Seated at the Table

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My story is about a little girl. This little girl stood with all the grown-ups in church each Sunday, singing the normal, everyday hymns. It was expected, accepted, and routine; in one ear and out of the other.  But one Sunday, the preacher said something that actually piqued her interest.

“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20 KJV)

It grabbed her. “You mean I can have supper with Jesus?” she thought. There was no way she could understand what was happening to her in that moment. Was it the supper she wanted? No. It was relationship. Intimacy. The kind of closeness that weaves itself into shared meal. She didn’t…she couldn’t fully understand it.

This little girl grew in an adult. She dutifully followed the rules (for the most part). Everyone knew her as the good Christian girl. Until something occurred that threw everything into a tailspin. It caused her to question everything she had ever been taught. Some members of her church family lost their way for a time and hurt her family badly. The group of Christian girls she ran with seemed to turn on her. Was this Christian life? This was not what she signed up for.

All the good works these people put forth were suddenly hollow and meaningless. Church was hollow and meaningless. She wanted substance, so she left in search of more, swearing she’d never darken the door of a church like that again. She continued to read her Bible as hard as she could, but it, too, was empty, and eventually fell by the wayside. Like a frog in a slow warming pot, she gradually became more and more isolated and distracted by career aspirations and other pursuits.

Then came the birth of her son. Torn by the way this little guy captured her heart, she decided to leave her career and stay home, and that’s when the isolation and loneliness set in heavily. Not even completely aware of the depression that threatened at every angle, she finally prayed for community. It was a scary prayer, and it definitely didn’t include church, however two weeks later she received a call from a little-known acquaintance, inviting her to a MOPS meeting.

This is Amanda who called me an invited me to MOPS.
This is Amanda who called me an invited me to MOPS.

Excited about the prospect of answered prayer, she quickly looked up the website and her spirits immediately dropped when she saw it was associated with ONE OF THOSE churches. “Oh, No. What do I do?” she said. “Well, I’ll go the mom’s meetings. They can’t make me go to their church.”

And the meetings were a welcome relief to the loneliness. By the time the year ended, they wrapped it with a day of testimony. Her cynical side, still very much in play, thought, “Great. This is where I get to listen to all the stories of how, ‘MOPS changed my life.’” She almost didn’t attend.

Sure enough, Laura got up to speak. She shared a compelling story of an environment filled with drugs and alcohol, a baby born into the mix, and how these women introduced her to Christ. Well, she was prepared for a story like that. What she wasn’t prepared for was the side story Laura absent-mindedly shared because she was nervous.

Laura (left) and her sister had a huge impact on me.
Laura (left) and her sister had a huge impact on me.

Laura traveled to Phoenix the week before with all four of her children. Her three-year-old insisted they get on the phone and call Beth as soon as they landed. Not the best time to call when you’re juggling four kids, overhead baggage, and 300 people disembarking a plane.

“But moooooom. I haaaaave to call Beth. She said she wanted to hear about my trip and I have to call her riiiiiight now!”

Why was this insignificant side note so compelling? Because I saw a strong relationship between Laura’s daughter and another mom. Beth would always be there for her. My son was not going to have that kind of relationship with Beth, because I was keeping everyone at arm’s length. I was the little girl who wanted supper with Jesus, and I evolved into a woman who walked away from the table because I was afraid of getting hurt.

I went home rattled and confused. “Lord, what do you want to me do with this?” Even though I hadn’t been reading my Bible very much, I turned it open and read the first verse I saw.

“Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong.” Romans 14:1

Accept. Stop arguing. Stop being stubborn. That’s the moment my faith became MY faith and no longer my parents’ faith, that I had been working so hard for years to maintain, and failing. I cried that afternoon for three hours confessing and repenting my pride. I prayed, asking God what he wanted me to do.

I decided to risk the pain and dive into relationship with these women. God also asked me to start going to ONE OF THOSE churches, so I did. I volunteered to serve as soon as the first service was over.

I learned much of God's love through these women.
I learned much of God’s love through these women.

My journey with the Lord ever since has been intense and fruitful and worth every ounce of discipline. Today, his call on my life is to write, teach, and speak. He’s called me specifically to serve and invest and love on the women who are searching for God’s will. I plan to invest in a generation of women who cannot put out the fire God has placed within them. I plan to invest in a generation of women who want to ignite that fire.

My enthusiasm and desire has not ebbed a moment since that day; in fact it’s grown. My faith before was real and saving, I have no doubt, but it lacked any sign of life. My efforts now are springing forth out of love that God is liberally pouring out on me. Love, that for years I so desperately longed, but stubbornly feared. I have finally taken a seat at the table to sup with my Savior.

 

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To An Unknown God: ACTS 17

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ACTS 17

The summer between my Junior and Senior year in high school, my best friend and I went abroad as foreign exchange students through Rotary Club. I went to France for a month and she to Spain. Because we were both highly active with the local Rotary Club, the Director of the Rotary Foreign Exchange Program allowed us to look over all the foreign applications and be the first to choose our host family. I chose Valerie. I chose her because she was pretty and her house looked fabulous.  She identified as Catholic so I assumed our values would be similar.  I quickly learned our values were not even close.  As we talked (or tried to…my French was terribly broken, as was her English) she shared that she was really an atheist, and I asked her why she completed her profile as Catholic. Her response, “Oh, I was only born Christian.” I was indignant. Of course no one is born Christian, you can only be born into a Christian household. It’s not like Christianity is a race for heaven’s sake! Pride swelled up inside me as I remained silent, although I was actually no different than she.

THE LORD YOUR GOD

Before we look into our passage today, I want to take a minute to look back at an age-old story in Genesis 25-28. This is the story of Jacob and Esau, twin sons born to Isaac, the son of Abraham. It was foretold, while they were still wrestling in the womb, that the older would serve the younger. The younger would become a great nation.  In fact, after Esau was born, Jacob quite literally followed on his heels.

Then the other twin was born with his hand grasping Esau’s heel. (Gen 25:26 NLT)

To say there was sibling rivalry between these two is an understatement. I envision countless wrestling matches, races, and competitions in an attempt to best each other. It became clear over time that their father favored Esau and their mother favored Jacob. Rebekah and Jacob held fast to the prophecy, looking for opportunities to see it through.

To be fair, Esau was in all likelihood, a carefree spirit. As I researched some Jewish history online, I came across a Jewish commentary on this passage. Esau is described as a man who wasn’t interested in studying the faith of his fathers, but would rather escape into the fields as often as possible. This indifference offended Jacob and his mother. (Chabad.org) Phase I of their plan occurred when Jacob easily convinced Esau to hand over his birthright.  Scripture said Esau had contempt for his birthright.

When it came time for Isaac’s blessing, Phase II was in full swing.  Esau left to hunt wild game for his father and provide a special dinner before his blessing; it was Isaac’s special request.  Rebekah instructed Jacob to enter Isaac’s tent disguised as Esau, presenting the wild game.   Isaac, nearly blind as a bat, was hesitant at first.

 “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”

“The Lord your God put it in my path!” Jacob replied (Gen 27:20 NLT)

Did you notice that? He said, the Lord YOUR God. Why didn’t he say, the Lord MY God? Jacob was born into a God fearing home. He was circumcised on the 8th day, he offered sacrifices, he was taught the things of God. However, the God of Isaac had yet to become Jacob’s.

Deceitfully taking Esau’s blessing was a risky thing to say the least. Fearing for his life, he left town quickly, with plans to only return after many years. On his way to his Uncle Laban’s in Haran, he stopped for a night and slept upon a stone.   That night he had a dream of a stairway to Heaven and God spoke to him very clearly. God reviewed his covenant with Abraham and declares it again for Jacob. When Jacob awakes he’s afraid and amazed all at once.

If God will indeed be with me and protect me on this journey, and if he will provide me with food and clothing, and if I return safely to my father’s home, then the Lord will certainly be my God. (Gen 28:20 NLT)

And here it is. Here is where the transition is made. Jacob is in a tight spot. Although he’s just gained a birthright and a blessing, he fears it will be worth nothing if his brother kills him. One day he was sleeping in wealth, the next he’s sleeping on a rock.  In this moment, I believe he thinks he’s lost everything. This just might be the first time he’s truly ready to hear from God. He’s been knocked down, and his pride stripped away. Pride cannot enter the presence of God, because His presence has a way of dropping one to his knees.

THE LORD MY GOD

I was not unlike Jacob, and really not too far from my friend Valerie either. I was born into a Christian home. Raised with solid teaching, I practiced my faith as I dutifully followed my parents. I loved God. I prayed before my exams, prayed for green lights, prayed for excellent parking spots, and prayed for my future husband. I read my Bible (when I could find the time), talked a lot about this God, and I’m confident I asked him into my heart at the age of five. It was His grace from my young age that got me through my awkward teens and hellish twenties. The same grace that got Jacob through his sin and to that stairway to Heaven. That pride that first appeared in France only grew in my heart each year afterward. This God I claimed most of my life, even while I was rebelling in my heart, was the God of my parents. I had yet to make Him the God of my life.

Until one day I realized I was alone. I was surrounded by people and yet so alone. My pride had gotten out of control.  I was sabotaging relationships with virtually everyone, including my husband. I was miserable and I thought I was doing everything right. God provided a mirror for me one afternoon.  He showed me who I was, and who I was to become. It was just a glimpse that day. Just a few things he asked me to do. If I had seen it all in total, I might have crumbled under the immensity of it all. But with that small glimpse, I obeyed and he became MY God. I’ve been transformed since that day. And I’m telling you, I cannot un-see what God has shown me.

TO AN UNKNOWN GOD

Paul, in Acts 17, tours the city of Athens. He wants to learn something about these people, to search for common ground. While he’s there he becomes terribly impressed and burdened by all the idols and religious shrines in the city. He finds a god with the inscription, “To an Unknown God.” (Acts 17:23) Now this. This is the God for whom they truly searched. For whom we all search. The creator who’s made the world and breathes life into all things.  He does not need us to satisfy him, because he’s God, and yet He satisfies our needs. While he does not need us, he desires us, and draws us to him. Athens needed Him. They needed Him to become their God.

Paul is no novice to this transition. On the road to Damascus, he saw God and could not un-see what God showed him. The God of his forefathers became HIS God on that day. Paul was prepared to make this Unknown god, known to the world. He would explain the path for repentance, and he would reason with the Greeks that knowing Him is eternal life. This Unknown God brings eternal life when He is known.

Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3 NIV emphasis added)

THE LORD OUR GOD

Ask God to show you what he wants you to see. Obey and make him YOUR God. There is more of Him at every turn. There is more of Him when you lose your job. There is more of Him when you are diagnosed with disease. There is more of Him when a heavy door closes on a tightly held dream. There is more of Him when it seems like difficulty after difficulty is only followed by disaster. He allows these things to forge a path of KNOWING HIM.

And guess what? If John 17:3 says that knowing Him is eternal life, that means, with the Holy Spirit, we can sample some heaven-that-awaits, right now! We can be joyful no matter the circumstance because he has designed that stairway to Heaven. This is truth! Claim it! Do you have an Unknown God lying in the fringes of your “everyday?”  Maybe a God that belongs to your parents or your grandparents, waiting for you?  He’s drawing you close.  He’s prepared the way.  There’s no more freedom than that which comes from surrendering all to Him.

Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death: ACTS 15

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ACTS 15

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry was a great patriot of the United States when it formed during The Revolution, and he was of course referring to England and the crown when he said this. I like it because it holds a great spiritual truth.

In Acts 15, Judaizers arrived in Antioch, from Judea, preaching a gospel that required circumcision and adherence to the Jewish Law. It caused great turbulence and confusion among the believers, and it was infant territory for the Gentiles. Paul argued vehemently against this doctrine, and the church sent him to Jerusalem for clarification. So Paul, Barnabas, and Titus traveled to Jerusalem for what is known as the Jerusalem Council. The same argument arose among the Christians there as well, as a sect of Pharisees, whom Paul referred to in Galatians as false Christians, insisted that these Gentile converts must be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Paul believed they were positioning themselves to destroy the message of grace. The environment held thick conflict and division; not the romanticized early church of which we often think. These Judaizers were so influential and moved their deception with such speed around the region, that it prompted Paul to pen his letter to the Galatians. His letter argues the gospel message, Christ plus nothing!

In these passages of Acts and Galatians we see three kinds of people described:

  • First we see a Christian believer who faithfully follows the Jewish law, maintaining the traditions of God (a.k.a.  in contemporary terms, the Christian Conservative),
  • Second we see a Christian believer who may or may not follow their pagan customs, which varied greatly from the Jewish customs (a.k.a. in contemporary terms, the Christian Liberal), and
  • Thirdly we see the “false” Christian (who very well may not have a faith in Christ at all) encouraging a doctrine based on works.

These were complicated issues at the time, and Paul was desperate to have his voice on the record.  Because grace was not well-understood,  he anticipated his message would be completely diluted if these Judaizers succeeded. Even with Paul’s tremendous efforts and his words recorded for thousands of years, we still face many of these same issues today. We need to understand what a life of liberty really is, so we aren’t purchasing it with chains and slavery.  This is not at all what God intends for a life of freedom.

THE CHRISTIAN CONSERVATIVE

Let’s look at the conservative and consider the Apostle James. Although it’s not real clear, many scholars believe him to be the brother of Christ based upon Galatians. With this, we can be sure he was brought up in a devout home, faithfully following the law. Paul refers to James as a pillar of the faith, but that didn’t dissuade Paul’s agenda. The Book of James was written by James, and he’s famous for the phrase,

Faith without works is dead. (James 2:20 KJV)

Many bristle because these words have oft been used to insist that one must show works to have faith and be saved. What James is actually saying however, is that a Christian who pushes liberty beyond its boundaries, may actually move into sin.  Jesus would never lead his sheep into sin, and sin has always been associated with death.

James is one who loved his traditions, honored his values, and I believe that he truly saw those traditions as a form of worship. Exactly how God wanted them to be practiced, as worship. However, James probably also had a tendency to see them as critical to a faithful life. Basically the idea that whatever works for me should work for you too. However, when debated with Paul, he recognized the truth, and he agreed not to saddle the Gentiles with an unnecessary burden.

If you identify yourself at times as a conservative Christian, finding comfort and joy with your traditions, it’s not a bad thing. In fact it’s beautiful to worship in merited ways, and perform respected duties, and hold cherished, long-held values when you’re prompted by and through the Holy Spirit. The danger of this category is becoming legalistic and doing these things out of a sense of obligation, rather than through the power of the Holy Spirit. Legalism brings chains and slavery, and is absent the Spirit.

THE CHRISTIAN LIBERAL

Peter, Barnabas, and Paul were likely considered liberal Christians at that time. They departed from the rules and guidelines of their youth, and many were either puzzled or angry. These men understood that faith, and faith only, ushers in salvation. When Gentiles, who never once followed a Hebraic law, received the Holy Spirit right before their eyes, they were convinced of this truth.

THEN ONE DAY some men of James arrived in Antioch. I assure you, James’ conservative convictions held heavy influence in the church. Peter suddenly stopped eating with the Gentiles because he was afraid of their criticism (rightfully so, I’m sure). It influenced others like Barnabas to do the same. A more liberal life can receive much criticism from conservatives, but Paul’s conscience was not affected. He felt no need to hide his actions. My guess is that Paul and the others also strayed from their lawful diet more than once, and that was a very big deal. Paul discussed eating meat and other food quite a bit in Romans 14, and it’s clear his conscience was squared away. He felt free to depart from tradition.

If you identify yourself at times as a liberal Christian, one who chooses to vary from tradition, it’s not a bad thing. Paul indicates that these people aren’t weak. (Romans 14:1) The danger here is taking advantage of that liberty, allowing Satan to lead you down a path of sin. It’s quite easy to slide down this slippery slope, and Paul repeatedly encourages believers to avoid dark deeds.   He even lists a few in Galatians: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, and wild parties. (Galatians 5:19) He takes time to list these in quite a few of his letters. Many of his readers participated in pagan traditions including these practices, and Paul wanted to advise them of the chains, the slavery, the darkness and death. This was wisdom, not legalism.

THE LETTER TO ANTIOCH

So here you have a clash of two kinds of Christians who were poised for conflict in Jerusalem, yet conflict does not ensue. Paul chooses harmony. It’s very possible that Paul sought a letter from the Council that held absolutely no strings attached to salvation, but it appears there may have been a compromise. They had agreed to not saddle the Gentiles with circumcision, but we still see requirements in James’ letter.

You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. (Acts 15:29 NLT)

Isn’t that still adding works when the gospel is clearly Christ plus nothing? It may appear that way at first, but we actually see Paul resolve this question in his ministry letters that follow. Based on various commentaries, it seems that James’ primary concern for these requirements may have been focused on idol worship. Food offered to idols, strangled animals, blood, and sex were all commonplace in idol worship at that time. James may have wanted them to completely separate themselves from pagan worship, and Paul would have no doubt agreed with this.

Isn’t it interesting that when Paul references James’ letter to the Christians in the book of Galatians, he doesn’t mention this particular content at all?  He instead discusses the Council’s desire that they help the poor. (Galatians 2:10) My best guess is that Paul chose not to argue these minor points while in Jerusalem, and instead chose to clarify them later. He does so in his letters to the Galatians and Romans and others. He clearly disagrees with the requirement regarding food because he says in Romans 14 that there’s nothing wrong with eating any kind of meat in and of itself. Rather it was a matter of conscience. As for sexual immorality, Paul is in agreement and clearly warns against the evils of it in many of his letters. I believe Paul prioritized harmony over correctness to maintain unity with Jerusalem.

LIBERTY SHOULD FOSTER UNITY

Liberty and unity come from Jesus who carried our sins into death, and the Holy Spirit who guides us into truth. Chains hold us captive whether we are bound to a toxic tradition or bound to sin; when the only voice we hear is our own. God’s grace provides liberty to move in or out of tradition with complete freedom as the Holy Spirit provides guidance and conviction toward our purpose. The Apostles in Jerusalem pursued their purpose to reach the Jews while the Apostle Paul pursued his purpose to reach the Gentiles. Seemingly disparate, they all worked together for God’s overall purpose and remained unified.

Live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. (I Corinthians 1:10 NLT)

The grace and liberty that God gives us, we must give to each other.

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!– Patrick Henry

Why Pray and How: ACTS 11:19-12:25

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Acts 11:19-12:25

Praying before meals was a regular part of our practice throughout my childhood.  One Sunday afternoon our family sat down to eat our noon meal, which was probably pot roast from the crock-pot, typical Sunday fare in our home. We prayed and then began to eat. My little brother yelped and whimpered as he took a bite and said, “Daddy, the food is still too hot. You didn’t pray long enough.”

Why do we pray? How do we pray?  Like many things in scripture, prayer is a simple act that is steeped in complexity.  In this passage of Acts we see the story of Peter’s miraculous release from prison.   His release occurs as the Jerusalem believers gathered to pray earnestly for his safety. I’d like to take the time today to dive into the real value of prayer.

THE LORD’S PRAYER

This wouldn’t be a lesson on prayer without a visit to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.   In chapter 6 Jesus teaches his followers how to pray. Even though you may have heard a dozen sermons on The Lord’s Prayer, it’s wise to come here first, as a basis of context. Jesus says,

Pray like this: Our Father in Heaven, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:9-13 NLT)

I have to admit, I have a tendency to resist this scripture because I have a natural aversion to rules when it comes to my faith, and I’ve held the bias that a memorized prayer was an empty prayer.  And that’s probably because most of the teachings I’ve heard on The Lord’s Prayer usually end up as a “how to” message on how to construct my prayers. Even if the pastor didn’t intended it, most folks walk away thinking, “Ok. So when I pray this week, I need to start like this, then move into this, and end with this.” They walk away with a formula!

Can you imagine the extensive amount of thought, energy, and emotion required to make a cake without any basic recipe to follow?  Formulas are extremely helpful when trying to recreate your favorite cake or calculate equations or perform heart surgery.  A formula decreases variability and increases quality.  But can you really apply this approach to relationships?  Absolutely not.  No one wants to feel like the variable in someone’s formula.  When you approach God using a formula, you’re essentially taking out the thought, energy and emotion, and all these things are required components to any relationship.  The quickest way to sever a connection to the Holy Spirit is by responding to him with a recipe.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.  When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer.

BREAKING IT DOWN

I honestly don’t believe Jesus gave us this prayer so that we would necessarily pray these words exactly, nor to give us a recipe for what to include in our prayers; even though the words are great and the structure, worthy of duplication. He was revealing truth about himself and how we relate to him. When we absolutely believe these truths, it will most definitely impact our prayers and bring us into the presence of God. The problem arises when we don’t believe them.

1)May your kingdom come soon. When his disciples heard this, you know they were praying he would establish this kingdom by overthrowing the occupying Roman government. But there’s actually two components to the kingdom, a heavenly kingdom and an earthly one. The earthly kingdom pictured in the books of the prophets and revealed further in Revelation are pictures of what he’s prepared for us in heaven. Scripture promises a time when Jesus will return again to finally address the corruption of sin here on Earth and establish a kingdom. It will be yet one more picture of the splendor in the heavenly realm.  However, when Jesus died on the cross, rose again, and was seated at the right hand of the Father that too was picture of that heavenly kingdom. Because of his blood sacrifice, we are granted access to the power of that kingdom now. When we are praying for the kingdom, we are praying for the completion of all of his promises. We are also praying that we would walk in that kingdom now via the Holy Spirit. It’s like heaven invading earth through our hearts, and that’s exactly what happens when we are plugged into the Holy Spirit. He is our King, and his Kingdom has come into us, when we are abiding in Christ and he abides in us.

2) May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Even here, Jesus is talking about these two economies, or households, heaven and earth. He has a will for heaven and one for earth and his purpose has always been to bring them into perfect union. I think we can all agree that they’re not unified today; there’s too much sin and corruption to think otherwise. His will, here on earth, includes each one of us, and if we submit to that will, our stories will play an eternal role in it’s unfolding. Our prayer should be that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we would live our lives to accomplish his will. Praying in God’s will is not necessarily a lack of faith, quite the contrary. In fact the more we are in His presence and seek to understand His will, the bolder our prayers become.

3) Give us today the food we need. In some versions, the translation is, “give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is a common theme throughout the course of scripture from the manna given to Israel, to the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus wants us to know that HE is our daily bread. He is our manna from heaven. Of all our needs, there is none greater than he. Of course we have needs that need to be met, and he knows exactly what they are.

 …your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him! (Matthew 6:8 NLT)

So why even ask? Because it brings us back to him as our resource. Our family discovered toxic mold during the holidays and we were wondering if we would lose our home. I was frantic and you can bet I prayed for resolution. God knew my needs, and he knew the solution. I don’t know if my prayer changed anything in that moment except myself.  In my fear, I could hear his voice say, “I have a solution in place. Trust me.” It brought me back to him. Sometimes we pray for what we need, so that we can hear His steady response. Let me be clear.  There are plenty of scriptural anecdotes telling of prayers that changed the Lord’s mind and altered outcomes.  They certainly can.  It all comes back to God.  He alone is our daily bread.

4) Forgive us our sins. Like so many things, I think this also has a heavenly and an earthly component if you’ll follow me for a minute. If you have already given your heart over to a faith in Jesus, then this prayer for forgiveness is one that has cleansed you from all unrighteousness. Scripture says that faith in Jesus is all you need for forgiveness, to thereby gain eternal life. In the heavenly realm this need only be done once. Because the blood of Christ is absolute, covering all sin (past, present, and future), there is only one forgiveness for salvation. The end. You do NOT need to pray for forgiveness repeatedly.

So why in the world do you think Jesus would include this in a daily prayer? Because I believe it’s a prayer for healing in the earthly realm. We’re not praying this to be saved. We all need to be healed of the sins that we’ve committed. We have not, and we will not live perfect, sinless lives. Continued confession and repentance, reminds us of our forgiveness and allows the Lord to work in our heart daily for healing. It allows us to transfer that burden of guilt to Jesus, and it closes an open door to Satan. I know I’m not alone in being tormented by the decisions of my past and present. I know by experience, that unconfessed sin simmers within me and wreaks havoc in all aspects of my life. I’ve learned that I can heal and receive the power of the Holy Spirit by making this a regular practice in my life.

5) As we have forgiven those who sin against us. This is also a prayer for healing. We need healing from the sins we’ve committed, and we need healing from the sins others have inflicted upon us. Anger can be so destructive and a very effective tool for Satan. Most of us know the concept of not letting the sun go down on our anger recorded by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians. This doesn’t mean that we must literally let go of the anger within 24 hours or less, but it’s establishing the principle of avoiding a grudge. Paul also says, be angry and do not sin, so that indicates there is such a thing as righteous anger. God doesn’t expect us to live up to a standard that he doesn’t hold for himself. Scripture records over and over the anger he has over sin. But righteous anger that brews into unforgiveness will always turn into a grudge, and that’s the open door for which Satan prowls. Knowing this, and praying for his supernatural power to help us forgive, even while the sting of pain still stabs, places us on the right path. Notice this phrase, “as we have forgiven those who sin against us,forgiven is in the past tense, while sin is present tense. Awfully optimistic for most of us, but if we will proactively pray in this direction it will become the past. It’s called praying in his will.

6) And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. I’ve mentioned this evil one twice already. He’s real, and his number one goal is to derail each and every one of us. All the aforementioned parts of the Lord’s Prayer work together to answer this one.

The Lord’s Prayer isn’t necessarily a prayer to guide the structure of our prayers. Jesus put into words the essence of our relationship with him in prayer. It’s an authoritative, powerful relationship, because he is king; it’s a revelatory relationship because he wants to share his will and make himself known to us; it’s a provisionary relationship because of his overwhelming love for us; it’s a healing relationship because he makes us whole; and it’s a protective relationship because he is sovereign over all, even evil.

I find it incredibly interesting that this prayer never actually mentions thanksgiving while scripture is filled with advice toward gratitude. I wondered why. Then it occurred to me, when I really see the dramatic impact of this prayer, and I’m ushered into his presence, how can I not be thankful? He’s brought me into his kingdom, he’s revealed himself to me in astounding ways, he’s given me a purpose that will play into his will on earth AND heaven, he provided for me abundantly, he’s healed me from lifelong hurts, and he is waging battle against my enemy alongside me. I am humbled by and thankful for his grace. This is a prayer for our earthly world filled with eternal implications in the heavenly world, because it keeps our eyes fixed on the things above.

Coming back to Peter’s release from prison in this passage of Acts, we see no detail on what their prayers for Peter looked like exactly except that they were earnest.  These believers were fervent, faithful and filled with the Holy Spirit.  Peter’s release was so miraculous, the believers weren’t about to believe it actually happened. Peter wasn’t even so sure himself for a minute. But when it’s God’s will, there’s no shame in praying for it and claiming it.  Be ready to be blown away.

CHALLENGE

God called me to write, teach and speak two years ago. I have avoided praying for an abundance of opportunities to speak and teach, mainly for my fear of arrogance and my fear of failure. But if God has called me, and revealed his will to me, I NEED to be praying boldly for his will. My challenge to you this week, is to examine your own hearts. What are your prayers expressing? Are you claiming and worshipping Christ through all aspects of your relationship with him? Are you praying in his will that he has revealed to you and through you?

Additional verses on prayer.   Read and see what the Lord shows you in the context of the Lord’s Prayer.

Ephesians 6:18

Colossians 4:2

Matthew 7:7

James 4:2-3

James 5:16

I John 5:14

John 15:7

The Simple Complexity of Grace: ACTS 9:31-11:18

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ACTS 9:31-11:18

Over the holidays my oldest daughter asked me a question.  “Mama, how do you get on the naughty list?” Her brother and sister had gone off to play and she stayed behind, so I knew she was serious about resolving this bothersome question.   In our home we don’t demonize Santa Clause during the holidays, nor do we emphasize him, so her question puzzled me.  “I just want to know how you get on the naughty list?” she asked again.  Boy, isn’t this the question for the ages?  She knows she’s been in trouble before (earlier that day in fact), but by and large she really is a very well behaved child.  She’d been singing the Santa songs and watching the Christmas shows, so on the surface her question was related to whether or not she was getting presents.  Her deeper question however, the one that nags each of us in the back of our minds, is this…are we good enough?  I told her that when Jesus died on the cross for our sins, the naughty list disappeared forever.  And this is what we call grace.

IS GRACE IN THE OLD COVENANT?

Grace in the Bible is simple and yet so complex.  Often, we hear the New Covenant described as the Age of Grace and the Old Covenant as the Age of the Law, and it’s certainly a more convenient way to explain all the nuanced differences between the two.  But that can lead to the assumption that grace did not exist back then, and can we really say that the Old Testament held no grace?  No, I don’t think so.

God never actually told Israel that they would be saved, receive eternal life, or enter heaven if they faithfully kept his commandments.  He told them he would bless their obedience with peace and prosperity.  The commandments were given for this earthly economy and therefore the blessings were also within the earthly economy.  The commandments of the Old Covenant were not given to Israel to offer them a way of salvation; they were given to serve as a picture of the one true way of salvation.  An earthly picture of the heavenly reality.  Each and every time they sacrificed an unblemished lamb for their guilt offering, it was a picture of Jesus and his sacrifice for our guilt.  Those little lambs atoned nothing, but Jesus, heaven’s perfect lamb, atoned all.  Did Israel understand this?  As a whole, no they didn’t.  They claimed a number of false assumptions of the law, which God allowed, that eventually brought about the fulfillment of the law.  But what’s really interesting here is that this truth of grace was still available to them, despite the fact that many never had the eyes to see it.

Consider for a moment King David.  He committed sins worthy of stoning, and they certainly would have kept him from entering the courts of heaven, yet his sins were forgiven.  If grace were not available in the Old Covenant, then one would have to conclude that King David was forgiven because of his sacrifices prescribed by the law.  He had to provide an animal sacrifice as a sin offering to cleanse him from the sin of adultery and murder.  But take a close look at Psalm 51.  David wrote this passage soon after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband to cover it up.

Forgive me for shedding blood, O God who saves; then I will joyfully sing of your forgiveness.  Unseal my lips, O Lord, that my mouth may praise you.  You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one.  You do not want a burnt offering.  The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit.  You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God. (Psalm 51:14-17 NLT)

David spells it out.  I believe he clearly understood the truth of grace.  And today we benefit from Paul’s teachings, because he offers further assurance there’s not a single thing we can do, nor an action can we take, to get us on the nice list.  That was completed by Jesus and Jesus alone, on the cross.

A GRACE FOR ALL PEOPLE FOR ALL TIME

The truth of grace is steadily being revealed all throughout Acts.  This particular passage covers the account of Peter and his sermon to the household of Cornelius.  It was the very first sermon to an all-Gentile group of people.  Back in chapter eight, the apostles seemed quite surprised to hear that the Samaritan’s had received the gospel message from Philip.  Then again, maybe they could accept it more easily since the Samaritan’s had a heavy Jewish influence despite their wayward past.  But this – this event with Cornelius was even more daring.  Peter entered a Gentile home.  The Jews, for centuries, had been instructed to exclude Gentiles.  He would have never done this unless he had been clearly instructed by God to do so.  God understood the cultural barrier Peter would have to overcome with his community as well as in his own mind, so he provided clear confirmation through a vision, a word from the Holy Spirit, and the message Cornelius received from God.  It was certainly controversial to go, but Peter obeyed.

I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism.  In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right. (Acts 10:34 NLT)

Non-favoritism didn’t just suddenly become God’s character.  This is a heavenly reality that has always existed.  A grace for all people.  Paul says in Colossians.

In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave or free, Christ is all that matters… (Colossians 3:11 NLT)

No favoritism.  Since God was, is, and always will be, we have to assume this is how it’s always been.  So you may ask, wasn’t Israel specifically told they were favored over others?  He said it to Moses.

The Lord has declared today that you are his people, his own special treasure, just as he promised, and that you must obey all his commands. (Deuteronomy 26:18 NLT)

It certainly seems like a contradiction, but not if you can discern these statements by their economy.  It’s interesting because if you look at Israel’s history, they were a lot rotten a lot of the time, and not very treasure-like.  Yet they were treasured because of God’s purpose for them in the earthly economy.  His purpose was to garner them as an example of his abundant love.  God is so abstract; he gave us something concrete, around which we could wrap our minds.   Israel’s purpose, the covenant and commands given to them, they were all a picture in this earthly economy, giving us a glimpse into the heavenly reality.  And for anyone who earnestly followed after God, he revealed much of this truth, like he did for David.

God’s timing is perfect.  All of the seeds were planted, the proofs written in scripture, and the pictures clearly showed Messiah’s plan for redemption.  So when the time came for Jesus to be crucified as predicted, it was also time to reveal the full truth of grace that would become the primary message of the New Covenant.  When we hear a word from God, we can be sure that scripture will confirm it in some way, exactly as we see here.  God provided a clear, tangible picture of grace in the crucifixion, and the Old Covenant scripture confirmed it over and over.  Although the truth of grace was unfolding every day for the early church, Peter and the others still didn’t grasp it completely.  In the coming chapters we are going to see them struggle with how to accept Gentile believers.  They will try to saddle the Gentiles with Jewish customs and ceremony as requirement, and we will see evidence of Paul’s relentless campaign for grace.

IS THE LAW IN THE NEW COVENANT?

While the Old Covenant wasn’t entirely absent of grace, the New Covenant isn’t entirely absent of the law either.  Wait…what?  Isn’t the Old Covenant now obsolete?

When God speaks of a “new” covenant, it means he has made the first one obsolete.  It is now out of date and will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:13 NLT)

If you’ll look at the context of this scripture in Hebrews, it is referring specifically to the guilt and sin offerings under the law and relates it to the fact that Christ’s death is once and for all.  You see, the animal sacrifices were performed repeatedly every year because they didn’t actually do anything at all.  They were just a symbolic picture of what was to come.  So now that we have the picture of Christ and his crucifixion, it has made the old covenant indeed obsolete and unnecessary.  When Christ offered himself as the perfect sacrifice, it was perfect and therefore absolute.

So when I say that the new covenant wasn’t devoid of the law, what I’m actually talking about is the Spirit of law.  The law that is written on your heart like King David writes about.  Even to Jeremiah, the Lord tells him there will be a new covenant where the law will be written on our hearts.  The part of the law that describes God’s character and his desire for our life.  The Spirit of the law says that God does not like or condone sin.  God didn’t like stealing back then, and he doesn’t like stealing today.  He didn’t like murder back then, and he doesn’t like murder today.  He doesn’t like sin and he wants to see our lives defined by good works, not bad.  And that’s only because of his great love for us.  He knows the sorrow that follows sin.  The freedom that we are granted through grace is the freedom to do what’s right.    We’re no longer chained to sin and sorrow.  It’s the freedom to live a life of heaven on earth.

THE POINT IS WORSHIP

Every believer who lives within the constructs of the earthly, yet holds a citizenship in the heavenly, will have to face the tension between these two worlds.   This is the tension we see fleshing out in the early church when they begin to question Peter for entering Cornelius’s home.  Do I fellowship with a Gentile or do I not?  Do I eat meat that’s been offered to idols, or do I not?  Do I circumcise or do I not?  It’s a tension that can sometimes leave us confused like those early Christian pioneers, however if we remain plugged into the Holy Spirit, that tension can materialize into a beautiful understanding.  I believe the early builders of the Christian church suffered through the tension to find understanding.

After the book of Acts concludes, Paul continues to write of liberty through Christ to encourage all believers to continue pushing through the tension.  We can feel free to be immersed or sprinkled, take communion, speak in tongues and participate in any number of symbols that represent the truth of heaven.  And we can allow these things to usher us into worship with our Lord.  We can also feel just as free to not do those things and enter worship by other means.  These things that tend to separate us as believers are merely pictures of heaven.  They aren’t heaven.

“The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves.” (Hebrews 10:1 NLT)

An understanding of the heavenly economy and the earthly economy allows us the freedom to enjoy everything that God has provided all the while knowing the heavenly reality that supersedes this world.

The point of it all is our ability to worship God with all of our heart.  When we are humbled, and allow God to heal us, we will grow in our worship.  We will intimately walk in the Spirit.  And we will know a heaven on earth that empowers us day by day.

Prepared for Purpose: ACTS 9: 1-30

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ACTS 9:1-30

Once upon a time there was a young music student studying voice.  Her instructor asked her to repeatedly perform one particular song to get it right.  “I’m not hearing the emotion in the song,” said the instructor after she sang it the fourth time.  “No,” the instructor said after the fifth time.  “Try it again, and this time share your soul with me.”  She sang it again.  “No,” the instructor resigned.  “Your voice is beautiful, fantastic in fact.  But alas, I think you are too young to sing it.  You need more life experience to convey the depths of its feeling.”

The first time I heard this story, it was during a leadership development session for all department directors at the hospital where I worked.  I was 28 years old, the youngest in the group, newest to the hospital, with the responsibility for departments that had historically performed poorly.  In my mind I had huge hurdles to jump in this position and my coworkers didn’t think I could do it.  Our leadership coach and facilitator shared this story and there was no doubt for whom it was intended.  I was humiliated in front of my peer group and furious with the facilitator because I had spent the last year desperately trying to demonstrate my competency.  I felt undermined, and I can still feel the sting of truth laced within this story.

Yes there was truth there, but this truth is not about age.  Ultimately it’s about what we do with the time that’s been given to us, and those who’ve spanned more calendar days tend to have the advantage.  The truth that undergirds the illustration here is that God cannot do a work through me, until he’s done a work in me.  I cannot sing the song until I’ve been fully equipped to sing it.  And it’s much more than knowing how to sing a pretty song.

PAUL WAS PREPARED FOR HIS PURPOSE

We must be prepared for our purpose, and we see it played out in this passage of scripture today in the story of Saul’s conversion.  Some scholars believe there is a three year gap in this section of scripture that Luke chose not to elaborate.  Paul is the one who mentions these three years in his letter to the Galatians when he describes his conversion experience.

When this happened I did not rush out to consult with any human being.  Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to consult with those who were apostles before I was.  Instead, I went away into Arabia, and later I returned to the city of Damascus.  Then three years later I went to Jerusalem to get to know Peter. (Galations 1:15-19 NLT)

In the beginning of Acts nine Luke describes Paul like this, “Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers,” and then by verse 30 Luke describes a very different man who preaches in the name of Jesus fearlessly.   How could such a transformation take place in 30 verses?  I’m not surprised by this three-year gap at all.  Before God could do a work through Paul, he had to do a substantial amount of work within Paul.  So today, I want to explore a possible scenario for Paul’s spiritual renewal during this three-year gap based upon my own experience.

Much like Paul, I intended my life and my career to be a ministry for God, and it could have been had I been doing so out of obedience, but my career choice was not part of God’s plan.   Over recent years I’ve pursued various ministry opportunities that just simply didn’t pan out.  Looking back, I can see that I wasn’t prepared to minister, and like Paul, I needed to be changed on the inside.  During my three-year gap, which has proven to be more like six years, I changed because I was humbled and I was healed.

PAUL WAS HUMBLED

So I believe Paul was humbled during this time.  It would have been completely uncharacteristic, and really non-human, if Paul were not entrenched in pride.  The training to become a Pharisee was rigorous to say the least, and Paul’s accomplishments to that end were no doubt admirable.  And considering the esteem he received from virtually everyone in his Jewish circles, even the most pious couldn’t avoid the pride of his position.  I’m sure he’d been told he was something pretty special a time or two.  In Galatians chapter one, Paul describes himself like this, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”  For God to use Paul, his pride needed to be stripped.  Everyone who regularly enters the Lord’s presence cannot do so ridden with pride.

Here are just a few examples.  Joseph lost his position as favored son and found himself as a slave and prisoner before God used him.  He was humbled.  Moses lost his position as Egyptian ruler and found himself in the lowly position of a shepherd before he entered God’s presence at the burning bush.  He was humbled.  Isaiah found himself in front of God one day and his immediate response was, “Woe to me!  I am ruined!” (Is 6:5)   So whether the humbling process brings you to God, or whether God’s presence alone invokes a humbling, they go hand in hand.  Paul’s life afforded multiple opportunities for humility.  When writing to the Corinthians in his second letter, Paul said, “To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.” (II Cor 12:7)

We’ve been talking for weeks now about how to plug into the Holy Spirit, how to abide in Christ, how to enter into his presence.  Pride prevents us from doing so.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.  (Psalm 100:4 NLT)

This is talking about entering into God’s presence and describes the parameters of gratitude.  Can you truly be thankful while being puffed up with pride?  I’ll argue that the answer is no.  Being thankful is more than saying that you’re thankful.

Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father. (James 1:17 NLT)

To truly be thankful, one has to recognize that we don’t get the credit for our life’s successes and that there really is no such thing as a “self-made man.”  All glory goes back to God.  Humility is essential for thanksgiving.  Humility is essential for his abiding presence.

PAUL WAS HEALED FROM HIS SINS

I also believe Paul was healed during this time.   There are two components to our healing, and the first is that we need to be healed from the effects of our own sin.  During this three-year gap Paul was healed not only from his physical blindness on the road to Damascus, but I think it’s safe to say he was healed emotionally too.  Here was a man who watched an innocent man stoned and ruthlessly searched for believers with the intent to destroy them.  Can you imagine the emotional baggage attached to that?  Don’t you know Satan wanted to torture Paul with the guilt of his past?  He didn’t become suddenly and blissfully ignorant of his transgressions when he was saved.  In I Timothy 1:15 Paul admits that he is the worst of sinners, yet he also speaks frequently in his letters of our freedom from sin through Christ.   He speaks much too often of freedom to think that he hasn’t personally experienced it.  No, Paul doesn’t forget his past, but he is clearly not wallowing in guilt either.

I know I’m going to sound like a broken record, but it’s important.  If God is going to use us, if we are going to live a life of heaven on earth, we must remain plugged into the Holy Spirit.  Experiencing freedom and healing from the sins we’ve committed is absolute in heaven, and it just goes with the territory when we are intimately connected to him.  Satan works against this process by trying to saddle us with regret and guilt, but we must commit every single one to Jesus.  Jesus said,

Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  (Mt 11:28 NLT) 

Listen, we’ve all screwed up many times.  And sometimes those screw-ups really affected other people in our lives, like our children and family.  Maybe they’re suffering through terrible things because of us, but repentance means that we pass the baton.  We were not designed to carry the burdens of our guilt.

PAUL WAS HEALED FROM THE SINS OF OTHERS

I believe Paul was healed from the sins of others during this time.   The second component of our healing comes when we forgive the sins that were inflicted upon us.  Freud didn’t develop the “blame mom” theory for nothing.   I don’t think you can show me one person who’s reached adulthood without some kind of pain or trauma.  As children we grow up with parents or guardians who sin (some dramatically more than others) and we go to school and work with people who sin.  There must come a time when we no longer allow these things to dominate and define us.  How?  A healing that only Jesus can provide.

Paul doesn’t talk much about his childhood and the hurts he grew up with, but I think it’s safe to assume he had them, and that he began the process of healing during this three-year gap.  Becoming a Pharisee alone held a lot of pressure.  I wouldn’t be surprised if his parents wanted this more than he did in the beginning.  It required a tremendous amount of training, memorization, and testing.  There were multiple opportunities for weeding out the less worthy, and Paul passed every test.   I wonder how many nights of sleep he lost worrying if he would fail.  What would dad think if he had to return home to assume the family trade?  What would the community think?  Would he be disgraced?

In my opinion, the fact that he was so blood thirsty before his conversion demonstrates a certain level of anger and anxiety within him, even though he tried to justify his actions with the law.  And I wonder if he experienced any anger when his eyes were finally opened to the truth and calculated the failure in his training.  Not only did Paul’s teachers miss the truth in the scriptures, but they also killed Messiah and tried to kill Paul repeatedly.   Yet he mentions his love for his Hebrew brothers too many times to believe he harbored any anger.  Whoever was to blame, whoever hurt him, I’m confident Paul forgave and allowed Jesus to shoulder the anger.

I want to take a moment to highlight forgiveness, because our inability to forgive is a giant open door to Satan.  The tricky thing here is that we’ve often become so accustomed to carrying the burden of anger, that we can easily become numb to it.  And if we do admit we’re hanging on to anger, it’s because we believe the lie that it benefits us in some way.  From my own personal experience, it’s been like peeling an onion.  With every layer I discover something new that requires my forgiveness.  I have even begun praying that God would reveal these things to me despite the pain I go through, so that I actively forgive, let it go, and heal.  Like any rehabilitation or therapy, the healing process is painful and must be endured to reach the strength and freedom on the other side.   Embrace it like you would embrace Jesus.

DON’T STOP THE WORK

So Paul’s story is not unlike ours.  He ultimately sang the song that God prepared for him.  He’s prepared a song for each of us to sing.  We look around at our life and our direction and maybe we don’t see the results we’re looking for, or maybe we’re not doing the work we’d like to be doing, but we must keep moving forward.  We just might be in our three-year gap, preparing for the purpose he’s designed.  We need to place our expectancy in God alone.  God spoke to Zechariah after the Jews returned to Jerusalem from Babylon.  Remember, they’d stopped their work on the Temple and God wanted to encourage them to keep moving forward.

Do not despise the small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin. (Zechariah 4:10 NLT)

So if you haven’t begun your work, begin.

God’s Truth in Pictures: ACTS 8

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ACTS 8

Acts Chapter 8 opens up with the aftermath of Stephen’s stoning, and a great wave of persecution flows over the Christians in Jerusalem.  It happens just as Jesus predicted.  He told them they would suffer persecution and that they would preach to all the nations, but I’m guessing they had no idea one would come as a result of the other.  Christians were either hunted and dragged from their homes, or they fled and scattered into Samaria and the surrounding region.  My question is this.  If Jesus told them to preach among all the nations, why did they stay in Jerusalem so long?  Why didn’t they immediately start spreading the gospel into the region?   In fact, during this wave of persecution, most of the Apostles stayed and did not flee.  To understand their probable frame of mind, and to see how Jesus laid the foundation for the remaining passages in Acts, we are going to continue exploring the various aspects of the heavenly and earthly economies.

THE OLD COVENANT

Looking back on the Old Covenant, which was originally made with Abraham and confirmed with King David, it promised descendents uncountable and a kingdom unending.  God intended the Old Covenant, provided for the earthly economy, to serve as a picture that would reveal its spiritual reality in heavenly economy.  Here on earth we see Israel set apart from other nations, with their own laws and customs.  To be counted among this community of believers, regardless of lineage, one had to submit to their laws and customs, and remain exclusive.  Most notable among their laws were circumcision and sacrifices.  On the surface it might appear that keeping the law is the picture we’re supposed to grasp, but it’s not The Apostle Paul in the New Testament is very clear that circumcision of the heart, not the physical procedure, is what really matters to God.  And we can be sure that God was no different in the Old Testament.  He didn’t suddenly change his mind when Paul came around.   By looking at I Samuel 16, when Samuel anointed David as the new king of Israel, both Jesse and Samuel were confused because David’s brothers appeared more kingly than David.  And God responds,

The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them.  People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (I Samuel 16:7 NLT)

Note that God said this while the Old Covenant law was heading to its height in glory.

If the picture of the Old Covenant isn’t about appearances, works for salvation, or salvation by lineage, then what is the picture we are supposed to see?  Without providing and exhaustive list, first God wanted the world to see that his heavenly community is indeed unique and set above human standards, so he made the earthly Hebrew community unique and set apart.  Second, his heavenly community, upon entering by faith, one is made holy and stripped of his sin, so God provided circumcision to symbolize this stripping.  And third, the heavenly community is indeed exclusive, but exclusive of sin, so God required Israel to exclude the sinning nations to symbolize his heavenly purity.  God chose the picture of the Old Covenant in the earthly economy to demonstrate his truth in the heavenly economy.

OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW

The pinnacle of this picture and the ultimate fulfillment of the Old Covenant is Messiah.  Israel greatly anticipated Messiah who would reign as king and establish his forever Kingdom.  Jesus began his ministry by methodically fulfilling every single prophecy, and he told his disciples,

Don’t go the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but only to the people of Israel – God’s lost sheep. (Matthew 10:5 NLT)  

Interestingly, during this same period of time, what did Jesus do?   He headed through Samaria and stopped at a well to offer salvation to a Samaritan woman.  Seems like a huge contradiction, but it’s not if you can discern his actions by the appropriate economy.  To complete the picture of the Old Covenant with Israel, the gift of Messiah would be offered to Israel and only Israel.  So the disciples were sent to complete this picture for the earthly economy.  Jesus on the other hand was offering salvation to the Samaritan woman, because he was operating in the heavenly economy, outside of the earthly pictures and covenants.  He is not constrained by these earthly pictures and this earthly economy.  His heavenly economy supersedes all else.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Jesus knows he’s close to revealing the full picture of the heavenly economy, so he continues to lay the foundation through additional symbols during his ministry.  Let’s look at a few of those nuggets.  First in Mark 6:30 is the account of the feeding of the five thousand.  Jesus blesses the bread and fish, and it results in twelve leftover baskets of food.  There are actually quite a few symbols embedded here, but I want to look at just one, which is the number twelve.  The number twelve has always corresponded to government and Israel, or the Old Covenant.  There were twelve tribes in Israel and twelve disciples, and virtually every artistic artifact in the Temple came in twelve’s.  These twelve baskets of food symbolize the Bread of Life being offered to Israel.  This miracle actually occurs in Galilee, just north of Samaria.

[Just a quick history of these people.  After King Solomon died, there was a huge dissent among the people as they fought over the throne, and the ten tribes of the north split from the tribes of Benjamin and Judah in the South.  Each with their own king, they became known as Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  These northern tribes had wandered so far from God that they were carried off by the Assyrians much earlier than Judah.  The people living in this territory at the time of Jesus were Israelites who had intermarried with the Assyrians and mixed the sacred practices of God with pagan rituals.  This was of course terrible which is why the Jews hated these people so much.]

The Feeding of the Four Thousand

Look now at Mark 8:1-10, they’ve crossed the Sea of Galilee and continue ministering.  This is the account of the feeding of the four thousand.  After blessing the loaves of bread and fish, they ended up with seven baskets of leftover food.  The symbol here is the number seven which has always corresponded to the idea of completion and perfection.  God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh.  What it means here is that the Bread of Life will also be offered beyond Judah, a world with Gentiles, bringing his picture of salvation to completion and perfection.  Mark says that the disciples did not understand the significance of these feeding miracles.  Their hearts were still hardened to the truth.

Jesus was introducing the New Covenant to the world through pictures and symbols.  But because the Apostles didn’t entirely understand this after he ascended, they were anxiously awaiting for his return to establish his earthly kingdom in Jerusalem – a fulfillment of the Old Covenant.  They probably assumed that they would be preaching to all the nations under Jesus’ earthly rule.  I assume the disciples stayed in Jerusalem when the persecution heightened because they didn’t want to miss Jesus’s glorious return.

ISRAEL REJECTS MESSIAH & USHERS IN THE NEW COVENANT

Let’s revisit Acts chapter 6 from our study last week.  We run into the issue of food and feeding again.  In Acts 6 the early church finds that the widows who were Greek were not getting fed.  So the twelve apostles appoint seven men to administer the feeding program.  Coincidence?  Probably not.  God’s picture for the earthly economy is on the verge of evolving, from Israel and the Old Covenant to the Gentiles and the New Covenant, and he provides these symbols as confirmation.  What happens right after the seven were chosen?  Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin.  If you remember, Moses was rejected not once, but twice.  First, by the Hebrews while he was still living in Egypt, and again after they left, when they refused God’s oracles and turned back to the pagan Egyptian gods.  This picture of Moses was fulfilled when the Sanhedrin rejected Christ first by arresting and crucifying him.  And again by rejecting Stephen’s offer of Christ and stoning him.  So in Chapter 8 we see the beginnings of the Gospel going out into all the nations.

“It’s kind of like a Christmas present holding the name of one particular child.  Only the name bearer can open it.  However, once it’s opened, all the children will get to play with it.” –Dr. James R. Roberts II, 2014

Philip flees to Samaria, and the Samaritans readily receive the gift!  The Apostles in Jerusalem get wind of this, and immediately send Peter and John to investigate.  They must have been a little wary of the reports, still operating within the parameters of the Old Covenant.  Under the Old Covenant anyone joining the community of believers converted to the Jewish customs.  The Apostles were opening the Christmas present marked for the Jews.

This group of Samaritan believers experienced a delay in the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, the sign of tongues.  Many scholars believe this was for the benefit of Peter and John.  God was in all likelihood proving to Peter and John his hand over those believers.  This was a pretty dramatic departure from the Old Covenant standards, and these very good Jewish men would be hesitant to do so without a heavenly sign.  I say likely because the scriptures don’t explicitly explain the delay of the Holy Spirit.  Based on Paul’s later writings, we know the Holy Spirit will enter us immediately upon our belief, yet it’s delayed in Acts 8.  There could be other legitimate reasons for the delay, so however God is leading our understanding, it would be wise to do so with a holy uncertainty.

IS THE NEW COVENANT REALLY NEW?

Is the New Covenant really new?  Yes and no.  It is new here in the earthly economy.  God’s choice of picture for his people changes from the old to the new.  However, the scriptures indicate that salvation for the Gentiles is really not a new thing for God in his heavenly economy.  This has been the way of it all along, but he’s dramatically modifying his pictures in the earthly economy to reveal it.  You only have to remember the story of Jonah, under the Old Covenant, to see his acceptance of all people.  Jonah was instructed to go to Nineveh and preach, and he did not want to go.  They were despicable, non-Jews and Jonah had been thoroughly trained to exclude himself from these people.  But God wanted his salvation message sent anyway.  He was asking Jonah to operate under the heavenly economy for a moment.  And they received it of all things!  Jesus, again laying the foundation for the New Covenant, says,

The people of Nineveh will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah.  Now someone greater than Jonah is here – but you refuse to repent.  (Luke 10:32 NLT)

Earlier I asked the question, why weren’t the apostles already spreading the gospel message around the region when Stephen was stoned?   We see it is likely wrapped in their misunderstanding of God’s plan and purpose for the Old Covenant.  However, I am not at all implying they were not following God’s will.

It is in fact beautiful to see how Jesus weaves all these pictures and symbols, even their state of mind, into the spreading of the Gospel to all the nations.  For me, having an understanding of God’s heavenly economy and our earthly economy has made the scriptures easier to understand.  It helps explain what appears to be contradiction through the scriptures.  If you still find it confusing, please don’t worry and don’t give up.  Everything fell into place exactly the way it was supposed to fall back then, and the same is true today.  We can totally trust God to use our messy lives and our misunderstandings to weave a beautiful and compelling story of his love and provision.

My thoughts for Acts 8 is largely academics today, but it’s important to know that he wants our hearts more than he wants us to be correct academically.  He wants to fill us with his Spirit so that he can give us understanding and allow us to live out a life of heaven on earth.  When we make knowing him front and center, the pieces do fall exactly the way they should as they did for the Apostles.  So if you don’t understand this right now, just know you can trust him.

A Tale of Two Economies: ACTS 6-7

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ACTS 6 & 7

I love Stephen in Acts 7.  His connection to the Holy Spirit stirs within me a desire to go deeper.  I believe the Spirit has prompted me to go deep with you today.     I pray that we would receive Stephen’s kind of Spirit-filling, with wisdom and understanding.  Stephen’s sermon to the Sanhedrin is long and strong, although not without a couple of questions.

The first question: why is Stephen recounting Israel’s religious history to a group of scholars who are extremely well versed on these matters?  Why doesn’t he just skip to the last paragraph where he calls them out?  Of course the council knows all the details of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, so I had to assume that he wasn’t giving this sermon to freshen their memory.   There had to be messages within the story, but what were they?

Stephen’s accusers charged him with speaking against the Temple, so he addresses this too.  Near the end of his sermon Stephen recounts the establishment of the Tabernacle and the Temple and goes on to say,

However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands.  As the prophet says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool.”  (Acts 7:48-49 NLT)

The second question: why exactly did God direct them to build the Temple in the first place, only to virtually dissolve it later?  Written of the prophet Haggai in the Old Testament, God was admonishing the Israelites for neglecting the work on the Temple.  Why would he do this if it were not sacred and significant?

TWO ECONOMIES

To fully answer this you need to have an understanding of the difference between God’s heavenly economy and our earthly economy in which we currently live.  And before we do that, we should define the word economy so that we are all on the same page.  There is quite and array of uses for this word, and we mostly hear it used on the news when referring to the stock market and the state of our country’s financial health.  But this is only one indicator of an economy.

I searched the definition and went back to the original Greek.  The term economy is derived from the Greek word oikonomos, which is defined as one who manages a household.  (Merriam-Webster)  As I see it, the term economy is the sum of all decisions being made for the overall welfare of a community.  There are financial, political, religious, and cultural implications aroused from those decisions, and the result is an economy.  Another economical term, which I will also reference, is currency.  We often think of currency in terms of dollars, but it is essentially anything we are willing to pay or sacrifice in order to receive something of value in return, and is directly related to the type of economy in operation.

God’s heavenly economy exists outside of, and above, the world we know, and it’s there where God has his throne.  Jesus tells his disciples that he goes there to prepare a place for them, and he spends the majority of his earthly ministry teaching the concepts of heavenly currency.  Love your enemy. (Mt. 5:44) Turn the other cheek.  (Mt. 5:39)  The first will be last and the last will be first. (Mt. 19:30)  Blessed are those who mourn. (Mt. 5:4)  Blessed are the meek. (Mt. 5:5)  This currency goes against the grain of our earthly currency.  Paul says in Romans 14:7, “The Kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteous, peace and joy.”

Throughout history God has been laying the framework- through story- to depict the spiritual reality of heaven.  He’s been giving us pictures, like the Temple, so that we will recognize and ultimately receive the only connection and conduit between these two economies, Jesus.

In the article on Acts 5, I mentioned the different ages where God introduced a new aspect of relationship with him.  He introduced the Law of Moses after Israel was freed from Egypt.  He then introduced the Promised Land after they wandered in the desert for 40 years.  And after that, the Temple and the age of the Prophets.  Embedded within these ages is a vast array of pictures revealing God’s spiritual reality.  His purpose for each of these pictures was two-fold: 1) to aid us in our relationship with Him while we traverse the earthly economy, and 2) to give us a glimpse and hope for our future in the heavenly economy.  Like the pattern we discovered last week with Ananias and Sapphira, these pictures from the Law and the Temple are meant to emphasize the centrality of God, not to become objects of our affection.  Let’s look more deeply into Stephen’s sermon

WE NEED SALVATION

Stephen emphasizes salvation.  First and foremost, an understanding of this heavenly economy is of little importance if we don’t receive our salvation from Jesus.  He is the conduit between the heavenly and the earthly; the only way we can access the eternal.  Stephen demonstrates God’s provision for salvation, by going through the scriptures the council knows intimately.  He reveals a pattern that is hard to miss.  The council’s ancestors, the patriarchs of Israel, rejected Joseph.  Joseph suffered and later rose to a position of power and authority and then offered a way of salvation from the famine plaguing the land.   Moses, too, was rejected by his Hebrew brethren and later returned in a position of power and authority and offered a way of salvation from their slavery.  Can you see the picture of Christ in each of these examples?  Christ was rejected by the council, he suffered and died, rose again, and is now seated at the right hand of God.  He offers a way of salvation.

The heavens are separate and distinct from the earth where we live.  However, because of Christ and his immense love for us, the heavenly can join the earthly, almost like a settling, dense fog.   When Moses ascended to the top of Mt. Sinai to meet with God or when God would descend on the Tabernacle, it describes the scene as filling with a heavy smoke.  If it weren’t for stories and pictures like these, we might miss it.  And some still do.  While God’s plan for our earthly economy has evolved throughout time, from the old covenant to the new covenant, each plan and picture has pointed to God’s heavenly economy, which is constant and unchanging.

A HOLY TENSION

The Apostle Paul had an experience where he was caught up to what he called the 3rd heaven, and it altered him permanently. (II Cor. 12:1-10) It gave him perspective that’s not readily available considering our human limitations.  Although he wasn’t permitted to share everything he experienced, Paul doesn’t shy away from the fact that there’s a holy tension that resides within the believer.  We are living in a world where we do not belong.  Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 4:20), but we are to continue living as good citizens here on earth, paying our taxes and being kind to our neighbors. (Rom. 13:6-10)  Tension.  It’s perfectly fine to eat meat, but don’t eat meat if it causes someone to stumble. (I Cor. 8)  Tension.  Everything is permissible but not everything is profitable. (I Cor. 6:12)  TensionIt results from operating in an earthly economy with the currency of the heavenly.  Tension from living with the hope of a promise that we won’t receive in this world apart from Christ’s second coming.

Stephen mentions Abraham in his sermon.  Abraham was given a promise of land and progeny, and he had faith in this promise despite the fact that he and his wife were barren.  Stephen is sure to point out that he never received the full promise in his lifetime, and in fact neither did the next three generations of descendents (the patriarchs of Israel).   We don’t know whether or not Abraham was given a glimpse of the eternal that God had already created, but we know from the Apostle Paul that this promise to Abraham included much more than earthly descendents and a small plot of land we call Israel.  Paul says we are grafted into the seed of Abraham.  The covenant with Abraham was binding for Israel in both economies, even though Abraham didn’t get to see it during his lifetime.

DO WE HAVE TO WAIT FOR HEAVEN?

I’ll raise the obvious question.  Like Abraham, do we have to wait for our promise of heaven?  Yes and no.  Once again, tension.  Paul says in Romans, all of creation groans to be made full with Christ. (II Cor. 5:2)  And that is our promise, that one day we will be reunited and clothed with Christ in heaven.  Because sin entered the world through Adam in the Garden of Eden, it brought about a curse upon all of creation.  So, on this side of heaven we are limited in our ability to absolutely remain in Christ.  However, God does not intend for us to resign ourselves to misery under this curse of sin.   Jesus has made a way for both economies to work together.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NLT)

Answer this, what is the definition of eternal life?  The concept of eternal life was not widely discussed during the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth.  The Sadducees in fact did not believe in any type of resurrection, so there was not a prevailing understanding of this term to mean life after death.   Jesus uses this term eternal life multiple times in John as he teaches, but it’s not until the 17th chapter of John that he provides a definition.

Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.  (John 17:3 NIV, emphasis added) 

Wait…what?  He didn’t say, “Now this is eternal life: my people will go to heaven if they trust in me?”

Follow me for a minute.  The scriptures are clear for all believers that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.  (II Cor. 5:8)  As soon as we die, we will join the Lord.  Will there be any barriers at all to knowing Christ when we are present with him in heaven?  No.  The curse of this world will be removed and we will know him fully!  But there’s more.  Can we know him now?  Yes, most definitely, yes!  Knowing him is eternal life, and when we seek to know him, we can experience eternal life now.  I’ve been on this quest for years and I am convinced we don’t have to wait until we die.  This, my friends, is the holy grail!  When we know him deeply and intimately, we ARE abiding in him, and what does that mean?  If you’ve been following my articles on Acts, you’ll know the answer.  It means we are plugged in and filled with the Holy Spirit, Christ IN us, the conduit to the eternal economy.  Righteousness, peace and joy

Stephen glowed with the fullness of the Holy Spirit.  His eyes were opened and he could see that heavenly kingdom.  I think there is every indication that he was experiencing some of heaven even while being stoned.  Peter rejoiced at the opportunity to suffer his lashes for the sake of Christ.  These are of course very dramatic renditions of what we will likely experience, but honestly Stephen and Peter were normal people like the rest of us.  They lived out their purpose.  When we are living out our purpose, plugged in and filled with the Holy Spirit, who’s to say what God will or will not do?  When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are connected to that heavenly economy.

The Sanhedrin missed this.  They focused their attention on this world and placed their affections on the Law and the Temple, the pictures of God, and not on God himself.  The scary thing is…it’s easy to do.  Are we inappropriately wedded to the doctrine and symbols and rituals of our faith?  Are we placing our affections on the practice itself rather than allowing the practice to usher us into his presence?   Let’s not miss the opportunity to experience Heaven on Earth.