Who Do You Say Jesus Is?

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Saturday, October 31, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Today marks the last "official" day of our daily readings in the New Testament for Greater Things.... But, I hope you'll continue reading. After doing this for 31 days, I hope it has begun to become a habit for you. Our Gateway website, under the Life Journal heading, has the daily Scripture readings for New Testament and Old Testament. You can even read online.

I won't be writing everyday, though I will keep doing my daily readings. I do plan to still write a few times a week on the Scripture readings, plus other things. If God has used this to encourage you this month, you might think about bookmarking this or subscribing to it.

I've been amazed all this month with the way God has been using these readings, at least in my life. I keep feeling like God picked all these Scriptures just for us, even though the reading plan was put together a few years ago at a church in Hawaii. For instance, our key Scripture for Greater Things... is John 14:12, where Jesus said: "'I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.'" (italics added) Jesus says the key to doing even greater things is our faith in him.

So, our reading today comes from Mark 7-8, and there's a passage in Mark 8 that sums up all we've been trying to do this past month. Jesus and his disciples have headed north from Galilee, and as they're walking along, Jesus asks them who people think he is. His disciples repeat what they've heard, saying people like the prophets, Elijah or even John the Baptist (who had been executed by King Herod Antipas, Mark 6). But then Jesus gets to the crux of the matter when he asks his followers, "...'But who do you say I am?'..." (8:29, NLT - italics added)

That's really the question, isn't it? Not just who people or disciples in First Century Palestine said Jesus was, but who do we say he is. Who we say, what we believe, makes all the difference in the world. It determines whether we believe what he says, whether we're willing to follow him, no matter what. It determines whether we're a follower in name, or a follower in reality. And Jesus tells us from John 14:12 that who we believe he is, our faith in him, determines how much God can and will use us.

Peter makes the amazing statement that must have been floating around in the minds of at least some of the disciples, but no one had said it yet: "...'You are the Messiah.'" (8:29) The Messiah was the Hebrew term (or Old Testament term) for God's anointed One. It was believed by First Century Jews that someday the Messiah would come, from the line of King David, and he would liberate his people, freeing them from captivity and slavery. Jews today are still looking for the coming of the Messiah, whereas Christians believe he has already come in Jesus Christ. The Greek term for "Messiah" is "Christ." Peter was saying to Jesus, "You are the Christ, the anointed One of God." "Christ" is actually a title, not a proper name. Jesus is the Christ.

The Jews pictured their Christ or Messiah as a warrior-type king who would vanquish their foes and lead them to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, as in the time of King David, a thousand years earlier. There were certainly prophecies that pointed to the Messiah being a liberator, but there were other prophecies that most Jews had overlooked. As if to say this to his followers when Peter made this statement, Jesus proceeds to tell them what will happen to him - and it wasn't exactly according to the script most of them imagined for the Messiah or Christ. Perhaps this was one reason Jesus wasn't fully understood until after his death and resurrection.

Jesus told that, as the Messiah or Christ, he "...'must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead.'" (8:31) I'm certain the disciples didn't really hear what Jesus was saying, because all of this went against everything their faith had taught them about the Messiah. How could their conquering King be killed? The reason the disciples had a hard time at first believing in Jesus' resurrection, even though he told them he would (as we see here), was because this was so far outside their expectations, they couldn't begin to swallow what Jesus was saying.

But Jesus doesn't stop there. He goes on to talk about what it means to be his follower - then and now:

"...'If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?'" (8:34-36)

Here is the picture Jesus paints of what it means to follow him, to put our faith in him. It's a radical turning from self to God and others. It's selling ourselves out for Jesus Christ, so that nothing and no one is more important. It's sacrificing everything for him, and receiving eternal life! And it is this kind of life, a life of faith in Jesus fully lived out day-in and day-out, that Jesus says he can work in and through to do even greater things. Every time we fall short of this picture, we diminish what Jesus can do in us and through us. Yet, this goal is so impossible, in and of it self, that it takes the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, living in us to move us in this direction, enabling us to live this radical lifestyle.

The question Jesus confronts all of us with is actually very simple: "Do I really believe you are who you say you are - the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed One of God? Am I willing to redirect my life and actions to align with this belief - to live what I say? Ultimately, this is the question that confronts every one of us. Who do you say Jesus is?

Sometimes Interruptions are Good Things

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , | Posted On Friday, October 30, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Beginning in Mark 5:21 we read a powerful story about not one but two healings. Jesus gets out of the boat, after traveling from the region of the Gerasenes. Jairus, leader of the local synagogue, seeks Jesus out for help because his daughter is dying. He asks Jesus to come and heal her. Jesus immediately sets out with Jairus, and crowds of people follow.

Mark tells us about a woman who had suffered from constant bleeding for twelve years. No one had been able to help her; in fact, she had only gotten worse. Her bleeding would also make her ceremonially unclean - she wouldn't be able to fulfill any of the Jewish rituals, so her bleeding blocked ways for her Jewish faith to help her. And because she was "unclean," it wasn't even appropriate for her to approach Jesus, a Jewish teacher. But she is desperate. Can you imagine living with this for twelve years?

"She had heard about Jesus, so she came up behind him through the crowd and touched his robe. For she thought to herself, 'If I can just touch his robe, I will be healed.' Immediately the bleeding stopped, and she could feel in her body that she had been healed of her terrible condition." (Mark 5:27-29, NLT)

It was a miracle! But amazingly, Jesus was aware of what happened, feeling the healing flow out through him, the Bible tells us, and he wants to know who touched his robe. The disciples can't believe what Jesus is saying, because he's surrounded by this large crowd, with all the jostling and pushing. How could he know a miracle had happened?

Yet it had! And the frightened woman came forward, fell to her knees, and told Jesus what had happened. It's obvious that Jesus was thrilled with her act of faith: "...'Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, Your suffering is over.'" (5:34) I can just imagine her relief and joy as she got up and left to tell the world what had happened to her.

But in the meantime, messengers arrived from the home of Jairus, telling him his daughter had died and there was no use bothering the Teacher now. I wonder if Jairus was resentful in that moment. He had sought Jesus out and was bringing him to his daughter, when this unclean woman barged in and touched him. Jesus had stopped, sought her out, and blessed her. Could that time have made the difference? The Bible doesn't tell us one way or another, but Jesus assures Jairus not to be afraid but have faith.

So, they proceed on to Jairus' home, where word of the daughter's death had spread and ceremonial mourners had arrived to weep and wail on behalf of the family. Jesus says the little girl isn't dead, just sleeping, and the crowd just laughs. It must have been pretty obvious to all that the girl really was dead.

But Jesus commands the girl to get up, and immediately she does and begins to walk around. Everyone was "...overwhelmed and totally amazed." (5:42) Jesus' delay with the woman had not changed the outcome. In fact, it may have heightened the miracle, causing more praise to go to God.

The thing that strikes me about this whole story is how often I get focused on something I'm going to do, and I plan it and set the plan in motion and then head off to do it. It may be a good plan, even a great plan, but sometimes God has the best plan - if I'm paying attention. Life really is about the journey, more than the destination. Sometimes the interruptions along the way are really doors God opens to allow us to see Him and His work. Rather than interruptions, they're really opportunities to grow our faith. I'm trying to remember this, because sometimes I just feel annoyed, until the "ah-ha!" moment arrives and I see what God was really up to.

I'm convinced that the reason we're often not too aware of God working in our world is because we're not looking for Him to work. We're moving forward with our plans, and we become blind to what God might do on the way. This is one of the reasons I believe reading our Bibles and praying daily are both important - they remind me each day about God and get me looking for Him, even in the interruptions of life. I really am trying to live my life with my "God" radar up and scanning all the time, and I'm seeing God working more than ever. In fact, sometimes the interruptions turn out to be the most important part of my day.

Jesus Sometimes Creates Tensions in Our Families and Friendships

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 12:01 AM

The Gospel of Mark is jam-packed with stories, and it's hard to pick out any one thing to write about in chapters 3-4. However, one thing did catch my attention - it's something many folks who follow Jesus discover, just as Jesus himself experienced.

"One time Jesus entered a house, and the crowds began to gather again. Soon he and his disciples couldn't even find time to eat. When his family heard what was happening, they tried to take him away. 'He's out of his mind,' they said." (Mark 3:20-21, NLT)

Obviously there was some tension between Jesus and his family at this point in his life. Mark has told us nothing about Jesus' family, including stories about his birth. But all the Gospel writers recognized being with Jesus would be a source of tension in many families and friendships. In Matthew, Jesus cautions about what happens when people follow him, and then he quotes the Old Testament prophet Micah:

"'Don't imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. "I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household."'" (Matthew 10:34-36, quote from Micah 7:6)

Jesus didn't mean he came to intentionally create strife in families and friendships. But he realized that there was always a cost to being his follower. People would be uncomfortable with a follower's level of faith, with their commitment to Christ, with their moral and ethical choices, etc. It seems so radical, so extreme sometimes.

I've talked with many Christ followers who have family members and friends who just don't understand or get it. A wife or a husband who thinks it's weird going to church, a friend who doesn't understand why you're changing some of your old habits, a co-worker who wonders if she or he can trust you anymore. This can be a real struggle for some Christ followers, to the point where they end up compromising their faith for the sake of these other relationships.

Jesus clearly faced this with his family at this point in his life. He'd given up a safe job as a carpenter to be some kind of itinerant preacher. He didn't seem to care who he angered or upset, including very powerful men. Some of the folks he was hanging out with were clearly from the other side of the tracks, or worse, tax collectors and sinners. Even though his mother Mary knew he had been a special child from God, this may have been more than they had bargained for, and they thought Jesus just might have lost it.

In fact, a few verses later, when his mother and brothers come to see him and talk to him, he refuses to stop his teaching and go out to see them. He even calls those who do God's will his "'...brother and sister and mother.'" (3:35)

Sometimes those we love just don't get it. They don't understand what it means to follow Jesus and the difference he can make in a person's life. And our relationship with Jesus can set family members and friends against each other. Maybe that's what you're struggling with right now.

But, this story doesn't end here. John tells us, "Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene." (John 19:25 NLT2) In fact, Jesus cared so much for his mother that as he hung there on the cross, he entrusted the care of his mother to the disciple John. Likewise, Jesus' brother James became active in the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. In fact, scholars believe that he ultimately led that church and wrote the Book of James in the Bible.

Sometimes family and friends don't get Jesus, but if we're patient and express the love of Christ to them, many of them eventually come around to become followers, too. It's always exciting to me to see a person come to faith in Christ, and before long see other members of their family and friends came to faith, because their witness was so encouraging. Sometimes it takes years, even decades. And sadly, some family and friends may never come around. While Jesus never compromised his faith and convictions for his family and friends, he also never gave up on them, and neither can we. We may be the very one God uses to reach that family member or friend.

Mark and the Invitation of Jesus

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Today we move into the Gospel of Mark, looking at the first two chapters. But I want to first share a little background about Mark.

Most scholars believe that Mark was the first of the Gospels written (but not the first writing of the New Testament - some of Paul's writings date to the late 40s), somewhere between 55 and 65 A.D. It was written by John Mark, a disciple of Jesus, but not one of the original twelve. He is mentioned in Acts as accompanying Paul on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:5), but he did not stay for the whole journey (13:13). As Paul prepared to depart on his second missionary journey with Barnabas, Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along, but Paul strongly disagreed since John Mark had left them on their first journey. Barnabas ends up taking John Mark with him to Cyprus, while Paul takes Silas with him on his second missionary journey.

Sometime after that Mark probably wrote his Gospel. Many scholars believe that while Mark probably knew Jesus firsthand and followed him, he depended on the Apostle Peter for many of the details of his Gospel, giving it the credibility of one of the greatest apostles. Mark's Gospel is the shortest of the four Gospels, and was written to Gentiles (probably in Rome) instead of Jews. Therefore, he wanted to emphasize that Jesus was the Son of God who came not as a conquering king but as a humble servant. For that reason, unlike Matthew, he is less concerned to show how Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophecy. His focus is on what will make the most sense to Gentiles who may know little or nothing about Judaism and the one true God, and it may explain why he shows us more miracles than any other Gospel. Interestingly, Mark is the only Gospel that tells us absolutely nothing about Jesus' birth or coming into this world.

Most scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark as they wrote their own Gospels, for virtually all of Mark is repeated in one or both of these other two Gospels. This explains why we often read the same stories in these three Gospels, though Matthew and Luke added their own insights and purposes to make them distinctively different. These three Gospels are sometimes called the Synoptic Gospels, differentiating them from John, which has little overlap.

Mark begins his Gospel with John the Baptist announcing the Messiah, the anointed one of God, is coming. Jesus comes to John, his older cousin, and is baptized by him in the Jordan River. "As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, 'You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.'" (Mark 1:10-11, NLT)

The very first words Mark records out of Jesus' mouth are these: "'The time promised by God has come at last!' he announced. 'The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!'" (1:15) These words sum up Jesus' message throughout Mark - repent and believe!

Very soon after that Jesus begins calling his disciples, and his invitation then is the same as his invitation today. To Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, Jesus said, "...'Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!'" (1:17) He would repeat that same basic invitation, Mark tells us, to the brothers James and John, and to Levi (Matthew), the tax collector: follow me!

Last night our Life Group finished watched the three-part video series "Simple" by Pastor Andy Stanley. The three messages were: "Follow," "Believe," and "Obey." Our group really enjoyed all three, but it helped to hear Stanley talk about where Jesus began with people. Not do this, or follow these rules, or jump through these hoops. He simply said, "Follow me." Go with me, get to know me, discover who I am and what I'm about. Walk with me. I love that! Let's get to know and trust each other first. That's the way all relationships begin - walking through life together.

Mark tells us Jesus invited five disciples this very way, but my guess is he used this same basic invitation with everyone. Too many folks want to make it hard - they want to make Christianity a religion of rules, when it all begins with a relationship. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for doing the right things - Stanley got to that in his third message, which we watched last night, and it was obedience. But obedience comes after a relationship is established and we come to believe and trust Jesus. In the beginning, we just follow.

Because Mark wrote to people who may have known little or nothing about Jesus, his emphasis on Jesus' invitation is a great way for us to begin today with those around us who aren't sure about Jesus. Just come check him out, start following him, and see where he leads you. Don't worry about all the rules, etc. - just get to know Jesus himself. We can tell our own story of how we began to follow him, and not try to force things. We might just be surprised by how much happens when we simply do things Jesus' way.

Paul and the Journey of a Lifetime (and Even Longer)

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Tuesday, October 27, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Today we come to the end of the Book of Acts, written by Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke. Acts told us the stories of the Apostles, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church, and the spread of Christianity beyond the Jews to the Gentiles. We meet the Apostle Paul, who wrote a significant portion of the New Testament. We learn about his powerful calling to follow Jesus and preach the Gospel, first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles. An interesting side note is that in Acts 16:10 the story changes from third person to first person, for Luke apparently actually joins Paul on portions of the remainder of his journeys, recording some of these events first hand.

In a very eventful trip, Paul sailed from Caesarea, was shipwrecked in on Malta, bitten by a poisonous snake, healed many people, and eventually made it to Rome. There, he remained under guard, but he had the freedom to pick his own lodging and was able to welcome guests. "For the next two years, Paul lived in Rome at his own expense. He welcomed all who visited him, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. And no one tried to stop him." (28:30-31, NLT)

These last two verses tell us something significant about Paul and God's intention for all Christ followers: Paul welcomed all, and he boldly proclaimed the Kingdom of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what the church is called to do: welcome all and boldly proclaim the Good News, because we live in a world dying for Good News!

We also see here the mission Jesus gave the early church moving toward it's fulfillment: "'But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere - in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'" (1:8) Paul may not have reached the "ends of the earth," but he reached Rome, which was essentially the center of the earth (or at least of the western world). It was said that all roads led to Rome. In Rome Paul would meet people from the ends of the earth, and he would proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

There's a lot about Paul that we really don't know. Some scholars believe Paul was sent to Rome around 60 A.D. From Luke's writings in Acts, we know he was there at least two years. During this time, he very possibly wrote what are sometimes called the Prison Letters: Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians. There is reason to believe Paul was released at the end of these two years. He continued to travel and preach as he most likely headed east to Macedonia and Ephesus. There are some indications that he then traveled west to Nicopolis on the eastern shore of Greece. During this period he appears to have written 1 Timothy and Titus. Some scholars think he then traveled to what is today Spain before being imprisoned again by Nero in a new round of persecutions of Christians. He was returned to Rome, where he probably wrote 2 Timothy, and penned some of his last words:

"As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me - the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

It is believed Paul was executed in late 66 or early 67 A.D. in Rome, very possibly by beheading. Yet, Paul was confident that He lived his life well. He knew God had used him and he had remained faithful, even in the face of all kinds of adversity. Paul's life was anything but easy, yet he never gave up welcoming all and boldly proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And because of his faithfulness, the church has been blessed and encouraged down through the centuries.

The reality is, we follow in Paul's footsteps today, seeking to reach all people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul let nothing stand in the way of the mission Jesus had given him. Not only do his writings teach us so much, but his life should teach us to never give up on the mission, never diminish it or reduce its significance. Like Paul, may we be found faithful at the end of our days!

Chains and Real Freedom

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Monday, October 26, 2009 at 12:01 AM

As I read Acts 24-26, I at first felt that a lot of Paul's precious time and experience was being wasted in jail. He has been jailed because he was accused by Jews of stirring up a riot in the Temple. As we saw yesterday, he was brought to Caesarea, the lead Roman city of the area, located on the Mediterranean Sea.

Paul stayed there at least two years, according to Acts 24:27. Apparently, Felix, the governor, was quite a politician. He knew the Jews wanted Paul killed, but he also knew there were no legitimate Roman charges. Yet, to keep the Jews happy, he didn't let Paul go. Instead, he subtly searched for a bribe from Paul, but nothing ever came of it (24:26).

After two years, however, a new governor, Festus, was appointed. Felix had delayed and delayed, but now Festus seemed determined to find some resolution to the situation. He invited the Jews to come and again make their case against Paul. The Jews religious leaders pushed for Paul to be given a hearing in Jerusalem, but they planned to use the opportunity to have him killed. Paul refused to go to Jerusalem, and instead, as a Roman citizen, exercised his right to appeal to Caesar (25:11). With that, Festus was obligated to send Paul to Rome, the seat of power in the 1st Century Western World. As I've studied this part of Paul's life, I've come to see that Paul probably saw real value in this as a way of spreading his message even further.

A few days later King Agrippa arrived, and chose to hear Paul's case. This was Agrippa II, son of King Herod Agrippa, who had had the apostle James killed to please the Jews and sought to have Peter executed (12:2-4). King Herod Agrippa died, the Bible tells us, because he accepted the praise of men that he was a god (12:20-23). Both kings ruled under Roman rule, at the whim of Caesar, yet they wielded significant power in their realms. Agrippa II was enough of a politician to know Jewish culture, since Palestine was a significant part of his realm.

Paul stands before King Agrippa, his sister Bernice, and Festus, as well as many prominent citizens in what the New Living Translation (NLT) calls the auditorium (25:23), thought it was really more like a small coliseum. Paul explains his innocence and tells his conversion story on the road to Damascus. You really get the feeling Paul is trying to convert King Agrippa, who was familiar with the Jewish faith. Paul says to him, "...'I pray to God that both you and everyone here in this audience might become the same as I am, except for these chains.'" (26:29, italics added)

Agrippa and Festus realize Paul has done nothing wrong, but because he has appealed to Caesar, they cannot just release him but must now send him on to Rome. Again, this doesn't seem to be a disappointment to Paul, for he has desired to go to Rome for some time.

My wife Susan and I visited the Holy Land - Israel - in 1990, and one of the places we traveled was to this location, often called Caesarea by the Sea. Many ruins remain there from biblical times, including the auditorium (coliseum) where it is believed Paul spoke to Agrippa and Festus. It is essentially an amphitheater in the round, with rising levels of rock, much like our "bleachers" at Gateway, except without the cushioned seats. We sat in this place, and listened to these passages being read aloud by members of our tour group.

I remember in particular one older pastor who really relished reading the quote above (26:29) and holding his arms up as if in chains. He made us feel like we had traveled 2000 years back in time to that day as Paul proclaimed his freedom in Christ, a freedom that was greater than any form of political freedom that could be won or bought. Paul knew the people who were really in chains (of sin and death) were Agrippa and Festus, for they had not put their faith in Jesus Christ.

There are many people today who are still bound by these chains. Paul's desire for their freedom drove his life and mission, and it drives our mission at Gateway. We are a gateway to faith and freedom, through Jesus Christ. It is our desire to free people from their chains and bondage, and we know only Christ can do this. It's exciting to see lives freed and to hear their stories of grace. And like Paul, we won't stop as long as there are those around us who have not yet committed their life to Jesus Christ. The "chains" of this earth are nothing compared to the eternal freedom we have in Jesus. Paul knew this, and so, in a very real sense, even though he was "in chains," he really was free. The Good News is that nothing and no one can ultimately take this freedom from us!

Love and Disagreement

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Sunday, October 25, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Chapters 21-23 focus on Paul's journey to Jerusalem and the events that will eventually lead to his imprisonment and travel to Rome. Along the way Christ followers worry for Paul, and he is confronted with prophecies that he will be jailed. Yet, Paul will not back down and continues on to Rome.

Paul had begun his ministry to Jews, but he soon discovered that his greater calling most often was to Gentiles. He had seen many Gentiles come to faith in Jesus Christ. And following the instructions from the earlier Jerusalem council (Acts 15), he had not required these Gentile converts to take on any of the religious requirements of Jews. This would have turned salvation by grace through faith into salvation by doing the right works, and this was not what Jesus or the apostles taught. Yet, this angered many Jews who thought he was subverting Judaism. So, they badgered him, beat him, ran him out towns, and even tried to stone him to death.

Now in Jerusalem, Paul was trying to demonstrate, as a Jewish follower of Christ, that he still fulfilled the Jewish Law, when Jews from what is modern-day Turkey arrived and stirred up a mob against him with lies. Paul is eventually arrested by the Roman authorities. When it is discovered that more than forty Jews had taken an oath to kill Paul, the Roman commander sent Paul west to the Roman city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea. There, Governor Felix would hear Paul's case, alongside the complaints of the Jews.

It's interesting to me just how zealous these Jews were, yet how little love they show. I'm not saying false teaching should ever be completely ignored, for several places in the New Testament are warnings against false teachers. But, in the early church there was no sense of killing these false teachers - turn them out, absolutely, but don't harm them, for they were still called to love them. Sometimes making too much of false teachers actually gives them a platform to advance their cause.

The great Jewish teacher and Pharisee Gamaliel had cautioned against these very actions regarding the early Christians in Acts 5:38-39 (NLT): "'So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God.'"

And now the Jews really were fighting God, though they didn't realize it. I've found it wise to never rush to quick decisions regarding the faith of others. God doesn't just work in and through me, and His ways are not my ways. The Bible calls Christ followers to unity, but not uniformity. I don't want to major on the minors. That doesn't mean there aren't beliefs and doctrines worth fighting for, but too often we try to make mountains out of molehills. Doctrines establish the foul lines - what's inbounds and what's out-of-bounds - but they leave a fair amount of room for discussion and even disagreement that don't compromise overall unity. Love is still the underlying motive in everything.

I read this week about a church in Virginia that planned to burn translations of the Bible that weren't the King James Version (KJV), as well as works by Billy Graham and Rick Warren, for this church believed these two men had strayed from the Bible. I don't know about you, but I'd love to have just a smidgen of the faith and love of these two great men of God. This church's narrow approach to the Gospel only serves the enemy. When Christians fight among ourselves, we hurt our witness to those outside the faith. Actions like this burning make us look like buffoons. I'm ok if you want to disagree, but can't we disagree agreeably, in the spirit of Christ and his love? Paul would talk about this with the Corinthians:

"If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing." (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NLT2)

Jesus hung on the cross, but he did not revile his tormentors - instead he asked the Father to forgive them. He always loved, and if we can't love, we aren't followers of Christ. That doesn't mean it's easy, and we definitely require the work of the Holy Spirit in us to move in this direction. And love doesn't mean anything goes. But, the attitude of love should undergird all our actions and attitudes. If the Jews had lived this love, they might have still disagreed with Paul, they might even have banished him from the Temple and synagogues, but no one would be taking a vow to kill him.

Likewise, today Christ followers are still called to love. We may disagree and even believe that another person's beliefs and teachings are beyond the bounds of Christianity, but that doesn't give us permission to stop loving them. In fact, when it's hardest to love another, when they put us down and seek our harm is the very time we must most love. The kind of love Jesus calls us to is a choice, a decision, not a feeling, and as a choice, it requires action on our part. We're called to choose love and act on it even when we fundamentally disagree with another, even when they have hurt us, or we find ourselves in the same boat with the Jews who badgered and threatened Paul.

The witness of love has never been overcome. Paul never stopped loving. Jesus never stopped loving. And neither can we! It's radical - I know! But it's also right!

Jesus' Spirit is the Difference Between Moralistic Religion and a Relationship of Freedom

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Saturday, October 24, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Today's reading takes us through Acts 19-20. Paul is on his third missionary journey and he comes to Ephesus, where he found several believers. However, their belief and knowledge was incomplete. They had received only the baptism of John and not baptism in the name and power of Jesus.

The "John" being referred to here is John the Baptist, the older cousin of Jesus. John began his ministry before Jesus, calling people to repentance. The word "repentance" means to change your mind, to turn around and go in a different direction. It's important to understand that repentance is not simply changing your mind, but changing it so that you actually act and go in a different direction.

John baptized those who sought to repent and change their lives. Their repentance was to turn away from sin and turn to God, but it was a human endeavor. It was, "give it your best shot," "try your hardest," etc. Even John knew that what he was doing was only an intermediate step. John explained it this way: "...'I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.'" (Luke 3:16 NLT2) John knew something more was coming, but it wasn't in his power to give it.

Jesus told his followers he would need to leave so that the Holy Spirit could come and live in them. After Jesus' death and resurrection, just before he ascended into heaven, he promised that his followers would soon receive the Holy Spirit: "'But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'" (Acts 1:8, italics added)

In Acts 2 we read of the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The coming of the Spirit brought the presence and power of Jesus Christ into the lives of his followers. No longer would a person have to try to repent and do better on their own, in their own power. Now, the Holy Spirit came to live in those who received Christ into their lives to empower them and transform them increasingly into the image and likeness of Jesus himself. "...the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image." (2 Corinthians 3:18)

What Paul discovered in Ephesus were believers who were trying to live good, moral lives in their own power. They were moving in the right direction, but without the power of Jesus Christ living in them through the Holy Spirit, they were still enslaved to sin. This is still often the case in the church today. Good hearted people are sorry for their sins and turn away from sin, trying to do better on their own. But they get worn out and feel like failures, because eventually they realize they never can live up to the standards Jesus set for us. They have not completely sold themselves out to Jesus Christ. They have been trapped in a moralistic religion rather than a relationship of freedom.

Through a life committed to Jesus (not just to trying to repent and turn away from sin), the power of sin is broken, and his Spirit begins to work in us as we profess our faith in Christ so that not only is the guilt of past sins taken away, but the power of sin is reduced in our lives. The love of God begins to replace the self-centered sin-filled nature that we're all born into. This is why Jesus is not simply a great moral teacher. As Jesus said, "'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.'" (John 14:6) There is no Christianity apart from Jesus, and there is no genuine, lasting life change unless we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, trust him with our whole hearts, and welcome his Holy Spirit to come and live within us to guide and teach and empower us.

As the Ephesian believers understood the difference between their baptism by John, and the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit entered their lives and gave them the gift of tongues and prophecy. (As we look through Acts, we find that this is one of only three conversions that specifically mentions the receiving of the gift of tongues - seven others do not expressly state this.) From that day forward, as they cooperated with the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives, they began to be transformed increasingly into the image and likeness of Jesus himself - the goal for all Christ followers.

Meeting People on Their Terms and Turf

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , | Posted On Friday, October 23, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Acts is an amazing and extremely relevant book for anyone seeking to follow Jesus Christ. Every chapter is jam-packed with information about how the early church dealt with issues that are just as real today.

For instance, in our reading today in Acts 17-18, we read of Paul's encounter with the Greek philosophers in Athens. These were men who sat around all day pondering the meaning of life and the universe. They were intrigued by Paul's message about a foreign god. These men were searching for answers and meaning in life, but they hadn't found it yet. Acts 17:21 says that everyone in Athens "...seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas."

That statement sounds so much like 21st Century America to me. While there are many Christians in our land, there are many others who are searching for answers in all the latest fads and philosophies. Maybe they were exposed to a strange form of Christianity, and assumed that was the norm for all of Christianity. Maybe they're just rebels and want to figure it out for themselves. I'm sure you can think of more reasons why some folks seem to be intent on trying the religion or spirituality du jour.

Not much has changed in 2000 years! So, Paul's approach to the Athenians may give us some insight into trying to reach folks today who still haven't made a decision to follow Jesus Christ. And the first thing Paul didn't do was antagonize or belittle the Athenians' beliefs. He took them seriously, rather than just dismissing them as wrong. He complemented them and affirmed them, knowing that God cared about these men as much as He cared about anyone else.

If becoming a Christian were about having all the right facts, then showing the Athenians how they were wrong might have made sense. But becoming a Christian is about developing a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It starts and ends with relationship, and that also gives us a great insight into how we share our faith with others - through relationships. We don't win friends and influence enemies by pounding them over the head with a Bible or telling them they're going to Hell because they don't believe in Jesus Christ. We influence people as we share the love of Christ with them, as we demonstrate we care about them. Jesus died for those far from him, just as he died for me and you. We're all saved by grace, through faith, so none of us can brag about how good we are or how much better we are than anyone else (Ephesians 2:8-9).

When we show love and respect to someone who believes differently than we do, who perhaps is caught up in the latest spiritual fad, we gain the privilege of being heard. As trust grows, we can go deeper and deeper in our conversations. As the relationship grows, we can share our own experiences and understandings of the Christian faith in honest, straightforward ways. We can have genuine conversations where the love of Christ works in us and through us. I've always heard that loving people into heaven is almost always more effective than scaring them out of hell. Jesus always had time for the sinners - what bugged him were the religious elites who thought they knew it all.

I've been a pastor for over twenty years now, but the more I know, the more I know I don't know. The longer I walk this journey the more the Holy Spirit tries to push that unholy pride out of me. I really am no better than the person far from God, but I am saved by the grace of God - and that makes all the difference in the world. Paul was no better than the Athenians, but he loved them through Jesus Christ, and he tried to meet them at their point of interest and need. Then he walked them along, with integrity and respect. Some laughed at him, "...but others said, 'We want to hear more about this later.'" (17:32) And Verse 34 says, "...some joined him and became believers."

Paul met the Athenians on their terms, on their turf, and some eventually chose to become followers of Jesus Christ. That model is just as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. Who do you know that needs the love of Christ in their life? How can you love that person and meet them at their point of interest and need? It may take months, even years, but I know that God honors all our efforts, and no relationship with a Christ follower by a person seeking the truth ever comes back void.


Standing Up for the Gift of Grace, by Faith

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Chapters 15 and 16 of Acts are filled with powerful stories, including the beginnings of Paul's second missionary journey, and there's no way I can do them all justice. So, I'm going to focus on the first Jerusalem council, found in Acts 15, because a very important decision was made here by the early church that has huge implications for us today.

In Acts 10-11, Peter had his first encounter with Gentiles, and discovered that when they placed their faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit came to live in them, just as He was doing in Jews who were placing their faith in Christ. This event showed that God had much bigger plans than the salvation of a relatively small race - He was setting in motion the salvation of the world!

Now, in Acts 15, we read that some Jewish Christians were trying to force these new Gentile Christians to first become Jews through the rite of circumcision. There was an act they had to do to become a follower of Christ. But Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed with this teaching. So, the church in Antioch of Syria decided to send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and elders of the church, at what has been called the first Jerusalem council.

There's more to this story, but it's interesting to note a pattern that begins here that would carry on for a few centuries in the early church. A controversy arises that threatens to split the church. Because there is no written Scripture, as we have today, or least none that was yet accepted as what we would call New Testament Scripture, how did the early church make decisions? By councils - gatherings of church leaders who prayerfully sought the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit. And it's also interesting to note that these controversies - some of which would be labeled heresies - caused the church to get clear about what it believed and what it didn't. The doctrines of the church aren't heavy handed rules but are more like foul lines in baseball that help Christ followers know what's in bounds and what's out of bounds. Otherwise, well-meaning Christ followers can drift into all sorts of dangerous beliefs. Doctrines are important, and they were often settled or determined in response to a controversy or heresy, such as the one we see here in Acts 15.

Back to our story, when Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem, they discover the same controversy has been brewing there as well (15:5). "So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue." (15:6, NLT) After lots of discussion, Peter shared the conclusion they had reached:

"God knows people's hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear? We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus." (15:8-11)

This became the crucial distinction for the Christian faith, and yet a battle that continues to be fought today. How often do we find ourselves believing we have to follow certain rules, do certain actions, meet certain standards, in order to measure up and be saved? The Bible often calls these "works." How many people have said, "Let me clean up my act first, and then I'll commit my life to Christ." But what they're saying is actually this, "There are certain things (works) I must do first (such as circumcision in the First Century church), before I will be acceptable to God." But Peter called grace "undeserved." We don't deserve it; we can't earn it; we can't be good enough to gain it. We can only receive it, by faith, with gratitude.

This was a battle Paul would fight over and over again with Jewish Christians in many of his writings. He tried to spell it out very clearly in his letter to the Ephesians: "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it." (2:8-9) We are not saved by works. We are saved by grace, through faith. This became, in fact, the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation nearly five hundred years ago.

This decision by the first Jerusalem council would set the foundation for a Christian faith that would never be first and foremost about rules, works and meeting certain criteria, but about a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. We can't earn it, and we certainly don't deserve it. But, we can accept it gratefully, and then seek to serve Christ as an expression of our gratitude, rather than as a condition to earn our salvation.

This misunderstanding is still with us today in many circles, with many folks in our churches closer to the beliefs of the Jewish faith than the Christian faith. Which is why it is such Good News - no one has to measure up to receive this "undeserved" gift of grace - in fact, no one can measure up! We're all in the same boat, so none of us is in a position to brag or boast. We are all saved by grace, through faith!

Just Take the Next Step

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Our reading today in Acts 13-14 tells us about what has historically been called Paul's first missionary journey. He would ultimately take four of these, and this was the first and shortest (in distance). From this journey we learn several things about sharing the story of Jesus Christ.

First, notice that Paul doesn't travel alone. He begins with Barnabas and John Mark. Also, notice that the Holy Spirit led them out - they didn't do it on their own. And the Holy Spirit used the church to dedicate these men to their mission. (Acts 13:2-3 NLT)

Second, notice that Paul and his companions always started out in the local synagogue when they arrived in a new town. Paul started with those who would have the most connection with the Christian faith - the Jews. In fact, as we see here in Acts 13, Paul's typical pattern was to ground the story of Jesus in the history of Israel. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was the fulfillment of all God had been working toward in what we call the Old Testament. The early Christians discovered this and always attempted to reach Jews by showing them their common history and how Jesus fulfilled prophecy. "'Brothers, listen! We are here to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God - something the law of Moses could never do.'" (13:38-39) And Acts tells us many did listen and turned their lives over to Jesus Christ.

Third, we notice to see that not everyone liked what Paul and his companions were doing. Some of the Jews became very upset, slandering them and arguing with them. A mob ran them out of Antioch of Pisidia and Iconium, and in Lystra Paul was stoned nearly to death. (14:19-20) Jesus warned that the Gospel would divide friends and families. Today there are folks who are vehemently opposed to Christianity, and they'll do whatever they can to ridicule it or discredit it. When we run into those folks, we just need to realize we're in good company with Paul and other missionaries.

Fourth, we see that when the Jews would reject the Gospel message, Paul would then take the message to the Gentiles. He started with those who would most easily connect with his message, but he discovered that God had also been working in the hearts of the Gentiles, who had no history or connection to Jesus. "'...since you have rejected it and judged yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we will offer it to the Gentiles.'" (14:46) Paul then quoted from the prophet Isaiah to show that even this extension of the mission to the Gentiles had always been a part of God's plan: "'"I have made you a light to the Gentiles, to bring salvation to the farthest corners of the earth."'" (14:47, from Isaiah 49:6)

Interestingly, the Gentiles, who had little or no common history with Jesus, were often the most grateful ones to hear this Good News. "When the Gentiles heard this, they were very glad and thanked the Lord for his message..." (14:48) Sometimes we may overlook folks around us who are the most eager to hear Good News. They are different from us, in any number of ways, and we presume we have nothing to say or offer them. But Paul discovered otherwise. We make a grave mistake when we presume we know whom God is trying to reach. The Holy Spirit can work in us and anyone, and sometimes all God desires is for us to open that door, to share our story and offer hope and healing to folks who are looking for answers.

Because Paul was faithful in his journey, many Jews and Gentiles came to faith in Christ. I'm sure the journey did not go at all the way Paul had anticipated, but he left himself open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and God took care of the rest. It was not an easy journey - he nearly died - but lives were transformed forever. By faith, many times all we can do - and should do - is just take the next step, and trust God to work out His plans through our faith and obedience. We don't have to worry about where it will all end, or what might happen - just take the next step, and leave the results to God. That's really all walking by faith is - taking the next step.

Do We Really Believe in Prayer?

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , | Posted On Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 12:01 AM

As we begin Acts 12, we read that King Herod Agrippa (grandson of Herod the Great who ruled at the time of Jesus' birth) began persecuting Christians. The apostle James, brother of John, was killed as the first apostle to die for his faith (Judas took his own life). When Herod earned brownie points with the Jews for his persecutions, he had Peter arrested and planned to bring him to trial (and most likely, execution) after the Passover.

Herod took extreme precautions to keep Peter locked up. At any given time there were four soldiers guarding him. It was not unusual for a single soldier to be chained to one hand of a prisoner, but in Peter's case, there was a soldier chained to each hand, plus two at the door of the cell.

Suddenly a bright light and an angel appear in the cell. The chains fall off Peter's wrists, and the angel leads him out of the cell. We're not told how Peter got past the guards, but we know at dawn there was "a great commotion among the soldiers" (12:18 NLT) when they discovered Peter was missing. Herod had the soldiers executed as the standard punishment of the day when a prisoner escaped.

Meanwhile, Peter proceeds to the home of of a Christ follower named Mary, mother of John Mark, where he finds many followers gathered for prayer. In fact, the writer Luke shows us that prayer surrounds Peter's stay in jail. Acts 12:5 says, "But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him." Acts 12:12 tells us that when he arrived at the home of Mary, "...many were gathered for prayer."

It raises a curious question - would Peter have been rescued if those Christians had not been praying? Obviously, we don't know the answer to that, and we never will, at least this side of heaven. But we know the people prayed and Peter was miraculously released. Yet, when Peter knocked at the door of Mary, her servant Rhoda recognized his voice and was so excited to see Peter that she ran back in to tell the others. But, in her excitement, she failed to open the door for Peter, and those gathered in prayer didn't believe her at first. Isn't it interesting how sometimes we pray for something, yet we are surprised or even don't believe it when it happens? Do we really take prayer seriously?

There's an old story told about a liquor store that opened in a small town. Many of the folks were very concerned, and organized a prayer rally against the liquor store. Soon after the store was struck by lightning and burned down. The liquor store owner sued the church for the loss of his building, but the church members denied having anything to do with it. When the case came before the judge, he noted that it was strange that apparently the liquor store owner believed in the power of prayer, but the folks in the church did not.

I don't tell this story as an indictment against drinking (though it needs to be handled very, very carefully) or liquor store owners, but use it to make the (hopefully) humorous point that many times Christians pray but don't really expect God to act. When God does act, we are so surprised by it that we look for other explanations. Yet, the person of genuine faith is constantly watching to see God work, and this person prays because she or he believes God does answer prayer - maybe not the way we want, but He does answer.

This month hundreds of us have been praying and fasting, in addition to reading our Bibles. We've been praying that God will work in us, to grow our faith, so He can work through us to do even greater things around us. But what happens when God starts answering our prayers? Will we believe Him, or will we deny it and miss the boat?

I want to encourage you and challenge you to take your praying seriously. It is not an empty ritual, but a way God works in our lives and transforms us. If you're asking God to change your heart, to trust that God really does love you, that God's power and presence become real in your life, that His healing power is experienced in our church, and that our church will care so much for the lost and hurting "sheep," that we will do whatever it takes to bring them safely "home" to Christ and his church, then begin to expect these changes. Don't be surprised or fight them - cooperate with the Holy Spirit at work in you. There's an old saying, "seeing is believing," but in the world of prayer and faith, "believing is seeing!" Trust God to work through your prayers, and you won't leave Him at the door when He knocks on your life.

Taking My Witness Beyond My Limits

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , | Posted On Monday, October 19, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Today's reading from Acts 10-11 shows us a watershed moment in the spread of the Christian faith. Up until this point, the apostles had limited their teaching and preaching to specific Jewish audiences. After all, they were Jewish, Jesus was Jewish, and so they had no real reason to go further. For Jews, the world was divided into two basic camps: Jews, and everyone else, whom they called Gentiles. Some Gentiles had probably come to faith in Christ, but the apostles weren't seeking them out. With the persecutions in Jerusalem (that killed Stephan), the apostles and disciples began to fan out, beyond the Jewish lands and culture. At the same time, God opened a new door through a Gentile named Cornelius.

Cornelius was a Roman centurion or army officer in Caesarea who was seeking after God. He was a part of a class of people the Jews called "God-fearers," who were Gentiles but seeking the God of the Jews. Cornelius receives a vision from an angel to seek out Simon Peter. Shortly afterwards, Simon Peter also has a vision, where he was shown animals that had been forbidden for Jews to touch or eat. Now a voice says to him, "'Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.'" (10:13 NLT) Peter cannot imagine doing this because it goes against so much that he had been taught as a faithful Jew. But the voice says to him, "'Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.'" (10:15) Simon Peter was being challenged to freedom in his faith in ways he had never imagined. He was being challenged to put behind him rules for rules' sake, and instead look at life and existence from God's point of view.

Immediately after his vision, Peter is summoned to visit Cornelius, and he goes. Entering the home of a Gentile again went against so much Peter had been taught as a Jew, but God was expanding his vision. He shared the story of Jesus with Cornelius and his guests, and the Holy Spirit fell upon them. "The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too." (10:45) And immediately afterwards, they were all baptized. Peter and his Jewish friends were discovering that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of David, was not just the God of the Jews - He was the God of all people.

There are huge implications in this event for us today. Sometimes I find myself trapped by old ways of thinking, that only certain people could or would put their faith in Christ. When I see folks who have lived very far from God, when I see folks from other religions and lands, I sometimes have a hard time seeing them as potentially being followers of Christ. So, I do nothing. But God led Peter from the Jews to the Gentiles, to open the door of faith to people Peter would have never imagined could or would respond. Who am I overlooking today? Who do I dismiss as someone who would never be interested in faith in Christ, who could never change? How much am I limiting how God wants to work in and through me?

I've discovered that because God gives me free will, my thoughts can often prevent me from being open to all God wants to do. Yet, the Bible shows us there is no one beyond God's reach. Every single human being born on this planet is a sacred creation of God's, whether they recognize that or not. And every single person needs what Jesus Christ has to offer, because he came for all.

When Peter explained to the remaining apostles and believers in Jerusalem what had happened, they were at first concerned. But as soon as they heard that the Holy Spirit had come into the lives of these Gentiles too, they realized God was doing a new thing. "...'We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.'" (11:18)

With this event, the apostles began to understand for the first time that Jesus died for all people, not just the Jews. It would radically change their outreach in the coming years. Today we need to ask ourselves if we are unintentionally standing in God's way to reach people that we never imagined could be reached. Just because they don't look like me, or have different backgrounds, or have sinned more than I think I have doesn't mean they are outside God's love or reach. And if God wants to reach them, am I willing to be used by Him if that is His will. Will I go where it's uncomfortable for me, as Peter did, in order to be faithful to my calling from God to carry out His witness? I know I need to be a lot more open to how God wants to work. What about you - who could God use you to reach?

We All Need a Little Help Along the Way

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , | Posted On Sunday, October 18, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Our reading for today is Acts 8-9, and there's so much good stuff here that it's hard to pick one thing to write about. The story of Saul's conversion is one of the great events of the Bible, and we will see him telling it on three different occasions in Acts, with Acts 9 being the first time.

However, I felt drawn to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian for today, so that's where I'm going to camp out. Philip, like many of the disciples, left Jerusalem because of the persecution that had begun with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7). So Philip went to Samaria, a region between Jerusalem and Galilee that had once been part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, but was now an area that included many folks who had mixed Jewish heritage. These folks were looked down upon by the pure-blooded Jews in Jerusalem and Galilee.

After a time, though, an angel of the Lord came to Philip and sent him south (8:26 NLT). As he traveled, he encountered an Ethiopian government official traveling in a carriage. He apparently had become a Jew and had gone to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, and was now headed home. As he traveled, he was reading aloud from the book of Isaiah when the Holy Spirit led Philip to walk over alongside the Ethiopian.

Philip asked the man, "...'Do you understand what you are reading?'" (vs. 30) "The man replied, 'How can I unless someone instructs me?'..." (vs. 31) So, Philip joined him in the carriage and proceeded to explain to the Ethiopian how the Scriptures pointed to Jesus Christ as the Good News.

As the Ethiopian learned of this Good News, he wanted to be baptized, and Philip baptized him. The Holy Spirit then sent Philip on his way farther to the north. The Ethiopian continued home, but now he was so excited because he had invited Christ into his life.

Here was this man who was seeking to know more about God and His ways, but he needed someone to help him understand. So, God sent Philip to come alongside him and help him for a time. I have discovered that God often nudges many of us to seek one-on-one help from another Christ follower in our journey, and at other times He nudges us to come alongside someone and talk with them about our faith journey and Jesus. Sometimes we hear God's nudge, but sometimes we think we don't know enough or the other person might think we're weird, etc.

But I've come to believe that all of us need someone to come alongside us from time to time in our lives and just help us talk through and walk in our faith. Sometimes a person is still checking out Christianity, and sometimes they've made a decision to trust Christ. Either way, God wants to take them further (as He does all of us), but they need some help. Reading their Bible, going to worship, even being in a small group are all great and necessary. But sometimes a person just needs another person to come alongside them and help them take the next step or steps in their faith journey. We call this mentoring.

I know I sometimes need some extra help, and there are other times when I see someone who could really use a little extra one-on-one help with their Christian journey. Are we willing to ask for some help? How can we come alongside another person, not as someone better or smarter, but just a fellow traveler who happens to be a little further along the journey, at least at this point? This isn't about pride or arrogance but love and compassion. It's recognizing that the journey of becoming more and more mature in our faith requires all of us to get help sometimes, and give it at other times. Sometimes we're the Ethiopian, and sometimes the Holy Spirit wants to use us as a Philip.

I'm convinced the Christian journey needs more of us being mentored and mentoring others. Faith is caught more than it's taught, and that means experiencing it personally in the life of another Christ follower. We don't need permission from the church or a pastor to look around us and identify someone who can help us, or someone we can help.

The Good News is that the Holy Spirit always works in these mentoring settings, giving us what we need, and enabling us to give to another, even when we aren't aware that we have something to give. Trust Him to work in you, whichever side of the conversation you find yourself. In fact, many times when we're in a mentoring relationship, we discover ourselves being both the Ethiopian and Philip at one time or another. Like Philip, listen to those subtle leadings, and join someone else on the journey - you'll be amazed what God does!

How Much Do I Really Want to Follow Jesus?

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , | Posted On Saturday, October 17, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Today's reading covers two chapters - Acts 6-7 - telling the story of Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith. But, as I read his story, I was also drawn back to Acts 5.

As Acts 5 ends, the apostles are leaving the Jewish high council, called the Sanhedrin, after having been flogged and warned for the second time to stop speaking about Jesus. Acts 5:41 haunted me yesterday: "The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus." (NLT) I had to ask myself if I was willing to "suffer disgrace" for Jesus' sake.

And then I read Acts 6-7, where Stephen, one of the original seven deacons (the Greek word diakanos refers to service or servanthood), is arrested by the religious authorities, based on "lying witnesses." As Stephen stood before the Jewish high council (the third time a Christ follower had come before them in recent days), the writer of Acts, Luke, tells us "...his face became as bright as an angel's." (6:15)

Stephen stood before the council and basically gave them a history lesson, recounting the stories of Abraham, Moses, and David - three of the greatest Hebrews of all time. Then he points out that the Jewish people persecuted God's prophets, and even killed the Messiah (Jesus). The council went ballistic, but Stephen, "full of the Holy Spirit," just gazed off into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus at His right hand (7:55).

They took Stephen out and began stoning him. As they began, Stephen's accusers threw their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul, whom we'll read more about in a couple of chapters. As they stoned Stephen, and he nears death, from what had to have been a horrific way to die, he prayed, "'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,'" and "'Lord, don't charge them with this sin!'" (7:59-60)

I'm struck by the total abandon by which these apostles and first followers of Jesus counted it joy to be persecuted on his behalf. I'm struck by Stephen's last words - words of faith and forgiveness, much like Jesus' own last words on the cross. And then I think about me. Do I have this kind of faith? Would I stand up for Jesus before an angry group of leaders? Would I be glad that I was suffering for my faith? Would I be willing to die a horrible death for Jesus' sake?

The other part of this is that I recognize that today, in various corners of the world, Christian's are still rejoicing for suffering for Christ's sake. In fact, more people died for Jesus Christ in the 20th Century than the previous 19 combined. And I ask myself - am I that committed? We're fortunate that in this country we don't face that kind of persecution for following Jesus, but then I wonder if that has made me luke warm about my faith. If not much is on the line, how much of a follower am I?

Honestly, I don't have all the answers to this. But as I wrote about Acts 5:41 in my Life Journal yesterday, I wrote this prayer: "Father, continue your work in me. Help me withstand the pain and suffering of faith that I might become more like the apostles, and more and more like Jesus." Having the faith of the apostles means we have to take up our cross and carry it, through suffering and shame and worse. But I believe the joy of the cross outweighs everything else. I believe this - now, can I live it?

What are My Motives?

Posted by Randy | Labels: , , , , , , , , , | Posted On Friday, October 16, 2009 at 12:01 AM

The first part of Acts 5 actually follows a story line that began in Acts 4:32. The writer Luke tells us: "All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had." (4:32, NLT) From there, Luke tells us there were no needy people because the Christ followers took care of each other, even selling land and homes to enable the apostles to help those in need.

Luke then gives us an example of this, speaking of Joseph, who went by Barnabas (which means "Son of Encouragement"). Barnabas would end up bringing the converted Paul before the Apostles in Jerusalem for the first time. He would join Paul on some of his travels, as seen in Acts 11-15. Paul would also refer to Barnabas in his first letter to the Corinthians and his letter to Galatians. So, we know Barnabas is a dedicated follower of Christ. We learn in Acts 4:37 that Barnabas sold a field he owned and then gave all the money to the apostles.

As we move into Acts 5, we learn about a couple, Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who also sold some property. "He (Ananias) brought part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full amount. With his wife's consent, he kept the rest." (5:2 - italics added) Now let me be quick to say that there was nothing wrong in what they actually did. Luke even tells us vs. 4 that Peter realized Ananias and Sapphira could do anything they wanted with the money - they didn't have to give it all, or at least pretend they did. But there's the problem - they claimed one thing but did something different. They lied to make themselves look good in front of all the Christ followers, but in truth, they wanted some of the money for themselves. And we read that Ananias and Sapphira paid the consequences for their lies.

There's an obvious application here for us in our giving, too. Giving to be showy, to get the credit, goes against Jesus' command to give in secret (Matthew 6:1-4) - in other words, don't make a show of our giving. But, Luke also shows us that God wants complete honesty from us in our giving. Don't pretend we're doing a lot for God when we're only giving Him a tip. Don't act like our financial gifts are a real burden, when, in fact, we're only giving God whatever we have left over at the end of the month. The tithe is 10% of our income, not just any gift, and it's the expectation for every Christ follower that we give this first each month as a sign of our commitment to God and our gratitude for all He's done for us. ("Honor God with everything you own; give him the first and the best." Proverbs 3:9 (Message)(italics added) ) Only giving above and beyond 10% is considered a gift or offering.

But this passage has even broader implications beyond our finances. God is telling us not to make false claims about our faith journey. Don't put on a show of how spiritual we are, when we do it only when other members of our church around. Is my language the same on Monday as it is on Sunday? Could someone ask my spouse or my kids if I'm the same person as I am at church? Am I the same person at work or when I'm out with the gang? God isn't saying we have to be "perfect" Christians, but do we act like we are? Do we lead people to believe we're more spiritual than we are, we're more mature than we are, that we have our life all together, when in fact, it's crumbling around us. Until we're honest and authentic with God, ourselves and others, God won't help us grow. We're putting on a spiritual show, and Jesus said the applause of people is all we'll ever receive for this lifestyle - we certainly won't get any from God: "'...they have received all the reward they will ever get." (Matthew 6:2 NLT2)

The truth is, none of us is perfect - "...we all fall short of God's glorious standard." (Romans 3:23) By the power of the Holy Spirit living in us as Christ followers, God calls us to live and give beyond ourselves. But He also wants us to be real and genuine and authentic. He wants honest confession about where I am more than He wants a show. If my giving doesn't live up to God's standard of the tithe, I need to be honest with Him about that, and ask Him to help me over time to do what He wants. If my life don't live up to God's standard (and whose does?), be honest with God about where I really am, and ask Him to help me daily move in the right direction. I have found God always honors these honest prayers. God has never desired showy sacrifices but humble and contrite hearts (Psalm 51:17). That's what was missing in Ananias and Sapphira, and it's my prayer that that won't be missing in me. How about you?