Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos

“[Apollos] had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to spak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” Acts 18:25-26
In Acts 18 we are introduced to Apollos. He was a Jew from Alexandria, who, given his name, had obviously been born into a Grecian culture. He had learned about Jesus, and clearly believed in Him, else he would not have been speaking about Him, but we read “he knew only the baptism of John”. That is, the message that John the Baptist preached: “I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt. 3:11). In Acts 19 we see that in Ephesus, likewise, there were people who only knew about John’s baptism of repentance (Acts 19:3-4). They did not know about the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2).
There are people today who speak openly and publicly about spiritual things, and show that they have some level of understanding, but perhaps not as intimate a relationship with the Lord as they could have. It seems that was the case for Apollos. It’s important to note what Priscilla and Aquila did: they invited him to their home and explained to him in private the truth of the whole gospel message. They did not point out the shortcomings in his understanding of who Jesus was, in a public setting. Like them, we are to show grace and hospitality to others who might only have half the story, rather than humiliating them or treating them like a heretic.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Paul preaching to Gentiles

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.” Acts 17:24
In the book of Acts we have several of Paul’s sermons recorded for us. They give us some insight into his mind and his methods of preaching the gospel – which we can all learn from.
The way Paul preached to Gentiles was quite different compared with how he preached to Jews (for an example of this, see Acts 13:16-41). The first major difference is the foundation from which he starts. For the Jews, who had the law of Moses, Paul began there. He refers to the Scriptures, especially those prophesying the coming of Messiah, then presents Jesus as that Messiah. But the Gentiles have no such background. Instead, Paul starts at creation. He introduces God as the creator, separate from and above His creation and therefore above man, not made by man. Then he says how God can be found by man, and how at some time in the future God will ultimately judge the world. We will be spared from this judgement if we repent and come to faith in the One He sent to save us – Jesus Christ.
There are many evangelism programmes and courses out there in the church today. But I don’t think there’s one that suits everybody. It’s no good starting off with a discussion on ‘Why did God send Jesus?’ if the person doesn’t believe in God in the first place. If in doubt, start at the beginning: creation around us shows the existence of God (Rom. 1:20), who made everything perfect. But sin entered the world and brought pain and death, and man was separated from God. We are all sinners and fall short of God’s righteous standard. God is holy and righteous, and His justice requires punishment for sin. But God sent His Son to take that punishment on our behalf and make a way for us to return to Him, so that we might spend eternity in heaven instead of in hell. All we need to do is confess our sins to Him, and believe that Jesus' death has paid for our sins.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Being led by circumstances

“During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to sail for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” Acts 16:9-10
Here in the book of Acts, we see one of the most common ways God guides us – through circumstnaces. Paul was eager to preach the gospel to the unreached and tried several possible avenues – Asia and Bithynia – but were kept from entering by the Holy Spirit (Acts 16:6-7). What this means, exactly, we don’t know; but they must have faced some sort of opposition. Then one night Paul saw a vision encouraging him to go to Macedonia. It’s interesting to consider what happened next. Paul went ahead, and travelled to the capital city of Macedonia: Philippi (Acts 16:12). Now usually when Paul arrived at a city, he would seek out the Jewish synagogue there, if there was one. But we see no mention of Paul going to a synagogue in Philippi, so we conclude that there wasn’t one. A synagogue was founded when there were ten Jewish men, so we conclude there were fewer than ten Jewish men. If there was no synagogue, the Jews would meet together for prayer, often by a river, so this was Paul’s second stop (Acts 16:13). Even there, we don’t read of any men being present, only women, including Lydia (Acts 16:14).
But after this initial discouragement, things got worse: Paul and Silas were flogged and put in prison (Acts 16:22-23). If I was Paul, I would probably be wondering if the vision had really been from God. But these events all led to the jailer and his whole family coming to salvation. Later Paul wrote to the church at Philippi: it is one of the most encouraging, joyous letters among the epistles.
There’s a lesson here for us: sometimes God will lead us, through circumstances, into tight situations. But He doesn’t just lead us into them, He leads us through them. It’s all for His glory. We just need to stick close to Him, persevere, and keep doing what He has called us to do.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A compassionate and gracious God

“But You, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” Psalm 86:15
The Bible tells us over and over about God’s love, His compassion, and His patience. We find these attributes in both the Old and New Testaments – there isn’t a God of the Old Testament who is full of judgement and wrath, and a God of the New Testament who is full of love and compassion. It’s the same God, operating in different circumstances. Yes, we see a lot more of His patience today, because we are living in the age of grace. In the Old Testament, people came to ‘the point of no return’, spiritually, a lot sooner in their lives. Today it takes longer – but some people can still get there (for instance, committing the unpardonable sin, of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). It is still possible today for people to incur the wrath of God, although it takes a lot to make Him angry. Things that make God angry are stubbornness and resistance, a refusal to believe in spite of the evidence. We see this with Jesus and the Pharisees (Mark 3:5). But if we are seeking the Lord, following after Him – imperfect as that act of following might be – He won’t give up on us. We all slip and fall sometimes, some of us more than others. But if we are repentant about it, God will show us compassion and forgive our sins (1 John 1:9). What a mighty God we serve – not just in terms of His power and majesty, but also in terms of His grace, love, and patience.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Disagreements between Christians

“They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.” Acts 15:39-40
At the start of Paul’s second missionary journey, he and Barnabas had a major disagreement. It was concerning John Mark, Barnabas’ nephew who had come along with them on the first journey but had left and gone home when they got to Pamphylia (Acts 15:38, Acts 13:13). It wouldseem that he got cold feet. Paul didn’t want to take him again, in case the same thing happened, but Barnabas, having a heart of reconciliation (see Acts 9:27), wanted to give him a second chance.
When I read about Paul arguing the case for the gospel, I can only imagine how big this disagreement was. We know that it was big enough for the two to separate. But despite this, God used it: now there were two powerful missionary teams going out into the world, instead of just one.
It is inevitable, unless you’re a doormat, that we will have personality clashes with other Christians. It might even be with the leadership in your church (this has happened to me...). But no matter what is said between you, there are some important things to remember. Firstly, a personality clash doesn’t mean that one party is right and the other is wrong. It doesn’t make our ministry void because we can’t agree on how something should be done. Most importantly, a personality clash doesn’t mean the other person’s salvation is in question. We need to recognise disagreements like this for what they are, and not turn it into judgement on the person’s spiritual maturity.
With time and prayer, rifts like this can heal. We read elsewhere that Paul and Mark were later reconciled (2 Tim. 4:11). But the healing process can take years, depending on how deep the hurt is. If you can, agree to disagree. We are called to unity in the body of Christ, but not uniformity. There is no one ‘right way’ of doing ministry. If you can’t, then at least treat the other person with respect, and don’t get drawn into the trap of attributing your personality clash to some spiritual attack.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Proof of salvation

“God, who knows the heart, shows that He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us.” Acts 15:8
In Acts 15 we have a major turning-point in the history of the church. This was the so-called council at Jerusalem, when the apostles gathered together to consider the question, can Gentiles be saved without becoming Jews first? Until this point the issue had not really arisen; most of the believers were Jews (either Israelites, or Gentiles who had converted to Judaism) who subsequently came to believe in Jesus.
Thankfully, the issue was resolved. Peter, who had recently been used by God to preach the gospel to Cornelius (Acts 10), stepped up in support of Paul and Barnabas’ ministry among the Gentiles and declared that it was indeed possible for Gentiles to be saved without becoming Jews first. Another question arises: how do you know someone is saved? Peter gives us the answer: if the Holy Spirit is resident in their heart, it obviously means that God has accepted them for salvation.
We can’t judge a person’s heart and motives – only God can. But we can look for fruit in their life. If the Holy Spirit is resident in their heart, then His fruit should be being produced (Gal. 5:22-23). This is the hallmark of a believer – not the fact that they go to church, or have been baptised in water, or that they give money to Christian charities. Nor is it whether they speak in tongues. We can also test ourselves by the same measure: how much fruit of the Holy Spirit is being produced in our lives? Are we fruitful in these things – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – or are we fruitless? Is the Holy Spirit at home in your heart?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The commander of the Lord's army

“The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.” Joshua 5:15
On the eve of the battle of Jericho, Joshua encountered a man outside the camp holding a sword. He challenged him, saying, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” (Josh. 5:13). The man announced, “Neither... but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” (Josh. 5:14).
But this is no ordinary angel. Angels do not demand worship from people, nor do they accept worship from people (see Rev. 19:9-10). This person not only accepts Joshua’s worship, but He demands it. He uses the same words that God used when speaking to Moses from the burning bush: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy” (Josh. 5:15, Ex. 3:5).
This can only be one person: the Son of God, in His pre-Incarnate form. The word ‘angel’ simply means messenger. In this capacity, Jesus is coming to earth Himself to deliver a message – just as He did to Abraham (Gen. 18:1), Hagar (Gen. 16:7, 13), Jacob (Gen. 32:28-30), Balaam (Num. 22:32), Gideon (Judg. 6:12), Manoah and his wife (Judg. 13), Elijah (2 Kin. 1:3-4), and others. It would appear from the text that the message He had come to give Joshua was the strategy for the battle of Jericho – how the Israelites were to march around the city once a day for six days, then seven times around on the seventh day, then to blow the trumpets, at which point the walls would fall down.
This was not a battle that the Israelites fought, as such. Although they killed the inhabitants of Jericho (apart from Rahab and her family), it was God who overcame the city and caused the walls to fall down. In a similar way, God works on our behalf today – if we are faithful to Him, as Joshua was.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Paul's calling

“But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for My name.’” Acts 9:15-16
In Acts 9 we have the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (who was later called Paul). Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, in a light so bright that he was blinded for a few days. At the same time, God spoke to a disciple called Ananias and told him to go and find Saul and pray for him. Initially Ananias was reluctant, but God told him again to go. In today’s verse we see the calling of God that was upon Paul’s life: to carry His name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel, and to suffer for His name. As we read the rest of the book of Acts, and secular history, we see the extent of Paul’s missionary ministry through Asia Minor, Greece, and ultimately to Rome; preaching to Gentiles, Jews, and Gentile leaders (including Felix and Festus, governors in Judea (Acts 24-25); King Agrippa (Acts 25-26), and Caesar Nero).
But Paul’s calling started even from before he was a believer. He was in a rather unique and remarkable position, which we can see was due to the hand of God being upon his life, even before he was saved. Here was a man who was born a Roman citizen. This gave him rights and privileges in society that allowed his travels to be possible, and offered him protection by the Roman authorities (see Acts 22:25-29, Acts 23:27). He had grown up in Tarsus, so he had an excellent Grecian education. This allowed him to engage in debate with those of a Grecian worldview (see Acts 17:16ff). He was also trained in Jerusalem as a Pharisee, so he knew the law of God back-to-front and inside-out. Although Paul initially used his position and abilities to persecute the church, God turned it around and used him for His kingdom. And He does the same with us.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Doing what is right in the Lord's sight

“Do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight, so that it may go well with you and you may go in and take over the good land that the Lord promised on oath to your forefathers, thrusting out all your enemies before you, as the Lord said.” Deuteronomy 6:18-19
Regular readers of this blog will note that normally the verses I write on are in a sort of sequential order: they are basically chosen based on my daily Bible reading (through the OT, Psalms, and NT concurrently). In the OT we’re currently at Joshua. But today’s verse comes from Deuteronomy – because it’s something that I was personally convicted about, and so I thought I’d share it.
We know that the Promised Land speaks to us of the abundant Christian life, being led by the Holy Spirit. Yes, we still have battles, but we have also been promised the victory if we keep in step with God. But sometimes we don’t feel like our life is that abundant. We feel like the enemy is winning sometimes.
Today’s verse tells us that if we do what is right and good in the Lord’s sight, it will go well for us, we will be able to take possession of the land, and God will defeat all our enemies. We know what is right and good in the Lord’s sight, and what is not – the Bible tells us, and our conscience confirms it.
What I was especially convicted about this week was certain TV programmes that I have been watching. They’re ones that are advertised as ‘containing language/violence/content that may offend some people’. One centres around solving all kinds of gruesome crimes; the other involves a family of people who can only be classed as sexually immoral, with that immorality being the focus of the show. How are these things benefitting me as a Christian? Quite simply, they are not.
I’m not saying that everything on TV is bad. Some programmes can be uplifting, others are educational. But we need to “test everything, hold on to the good” (1 Thess. 5:21). Paul used this yardstick in considering the virtues of secular things: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).
In all this, I still have a choice. I can choose to ignore the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and keep watching – and keep living in defeat in this area of my life. Or I can switch the box off, and do something else that is more edifying. I want to be more productive for God. This is one thing that I know I have to be obedient in, if I want that to happen.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Stepping out in faith

“Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest. Yet as soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing.” Joshua 3:15-16a
Here we see the miracle by which God enabled the children of Israel to cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan. Much as He had parted the Red Sea for them when they came out of Egypt (Ex. 14), He now caused the Jordan to stop flowing so that the Israelites were able to cross over on dry ground.
In the natural, this was impossible. We look at the Jordan River today, which, to be honest, is not all that impressive. But in earlier times, before it was dammed and most of the water taken out for irrigation, it was a significant barrier to cross. In flood season, it was even more so.
There’s a lesson here for us. God didn’t dry up the Jordan first, saying, ‘See? I’ve made things easy for you, now cross over.’ No, it was as the priests’ feet touched the edge of the water – as they were stepping out, in faith – that God worked on their behalf.
Has God told you to do something that is stretching your faith? Something that perhaps is impossible in the natural, with the abilities and resources that you have? If so, then it’s time to step out anyway. Make that first step, and watch God work on your behalf.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rahab's faith

“‘Agreed,’ she replied. ‘Let it be as you say.’ So she sent them away and htey departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.” Joshua 2:21
In Joshua 2 we have the account of the two spies who were sent by Joshua to Jericho. As we know, they met a woman called Rahab, who is called an innkeeper here (Josh. 2:1, some versions), a title which in that time and culture usually meant she was also a prostitute (see Heb. 11:31, Jam. 2:25). She hides the spies and sends the king’s men on a wild goose chase looking for them. But despite her dubious background, she had faith in the God of Israel, as evidenced by what she tells the spies: “I know that the Lord has given this land to you...” (Josh. 2:9), “...the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:11). She is included in the so-called ‘hall of faith’ (Heb. 11:31), and was also included in the bloodline of the Messiah (Matt. 1:5, and see this post).
Rahab’s faith wasn’t just evidenced by her words, but also by her actions. The spies agreed to spare her and her family, and so they would know which house she were in, they instructed her to tie a scarlet cord in the window. As soon as the spies left, she tied the cord in the window – even though it would take them three days to return to Joshua, before Jericho would come under siege. She acted as if their return was imminent.
For us, the event we usually think of as being imminent is the rapture of the church. Although we don’t yet have a one-world government or a one-world currency, that’s no reason not to be ready for Jesus to come for us. Are you putting your faith into practice, like Rahab did?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Simon the sorceror

“When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, ‘Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’” Acts 8:18-19
In Acts 8 we see the work of God through Philip, and later Peter, in the city of Samaria. We also encounter a man called Simon, who was a prominent figure in the city because of his abilities as a sorceror. When Philip preached the gospel, many people believed, and we read that “Simon himself believed and was baptised. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw” (Acts 8:13). When the church in Jerusalem heard about all this, they sent Peter and John to them. They prayed for the people to receive the Holy Spirit, and when Simon saw this (the receiving of the Holy Spirit obviously being physically manifested somehow, perhaps through speaking in tongues), he offered them money so that he might be able to do the same thing.
But Peter rebuked him. What he was doing was sin. Peter clearly received some special insight from the Holy Spirit into what was in Simon’s heart, because he says, “For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin” (Acts 8:23).
It would make sense on a human level that Simon was jealous and bitter – he was no longer the star attraction. Those who had followed him, calling him “the Great Power” (Acts 8:10), were now following Philip and the other apostles. To try and get back into the limelight, Simon did what all magicians did, both then and now: he offered to buy this ‘trick’ from the apostles. But the gifts of the Spirit cannot be bought.
I don’t know whether Simon was saved or not. We read that he believed (Acts 8:13), but when Peter told him to repent of his wickedness (Acts 8:22), Simon asked Peter to pray for him – he didn’t pray for himself (Acts 8:24).

Friday, February 17, 2012

Moses’ view of the Promised Land

“Then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham Isaac and Jacob when I said, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’” Deuteronomy 34:4
Moses was forbidden by God from entering the Promised Land because of what happened at Kadesh. But God did allow him to see it. At the end of Deuteronomy we read, “Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land – from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar” (Deut. 34:1-3). In 2006 I went on a trip to Israel and one of our stops was Mount Nebo, in Jordan. This is the view back into Israel from the top:

Compare this with a map of Israel, with all the places Moses saw marked:

As you can see, it’s not physically possible to see the region of Naphtali (i.e. Galilee), nor the Mediterranean Sea, from standing on Mount Nebo. Therefore, what God showed Moses was something very special. He may have showed him the land in a vision, or transported him to a great height. Moses might not have entered the Promised Land, but he saw it in a way no-one else did.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Bible: not just another book

“They are not just idle words for you – they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 32:47
Many people will acknowledge that the Bible is an important book. They may point to it as a reference source, giving us the history of Israel and the life of Christ. They may place it on a par with the Koran or other religious texts. But the Bible is not just another book. When we read the Bible, we aren’t just reading words on a page – at least, we shouldn’t be. If we have a relationship with God, then something unique happens when we read the Bible: we have the Author’s commentary happening, in our hearts – if we will take the time to listen.
Moses told the children of Israel that the words he had been speaking to them were not idle, but were their life, and that if they lived by them it would ensure that they would live long in the Promised Land. For us as Christians, the Promised Land speaks of the abundant life we can enjoy in Christ, when we make Him the ruler of our hearts. (It’s possible to be saved and yet not have reached that place spiritually.) Do you want to have the abundance of the Holy Spirit working in your life? Then get into the Bible. Read it as often as you have opportunity. Treasure it, memorise it. Ask God to reveal Himself to you in it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Be strong and courageous

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
Seven times in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, we see Joshua being told to ‘be strong and courageous’: by Moses (Deut. 31:6, 7), by the Lord (Deut. 31:23, Josh. 1:6, 7, 9), and by the people (Josh. 1:18). It was obviously something Joshua needed to hear!
But this is not merely an exhortation or encouragement, nor words to hype up Joshua’s determination. It is a command. How can you command someone to be strong and courageous? Surely some people are more courageous than others, and some don’t have any courage at all?
Here’s the thing: we need to look at who is giving the command. God gives people all kinds of seemingly impossible commands: be perfect (Matt. 5:48), love one another (John 15:12), take up your bed and walk (John 5:8). We have a choice to obey or not – to exercise faith, or to continue in unbelief. But as we decide to obey, God enables us to do it. Through Him we can find strength and be courageous – based on the knowledge that He will never leave us nor forsake us. With God, you are on the winning side. There is no need to be afraid.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Gamaliel's wisdom

“Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” Acts 5:38-39
In Acts 5 we have another instance where the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling body – and reprimanded for preaching the message of Jesus to the people. Again, they replied that they could not stop but must continue to preach, in obedience to God’s command (Acts 5:29, c.f. Acts 4:19-20). This infuriated the Sanhedrin so much that they wanted to put them all to death. At this moment Gamaliel stood up.
We don’t know much about Gamaliel from the Scriptures, apart from this: he was a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, and was well-respected by everyone (Acts 5:34). He was also the one who had trained the apostle Paul as a Pharisee, in his younger days (Acts 22:3). He shows himself here to be a man of great wisdom. We don’t know if Gamaliel ever came to faith in Christ, but he was able to look at the situation rationally – which the rest of the Sanhedrin were not doing. He pointed out two previous examples in their recent history where charismatic leaders had arisen and drawn followers, but when the leader was killed the followers dispersed. In the present case, it was still early days after Jesus had been killed. His attitude was, wait and see. If this movement was like the previous ones, it would all come to nothing. He was also open to the possibility that this was from God – in which case he knew that no-one could stand against Him.
The same thing is happening today. There are more and more people arising who are completely open about their desire to eradicate Christianity. They want to purge it from schools and public places. They put up billboards and signs on buses. But we can take comfort: they will not succeed, any more than the Sanhedrin did back in the days of the early church. The church is Jesus’ bride: He won’t allow her to be destroyed.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Coming under persecution

“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable Your servants to speak Your word with great boldness.” Acts 4:29
At times we can come under persecution from religious authorities. This was what happened to the believers in Jerusalem: the Sanhedrin arrested Peter and John and called them to account for what they were preaching. They threatened them and released them. It’s interesting to note what the church did next, in praying to God.
They asked God to strengthen them and give them boldness to speak His Word. They didn’t ask God whether they should continue preaching, or to obey the Sanhedrin and stop. They knew that what they were doing was right, and was what God had told them to do (Matt. 28:19-20, Mark 16:15). They simply asked for boldness to continue the work.
In those time when we are criticised by other believers, or other churches, we can start to doubt if what we are doing is right. The first thing we need to do is to check that what we are doing is Scriptural. The criticism may be valid; or it may be a case of jealousy or sour grapes on the other person’s part. We will face opposition when we are doing the will of God. (See this post on 1 Cor. 16:8-9.) The key to avoiding doubt, is to stay close to the Lord, and know that you are doing His will.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Unschooled, ordinary men

“When [the Sanhedrin] saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Acts 4:13
Following the healing of the lame man in Acts 3, Peter and John were called before the Sanhedrin to give an account of what they were teaching the people. Peter spoke with boldness, under the influence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:8), about the power of God, given through the name of Jesus (Acts 4:10). The Sanhedrin marvelled because Peter and John were ‘unschooled’. This does not mean that they were ignorant, or illiterate – it simply meant that they did not have recognised qualifications from the ‘right’ rabbinical schools. In reality, Peter and John had spent about 4 years learning directly from Jesus Himself, the Son of God, the Author of the Scriptures – they were certainly not uneducated in the things of God.
Some people use this verse to try to build a case that we shouldn’t seek to gain any qualifications at all, because ‘after all, God can use anyone’. That’s right: He also used Paul, who had both Greek and rabbinical qualifications, in abundance (Phil. 3:4-5). Having qualifications doesn’t mean God can’t use you – so long as you recognise it’s His calling, and not the degrees and diplomas, which qualifies you in His kingdom.
Finally, we also see that the Sanhedrin “took note that these men had been with Jesus”. Being with Jesus should change our lives in a radical way – just as it did for Peter. The more time we spend with the Lord, the more we will become like Him. Our lives will become polarised and we will stand out from the world. Do people notice a difference in you? Or are you an ‘under-cover Christian’?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Faith and power

“Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’” Acts 3:6
Here’s a verse that shows that Peter didn’t subscribe to the theory of positive confession: that if you speak positively about something, it will happen. Speak positively about being wealthy, and money will magically appear in your bank account. Speak positively about being healthy, and your sickness will diappear. This is an unfortunate doctrine that has infiltrated some churches, and it’s one that we don’t see in the Bible.
A related doctrine is that which says, if you have enough faith you will be healed/prosperous/receive whatever you want. The flip side of course, is, if you don’t have what you want, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. This can put a real burden and guilt trip on people; people who long to be healed and do have faith, but for whom God’s will is something different for them. Here’s a man who wasn’t looking to Peter to receive healing – he was only wanting to receive a few coins, just as he asked every person who passed by him (Acts 3:5).
Here’s the thing: it wasn’t the man’s faith that healed him – it was Peter’s. The man had no faith of his own. But in a similar way, it wasn’t Peter’s power that healed him, but God’s. Peter freely acknowledges this: “When Peter saw this [the people running towards him], he said to them: ‘Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?’” (Acts 3:12). He uses the healing to preach to them the good news about Jesus Christ: crucified, but risen from the dead by the same power that worked in this man’s life (Acts 3:16).
We must always remember where the power for healing comes from – God – and that that healing is given according to His will, not our faith as such.

Friday, February 10, 2012

How God leads us

“Your path led through the sea, Your way through the mighty waters, though Your footprints were not seen.” Psalm 77:19
We all know that God doesn’t lead us by tying a rope around our neck and dragging us along, or by flashing neon signs. In fact, God doesn’t lead us from in front, but from behind. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea (which is what this psalm is referring to), the pillar of cloud – the presence of God – moved from its place in front of the people, and stood behind them, coming between the Israelites and the Egyptians. God told Moses to go on ahead, through the Sea, as the waters parted. (See Ex. 14.)
Sometimes, we can feel God speaking to us in a very tangible way. Sometimes He will give us physical signs, circumstances moving into place, opportunities presenting themselves. But we need to not rely on physical things as being the primary way God leads and guides us. We are called to live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), and to be led by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:14). I’ve found that as time has passed, the Spirit’s voice has become softer. When I was younger, I used to ‘hear’ God speaking to me in a way that was almost audible. This is not to say that I’ve become ‘less spiritual’. Rather, God knows that I am growing in Him, and He shouldn’t need to use a megaphone to get my attention.
Being led by God is like piloting a ship: you have to be moving for the rudder to have any effect in steering the boat. That is why Isaiah says, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isa. 30:21). As we step out in a direction, the Holy Spirit will let us know if it’s the right one. We just need to be sensitive to Him.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Death could not hold Him

“But God raised Him from the dead, freeing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him.” Acts 2:24
In Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, we come across this verse, which I wanted to pick up on for today. Very often we can think about the death of Jesus on the cross, suffering and dying in our place – and not actually realise just how radical this is. How could God, the author of life, die?
In Romans 6:23 we read that the wages of sin is death. That is, death is the consequence of sin. So again, I ask: how could the sinless Son of God, die? – since He had no sin that would bring death upon Him?
The answer of course, is this: because He was bearing our sin. We often read about the physical agony of the cross, but we have a very superficial grasp of the spiritual agony that Jesus suffered, becoming sin, the thing He hated the most in all the world. Bearing our sin, and the consequence – death – was agonising for Him in a way that far surpassed the physical torment of crucifixion.
But once He had died, and descended into Hades, that sin was dealt with. But, it was not sin that He had committed. Hell had no authority over Him. Since He had no sin of His own, death could not hold Him. The resurrection of Christ is proof of Jesus’ sinless life; and the death of Christ is proof that He did indeed bear our sins. We have a risen Saviour! Hallelujah!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The day of Pentecost

“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Acts 2:4
In Acts 2 we see the beginning of the Church Dispensation: the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon believers, as prophesied by Joel. The particular manifestation was the speaking in other tongues (or languages). People heard the disciples speaking in languages from fifteen different regions (see Acts 2:9-11). Some marvelled, while others mocked (see Acts 2:12-13). We can learn a lot about what speaking in tongues is, by making some observations about this first instance of it.
Firstly, the speaking was controllable by the speakers. It was not out-of-control babbling. The speaker had the ability to turn it on and off (see 1 Cor. 14:32). Later, Paul would write to the Corinthians about this gift of the Spirit, pointing out the need for tongues to be used in an orderly fashion, and even in some situations for the speaker to remain silent (i.e. when there is no interpreter, 1 Cor. 14:27-28).
Secondly, the tongues were understandable by various people in the crowd (Acts 2:8). It would seem from the Scriptures that there are two kinds of tongues: one which is a ‘heavenly language’, by which our spirit can talk to God (1 Cor. 14:2); another which is an actual language on earth, which the speaker does not know and has not learned.
Thirdly, the interpretation of the tongues being spoken was that the speakers were praising God. Nowhere in Scripture do we see ‘messages in tongues’ being given, where a tongue is spoken and the ‘interpretation’ is a message for those hearing it. (Such incidents are more likely the gift of prophecy, or a word of knowledge, rather than interpretation of the tongue.)

*For some other posts on the gift of tongues, see here, here, and here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The choosing of Matthias

“Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.” Acts 1:26
The choosing of Matthis to replace Judas is something that people often have questions about. Did Peter do the right thing in making the suggestion, or did God have another apostle in mind, namely Paul? Personally, I think it’s interesting that although Matthias was chosen as meeting the qualification of having been following Jesus since the start of His ministry, we don’t see his name mentioned in the Gospels, nor in the book of Acts. In fact, in Acts 2:14 we see the core group of disciples still being referred to as ‘the Eleven’, even after Matthias was chosen to be added to them.
Then there’s also the method by which Matthias was chosen: they cast lots. This was a method used frequently in the Old Testament (c.f. Prov. 16:33), for example, in dividing the land amongst the twelve tribes (Josh. 18), in selecting Saul to be king (1 Sam. 10:20-21), in finding who was to blame when Israel was defeated at Ai (Josh. 7:16-18), in determining the duties for the Levites (1 Chr. 24:4-5), etc. Some think that the Urim and Thummim was a method of drawing lots, with a white and black stone placed inside the breastplate of the high priest. But this is the only instance in the New Testament where we see the casting of lots used as a method of determining God’s will. We have entered a new dispensation, where God leads us in His will by the Holy Spirit.
I haven’t quite decided in my own mind who the twelfth apostle was supposed to be – Judas, Matthias, or Paul. All will be revealed at some point in the future however: the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem will be inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles (Rev. 21:14). I’m content to wait until then.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The coming of the Kingdom

“So when they met together, they asked Him, ‘Lord, are You at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’” Acts 1:6
Throughout the gospels, we see that the disciples (and indeed, the people of Israel) had a hangup about Jesus establishing an earthly kingdom. There was a great sense of anticipation that Messiah would come and overthrow the Romans (see Luke 19:11). This was what prompted the disciples to quiz Jesus about the kingdom (Matt. 24:3, Mark 13:4), and for the mother of John and James to ask Him to give her two sons prominent positions in His kingdom (Matt. 20:20-23).
Here we see that even after His crucifixion and resurrection, they still didn’t get it. Jesus hadn’t set up His kingdom, instead He was killed. They now understood the need for Messiah to die (Luke 24:45-46). The Old Testament prophesied this – prophecies that the rabbis usually ignored, because they could not reconcile them with the notion of Messiah being a king. But what of the prophecies concerning the kingdom?
Jesus will one day return. He will establish a kingdom on earth, with His throne in Jerusalem (Ezek.40-48, Isa. 66, Dan. 2:44, etc.). But that time is yet to come. In the meantime, Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, in the hearts of those who belong to Him.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The design of John's Gospel

“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” John 20:30-31
This verse in John gives us a glimpse as to why his Gospel is so different to those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the ‘Synoptic gospels’). Rather than recording an historical account of Jesus’ life and ministry, John’s gospel has a purpose: that whoever reads it might believe that Jesus is the Christ. Therefore, the events and discourses that John records have been carefully chosen to present this fact.
John’s gospel features seven miracles and seven discourses linked to those miracles. They are as follows:
Miracle 1. Turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). Jesus reveals His glory (John 2:11).
Discourse 1. Speaking to Nicodemus about being born again (John 3:1-21).
Discourse 2. Speaking to the woman at the well (John 4:1-42). Jesus demonstrates His prophetic gift (John 4:19).
Miracle 2. Healing the son of the royal official (John 4:43-54).
Miracle 3. Healing the lame man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15).
Discourse 3. Jesus does the Father’s work, which testifies of Himself (John 5:16-47).
Miracle 4. Feeding the 5,000 (John 6:1-15). Jesus provides for those who are hungry.
Miracle 5. Walking on water (John 6:16-21). Jesus has power over creation.
Discourse 4. Jesus the bread of life (John 6:25-71).
Discourse 5. Jesus the Son of His Father (John 8).
Miracle 6. Healing a man born blind (John 9). Jesus gives sight to people, so they can follow Him.
Discourse 6. Jesus the good shepherd and the gate for the sheep (John 10).
Miracle 7. Raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11). Jesus has power over death.
Discourse 7. To His disciples, concerning His death and the promise of the Holy Spirit (John 14-16).

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A lesson about power

“‘Do You refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t You realise I have power either to free You or to crucify You?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed Me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.’” John 19:10-11
Here is one of the greatest paradoxes of all time: Jesus, the Son of God, Messiah, standing trial before a man called Pontius Pilate. But in fact, it is not Jesus who is on trial at all. This was all part of God’s plan that would result in Him going to the cross, dying a substitutionary death in our place so that our sins might be forgiven.
Pilate was not in control of the situation – he was simply playing a part. The power that he thought he had, had been given to him by God, for this very moment. He wanted to release Jesus, but God knew his personality and that he would cave in to the cries of the mob calling for Jesus to be crucified. Yet although Pilate was simply a pawn in a game he could not control, he was still responsible for his sin. So too were the Sanhedrin: for the sin of rejecting and killing their Messiah, whose coming had been prophesied throughout the Old Testament. Jesus says that their sin is greater – they should have recognised who He was.
We can all learn a lesson from this. No matter what we think we have control over, we need to remember that ultimately God is in control of all things.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Keep your eyes on God

“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before You.” Psalm 73:21-22
It’s easy to get caught up in the ways of the world, just as Asaph was which led to him writing this psalm. He was getting frustrated, dealing with the age-old question, ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ (see Ps. 73:3). But he eventually realises that he has the wrong perspective: “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me – until I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny” (Ps. 73:16-17).
Here’s the thing: when we become envious of the people of the world, it is foolishness. Envy like this will rob from your relationship with God. It will reduce you to their level – as we read in today’s verse, becoming senseless and ignorant, like a brute beast.
Instead, we need to keep our eyes on eternity. Ultimately, it’ll all come out in the wash, and the only thing that will matter is where you stand with God – if you have accepted the gift He provided for your salvation, or if you rejected Him. How much money you earned, how many kids you had, how successful your business was, how many charities you gave to – none of that will change where you spend eternity. Conversely, neither will your flaws and failings. Where do you stand with the Lord today? If you are secure in Him, then praise God, and keep your eyes on Him. If you don’t know Him, it’s not too late to seek Him – if you do, He promises that you will find Him (Jer. 29:13, Matt. 7:8, Jer. 33:3, James 4:8).

Thursday, February 2, 2012

God's rules for the king

“The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’ He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” Deuteronomy 17:16-17
At the time Deuteronomy was written, Israel did not have a king. It was led by God, through Moses. But God knew that in the years to come the nation would demand to have a king over them, so they would be like the other nations (Deut. 17:14, 1 Sam. 8:5). In anticipation of that, He gave them laws concerning the king: he was to be an Israelite, not a foreigner; he was not to amass horses, wives, or silver and gold, and when he took the throne he was to write out for himself a copy of the Law.
God knew that the nation, being comprised of fallen human beings, would someday refuse to be led by Him through prophets and judges. While they would want a king like the other nations, God didn’t want their king to be like those other kings. He wanted the king to live a humble life, relying on Him.
Horses symbolised military strength. God wanted the nation to know that He was the one who would fight their battles and give them victory.
Taking many wives was something that the pagan kings did. Marrying the daughter of a rival king was a way of making a political alliance so the two nations would not fight each other. God didn’t want Israel to make alliances with her enemies as a promise of peace.
Lastly, the king was not to amass silver and gold: things that would either set him above the people, or be used to placate their enemies.
God was teaching Israel that even when they had a king, they were still to trust in Him, and not in their military strength, political alliances, or wealth. There’s a lesson here for us too. What are we trusting in?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Peter's denials

“Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.” John 18:27
We all know about the lowest point in Peter’s life: when he denied his Lord. Jesus had told him that they would all desert Him (Matt. 26:31), but Peter protests, saying, “Even if all fall away on account of You, I never will” (Matt. 26:33). Jesus then prophesied, “I tell you the truth... this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown Me three times” (Matt. 26:34).
Here’s a tricky question for you: how many times did Peter disown the Lord? Let’s take a look at all four Gospel accounts, and note where the challenge was given, and whom it was given by.
1. At the entrance to the high priest’s courtyard, by the girl at the door (John 18:16-18)
2. In the courtyard, by a servant girl (Matt. 26:69-70, Mark 14:66-68, Luke 22:55-57)
3. In the gateway, by the same servant girl (Mark 14:69-70)
4. In the gateway, by another servant girl (Matt. 26:71-72)
5. In the courtyard, by a man (Luke 22:58, John 18:25)
6. In the courtyard, by some men who recognised his accent (Matt. 26:73-74, Mark 14:70-71, Luke 22:59)
7. In the courtyard, by one of the servants of the high priest, who recognised him from Gethsemane (John 18:26-27)
So we see that Peter was challenged by at least seven different people, and denied all of them. Even in this moment of Peter’s great weakness, we see the greater grace of God. Jesus told Peter he would deny Him three times – he denied Him more than that. It took the crowing of the rooster for Peter to realise what he had done. No wonder he went out and wept bitterly (Matt. 26:75, Mark 14:72, Luke 22:62). But Jesus didn’t leave Peter there. After His resurrection, He restored Peter, giving him the opportunity to express his devotion to Jesus (John 21:15-17). We may feel like we have denied the Lord, by our words or actions, or by our silence and inaction. But we have not fallen so far that His grace cannot reach us and pick us up again.