No One Ever Said It’s Easy: ACTS 19:21-41

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ACTS 19:21-41

I was traveling last week.  NOT the best time of the year, as we’ve all seen the East Coast get hammered with snow for the last six weeks. The day before I departed I closely watched the 5-day forecast for every departure, layover, and destination city I was to visit. Amazingly clear weather in Denver, Boston, Cape Cod, Chicago, Austin, Dallas, and Albuquerque. I was filled with confidence that my plans would go off without a hitch!

My first destination would be Boston with a jaunt to Cape Cod. I had my time planned to the minute so that I could visit with my people as much as possible during my stay and still make my flight up in Boston. Confident there would be no snow, I lingered a minute or two longer until I saw flakes dropping with force. Near blizzard conditions accompanied me all the way to the airport, which resulted in four flight delays, and the odds were not in my favor for making my connection in Chicago. Working with customer service I tried every other airline and alternate city out of Boston to no avail.  So, I adjusted my expectations to an unintended overnight stay in Chicago. “This will be good. I love downtown Chicago, I’ll beg my dear friend Alicia to meet me, and I’ll eat some pizza,” I told myself. Food always works, right? I slumped in my seat on the plane and silently declared, “Lord, why can’t my flights ever work?? Why must it always be difficult?” (Insert as much whining as you like.)  And He faithfully replied, “Why would you ever think things would be easy?” A knowing certainty of obstacles flooded my mind as I considered my future.

My God promises me many good things; in fact an abundance of good things, but an easy life, free of obstacles is not one of them. We will face opposition in one form or another.

WE WILL FACE OPPOSITION

“Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (II Tim 3:12)

“Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad – for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world. So be happy when you are insulted for being a Christian, for then the glorious Spirit of God rests upon you.” (I Peter 4:12-14)

If there’s one theme that stands out in Acts, it’s opposition.  We see Paul encounter opposition repeatedly from city to city, and chapter 19 is no different. Whether it’s cold rejection from his brothers or death threats, opposition is a constant. At this point in the book he had been working in Ephesus for more than two years with astounding results. His miracles brought a humbling awe across the city, and because Ephesus was positioned along all the major trade routes, the gospel spread effectively. Preaching the one, true God obviously had its effect.  As we see in the laws of physics, for every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction.

With a selfish motive to improve his sales, Demetrius sought to start an opposing movement. I’m sure he realized he’d find a slow response if his personal gain were the only motive, so he set out to strike the chord of patriotism. His argument claimed an attack on Artemis, the goddess of fertility and representative of these people, and it was therefore an attack on the people themselves. An emotional plea no doubt, because it stirs the entire community into a riot. Most of them didn’t even know why they were rioting, but they were drawn in regardless, looking for blood.

For me, when I think of this story, it symbolizes why I have feared my purpose.  Why I have feared a full life in Christ over the years. Why I found myself reluctant to even ask God how he wants to use me. I saw giants in the Promised Land and was more than willing to give up on his promises, however good they seemed, because I feared opposition. I can remember making a deliberate (although secret) decision during my college years to blend in, make no waves, and live as quiet a life as possible. I feared the cost of stepping across the Jordan River. (click here for the post on stepping into purpose) I believed the lie that there was no cost for staying this side of the river. Oh, but there is. It’s called opportunity cost. It’s the cost of never experiencing your potential in Christ, in addition to the cost of regret and the cost of staleness from “the same.” Did you know that our bodies are constantly regenerating and becoming new?  Every cell in our skin is replaced every 7 days and the cells in our skeleton are completely replaced every 7 years.  We are constantly becoming new physically and spiritually if we allow it.  Our God is the God of new.

The other night my son started asking me for the escape plan if our house were to catch on fire. I always hesitate to entertain these conversations, but we talked about it. The more we talked about our plans, the meeting place, the exits, and the alternate exits, it didn’t assuage his fears, they only grew.  As I tried to calm him with words that our house wasn’t going to catch on fire, he said, “but, Mom, God could allow our house to catch on fire.” You know what? He’s right. I could not promise that God wouldn’t allow it, because I know very well he could.  I had a friend report a house fire of her friend just last week, asking for prayers and support.  Life is filled with obstacles. I don’t know anyone, whether or not a follower of Christ, who hasn’t encountered tough times at some point. So I asked him, “If our house catches on fire, will you trust God anyway? Will you trust that God loves you deeply, without end?”

Whether it’s your house burning down, being ridiculed by your community, losing a family member, or whatever presses on your thoughts at night, will you trust God anyway? Will you trust that God loves you deeply, without end?  Will you trust that there’s more of HIM in every part of suffering?

PAUL FACES HIS OPPOSITION

In his second letter to Corinth, Paul details his sufferings because his credibility comes under attack.

“I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold without enough clothing to keep me warm.” (II Cor 11:23-27)

I wonder if Paul ever said in my kind of whiney voice, “Lord, why can’t I ever get on a boat that doesn’t get smashed to pieces? Am I destined to never make my connecting ship ride?” Possibly. But before you think this is not applicable to you, that his sufferings were so fantastical to ever be on the scale of your life, I want you to see the phrase at the beginning, “worked harder.” When I saw this it made me think.  This man trudged within the mundane too. Do you remember how he made tents with Priscilla and Aquila there in Corinth to earn his living? He most definitely encountered the repetitive, mundane type of suffering in addition to the highlight reel we tend to remember.

So how does Paul do it? His words,

“We faithfully preach the truth. God’s power is working in us. We use the weapons of righteousness in the right hand for attack and the left hand for defense. We serve God whether people honor us or despise us, whether they slander us or praise us. We are honest, but they call us impostors. We are ignored, even though we are well known. We live close to death, but we are still alive. We have been beaten, but we have not been killed. Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything.” (II Cor 6:7-10)

He realizes that our enemy, Satan, wanted nothing more than to keep Paul on this side of the river. We are fighting a spiritual battle, often clothed in the skin of people, but must be fought with spiritual weaponry. He uses righteousness and he keeps putting one foot in front of the other. He does not stop.

IT DOTH STINKETH!

I have been called to write. So I have started writing. I was on my way to a writer’s conference last week when I faced the possibility of missing a connecting flight in Chicago. I have to admit, I seriously considered booking a flight home instead. “Should I even risk it? I’ll just go home,” I thought.  As much as I wanted to halt my frustration and uncertainty, the words wouldn’t come out of my mouth. So when I heard God pose the question, “Why would you ever think things would be easy,” I considered that my enemy might not want me at this conference. That it might be easier for him to discourage me from my purpose if I stayed home. Right then I determined, missed flight or not, stranded in Chicago or not, I would trust God anyway. I would trust that he loves me deeply to provide me with the best. In case your wringing your hands over the outcome, I made it, and was greatly encouraged to continue writing.

But I have also been called to be a mom. I struggle here, because I find many aspects of parenting and housekeeping to be mundane and not nearly as exciting as blizzards, cancelled flights, and my new venture in writing. I am guilty of allowing boredom to overwhelm my thoughts when I’m constantly making the meals, begging that the meals be eaten, and cleaning the meals, only to repeat in three hours. This is a type of suffering that I had never considered until recently. There will be times when our purpose brings about feelings of exhilaration, even during persecution where you feel like your slaying Satan, and there will be times when it goes unnoticed and you feel underwhelmed. But listen to what God says about that.

In the first few chapters of Leviticus, God is providing the instructions for the burnt offerings. I want you to try and imagine the smell of burning blood and flesh, the burnt to a crisp kind of burnt, from the animal offerings. Then try to imagine the smell of burnt toast from the grain offerings. It stinks. God says, “It is a special gift, a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” And by the way, he says this over and over and over. So sometimes my offering of cooking, and cleaning, and wiping bottoms quite literally stinks, but it is a special gift, a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

ARE YOU EXCITED YET?

PLEASE DON’T STOP READING HERE!  Before you think me Debbie Downer, I have heard so many times (insert defeated nasal whine), “(Sigh….)The Christian life is hard.  I guess it’s always gonna be this way.  I’ll just pray I die soon so I can reach my glory in heaven.” Seriously!  Why in the world would anyone ever sign up for this? So I go back to Paul. It’s his life we’re evaluating here, it’s his words that describe his suffering, and it’s with his words that we understand why.

“That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed everyday. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” (II Cor 4:16-18)

Our stories are but a part of this giant masterpiece that God is unfolding. When he calls us into it, he equips us for it, and the rewards are breathtaking. When we are intimately connected with Jesus through the empowerment of his Spirit, we get a taste of those rewards now. We don’t have to wait until we die!  That’s what Paul is saying above.  When we KNOW Him and are WITH Him, we are connected to heaven and can get a taste.  It is breathtaking!  I will keep putting one foot in front of the other. Will you?  My suffering, however it may look from day to day, will be a sacrifice, a pleasing aroma to my Lord.

Supernatural Spiritual Power: ACTS 19:1-20

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Acts 19:1-20

A huge thanks to my dear friend June for her thoughts on the next installment of our study on the Book of Acts.

By June Camerer, guest post

Two kinds of spiritual power are exhibited in these 20 verses. One is Godly, the other evil. Both are supernatural, both are real, both are powerful.

The story of the seven sons of Sceva, a chief priest is one of my favorite biblical anecdotes. It always makes me laugh. It’s almost a comedy sketch. Seven Jews walk into a bar to deliver a demon possessed man in the name of Jesus. The demon turns to them and says, “Jesus I know, and I know Paul, but who are YOU?” Then he proceeds to beat the tar out of all seven and sends them off naked and bleeding.

There are a number of points to think about in this. First the area was becoming aware of the power of the name of Jesus: miraculous healing power, supernatural power. Paul and his followers were performing miraculous healing all over Ephesus in between preaching and persuading. Skeva’s sons weren’t the only ones to try out miracle-working, having learned the magic word, Jesus. Only it wasn’t magic and it certainly wasn’t Jesus. Hell trembles in His presence. The demon also knew Paul who had Jesus’ spirit. He knew he wasn’t dealing with the Holy Spirit’s authority. The demon was in charge in this case and represented the power of hell – supernatural power, enough to take on seven young men and single handedly whip them collectively.

So much for evil spiritual power. This scene took place because of what happened earlier.

When Paul arrived at Ephesus he found some disciples and questioned them about their faith. Had they received the Holy Spirit when they believed? They knew nothing about the Holy Spirit, just like Apollos before Priscilla and Aquila got hold of him. They had had John’s baptism, the baptism of repentance – cleansing of sin.

John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus and when he placed hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. Twelve of them. After this Paul took the twelve around with him, and there were miraculous healings and deliverances.

I want to interject a little explanation and hopefully clarification at this point. These people who had only been baptized by John knew they were cleaned up by God’s grace and ready for the Messiah’s kingdom. They didn’t know it was here. They didn’t now Jesus’ promise of the gift from God of the Holy Spirit to be with them after Jesus returned to the Father. They didn’t know of the great outpouring of the spirit at Pentecost in Jerusalem.

When we receive Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to reside in us. Our spirits come alive; we’re reborn spiritually. Our bodies were given life physically. Now our eternal spirits are given life. The Greek word baptizme means inundation, saturation, not an outward dousing but throughout, inside and out. It’s the word used for dyeing a whole piece of cloth. This kind of receiving of the Holy Spirit is a baptizme, a saturation of body, soul and spirit. That’s when the disciples became supernaturally empowered and are today.

Forty-two years ago I was a believing Christian, but I heard about and was taught about that Holy Spirit inundation and asked for it. It was just between the Lord and me. There were no fireworks, but within a week or two my life began to change. The Holy Sprit became more real and my life was transformed, not all at once but progressively with each new experience, many of them of a supernatural nature.

Very recently the spirit’s been doing an unexpected work in me, and it could only be His supernatural authority in my life.

Scripture says we are to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies. In the last few years there’s been a growing hatred in me for the enemies of this country. That has included not only Islamic terrorists, but also in our federal government. This is what I perceived. I still do.

“Hate is a strong word,” we’re always taught. Well as far as I was concerned, not strong enough. I’ve spent hours praying for the Middle East, America and her government. I finally took a long look at myself and laid it all before the Lord. I repented. I lay down my sword, so to speak. I asked to be cleansed of hate and in its place, to be filled with God’s love, inundated with it. Two little phrases began to stick with me. “His banner over me is love,” from the Song of Solomon. The other just dropped into my head, “If we’re willing, He’s ready.”

The cough I’ve battled the last two months has subsided. The helpless fury and fear I’d been feeling, the need to fight, to protect my country left. Rather there’s a peace, the lifting of a burden and the understanding trust that God really is in charge. I don’t have to be.

“We have not received the spirit of the world but the spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” (I Corinthians 2:12)

Thoughts for the Soul Patrol: ACTS 18:18-28

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ACTS 18:18-28

When I first got to college I connected with a Christian student group so that I could have a solid community.  College was a time of exploration and new-found freedom, and identifying an accountability partner was the spiritual thing to do, at least in my circle of Christian friends. The purpose? To help keep you from straying off track.

I can remember feeling mercilessly scrutinized in every part of my life, all for the sake of accountability. It didn’t help that I was going through a particularly rough patch in my life, questioning everything I had been taught (which is actually pretty normal for college-age kids). Suffice it to say, the accountability was not delivered well and I most assuredly did not receive it well…I rebelled.  Why did the innocuous concept of accountability leave me feeling scarred?   Mostly because we lacked Spirit-guided wisdom and were, after all, a bunch of insecure teenagers and twenty-somethings.

In this section of scripture, we see accountability at its best with Apollos, Priscilla, and Aquila. Apollos showed up in Ephesus, preaching the gospel, as he knew it, but he didn’t know the whole story. This man, a Jew from Alexandria, was well-versed in scripture and was preaching John’s baptism. He was at best familiar with the man Jesus, but he obviously didn’t understand the implication of his death, burial, and resurrection. Grace was an incredibly difficult concept for most Jews raised with The Law, and it’s doubtful Apollos heard it.   So when Priscilla and Aquila heard him preaching boldly, scripture says they pulled him aside and explained things more accurately. There were three things, working together, that made this conversation successful. 1) Apollos was receptive to correction. 2) The correction was given in love. 3) The fact that the Holy Spirit guided, and surrounded this conversation is heavily implied.

RECEIVING CORRECTION

While this is not always the most captivating subject, as we enter this Lenten season, it’s worth contemplating. How receptive are we to correction? Here are JUST A FEW instructions from the Book of Proverbs:

Pride leads to conflict; those who take advice are wise. (Prov 13:10 NLT)

People who despise advice are asking for trouble; those who respect a command will succeed. (Prov 13:13 NLT)

The instruction of the wise is like a life-giving fountain; those who accept it avoid the snares of death. (Prov 13:14 NLT)

If you ignore criticism, you will end in poverty and disgrace; if you accept correction, you will be honored. (Prov 13:18 NLT)

If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding. Fear of the Lord teaches wisdom; humility precedes honor. (Prov 15:31-33 NLT)

These proverbs are almost like the laws of physics, and they are pretty much universal. But they aren’t simply about cleaning up your life. You could try to do that, certainly. And if you do manage to work your way there, allowing these social laws to work in your favor for a time, will it necessarily change your spiritual position? These proverbs state that eventually your actions will declare the condition of your heart. God doesn’t want your actions, he wants your heart!  Below are some Biblical examples of receiving correction.

APOLLOS

In Acts we learn that Apollos was an incredibly gifted speaker. He was knowledgeable and influential. He had a charisma about himself that moved the masses, and it would have been quite natural to see him evolve into a haughty and prideful man. We’ve seen was Washington, Hollywood, and the Internet have shown us. The charismatic leaders who end up loving the accolades they receive more than the message they are carrying. Their motivations change, and pride fills that space sought by the Holy Spirit. But in this passage it’s clear Apollos didn’t fall prey to pride here. I’m sure he was well acquainted with the proverbs, and he humbled himself to listen.

SAUL

Do you remember King Saul, the first anointed King of Israel? Almost from the beginning he had trouble doing what God asked him to do. Samuel, the highest judge, tried to correct him multiple times, but Saul refused to listen and he never surrendered his complete heart to the Lord.

Now the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul, and the Lord sent a tormenting spirit that filled him with depression and fear. (I Samuel 16:14 NLT)

The Lord doesn’t force us to draw near to him. He doesn’t force us to listen, obey, and connect with his Spirit, but it’s certainly not a mystery what results.

DAVID

Now consider King David, the successor to King Saul. He, too, was guilty of a horrible crime: adultery and murder. God corrected David through the prophet Nathan, and David immediately humbled himself. God gave us back-to-back images of flawed men, both of whom he chose to sit on the throne, and both had a choice when confronted. One followed pride and self, the other humbled himself before God.

JOB

Now consider Job. I’m throwing a wrench into the flow of this developing logic, but it’s necessary. He lost everything: his children, his flocks, every bit of his wealth, and the best of his health, all the while being the most righteous man. His friends, aware of the calamity, came to see him and instead of consolation they offered their correction. Of course Job is suffering because of his sin, they thought. These universal social laws must indicate the presence of sin and the need for correction. But their correction was misplaced. However well intentioned, these men were wrong in their assessment.

There are millions of messages being hurled in our direction all day long, every day. We must be able to discern which are from God and which are not. When is it time to heed the correction and make a change?

  • Understand the Word of God, the Bible. Study it and ask for wisdom. These words will help you understand God’s character and his truths. No message from God will ever contradict his character or his words.
  • Look for patterns in your life because God tends to speak in repetitious patterns. He does it in scripture as well as in real life. Let’s say during a sermon you feel a tug at your heart about making a change, then you read an article on the subject, a friend then brings up the topic randomly at lunch, and it comes up again on the radio. There’s a definite pattern that would require serious consideration. If you’re resisting a change and your car breaks down, then your water heater breaks, and you lose your job, it might require serious consideration. Please don’t hear me wrong. Like Job, bad things can happen to righteous people and it doesn’t mean you’re being punished. BUT, regardless, there’s more of God in every circumstance, and it’s appropriate to ask him what he wants you to see.
  • Abide in Christ, or remain plugged into the Holy Spirit. Through a solid connection to the Spirit of Christ, you will receive the discernment to understand what God is speaking. This is what God calls wisdom and understanding.

OFFERING CORRECTION

There may come a time when God will call on one of us to provide correction to another believer. Correction that does not come from a place of love is commonly called judgment, and is most often rejected. Here’s a sampling of what Proverbs has to say about giving correction:

The godly give good advice to their friends; the wicked lead them astray. (Prov 12:26 NLT)

A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. (Prov 15:1 NLT)

The tongue of the wise makes knowledge appealing, but the mouth of a fool belches out foolishness (Prov 15:2 NLT)

Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. (Prov 15:4 NLT)

Everyone enjoys a fitting reply; it is wonderful to say the right thing at the right time! (Prov 15:23 NLT)

How do we know that Priscilla and Aquila didn’t just jump on the error instead offering love?

He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. (Acts 18:26 NIV)

In some translations it says they took him aside. Either way, they thought through a strategic response. They didn’t react in front of the crowd. I love the idea that they took him home. Hospitality is a common expression of love, and they opened up their home and more than likely offered him a meal. Conversations over a casual meal lower defenses and support comfort, which probably placed Apollos in a great position to listen.

I cannot tell you how many “discussions” my husband and I have had where one of us has said, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it!” This picture of the three of them seated around a table brings to my mind gentle words and joy in their tone, and I can even imagine the excitement felt by Apollos when he saw the truth.

He may have also felt some pangs of guilt at the same time. He may have thought of all the hundreds of people who heard the wrong message from him. But that’s what’s so beautiful about grace; God works through our error and sanctifies us with correction.  God’s grace extends to even those affected by our error.  The Holy Spirit no doubt prompted Priscilla and Aquila to correct Apollos and he guides Apollos into truth. The results are fabulous and Apollos continues with a very successful ministry.

Here’s a word of advice for those who feel prompted to provide correction.

  • Be confident the Holy Spirit is prompting you, and that it comes from a place of complete love.
  • In as many cases as possible, ensure there’s a trusting relationship in place. And
  • Ask God to provide confirmation before moving forward. Only a fool rushes in. (Prov 14:16) If you are confident you are following the direction of the Holy Spirit, then you can remain free from worry if the results are not optimal.

THE HOLY SPIRIT CONVICTS

I’ve mentioned the Holy Spirit twice already. Remaining plugged into the Holy Spirit is essential not only for receiving correction but also for providing it. It’s highly critical to remember that it’s the job of the Holy Spirit to actually do the work of conviction.

And when [the Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness… (John 16:8 NLT)

There are many stories in the Old Testament where God asks Israel to either not fight an encroaching enemy or show up radically unprepared for battle. He did this to demonstrate his unparalleled ability to fight on their behalf. After approaching Saul multiple times to correct his behavior, there came a time when Samuel would go no further with him.  Scripture says Samuel constantly mourned for him. (I Samuel 15:35) Although we may mourn the sin we see in our world and the sin we see in others, it’s critical we seek God’s direction. Sometimes he says move, like he did with Priscilla and Aquila. And sometimes he says stay, like he did with Samuel.

I mourn for our world, and I get anxious when I see the sin and evil surrounding us, but I was reminded yesterday that God’s banner over us is love. Whatever God’s plans, we can be confident of his love for us and even for those who are apt to distress us.  And we can trust him. Can I get an amen?

Fear Will Come and Faith Will Falter, But WHAT IF? ACTS 18

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ACTS 18:1-17

“Oh, yes! We looked and saw that the land was good. Very good! BUT there are giants! We can’t go.” They were afraid. They were a people who’d been beaten and abused…just yesterday…or so it seemed. You’ve heard the psychology of an abused wife. She discounts every quality she has, doesn’t believe she can move on, believes she needs her abuser. They wanted to go back to Egypt, back into slavery. I’m confident that although Israel had been physically rescued from Egypt, they were still very much chained and steeped in unbelief. They refused the promise and missed out on their purpose. (Deuteronomy 1)

A NEW THING

I had been ruminating on Deuteronomy chapter one and Joshua chapter one for days now. It was the focus of  IF:Gathering 2015, and I couldn’t miss the parallels to our study this week in Acts. Christine Caine (listen to this woman if you can) taught the first chapter of Joshua, and the scene is set for Israel to brave the Promised Land and claim it. The first thing God told Joshua was that Moses was dead.

“Moses my servant is dead. Therefore the time has come for you to lead these people, the Israelites, across the Jordan River into the land I am giving them.” (Joshua 1:2 NLT)

God is doing away with the old and bringing in the new, and it’s an obvious pattern he uses to help us grow. When he introduced manna to the Israelites (translated “What is it?”), it was so new they didn’t even know what to call it. The Law was a new thing. The Promised Land was a new thing. Jesus was a new thing. Grace was a new thing. These new things were scary because they were little understood, but when embraced, they nourished the soul completely.

I’ve been wrestling with a new thing myself for almost a year, and while I am not at liberty to reveal the details, I can say that I have asked God, more than once, to retreat. I have spent an inordinate amount of energy, seeking justification so that I could go my own direction with a clean conscience. I was so determined, that I refused to see this direction as the Promised Land. It couldn’t be, because I didn’t like the way it looked. Surely God wouldn’t ask this of me. It doesn’t look like what he’d already shown me. I found myself becoming bitter as I sat this side of the Jordan River, and then I heard God speak to me during IF:Gathering.

“The reason why you are bitter is because of your memories. In the past you felt empty, but you are no longer empty. I have filled you. In the past you have felt hurt, but you are no longer being hurt. I have healed you. Love where I have placed you. Serve.”

I’m not so different from Israel and her memories. How long will I stay on this side of the Jordan River? You see, I thought I had already crossed the Jordan River. And in some ways I had. It took some guts for me step out in faith and assume the responsibility for The Well @ Santa Fe. I had to work through my fears to put my thoughts online for the world. But I now realize that with each layer of growth I have to cross the Jordan River again and again to claim His promise for me. If I refuse, I miss out, and maybe that promise will pass to the next generation. I’m telling you, I don’t want to miss out.

FEAR FOR THE CHRISTIAN?

In the first part of Acts 18 we see God speaking to Paul while he’s in Corinth.

“Don’t be afraid! Speak out! Don’t be silent! For I am with you, and no one will attack and harm you, for many people in this city belong to me.” (Acts 18:9-10 NLT)

I am confident God said these things because Paul was frustrated, tired, and scared. He’d been going from synagogue, to synagogue, to synagogue, preaching, pleading, and running for his life. What a tiresome process. I have no doubt that if I were in his shoes, I would come to a point of questioning my purpose. Earlier in chapter 13, I said that when Paul embarked upon his first missionary journey, he symbolically crossed the Jordan River into his Promised Land. He began living out the purpose God had set before him, to make God’s name known among the nations. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Paul was at the Jordan River again. Could he really face all those giants and continue this pattern city after city? They were looming and legitimately dangerous.

Paul was a man who surrendered everything to God. He was filled with the Holy Spirit who gifted him with discernment, wisdom, and power. Surely he looked fear in the face and refused him. How could this man I revere have fear? Let’s go back to Joshua, before he crossed the Jordan River. In the first chapter of Joshua, God said no less than FIVE times, “Be strong and courageous!” Repetition in the Bible is not insignificant. Could it be that Joshua was a tiny bit afraid? Say it ain’t so!

Of course he was. Fear is not a sinful quality, something for which to be ashamed. As someone who’s been overwhelmed by fear most of my life, I had not fully considered this truth. Historically, my fear had most definitely turned into a sin, an obvious sign that I did not, and would not trust God.  And as a result, when I finally confessed, I resolved to never let fear cross my borders again. How frustrating to assign yourself an impossible task. Can you relate? It does not lessen Paul’s apostleship or authority to realize he wrestled with fear, it only demonstrates the validity of God’s call on our life.

God had called Paul to a new thing.

“Paul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles….” (Acts 9:15 NLT)

And Paul had just said to the Jews in Corinth, as he dramatically shook the dust from his clothes,

“Your blood is upon our own heads – I am innocent. From now on I will go preach to the Gentiles.” (Acts 18:6 NLT)

I can hear the tone of frustration and anger, which no doubt led to uncertainty and fear. God was faithful to encourage him with his words. I admire Paul. It takes much less to send me reeling down a path of fear and worst-case scenarios, when things don’t go like I’d envisioned.

Why exactly did God tell Joshua to be strong and courageous? So Israel could possess the land that he had promised. Do you see the parallel in Acts? “Do not be afraid!…for many people in this city belong to me,” a symbolic land for Paul to claim. These are no small tasks. Who wouldn’t be afraid? “For I am with you,” God promises to them both. We all have a Promised Land before us. A hope and a purpose. A land to stake claim. Eventually God did establish a kingdom for Israel in that land, and while the Promised Land symbolizes his purpose for our life, the Kingdom symbolizes his presence and authority in our life.  There can be no purpose without his presence!  The effect of his presence is quite simply a taste of heaven.

THE PARADOX

However there’s a paradox in our faith, when it comes to eternal life, which results from the intersection of heaven and earth. The realities that exist in both are true yet disparate because they lie in two different spheres. It’s the cost for entry into eternal life. In the heavenly realm that cost was paid by Jesus when he died on the cross. A perfect and sinless God-man, who didn’t need to die, but did so anyway because he loved us. We cannot purchase entry ourselves; he’s given it away freely. Much like the manna he provided for Israel in the desert. He gave it freely and generously. While in this corrupt world, we eagerly anticipate the day we can enter this eternal life that we otherwise know as heaven!

BUT WAIT there’s more! Yes, there is a heaven awaiting us, in this earthly realm, while we are still alive. This heaven/eternal life, is knowing Him! (John 17:3) It’s an intimacy with God resulting from an active relationship with Him, which is nothing less than supernatural. And there is a cost for this heaven too. The cost requires us to forge ahead in faith, despite the fear that looms. In Joshua, the manna, a symbol of God’s free gift, was evolving. There would be no manna in the Promised Land, and the cost to entering the Promised Land was a humbling faith, requiring them to step into the riverbed. Forging ahead when fear loomed. God wasn’t going to do it for them as he had while they were in the desert, but he was most assuredly with them.

Fear will come and faith will falter, but the cost to a deep and fulfilling relationship with God, is a determined trust. WHAT IF GOD IS REAL? Will you trust him? Will you listen and claim his words when he speaks?

When God says,

“Trust me. I will be with you.”

Will you say,

“Yes, Lord. I believe. Help me with my unbelief!”

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.

The Apostle Paul, a Hypocrite? ACTS 16

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ACTS 16

Not long ago our entire family enjoyed a rare bowl of ice cream before bed. Typically I don’t worry about what they eat, however I do try to limit sugar intake, especially at night. My kids were elated, and it was good.  So good in fact, we all craved another the following night. Sadly, it couldn’t be. As I was serving the night before, I realized that only a single serving remained. I couldn’t easily split it between three kids and I wanted to avoid an entitlement of ice cream every night, so I told them none of us needed the ice cream. Slumped in disappointment they walked away. After they went to bed, alone, I quietly ate the last, teeny, tiny serving. Can you imagine the accusations and looks of betrayal if I’d been discovered?   The hypocrisy of it all!   It’s probably not worth telling you that when my husband asked for some ice cream the following day, I shrugged and nonchalantly said, “It’s all gone, honey.” Utterly disappointed, “You mean the kids ate it all the other night?” I simply smiled a sheepish smile.

As I read Acts 16, I feel like I’ve uncovered Paul’s hypocrisy. Paul had just vehemently opposed saddling Gentiles with the requirement of circumcision in chapter 15.

So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? (Acts 15:10 NLT)

And in chapter 16, here he is circumcising sweet Timothy whose father was a Gentile.  The text says that Paul didn’t want to offend the Jews during their missionary journey. But, honestly, that just doesn’t satisfy me.  He made an incredible case for grace in Jerusalem. He had me convinced Christ plus nothing! I was hooked on his doctrine! Why’d ya do it, Paul?  Why’d ya go back to circumcision? I wasn’t prepared for that.

If you’ve been following this study, you know I’ve said over and over: our faith is NOT a formula. See? I had just developed a formula that said, “don’t circumcise. It’s a saddle and I cannot bear it.” I could easily go on to say, “don’t baptize, don’t join a church, and don’t take communion; it’s a saddle that you cannot bear.” Does that sound ridiculous to you or not?  So my question is, why did Paul make such a big fat deal about not circumcising with the Jerusalem Council if he was only going to turn around and insist upon it in Acts 16? Let’s break it down.

THE CASE FOR GRACE

The grace of God is a concept that is terribly difficult to appreciate. To receive something of value for absolutely nothing in return is outrageous in our current economy. In spiritual terms, it means we cannot control our destiny within our own means. It means grace is outside of our control and that’s frightening. While the law was not given to Israel as a formula for control, it turned into exactly that. Circumcision became a symbol of the law, a sign of a people who follow the one true God, and they manipulated that.   It’s true, God did ask them to be circumcised as a sign, and to follow the commandments he ordained, but for what purpose? Not to satisfy him as God, like many believed, but rather to know him. To enter into relationship.

So when the gospel message of salvation arrived in Jesus, many of the Christian Jews naturally concluded that circumcision and the law would be necessary for their new faith too. Not just beautiful worship, but necessary. Paul on the other hand wanted everyone to understand grace completely. Works, the law, circumcision, they were not required for salvation. When he went to the Jerusalem Council, he wanted the Gospel of Grace to be made clear. Regardless of what you do, it is impossible to please God without the blood of Christ.   Christ plus nothing!

Paul realized it was very risky passing along these Old Covenant practices to the Gentiles. Not necessarily risky for Paul and his reputation, but risky for the gospel itself.   We see him, more than once, express his fear of wasting his time with the Gentiles. Why?   If the Gentiles had adopted circumcision and the law, then this new Christian movement could easily have, and probably would have, been absorbed into another sect of Judaism, causing the message of grace to eventually grow mute.  The “burden of the law” was the misunderstanding that you can earn your way toward acceptance from a God who requires nothing!  If this was the resulting message, where would this leave the New Covenant?

WHERE’S GRACE?

If Paul was defending grace in chapter 15, did his regard for grace disappear in Chapter 16? The New Living Translation (NLT) in Acts 15, says that Paul vehemently opposed the Judaizer’s doctrine of circumcision. When he’s with Timothy, he doesn’t seem vehemently opposed to circumcision at all.   It’s odd. He’s not wringing his hands or painfully wrestling with the question, “ Do I have Tim do this? Or do I not?” The text implies confidence.

I come from a long line of believer’s who stand up for the truth. I was raised to be strong, and not be afraid of the consequences when standing up for true doctrine. So firmly grounded in this value, I must admit that there’s a big part of me that wants to see Paul travel this missionary journey with an uncircumcised man.  I want to see him telling those Jews the truth and not worry about the offended! I actually feel a teensy bit let down that he doesn’t.

Do you remember how Paul changed his message according to his audience in Acts 14? In every city, he first went to the Jews and used Holy Scripture as evidence to prove Jesus. Later, when dealing with pagan Gentiles he used creation and nature to prove the one true God.

When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. (I Corinthians 9:22 NLT)

Paul dearly loved his Jewish brothers and sisters, and wanted to make every attempt to reach them.   Because Timothy’s heritage came from his Jewish mother, it made him Jewish, therefore Paul wisely anticipated that the Jews along their journey would likely refuse them, because an uncircumcised Jew would represent rebellion, and consequently could not be trusted. Everything out of their mouths would have been futile. Paul prioritized the gospel over doctrinal correctness. In so doing, he actually lived out God’s grace for them. Grace was ironically all through chapter 16!

PAUL AND THE LAW

We can be confident that Paul knew it was spiritually unnecessary for Timothy to be circumcised, and he was emphatic that he didn’t want the practice forced onto the Gentiles. But did you know that Paul never actually advised the Jews against circumcision or the law? He says over and over that he loved the law. The law helped him to see between right and wrong, and it aided him in knowing God. In fact, right before he was arrested in Acts 21, he and the Council had agreed that he would undergo all the purification rites in the Temple to prove he was a law abiding Jew. They wanted to set the record straight and dispel the rumors that he was attacking the law.   It must have been confusing, and even appalling to outside observers, to see Jews and Gentiles worshipping together, practicing various things. While Paul encouraged everyone to follow the Holy Spirit on such matters, he was always clear that the law did nothing to save the participant. Such a departure from their understanding of the Old Covenant.

Today, in some circles, doctrine can sound like a bad word, something to be avoided. In other circles, doctrine is the entire basis for life. To be fair, doctrine indeed has its place and its significance is not lost on me.   I suppose we will all understand the one true doctrine in time. But for now, we must follow Paul’s example. We must place an emphasis on the Gospel of Grace over doctrinal correctness when forced between the two. Relationship is not found in doctrine. It’s found in grace. Paul completely trusted the Holy Spirit to direct his decisions, and we too can completely trust the Holy Spirit in everything!   AND? We can completely trust the Holy Spirit to guide all believers into truth! It’s not necessarily our job to make sure everyone knows the truth. God is completely capable. Let’s unite as the Body of Christ to encourage and support the simple pursuit of God.

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

Entering the Kingdom: ACTS 14

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ACTS 14

IS GOD GOOD?

“Was God good to me? I couldn’t hold that question and at the same time believe in the full life he offered me. To be filled anew, I needed not just to acknowledge hunger, but to recognize how necessary that hunger was.” (Hagerty, Sara. Every Bitter Thing is Sweet. Zondervan, 2014. p. 54)

Do you really believe God is good? I’m not talking about what we know to be the right answer. I’m talking about your deeply held beliefs. Over the years I developed an understanding of God based on bits and pieces of scripture that I memorized from childhood. I measured my understanding of His goodness based on my understanding of my goodness. I really believed God to be an angry, punishing God more than I believed any other character quality.  I therefore spent an inordinate amount of time trying to determine which actions were most likely to please him. Obviously I never actually said these things out loud because I knew the right answer, and I honestly wasn’t completely aware of these beliefs myself at the time. As my understanding of God has broadened, I now know that deep down I used to see my God as one who wanted me to throw a virgin into the volcano to keep things status quo. I succeeded in my goodness many times AND I failed. When bad things happened I assumed it was because of my failures. Do you feel like you’re being punished for not living up to God’s expectations? Do you really believe God is good?

This is what you call living by the law. There’s more to come on the Law of Moses in the coming chapters of Acts, but for now I’ll suffice it to say that living a life measured by your positive or negative output for God, is a life of the law. I could be slaving away at good works, exhausted and frustrated, or relinquish myself to a life of self-satisfaction, addiction, and good works when it suits me. Either way, it’s a trap.

Is there a conflict, then, between God’s law and God’s promises?  Absolutely not!  If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it.  But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ.  (Galatians 3:21-22 NLT)

In last week’s study we looked at the path our journey takes into an intimate relationship with God. We discussed a life of purpose, filled with great works for God (a.k.a. The Promised Land), that comes only after you’ve been freed from captivity and prepared in the desert. Click here to see last week’s lesson. A life under the law, including all our white-knuckling efforts, is a life of captivity.   We must be released from the belief that we have to live up to an expectation; that we have to please God. When we are no longer captives to false beliefs, we can learn how to surrender to His ways. We can learn how to allow God to live through us. We can approach Him exactly where we are. And remaining where we are for very long is never an option in Christ. This is grace. Grace is proven through the difficult lessons of preparation, nudging us to approach the borders of our purpose.

CIRMCUMSTANCES ARE NOT AN INDICATOR OF HIS FAVOR

“They acted as if they believed God didn’t just tolerate them; He enjoyed them. And yet their messes were more visible than mine. I couldn’t understand this combination, but it intrigued me. They lived and walked as if they knew God was good to them, though their circumstances said otherwise. These people liked to pray, and they referenced their day-to-day experience with God as if it were an adventure.” (Hagerty, Sara. Every Bitter Thing is Sweet. Zondervan, 2014. p. 60)

Entering the Promised Land for the nation of Israel, unlike my naïve thoughts of the land of milk and honey, was a battle from the beginning. In order to see the fulfillment of God’s promises, they had to fight for it. The fulfillment of the Promised Land was ultimately not about the destination, but rather the purpose of Israel to bless the entire world. When Paul and Barnabas set out on the first missionary journey in chapter 13 we saw that they were entering the symbolic Promised Land of their lives. They were entering the season of their lives where they would live out their purpose by making God’s name known among the nations. And it was obviously not easy street.   God said he would use Paul to bring his message to the Gentiles. They battled everywhere they went as they fought to see that fulfillment. They could have easily thought God was punishing them since their lives were threatened virtually everywhere they went. In Lystra (Acts 14:20), Paul was stoned and left for dead. But Paul and Barnabas didn’t see God this way. They believed God was good. They understood grace in the context of their hardships.  Paul and Barnabas then re-visited the towns where they were persecuted.

They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22 NLT)

Now lest you be tempted to think this verse is saying you must pass a test to be accepted by God and enter his Kingdom, consider this: In the heavenly realm

The Promised Land symbolizes God’s purpose for your life.

The Kingdom symbolizes God’s presence and authority in your life.

Now read the verse again.

ENTERING THE KINGDOM

“I wanted to have the deep parts of me find the deep parts of Him. That night I saw that having taken small steps toward receiving more of Him wasn’t satisfying my hunger; it was creating more of it.” (Hagerty, Sara. Every Bitter Thing is Sweet. Zondervan, 2014. p. 72)

Like the Promised Land is not a destination, so the Kingdom is not a destination.

About three years ago my family was suffering a difficult hardship in our lives. It was the source of a lot of fights between my husband and me as we tried to navigate our circumstance. Our very livelihood was at stake and so the level of anxiety rose with each passing day. I groggily headed to the car one morning to meet a friend for an early morning run. On the way there I began talking out loud. My emotional concerns came flooding out of my mouth. To an onlooker they sounded exactly like prayers, and I guess they were, but here’s where my deeply rooted beliefs came to light. God actually answered my outspoken prayer that morning, and it shocked me. I looked around the car to ensure that I was alone, because surely I didn’t actually hear a response. It wasn’t an audible response, but it was so clear and definitely from outside of me, that it might as well have been. I followed this response with a trembling, “God, are you in the car with me?”

“Yes,” came another strikingly clear response.

Chills ran up my spine as I became very much aware of God’s presence in the car. I wasn’t scared at all; in fact I was very much at peace. It soon became clear to me that I was not at all alone in my car nor in my circumstance. I knew at that moment he would answer any question I had. So I asked and he answered. Tears fell from my face with the realization that He took the time to visit with me. Do you hear that? I just revealed my deepest held belief, that I knew in my head was terribly wrong, but I held it anyway. I believed in the deepest part of my heart, that God had better things to do than spend time with me. Seriously, there are far worse things going on in the world than my little problems, and he wanted me to work them out myself, right? Lies. All lies.

I got a taste of Him that morning. We shared an intimacy in that fleeting car ride and I wanted more. So what did I do? I relished in the memory of that Saturday morning every day the following week, until Saturday rolled around again. I quickly jumped in my car, headed for my sunrise run, all the way anticipating another heavenly moment with my God. But it didn’t happen. I did everything the exact same way. I prayed for it while I tied my shoes. As I turned the ignition in my car I said, “Ok, God! I’m ready to talk. Let’s do this!” Crickets. Crickets. Was that really going to be the only time I ever got to be with him?

So I literally spent the next 18 months pursuing His voice. Through my studies I began to know him better. I wasn’t reading out of obligation this time. My hunger for him begat more hunger. With each layer that unfolded, I saw many more layers before me. This was never going to end!

And instead of feeling frustrated that the thread I was pulling kept lengthening, I became more and more enthralled. I experienced his presence at each turn. I began hearing His voice on a fairly regular basis that was sometimes soft, sometimes bold, and always comforting. I felt drawn in a direction that was unknown, but oddly assuring in its promise. In hindsight I can see that I was moving toward my purpose although it was veiled in mystery at the time. On one particular night, as I was reading in the Book of Daniel, I came across this verse:

And the man said to me, ‘Daniel, you are very precious to God, so listen carefully to what I have to say to you…’ (Daniel 10:11 NLT)

I immediately prayed, Lord, how I would love to hear you say that to me. How I long to be as precious to you as Daniel. Immediately a thought so strong dropped in my mind, “You are very precious to me.” This God was becoming new to me every day. So I am as precious as these pillars of my faith? I am as precious as Peter, Paul and Mary? I know, bad joke. But seriously, how in the world can I be compared to some of these scriptural giants? Well that assumes God doles out a finite amount of love. Our unending search for God proves his infinite limits. Little by little, God was exposing all of my fallible beliefs

WE ARE PRECIOUS

My two daughters are wrapped tightly in a fierce competition for my attention about half the time they are awake. If I give one daughter a hug, the other immediately comes running. If one daughter takes a seat next to me, she will predictably move her legs over mine to prevent the other a seat on my lap. One evening we talked about this. My older daughter revealed that it hurts her feelings when I express my love for the other. She just couldn’t understand that when I share love for one, it doesn’t mean I’m taking love away from the other. I think we often apply this thinking to God too. When God tells Daniel he’s precious, it doesn’t mean I’m not. Take this home. When God tells me I am very precious, he’s telling you the exact same thing.

Try to wrap your brain around the truth that God is good all the time, and that all the time God is good. If you can really believe it, then you can begin to understand the truth in Acts, “that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” Where was the good in all that Paul and Barnabas suffered?

…they called the church together and reported everything God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. (Acts 14:27 NLT)

The good is found in His purpose and it inevitably leads to His presence. And that is very, very good.