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Monthly Archives: February 2015

Persecution…Coming Soon to a Country Near You

Acts 1422 [widescreen] - CopyWhen the Apostle Paul’s life was winding down, he had a particularly poignant point to make in a last letter to his young friend Timothy. And it all began with remembering a journey he had made some 20 or so years before…

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra– which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 2 Timothy 3:10-11 (ESV)

Sure enough – it’s Paul remembering his very first missionary journey with Barnabas, the very one Acts 13 and 14 tell us about. But, then again, how could he forget?

The Lord worked mightily all through this journey, but the Jews who had hounded Paul and Barnabas in Antioch of Pisidia and Iconium finally caught up with them in Lystra, stoning Paul and dragging him out of the city. Though many believed over the two years or so that they were gone, it was a painful recollection for the old man; and looking back 20 years later, Paul has a haunting word for Timothy and the rest of us:

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.  2 Timothy 3:12 (ESV)

Of course, the recent murder of Christians by ISIS is an obvious example of persecution, but it’s not hard to make application to our culture in North America today. Most believers in the U.S. (not including African American Christians, among others) have been living in a surreal world of welcome and praise over the last 200 years. Christianity was the “it” religion, and we Christians shared general agreement about morality with the rest of the culture.

But times are changing. One has only to consider the couple forced to close their bakery doors for refusing to serve a same-sex couple’s wedding. My impression is that these sorts of items are cropping up around the nation. And unless revival comes, we can assume events will only continue to move this way more and more.

But that’s okay. This was never “our” country in the first place; it just felt like it. And now, reality has struck: non-believers in America are beginning to act more and more like they acted in the Bible. Meantime, our role has never changed. We, like Paul and Barnabas 2,000 years ago, are called to proclaim the gospel to a lost and dying humanity.

And from now on, more than ever before, we can know if we are proclaiming this message well, because if we are…we will be persecuted.

 

For Monday, March 2: Acts 15

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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How About an Adventure?

Hobbiton, Shire, New ZealandIf you have ever longed for an adventure, maybe you dreamed of heading out with Bilbo Baggins and his dwarfish friends to kill Smaug the dragon and recapture the dwarf kingdom of the lonely mountain (with all of its treasure). Surely that would have been a great adventure to be a part of; but…as far as I can see, an even more exciting expedition would have been heading out with Paul, Barnabas and John Mark on the first of Paul’s missionary journeys. It’s a story of high adventure that has open seas, magicians, preaching to great crowds, miraculous healing, and of course, persecution. The story begins after a sea journey on the Isle of Cypress, and the tale is told in Acts 13.

And the opening story Luke tells us is a real attention-getter: Now, it happened after they had traveled the whole island preaching the good news that they met a magician named Elymas, a.k.a. – get this – Bar Jesus, (which, when translated, is Son of Jesus, if you were interested).

Bar-Jesus is traveling with a Roman official, a proconsul named Sergius Paulus, who is interested in the message of salvation. But Bar-Jesus fills the Proconsul’s heart with doubt, and Paul realizing what is happening, looks at Bar-Jesus intently and says…

“You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. Acts 13:10 – 12 (ESV)

And the next thing you know, Sergius Paulus’s doubt has disappeared, and he places his faith in Jesus. It’s a great start to an incredible journey.

Now Paul would go on to make three missionary journeys, and though heaven might offer a “holographic missionary experience with Paul”, the truth is that we’ll never be able to really join him on his adventures. But that’s okay, for Paul’s trip was started by the Holy Spirit and guided by Him all along the way as well. And if you’re interested in an exciting venture with eternity-changing implications, the joyous news is that this same Holy Spirit is still guiding faithful Christ-followers on glorious adventures today, some really close to home, some very far away. And guess what – He needs a few good burglars in the spirit of Bilbo Baggins, not to steal treasure back from Smaug – but to steal hearts back from the enemy of souls.

 

Tomorrow: February 27th, Friday: Acts 14

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Two Ways to Live

There are two kinds of people in the world.

One kind of person is like Herod the Tetrarch. And the other is like this man we come to know and love in the gospels and Acts – Peter the Apostle. What is the difference? Well, in short, one is independent, and the other is dependent.

In a match of Herod versus Peter, we know where to put our money.  Herod wins in a first round knock-out, right?  But man’s ways are not God’s ways. And by the end of Acts 12, Herod is literally on the mat, in a very nasty way.  Peter is moving on to fight other battles.  It looks like dependence may be a better plan in life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – in this chapter, we see independent Herod making decisions, ruling territories, putting people to death (Both James and a squad of soldiers). Here we see the self-made man, the man of action, the get-it-done-and-take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He is the kind of man that makes others quake when he comes into the room (or speaks – “the voice of god and not of a man!”).

And then there is lowly Peter. Peter doesn’t really do much of anything in this chapter, and perhaps that is by Luke’s design. By contrasting the two, Luke is trying to show us something. Dependent Peter sits in prison and is rescued. And Herod? Herod exerts his great power and is actually the one who wickedly puts him in prison.

When an angel finally sets Peter free, he goes to a nearby house and get this, they don’t even let him in at first. I know it’s certainly not that he wasn’t welcome, but it does set up a fairly hilarious comedy of errors as the newly freed and seemingly powerless Apostle waits outside while nobody believes that God could have possibly answered their prayers.

And when Peter finally makes a report, well, of course, it’s God who gets the praise:

But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought them out of the prison. Acts 12:17 (ESV)

Glory to God…not Peter.

And then Herod. He accepts the praise of men and…

Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. Acts 12:23 (ESV)

You see, there is only one way to live – the prideful and independent person will meet his end, even if it doesn’t come quite like Herod’s – but the humble and dependent person not only shows us how to live; he also shows us how to be saved.

 

Tomorrow, Thursday, February 26: Acts 13

 
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Posted by on February 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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How to Find Out if Someone is a Christian

I don’t want to freak you out, but whenever I meet someone for the first time, whether it is a counseling situation or a membership interview, or what have you, I am usually wondering about one thing.

This goes beyond my role as a pastor – I’m looking for this when I meet a neighbor for the first time or someone on an airplane or anyone else. And you know what it is, right? I am looking to find out if the person is a Christian.

This is fairly normal for followers of Christ. We believe that there is a real heaven and a real hell, and so the words of C.S. Lewis in his essay The Weight of Glory ring true:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare…”

Clive Staples and I are not alone in this – the Apostle Paul undoubtedly thought about people this way too. In his passage on being an ambassador for Christ, he said, “From now on therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.” 2 Corinthians 5:16 (ESV)

Now, if you say that this is judging, and that Jesus said not to do it…well, no offense, but…you’re wrong. This is not about determining whether I am better than them. That point is already solved. I am not. I am a sinner. This new person I am meeting is a sinner. Who cares who has sinned more? We are both broken and in need of the Savior.

And, as Lewis suggests, there is actually a very good reason for asking this question about any new acquaintance. I need to know if someone is a Christian so I can determine if I need to explain the gospel to them. And so, as Lewis closes his point about possible gods and goddesses: “All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

That’s right, and yet, the question is, how do you do this? How can you tell if someone is a true Christian so you can help them to the right destination? Well, of course you can’t know for sure, but you can get a really good idea because there is one great key, and the encourager, Barnabas, knew it.

In Acts 11, some evangelists have traveled to Antioch and proclaimed the gospel, and word came back to the leaders in Jerusalem. So in response, they sent Barnabas to determine if this was a real work of God. In other words, they wanted to find out if these folks had really become Christians. Now, take notice of what Barnabas was looking for:

When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, Acts 11:23 (ESV)

When I get into a conversation on an airplane, or when someone comes to me for counseling, or when I get stuck with someone in an elevator, there is one thing I want to determine – like Barnabas, I want to know if I can see the grace of God.

Now, the $64,000 question is this – how do you see the grace of God in someone’s life?  And this is my best answer – you must get to the heart of what they are trusting in to be accepted by God, to get to heaven. I often use some form of a question like this (I think this comes from Evangelism Explosion): “If you were to die tonight and stand before God, and He was to say, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ what would you say?”

If their answer is some form of, “I’m a good person,” or “I’ve tried to do my best,” then you know you have a person who is depending upon their own works. You’ll need to explain the gospel.

But sometimes they say this: “I don’t deserve to go to heaven. My only hope is in the cross of Christ where Jesus died in my place. My hope, therefore, is in God’s grace toward an undeserving sinner.”

When you hear an answer like this, then praise God. Of course, it’s not everything – someone who really is trusting in God’s grace will respond to his grace with good works (Ephesians 2:8 – 10) – but in all likelihood, like Barnabas, you have good reason…to be glad.

 

Tomorrow, Wednesday, February 25: Acts 12

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Why Did the Rules Change From the Old Testament to the New Testament?

Pork ribsHave you ever wondered why after centuries of following the Old Testament laws, it suddenly became okay for God’s people to enjoy lobster and pork chops? Well, there is a reason for this change, and we watch it happen in Acts chapter 10.

It happened like this: one day Peter decided to try to escape and spend some time with God, so he headed up on the roof of the house of Simon the Tanner, where he was staying. It was about noon. Now Simon the Tanner probably had some wealth, because he had a house by the sea, so I’m guessing a prayer time on the roof afforded a relaxing time not to mention a very nice view.

And then this…

…he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Acts10:10-13 (ESV)

Now Peter protested and we can understand this. He had spent a lifetime avoiding bacon, and now to start? But as a leader in the fledgling church, he needed to get busy making himself a BLT. But why?

The answer has to do with why God gave certain Old Testament laws in the first place – they were meant to illustrate our absolute uncleanness before God. In an insightful article from 2012, Tim Keller speaks to this issue:

“The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshipers could approach a holy God. There was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can’t go into God’s presence without purification.

“But even in the Old Testament, many writers hinted that the sacrifices and the temple worship regulations pointed forward to something beyond them (cf. 1 Sam. 15:21-22Ps. 50:12-1551:17Hos. 6:6). When Christ appeared he declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), and he ignored the Old Testament cleanliness laws in other ways, touching lepers and dead bodies.

“The reason is clear. When he died on the cross, the veil in the temple tore, showing that he had done away with the need for the entire sacrificial system with all its cleanliness laws. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and now Jesus makes us clean.”

So you see, if Peter and other Christians continued to observe these ceremonial rules, they would have denied the cleansing they had in Christ. So I don’t know if Peter began to regularly enjoy a full rack of ribs after this encounter, but he had good reason to.  Jesus had declared all foods clean.

 

Tomorrow, Tuesday, February 24: Acts 11

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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When Your Loved One Doesn’t Know Christ

At the beginning of last year I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen for some time, and when we started catching up, it didn’t take too long to find out what was on his heart: His teenage son was showing pretty clearly by his life that he had not embraced Christ. The spiritual condition of this young man was understandably impacting the life of my friend – his work had suffered, anxiety had filled his heart, and as we talked I could tell that he was quite discouraged.

My friend, of course, is not alone in longing and praying for his child to know Christ. Christian parents can relate well to John in his third letter: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” 3 John 4 (ESV) Of course! For those of us who understand that there is a real heaven and a real hell, what could be more important or give greater joy than knowing those you love the most have a secure eternity?

Well, the story in Acts chapter 9 should provide hope for all those who are praying for a loved one who is far from God. It’s the story of the infamous man named Saul, and as the chapter begins, we get a very clear picture of exactly who this man is:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2 (ESV)

When I preached this passage some years back, I called him “Darth Saul” and covered my mouth partially and started breathing into the microphone like Vader himself, “…breathing threats and murder against the disciples…” This was a dark lord. Wicked. Murderous. Threatening. The Christian killer. Evil incarnate. B…B…B…Bad to the bone.

And yet…by verse 22 of this chapter, Darth Saul has become Paul and is proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Go figure.

It’s funny, isn’t it? We have our ideas about who will or at least should embrace Christ, and it certainly isn’t Darth Saul. Instead, it is the already “good” person, the almost-there nice guy or gal, the one of whom we say, “Oh, she would make such a wonderful Christian – just need to tell her that salvation is by grace and she will surely drop to her knees.”

So the end result is that we often think that we can do it, you know, “insert” Jesus into a loved one’s life. Maybe in some cases we’ll need to be extra clever and make detailed plans for such an insertion, but with work, we can make it happen. However, it just doesn’t quite work that way. It was Sinclair Ferguson who said that the gospel is summarized in Jonah’s short phrase uttered from the belly of the fish and found in chapter 2 of his powerful story: “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” Jonah 2:9 (ESV)

Erwin Lutzer of Moody Church illustrates this with the story of a seminary professor who took his preaching class out to a cemetery and had each student literally stand over a grave and shout to the dead person to come up out of the ground. And after all the students had sheepishly attempted this foolishness, he said, “That’s what you are doing when you preach, and therefore you cannot by your eloquence and ‘excellent’ preaching convince spiritually dead people to come to life. It is the work of God.” Salvation belongs to the Lord.

Now of course He uses us to proclaim the message…so, compelled by His love, we strive to be faithful in sharing the truth of the gospel in the workplace and the neighborhood and of course…in the home: Christian parents should strive to be faithful in reading the Bible with their kids and talking about matters of faith when they rise up and when they go out and when they lie down (Deuteronomy 6).

But even if you’ve blown the “little one” years and look back with regret at what might have been, remember that Saul’s parents never preached the gospel to him. Remember that what must happen in the life of our loved one is for Jesus to show up on the Damascus road. And so we pray…hard…and keep praying.  And by the way, the last I heard, my friend’s son was showing signs of real faith.

One last thing: it is always good to remember that though we might not have been killing Christians, all of us were at one time, like Saul, dark lords on the road to Damascus. But salvation belongs to Him, and by His glorious grace, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. (Colossians 1:13 ESV)

 

For Monday, February 23rd: Acts 10

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Power of Pain

man in the gymI’ve been hanging out at Club Fitness in Waupun this winter, and a casual glance around the gym brings one great truth home: Pain causes growth.

Now, I’m a treadmill guy and don’t do the weights thing (I don’t want to surprise you, but that’s not me in the picture), but I know I really should, because I know how it works. You stress your muscles to the breaking point and then give them time to rest…and they come back stronger, and bigger too (As in my adolescent dream of being like Arnold S.)  But I’m sure this is nothing new to anyone who has ever heard the cliché: “No pain…no gain.”

This muscular principle of tearing down and rebuilding works in all the other areas too – physical, yes, but mental and emotional also. And of course, let’s not forget spiritual…

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. Psalm 119:67 (ESV)

…and…

It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. Psalm 119:71 (ESV)

In other words, it’s amazing how much Bible study and subsequent repentance come out of cancer and divorce. Break-ups and bankruptcies have a way of showing us things we would have never seen anywhere else, and when we see things we haven’t seen before, we set off on new paths. You see, good things repeatedly come out of affliction. It’s certainly been true in my life, and yet that’s the irony of it all – when I stop and reflect on it, I would have to say that almost all of the greatest lessons of my life have come out of pain, yes, even self-inflicted pain. But while that is undoubtedly true, I still do just about everything I can to avoid pain. And I’m pretty sure that I’m not alone.  So how should we think about pain?

Well, first note that pain not only causes growth in the individual’s life – it works the same in organizations…like the Church of the Living God.  Chapter 8 of Acts is all about how the church came into great pain…which led to great growth:

…And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria…Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. Acts 8:1, 4, 5 (ESV)

Pain brings growth, and persecution brings preaching. This great persecution apparently began with the martyrdom of Stephen, and it led to the scattering of the former Jerusalem-bound disciples throughout Israel. And then, wonder of wonders, these scattered disciples, Philip among them, began to preach the word of God, and many believed…

So the early church father Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” It’s not what we expect, but it is what happens here in the early church and other places. The most famous example in recent history is the China missionary purge, where the government of China removed missionaries from the country, and western Christians surmised that all hope was lost. But not so – for apparently during the silent years, the church flourished and multiplied massively…under persecution. You see, pain causes growth…

And the direct result of growth? Joy!  Joy actually shows up twice in this chapter as a result of the initial pain. Luke reports, “…there was much joy in that city,” (verse 8) and again, the Ethiopian eunuch “went on his way rejoicing” (verse 39).

Which brings us back to the personal level. The application for this truth is not to seek out pain (unless you’re bodybuilding). No, the answer, according to the writers of Scripture, is in how we greet pain as it comes into our lives. I would never counsel someone to try to find pain, but I do think it’s appropriate to counsel a brother or sister to work hard to remember that when pain comes, it will do a good work. And at the risk of being glib, since the good work of pain will likely result in joy, we do well to greet it in the same way, as James reminds us:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4 (ESV)

 

Tomorrow, Friday, February 18: Acts 9

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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