Acts 23: That night the Master appeared to Paul: “It’s going to be all right.”
Paul, the former pursuer and persecutor of Christians is now himself, a Christian who is pursued and persecuted. When similar pressure broke out in other places the believers have secreted him out of town and out of danger. Now, though, he’s held prisoner by the Romans. When forty or more men take an oath to kill Paul the Romans take action similar what has been done before; they move him out of town. Paul, at the center of this whole storm, is surprisingly calm and filled with hope. Why? It’s because he’s heard from the Lord that “It’s going to be all right.” His confinement has just begun and things will get worse. How many times will he return in spirit to that night at the Roman garrison in Jerusalem when the Master, himself, came to encourage him? This visitation of the Lord will become his anchor as the storm of adversity crashes down on him. We not only need some midnight visits from the Lord as we deal with the issues of life, but we also need to cherish them; to remember them and draw strength from them. Then, as the storm’s fury is unleashed on us we can draw from those midnight visitations and be strengthened to perseverance and peace.
Take Away: We not only need some midnight visits from the Lord as we deal with the issues of life, but we also need to cherish them as well.
Acts 22: I paid a huge sum for my citizenship. How much did it cost you?
The captain isn’t having a good day. He’s arrested a man thinking he’s caught an Egyptian troublemaker but now realizes he has the wrong man. He then lets the man address the crowd, and to his surprise he addresses them in Hebrew. In a few minutes, there’s another riot and the man has to be rescued again. At this point the captain has had enough; he’ll beat the facts out of the fellow and be done with it. Then, as soldiers prepare to do the flogging the man informs them that he’s a Roman citizen. To be guilty of detaining and torturing a Roman citizen could be disastrous to his career. Additionally, the captain takes Roman citizenship quite seriously because obtaining his own citizenship had been an expensive process. Now, he’s come within a few minutes of jeopardizing his career because of this mysterious man. He asks Paul how he obtained his Roman citizenship and Paul responds that he was born free. Commentators aren’t sure how it is that Paul’s a Roman citizen but the best idea is that his home town, Tarsus, has been declared “free” by Caesar. Such a town is bound to allegiance to Rome, but its citizens are unfettered by the heavy hand of Rome. These people have the rights of a Roman citizen. The captain’s impressed that Paul was born with a privilege that has cost him dearly. For my part, I’m somewhere between the captain and Paul. I wasn’t born free. Rather, I was born a slave to sin and the price for my freedom was far beyond anything I could pay. However, the price was paid, in fact, had already been paid 2000 years earlier. My freedom was obtained at great cost. How much did it cost me? Nothing; but it cost Jesus everything.
Take Away: I’ve been set free a great price: the blood of Jesus.
It’s out of our hands
Acts 21: “It’s in God’s hands now,” we said. “Master, you handle it.”
In spite of repeated warnings from God’s people that this trip to Jerusalem will end with him in chains Paul remains convinced that this is what the Lord wants. He believes that the gospel will be advanced in entirely new ways as a result of his facing whatever it is that he must face there. Frankly, I’m not clear as to whether or not this is the Lord’s express will for Paul. It may be that this is mostly Paul’s idea and that the Lord has warned him but also assured him that he can get good out of what is coming. On the other hand, this may be exactly God’s plan. I just don’t know. Paul’s friends, though, know what they want. They want Paul to stay out of Jerusalem and away from the trouble that awaits him there. The great Apostle, though, is having none of it. He’s bound for Jerusalem and nothing they say is going to change his mind. At this point they do the only reasonable thing: they hand it all off to the Lord. Why try to press the debate with Paul? Why lay awake at night and worry about it? Sooner or later we find ourselves right where they are. We don’t agree with the course of action a respected brother or sister in Christ is taking, but they’re convinced that it’s the right thing to do. At that point, we need to decide to take our hands off and trust the Lord with it. From then on, we can go on loving and supporting our friend without trying to change their mind or even holding an “I told you so” in reserve. Know what? The Master really can handle it.
Take Away: There’s a time for letting others work out their own lives; for letting the Lord and them handle things without our help.
Taking care of God’s people
Acts 20: God’s people they are…God himself thought they were worth dying for.
As did Jesus several years earlier, now Paul “sets his face toward Jerusalem” knowing that his arrival there will result in hardship. To speed his journey the Apostle doesn’t go back into Ephesus but, instead, sends word to the church leaders to meet him in Miletus, located about fifty miles south of Ephesus. Here he has an emotional meeting with his dear friends and co-workers. He charges them to guard and protect God’s people in Ephesus, reminding them that “God himself thought they were worth dying for.” Even as this great Apostle is going to go through trials so will this great church. As I study this passage I can’t help but think of the role of the ministry. Paul, I see, isn’t worried about the organization and program of the church. He doesn’t urge the leaders to focus on current worship trends or new technology. Rather, he reminds them that they’re to guard and protect the “sheep” placed under their watch care. They’re to value God’s people as God, himself, values them. Happily, Paul has good news for these leaders of Ephesus and for church leaders across the ages. He tells them that God “can make you into what he wants you to be and give you everything you could possibly need in this community of holy friends.” The work of the ministry includes guarding and protecting God’s people from false teaching. The power for accomplishing that task comes from a gracious God who works in our lives, giving us everything we need to successfully do the work to which we’re called.
Take Away: The Lord not only calls people to spiritual leadership, he also empowers them for that task.
Believers becoming receivers
Acts 19: We’ve never heard of that – a Holy Spirit? God within us?
They’re a small gathering of believers in the town of Ephesus. They’ve repented of their sins and been baptized with water, believing in the One John the Baptist preached about. When Paul arrives in Ephesus and makes inquiries as to whether there are any followers of The Way in Ephesus, someone tells him about them. They welcome him with open arms and soon Paul is updating them on what God’s doing. As he brings them up to speed he tells them of the awesome events of the Day of Pentecost. They’re thrilled at the idea of God’s Holy Spirit living in their lives. It sounds almost too good to be true. Soon these believers are receivers. They’re filled with the Spirit. Years earlier Jesus so values this infilling that he tells the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they receive the Holy Spirit. Now, Paul encounters this group of isolated disciples and almost immediately tells them about the Holy Spirit’s infilling. This work of God is, apparently, a priority in the Book of Acts and, is, therefore, a priority for all God’s people. Paul’s focus on the status of their relationship with the Holy Spirit is a good focus for all of God’s people.
Take Away: Have you received the Spirit since you believed?
Acts 18: Paul had finally had it with them and gave it up as a bad job.
Paul spends a lot of time in Corinth, likely over two years. In the beginning he focuses his ministry on the Jews living there and has some success. However, others become more and more entrenched in their rejection of his message. At some point he decides there are more productive ways to minister in the Name of Jesus and ends up next door to the Jews’ meeting place at the home of Titius Justus. There Paul sets up shop for at least 18 months, preaching about Jesus and establishing a church in Corinth. After working primarily with the Jews Paul realizes that continuing to do so is not a profitable use of his time and energy. In his case, there’s a better place right next door. How often do we get so locked into a certain way and place that we continue to try to ride a horse that’s long dead? As the truism goes: “when the horse is dead it’s time to dismount.” Some churches are still trying to do things the way they were done in 1950 and they wonder why what worked so well then no longer packs any punch today. They blame others who aren’t on board for not being spiritual enough or yield to living in a defeated shadow of yesterday. Paul decides that continuing to do what he has been doing is no longer effective so he changes his approach, opening the way for a long and productive ministry. His message remains the same, but his method is upgraded. The mission is permanent but the method is fluid.
Take Away: We must not confuse the message with some transitory method.
The Unknown God
Acts 17: He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him.
Paul is speaking at the Areopagus in Athens. He’s disturbed by all the shrines to all the deities worshiped there. He’s even seen one shrine dedicated to the “unknown god.” The folks there don’t want to overlook some god and unintentionally get on the bad side of him! When Paul gets a chance to be heard, he uses that shrine as his launching point. He’s there to tell them about the God they’ve missed. His argument is right out of the Old Testament. The prophets of old often called their people to worship the God not made with human hands. Paul tells them that the God he serves is good and gracious, blessing their lives even though they haven’t acknowledged him. This God reaches out to them, inviting them to live in a relationship with him. However, there comes a time when the “unknown” becomes the “known.” It’s one thing to enjoy the blessings of God in ignorance. It’s something altogether different to know of this good God and to intentionally ignore him. In fact, God intends to divide people along that very line. He’s so serious about it that he’s already appointed a Judge over the people of the earth. To make it perfectly clear to the whole world that this is his chosen Judge, God has raised him from the dead. Many of Paul’s listeners, worshipers of a variety of gods, can’t swallow this “resurrection business.” They can’t imagine their gods having that kind of power. They walk away believing that they’ve just heard an impossible myth. Others, though, are drawn to this good God and his resurrected, appointed Judge. They want to know more. I know where I stand on this issue. Where do you stand?
Take Away: This “Unknown God” can, and wants to be known by all.
The question for the ages
Acts 16: Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved?
Obviously, the two prisoners are harmless men. They’ve arrived in his European city and made friends with some of the nicest people in town. They like to talk religion and have some unusual ideas, but talking religion and having unusual ideas isn’t especially uncommon or damning. Still, their growing popularity gets the attention of some people who stand for the status quo and some more powerful people in town have decided enough is enough. To teach these outsiders a lesson they’ve been beaten and thrown in jail for the night. Once they’re released they’ll waste no time getting out of town, that’s for sure. Now, bloody and bruised they’re chained up like common criminals. Their behavior, though, isn’t like criminals or even people who’ve been beaten up. They’re singing! The jailer thinks these nice men are probably crazy. Still, there’s something about them that disturbs him to the core. Who is this Jesus they sing about anyway? Suddenly, an earthquake shakes the neighborhood. The jailer runs to the gate of the jail to find it open, swinging on it hinges. He’ll be held accountable for any escapes and surely his prisoners are gone by now. To save himself the public execution he prepares to kill himself and is about to fall on his sword when Paul cries out for him to stop, they’re still there. There’s a second earthquake, this time in the man’s heart. Whatever it is that these two singing prisoners have is what he wants. He asks a question for the ages: Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved?
Take Away: The wonderful thing is that there’s an answer to this question…the answer is “Jesus!”
No yarmulke or “minor surgery” necessary
Acts 15: So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules.
This is a huge moment in the life of the church with far reaching implications. Some of the Jewish Christians want the Gentiles who convert to adopt Jewish rites, specifically circumcision. Peter, Barnabas, and Paul argue that it’s all about Jesus and that faith in him as Savior and Lord is all that’s necessary to be saved. Will Christianity be a branch of Judaism or will it be a religion of its own? It’s a tough decision for this group, made up of Jewish men who follow a Jewish Savior. However, the answer’s really easy. As Peter points out, the Holy Spirit has already ruled on the issue, earlier, as he preached at the house of Cornelius. Barnabas and Paul affirm this. They’ve been “out there” and seen what happens when Gentiles simply believe in Jesus. Now James weighs in, this time with Scripture that declares God’s intention to include the Gentiles who will, indeed, have a place at the table of his grace. If these new followers of Jesus will just avoid a few things that the Jewish followers of Jesus find especially objectionable there will be, not two flavors of Christianity, but one. Obviously, this new religion will be diverse but it will, never-the-less be united.
Take Away: Christianity is about the Christ and any focus elsewhere is mistaken.
Telling thankful people just who to thank
Acts 14: We don’t make God; he makes us, and all of this.
Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra and open their ministry there by performing a miracle, healing a lame man. The town goes wild and before they know it Barnabas and Paul are identified as the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes. In the mythology of the day Hermes is the spokesman of the gods and since Paul does most of the talking they identify him as Hermes. Barnabas, though, gets the highest title. Maybe there’s a lesson here that if we keep our mouths shut people will think more of us than they would otherwise! Anyway, it takes some doing to calm the crowd down so that Paul can preach the Good News of the gospel to them. Since the theme of the day is already set, Paul focuses in on the true God and his good will toward all people. That good will, he says, is evident in the blessings that surround each of us. Here’s evangelism fueled by Creation. Even a person who’s secular to the core looks at the majesty of the Grand Canyon or some other natural wonder and feels a sense of gratitude. A good place to start a conversation about the Lord is to tell them who it is that we thank for it all.
Take Away: One of the ways the Lord has revealed himself to us is through his Creation.