Living an Empowered Life: ACTS 3

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ACTS 3

In this chapter we see Peter providing us with a perfect example of an empowered life.  It might be tempting to think that Peter had an advantage over us considering he personally ministered with Jesus.  But no.  I believe his advantage came from an intimate relationship with Jesus, which is also our advantage.  Peter surrendered his spirit to that of God’s in the exact same way we must.  That can only mean our lives should be just as empowered as Peter’s, right?  So why aren’t they?  Is this passage relevant and applicable today?

An empowered life can be defined as God doing a work through us, just like we see Him work through Peter when he heals the lame man.  Let’s be clear, Peter isn’t awesome because he healed the lame man; God is awesome.  In order for God to do a work through Peter, he had to first do a work IN Peter.  Peter had to be readied for empowerment.  Can you imagine if bolts of lightning directly powered our homes?  We’d all be fried.  Our homes must be readied and prepared to receive the power from the plant before it can be effective.  Two essentials that ready us for empowerment are justification and sanctification.  I usually try to avoid “churchy” words like these, but because these words hold tremendous meaning for a vital, empowered life, indulge me for a moment.

READIED FOR AN EMPOWERED LIFE

Justification

This is the immediate cleansing we receive when we surrender to Jesus and place our faith Him.  We are born again and we are justified.  Until we are justified it is impossible to be empowered by the Holy Spirit because we are about as far from Jesus as we can get.  Justification literally changes everything.  Peter says it in Acts 3:19, “turn to God so that your sins may be wiped away.”

Justification is sometimes defined as forgiveness, but it is much more than forgiveness.  Don’t get me wrong.  Forgiveness is great.  Merriam-Webster defines it as, “to give up resentment of or a claim to requital for, or to grant relief from payment of.”  The challenge with this definition alone is that it implies a single offense.  What about the other claims and debts that may be outstanding or remain in our future?  Once we sin again, we’re guilty again.  When my kids insult or defy me, I insist on an apology from them each time, and I forgive them each time.  This is not how justification works.  Justification takes forgiveness and applies it to all past, present and future offenses. God not only sees the sin that’s going to happen, he’s already there while it’s happening, holding us and guiding us.  Justification says, “You are not a sinner!” while we know perfectly well we still sin.  If you have faith in Jesus, you are justified.  Period.  And you are now ready for sanctification.

Sanctification

This is a process of purification that God promises for us after we’ve been justified and we surrender wholly to him on an ongoing basis.  The Bible compares this process of purification to that used with precious metals.  To bring about the most pure and precious gold, you must place it directly in the fire and heat the metal with extreme heat, have it melt, and then filter out the non-gold impurities, dust, and dirt.  Once it cools, it will be stronger, more beautiful, and highly valued.

Sanctification for believers typically happens through difficult circumstances.  It’s within the tumult that we are tested and shown our most basic nature.  We’re given the opportunity at that point to filter our character impurities.  Are you struggling now?  Do you feel like you’re being shot at from every direction?  Congratulations!   You are probably being sanctified. And if you are, rather than digging in your heels and denying any wrongdoing, simply ask God what he wants you to see.  As God begins to reveal the opportunities for growth, confession and repentance will be the next step to freedom.  It will always break a chain of sin and close a door to Satan.  Over the last seven years God has shown me much of my pride and arrogance and it’s not an easy thing to see, humiliating in fact.  I’ve seen how much I need Jesus, and each time it prepares me for empowerment.

THE EMPOWERED LIFE IS NOT EARNED

The early church did what they did, were who they were, and had great joy because they were empowered.  The Holy Spirit moved through them in the same way he moves through us.  First they were justified through their faith, and then they were sanctified through ongoing surrender and obedience.  So much easier to say than do.  How do we do it exactly?  Our HOW will always, and I mean ALWAYS, fall back to the Holy Spirit.   We must stay plugged into our power source.  Sounds too simple.  But it is that simple.

For all you Type A’s (sorry Type B’s, I’m not excluding you…I’m so envious of your easy going nature) and list keepers out there, as we dig into the how’s of staying plugged into the Holy Spirit, this could present a challenge.   People like us get enormous satisfaction when we cross something off the list.  In my previous professional life, there came a day when I switched from paper to an electronic application for my task list.  Each time I completed a task, I would click the button and the task would disappear.  I have to confess, it irked me that it disappeared because I enjoyed seeing the task crossed on my list.  Well, I immediately adjusted my view so I could see my completed task with the strikethrough line.  At the end of the day I would gaze upon my list of accomplishments accompanied by a sigh loaded with pride.

Y’all, this is not our faith.  I’m not knocking checklists, because I still heart them.  But let’s be honest.  When we apply it to our faith, it represents a need to be in control, and ultimately a desire to earn  that approval God freely gives us.   You know?  I still feel defeated if my list of chores doesn’t get marked off during my day.

When it comes to our relationship with God, if our desire to control and “earn” dominates our behavior, it’s evidence of our lack of faith.  It can manifest as a desire to control other parts of our life too, so watch out list keepers!  We’re essentially saying, “God I’ve got this!  Check on me at the end of the day and I’ll let you know where I could use some help.”  I’ve said it before, we are not in a business/transactional relationship with God and there is not a thing we can do to earn approval from Him.  Consider a parable to further illustrate, found in Matthew 18: 21-35.  I’m going to paraphrase.

THE PARABLE OF THE UNFORGIVING DEBTOR

Called the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor, we start with a king who is balancing his accounts and calls in a servant who owes millions of dollars.  The king demands payment but the servant doesn’t have the funds to repay, so the king threatens to sell him and his entire family into slavery to repay the debt.  The servant immediately drops to his knees and begs for more time.  Even better than that, the king takes pity and completely forgives the debt.  We then see this servant leave and immediately approach one his own debtors, demanding immediate payment.  When that debtor can’t produce the funds to the servant, the servant starts choking the debtor.  He refuses to show the same kindness he just received.  The king learns of it and throws the servant in jail.

Until recently I have always viewed this story from the perspective of the king, and I too would have thrown the man in jail.  Why would this servant refuse to pay it forward?  How rotten.  But consider for a moment that this servant didn’t really believe his debt was fully forgiven.  That he walked away thinking, “whew…I barely made it that time.  I need to hurry and collect so that I can start paying back what I owe to the king.”   But the king forgave his debt!

What would you do in this scenario?  Do you really believe you are completely justified, forgiven, and fully relieved of debt?  Or do you feel like you need to complete a list of “Christian” activities to repay the King?  A lack of faith will eventually take one down a dangerous path.  When we don’t fully believe we are justified before Christ, we can’t help but pull out our checklist and earn our approval.  And it’s at that point we unplug from the Holy Spirit.  Faith does the opposite!

HOW TO STAY PLUGGED INTO THE SPIRIT

Okay, hopefully we understand that we cannot simply work harder for the Holy Spirit’s power.  We cannot earn what’s freely given.  So then, where do we begin?  We are plugged into the Spirit when we are with Him, and we are with Him in several ways.  Let’s go back to Acts and look at our passage.  In fact let’s back up into last week’s lesson, Acts 2:42.  It says the believers devoted themselves to, “the apostle’s teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.”  Later in verse 46 and 47 you see the phrases, “They worshipped together at the Temple each day…all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of the people.”

Here’s a great start:

·       Devote yourself to God’s Word and the teaching of it.

·       Devote yourself to fellowship with other believers.

·       Devote yourself to prayer, all the while worshipping and praising.

These are the things that take you out of your own flesh and plug you into the Holy Spirit.

Peter and John went to the Temple one afternoon to take part in the three o’clock prayer service.  As they approached the Temple, a man lame from birth was being carried in. (Acts 3:1-2 NLT)

At this point Peter and John were probably accustomed to surprises from the Lord.  They’d seen plenty of miracles from Jesus and now they too were performing many signs and wonders (Acts 2:43). I’m sure they’d come to expect the unexpected.  However in this moment, they were on their way to a prayer service.  I’m guessing they didn’t wake that morning saying, “Hey let’s head over the Temple this afternoon and see what we can stir up for Jesus today.”  And they weren’t just going to the Temple out of obligation because it was their custom.  The preceding verses in Chapter 2 definitely indicate otherwise.  They were pursuing their intimate relationship with Jesus and I’m positive that was their motivation in that moment.  They were going to the Temple to pray.  They were probably already preparing their hearts as they walked.  Maybe even singing some praises.  They were plugged in.

So when the opportunity to glorify God presented itself, they immediately saw it.  They followed the Spirit’s direction, the man was healed, and many of the people in the Temple were receptive.  Because Peter was plugged in, he again saw the opportunity to address the crowd.  How do we know it was the Spirit of God?  Peter immediately denies any connection to the miracle.  He could not have accomplished this in his own power.  He gives all credit to God.

This passage reveals so much about empowerment.  Preaching, witnessing, serving and miracles all flow through empowerment.  But they don’t come first.  We must first be WITH Jesus.  In fact, IN him.  This is the HOW of staying plugged in.  Everything else results from the overflow.  If this still sounds too simple, and you find yourself a little confused about how this happens, don’t worry.  Keep devoting yourself to this Bible study and ask God to show you truth.  Pray and ask God to make the changes he desires in your heart.  Ask him to speak to you and make you aware when you unplug.  These are the kinds of prayers that get answered because these are the things he desires for us.

The Spirit is Hovering, Engaged, and Ready to Move: ACTS 2

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ACTS 2:1-21

Who is the Holy Spirit?  An unavoidable question for this lesson.   At least it should be.  He is God distinctly, and even though he does not function independently from the Trinity, it does not reduce him to a third string player either.   To understand the Holy Spirit, it’s quite imperative to do so within the context of the triune God.  If the Trinity confuses you, don’t worry.  You’re in good company because it IS confusing.  Let’s try anyway.

GOD THE FATHER

On the surface, God the Father is fairly easy to understand.  He’s the Supreme Being, the force behind everything, creator of the universe.  He manifests himself in thunder and lighting and generally incites fear.   In Exodus 20 Moses ascended to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the commandments, and the Lord came down to meet him.

“When the people heard the thunder and the loud blast of the ram’s horn, and when they saw flashes of lightning and the smoke billowing from the mountain they stood at a distance, trembling with fear.” (Exodus 20:18 NLT)

Because thunder and lightning are often associated with God’s majesty and power, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that he is also an angry, mean, and scary God.  I’ll be honest, when I imagine God the Father, the imagery of Zeus with his lighting bolt makes its way into my mind because it’s an easy, albeit poor, substitute.  Yet the scriptures say that God is Love – infinity. Let’s clarify the distinction.  While his power might be intimidating, his character is not.

Now I know Zeus is pagan and in no way parallels our God, but to the concrete thinker, God is difficult to understand.  I saw a video the other day comparing the sizes of all the planets, our sun, and other documented stars.   Talk about enormous; it blows my mind.  Add to it the evidence that the universe is both infinite and expanding.  What?  How can infinity expand?  And if God created this universe and these stars, then it stands to reason that he exists outside of it. Outside of infinity?  I tried to find the answer to this “infinite and expanding” question and found a website entitled, Explain It Like I’m 5.    The question was posed and one of those who responded said,  “our minds are not equipped to think about infinity in an intuitive way.”

You know what?  That’s exactly what God said too.

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.  (Isaiah 55:9 NLT)

We won’t ever completely understand our God on this side of eternity, and I’m not so sure we’ll completely understand it on the other side either.  But I am pretty sure we won’t care, we’ll just be glad to be there because God is Love…infinity.

GOD THE SON

Jesus is soooo much easier to understand, right?  He provides us with a definite, human image that we can wrap our brains around.  He’s tangible.  Alright, so the images are those of artist’s renderings, and we all have agreed to see him with fair skin, and long, dark hair, and kind eyes.  I’m sure the kind eyes are accurate, but regardless, our Heavenly Father allowed his Son to leave his Glory in the heavens so that we can have some way to make sense of Him.  He gave up glorious qualities like omnipresence to exist as a human in a corruptible body with aches and pains.  He was kind and loving without fail.  He taught us and prayed for us.  And he paid the ultimate price for us.  But this Jesus was on the scenes long before his entrance into Mary’s womb as Messiah.  This is where God seems to get weird again.  Jesus actually created the heavens and the earth.  You might ask, “Didn’t  you just say God the Father created everything?”  Yes.  They are one.  Our biblical evidence for this is found in the first chapter of John where he states,

In the beginning the Word already existed.  The Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He existed in the beginning with God.  God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him…So the Word became human and made his home among us. (John 1:1-3, 14 NLT)

The Word is Jesus.  So maybe Jesus isn’t as concrete as we thought.

GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT

Now bring on the Holy Spirit.  He is key to helping us know God, by explaining spiritual complexities.  What makes the Spirit difficult to understand is that the imagery for Him is even more vague than the first two.  Concrete thinkers, like myself, need pictures.  So the only pictures scriptures provide are those of a ghost (a little creepy), or a flame of fire, and better yet- wind (is that really a picture?).  The reason for all the ambiguity is that he’s not really seen, but experienced.

Admittedly, I have avoided the Spirit for most of my life.  I guess it was kind of scary to me, even more so than lighting and thunderbolts.  I was raised to be wary of the spirit world; that it existed, and it was dangerous because of Satan.  However, looking back, by “closing doors” to Satan, I was unintentionally closing the door to the Holy Spirit too.  I mean, if the Holy Spirit did something amazing in me, how could I be sure it wasn’t an evil one?  What if I was deceived by an evil spirit that only looked beautiful?  My subconscious default was to just avoid them all.

I’m going to call it the way I see it.  There are many of us, trained in conservative Christian doctrine, who make this mistake.  We’re not really confident we understand this Spirit, so we unintentionally avoid Him.  So the question must be asked.  Who is the Holy Spirit?  And how can we discern him?

WHO IS THIS SPIRIT?

The Spirit makes His entrance into the scriptures in Genesis.  Creation.

…And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.  (Genesis 1:2 NLT)

The Spirit was hovering.  I get the feeling that something extraordinary is about to happen.  There’s this sense of a holy restraint.  I think the imagery here leaves us with the idea that the Holy Spirit is always engaged, ready to move.

So how does the engagement of the Spirit apply to me?  I think about characters like Moses and King David and Elijah, and is it so surprising they had the Spirit come on them powerfully?   Not for me.  Look at the kind of life they lead.  I live an ordinary life as a mom buying eggs and doing laundry.  I’ll never be a Moses, so when I too easily dismiss their example as not applicable, I also dismiss The Spirit.  He’s hovering and I’m oblivious.

I’m probably not alone, which is why I really like this next example.  In Exodus the Lord gives Moses detailed instructions on how to build the Tabernacle and all the articles for worship.   He also identified a craftsman.

Look, I have specifically chosen Bezalel … of the tribe of Judah.  I have filled him with the Spirit of God, giving him great wisdom, ability, and expertise in all kinds of crafts. (Exodus 31:2 NLT)

There’s not much more mentioned about this man, so for all we know he was just a regular guy who was filled with the Spirit.  I love that – the Spirit filling regular people.  Also the prophet Hagaai recorded God’s words as he called the people to finish building the Temple.  He told them not to be afraid for His Spirit remains among them.

He’s hovering, engaged, ready to move.

Prior to the Day of Pentecost, the way the Holy Spirit appears to work is through a temporary filling.  There were some folks who had the Spirit come upon them more frequently and for longer durations than others, but the Spirit would at points move out.  King David would lament in the Psalms, begging God not to remove His Spirit from him.   But Jesus promises something more during his ministry.  He told the disciples to wait until they are immersed in the Holy Spirit.

Again, the Spirit was hovering, engaged, ready to move.

When the ancient prophets foretold of Emmanuel, God is with us, we see now that the Spirit manifests as God IN us.  This time it’s permanent.  From the moment we believe,the Spirit indwells us permanently.  This is how we function as the living, breathing Body of Christ.

WHAT DOES THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT MEAN?

If we want to discern God’s movements and stirrings, we must be in the Word, reading, studying, and meditating on the Holy Scriptures.  And we need the Holy Spirit to supply the understanding to interpret the Word.  It’s an interdependent relationship.  The scriptures tell us He is a force for comfort and conviction. (John 16:7-11)   He guides us in the way of truth. (John 16:13)  He reveals truth.  He gives us the power to remain faithful, the power to trust.  He intercedes and prays for us on our behalf.  (Romans 8:26-27)  He supplies us with behavioral fruit like goodness, gentleness, and self-control.  (Galations 5:22)

I remember an afternoon several years ago, my son was determined to give up his naps.  I was so dependent on that naptime that I was just as determined to maintain them.  I wasn’t going to allow him to manipulate me.  I can remember repeatedly taking him back to his bed and getting more and more frustrated with his refusal to obey me.  My voice escalated each time.  Then I had a second to see myself and I thought of the fruit of the Spirit, gentleness.  I wasn’t being gentle.  So I studied up on that fruit.  What is gentleness?  What is it not?  How can I work harder to get that?  My studies were interesting, but I still found myself completely frustrated.  Gentleness continued to evade me.  I asked my pastor and he lovingly directed me to the book of John where Jesus talks about the vine and the branches.  Jesus speaks.

Remain in me, and I will remain in you.  For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.  Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches.  Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit.  For apart from me you can do nothing. (John 14:4-5 NLT)

I needed to remain in Christ for the fruit to flow out of me.  Not only did I need the Spirit to supply the fruit, I needed the Spirit’s power to remain in Christ.  Let me say it again.  I cannot remain in Christ by simply trying harder.  I cannot turn activities like reading my Bible, going to church, and prayer  (which are all super fantastic), I cannot turn these things into a checklist.  Trying harder in my own power takes me out of the Spirit immediately. I’m not saying His indwelling presence leaves, just that I’m not tapping into His power.  There is nothing I can do to earn my place in heaven, or earn my position with Christ, or earn the fruit of the Spirit.  We don’t earn these things; they are freely given to us.

All too often we listen to sermons on Sunday encouraging us to live with righteous behavior like loving our neighbors, yet we walk away without the support to understand how to actually do that.   While these sermons are biblical, I’ve sat through too many that left me thinking, “Ok, this week I’ll try harder,” only to fail come next Sunday.  I had no clue I wasn’t plugging into my power source.  Everything I do must come through the power of the Spirit or it will eventually fail.  Trust me.  There is freedom in this.

Allow me to share a quick litmus test.  If you find yourself, treading in frustration, there’s your first indication that you are not plugging in to your power source.  If you begin to see behavior that the Bible speaks against, there’s another indication that you’re not plugging into your power source.  If you feel overwhelmed that your life is not working out the way you had hoped, another indication that you may not be plugging into your power source.  Our power source, the Holy Spirit, supplies us with peace and joy that is in no way dependent upon our circumstances.

The Spirit is hovering, engaged, ready to move!  Are you?

We will dig deeper into the concept of “remaining in Christ” through this study.  It has literally changed my life.  Pray for the Holy Spirit to fill you powerfully with all wisdom and understanding.

The Effective Witness: ACTS 1

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Acts 1:1-26

There were about twenty of us gathered together, seated quietly, eyelids getting heavy.  The sun had set with only a soft glow from the moon and a bright, dancing flicker from the campfire.   We were quiet at this point, but earlier we were loudly chanting, “Let your light shine bright through the night and through the day all the way-ay, Yee Haw!”  This was summer camp. After a week of horseback riding, hiking, and swimming with early mornings and late nights, everyone was exhausted and we gladly sat back for a moment of respite around the fire; if we could just keep our eyes open.  The camp director spoke, and he took advantage of this to inspire us to hang on to our spiritual high that week and take it home with us to our places.

“Don’t be afraid to witness for Christ!” he said.  “Stand firm for your faith.”

“Okay,” I thought.  “I can do it this time.  I’m not going to let this fire die this year.  I’m going to read my Bible every day, do my quiet times, journal my prayers.  I’m going to witness to my friends.”  The only problem was that no one could tell me what that meant.  How exactly was I supposed to witness?  The apostles were witnesses for Christ because they had seen him with their eyes.  They had experienced his miracles, saw him resurrected, and saw him ascend into heaven.  I was a believer, but I had yet to experience Christ.

So unfortunately, this reduced witnessing to the notion that I needed to display my biblical knowledge.  That’s how people were going to understand my God and my faith, right?  I say unfortunately, because this approach usually travelled a path of argumentative discussion as I faithfully corrected folks where they erred in thought or practice.   I wasn’t telling my story, because I had no story to tell.  I was defending the truth and defending Christ as if he wasn’t capable and needed me to do that.  And I was among those who gave Christianity a terrible reputation, believing it was my responsibility to reveal truth.  I would argue that arguing does nothing much constructive, and I regret my approach.  Although well intentioned, it did more damage than good.

In verse 4 of chapter 1 of Acts it says,

“Once when he (Jesus) was eating with them, he commanded them, ‘Do not leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the gift he promised, as I told you before.  John baptized with water but in just a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” (NLT Acts 1:4) 

Can you imagine what their witness would have looked like had they gone out without the Holy Spirit?  I can.

MY WITNESS WITHOUT THE SPIRIT

One morning I was out walking with my newborn son of about 4 weeks.  I caught a glimpse of another mom from my neighborhood trailing behind me.  I had noticed her before and was hoping to meet her.  So I slowed my pace and we met.  Her name was Christy.  We started walking every morning with each other and I learned that she was Mormon.  Many of our beliefs varied from each other and she brought up scripture one day.  Mind you, because I really knew no other way, I thought it was my duty to correct her.  Things escalated into an argument.  I don’t even remember the details of the argument; I just know that it didn’t matter.  Whew!  I had bravely witnessed… and in the space of a few minutes I ruined a relationship with this sweet girl.  I’d like to say that this was the only example from my life, but it’s not.  A year later I found myself at a crossroads, and I came upon Romans 14:1, “Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong.” (NLT)  It hit me like a ton of bricks.  And although there are appropriate times for correction, I immediately thought of Christy and I could finally see myself.  I had evolved into someone who argued with almost everyone.  On that day, I repented and submitted to Jesus.  And it was on that day that I began a new journey with the Lord.  One that would be with the Holy Spirit.  Please note, I was a believer in Christ, and had the Holy Spirit indwelling me, but I was not living my life in the power of the Spirit and there IS a difference.

THE SPIRIT DIFFERENCE

Fast forward about two years ago I was invited to coffee with another mom; our boys were in class together at school.  Prepared for a conversation that would be light and in the realm of “get to know you,” it took an unexpected turn into the deep and spiritual.  She shared her doubts about church, and that she’d pretty much abandoned it and the Bible because they didn’t share her same views of sexuality.  Now had I known we would be discussing this and had I come prepared, I’m almost positive I would have presented a list of all scripture that supported sexual purity; I would have shared a gentle defense of the church’s position.  So I was shocked at what came out of my mouth that morning, and after months of prayer, I am convinced it was the Holy Spirit.

I said, “If that’s a value that you hold dear, go ahead and hang on to it.  Just don’t let that stop you from pursuing God.  You don’t need to change your values to come to God.  If he wants you to change those values, I am confident he will lead you there in His timing and in His way.  Just pursue God.”  I knew that was true because God has moved me to change many of my doctrinal positions that I never thought I would change.  She told me much later that my comment changed everything for her.  She never considered that she could just “table” this issue for a while and come to God just the way she is.  It changed everything for her, and for me too.  It revealed my need to change people to my convictions, rather than just share Jesus.  There is not a single thing we need to do, or believe, or portray to come to Him.

In the second half of Romans 12:2 Paul says, “but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”  God is the one who can do that.  It’s not my job to convince someone to change the way they think.   And how do I know for sure exactly what God wants someone to think?  I can’t be certain.  Sure there’s plenty of well documented behavioral instructions for believers that are clearly not lurking within shades of gray.  That’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about our ability to extend grace to others in their spiritual journey.  When I witness, I share my story, the one God has given me by his grace, and then it’s through His grace that He does the transforming.  I can totally trust God to use my story to transform lives through His Spirit.  Period.  The end.  How do we know when to share our story?  How do we choose our words and affect our tone to convey love? How can we be confident that He can use our words long after he’s told us to hush?  We must be living and breathing in tune with the Holy Spirit.

BECOME AN EXPERT AT WAITING AND PRAYING

In this first chapter of Acts, Jesus told them to wait.  He knew what they were about to embark upon, and He knew they would find themselves tied up in knots without His help.  They would need the perfect words to share their story.  So what did they do while they waited?  In verse 14 of Chapter 1 it says, “They all met together and were constantly united in prayer.”  Prayer is critical while we are waiting.  We need to allow Him to do a work within us, before He can effectively do a work through us.  Because prayer is such a necessary thing for our own transformation, I’d like to spend a minute talking about it.

Entire books have been written on prayer.  So I just want to throw a couple of ideas out there for you to mull over.  What do your prayers look and sound like?  Your prayers will reflect much of what you believe (not what you think you believe) about God deep, deep down.

Could they possibly sound like this?

“Dear God.  I really need this new job.  Please help me get it.  It’s okay if I don’t get it, but please, please, please make it happen.”

“Dear God, thank you for this new job.  Thank you for answering that prayer!”

“Dear God, my boss is horrible.  I hate this job.  I know this is what I asked for, but why is it not working?  Is there some sin in my life?  Are you punishing me?”

“Dear God, please help me get this transfer.  I’m pretty sure this other department will be a much better fit.  Please, please, please help me.”

“Dear God, I don’t know why that transfer didn’t work out, so now I’m going to go back to school and change careers.  Please help me get the scholarship to make it work.  Please, please, please help me.”

I’m not saying these were my prayers, or maybe they sounded a lot like this.  As for me, these prayers reflected a deep down belief that God really wasn’t listening to me.  I held a deep-seated thought that God had bigger and more pressing issues to deal with than my career struggles, e.g. world peace, hunger, and terrorism.  I believed that my prayers were simply a thought process, albeit a selfish one, and a method to develop solutions independently.  Rather than including Him in all the details of my life, I managed my life in my own strength and reduced him to the fringes.  There were legitimate reasons for this: I’d had a lot of training and instruction to work hard and think independently.  My bosses throughout my career always appreciated an employee who could think for herself and initiate solutions, because it kept them free to do their job more effectively.    I subconsciously applied this tactic to my relationship with God.   How foolish of me.  God is much more than the boss.

Without a doubt I spent a lot of time finding my own solutions and basically asking God to bless my efforts.  When my solutions didn’t work out, I’d start the whole process over again.  My prayer life wasn’t about an intimate relationship with God; it was a business relationship.  I approached prayer like it was an office memo to my boss, updating him on my progress.  I didn’t really believe God would speak back to me.  I believed He could, but mostly that He wouldn’t.

And I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Any rewarding relationship is built upon two-way communication, and it goes deep.  His voice comes to us in various forms like scripture, your pastor, a friend, a stirring in your spirit, or in the midst of your prayer time.  When I landed on Romans 14:1 all those years ago it was very, very clear to me that God was speaking directly to me about my life.  Scripture often refers to his voice as sounding like booming thunder as well as a soft whisper.  One time Elijah was running for his life from Queen Jezebel, and he sought refuge in a cave when God began to speak to him.  Elijah witnessed a strong wind and rockslide, a terrible earthquake, and a raging fire.  Scripture says that the Lord was not in those things, although He easily could have been.  Instead He was in the gentle breeze that followed.  How are we ever going to hear Him if we are not settled, quiet, and listening?

So is it wrong to ever express our requests and ask him for things?  Of course not!  Scripture tells us to.

“Do not be anxious for anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”  (Phil 4:6 NIV)  

We’re not presenting our requests to God so that we can inform him.  He already knows.  We are presenting them to God to prepare our hearts for his response.  And then we quietly listen.

It really is so much more rewarding to my soul to hear His response than it is to simply get what I ask for.  His voice is that well water bubbling deep within.  Our witness for Christ must be built upon a solid foundation of prayer.  And that’s what I believe was happening in Chapter 1 of Acts.  We see a group of believers, united in constant prayer, waiting for the promise of the Holy Spirit, so they could be a witness.  Reflect on this.  What is God speaking to you right now?

Overview of Acts, Engaging God’s Word: Acts Lesson#1

Here we are.  Ready to study at The Well.  This summer there were between 4 and 6 of us who regularly met to pray.  I’m confident that God drew exactly whom He wanted to that place.  And pray we did.  For many things.  One of those prayers was for a name.  Do we simply stick with Bible Study for a name?  Do we commit to something else?  We didn’t know.  A recurring theme this summer was that of seeking Him.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that each of us is here because we are seeking Him.  Could we name it, Seeking Him?  It didn’t feel right.  One afternoon I went to Google because that’s almost as good as the Holy Spirit for answering our questions, right?  I Googled the phrase “seeking him, seeking God, and seeking truth,” just to see if I could find anything of inspiration.

 

After about 45 minutes I stumbled onto an article located on the website Fulfilled Prophecy.com, which was kind of weird.  In this article, the administrator of the website told of some analytics he was running.  He learned that people who were landing on his website were using search phrases like

·       End times peace in the middle east

·       Middle east violence and prophecy

·       Saudi peace plan Bible

·       Prophecy about middle east

·       End times

·       Prophecy Jerusalem temple Arafat

·       Thr truth about the bible

The last one really struck him as puzzling.  It didn’t fit with the other phrases.  How would that search phrase land this person on this particular website?  He filed it away in the back of his mind.  Then a couple of weeks later, he was doing some editing and realized he had accidentally misspelled the word “the” with the letters thr.  That’s when he remembered that search phrase “the truth about the bible” also misspelled the word “the”.  Could it be that the search engine pulled this reader to his site only because of that one, common, weird word?

 

This person was obviously searching for truth about the bible.  Was God leading him to this website for a specific purpose? This prompted the website owner to explore this thought further and he was reminded of the woman at the well.  Just for a moment I’ll revisit this story.  It’s found in John chapter 4 if you would like to read it in detail later.  This woman was a Samaritan and that alone was enough for a Jew to openly shun her.  They were considered half-breeds because they had intermarried with Gentiles over the years, which was in direct violation of the law and they were religious outcasts.   Then to add insult to injury she was living in blatant sin.  She’d been married 5 times and was currently living with a man she wasn’t married to, and even in Samaria that probably wasn’t acceptable.  It’s safe to assume she had become accustomed to being shunned.  In fact the scriptures say that Jesus arrived at the well at noon and he was alone.  All the women of the community had probably already fetched their daily water early that morning.  Just guessing, but she probably avoided that time of day so as to avoid their glares and stares.  It’s just easier to avoid the people who shun you.

 

On this day, Jesus opened a conversation with her and she perceived him to be a prophet.  She said, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

 

To which Jesus replied, “You worship that which you do not know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in Spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshippers.” (John 4:19 italics added for emphasis)

 

You see God seeks those who seek him.  What are the odds, that I would find an article such as this on a prophecy website, with a phrase like seeking truth, simply because he misspelled the work t-h-r.  God was answering our prayer for a name, The Well at Santa Fe.  The Well is for those who seek truth.  The interesting thing is that what you find at the well isn’t truth initially…it’s relationship.  If you look back at John 4:13, Jesus tells her, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again.  But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again.  It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”  This.  This bubbling.  This eternal life IS relationship.  It’s through relationship that truth is then revealed.  No one leaves the well unchanged.  If our guess is correct that she came to the well at noon to avoid the townspeople, then she did something unexpected.  This woman went back into town telling everyone she’d seen Messiah; townspeople she’d probably spent years avoiding.  She was a changed woman.

 

Today my prayer is that we approach Jesus at the well as we begin to dig into an incredible history of the early church.  Our goal is not to gain information and more knowledge.  That’s a fringe benefit.  Our goal is to know Him and actively engage in relationship with Him.  Then our gained insight and knowledge will bear amazing fruit.  Here’s what you can expect to find throughout the study:

 

Overarching Themes

·       Church Beginnings – This is where Christianity was born.  Originally referred to as The Way, the followers were eventually assigned the tag of Christian.

·       The Holy Spirit – You’re going to see a great manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  In fact the Acts of the Apostles would never had occurred and the account never written if it weren’t for the Holy Spirit.

·       Church Growth – The church grows exponentially during this time.   Even though many of worry about the direction of our culture and the direction of our country, the truth is, there’s no stopping The Church!

·       Witnessing – The disciples who fathered The Church simply told of what they saw.  They actually saw the miracles of Jesus, they studied under him, and followed him everywhere.  They actually saw him resurrected, fully alive, and continued learning from him.  It was during the 40 days Jesus was on the earth after his resurrection that they began to see the full implication of his death, burial and resurrection.  They bore witness to what they saw in ACTS.

·       Opposition – There is opposition to the gospel message.  Plain and simple.  The Book of Acts does not avoid it and we will explore this history and relate it to the context of our own lives.

 

Key Players

You’re going to see two primary characters develop in this book.

·       Peter whose ministry was focused on the Jews

·       Paul whose ministry was focused on the Gentiles

And Luke.  Although he takes a back seat in this chronicle, he’s there.  All scholars pretty much agree that Luke wrote the book of Acts as he did the Gospel of Luke.  Tradition holds him to be the only Gentile contributor to scripture.   He accompanied Paul almost everywhere.  Believed to have been a physician by background, you can see his personality come through as he scribes this account with meticulous details.

I’m hoping you see the connections between Acts and the gospel accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus.  See how Jesus’s promises were largely filled during this time, and that his word can be trusted.  Jesus once spoke of a mustard seed to describe the Kingdom of God.  In Mark 4:30 he says, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God?  What story should I use to illustrate it?  It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground.  It is the smallest of seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.”  Jesus says throughout his ministry that the Kingdom of God is at hand.  You see it unfold in Acts.

I’m hoping you’ll see the disciples honestly.  During the ministry of Jesus, they were selfish, judgmental, ignorant in many ways, and sometimes just dumb.  But they loved Jesus.  When I read some of their questions and statements, I just cringe.  I cringe because they’re not unlike me.  They were weak, cowards, and abandoned Jesus during his lowest moments, and they were normal people who wanted to love God and but didn’t really know how.  Jesus did not allow them to remain this way.  You will see demonstrative change in their lives throughout Acts.  They don’t reach perfection, as none of us will, but they are like roaring lions with the power of the Holy Spirit.  I pray we’ll see demonstrative change in each of our lives this year.

It’s also just fun to see the connection between the historical account of this time and the epistles that were written by the apostles.  They help each other fill in the blanks, and you receive insights as to what God was doing in their hearts as they witnessed and ministered to the world.

If you are doing this bible study with me online, I welcome you to comment and enter the discussion.  Honestly reflect on the questions at the end of each lesson.  Allow them to rest in your heart and then turn them into prayer.  We will approach the Throne of Grace and ask for God’s revelation.  Let’s not hold anything back this year.  Each week we’ll go through the questions and share our thoughts with each other.

Please be mindful of our fellow members of the Body of Christ joining this study.  We represent many different denominations and it is absolutely beautiful to be together, unified in Christ.  Each denomination has made important and significant contributions to our faith over the years.  You might face some internal conflict.  Remember that some conflict is actually healthy, and can help us grow.  Jacob wrestled with God back in Genesis, and you’ll see this kind of conflict in the book of Acts as well.  We’re not going to avoid it entirely, but all comments must be made in love.  Without love, everything is meaningless.

Introduction to Fall Bible Study

Photostock Acts

Burned to the ground.  Decimated.  Nothing but rubble and charred remains were what you saw.  I’ve not personally survived a disaster so I don’t know exactly what it  feels like to survive a tornado or house fire.  If you listen to the accounts of disaster victims, you will hear common threads weaved into their stories.  Accounts of desperate loss, especially if family members or beloved pets were trapped.  You’ll hear them speak about the loss of their stuff.  These folks will tell you they don’t really want to hear the “comforting” comments of, “You’ll be okay…It’s just material possessions that can be replaced.”  This “stuff” represents their life, their heritage, their beliefs and values.  Even if they have insurance, it does not replace the deep feelings of loss.  You’ll also hear the phrase, “I feel so alone.”   Without the comfort of your own walls and belongings, you begin to question your future, your safety, and your control.  And that almost always lands in loneliness.

I want to share a story about a group of people who faced this head on.  After generations of captivity in Babylon Israel was finally released and they returned home to Jerusalem.  Everything was gone.  Their temple was burned to the ground.  Their homes completely turned to rubble.  Lifeless and lonely.   Everything that represented who they were was completely gone.  So they began to rebuild…their homes…and their temple.  After several years of rebuilding efforts, the work on the temple came to a standstill.   For about ten years.

Then the Lord spoke to Haggai.  In chapter 1 verse 3 of Haggai the Lord says, “Why are you living in luxurious houses while my house lies in ruins?  Look what’s happening to you!”  So evidently the rebuilding continued in the community.  Just not on the temple.  They were tending to the day to day of their lives, and their homes but they weren’t satisfied.  He goes on to say, “You have planted much but harvest little.  You eat but are not satisfied.  You drink but are still thirsty.  You put on clothes but cannot keep warm.  Your wages disappear as though you were putting them in pockets filled with holes.”  This says a lot about their lives.  The ashes they came upon had started to take shape.  They were farming again, working again, doing better than surviving.  But not thriving.

It’s important to note here, that this is not a judgment about how nice their homes were.  Nor is it an indication of how beautiful God thinks the temple should be.  Remember, this is the same God who also tells his believers earlier in scripture not to build an alter out of cut and shaped stone lest they turn their eyes from Him and begin to admire their own handiwork.  (Ex 20:25) No this is a God who judges on the heart.  He always has.  This was a call to action.

He goes on to say in verse 8, “Now go up into the hills, bring down timber, and rebuild my house.”  So why did they stop building?  Scripture points to a several things that brought on serious discouragement for Zerubbabel, the governor, and the people.

In Haggai 2:3 God says, “Does anyone remember this house – the Temple – in its former glory?  How, in comparison, does it look to you now?”  It had been a little over 60 years since the temple had been destroyed and longer than that since they’d been carried off to Babylon.  There may have been a few who had actual memories of the former temple, but no doubt they had all heard about its fame and glory.  It must have seemed pitiful to them.  They were just a remnant; so few.  How could they ever compare to their ancestor master builders?  Isn’t that what we do all the time?  We compare ourselves to other talented people in our field, and equate success with their accomplishments.  That can snuff out our fire more quickly than dousing of water, leaving us hopelessly discouraged.

To top that Israel had a host of enemies living around them, determined to stop that temple.  They tried to infiltrate the community posing as helpers bent on discouraging them, and when that didn’t work they went directly to Artaxerxes, the king at the time, and successfully received a sanction on the Temple.  Too discouraged to fight it, they just stopped.

Then life took over.  Farming fields, growing businesses, building houses, expanding wardrobes, making meals, soccer practice, club meetings…you know what I mean.  They began to sink into daily living and lost sight of their God.

So why was the Temple so important to God?  Scripture indicates over an over that God had planned to bless the entire world through Israel.   Ever since he brought them out of Egypt into the promised land, he had a purpose for Israel.  They were to be a light to world.  They were to make God’s name known among the nations.  If they were discouraged to the point of losing sight of God, then they were not serving their purpose, and the entire world would suffer.  You see, God has always cared about the entire world, and he still does.

There’s something interesting here.  He goes on to encourage them a few verses later in Chapter 2 to be strong.  “And now get to work, for I am with you…My Spirit remains among you, just as I promised when you came out of Egypt.  So do not be afraid.”  The great and mighty things he calls us to?  The small and intricate things he assigns us?  He doesn’t ask us to do them without His Spirit.  It’s always been with His Spirit.  And today, we have His Spirit indwelling in us from the moment we believe.

My challenge to us as we study together this year… My challenge is that we pray that God would reveal his purpose for our lives.  His call to action.  Whether big or small, it doesn’t matter, because that’s purely defined by the culture we live in…and that changes in the blink of an eye.  His call on our lives, is uniquely designed for us in the corner of the world where we live.  I pray for revival and a transformation among believers in our community.  And I believe it can start here.  Let’s study and pray for God to reveal his unique call to action for each of us.