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.