Don’t Miss the Fulfillment of Your Purpose: ACTS 13

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Resolutions and fresh starts mark every new year.  Have you chosen a word for the year?  I only learned about this word trend this year. Instead of  committing to a New Year’s resolution, you simply choose a word to represent what you hope to accomplish. If you follow my blog, you’ll know from my last post that I have a love-hate relationship with resolutions, so after seeing many of my friends choosing words, reading news articles on the subject, and hearing about it during a New Year’s Eve sermon, I figured I might as well choose one in 2015. The word fulfillment was uttered only a half second in a sermon before I was convinced this was my word.


I had already completed my study of this passage in Acts before New Year’s Eve rolled around, and fulfillment was lurking in the back of my mind in obscurity. And because Acts 13 is dripping with purpose, I realized I couldn’t really explore the meaning of fulfillment until I look at it in light of my purpose. Right? We all have one, whether we’re living it out or not; and sometimes we’re living it out whether we realize it or not. In our passage today we see the Apostle Paul’s purpose taking shape and manifesting, and of course we can clearly see it now because we have the benefit of a couple thousand years of hindsight. The dilemma we face today though, is discerning our purpose when we’re smack dab in the middle of the muck and mire of our complicated lives. And there’s a very distinct possibility that we might miss our fulfillment, at least in part, absent an understanding of our purpose.

Our passage today begins with the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas, and a small crew of people, for the first recorded missionary journey. The spread of the gospel prior to this was incidental, as folks shared the gospel while fleeing persecution and seeking safe harbor. However, in this passage it was different because they were intentional about the spread of the gospel. They were filled with purpose, a purpose that was handed down from God.

…the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.”  (Acts 13:2 NLT)

I find this significant, because there could have been at least one hundred thousand great and noble things to which Paul and Barnabas could have dedicated their lives, but unless they were empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit, it wouldn’t have had the same effect. Now don’t get me wrong, I truly believe God works all things together for his purpose (Romans 8:28), but if Paul and Barnabas were not moving in step with the Spirit, they would have missed out on the fulfillment. I’ll get back to this in a minute.


Do you think this directive from God surprised Paul and Barnabas? It’s not real clear how they reacted, but I’m going to guess no. Think back to Acts Chapter 9, in the city of Damascus, God spoke to Ananias.

Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and the kings, as well as to the people of Israel. (Acts 9:15)

Although it’s not recorded as such, my guess is that there were a great many conversations between these two about his destiny, and later in Paul’s testimony before the Jews he shares that Jesus told him to run from his persecutors in Jerusalem because he was being sent far away to the Gentiles. (Acts 22:17-21)  In fact, when Barnabas arrived in Antioch of Syria to investigate the stories of Gentile conversions, what was one of the first things he did? He traveled to Tarsus to bring Paul back to Antioch.  Is it possible this may have entered their conversations too when they first met in Damascus?

Scripture says Barnabas was filled with joy when he saw what the Holy Spirit was doing in Antioch, but he may have also felt ill equipped at that point to minister to Gentiles and wanted Paul’s support.  So if they were surprised at all, it may have only been because it took years from when God shared his purpose with Paul, to when he began to see the fulfillment.   All we know for sure is that God brought clarification and confirmation to his calling when the time was right in Antioch.


If fulfillment was going to be my word for the year, then I needed define it. First there’s fulfillment used in the context of contentment. When you feel fulfilled, you feel full of joy, peace, and happiness.   And second, there’s fulfillment in the context of completion. When you have an order or a request and you are waiting for that request to be completed or fulfilled. The Amazon fulfillment center worked hard for my family this Christmas. The trouble I have had over the last year with my purpose, and I dare say I am not alone here, is that I have overlooked contentment in a consuming search for completion. And this is not what God intends.

Consider for a moment Abraham. God provided Abraham with his purpose. He said he would use him to be the father of many nations. That he would provide him a holy lineage, through which the world will be infinitely blessed. It would be years and years and years before that purpose would be fulfilled with the birth of Isaac. And Sarah, annoyed with waiting and her ever-aging body, she wanted to see the completion before she received contentment. She scoffed, not unlike each one of us.

God also told Abraham that he would give him a land that would remain with his descendents. Did Abraham ever actually see that completed?

And Abraham lived as a foreigner in the land of the Philistines for many days. (Gen 21:34 HCSB emphasis added)

He made it to the Promised Land, but he never actually saw this purpose completed. Move on down to his son, Isaac, and we see that he didn’t see it completed either.

Do not go down to Egypt. Live in the land that I tell you about; stay in this land, as a foreigner, and I will be with you and bless you. (Gen 26:2-3 HCSB)


God had multiple objectives for this land of Canaan, but the promise of land as a blessing of prosperity for his chosen people was but a secondary objective. His primary objective was much deeper and more significant. The significance is embedded in the imagery of this land. He didn’t give the land directly to Abraham, Isaac, or even Jacob, because that wasn’t the picture he wanted to portray. He wanted us to first see Israel in captivity in Egypt, then see them wandering in the desert, and finally see their entrance into the Promised Land. The symbolism is significant, because without it, we might miss it when we travel this course for ourselves.

Captivity represents our lives before Christ enters. We are captive to sin, unable to escape. This is not just applicable to the non-believer. It can also represent the Christian if she is still held captive by pride and fear, refusing to allow Jesus sovereign authority over every part of her life. Sometimes it takes hitting rock bottom to see it clearly. She is held captive, if she believes the lie that she can control her world.

Wandering in the desert comes shortly after we receive our freedom. It doesn’t sound much better than captivity does it? And that’s exactly what Israel thought too. They even asked to return to Egypt. Perspective is everything here. Truly this is the time in our lives where God reveals himself to us. He provides the necessary circumstances and trials to teach us faith. There are a multitude of examples in nature, like the caterpillar, proving that struggle and conflict are absolutely necessary for a glorious outcome, like the butterfly. It’s through the trials where we come to know him intimately and he then bestows wisdom and understanding. It’s a time of preparation that cannot be skipped.

The Promised Land is a time where preparation meets opportunity. I naively thought at one time that the Promised Land was intended to be easy street. You know, the land of milk and honey? But I was wrong. When Israel entered the Promised Land they immediately went into battle. And they battled the enemy for years to claim what God had promised them. Their reign in this area was relatively short-lived, as the battle for this land has continued for millennia. But God’s purpose for the Promised Land wasn’t simply location, location, location. It was to bless the world through Israel, to make his name known among the nations. The Promised Land was a time for Israel to discover and fulfill her purpose. The Promised Land is the time in our lives when we discover and fulfill our purpose.

God wants us to abandon captivity, follow him through the rigorous times of preparation, so that we can live out our purpose fully.

Coming back to Acts, you can see this journey very clearly in Paul’s life. He leaves his life of captivity in the city of Damascus, and then he enters the desert lands during his years in Arabia, Jerusalem, Caesarea and Tarsus. They were obviously very trying years of solid preparation. After ministering in Antioch, God finally dedicated Paul and Barnabas for their calling. They entered the Promised Land when they embarked upon this missionary journey. They were making God’s name known among the nations.


You probably remember the story of Jonah. God asked him to send his word to the horribly sinful people of Nineveh. Jonah found this deplorable and literally went the opposite direction. He only ended up in Nineveh because he relented after three days in the belly of a whale. Even after Nineveh repented, Jonah continued to sulk and complain. Jonah’s ignorance of God’s full purpose didn’t thwart God’s fulfillment in terms of completion, but Jonah certainly missed much of God’s fulfillment in terms of contentment.

How can we live a life of fulfillment and purpose? I have some advice that God has provided for me through some very bright minds, and I share it with you today.

  • When it comes to our purpose, don’t allow that to replace God’s presence. Our life’s goal is ultimately to BE WITH HIM. Prioritize his abiding presence, and everything else flows from it.
  • Don’t be consumed with God’s larger purpose in your life or the ultimate outcome.* It can be an overwhelming thing to take in all at once, and let’s face it, God’s purpose for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Paul never fully manifested in their lifetime. Who’s to say it will in ours? So there’s no benefit to worrying, obsessing, and losing sleep over what you cannot control. Know that God will fulfill you in the mean time.
  • All you can do is the next best thing.* How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
  • And don’t wait!* Don’t be lazy, don’t be afraid, and don’t confuse this when God asks you to wait for Him.



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

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Acts 11:19-12:25

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ephesians 6:18

Colossians 4:2

Matthew 7:7

James 4:2-3

James 5:16

I John 5:14

John 15:7

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

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ACTS 9:31-11:18

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Prepared for Purpose: ACTS 9: 1-30

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ACTS 9:1-30

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

God’s Truth in Pictures: ACTS 8

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

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

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

The Feeding of the Four Thousand

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Economies: ACTS 6-7

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ACTS 6 & 7

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for the Formula to a Successful Life: ACTS 5

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This passage of scripture begins with a story depicting the heavy hand of God.  Ananias and his wife Sapphira were caught lying and immediately dropped dead.  I have to admit when I read this, I feel obligated to explain why God does what he does.  Why did God pass swift judgment on these two for an action that on the surface doesn’t seem deserving of death, while at the same time he allows the Jerusalem leaders to continue persecuting the church? It seems like a contradiction in his character, and this is just one example.  There are more.  I want to understand God.  Even more, I want the formula.  I always have wanted a formula, whether it was how to study for a test or implement a new strategy at work.  Derive a formula, follow it, and experience success.

While preparing this message my son approached me with the suggestion that he skip his homework for the night.  I asked him what he planned to tell his teacher when he submitted a blank reading log.  He said, “Oh, Mama, I’m going to fill out the reading time.”  So I seized the opportunity and read him the story of Ananias and Sapphira to teach him the dangers of lying.  He promptly asked me, “So is God going to kill me if I lie to my teacher?”   I resisted the temptation to say, “Yes!”  He wants a formula too.

What is the purpose of this story?  It definitely introduces questions of God’s fairness.  Why am I even alive right now, because I’m confident I’ve behaved worse than these two?  This story actually fits into a pattern throughout Biblical history, whereby at the beginning of any new “age” or period of time, we see evidence of God’s swift judgment on sin.   It’s much like a parent might utilize quick discipline with a young child as he reaches life stage milestones.  God wishes to bring “infant” believers into deeper maturity in their relationship with him.  Because sin prevents spiritual growth, during these pivotal times in history, God’s swift judgment instilled a holy fear among the community, halting sin for a moment, so that they could grow.  For the sake of brevity we’ll look at three examples of this pattern.

A Pattern of God’s Swift Discipline

The Age of the Law of Moses

When God provided the Law to the people of Israel after they fled Egypt, it offered the people an opportunity to worship him on a deeper level through faithful obedience.  It laid the foundation for many things, but paramount was for his people to grow in relationship with him.   This age of the Law was in its infancy, and we see in Leviticus chapter 10 that the priests begin to perform their priestly duties.  Two of Aaron’s sons (Aaron was the high priest), Nadab and Abihu, disobeyed their instructions and burned the wrong kind of fire and incense.  Scripture doesn’t indicate their motives, but we can be certain they understood the instructions.  It was rebellion, therefore the fire they created “blazed forth and consumed them.”  Aaron was silent and his remaining sons did as they were instructed.  They were filled with a holy fear.  As Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show would say, “Nip it in the bud!”

The Age of the Promised Land

When Israel entered the Promised Land, this new age offered an opportunity to go even deeper in relationship with God.  It would be a time when God would display his power and love and blessings.  Israel had been equipped with the Law and obedience earlier, and now they could live out their purpose in the Promised Land, providing a beacon for the world.  Again, this age is in its infancy, and it’s in Joshua 7 we see the story of Achan.  While God was leading Israel to conquer the cities within the land of Canaan to possess it, Achan disobeys a direct order from God.  He keeps some of the plunder from one of these cities and secretly buries it in his tent.  Make no mistake, it was rebellion.  God reveals the sin to Joshua, presents Achan in front of the entire nation, and Achan loses his life as punishment.  Don’t you know a fear of the Lord passed over everyone that day?

The Age of Grace

Jesus had just conquered death, sent his Spirit to his people, and again everyone had the opportunity to relate to God in an even deeper way.  This was much more than a progressive step in God’s story, it was monumental.  The pattern that we see is that when God reveals a new aspect of relationship with him, it ushers in a new age and we see that the people are particularly vulnerable to the enemy’s deception; they faced a tremendous temptation to rebel.

This brings us to Ananias and Sapphira, who sold some property and claimed to have given all the proceeds to the young church.    When Peter recognized the deception he says in verse 4, “The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished.  And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away.”  Instead of operating within the framework of their new-found freedom, this husband and wife succumbed to the temptation that they needed to live up to an image, fill a quota   Isn’t it interesting that in the age of grace, they instead chose bondage and went back to the human limitations of the law?  At the end of Acts 4, Luke records that Barnabus sold all of his land and gave it to the church.  No doubt his generosity was lauded, and for this couple, it must have set the bar pretty high in their minds.  Rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to fill them completely, they unplugged, pushed him to the side, and followed their own plan.  The age of grace was in its infancy, and the message of grace so critical, that the Lord took both of their lives that day.  He preserved his plan for the early church, and a wave of fear and reverence for the Lord swept the community of believers.

Patterns Can Be Fun

I hope this is helpful in understanding God’s purpose for Ananias and Sapphira’s story.  I just love to discover a pattern from scripture like this.  The pattern found here shows us that God is still God.  He is the ultimate judge and has every right to punish rebellious behavior.  In these examples, the point is not that they were punished for their sin, but that the rebellious behavior could very well have become a cancer among these young believers, spreading its toxicity to the entire community before God’s purpose was fully displayed.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when he said, ‘I will display my holiness through those who come near me.  I will display my glory before all the people.’” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3 NLT)

When I discover a pattern like this, not only is it fun, there’s actually something deeper stirring inside me.  I feel a sense of accomplishment that I might have actually figured God out.  These patterns lead me to think that God is consistent, thereby making him predictable, until he painfully shows me he isn’t predictable at all.  Wasn’t King David arguably ushering in an age of the Throne in Israel.  It would be through this Throne that Messiah would come.  Couldn’t one argue that David was being rebellious when he coveted another man’s wife?  He then had her husband killed to cover up the indiscretion.  Why didn’t God quickly eliminate David like these others?   How do we reconcile what seems like inconsistencies?   I need to reconcile them, because I desperately want to know the “why’s” of God.  But I’ll be honest.  I really want to know “why” so that I can develop an algorithm, predict the results, and feel some sense of control over my own destiny.  And therein lies the real problem.  I want to control my destiny.

The Book of Proverbs is basically one giant pattern of…If you do this, you will live a long and prosperous life; if you do that, you won’t.  And God has provided these patterns because he wants us to apply it to our lives as it relates to our relationship with Him.  We should recognize the significance of making him the center of our lives.  We cross over to the dark side when we attempt to derive a formula from these patterns in order to manage our own destiny.  We automatically push God left of center, even if that’s not our goal.

The Hidden Danger of Patterns

Guilty.  I went through a period of intense fear as a new mother.  Every news report of an abducted child, a sudden infant death, or a major child injury was filed away in my mind.  I constructed an elaborate algorithm of do’s and don’ts to keep my children safe.  I began obsessing over their future and if I ever heard a story of a mishap, and the parents did everything right according to my algorithm, I was terrified.  I had to go through a lengthy process of confessing each and every one of those fears and committing them to the security of my Lord and Savior.  I had to admit I couldn’t create a formula to control my destiny or theirs.  I had to make God my center and fully trust him in life and death.

When my dear friend, Sarah, lost her husband in October 2014 through a bizarre and tragic shooting, I found myself again trying to file this appropriately in my mind.  He was a police officer on an assignment for the Sheriff’s department when his partner shot him.  Jeremy was by all accounts a good and decent family man.  More than that, he loved God with all of his heart and he had lived life well.  Why God?  I literally said to myself, “I can easily understand the “why” of Ananias and Sapphira’s death, but my formula doesn’t work here!”   He was doing what Proverbs said to do.  Why wasn’t he granted a long and prosperous life? Jeremy’s loss exposed my insecurity because I couldn’t explain it away, and therefore I felt at risk.  What if tragedy strikes my family?  I want a formula to prevent it.

The Only Formula We Need to Understand

God answered my question with Leviticus 10:3, “I will display my holiness through those who come near me.  I will display my glory before all the people.”  God doesn’t reveal his patterns so that we can create an algorithm to manage our own lives.  He reveals it so we will come near to him and understand that Jesus is everything.  Everything.

Looking back at the early church in this chapter of Acts, they were filled with a holy fear when they heard of Ananias and Sapphira’s death.  They didn’t want to die, but they weren’t afraid of dying either.   If they were, they would have stopped witnessing all together.  They saw this event appropriately as a sign to place God at the center of everything.  Grace says that we are not compelled to make him central, we are free to.

It’s more than merely making Jesus a priority, because he won’t be reduced to the first among a long list of things that are important to me.  He’s not something I can accomplish like a level on a video game.  He’s not something I think about only on Sundays.  Our culture is filled with the sentiment that there’s a time and a place for God.  When I can come to a point where I allow him sovereign rule over every room in my life, then the “why’s” in my mind begin to dissipate, and the Holy Spirit takes over.

There’s nothing wrong with discovering and applying patterns in scripture.  There’s nothing wrong with rigorously pursing God with works and service to the Lord.  There’s nothing wrong with the types of ceremony and praise we apply in worship.  From the ancient to the modern, God has always been more concerned with our heart than anything else.  Are we allowing Christ to be the only thing?  Are we allowing all that we do to flow from Christ and back to him?  Every single day?

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.  Look full in his wonderful face.  And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace. –Helen H. Lemmel, 1922

Practice What We Preach – Unity: ACTS 4

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“The stone that you builders have rejected has now become the cornerstone.”

Cornerstone.  The gospel in one word.  There are a number of definitions for cornerstone, however for now we going to ruminate on just one.

“A stone uniting two masonry walls at an intersection.”

I like the imagery here.  I see a picture of two walls going completely different directions, only to be brought together and joined by the cornerstone.  Not only do they connect through the cornerstone, the junction itself creates a structure for growth.  In other words, the cornerstone brings about the ability for these two walls to accomplish much more than they could on their own.


Death and life are two disparate paths heading in completely different directions. However when Jesus conquered death on the cross, these two paths found a crossing.  All of humanity walks on the path that leads to death, with no hope of a junction into life, until the cornerstone is revealed.  Under the Old Covenant, the Jew and the Gentile were also disparate; two walls going in different directions, symbolizing death and life.   Under the New Covenant, Jesus formed an intersection, bringing them together.  This is the Gospel and a picture of unity that only Jesus can accomplish.    He is the very essence of our togetherness, and through this Cornerstone of unity, we as a Church are unstoppable in our holy purpose.

He existed before anything else and he holds all of creation together. (Colossians 1:16 NLT)

Consider the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.  This also is a story of unity, however a unity for an unholy purpose.  It follows the story of Noah and the flood and entails a large population of people consorting to build a tower to the heavens.  I don’t believe that building this tower is what made their purpose unholy, but rather the motivation behind it.  Scripture says they were building the tower to make a name for themselves, to become famous in the land.  I believe their desire to reach heaven was to find equality with God, and there is the unholy heart of the matter.    What I find interesting is that scripture also says they hoped this tower would prevent them from being scattered throughout the earth.   They wanted to remain together.  God sees this and says,

Look!…The people are united, and they all speak the same language.  After this nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!  (Gen 11:6 NLT)

This is the power of unity.  So God determined to confuse their languages and stem the tide of their ungodly direction.  Then what happened?  They scattered.  The exact thing they had hoped to avoid. I assume they regrouped according to language and developed new communities.

Of course it’s only logical they would regroup to communicate, however it’s important to note their desire to stay together suddenly changed.  They didn’t stick around to learn each other’s languages.  Humanity desires to be united with each other, BUT we want to be united with people who are like us.  Here in the United States we have a rich history of diversity as the melting pot of race, religion, culture, and language.  Even so, we have yet to overcome the turbulent divides that have separate us by our differences.  We struggle against our nature to want to “keep to our own.”  Thank goodness that doesn’t exist in the Christian community, right?  (That’s intended as sarcasm.)  Why is it that we’ve made tremendous strides to integrate our schools and our workplaces, but we remain starkly segregated in our places of worship?


When Jesus became the cornerstone, he became the intersection for unity, and he overcomes our instincts to want to go our own direction with our own people.  While God broke the union of the people who were called to an unholy purpose at the Tower, he brings together those of us who are called to a holy one.  Jesus brings together Black and White, Hispanic and Asian, Arabic and Jew.  He joins the Catholic and the Protestant, the Charismatic and Fundamentalist, the liberal and conservative, as well as those who sprinkle and those who immerse.  Unity among Christians is intentional, and it springs from the overflow of the Holy Spirit.  Again, we must be empowered by the Holy Spirit.

 All the believers were united in heart and mind. (Acts 4:32 NLT)

It’s not a coincidence that Luke follows the account of Peter and John’s trial with a description of the believers’ unity.   Unity provided the necessary strength to pursue their calling in spite of the persecution.  To be sure, the early believers did not create an unrealistic utopia donned by rose-colored glasses.  They weren’t limiting their vision to rainbows and unicorns.  In fact, we are going to see some of their problems in chapter five.  I believe when verse 32 says they were united in heart and mind, scripture is saying they rose above the disagreements, not that they didn’t have them.  I see two components to their unity: heart and mind.  Back in Acts 2, the believers were intentional about staying plugged into the Holy Spirit through their commitment to the scriptures, prayer, praise, and worship.   They were intentional with their mind and the Holy Spirit overflowed through their heart.

Maybe you’ve noticed the Church in America is entrenched in a full-scale culture war.  Satan cannot destroy the gospel, so he’s intent on making it as ineffective as possible by using the oldest trick in the book: divide and conquer.    He knows exactly what a unified, empowered Church can accomplish.  After Peter speaks in chapter 4, about 5,000 men were added to the Church in a matter of minutes.  The leaders of the Temple definitely took note and an orchestrated opposition began.  It does nothing to slow the growth of the Church.  It actually seems to spur it on.  Unity among the Body of Christ is as necessary as it has ever been if we want to continue to see the Church grow.


Bless those who persecute you.  Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.  Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with each other.  Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people.  And don’t think you know it all!  (Romans 12:14-16 NLT)

In the Apostle Paul’s words, this is how you practice unity and operate within the constructs of an ungodly culture.  These are the nuts and bolts of Christianity.  If you’re like me, you want something more than just sparkly platitudes and trite sayings.  So let’s get practical and break it down.

“Be happy with those who are happy.”

It sounds easy enough, right?  Back in junior high and high school, there was this one girl who managed to get everything she tried out for.  I knew if I was going up against her, and only one could be chosen, I wasn’t going to get it.  I did not want to rejoice with her, because I was too competitive.  And yet I found myself being happy for her because she had an amazing way of extending herself to those around her and never gloating, demonstrating great maturity at her young age.  You couldn’t help but like her and rejoice with her.  I was spared much angst by not falling into the temptation of resentment.  Being happy with others doesn’t always come naturally, but it is the wise choice.

“Weep with those who weep.” 

In October 2014 I learned one of my dear friends tragically lost her husband, a Sheriff’s Deputy, at the hand of a fellow police officer in an unusual set of circumstances.  When I saw her that morning, I instantly cried on her behalf as we embraced.   Weep with those who weep is always instinctive.  Ok, not always.  I was shocked to read the comments on the news story’s web report.  So many people were not sympathetic and largely judgmental.  It struck me, when all you see are the facts detailed in a news report, and you have no access to the pain and suffering and the actual people behind the facts, it is all too easy to render a curt judgment.  Consider the mother whose son is struggling with his sexual identity.  What do you do when she shares that he’s attempted suicide and she simply wants to encourage him to be happy with who he is as a gay man?  She wants him to be there for family dinner at Thanksgiving.  Do you weep with her or judge that decision?  In the Book of John it tells of time when Jewish leaders brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery, reminding him that the Law of Moses required her to be stoned.  It was obvious to him they didn’t care about this woman; they were trying to trap him politically.  Jesus responded by saying, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!”  He did this as a challenge everyone present.  Look beyond the facts and into the pain and suffering behind the sin.  When sin is all we see (or the cold, hard facts of a news report), we are disabled from weeping with those who weep.

 “And don’t think you know it all!”

Because you very well don’t know it all!  As a Christian, I spent many years locked inside a prison cell of knowing it all.   You, too, may know this type of imprisonment.  In fact, the slew of church splits over the millennia occurred because of know-it-alls.  Before I go on, it’s important for me to say that I’m not at all condemning the Church’s history of denominational splits.  While they were painful, God has brought much good as a result.  With honest reflection, it’s not difficult to see the significant contribution all our denominations have had on our overall understanding of Jesus.   And each has missed the mark at times.  When we choose our church, many of us do so based upon our convictions and understanding.  These strong convictions are  allowed by God himself, but it should not lead us to believe we have it all correct and that he won’t lead us to change in the future.  God always has a purpose for our misunderstanding.  He’s done it before.

We need only to look at the Bible to see the perfect example of Godly people misunderstanding the scriptures.  Anytime the Old Testament prophets mentioned Messiah, it so often fell among descriptions of a conqueror, they took that to mean he would come as a military leader.  One who would defeat their enemies and establish a final kingdom with might and power.  The other descriptions in prophecy of a beaten and bruised holy one were so confusing that if they didn’t completely dismiss these, they inferred there might be two who would come.  I’m sure that most were sincere in their convictions and teachings.  They were working with what they had, without our benefit of hindsight.  Over the years it became established doctrine.  It wasn’t correct, but God absolutely used this misunderstanding to fulfill his purpose.  Now we can clearly see their error, but what we cannot see is how God is using our current errors to accomplish his will today.  God might use my misunderstanding, or he might use yours.  Or like the Messiah was prophesied to be both beaten AND a conqueror, it could mean that our differences will somehow both be reconciled as true in the end, but we just can’t see it today.

I had a friend share this phrase with me, “living with a holy uncertainty.”  We must emphasize unity over the things we KNOW to be true and unwavering.  Christ was crucified, buried, and raised three days later.   Christ is the cornerstone that unites us together, various walls going in different directions.  And these variable directions simply aren’t enough to keep us apart.

I have been challenged many times on my doctrinal beliefs and values, and each time the Lord has been faithful to show me the direction he wants me to go.  On some things, he’s been clear I needed to adjust my doctrine.  And I have.  On others, he’s told me to hold fast.  And I have.  God has shown me that I have nothing to fear when faced with the differences of other believers and denominations.  He has called us corporately to spread the good news of the gospel, and he has called us uniquely according to our gifts.  It is possible to go different directions and still be united in heart and mind.