November 20, 2017

November 20, 2017

ACTS 18-20

Focus Verse: And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.
Acts 20:22-24

 

This is pretty heavy stuff. I don’t know Paul, but if I did, I might suggest to him that he not lead off dinner conversations with topics such as these. Makes for some pretty convicting reading material for us though. To what lengths will you follow the Holy Spirit? Paul had drawn a line in the sand and made it pretty clear on which side he was standing.

 

This is the kind of faith that I want in my walk with the Holy Spirit. If I’m being honest, most of the affliction I face (and let’s be honest, in the American church, that’s nothing compared to what Paul was going through) is stuff that takes me by surprise. I think it has to, because I’d probably run from it if I knew it was coming. So here’s why I was convicted when reading this passage this morning.

 

Here’s Paul, going through about a billion times more persecution than I will ever go through, and the Holy Spirit is telling him that more is coming. Yet he still follows! Let’s be honest, even if you don’t believe in God at all, you have to at least admire his convictions here. This is a man who was unwavering. He believed with all of his heart (and was right) that this next leg of his missionary trip was going to end poorly for him. But he was still obedient.

 

This isn’t possible in the human flesh…unless you’ve got something waiting for you on the other side of this suffering that is worth it. And Paul did. But it required him looking past this temporary world and putting his faith in something that he couldn’t see. This is something that we aren’t very good at doing as humans – especially in today’s society. We tend to look for immediate gratification as opposed to delayed rewards.

 

But Paul was bound by the Spirit. Quite literally, the same Greek word used for prisoners taken captive and put in chains. There goes the whole free-will argument, huh? Not really. Paul had taken his free-will and gave it over to the authority of Jesus Christ. He had such a powerful experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he really had no other choice. He had seen the glory of God and was now held captive by the Holy Spirit.

 

Paul had an opportunity to see what was waiting for him after all of the trials and persecution was over. And he deemed that nothing this world threw at him would be able to top that. There was no longer anything this world could give him or take from him that would diminish the glory he saw in Jesus Christ.

 

So let’s apply this to us. Again, God has taken it out of our hands. There’s nothing we can do except throw ourselves on His mercy and grace. So you want this kind of attitude? The kind of life that says, “Life, throw at me what you will, I’m sold out and won’t relent.” Then you have to have an experience that shows you what…or WHO…is waiting for you on the other side of these trials. Not the rewards that we will receive because we persevere, but the PERSON we will receive – Jesus! Only the Holy Spirit can reveal His glory to us. And He is more than happy to if we will just surrender our stubborn pride and ask!

 

Ask for more of Him. Ask to “taste and see that the Lord is good”. He will never deny anyone of that!

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November 19, 2017

November 19, 2017

ACTS 16-17

Focus Verse: But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Acts 16:26-30

 

Sometimes the miracle that you’ve been waiting for isn’t for you at all. Sometimes, when you’re given an opportunity to be delivered from a really stinky situation, if you take a listen to the Holy Spirit, He will tell you to sit tight and let someone else be delivered first.

 

That’s what happens here with Paul and Silas, and I think some of us lose the weight of this acts because we know how the story ends. Spoiler alert…Paul and Silas end up being set free and nothing more comes of it. But Paul and Silas didn’t know that when the offered to be obedient to the Holy Spirit and stay in jail.

 

Persecution of Christians hadn’t quite reached its peak yet, but it’s not like Jew or Christians were super secure either. Paul and Silas had to have known that they could very easily be punished pretty severely, if not put to death. Yet they chose to stay.

 

The Bible is actually fairly silent here, but I feel pretty safe saying that the Holy Spirit was leading Paul in this decision. All of Acts 16 talks about how Paul and Silas are just kind of floating from city to city by the leading of the Holy Spirit; being told to go to some cities while avoiding others. So it’s a pretty safe bet that they are still floating down that river of obedience to the Holy Spirit.

 

If this is the case, then we can learn something pretty cool about how the Holy Spirit moves. Sometimes, in the midst of really crummy circumstances and situations, we need to stop looking for our way out and start looking at who we can help. Now it’s funny, because I’ve heard many people preach the exact opposite. You can’t truly help someone unless you yourself are in a healthy place to do so. I just don’t know that I really buy that.

 

Show me one time in Scripture where God says that? Instead, all throughout the Bible I see God using broken people to carry out His will and show others how to follow Jesus. But here is where the essence of Christianity is so important. If Christianity were just another teaching, if Jesus were just a teacher showing us how to obey rules, then the leaders of that teaching should probably be pretty good at following those rules. But that’s not what Christianity is!

 

Jesus tells ALL believers to follow HIM! So when we teach people, you don’t come at them like the world does with its knowledge, you come at them with a wisdom that can only come from hitting your knees before God. When we make disciples, we aren’t people who have all the answers, we are people pointing others to the One who has all the answers…Jesus!

 

Most of us, myself included, will let our situations and circumstances paralyze us. We get so busy trying to find God’s deliverance FOR us, that we forget to look for how God would send His deliverance FROM us. I’m not trying to make light of your trials; I’ve been through some doozies and they suck! There’s no getting around that. But I have also let some trials completely consume me to the point where I don’t let God teach me and develop me through them. I definitely don’t take the time to see how God could be using my struggles to deliver someone else.

 

But that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit does here through Paul and Silas. They have an opportunity to run for it…freedom is right there in front of them. But instead, they stick around and see this jailer and his entire family find salvation in Jesus Christ. None of that would have happened if they had been too focused on their own deliverance.

 

So how do we do it? How do we look for opportunities to set others free in the middle of our worst circumstances? Well, the good news is, that’s not your burden to bear. You can’t do it. But Jesus did! Jesus was able to continue ministering while hanging on the cross. He told John to take care of His mother, He extended forgiveness to those crucifying Him, He granted salvation to the repentant thief. And because of what Jesus did on the cross, and especially what He did after the cross, we now have the same power to do what Jesus did through the Holy Spirit working in us!

November 18, 2017

November 18, 2017

ACTS 14-15

Focus Verse: And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.
Acts 15:8-9

 

The argument here in Acts 15 centered around a question that is still being asked to this day. We may phrase it a little differently than they did back then, but people still have very staunch stances on this issue. So the question that the church founders are discussing here in Acts 15 is about circumcision, but the bigger picture is about national identity. When Gentiles put their faith in Jesus Christ, do they also have to become Jewish? That is what circumcision represented.

 

Now one side says, “Yes”, and it’s pretty easy to connect the dots to see the parallels in the modern day church. Jesus saves us by His grace, but there is still a standard of living that He expects us to uphold. After all, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to bring it to completion.

 

The other side of the debate shouts, “No!” To talk of standards of living and expectations, to add burdens that people must live by, this is adding to the grace of Jesus! And you can’t do that! We are saved by grace alone!

 

So which is the right answer? As with most debates by humans we see in the Bible, the answer is both and neither. Both of these sides of the argument are equally wrong and equally right! Perplexing, huh? But that’s the Gospel for you.

 

I love how God takes this issue out of the hands of humans to mess up. Now we’ve still managed to do our best to mess it up, but that’s not God’s fault. He spells it out pretty clearly here in the focus verse for today. When God made the move to baptize Gentiles in the Holy Spirit BEFORE they were circumcised, baptized in water, anything legalistic or ritualistic, He was making the loudest statement He could possibly make without handing the disciples a stone tablet with the rules written on it.

 

God is telling the early church, as well as us today, that you don’t have to be Jewish to follow Christ…but you also don’t have to STOP being Jewish to follow Christ. Jesus takes the Jewish culture, corrects the things that need corrected and perfects it, just like He does with us. The same is true for whatever nationality you come from. Jesus doesn’t colonize you into “Western”, “Eastern”, “American”, “European”, or anything like that, but He also doesn’t pretend that your culture isn’t a huge part of who you are.

 

We are told all throughout the Bible that people from all over the world will be worshiping Jesus in heaven – every tribe and tongue. This leads one to believe that there will still be diversity in heaven! God’s not going to shake us up and erase us like an etch-a-sketch and start all over. We still get to keep our identity! Isn’t that cool!

 

So the good news for the Gentiles is that they don’t have to conform to Judaism to become Christians. AND the good news for the Jews is that they don’t have to stop being Jewish to become Christians! Is there a morals set of standards that we must live by to be “Christians”, yes! But HIS name is the Holy Spirit, and unlike a set of rules, He walks with us and gives us the power to uphold the things He leads us in.

 

It’s not man’s plan, it’s God’s. It far surpasses anything that any human could possibly come up with. It may sound like foolishness to the wise, but to the fool for Christ, it is the very wisdom of God!

November 17, 2017

November 17, 2017

ACTS 11-13

Focus Verse: So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.
Acts 12:5

When she recognized Peter’s voice, because of her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and announced that Peter was standing in front of the gate. They said to her, “You are out of your mind!” But she kept insisting that it was so. They kept saying, “It is his angel.” But Peter continued knocking; and when they had opened the door, they saw him and were amazed.
Acts 12:14-16

 

What prayers are you praying for that you honestly don’t expect God to answer? “Well that’s crazy.” You say. “Why would I pray something that I don’t want God to answer?” Yet that’s the exact position that we see the early church in here with Peter. They are praying like crazy that God would intervene and save Peter from his impending death, yet, when Peter shows up at their doorstep they can’t believe it’s him.

 

God answering their prayer was the last thing that they though would happen. Isn’t that just how God works though…isn’t that just how we work? We show up at church every Sunday and expect to see our friends and family, our pastor and a few people we don’t really care for, but the last person we expect to show up is God. We pray for healing, for deliverance, for freedom, for all sorts of things, and the last thing we expect is that God would actually hear our prayers and answer them!

 

I think there are two sides to our prayer life that this reflects. The first, I don’t think we want to get our hopes up. Expectation is a dangerous, double-edged sword. On the one hand, we can’t approach God without it. We have to come to Him expecting Him to do what we can’t. On the other hand, if we set our expectations on Him moving and it doesn’t happen the way or in the time frame that we are expecting, it can cause some to walk away from God altogether. So expectation is a tricky little monster to navigate.

 

The second part of our prayer life that this reflects is that I don’t think we pay enough attention to what we are praying. “Sure, I’ll pray that God heals your great Aunt of cancer!” And then we relegate it to the back of the memory shelf with next years Christmas gift ideas and in-laws birthdays (just kidding…I love my in-laws very much and know all of their birthdays). But the last thing that we expect is that God would honor a pray that we throw up half-heartedly.

 

But here’s the deal – if God answers prayers that we answer with hesitant expectations and half-hearted enthusiasm…can you imagine what He would do with the prayers that we really go after!?! What if every time someone asked you to pray for something…no matter how “silly” their request may seem (and let me go on the record to state that there is no such thing as a silly request in God’s eyes. If it’s important enough for you to care about it, it’s important enough for Him to care about it. That’s how much He loves you!)…you prayed for that request as if it was the most important thing in the world.

 

What if we went after every prayer request with limitless expectations and whole-hearted devotion? Can you imagine what God would do? And the answer to that is no, you can’t. We cannot even begin to fathom how God would blow our minds, how “exceedingly, abundantly” above and beyond our wildest dreams He would go. And it all starts with going “all in”, in your prayer life.

 

So what do you say? Will you go all in with me today on every single prayer you pray?

November 16, 2017

November 16, 2017

ACTS 9-10

Focus Verse: But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
Acts 9:13-16

 

I really wish we had audio recordings of some of these conversations in the Bible. Vocal inflection would be super helpful in this passage today.

 

Before we get too deep into speculation though, can we just step back and appreciate (especially those of us who aren’t of Jewish descent) the enormous bravery of Ananias. And while we’re at it, a huge thank you and prayer of blessing for those who risk their lives every day to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ananias is asked by God to take this message of Jesus to the very person who has made it his life’s mission to jail and/or kill these messengers of Christ.

 

Now Ananias goes through what most of us do when God wants us to do something that’s pushing the borders of our comfort zone. “Are you sure God? Just double-checking here, but are you sure you’ve thought this through God? This Saul guy kills people like me. You remember Stephen, right? Just want to make sure you have the right address before I deliver this particular passage.”

 

And here’s where vocal inflection would really help our interpretation of Scripture. The NASB translates God’s response with a comma, “God, for…”. Other translations, however, add an exclamation point, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument…” (NIV). So I am curious what God’s response was. An exclamation point indicates that God might have been a little upset with Ananias for questioning Him.

 

Now I’m going to follow this path a little bit, because it teaches us a very solid, biblical principal. I do want to preface this with the fact that I would highly advise one to NOT do what I am doing here. I’m reading into Scripture something that is VERY subjective. Since we don’t know exactly how God answered Ananias, this is pure speculation. NOW, if I were going to make a point here in which there is no other evidence in the Bible to support, we would be on very shaky ground. BUT I am going to make a point that is confirmed over and over again in the Bible, so I feel very safe making this jump.

 

There are very few places in the Bible where God gets angry because someone questions Him. Normally He is very patient, and, thinking of the example of Moses being told that he is to go deliver the Israelites out of Egypt, willing to listen to quite a lot of our doubts and questions before He is stirred to anger. That’s why anger here from God towards Ananias is a little out of character.

 

Which makes me think that maybe God wasn’t upset with Ananias about questioning Him. Maybe there was something going on a little deeper that God was upset about. Notice that nowhere in Ananias’ question to God did he question his own personal safety. He only talked about what Saul had done to these other saints. It sounds almost like Ananias might be a little bitter toward God that He wants to save a man like this.

 

Does that sound familiar to anyone? If not, flip on back to the book of Jonah…remember, the guy who gets swallowed by the whale?

 

If that is the case with Ananias, that he is upset that a man like Paul who has hurt the church so much is now being invited to partake in the salvation of Jesus Christ, then God’s anger makes a lot more sense. Ananias was acting out of step with the Gospel if he didn’t want Saul to be saved.

 

I’m going to spell it out again, but the Gospel says that we are ALL wicked and awful sinners. That sin has made every single one of us into a monster and there is nothing that we can do to make ourselves beautiful again. But Jesus came, knowing everything about us – every sin we have ever committed, every sin we will ever commit – and He loved us anyway. He accepted us right where we’re at and He is continually making us more and more beautiful – into His image – until we will one day be perfected with Him for eternity.

 

When Ananias, or Jonah, or anyone else, refuses to extend the Gospel to someone else, whether that’s a person or an entire race, gender or ethnicity, that person has forgotten the first part of the Gospel. They have lost sight of the fact that they were once completely lost and wickedly awful. They’ve forgotten that if Jesus were to pull His grace, they would be incapable of living up to His righteous standard and would stand condemned as the monster that we all are in our “flesh”. We cannot walk out the whole Gospel if we can’t remember who we are without it.

 

It was the full Gospel that Jesus cried from the cross when He asked God to forgive those putting Him to death, those mocking Him, those rejecting Him, because they didn’t know what they were doing. It was the full Gospel that Stephen shouted while being pelted with stones for trying to tell these men about the love of Jesus Christ. And it was the full Gospel that God wanted Ananias to present to Saul – a full Gospel to let Saul know, that despite everything he had done against Jesus Christ and His followers, that God still loved him and wanted to make him beautiful.

 

So if you are far away from God – there is a full Gospel waiting here for you. A Gospel that says that God knows you completely, all of the good and all of the bad, and even knowing all of that, He still loves you unconditionally. You won’t find that anywhere else. This is the only God who won’t tell you to try harder. HE will clean you up. All you have to do is come.

 

And if you are already a child of God – are you walking out the truth of the FULL Gospel? Or are there people who you are unwilling to go to, people you are unwilling to associate with? If that’s you, God’s telling you the same thing that He told Ananias, “GO!”

November 15, 2017

November 15, 2017

ACTS 7-8

Focus Verse: But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.
Acts 7:55-60

 

Absolutely unbelievable! I have a few of these in my Bible, but this is one of those stories that I have written in the margin, “God, I want this!” I should probably clarify…I don’t want to die. Stoning sounds like an absolutely horrific way to come to one’s end…and I think very few of us have a historically accurate understanding of how people were stoned to death (for the sake of time, and sensitive stomachs, I’ll let you research that on your own should you desire). So I don’t want that part of this story.

 

But I do want the part of the story that trusts God enough to be ok with that part of the story. Stephen didn’t waver. With death staring him in the face, he didn’t recant, he didn’t soften his position, instead, his eyes were opened and he saw even more of the Gospel. And he communicated that Gospel to the people taking his life.

 

We all need to take a page from Stephen’s playbook here. It is impossible to be concerned with what is going on in the temporal world when your eyes are fixed on the eternal. Why wasn’t Stephen scared? Why wasn’t he fighting to save himself? Because he saw something better waiting for him on the other side of eternity.

 

When we truly understand the Gospel, when we “fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but what is unseen…” (2 Corinthians 4:18), there is no situation that can take our eyes off the mission that God has given to us. Rain or shine, hell or heaven, death or life, we will be able to endure ALL THINGS because our treasure isn’t wrapped up in our circumstances or people or things, it’s wrapped in the eternal God of heaven and His love for us. And that is something that will never change. That is something that can never be taken from us.

 

How can someone being put to death, look into the face of those unjustly taking his life and offer forgiveness?!? The only way is to have a DEEP understanding of the Gospel. The only way is to know, that you can’t, but that Jesus did and will through the Holy Spirit in us.

November 14, 2017

November 14, 2017

ACTS 4-6

Focus Verse: But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the gates of the prison, and taking them out he said, “Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life.” Upon hearing this, they entered into the temple about daybreak and began to teach.
Acts 5:19-21

 

God was dropping some truth bombs on my heart this morning! This isn’t anything new, but it hit me like a Mac truck going 80 miles per hour down the highway.

 

The apostles get thrown into prison by the Pharisees who are jealous of their new authority in ministry. How dare these uneducated, normal people try to come in off their fishing boats and infringe on their territory of religious teacher! Who do they think they are!?!

 

Problem being, as these Pharisees will discover over and over again, they aren’t doing this out of human will or ambition. These men are on a mission from God, and they have some supernatural friends to help them succeed. Enter big, giant, buff-is-the-stuff angel, stage right. He pulls those prison bars right off the hinges (actually he didn’t. The Bible tells us that the apostles escaped but nothing in the jail was disturbed to show signs of a breakout) and lets the apostles go free. Like a heavenly version of the old television show Prison Break but the apostles aren’t going to spend three entire seasons trying to find ways to get back into the prison they just broke out of…or are they?

 

Because look at what the angel of the Lord tells them as soon as he breaks them out of jail. To paraphrase, “Go back and do the exact same thing you were doing that got you tossed into jail in the first place!” And the craziest part…the apostles don’t even bat an eye! They’re on the first bus to the synagogue to preach the Gospel (I’m just kidding…they didn’t have busses back then…sorry, feeling a little spicy writing this morning).

 

Here’s the deal, and this is what God spoke to me this morning: God doesn’t set us free to be safe. Paul urges the Galatian church to use their freedom in Christ to serve one another (Galatians 5:13). And that is exactly what these apostles did! They weren’t set free to go back home and hide. They weren’t set free to go back and tell everyone in the church already what a cool experience they just had. They were set free to ADVANCE GOD’S KINGDOM!

 

What have you been set free to do? And better question, what are you doing with your freedom in Christ? Are you sitting in a church pew, singing hymns and Elevation Worship songs, listening to a message and then going home and continuing through life unchanged? Or are you letting the freedom you have in Jesus turn you into a weapon for God? Are you using your freedom to advance His Kingdom here on this earth?

 

I know that I need to do a better job of being active in this in my life. Will you join me?