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Monthly Archives: February 2015

A Pharisee Writes Home

writing hand and pen on woodDear Dad,

Greetings in the powerful name of Adonai! I trust things are well in Tarsus. Life in Jerusalem is hectic, but the pace is exciting. My lessons under Rabbi Gamaliel have come to a close, and he says I am ready to begin gathering my own students. All glory to G_d!

Perhaps the news has traveled to you already about the latest events? If not, I’m most glad to inform you (yes, yes, you’ve told me – I do enjoy writing letters). So…everything culminated yesterday in the stoning of a man named Stephen. I have to admit that he was a real puzzler, an extremely eloquent man, though some of the Scribes accused him of speaking blasphemous words against Moshe and the Name. As for me, I heard nothing of the sort, just more nonsense about the carpenter, preceded by a lengthy lesson on the history of our people. Others saw miracles from him, but of course I doubt it, for he was clearly another fanatical follower of what they are calling “the way”.

However, these people keep speaking of how this Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead. And they have so many so-called witnesses! Why, it’s enough to shake one’s faith. But don’t worry about me – I know and am convinced in what I have believed. And we know that when the Messiah comes, he will arrive in power, not weakness like this Jesus they proclaim. That said, we’ve got to do everything to put an end to this movement that is deceiving so many. And in light of that, I’m joining the cause full force, taking part in cornering and arresting these lawbreakers.

In fact, Father, on that note, I’ve got a big journey planned next week. I’m heading to Damascus, and I’m sure I’ll have great things to tell you about that trip.

Your devoted Son,

Saul

 

Tomorrow, Thursday, February 19: Acts 8

 
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Posted by on February 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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We Must Devote Ourselves to Prayer and the Ministry of the Word

IMG_0388It was probably my senior year in college that I got the lucky job of being the host for the main speaker at a Navigator spring conference. My host duties included getting a fruit basket for his hotel room, walking with him to the venue, and even having meals with him. It was a great job and fit well into the Nav philosophy of discipleship – students were always encouraged to hang around these older guys who “got it”, who had been walking with God for a long time. And the speaker that spring was an old Navigator staff named Leroy Eims.  Leroy was a terrific up front communicator, an author (The bestselling Lost Art of Disciplemaking, among others) and a former Marine with a thrilling World War II testimony about a guy dying next to him on some South Pacific island beach asking him, “Mister, do you know how to pray?” Leroy didn’t, and when he got out of the Army, he decided to find out, eventually becoming a Christian.

Leroy may have been a great up-front communicator, but one on one, at least with me, was a different story.  I’ll never forget my dinner with him after he first arrived that Friday night: I could hardly pry words out of him. Now, in fairness, maybe he was tired, or maybe he was thinking about his message that night (as a speaker myself now, I can only imagine needing to go out to dinner with some nutty college student right before my opening keynote message at a conference).  Either way, it was awkward.  But then again, sometimes jewels come out of awkward meals with semi-famous author/speakers.

At one point over dinner, I began pouring out my heart to the guy, along the way asking him what he felt were the keys to really living the abundant Christian life.  It was a long question, as I remember, and as I spoke, Leroy was sort of staring out into space – I didn’t even know if he was listening. And then when I finished my question, I waited, and I’ll never forget – he stopped staring around, turned and looked directly at me, and said one word: “Basics.” And then he resumed his staring into space, just like that.

It was a strange moment, but I never forgot it. The “Basics” were one of the great keys to living the Christian life.

Nav wheel“Basics” was a term I had heard many times before in the Navigators. The Navs used the word to refer to the four essentials of living the Christian life: The Word, Prayer, Witnessing and Fellowship. Leroy was pointing me to the keys that the Navigators always pointed to, and with good reason.  They were essential parts of living the abundant Christian life. Witnessing and Fellowship were ways we related to other people, that is on the horizontal level of life. We witness to people outside of Christ and we fellowship with other believers. But Prayer and the Word were vertical – the way we related to God.  All of this was summarized in the Navigator Wheel illustration (see diagram).

Some Christians today point to many different ways to cultivate a relationship with God.  Usually they are referring to the various disciplines of the Christian life which include fasting, solitude and silence, among others. These are good, of course, and have biblical precedent; but in truth, they really should be conduits for the two primary ways God has given to us to know Him: His word and prayer. The Apostles knew the importance of these two vital aspects of the Christian life.  We see in Acts 6 that were being drawn away from primary things to administration, specifically caring for the Greek widows, an important duty, to be sure…just not their duty…

“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.
But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”  Acts 6:3-4 (ESV)

The Apostles needed to pray because they knew where true power in ministry came from.  But they also needed to be faithful in preparation and preaching of the Word of God. People didn’t carry around Bibles in that day – they needed the teaching of the Apostles in order to be “in the Word.”  In fact, this devotion to Apostolic truth was the crying need of the early church…and nothing is changed – it is the crying need of the church today.  Christians need Biblical truth if they want to be set free…they need instruction in the gospel…they need to be able to discern error. And all this comes through the “Basics” of the word, and that word must be preached, and that word must be read and meditated on. It is the primary way we abide in Christ, and “Apart from (Him), we can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

This truth is not profound, but it may be the great “secret” of the Christian life. In fact, I imagine that it’s rare to find a believer who is thriving in his Christian life and not regular in the word (Psalm 1).  And we know why: through prayer, we talk to God, but through the word, God talks to us. And when it comes to a strong and healthy spiritual life, there is nothing more important than Spirit-led deep and meaningful communication with our Heavenly Father.  Everything is different for the believer who is regular in God’s word.

The early church made this word a focus, and the world of Ancient Rome was transformed…

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. Acts 6:7 (ESV)

 

Tomorrow, Wednesday, February 18th: Acts 6

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Old Testament God vs. the New Testament God

Have you ever heard people talk about an Old Testament God and a New Testament God, as if there were two?  You know – the Old Testament God is vicious and warmongering.  He rains fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, slaughters the Canaanites and commands parents to stone their children for a bad attitude.  His favorite is David who has “slain his ten thousands.” But the New Testament God, well, we know who He is too.  God is love, right?  This God is the God of the turned cheek, the God of the easy yoke and the God who commands that the path be cleared for children to sit on Jesus’s lap, for such as these make up His Kingdom.

And then you read Acts chapter 5 and your “two different Gods” idea gets destroyed.  It’s the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who take notice that Barnabas is getting some notoriety for selling a field and passing on the proceeds to the church. So, looking for kudos, they make the same move, but in contrast to Barnabas, they keep back some of the cash for personal use. Of course, passing on only half of the proceeds would have been a generous move, but the desire for man’s approval leads them to say that everything is there, and somehow, probably by the Spirit, Peter finds out, and calls Ananias on it…

But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”  When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. Acts 5:3 – 5 (ESV)

Now you might think that Ananias just had a heart condition and that getting caught caused him to go into cardiac arrest. Not so, for his wife Sapphira comes in, gets questioned, gives the same answer, and then Peter even predicts her death, and she falls over and breathes her last.

It’s a powerful event in the life of the early church, and understandably…

…great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. Acts 5:11 (ESV)

It’s only speculation to wonder why this happened at this stage in the early church, but perhaps this is a clue:

And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, Acts 5:14 (ESV)

Why do they come to Christ?  Ultimately the answer is that the Spirit draws them, but perhaps we can say that they came to God…to be saved from God.  You see, this story leads us to see something very important about Yahweh: He is just as holy in the New Testament era as He is in the Old.  He hates sin just as much in 40 A.D. or 2015 A.D. as he did in 1,000 B.C.  In fact, that last book in the New Testament will describe what you might call a fate worse than death – something called the second death…

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:14-15 (ESV)

But in the midst of all this first death and second death, there is good news.  Yes, He hates sin, but He hates it so much that He sent His Son to put it away forever, and this makes Him a God of grace and love who will save us from our sin, as Zephaniah the Old Testament prophet pointed out so beautifully:

The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. Zephaniah 3:17 (ESV)

How about that…saved and quieted by the love of the Old Testament God! Who knew? All in all, it’s enough to make you think that there really is only one God; He is both perfectly holy and perfectly loving. And you might even go so far as to say that He is the “same yesterday and today and forever.” Hebrews 13:8 (ESV)

 

For Tuesday, February 17: Acts 6

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Is Jesus the Only Way to Heaven?

One Way - Left - NarrowIt’s a wonder that any Christians ever run for President. There are just too many things that they need to be honest about and that therefore would seem to disqualify them in a pluralistic culture like ours.  And the big religious question that trips up politicians at the national level is this: “Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven?” It’s kind of hard for the Christian to win the Jewish vote when he answers that one honestly.

But we average ordinary Christians feel that it disqualifies us too, even if we aren’t running for office. Who wants to tell their secular neighbor, their football-watching-buddy, that Jesus is the only way? You’re not trying to win his votes, just keep his friendship, and the statement seems so…unfriendly. In fact, saying that Jesus is the only way to God is tantamount to telling a non-Christian that he’s going to you know where, and that doesn’t make such good half-time conversation.

And for this very reason, many people who call themselves Christians have a hard time proclaiming this truth. I know of a Christian mom who just couldn’t bring herself to tell this to her children, so she said…something else, I suppose. I’m not sure why she did this, but I can guess – she probably thought it would turn them off to Jesus.  You see, we have such a hard time with the idea that we begin to wonder if there is another way to Jesus being the only way. We muse, what if we left this part out? Is it that important to the gospel?

Maybe we should let Peter answer the question. In his sermon recorded in Acts chapter 4, the Apostle didn’t leave it out. He proclaimed the truth boldly. But why?

Here’s the simple answer: if you believe that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ, that Jesus paid the penalty for your sins by taking your place on the cross, and if you believe that God honored and accepted that sacrifice by raising His Son from the dead, then there is no other way to God. To paraphrase Pastor Erwin McManus, “You can believe in another Savior…but no one else is coming for you.”

In his short statement in verse 12, Peter himself gives the rationale:

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12 (ESV)

Why is Jesus the only way? For, Peter says, there is no other name. Only Christ has died. Only Christ has been raised. And ultimately, if Islam and Christianity and Buddhism are simply different paths to the same God, then the path of working for salvation is AOK because that’s how all these other religions are planning to attain salvation, or nirvana, or the place with all the wine and “girls”. Then you can indeed be good enough to get into heaven. Just do it the Muslim way, or the Hindu way. Or, why not the “good guy” secular way? Take your pick because apparently…God is not picky.

Or is He? Well, of course He is. And we know why – because providing salvation for you and me came at a great cost – the blood of His dear Son. And though there are many very sincere people trying to work their way to God all over the world, in the end, they too will need the blood of Christ. And if you tell your children that there are other ways, and if you tell your neighbor that there are other paths, then what you are really subtly saying is that they can be good enough to get to God on their own, and even worse, that the cross of Christ was pointless and unnecessary.

And therefore, when you say that there are other ways to God, you deny the gospel; and in the end, you mislead the one you love on the true and the only way to heaven. And when you come right down to it, that doesn’t seem to be a very neighborly thing to do.

 

For Monday, February 16: Acts 5

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Times of Refreshing

Once upon a time there was a father who took his little boy to a huge toy store at Christmastime. The smell of holly and ivy filled the air. “What do you think?” the daddy asked his boy as he looked around and delighted in the store all decked out in Christmas lights.

“Oh, everything is so great!” the little boy exclaimed.

“Would you like this?” the father said, pointing to a huge brightly colored train set.

“Really?” answered the little boy.

“Or how about one of these?” The father indicated the latest in electronic games.

“Wow!” The boy was almost speechless.

The two wandered the store for a half an hour, with the father pointing things out and the boy gazing and dreaming.  And finally, when the time came to leave, the father looked at the son and said, “Well, now that we’ve seen all that the store has to offer here at Christmastime, I want you to know…that I’m never getting you any of this. Now come on, we’ve got to get going.”

The pastor/theologian Sinclair Ferguson tells a version of the story above, explaining that Satan tells the believer that God is like the father in the toy store.  It is after all, what the serpent was basically telling Eve in the Garden – God is not good, and He does not want your good.

But here’s the question – what does it do to you if you believe God is like this?

Ferguson answers, “It is (this) distortion…that inevitably produces a child who will either willfully rebel or find himself always feeling he has got to do something to earn his father’s love.”

In other words, if you come to believe that God’s character is basically like that toy store father, your misbelief will cause you to ruin your life in one of two ways: First, you may decide that obeying such an evil character would be a foolish thing to do, and therefore in the end refuse to do anything He says.  Thus you will live your life like the Prodigal Son, far away from the Father in a distant country.

Or, in contrast, you may come to the opinion that pleasing this God is nearly impossible, but longing for His love, you will want to try, and so you will be constantly slaving like a legalist in order to win His smile.

In other words, the reason why we refuse to obey like the Prodigal Son or why we live the joyless life of the legalist, is that we do not believe that God’s character is basically good.

But in his sermon in chapter 3 of Acts, Peter does his best to correct this misunderstanding of God, first by calling people to repent in verses 19 and 20, “that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

You see, it’s not, “Repent, so that you can live a hard, cold joyless existence.”  No! God is good, and therefore, when He calls us to follow Him in obedience, He does it so that times of refreshing may come!

Adam and Eve were called to obey in the Garden for their good, not because God wanted to keep good things from them.

And, then, when Peter closes the sermon, he says this:

“God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” Acts 3:26 (ESV)

So I imagine that someone reading this today might be hesitant to trust in and bow before the Lord, imagining that His character is one of cursing, not blessing.  Don’t believe Satan’s lie.  The truth is that if you bow before Him, times of refreshing will come.  And if you are already a believer, struggling to obey in a particular area, remember that He calls you to turn away from your wickedness, in order to bless you.

So come to the Father, and walk in His ways.  It’s Christmas, and there are glorious gifts under the tree.

 

For Friday, February 13th: Acts 4

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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How to Start a Religion

If you were getting ready to preach a sermon that would launch a religion, what would you say? Well, to begin with, I think wisdom would dictate including some practical and helpful teachings that everyone could apply to their lives – Oprah-like helpful would be the target. Along the way, you would want to tell how God spoke to you personally, for sure, to give some authenticity to the whole thing, the voice of God and all that.

But when Peter sets to the public square to announce the new religion which would be called for a time, the Way, he really only says one thing: Jesus, the guy you killed, is alive.

Now, you wouldn’t think that message would have much potency. There’s nothing in it about having a better marriage. Nothing in it about overcoming your nasty tendency to ____________. You don’t hear anything about a special message from God to Peter alone, or anyone else.

Nope, just resurrection…that’s it:

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” Acts 2:32 ESV

And yet, that’s enough, isn’t it? In fact, it’s more than we could ever hope for. Far, far more.

Forget about special messages to individuals – if Jesus is alive, then there is a special message for all of us. It’s the Bible which He repeatedly cited and considered the Word of God. For if Jesus is alive, then this book is absolutely true. Think of that, and give glory to God.

If Jesus is alive, then the husband and wife in the struggling marriage can turn to Him in prayer to tap into His limitless wisdom and power and compassion.

If Jesus is alive, then there is hope for you and me to overcome any sin we long to overcome, because He has overcome the grave.

And best of all, if Jesus is alive, then my formerly hope-less life becomes hope-filled. For He has promised that all who follow Him will also live forevermore.

Come to think of it, I guess Peter makes a pretty good start in proclaiming Christianity. It’s so good, the Apostles will preach it all through the book of Acts; the resurrection will in fact become their main message from here on out.

In fact, this first sermon is so good, so unexpected, that you might think that the resurrection actually happened. You might in fact think…that this new faith called the Way was not man’s idea after all.

 

Tomorrow, Thursday, February 12: Acts 3

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Secrets of Waiting

Waiting is one of the most difficult things that we have to do in life. It’s difficult because what we’re waiting for is often something we want very much, and yet we don’t know when, or if, it will come. And the uncertainty brings fear, and the fear brings pain.

  • The single gal (or guy) who longs to be married. Maybe she’s dating; maybe she’s not. But she is waiting. And while she waits, the wedding invitations of her friends fill the mailbox.
  • The couple longing for children. They are waiting…and watching others decorate nurseries.
  • Or consider the wait of the unemployed. The people around them are going to the office or the jobsite, but they are home…alone…waiting.

If others are moving on, why am I standing still? This is the question of the one who waits.

Acts 1 is a chapter of waiting.

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me;” Acts 1:4 (ESV)

The anticipation must have been overwhelming. And either doubt or boredom would surely have been the temptation of the day. And the disciples waited…and waited. Oh sure, they had a to-do list: they had to replace the traitor, and that took a little time…but mostly they waited.

Of course, while we wait, we also have things to do, but we often do them reluctantly, because what we really want to be doing is something entirely different. Who wants to send out resumes when you could be working? Who wants to go to work when you could be tending to a newborn? Who wants to be alone on a Friday night when you could be sharing pizza and a movie with the one you love? So we trudge on…maybe 75% in the game, but usually not fully engaged, because our hearts and minds are somewhere else…wishing and waiting.

You say, “I appreciate what you are trying to say here, but my wait is different than theirs. They had a promise. I have nothing. They had the Word of Jesus that the Helper would come. I have no word at all that my dream will come true.”

Well, if I may speak into your waiting, let me say this: Don’t be so sure.

Don’t be so sure that there is no promise for you.

Of course there may be no specific promise of a spouse or a baby or a job. But what are you truly hoping for when you hope for these? Aren’t you truly hoping for the sense of fulfillment that you believe these things will bring to your soul?

We wait for things because we believe that the things we wait for hold the key to our joy.  And there’s the rub – the particular item or life situation that we wait for may or may not come, but for believers, the joy is definitely on its way.  There’s a promise for that, even a myriad of them.

And those 120 upper-room souls teach us one more thing about waiting: while we wait for what we believe will result in our joy, we continue to seek our joy where Scripture again and again promises it will be found:

All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…  Acts 1:14 (ESV)

 

Tomorrow: Wednesday, February 2: Acts 2

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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