God’s Favor: Smack Dab In The Middle: Lesson 29

ACTS 28

The book of Acts ends rather abruptly in chapter 28, almost like a high-five that goes unnoticed, leaving the high-fiver hanging. A little awkward. Generally speaking I’m not happy with an unfinished story. I don’t like unanswered questions and mysteries that go unsolved. I’m the kind of person that will read the third book of a trilogy, even if I hate it, just to complete it. True story. I’ll keep the unused bag that matches the suitcase, just so I don’t break up the set. The ending of Acts has bothered me for years because it felt fractured, begging to have the remaining pieces of the story added. However, I saw something beautiful develop in chapter 28 this week that made me realize it was the perfect ending.

At the beginning of this study, we anticipated a few banner themes to emerge this year: evangelism, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, unity, persecution, hardship, and grace. Chapter 28 seems to wrap them up nicely into a picture of the compounding effect of God’s favor through each of these themes. God’s favor for the faithful is clearly demonstrated in this final chapter.

Luke says they were immediately welcomed onto the island of Malta where they landed after the shipwreck. The chief official for the island was kind and hospitable. Paul healed this man’s ailing father as well as many others on the island. They were showered with honors and were supplied with all their needs when they set sail for Rome after three months. They had several additional stops from there, and it was in Puteoli, The Forum and The Three Taverns on the outskirts of Rome, where believers came to meet Paul and offer their hospitality. As Paul was moving closer to Rome, it wouldn’t be shocking if he was slightly apprehensive, and Luke says these believers encouraged him.

When Paul saw them, he was encouraged and thanked God. (Acts 28:15b)

When Paul finally arrived in Rome he was given private lodging, lived at his own expense, had many visitors, and continued boldly preaching the Kingdom. No one tried to stop him. Paul is still a prisoner, yet the favor of God compounds in his life. If we can see God’s favor growing for Paul, can we see it in our own lives? What can we learn from this?

WHAT IS FAVOR?

As defined by Merriam Webster favor is a kind or helpful act that you do for someone. It’s gaining approval, support, or popularity. It’s maintaining a preference for a person or group over another. Bill Johnson, senior pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, CA, in an article entitled The Real Meaning of Favor says this,

While the Greek and Hebrew words translated favor in Scripture include these definitions, there is a deeper dimension to the Greek word for favor: charis. Almost everywhere in the New Testament, this word is translated ‘grace.’ Grace (and favor) is essentially a gift. (Johnson, Bill. The Real Meaning of Favor. charismamag.org, 2013)

Seeing the favor of God on Paul through the lens of grace puts a slightly different spin on this passage.

WHERE DOES FAVOR BEGIN?

Our first experience with the Father’s unmerited gift of grace occurs at the point of our salvation. His favor is poured upon us through his son’s shed blood, when we believe.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Paul’s first experience with God’s favor was on the road to Damascus when he met Jesus. He certainly didn’t earn this favor because Jesus said to him in that moment, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) But we see Paul do something. He responds. He humbles and surrenders himself. He releases his grip on his will and his life.

Who remembers the 20-year-old commercials for Nestea? These commercials famously depicted delighted consumers, drinking a glass of tea, and then freefalling backwards into a pool of water. The Nestea Plunge is exactly how I picture God’s grace when we humble ourselves and surrender to him. We freefall and become immersed in his favor. We Let Go and Let God. Interestingly it’s also pictured in immersion baptism.

HOW DOES FAVOR GROW?

As amazing and wonderful as his favor of salvation is, it doesn’t end there.   Bill Johnson goes on to say,

“This unmerited favor includes not only being forgiven of sin but also receiving access to the very presence of God in the same way Jesus has access to Him.”(Johnson, Bill. The Real Meaning of Favor. charismamag.org, 2013)

So it begins with salvation and it then grows in his abiding presence. This is what you call a responsive relationship. When we abide and produce fruit from the Holy Spirit, that is the additional favor and grace.

In Luke 19:11 we find the Parable of the Ten Servants. The story goes like this: A nobleman goes on a journey to be crowned king in a far away land, and before he leaves he calls his servants together and splits ten pounds of silver between them. He instructs them to invest it while he’s away. When he returns, they provide him with an update. The first was invested and earned ten times the amount. The next was invested and earned five times the amount. To them both, the king responds positively and provides them with more.

“Well done!” the king exclaimed, “You are a good servant. You have been faithful with the little I entrusted to you, so you will be governor of ten cities as your reward.” (Luke 19:17)

The third says,

“Master, I hid your money and kept it safe. I was afraid because you are a hard man to deal with, taking what isn’t yours and harvesting crops you didn’t plant.” To which the king replied, “You wicked servant!…Your own words condemn you…Why didn’t you deposit my money in the bank? At least I could have gotten some interest on it.” (Luke 19:20-23)

Each of us has been given a measure of favor and grace at the point of conversion. Like the parable, we can invest it or hide it. While we are positioned in his abiding presence, the Spirit will compel us to move, i.e. to make an investment. Each time we faithfully respond and follow, his favor grows.

What we see in Acts 28 is this cycle of growth. Paul has faithfully responded to the Spirit’s prompting for at least 20 years and this favor has grown. In Malta, God’s favor flows through Paul to the people on the island who are in a position to receive that grace. God’s grace and favor then flows through the people back to Paul in honor, hospitality, and supplies for the remainder of their trip. God’s grace and favor didn’t eliminate or prevent his unlawful imprisonment, but rather flowed through those around Paul, people who had received Paul’s investment, like the believers in Puteoli, The Forum, and The Three Taverns. The grace that flowed from God through Paul, touching the lives of the Roman soldiers, flowed back through them to Paul as the Roman government assigned him to private living quarters, allowing him to live peaceably.

WHERE IS MY FAVOR?

Each of us is smack dab in the middle of God’s grace. Do you have eyes to see it? Because you can’t respond to God’s gift if you don’t have eyes to see it and ears to hear Him. These too, eyes to see and ears to hear, are gifts that he wants to bestow. Simply ask.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there were the-glass-is-half-empty curmudgeons in the traveling party with Paul. There’s a curmudgeon almost everywhere. If this was indeed true, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t fully see God’s gifts on this journey. They wouldn’t have seen the generosity of the Maltans, only a three-month delay. When they boarded another ship, fully supplied, they would have seen a small ship, fearing the supplies would never last. When they arrived on land in Puteoli, they wouldn’t have seen the blessing of hospitality from the locals, but only a dreaded voyage over land to Rome.

Do you feel like you’ve missed out on his favor? Do you look at others around you and think God favors them more? You are still smack dab in the middle of God’s favor. Respond. Bill Johnson also says in his article,

“While God loves everyone the same, not everyone has the same measure of favor. Yet everyone is positioned to increase in favor if each one of us effectively stewards what we have. In other words, when we seek His face with the favor we have, we increase in favor itself.” (Johnson, Bill. The Real Meaning of Favor. charismamag.org, 2013)

Sink deep into God’s grace, allowing the cycle of favor to spring into motion. Note: pursuing God’s favor isn’t the answer. Pursing God’s presence is. Engaging in a responsive relationship is what builds favor, grace, and deep meaning in your life. Most of us want our lives to count for something. We want to leave a legacy. Paul’s favor grew because he responded to the Holy Spirit and the legacy that remained is still working thousands of years later.

We stand in awe of the early church, amazed at their unity and resilient suffering, boldly sharing the gospel in the face of danger. How did they do it? We wonder. I wish we could have some of that power now, we say. The cycle of favor that was available to them is available now. Everything we’ve discussed this year in the book of Acts lies waiting in God’s favor/grace. Engage in a responsive relationship and watch it grow.

When It Goes From Bad To Worse: Lesson #28

Acts 27

Just when you think it can’t get any worse…it does. Who hasn’t felt that way at some point? Luke describes their journey from Caesarea to Rome in Acts 27, and it’s filled with emotion as what should have been a relatively simple trek turned into a life and death battle at sea when they head directly into the perfect storm. I inserted myself into the story while reading the text, and imagined the kind of fear that would come upon me as I observed the crew no longer trying to steer the ship.

The sailors couldn’t turn the ship into the wind, so they gave up and let it run before the gale. (Acts 27:15)

How scary to see them tying ropes around the hull, just to keep it from coming apart, and watching helplessly as all the cargo gets thrown overboard. The mission of this ship becomes less and less important as the hours drag into days that then turns into weeks. I’m feeling it with them, hopeless. Are you feeling it too?

The terrible storm raged for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone. (Acts 27:20 emphasis added)

Now imagine that those two weeks of absolute terror and loss could have all been avoided if those in charge had just listened to you. How would you feel? Paul could see all the warning signs of the storm season and had warned the ship’s captain and owner not to sail.   He said he could see a shipwreck, loss of cargo, and danger to life. But the traveling window for the season was closing and the ship’s commanders didn’t want to be stuck in Fair Havens for the entire winter, so they gambled and ignored Paul, to everyone’s detriment. Paul responds.

Finally, Paul called the crew together and said, “Men, you should have listened to me in the first place and not left Crete. You would have avoided all this damage and loss. But take courage! None of you will lose your lives, even though the ship will go down. For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me, and he said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar! What’s more, God in his goodness has granted safety to everyone sailing with you.’ So take courage! For I believe God. It will be just as he said. But we will be shipwrecked on an island.” (Acts 27:21b-26)

When things don’t go the way they should, like this example, where do you allow your attitude and outlook to drift? Do you let it “run the gale” or do you shift it into the best position? I see a theme developing in chapter 27 of trust and love. As I see it, when things don’t go the way they should, we have the option to hold a grudge and become disengaged or to trust and love.

OUR OPTIONS TO TRUST AND LOVE

Trust God’s PROMISE

Through the tumult of wherever we find ourselves, we have the option to trust God’s promises. Although Paul may have seized the opportunity for a little “I told you so” in his speech to the crew, I believe more that Paul was emphasizing his words could be trusted. His words were from a God that was beyond him. They had ignored him once already and he wanted the people to trust his words now. Paul said, “For I believe God. It will be just as he said.” (Acts 27:25)

We have a multitude of promises from scripture at our disposal. We can choose to trust those promises or try to take matters into our own hands. In this passage, we see that shortly after Paul shared God’s promise of survival, the sailors on the boat didn’t trust it. They were caught trying to abandon ship in the lifeboat as they neared land. But before judging these sailors, consider how often we do the exact same thing.

The kind of faith required for trusting God’s promises as Paul said he did, comes from God himself. God told Paul he would preach the Good News in Rome at least two years earlier when he was first arrested (Acts 23), and Paul understood that he would make it to Rome one way or another. But that didn’t keep the angel from reinforcing this word, “Don’t be afraid, Paul, for you will surely stand trial before Caesar!” We see evidence right here of God providing Paul with the faith necessary to continue trusting his promise. God is so faithful to do that for us.

Trust God’s PURPOSE

We have the option to trust God’s purpose regardless of the plan. At this point in Paul’s life he is all too accustomed to disruptions in the plan. He has learned to maintain a healthy flexibility required for the ebb and flow that is certain in God’s story. Scripture tells us that God weaves everything together to work toward his purpose, even if it doesn’t look like the plan we had in our mind. (I’ll talk about loving God’s plan in just a minute.)

A two-week storm, resulting in a completely smashed up ship and stranded on a relatively remote island, would certainly cause me to lose sight of the big picture. But here’s the thing – God’s big picture has as much to do with the journey itself than it does the destination. I am confident Paul understood this truth (even if he needed an angel to encourage him). This shipwreck was used to demonstrate God’s sovereign power to save lives as much, if not more, than would be demonstrated in Rome. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I would have become a believer before that ship sunk.

Love God’s PERSPECTIVE

We have the option to love in all things. We don’t always have eyes to see, but we can always ask for those eyes and to love God’s perspective. Throughout my years I have found myself most frustrated when I felt strong conviction about something, but couldn’t garner a following. I have been known to allow my frustration to grow to the point where my obsession with the truth would overcome my love for it. There is a difference.

Ears to hear and eyes to see – both are gifts from the Lord (Prov 20:12)

God had given Paul the gift to see the future danger and damage that would occur if they continued sailing from Fair Havens. Paul’s love for God’s perspective moved him to share the warning, but he didn’t obsess over it by nagging them repeatedly and allowing it to overshadow their relationship. He allowed space for God to show himself.

The others didn’t have eyes to see because their eyes were clouded with various fears and worries. Can you remember a time in your life when you didn’t have eyes to see and ears to hear? To be sure, there has been a time in ALL our lives when we’ve been there, and we still are on some level. When God chooses to bless us with the gift of sight and hearing, we can love it, share it with those around us, and continue to love it even when it goes unheeded.

Love God’s PEOPLE

We have the option to love the people around us. I am struck with Paul’s ability to love and encourage everyone aboard the ship. Because he didn’t fall victim to obsession over his correctness, he didn’t open himself to the anger that often follows. Anger tends to isolate while building emotional walls of protection, but Paul prioritized those relationships over his correctness and offered great love.

Just as day was dawning, Paul urged everyone to eat. “You have been so worried that you haven’t touched food for two weeks,” he said. “Please eat something now for your own good. For not a hair of your heads will perish.” Then he took some bread, gave thanks to God before them all, and broke off a piece and ate it. Then everyone was encouraged and began to eat – all 276 of us who were on board. (Acts 27:33-37)

When I read this passage, I can totally feel the collective deep breath they all took as they ate. They were encouraged.

Love God’s PLAN

We always have the option to love God’s plan. Very recently I found myself in a situation that I did not like at all, and since I had not been given eyes to see God’s perspective, I was pushing for a plan that was not in line with God’s plan at all. One afternoon, God opened my ears to hear him. He said, “Love where I have placed you and serve.” My situation didn’t change much after that, but my attitude did. I chose the option to love his plan even though I wouldn’t have chosen it.

We see Paul doing the exact same thing here. God’s plan at this point included Paul, not only being shipwrecked on an island, but to be in chains and imprisoned. Paul chose to love where God had placed him and serve. Just before the ship was completely shredded off the coast of Malta, the soldiers wanted to kill all the prisoners so they wouldn’t escape. Julius, the commanding officer, disallowed this plan because he wanted to keep Paul safe. Paul wasn’t going to escape; he loved God’s plan more although I’m confident he wouldn’t have chosen it.

GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY

Let’s face it; the comfort of control and the feeling of “getting a handle on things” lures even the most seasoned of believers. So often have I said with my mouth, God is in control, but deep down I doubt as I mentally calculate my next move. Our control is an illusion. God really is in control.

Recognizing his sovereignty is all about our internal attitude adjustment. And please pardon the cliché, attitude affects everything. It’s not that we won’t make a next move, it’s that we are willing to wait for God to tell us the next move. A life like Paul’s, which was a life filled with power, purpose, and promise, requires the right attitude.

Things may not be going the way they should because someone didn’t listen to you. Things may not be going the way they should because you didn’t listen to someone else. If you find yourself in this place right now, ask God to give you eyes to see and ears to hear. Ask him to help you trust his promise and his purpose. Ask him to help you love his perspective, his people, and his plan. Because, you see, it’s going to all work out.   It will, whether or not we choose these options. Choosing these options is less about the choice itself and more about positioning yourself. If you steer into the wind (the Holy Spirit is described like wind in Acts 2), you are positioned to then enter His presence, to be IN HIM. And that’s really what this is all about.

So take courage. For I believe God. It will be just as he said. (Acts 27:25)

The “If Only” Regret: ACTS 25-26

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ACTS 25 & 26

After two years of imprisonment, we find ourselves in yet another trial and hearing for the Apostle Paul. He’s heard first by Festus, the newly appointed Roman governor over Judea, and then again by King Agrippa, the Jewish king subject to Roman authority. Every time I read these chapters I find myself getting emotionally rattled by the very last verse in chapter 26,

And Agrippa said to Festus, “He could have been set free if he hadn’t appealed to Caesar.” (Acts 26:32 NLT)

Upon reading those words I immediately start wishing Paul hadn’t appealed to Caesar. IF ONLY he’d waited A FEW MORE DAYS for King Agrippa and he could have been free!

Let’s back up. The whole reason Paul appealed to Caesar in the first place was to intercede the political maneuvering that had kept him wrongly imprisoned for two years already. Paul could see that Festus wanted to placate the Jewish leaders like Felix who preceded him. Festus was downright perplexed by Paul’s case. Although he could see that Paul hadn’t actually broken any Roman laws worthy of imprisonment or death, these Hebrew religious laws were confusing and obviously causing an extreme emotional reaction among the Jewish leaders.

The last thing this Roman governor needed was a riot on his hands. Loud and unhappy Jews was more of a reflection on his leadership style than anything else, so negotiating with local leaders and keeping order brought benefit to both sides.

Then Festus, wanting to please the Jews, asked him, “Are you willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial before me there?” (Acts 25:9 NLT)

Paul was aware of his rights as a Roman citizen and wasn’t going to watch his trial get hijacked by politics again, risking an ambush as he travelled. He appealed to Caesar. A few days later King Agrippa arrived, and being Jewish, he was very familiar with the religious laws, the teachings of the prophets, and cultural customs. Festus asked him to hear Paul’s defense and offer an opinion. When all was said and done, everyone agreed that Paul was innocent.

By this point Paul had been forced to defend himself before his accusers multiple times, and it occurred to me, we are essentially no different. Our accuser, Satan, is routinely reviving memories from our past to accuse and condemn us. We naturally move to defend ourselves in a number of different ways, most of them ineffective. Paul’s defense is spiritually victorious, although from here on out his physical freedom was not the focus; he chose a wise defense and claimed spiritual freedom.

A DEFEATED DEFENSE

Four defeated defenses come to my mind as I reflect on my own life, because I have employed them all too often: building an emotional wall defense, the fight or flight defense, the penitent defense, and the “if only” defense.

I began building emotional walls to defend myself from the Accuser at a young age. It began in earnest when my church and Christian community at one point hurt me, and I determined they were too flawed for my continued participation. I isolated myself from anyone who looked like those people.  I kept them outside my fresh wall, and during this time I questioned virtually everything I’d been taught. I made many poor choices, and inevitably armed my accuser with more ammunition.

So when the Accuser showed up to condemn me for my choices, I would employ the flight or fight defense. Flight. When I ran away, I would run to the behavior I knew wasn’t right but provided a temporary respite.  Fight.  And when I would fight it would be against the people I blamed for my situation in the first place.  “They’re the ones who hurt me.”  Each time shifting focus away from myself and building my fresh wall a little higher.

When the guilt and shame hurled from my Accuser became too much to bear, I would employ the penitent defense. This is when I would confess and apologize for all those choices, living in a puddle of regret. I would confess them over and over because my Accuser wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t claim the freedom that comes from true repentance because I was too busy emotionally punishing myself, fending off my Accuser, and building my wall even higher.

And then I naturally resorted to the “if only” defense, where I would spend an inordinate amount of time rehashing every choice I’d made, imagining the alternative with a spectacular future, and rolling myself deeper into guilt behind a very tall wall.  The safety of this wall was such a farce; its only provision was deep isolation, fear, and depression.

SLIDING DOORS & IF ONLY

If only Paul hadn’t appealed to Caesar, he could be free! I am reminded of the 1998 movie Sliding Doors starring Gwyneth Paltrow. In this movie, the main character, Helen, gets fired from her job and comes home early. The movie tracks two different alternatives for her life: 1) she boards the early train and gets home in time to discover her boyfriend cheating with another woman; 2) she barely misses the early train, she’s mugged and taken to the hospital, and arrives home oblivious to her boyfriend’s infidelity. The viewer observes these two parallel universes and begins to form an opinion as to which alternative is the better life. The twist at the end is that neither life track actually proves a clearly better alternative. And this is the truth for anyone stuck in the IF ONLY regret.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. (Rom 8:28 NLT)

Let’s take a minute and consider a hypothetical universe where Paul does not appeal to Caesar and stands before King Agrippa. In this scenario we should recognize that without an appeal to Caesar, all the heated pressure from the Jewish leaders would have continued looming heavily in that room. Wouldn’t they have still held a desire to please the Jews? Paul appealing to Caesar was, in all likelihood, the best outcome for these rulers. It absolved them from having to make a decision and deal with repercussions either way. How easy for King Agrippa to say Paul could have had his freedom, when he bore no responsibility or authority whatsoever in Paul’s release. Had they freed Paul, knowing full well his imprisonment was wrongful, it would have ignited a hotbed of tempers in the region. And ain’t nobody got time for that!

Here’s the other thing: God had given Paul his word earlier that he would testify of Christ in Rome. So truly, no matter the alternative, he was going to Rome.

Years ago, very early in my career, I was offered a relatively low-level position to go work for an executive who was leaving my company for the competition. I debated for days over the wisdom of leaving so soon and not showing a tenured track record. So I declined. My co-worker eagerly took the position and was named Vice President in less than two years. I kicked my self repeatedly for not seizing it first, and I imagined what my life would have looked like had I taken it. But in the end, God called me to write, teach, and speak his truth, and this “if only” alternative doesn’t change that calling. Whether my career went this way or that, God was taking me to “Rome.”

A SOUND DEFENSE

When the Accuser comes calling, the best defense is truth. The REAL truth, not the half-truth Satan so masterfully manipulates to confuse us.

And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. (Rom 5:9 NLT)

With faith in Jesus we stand before him completely blameless and this is the truth.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds are you healed. (I Peter 2:24 NLT)

Payment for our sins has already been made. Allow God to heal you from painful memories so that they can leave you. We are not subject to our own punishment nor our Accuser’s and this is the truth.

For the word of the Lord holds true, and we can trust everything he does. (Psalm 33:4 NLT)

God’s word is true regardless of what the Accuser says. If God says we are pure, we are pure. If God says we have a purpose, we have a purpose.   If God says walk this way, we obey because his way is always good. Know that God’s call on your life will bring you to “Rome” and you can trust him.

DEFEND THE BATTLEGROUND

With a sound defense, we can defend.  Our mind is the primary battleground for Satan, and we must claim that territory in Jesus’ name, because that’s half the battle. I’ve often become so accustomed to accusatory and condemning thoughts that I no longer realize they’ve been assuaging me for days, or even years on end. A great example of this: For years, I would stand in front of the mirror and hear, “You are so fat. You’re just too ugly to wear these clothes. You’ll never look good enough.” It actually became very normal for me. Be still. What exactly are you listening to? If it’s condemning, you can be sure it’s not from God. My God never talks to me that way, and he will never talk to you that way.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7 NLT)

Don’t Worry But Pray

Paul provides a great little guide in Philippians for breaking the Accuser’s battle plan. Anytime we start to feel anxious, immediately turn the thought into a positive prayer. Was your thought triggered by something? Did you resurrect a painful memory, a destructive image, or an unhealthy belief or fear? Pray over each one.

Thank God

Thank God for all he has done. There is always something for which to be thankful, in even the most dire of situations. With my diagnosis of Graves Disease, which is not dire in the least, gratitude was difficult me.  It’s very difficult to be thankful when wrapped in anxiety.  But I prayed over my worries, and I began to see God’s hand. He brought me to a good doctor. I finally received a diagnosis after years of suffering. And he availed a medicine that can help. Trust God to show you all he has done for you, and then thank him.

Expect Peace

The peace that results is a promise. It will protect the battleground of your mind. And remember, this promise comes with a life lived IN CHRIST.  This phrase is placed at the very end of those verses in Philippians. (For more on what IN CHRIST means, click here.)  When we are IN CHRIST, all the fruit of the Spirit flows through us, and peace is a fruit!

So much of what we face on a daily basis, results from wounds that remain unhealed and eventually exploited by our enemy. If we allow God to heal us, each wound in turn, we can then rest behind true and faithful defenses. A wall that is holy and perfect and sure.

As the mountain surrounds Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, both now and forever. (Psalm 125:2 NLT)

This was Paul’s defense.  A healed Church, a holy Church, a Church standing IN CHRIST, defended by walls he has forged in heaven, is unstoppable.

If Every Christian Did This…ACTS 24

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ACTS 24

Paul stands trial before Governor Felix in Acts 24. After the Jewish leaders make their case, he responds in his defense. The passage says he responded “gladly” or “cheerfully” and it’s obvious he’s confident. Here’s a man who’s been wrongly accused with multiple lies and wrongly imprisoned, which for anyone would be angering, but for a passionate and spirited person like Paul, I could easily see him bringing down the roof with a hot-headed offensive aimed toward the corrupt. (I kind of wanted to see that!)  Yet we don’t see that from the context of this passage. He’s cheerful and in all likelihood cool and calm, though no doubt he speaks with as much strength and passion as ever.

Later in this chapter we see Paul unjustly imprisoned for at least two years. Felix doesn’t want to make a decision on the case and release him; he’s hoping for a bribe. And when that doesn’t happen, he continues to hold Paul captive with hopes to bargain among the Jewish leaders politically. Felix calls for Paul over and over to talk with him. While Paul had to be frustrated knowing there was little hope for his release, we see Paul faithfully continue to witness and teach. His circumstance doesn’t appear to drive his feelings or his will. He faithfully stays the course for his purpose.

When I find myself in a deep, dark trial (maybe I’m in the deepest one yet or maybe it’s my one-millionth trial in the last two years and I’m weary), am I staying the course like Paul? Am I doing it with cheer, joy, and confidence? Before we discuss the “how to” we must first adress the “what.”

TRIALS HAVE A PURPOSE

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you have to endure many trials for a little while. These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold – though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world. (IPeter 1:6-7 NLT)

Peter is very clear here. Trials have purpose in our lives and they are for our own benefit. We are being tested and purified as gold through fire. The result on the other side of the fire is something far more precious and glorifying. And while we benefit personally, Peter says the world actually benefits from our trials too. Like God pulled Israel aside, tested her in the wilderness for 40 years and cleared her of many impurities with the purpose of making his name famous among the nations, God’s purpose for us is the same. He will consecrate and purify us making his name known among the nations.

GOD HAS A PURPOSE

God actually has a gigantic story that he’s been writing for ages and he uses the purpose of trials to work into his overall purpose. Every single detail in each of our complicated lives plays a part in this story.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.  (Romans 8:28 NLT)

God has a purpose. God has a story whether we willingly jump into it or not. His purposes are layered and multi-faceted, and he reveals some of them to us and not others until the proper time. God purposes all events in the world to reach the world and make himself known to the world. Yet the world never comes at the cost of the individual because his purpose is to make himself known to you. Any sort of love and wisdom and gift he lavishes on me takes nothing away from you, which is difficult to fathom in a world of finite resources. Each of us is the most important person in the world. He’s crazy that way.

I HAVE A PURPOSE

Trials have purpose which work into God’s overall purpose and actually activate my purpose. My purpose is to know God and to make him known. To know God, and I mean really know him intimately, also means that I am with him. And even more…that I am IN HIM. We’ve seen the phrase in Him, in Christ, in the Lord, so many times in our scriptures we don’t often notice it, but it’s highly significant.

Always be full of joy in the Lord, I say it again – rejoice! (Phil 4:4 NLT emphasis mine)

If we have joy for the Lord, that is a wonderful thing. If we have joy with the Lord, that is also a wonderful thing. However in my experience, when I am joyful for the Lord and with the Lord, my joy comes from within me and tends to be fleeting as soon as circumstance upsets the status quo. I might try to remember my fleeting joy during a trial, I might try to haul it back like a deep-sea fisherman fighting a Bluefin Tuna, but when that joy comes from me, I only have so much power to wield it. However when I am joyful in the Lord, it comes from a far greater power with true sustainability, even when circumstance rears its ugly head.

We all have a universal God-given purpose of remaining IN HIM. And as believers we utterly miss out on our unique God-given purpose if we do not seek this primary purpose. It’s when I am IN HIM that I hear his soft and subtle voice, see the things that not everyone else sees, and learn the specific steps he wants me to take. I feel compelled to take these steps even when they seem scary or crazy.

WHAT IS ABIDING IN CHRIST?

Some of you may remember this story, but a number of years ago my church was going through the book of Ephesians. During this time of study I learned the difference between spiritual blessings, spiritual gifts, and spiritual fruit. As a believer I possess ALL spiritual blessings whether or not I choose to claim them. They’re mine whether or not I realize how they impact me. And because I have a purpose in Christ, he has gifted me for my purpose. I don’t choose my gifts; he chooses them for my discovery. And my spiritual fruit is completely different from the other two. They are promised albeit conditional.

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5 NLT)

Spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace ,patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control) result from remaining IN HIM. Abiding IN HIM. When you are connected to The Vine all this fruit comes pouring out of you. And it’s not just one or two, it’s all of them.

Paul’s disposition during his trial and throughout his entire imprisonment came from an intimate and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. We can claim this for our lives too.

HOW CAN I ABIDE IN CHRIST?

As I have grown in God’s presence over the years I have learned that there are four primary components that facilitate an abiding, intimate relationship with the Lord: God’s Word through scripture, prayer, meditation, and worship.

God’s Word

Initially I sought an abiding relationship with Jesus through scripture reading. It’s a fantastic way to spend time with God and to know him, because he reveals himself consistently through his word in unexpected ways. Anytime I sit down with my Bible I have no idea what’s in store for me and I find it exhilarating. His word has convicted me of sin so often that I’ve stopped counting. His word has given me insights into troubling questions in my life. His word has given me direction, giving me confidence to move forward.

Prayer

After I began a regular time of reading God’s word, I then intentionally added prayer to my practice. Prayer is an incredibly effective way to spend time with God, which is why it’s mentioned in scripture everywhere. However, one common misunderstanding of prayer consistently looms. Some think that its purpose is primarily to request things that you want or need. While God loves to lavish us with both physical and spiritual blessings, and scripture indicates that he does want us to ask him for things. Since he already knows what we need and want, then what exactly is the purpose? When we go to him in prayer we are positioning ourselves IN HIM enabling us to hear him, respond to him, and to be readied for his blessings in whatever form they come. We ask for things, but we are often not ready to receive them. Prayer can modify that.

Meditation

Meditation is a practice of intentionally placing all thoughts on things above. Think on things in the heavenly realms, and all the heavenly perfection that lies in wait, for long stretches of time. Easily done through song, meditation might also include prayer or scripture recitation, but regardless of the form it takes, the purpose is to not be distracted by the things going on in the world around. I’d like to say this was easy, but in reality (I have a three-year-old at home) this is probably the hardest for me.

Worship

I saved worship for last because it is at the heart of it all. This was made clear to me several years ago, during a time of great suffering. I was in the midst of a difficult circumstance and I found myself in one moment feeling particularly desperate and angry and so frustrated that I thought I might jump out of my skin and attack anyone close. I immediately knew I was not abiding in Christ, because there was not a single bit of fruit evident in that moment.

But I had been reading my Bible every day, I had been journaling my prayers daily, I had even increased my bible memorization. I had even started reading Christian non-fiction, which I had not done before.  I screamed out in accusation, “Lord, I am TRYING to abide in you! Why aren’t you abiding in me?!!”  Y’all, God is so faithful. His response was swift and firm, yet gentle. “That’s because YOU are trying to abide in me. You can’t abide in me unless you abide in me.”   Whoa…wait…what?

In other words he said, “Girl, there you go again trying create one of your formulas.  You can’t manipulate me.  You can’t just sit down and read your bible and get my power.  You can’t just start praying and get my power. It won’t work.  I actually want you IN ME to tap into my power!”

Worship is the essence of all our abiding practices. It indicates the condition and placement of your heart and mind. Are you reading your Bible to check it off your “to do” list? Are you praying and just going through the motions as you drift off to sleep?

When you read your Bible, worship. When you pray, worship. When you meditate, worship. All of these practices usher us into the holy of holies, directly into his presence. Do you know what happened to everyone who came into the presence of the Lord in the Old Testament? They dropped to their knees and trembled, and most of the time they had to be reassured in their fear. The only appropriate response in the Lord’s presence is a drop-to-your-knees kind of worship.

WHY SHOULD I ABIDE IN CHRIST?

We study Acts and observe Paul’s life. We marvel at all he accomplished and praise God for it. Then we turn around and do the dishes, fold the laundry, and pick the kids up from school. Should there be more? I promise, if you set out to discover an abiding relationship with the Lord, the ordinary will no longer look and feel ordinary. The laundry won’t disappear, but God will begin to do an extraordinary work within you and through you and indeed his name will be made known among the nations.

Take one minute to consider if every single Christian were to harness the power that comes from abiding in Christ. What did you see? Abide in him. Do it because it’s your purpose. Do it because it will change the world.

The Power of Submission: ACTS 23

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ACTS 23

My dear Aunt Doris passed away and entered Glory on Easter morning 2015. I am sure she was thrilled to go on such a magnificent day.  She was 94 years old and lived the vast majority of those years with her every waking and sleeping moment fixed on Jesus. She was all about the work of the Lord with nary a hesitation in her mind’s eye. If she ever doubted, questioned, or wondered about her purpose, we would have never known it. That was kept between her and her Creator.

So there I was with my family at church for the Easter service on Sunday, reminiscing on my Aunt Doris and her sisters, Sue and Jane (my grandmother). I began thinking about death and resurrection in a very personal way. Easter is the single most significant holiday we celebrate. It’s the crux of our faith. Without the power of the resurrection, we are simply wasting our time as Christians, and we’re merely defined by the good works we set about and fail to keep. Without the resurrection we are reduced to bunch who keep our fingers crossed.

I don’t know about you, but as a child raised in a Christian home, I’ve heard the Easter service message at least 40 times in mostly the same way, with the exception of a few remarkable messages. I have often left the service thinking, “so where exactly is this power in the resurrection? I don’t really see it.” It’s not that I didn’t believe it was true or that there wasn’t power in raising Jesus from the dead, I just never really saw it applied. There are many families who choose not to attend church services on a regular basis, and if they do maybe only for Christmas and Easter. Are they asking the same question? Those of you who fall into this category, what did you think of your Easter service this year? Did it move you to change? Did you feel called to alter the constructs of the life you’ve been living? If you did, did you have any idea what to do next? Or does the power of the resurrection seem like some nebulous churchy word we use?

I am compelled to discuss the resurrection today. There are too many reasons not too, one of them jumping out at us from our passage in Acts 23.

Paul realized that some members of the high council were Sadducees and some were Pharisees, so he shouted, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, as were my ancestors! And I am on trial because my hope is in the resurrection of the dead!” (Acts 23:6 NLT emphasis mine)

POWER OF THE RESURRECTION

On the Monday after Easter, I anxiously awaited the funeral plans for my Aunt Doris, since I knew I’d have to work around a busy schedule to attend. I missed my Aunt Sue’s funeral three years earlier and it’s been nearly ten years since my grandmother passed away. I was determined to make this funeral. So when I began to feel God nudging me to stay home instead, I maneuvered into negotiation mode. “Lord,” I said. “Maybe I wasn’t clear in my first prayer.  Let’s try this again. Please let me know your will, but work out my circumstances so that I can go.” After three attempts and an outside confirmation of his word, I resorted to tears for the rest of the day.  BUT my eyes were opened to what needed to be seen.

My tears and my loss go back to my grandmother whom I loved with my whole heart. When I was with her as a very young girl, I felt like the most important person in the world. Considering the five other grandchildren in competition with me, I can honestly say, we ALL felt like the most important person to her. Even my bitter battles with my brother seemed to cease at her home, and I felt a kind of freedom. It was like heaven.   So if I’m honest, my desire to be at these funerals and to be with the people who loved and knew her, was to grasp a final thread of connection to my grandmother and that feeling of heaven.

Jesus spoke to my heart that afternoon when he reassured me that my final thread to heaven was through HIM, not a funeral, not an aunt, not my grandmother, nor anything else I could hope to find. This, my friends, is the true essence of the power of the resurrection. Because of the resurrection, we have access to all of Jesus and all his glory right now. When Jesus prays for us before his arrest he says,

Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. (John17:24 NLT emphasis mine)

Christ is my thread to heaven and he wants me to be with him where he is. While I would adore the comfort of my extended family and to provide comfort for them, I’m pretty sure my Aunt Doris would encourage me to stay put and write this weekly Bible study.

THE POWER OF SUBMISSION

The real power of the resurrection comes from and through submission to his will. Ugh, submission is for sure a loaded word for this girl here, an admitted product of the feminist movement and proponent of its many accomplishments.  And without digressing into another subject, I’ve resisted the idea of submission over the years because of the historical, gross misuse and abuse of its power.  And let’s admit it, there is power in submission.  We usually think of in the context of giving away our power, but it doesn’t always work like that.

If you want the power of the resurrection in your life you must submit to the cross. That’s exactly why we have the picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine. (Luke 22:42 NLT)

Luke goes on to say that an angel came down to strengthen Jesus. Because of his submission to his Father’s will, he is not only greeted and filled with strength and power in that moment to move forward, he is catapulted to release power for the whole world. While we might think we are free from submission in this life if we choose, we are not. The truth is that we all submit to something and glean what comes from it.

Now let’s look at Peter.  I like Peter.  He’s only one of the few greats whose humanity is completely splayed for everyone to see. He’s one of those people who has a good heart who can’t help but jump ahead of God with his great plans only to be reigned in, that is…when he’s not lagging at a distance denying he even knows God.  He makes me feel normal.  Today we’ll look at three things Peter submitted to before he finally submitted to the cross.

PETER SUBMITS TO FEAR

During the Last Supper Jesus foretells of Peter’s denial.

Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32 NLT)

Jesus tells Peter he will deny him three times, signaled by the crow of a rooster.  When Peter denies Christ for the third time, hears the cock crow, and meets eyes with Jesus, he knows he’s failed. He submitted to fear of the cost to following Jesus.  So he flees and weeps bitterly. I’m going to go out on a limb and postulate that this is when Satan began the serious sifting. Tormenting him with thoughts like, “You’ll never be good enough. How could God love you? You don’t even want to admit you know him. You said you wouldn’t deny him, but you did. And three times at that. You’re such a failure. You’re not good enough to be his disciple. You can’t walk this path. You just need to go back to fishing, it’s easier.”

PETER SUBMITS TO DEFEAT AND FAILURE

In John 21 we see Jesus appearing to seven of the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. John records this as the third time he’s made an appearance and Peter is back out fishing. Three years earlier, when they met, Jesus asked Peter to leave behind fishing and follow him. But now we see him fishing again.

When he realizes the man on the shore is Jesus he jumps in and swims to shore. Jesus cooks them all breakfast and then pulls aside to ask Peter,

“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15 NLT)

Notice he uses the name Simon this time. Peter means rock, but his original name means shifty, like sand. Jesus is addressing the Old Man still lurking in Peter. He asks him this same question, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” three times. By the third time, Peter’s feelings are hurt.  He’s face to face with his deep-seated thoughts. Superficial answers won’t cut it.

Is it possible he’s still tormenting himself over his thrice denial of Jesus and that’s really the source of the pain? Could it be that he’s only hearing roosters in his ears by this point? Could it be that he is so focused on the first part of Jesus’ prediction in Luke 22 that he is not at all considering the second half to be true, “So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers?”

After the third query, Jesus says to Peter,

“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hand, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19 NLT)

The very next verse we see Peter’s response.

PETER SUBMITS TO COMPARISON AND COMPETITION

Peter turned around and saw behind them the disciple Jesus loved – the one who had leaned over to Jesus during supper and asked, “Lord, who will betray you?” Peter asked Jesus, “What about him, Lord?”

Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” (John 21:20-23 NLT)

Peter, quite frankly, is in a struggle that we all go through. Are we going to let our fear of what the cross looks like overrule our lives? Are we going to remain stuck in our past and allow Satan to sift us with tormenting thoughts of our failures and inadequacies, keeping us frozen in place? Are we going to focus on building a life based on everyone around us and allow comparison and competition to dominate our decisions? Or are we going to look at the cross, see the power and grace it beholds, embrace it, submit to it, carry it, and follow him?

There is a power that comes through submission, and that power will wield according to the object of our submission. When we die to self, we are then buried in His will for our lives, and we are then raised to new life with all of his power and glory.

FOLLOW ME

We know the outcome for Peter. He chose to follow Jesus and to submit to the “cross,” and was used by God for great glory, with thousands coming to Christ as a result. We see Paul in Acts 23 submitting to the “cross.” He’s imprisoned for God’s great glory and some of his best writings come from prison.

I was sharing Paul’s story with my son this week, and he asked me if we are all going to have to endure that kind of persecution. How did he know what I, myself, was asking? My Aunt Doris and her entire generation was spared largely from the kind of persecution the early church endured and that of Christians in other parts of the world. I, too, have been spared from this. That’s not to say I haven’t suffered in life, nor have I escaped ridicule as a witness for Christ, but it certainly isn’t martyrdom.

I responded by simply saying that I didn’t know. However, what I do know is that I can trust his will and my submission transforms into His glory and people in turn know Him. It’s none of my business how others play into the plan.  Jesus simply says, “Follow me.”

We’ve Got Work to Do: ACTS 22

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ACTS 22

The street in Jerusalem had been swept with silence, settling firmly on the thick layer of hatred. Paul was preparing to speak. Like any good speaker, Paul included the three essentials: 1) an opening, which included details of his background to grab their attention and make a personal connection, 2) the main body of his message, the account of his conversion, and the reason behind his life’s work, and 3) a conclusion, God’s ultimate purpose to pursue the entire world outside of Israel.

At first I didn’t know what to write this week. This passage seems pretty straightforward. After I prayed, I felt compelled to look back at the life of Jesus because I kept being drawn back to the moment when Jesus was presented to the Sanhedrin after his arrest. I can almost smell the air now, heavy with the exact same brand of hatred that surrounded Paul. I began to see a theme developing as stories from Jesus’ life were virtually dropped in my lap over the past few days, bringing depth and texture to this passage. It’s a theme of working until the very end.

THE WORK WILL NOT BE STOPPED

One of the first things we see Jesus do as he begins his official ministry was to return home to Nazareth. Up to now things were going pretty well for Jesus.

“Reports about him spread quickly through the whole region. He taught regularly in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.” (Luke 4:14b-15 NLT)

Then he enters Nazareth and attends synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and tells the congregation the scripture they just heard has been fulfilled that very day!

Everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by the gracious words that came from his lips, “How can this be?” they asked. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

Then he said, “You will undoubtedly quote me this proverb; Physician, heal yourself’ – meaning do miracles here in your hometown like those you did in Capernaum. But I tell you the truth; no prophet is accepted in his own hometown.

“Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner – a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.”

When they heard this, the people in the synagogue were furious. Jumping up, they mobbed him and forced him to the edge of the hill on which the town was built. They intended to push him over the cliff, but he passed right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:22-30 NLT)

Can you see the parallels between this speech and Paul’s? He includes an opening that grabs their attention and attempts to make a personal connection, a hometown boy, reading scriptures with authority. The main body of his message is the passage of Isaiah itself. Like the body of Paul’s message, it contains the reason behind his life’s work, “…the captives will be released…the blind will see…the oppressed will be set free” (Luke 4:18) And finally he concludes with God’s plan to pursue the entire world outside of Israel by resurrecting the examples of Elijah and Elisha. He compares the people of Nazareth to the hard heartedness of ancient Israel. And they knew it! Although still veiled in a modicum of mystery, Jesus was telling them of his plan to save the Gentiles even as Israel rejects him.

Like Paul’s enemies, they wanted to kill him, to push him off a cliff no less. I love this part of the story, “but he passed right through the crowd and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30) Did the crowd part like the Red Sea to let him pass?   Did he pull some invisible-miracle-thing where he just walked right through them like a ghost? All we know for sure is that it wasn’t his time to die. He still had work to do.

And it wasn’t Paul’s time to die in Jerusalem. He appealed to a higher authority, and with the basis of his Roman citizenship, he was spared for another day. Paul still had work to do. We all still have work to do!

THE WORK WILL BE COMPLETED

I brought glory to you here on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, bring me into the glory we shared before the world began. -Jesus (John 17:4-5 NLT)

But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus – the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God. -Apostle Paul (Acts 20:24 NLT)

In hindsight, we can make easy sense of determining the completed purpose of Jesus and Paul. It’s not difficult to see that Jesus’ purpose was to fulfill every single prophecy and picture of himself. And then to see that Paul’s purpose was to take those pictures and explain them to the world. And because we see it so easily now, we might be tempted to think that it was super easy for them to see and do the work while in the middle of it. Okay, so Jesus had the advantage of a sinless nature that Paul and the rest of us cannot claim; however I’m not so sure he would say that it was easy.

Jesus and Paul completed their work beautifully not because they found it easy, but because they were filled with the Holy Spirit. When Jesus was born human, he did so by leaving the glory of heaven. He left behind many of his heavenly attributes like omnipresence, and omniscience, to name a few. He depended on the Holy Spirit to maintain a solid connection with his father to access his power and strength and insight. Because he was sinless, his Holy Spirit connection never faltered like it does with us, but nevertheless it was as vital for him as it is for us.

In his own words, recorded in the Book of John, Jesus articulates our purpose as he prays to the Father shortly before his arrest,

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.

I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me, and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began! (John 17:20-24)

Our purpose is to remain in Christ, to see his glory, and to show the whole world so that they might know him too. If you are muddled in the haze of what this work tangibly looks like for you, go back to your primary purpose, which is to remain in Him. It is while we are in Him, in the Spirit, abiding in Christ, connected to the vine that we are positioned to see his glory and understand the work.

THE WORK IS ENHANCED BY OUR PAST

In Steven Furtick’s message, in his series The Genius of Jesus, he referenced the story of Jesus healing the lame man by the pool in John 5. This man had been paralyzed for 38 years. I’ve been struggling with a chronic illness myself for just a couple of years, and I’m amazed at how it has overwhelmed my thoughts. I just can’t imagine 38 years. No doubt his illness spoke doom over his heart and mind constantly. So much so, that when Jesus asked him, “Would you like to get well?” (John 5:6) he didn’t say yes. He had doomed himself to the point where he couldn’t really hear Jesus. Don’t we all do that? The man responds by saying, “I can’t sir…I have no one to put me into the pool…”

Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” (John 5:8 NLT)

Jesus told him to pick up his mat, knowing full well it exceeded the weight one could legally carry on a Sabbath. And of course the man was immediately called out for breaking the law. There are a litany of reasons why Jesus would instruct him in this way, but let’s consider that the mat was purposed as a symbol of this man’s past. We so often speak of putting our past behind us, and moving on, because God has redeemed our painful past.  We are all too eager to forget it and name it irrelevant.

It is indeed true that God has redeemed our past, however our past is an intimate part of our story. It’s something we carry with us, albeit unburdened. We are to work our past, not let our past work us.

In this passage of Acts we see Paul’s “mat” when he tells the Jewish audience in the streets that he formerly hunted and killed Christians. We see his “mat” when he recounts that he held the coats of those who stoned Stephen. Paul didn’t let that mat keep him stranded by the pool, but he rolled it up and worked it.

After Jesus told this man to get up, take his mat and walk, he later found him in the Temple and advised him to turn from sinning lest anything worse happen. (John 5:14) Jesus had healed him physically, but he’s essentially saying, “Man, if you don’t allow me to heal you emotionally too and carry the burden of the mat, that mat is going to become too heavy for you to carry and it will work you all the way back to the pool.”

ARE YOU ABOUT THE WORK OF YOUR FATHER?

If you are lying on a mat, stranded, thinking you are indefinitely stuck, so stuck that you can’t even hear God ask you if you want to be healed, so focused on your circumstance that you can’t hear God speaking into your life right now, in the quiet of your heart, surrender your will into his and simply seek to be with him. The man on the mat was so focused on the pool, his will was to get into that pool.  So focused and distracted on his own will he didn’t see God’s will to heal him right there on the mat.

“Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began.” (John 17:24 NLT)

If you’re hungry for that kind of intimacy with God, pray for it and keep on praying for it. Seek it and keep on seeking it. Then, when the time is right, he’ll ask you to take up your mat and start working it.

Israel’s Burden: ACTS 21

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ACTS 21

We are nearing the end of our study in Acts as we head into chapter 21. In this chapter we see the Apostle Paul wrap up his travels as he approaches Jerusalem. Over and over his friends beg him not to go to Jerusalem, because the Holy Spirit had imparted in every city, knowledge of Paul’s future imprisonment. However, their pleadings did not waver Paul’s confidence in the will of God.   Imprisonment would fulfill his assignment.

When he arrives in Jerusalem, he quickly joins James and the elders of the Jerusalem church. The elders make him aware that there’s quite a controversy over him and his teachings. These Jewish Christians are very zealous for the law and believe Paul has been encouraging Jews throughout the region to abandon Moses and the law. To arrest any further controversy they suggest that Paul join a few other brothers in a purification ritual to prepare for sacrifices in the Temple. Paul does not seem to hesitate, and it’s during these activities that Paul is arrested.

We’ve seen a pattern in Paul’s ministry as we’ve studied Acts this year. In every town he visits, he goes first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles. And he himself admits to this intentional strategy when he writes his letter to the Romans.

We also see him adamantly oppose Judaizers in Antioch, who follow his trail, attempting to persuade Gentile believers to adopt circumcision and other Mosaic practices. He vehemently argues, before the Jerusalem Council, his wishes not to burden the Gentile believers with these customs. He admits the Jews, likewise, couldn’t carry the burden, but yet he doesn’t ever make a case for the Jewish believers to be unburdened.

When he writes his letters to the Romans and Galatians, he’s quite clear that there’s no difference between the Jew and the Greek (Gal 3:28) and that even the Gentiles have been grafted into the branches of Abraham, receiving the full inheritance promised to Abraham. (Rom 11:17)

So why does Paul seem to make a distinction between Israel and the rest of the world on one hand, and on the other say there’s no difference? I’m sorry there’s no super simple answer, but it relates directly to how God manages his heavenly household and how he manages his earthly household. Seemingly disparate, but wholly congruent. Let’s start with understanding Israel.

ISRAEL FROM PERSON TO NATION

Israel is a man, Jacob, one of the patriarchs of the Hebrews. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel during his life’s journey, and his 12 sons would become the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel. When Jacob moved down to Egypt to survive the intense regional famine, it was with his family of 70, which grew into a nation during their time in Egypt. The actual number of people during the exodus from Egypt is of some debate with some scholars estimating it to be as much at 2 million and some as little as 50,000. (More info here at The Prophecy Society)

God made a covenant with Israel, before Israel the nation ever officially existed, when he promised Abraham descendants that would outnumber the stars in the sky and the sands in the sea. He set Israel apart as a nation when he brought them out of Egypt. He gave them laws and practices that were drastically different from the surrounding nations and he resided WITH them to show the world his abiding presence. So while he set Israel apart as holy, it was never merely about Israel; it has always been about the world. I’ve nursed the idea most of my life that Israel was something quite special and therefore on a level above me. But that’s not true; God pulled Israel aside to show me a picture of himself so that I might know him. Every detail from Israel’s history to her social structure was to be a picture of the heart of God and his purpose for those who love him. The pictures we see in Israel are almost countless, so I will only elaborate on a few today.

THE PICTURES THROUGH ISRAEL

POWER TO SAVE

God demonstrated his power through Israel from crippling plagues in Egypt, to the parting of the Red Sea, to his provisions for Israel in the desert. God told Pharaoh that he could have wiped Egypt off the face of the earth in an instant, but chose to spare them.

“But I have spared you for a purpose – to show you my power and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” (Ex 9:16 NLT)

And indeed his fame spread. By the time Israel arrived at Jericho, the nations of Canaan were shaking in their boots.   Rahab said,

“We are all afraid of you…For we have heard how the Lord made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt…For the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below.” (Josh 2:9b-11 NLT)

I believe the Lord became Rahab’s God in that moment. Not only did God have the power to save Israel, he had the power to save the rest of the world by working through Israel.

The ultimate demonstration of his power to save, through Israel, was when he sent his son, born a Jew, to die and save the world.

PURE AND PERFECT HOLINESS

God’s perfection and sinless nature is both comforting and confusing at the same time. I love that God is perfect because I know I can trust him completely. Yet at the same time I have struggled to understand him over the years, because, honestly, so much of scripture seems to contradict itself.   The lack of reconciliation in my mind subtly built a silent bias within my heart.

First he makes a covenant with Israel (which he promises not to break), but then he burns with anger over their sin and threatens to destroy them on a regular basis while they wander the desert, and seems to only calm down when Moses pleads with him “to come off the ledge.” If he’s a God of love, why so much anger, and judgment through death? Why does he tell Israel to have absolutely nothing to do with the other nations around them if he loves the rest of the world so much?

You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them.  Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, no shall you take their daughters for your sons… But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire. (Deuteronomy 7:2b-5 NLT)

The fact is that God uses every one of these stories and every instruction to provide a very clear picture of holiness.  There can be no sin in or with God.

For you are a holy people to the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 7:6a NLT)

Holiness is not a standard that is of human derivation, nor is it something we can ever hope to attain within ourselves. All throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers we see God establish a crazy amount of rules and regulations around life and worship to give us a glimpse of the impossible standard. Did the priests actually achieve perfection by wearing the holy garments and cleansing in the baths? No, of course not. But we needed a picture of the priests so that we would one day recognize the perfect High Priest in Christ.

I have three children, seven years old and under. A couple of years ago I thought I’d try to teach grace more effectively, so as to spare them from the pain and agony of coming out from under all the rules and regulations of Christianity. You see, I spent a lot of years “working” for God’s approval and I didn’t want my kids to go through that. But you know what? They just cannot understand it. They lack the maturity to understand. When they’re little, they need to simply be taught the rules of living; rewarded for following the rules and punished when they don’t. Paul puts it this way in Galatians,

“The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith.  And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.” (Gal 3:24b-25 NLT)

Maturity comes through the discipline of the law, and each and every one of us needs to understand holiness before we can truly understand God’s grace. There’s really no way around it.

GOD’S DESIRE FOR OUR HEART

It’s easy to see the law of the Old Testament and think that God’s primary concern was that Israel keep the letter of the law. After all, Moses tells them over and over and over to keep the law. But really, God has always been interested in our heart first and foremost. That’s confirmed by the fact that he saved Rahab in Jericho before she ever kept a single Hebrew law. And also by the fact that he befriended Abraham centuries ahead of the law.

There’s a beautiful exchange between Moses and God in Exodus 33. It shows God’s heart for Moses himself, and additionally for each of us whose heart is humble like Moses.

One day Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Take these people up to the Promised Land.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me. You have told me, ‘I know you by name and I look favorably on you.’ If it is true that you look favorably on me, let me know your ways so that I may understand you more fully and continue to enjoy your favor. And remember that this nation is your very own people.”

The Lord replied, “I will personally go with you, Moses, and I will give you rest – everything will be fine for you.”

Then Moses said, “If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place. How will anyone know that you look favorably on me – on me and on your people – if you don’t go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all other people on the earth.”

The Lord replied to Moses, “I will indeed do what you have asked, for I look favorably on you, and know you by name.”

Moses responded, “Then show me your glorious presence.”

The Lord replied, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name, Yahweh, before you. For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.” (Exodus 33:12-19 NLT)

Now read that section of scripture again and replace Moses’ name with your own. This is the character of our God. This was our God in the Old Testament and this is our God today.

BACK TO PAUL

When the Apostle Paul told the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus,” he is representing God’s view, and how God has always viewed humanity. (Gal 3:28) His purpose for separating Israel was to provide a picture of his power, holiness, and desire for us.

Paul understood God’s Old Testament pictures. He also understood God was introducing grace through a new picture of Jesus on the cross. For a while, Paul maintained a distinction between Israel and the Gentiles by going to the Jew first in every city, and by undergoing the purification rituals in Jerusalem to validate, fulfill, and complete these pictures even as they faded into the background.  Paul didn’t request that Israel be unburdened immediately, because Israel shouldered the burden to prove Christ to the world.

As for all the pictures God has provided through Paul’s life…well, that’s for another day.

To Live Is Christ: ACTS 20

Photostock Acts

ACTS 20

Last week we discussed opposition, as we observed the Apostle Paul’s life; how we are guaranteed to face it. (click here to see last week’s post.) There is plenty of scripture admonishing followers of Christ in their expectations of an “easy” life, reinforcing the idea that we will experience suffering and opposition. And considering that each one of us defines “easy” through the lens of our own personal experience, I’d be surprised–a believer in Jesus or not– if anyone truthfully said they’ve lived a completely easy life. Hence the phrase, “Life sucks and then you die.”  I’ve literally heard Christians say (ahem, and may have been guilty of saying it myself with deep sighing), “Life is hard.  If I can just get through this life, when I die I’ll finally reach my glory with Christ in heaven.” For those of us who view life through the context of faith in Christ, this is what marks the Christ follower apart from others. We have a hope in a perfect afterlife.  But do we have a hope in life?

I want to move into this topic further as we read Acts 20 today. If God is good, and he promises me this amazing future with Him in heaven, why must I struggle in this life? Am I earning my place in heaven first?  Why not take me now? Why shouldn’t I have a suck-it-up mentality and pray for heaven?

And I’ll be honest, I’m also guilty of thinking: when life gets really tough, you sing His praises and tell everyone you’re full of joy, even when you’re not. You see, I have always wondered if that’s what Paul and Silas were doing when they were singing in jail. Because I wasn’t feeling the joy in my suffering, I couldn’t imagine how they were feeling it. So deep down I wondered if they were simply giving us a good example; saying what they were supposed to say. Or maybe I wouldn’t receive that joy until I was thrown in jail too.  Of course I never admitted that to anyone! What would that make me? I did, however, cling to the hope that this kind of joy was true, and that my life would one day reflect it.

In Acts 20 the Apostle Paul is wrapping up his third missionary journey. He’s bound and determined to get back to Jerusalem before the festival of Pentecost. On his way he stops to meet with the Ephesian elders and he says,

“And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead. But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus – the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.” (Acts 20:22-24)

There’s actually quite a lot going on in this statement, so we will settle on these verses today.

TO LIVE IS CHRIST

First, I couldn’t help but notice a strong similarity to one of Paul’s statements in the book of Philippians. Philippians was written relatively early in Paul’s imprisonment and he’s contemplating his death.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21 NIV)

Man, this statement has always perplexed me. Is that a typo? To live is Christ? Shouldn’t it say to live as Christ?  At first look, this statement speaks to the Christian struggle in life. Death is better for the believer in many, many ways. Paul expands upon this in the following verses.

“If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil 1:22-24 NIV)

For most of us, while death may be frightening and mysterious, we do ultimately believe (and hope) that to die is gain. That what lies ahead of us is far greater than what this world has to offer. But I think the real question for us today is this, what does ”to live is Christ” really mean? Because, after all, we’re not dead.  If we live out our lives in misery, simply waiting for death, or if we live out our lives focused on our bucket list and accomplishments to make death easier to swallow, that’s not really living.

I’ve actually been attempting to pick apart the phrase, “to live is Christ,”  for several years now. And through my study this week, I feel like Jesus has shown me a few things. While I don’t believe this to be exhaustive, merely scratching the surface, I do believe these three things are significant. To live is Christ, is to live with purpose, to live in worship, and to live one with the Spirit.  I see these three elements in Paul’s statement to the elders in Ephesus.

TO LIVE IS PURPOSE

A life of purpose embodies a life that impacts others in the world around us, not just a life that purely benefits ourselves. It admits that there’s more to life than just us. Another word to use here is mission, or calling.

Many of you are familiar with the term mission statement. In my former life as a health care executive I had the privilege of working with other top-level executives in reviewing our company’s vision statement, mission statement, and goals. The mission statement had to center on the company’s provision of value to the customer and his/her community. It’s likely the company will have a goal of profitability if it has any plans to continue on in the future, but if that goal evolves into its mission, then the company will eventually cease to provide value and will one day become obsolete. A perfect example of this is the phone. Phone manufactures, whose mission was to simply sell phones, became obsolete when Apple redefined its mission as entertainment by introducing the IPhone. Before this, people shopped for the cheapest phone, with the cheapest plan, to perform a mundane task. But when the phone began to provide increasing value, people were willing to spend a whole lot more for a phone, all the while making the ordinary phone almost useless. I don’t even have a land line phone in my home anymore.

Similarly, after Paul surrendered his life to Christ, we see him filled with purpose and mission. It is no longer about Paul and what he might want to do and his profitability, but rather about all the people he meets on his travels. It is all about what Christ calls him to do. He tells the Ephesians his life is worth nothing unless he finishes the work that is assigned to him. Without his mission, his life provides no eternal value, and he will become obsolete.

TO LIVE IS WORSHIP

We were created to worship and commune with God, and worship was central to God’s original creation. Today, a life of worship flows from a completely surrendered life.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul explains true worship this way,

“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.” (Rom 12:1 NLT)

Paul goes on to say in the following verses to the Romans,

“Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Rom 12:2 NLT)

Learning God’s will ties directly back to purpose.  My oldest son, who currently goes to a public school, told me this week that he wished he could go to a private Christian school so that he could be free to worship God. I told him that he can worship God anywhere, that his location and circumstance does not prevent him from worshiping God. When my son offers himself, allowing God to transform his thinking, and resisting the desire to follow the ungodly, he is worshiping God.

As we surrender our thinking to Him, surrender our behavior to Him, and surrender our will to Him, it is a living and holy sacrifice. The Old Testament sacrifices, used for worship, were a picture for us, a foreshadowing of this truth. Any suffering that is encountered along the way is also worship, because we are offering ourselves as Christ did. “To live is Christ.” Paul tells the elders that he foresees jail time and suffering in his future (worship), but he presses onward to complete his purpose like Christ pressed onward to Golgotha to complete his purpose.

TO LIVE IS THE SPIRIT

When Paul is talking with the elders in Ephesus, he begins with the statement, “I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem.” The Spirit is crucial to our walk with God.  The Father, the Son, and his Spirit are inseparable. When we choose Jesus, his Spirit indwells us and we become the living, breathing body of Christ. Christ is alive in heaven and alive on earth through us! His Spirit reveals our purpose, makes true worship even possible, and empowers the phrase, “to live is Christ.”

We see in Romans chapter 7 and 8 that the sin still residing in us, waging war on our minds, is subdued only by the power of the Spirit, making life in Christ a reality. This oneness with the Spirit occurs as we offer our bodies as a sacrifice and surrender to the Lord. It happens as we put one foot in front of the other in faith and in purpose. But we also need his power to do those things.  Purpose, worship, and the Spirit are inextricably connected.

So when Paul says in Philippians that he’s torn between living and dying, that’s why! His life in Christ has purpose, it is full of gratifying worship, and his communion through the Spirit makes his life full of value to the Church. Paul’s spiritual growth was a continuous, cycle of faithful purpose, sacrificial worship, and connection to the Spirit. He is truly living life and at the same time looking forward to death.

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21 NIV)

CALL TO ACTION

“There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death.” (Prov 14:12 NLT)

This verse implies that there’s also a path before each person that leads to life. If you find yourself reciting platitudes of joy and not experiencing the in-prison-singing-praises kind of joy, there’s no judgment here. I understand completely. But I want you to know that there’s more of Him for you. See if you can answer these questions:

  1. Have you asked Christ for more of Him in your situation? Or have you assumed you have it all?
  2. Have you surrendered yourself completely to Him? Or have you kept him out of restricted areas?
  3. Have you been given sight to see what Christ wants you to see? Or do you feel safer keeping your eyes closed?

Now is the time to ask and keep on asking.

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matt 7:7-8)