line. But occasionally, as we all know, there really is a legitimate complaint that needs to be dealt with. Such is the case in churches from time to time now and it was also the case in the church all the way back in Acts 6.

The situation was spelled out plainly enough in verse 1 and of course it centered around the fact that someone felt they were being neglected. In this case, it was an entire group of widows. The church had apparently already developed somewhat of a division. Not in that there was a lack of unity in Christ, but simply a language barrier. The Hellenistic Jews were most likely the Jews of the diaspora, those who lived in different places all over the world. Because of that, they would have spoken Greek as their primary language. The Hebraic Jews, on the other hand, who most likely were from the Palestine area, would have been familiar with Greek and comfortable with it, but would have spoken Hebrew or more likely Aramaic as their primary language. If you have ever worshiped in a bilingual service or been a part of a congregation with a ministry to a population that speaks little or no English, then you will understand this natural...and frustrating...division completely.

Whether by chance or by design, the Greek speaking Jewish, now Christian, widows were being neglected by the church who was working to take care of those incapable of taking care of themselves. What we don't know was whether the apostles had previously been directly responsible for this ministry. We do know that the Christians would give their donations to the apostles directly and then "they would be distributed to each as any had need" (Acts 4:35).

In truth, it doesn't matter if the apostles had previously been directly responsible for distributing the aid or if they had already delegated that task. Since Acts 6 is a very obvious delegation of responsibility, it seems to me that they had been the ones rationing out the food and money. If that is so, then it's worth noting that even the inspired apostles had trouble keeping up with the demands and needs of a large group of Christians!! If that was the case from the very beginning with the men who had  a miraculous indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then perhaps we should not be quite so surprised or offended today when preachers and/or elders allow something or someone to slip through the organizational cracks!

More importantly, though, no matter who was originally responsible for passing out the food, we can learn a few principles that definitely need to be applied today:
  1. In order for a church to do its work, there has to be MANY people who are "full of the Spirit and of wisdom" who are willing to work and take initiative to minister. It is not hard to see in most congregations that too many of us are content to allow the Elders, and preachers, and the really high driven deacons to do the bulk of the work in the church. But I want you to think about something. Think about the ministries that your congregation is involved in and think about the ones that have the most passion behind them and seem to be the most beneficial and effective. Isn't it true that the ministries that really work are initiated and led by members who see a need and have the desire to fill it!?
  2. In order for your personal ministry to be effective, you might need to narrow your focus. I am so thankful that the apostles were wise enough and Spirit-filled enough to recognize that if they simply "worked harder" in order to satisfy the legitimate concerns of the church, they would be neglecting the primary work that God had laid out for them. They were called to be witnesses and evangelists because of what they had seen and heard. Therefore, they recognized that it "wouldn't be right to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables." Did that mean that waiting on tables was beneath them or of less importance? Absolutely not! After all, the disciples of Christ were supposed to have been known for their love for each other! (John 13:34-35) But the truth is that we all are the have different roles in the body of Christ. If they had neglected their role to do someone else's, would God have been glorified and the kingdom of heaven advanced like it was?
I was so thankful to hear our elders a couple of months ago announce that they were working on plans to give more responsibilities to deacons in order for them to be free to do more of the work of shepherding. Is the work of the deacon any less important than the work of the shepherd or of the evangelist/preacher? Absolutely not! They go hand in hand and the complement each other! But the truth is that without multiple people to fill different individual roles, then evangelism will shrink backto nothing, programs will be dropped, people will be neglected, and people's souls will stagnate and fall away because too few people would be trying to do too much work!

What need have you recognized in your church and/or your community and/or the world? What do you think needs to be done about it? Can you guess who the best person is to do it!? Recruit someone else to help you out and light a fire under them for the work, but don't take a great idea to someone who is already ministering in their own great ideas and drop your great idea on them for either their work or yours to die! Take the initiative and be the answer to your complaint!!

May we be a people who is willing to work! May we be a people who is courageous enough to call others to work! May we be a people who takes initiative! May we be a people who is neither neglectful of the ministry of the word and of prayer nor the ministries of waiting on tables!

And may God be glorified through it all!