Acts 21 – Faithful Return

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Paul’s return to Jerusalem was not simply a stubborn desire of his own heart, but a directive by the Holy Spirit that he faithfully followed.  As he made his way home, many people warned him to stay away and begged him to not go.  They all knew that if he did show his face in Jerusalem, his “fate” would be sealed.

This really came as no surprise to Paul, though.  He was very aware of what would happen to him and actually welcomed it.  That is not to say that Paul welcomed death, but that he trusted God to faithfully be with him through whatever he would experience as he followed God’s calling on his life.

So what can we learn from Paul’s actions here?  If we believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through all Scripture, which God does do, then even in a historical account of Paul’s travels we can learn something.

Ultimately, Paul’s return set in motion a series of events that leads to his death in Rome.  Yet Rome was the end goal of Paul’s travels, as he attests to in both Acts and Romans.  He felt strongly that God was calling him there to witness, to strengthen the church there, and to present to Gospel to the highest governmental seats in the known world.  He knew that it wouldn’t be comfortable, but he was willing to go the distance for the sake of Christ.

How about you?  Typically God’s calling on our lives ends up making us uncomfortable; more so than we would like.  We talk a good “following God” talk, but in the walk that we walk we avoid situations that are uncomfortable, especially when it involves sharing our faith.  Perhaps we can learn from Paul’s trust and God’s faithfulness here?



Acts 20 – Encouraging Departure

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There is a strong Biblical precedent set by leaders of God’s people to offer words of encouragement and warning at their final departure.  Moses offers this at the end of Deuteronomy, David at the end of 2 Samuel and the beginning of 1 Kings, and even Jesus at the end each Gospel and the beginning of Acts.  Paul’s words here follow this tradition and clearly come from a deep love and rich relationship he has with the church in Ephesus.

Paul’s words here are not just a warning for the church in Ephesus, but one that we can (and should) take to heart each day.  His concern for the church doesn’t come from a perception weak faith, but from a knowledge that the enemy is on the prowl and is merciless.

Essentially he is encouraging them to “hold on to what they have learned,” to “hold fast to the Word of God,” and to “be vigilant for those who would distort the Gospel Truth.”  Paul has seen and knows full well the power of the enemy and the desire to corrupt that Satan has.  Even from within the midst of the body he will exploit, confuse, pollute, and destroy if he has the chance.  We have seen this in our contemporary context, have we not?

Yet even Paul understands that, to hold fast in this fight, the strength of the Church does not rest on its own knowledge, its ability to remain relevant, her great teachers, or sound doctrine.  The strength of God’s people lies in their trust and faith in God.  Paul commits the Ephesian elders “to God and to the word of His grace.”  This too is where our faith and hope must lie if the Church is to weather the storms and attacks that come our way.



Acts 19 – Paul in Ephesus

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Paul spends two years in Ephesus, another one of the major cities of the Roman Empire in that region and a significant place of Christianity in the early church.  As a matter of fact, the Apostle John moved to Ephesus after the church was established there and became the leader of that church after Paul died.  After his time on the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation, John returned to Ephesus where he later died.

It appears that, when Paul arrived, there were already believers present in the city.  Luke refers to them as “disciples,” indicating that they were followers of Jesus, yet they seem to have only experienced Jesus through the teachings of John the Baptist.

Highlighted here is the difference between an “old identity” and the “new identity.”  The old baptism, that of John the Baptist, was still part of the old covenant, preaching a message of repentance and preparation for the coming Kingdom.  Everything points to Jesus’ coming; all of the Old Testament points to the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world.

In contrast, the Baptism that Paul offers in the name of Jesus Christ is not about redemption so much as it is about identity.  We are no longer waiting and preparing for the Kingdom of Heaven, we are living it right now.  Notice that Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ sees the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the unleashing of spiritual gifts.

More than this, though, is the bold proclamation of the Gospel and the restorative work that is indicative of Kingdom expansion in the name of Jesus Christ.  Miraculous things are done, people are healed, evil is driven away, lives are changed, and the Gospel and glory of God are seen everywhere!



Acts 18 – Paul in Corinth

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The city of Corinth was one of the major trade cities in the Roman empire.  Sitting directly on an isthmus that separated northern and southern Greece, Corinth was the place to stop either for getting supplies for the long journey ahead or for offloading all the trade goods that a ship was carrying.  It was actually easier for them, in that day, to carry a ship full of trade goods across the isthmus and then reload another ship on the other side than it was to sail around the southern tip of Greece.

Corinth was a very strategic city for both the Roman Empire and for the spread of Christianity.  Like Israel’s placement at the “crossroads” of the known world (the area joining Asia, Europe, and Africa), Corinth was the crossroads for trade at that time.  Obviously, God knew this.  He kept Paul there for a year and a half helping to set up the church and strengthening the believers.  Paul develops deep relationships here and a great affection for the Corinthian church which we will see more of when we read Paul’s correspondences to them later.

One thing that struck me here is God’s message to Paul.  God said, “I have many people in this city…”  Paul had never been to Corinth prior to this.  There is no record of any Christians going to Corinth prior to Paul’s visit, yet God already had many people there.  The way had been prepared for Paul long before he physically arrived, and the Spirit was at work before Paul even knew it.

Sometimes we wonder if we will “have an effect” when we share the Gospel.  Remember, God has been at work for far longer and in much deeper ways than we will ever know and we must trust Him.

 



Acts 17 – Observing Religion

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Paul’s travels take him to a number of different places and contexts where he preaches the Gospel.  When he comes to Athens, a place of great idol worship, religious practices, and philosophy, Paul observes elements from this context and speaks to them in a manner that is appropriate to that setting.

This is an important part of preaching the Gospel: knowing the context in which you are speaking.  In today’s cultural context there is far too much mindless talking points that do not take into consideration the people or the stories that are in the background of our lives.  Paul notices a great deal about the lives of the Greeks before ever addressing them.

As he looks around Athens, Paul takes some time to observe and notice things that help him to know the people better.  He sees their “very religious” lifestyle, how they worship, and what impact that has on their lives.  When he addresses them, he takes elements of that culture and “redeems” them as he shares the truth of Jesus Christ.  In doing so, Paul is speaking their language and giving them something to relate to.  Too often Christians share the message of Jesus using “Christian-ese,” lingo that we would use to talk to each other but not necessarily language that the general public would understand.  We can take some pointers from Paul on this.

I wonder, in light of this, what Paul would refer to if he were to come to the United States today.  What about if he were to walk into one of our churches?  Would he observe the body of Christ living out the message of the Gospel, being a light to a dark world?  Or would he say, like he did in Athens, “I can see you are very religious…”?



Acts 16 – Spirit Direction

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Timothy joins Silas and Paul who are on Paul’s second missionary journey.  As they travel about, it is clear that they are seeking God’s guidance and direction as to where it is they should be preaching.  We can see this because there are times when the Spirit actually stops them from going to different places.  Have you ever experienced this?

Sometimes we get it in our heads that we need to go everywhere and preach the Gospel, and we do so with little consideration to where God is actually calling us to go.  Now this is not to say that the preaching of the Gospel will not be effective if we go it on our own; God works through us and often in spite of us as well.

But when we decide to take time to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit (and follow them), great things will happen.  Imagine how different this would have looked if Paul, Silas, and Timothy had not listened to the Holy Spirit and had indeed gone to the places the Spirit stopped them from going to.  Would lives in those places have been impacted?  Sure.

However, what about those to whom God had called them?  Lydia would not have become a leading member of the Church, the slave girl would not have found freedom, and the Jailer and his family would not have found salvation either.

God is always at work, His plans and His ways are higher than our ways.  I’m sure that it didn’t make a lot of sense to Paul why he couldn’t go into the cities that were close by, but in the end, listening to the Spirit brought them to a place where God did great things through them and many came to know Christ.



Acts 15 – Council

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Throughout the history of the Church, many councils like the one described here have considered issues that arise in the faith.  Many great creeds and confessions have come out of such councils and the Christian faith has been strengthened through them.  It is important to consider, in this council, the intent of the Apostles and the Elders.

Facing the question of whether circumcision, a part of the Law of Moses, was necessary for salvation, there came a point where the Gospel and the Law clash.  Now the Law was written to identify sin and warn people away from it.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is that sin is forgiven and there is now freedom from it in Christ.  Paul goes into great detail about this; we will undoubtedly talk about it again.

Freedom, however, can be scary for us, and receiving the free gift of grace has often led people to think about what they can do to earn it.  Here we see a group of people suggesting that circumcision must happen if we are to fully obtain salvation.  This is nothing more than returning to living under the Law; seeking to earn our own salvation, something that is contrary to Scripture.  God’s grace is free to those who believe.

Yet, out of this council there are some suggestions in how to live.  These aren’t necessarily rules, but rather guidelines on lifestyles that are good for believers.

For those who believe in Christ, are we free?  Yes, absolutely.  Does that mean that we should do whatever we want?  No.  There are still things that are bad for us, things that hurt our relationship with God.  We want to build into this relationship, and there are ways to live that help with that.  And when we fail, grace abounds.



Acts 14 – Credit Where Credit is Due

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When Paul and Barnabas get to Lystra they preach and perform a number of signs and wonders in the name of Jesus.  The healing of a crippled man gets the attention of the crowds, but their reaction is not what they wanted.  Rather than giving glory to God, they give glory to the Greek gods who they thought had manifested themselves as humans.  This wasn’t abnormal in this day but was nonetheless disheartening for Paul and Barnabas.

Having been present for the things that had happened when others took credit for God’s work (Herod a couple chapters ago), Paul and Barnabas knew what it meant for the people to give credit to the wrong places, and what it meant for them if they accepted it.  Instead they use this as a teachable moment… even if it didn’t entirely stop the people from doing what they were doing.

God knows the hearts of His people though and it is pretty clear where Paul and Barnabas landed when it came to the desire of their heart to see the Gospel spread.  Their experience in Lystra is contrasted at the end of this chapter with their return to Antioch where they testify to all that God did on their journey.

I wonder if we don’t give God enough credit in our lives.  When we think back over a vacation or even a difficult time in life, do we look to see where God has worked and testify to that before others?  Or do we look to see that everything “just worked out” and move on with our lives.  God is active in every step that we take, not a hair can fall from our head without His will.  Perhaps it is time that we start giving credit where credit is due.



Acts 13 – Missionary Journey

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Paul was not only a prolific writing and preacher throughout his life, he was also the first “missionary” and church planter.  In fact, these missionary journeys became the source of his writings as all of the books following Acts are known as “Epistles,” or letters to the churches that he planted.

While the Holy Spirit was with him on these journeys, they were anything but a cakewalk.  Paul and his companions faced considerable resistance and persecution in the places that he went and preached.  Where the Gospel is expanding, so to will the enemy be pushing back against the work of God.

Again, I find it interesting how much similarity there is between the records of the book of Acts and how churches often operate in today’s world.  Paul, when he arrives at Antioch in Pisidia (which is different than the Antioch in Syria), begins preaching in the synagogue and many of the Jews there are amazed.  The are so enthralled with Paul and the message that he is preaching that they ask him to come back.

Word of this gets out and the whole city comes to hear Paul speak.  What an awesome response to the Gospel?  Yet, seeing all these people coming out, the Jews get nervous and change their tune and start to criticize Paul.

Isn’t this so typical of us too though?  Yes, of course we want to preach the Gospel and we want the Holy Spirit to work, but isn’t our greatest fear sometimes that it actually will “work?”  All these new people means change… I might not be able to sit in “my seat” on Sunday.

The Gospel of Jesus brings life but it seldom brings comfort, at least physical comfort.  But that isn’t want Jesus’ message is all about… is it?



Acts 12 – Escape!

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In that day, when there was a movement that was springing up, rulers often became concerned that it would lead to rebellion against them and were quick to move against them.

So when Peter was arrested as part of Herod’s attempt at putting down the Christian “rebellion,” it meant certain death for Peter.  All the leaders of a movement like this would be hunted down.  Interestingly, this is exactly what the religious leaders were meaning to do all the way back in Acts 5.

Peter’s escape from prison will not be his last, and it is nothing short of a miracle.  Placed in the care of “4 squads” of soldiers, approximately 100 men, Herod was taking no chances that Peter would somehow get sprung from his custody.  Yet it only takes one angel to make this happen.

I find it humorous how this all took place.  Peter is asleep despite the angelic light pouring into his prison cell.  Imagine the angel sighing and whacking him on the side to wake him up.  Even though Peter has just recently experienced a vision from the Lord in Acts 10, he isn’t quite aware of what is going on now, nor does it seem that he believes it.

Eventually he comes to, and then has to deal with the same bewilderment of others whilst standing outside waiting for someone to open the door for him; it was quite a night.

Unlike many of the other movements of that day that were actually against the government, and failed when their leaders were killed, the movement of the Gospel would not be put down.  It could not and cannot be stopped by human effort, nor can its leader be killed.  They already tried that… and it was actually the catalyst that led to where we are now.



Acts 11 – To the Ends of the Earth

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In the opening of Acts, Jesus tells His followers they would be His witnesses.  He spoke of a series of expanding concentric circles which they would be ministering in.  It only takes us 10 chapters to move out from the center to “the ends of the earth.”  And it only takes us 11 chapters to see resistance from within when it comes to ministering to those on the “outside.”

Yet Peter has no hesitations about his explanation, speaking clearly about the vision God showed him.  Those who heard him were quick to believe too.  I often wonder if we would be so quick to believe Peter if this happened today.

To me, it is interesting how closely this mirrors some contemporary issues that my denomination has and is facing.  While Peter received this message from the Lord, and those who heard him believed this message, it was slow to be implemented throughout the Church at that time.  This has been the case for us as well.  As we have struggled with different issues (women severing in leadership, children at the Lord’s Table, etc.), leaders have seen a clear message from God in Scripture that reveals to us an inclusion and an openness that welcomes God’s people and their gifts.  However, the churches of the denomination have been slow to respond.  Acts 11 shows us that we aren’t the only ones to struggle with this though, to support something verbally while reject it in practice.

This chapter, however, also gives us hope that as the Holy Spirit continues to move through the Church, building her up and molding her into the true bride of Christ, we will see more of this lived out in our actions; a testimony of God’s love and the anointing of the Holy Spirit on all who believe.



Acts 10 – Clean and Unclean

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As the Gospel continues to spread in the first century, there were many barriers to overcome.  We’ve see persecution and even language barriers be overcome through the work of the Holy Spirit.  One thing that happens here, something that is abundantly important to the rest of the world, is the Gospel going out to the gentiles.

Until now, all that we have read has been primarily a movement within Judaism itself, a sort of Jewish reformation. When the believers were scattered, they would go to the synagogues of other towns and preach the name of Jesus in those places.  They would go to the people that were familiar, keeping to tradition of Israel that encouraged avoidance of outsiders (which is completely contrary to the Law, but that is another subject for another time).

Here Peter receives a revelation of the true nature of the Gospel and its impact: God, in Jesus Christ, has taken the unclean and made it clean.  Jesus’ death was a once for all sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; the truest, deepest realization of His statements, “I AM the Light of the World,” “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father  accept through me,” and all the other I AM statements too.  Through Him, this way has been open to all people who place their faith in Jesus Christ.

In many ways, this is the beginning of the reality of freedom that comes in Christ Jesus.  Through sin, the world was made unclean, but in Christ Jesus, all of that has been reversed and true restoration has happened and is happening.  This is the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, the realization of the redemption of the whole universe through the work of Jesus Christ.



Acts 9 – Saul (aka: Paul)

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The conversion of Saul, more commonly known in the New Testament as Paul, is arguably the 5th most significant event of the New Testament.  Behind the Birth, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus, Paul’s coming to know Jesus Christ as His Lord and Savior has profound repercussions throughout the whole of Christianity.  He is credited with authoring nearly half of the New Testament, all of the books following Acts from Romans through Philemon.  Much of what He wrote also has become the basis for our Theologies and Doctrines in the Church throughout history.

Yet Paul, despite all the depth of relationship that He has with God in Jesus Christ, and with all of the revelation, He receives through the Holy Spirit, remains profoundly humble, truly living into the example the Christ teaches: “He who would be great must be your servant.”  Never once do we see Him lording over others his encounter with Christ, his understanding of the Gospel, or his influence over the church.  Instead, he faithfully preaches the Gospel, plants churches throughout the Roman empire, and lovingly corresponds with them working to help them deepen their faith and understand their identity in Jesus Christ.

As we get to know Paul better over the course of the book of Acts, and later in his own writings, we get the sense that he has a deep understanding of Christ’s work and its meaning.  Maybe it is because of the revelation he receives from God and/or the application of Old Testament Scriptures that he knew well.  But one thing strikes me: never once does he claim to be “ahead” of anyone.  In fact, in the midst of his work, he consistently “counts it all for nothing” for the sake of the Gospel.  This is an example we should follow.



Acts 8 – Scattered

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Throughout history, the persecution of the church has almost always led to the expansion of the Gospel.  There are a lot of potential reasons why this is, one of which has to do with the physical scattering of believers to other areas.  Until this point, the Apostles and those who became believers were operating in Jerusalem and likely its surrounding towns.  But when persecution broke out, we read that people were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.  This is the second move outward that Jesus spoke of before he ascended into heaven.

The reality of the identity of the people of God, though, is one of being a “sent people.”  Israel was always meant to be a light to the nations.  Jesus told His disciples that they are the salt of the earth.  Throughout His ministry even, Jesus would send out His followers ahead of Him, all the time declaring the “good news of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

So it isn’t much of a surprise that, when the people of God move outward, whether by choice or by force, that the Gospel of God spreads and lives are changed.

Sometimes believers actually need that push to move outside the places of comfort in their lives.  One of the problems plaguing the Church in North America is the lack of outward movement.  Churches invest vast sums of money into buildings for “ministry” purposes that really are simply creature comforts.  When we do find ourselves pushed out of our norms, we will often be found complaining about the lack of comfort, not spreading the Gospel to everyone we see.

In reality, we face little, if any persecution in the United States, something we are thankful for and celebrate, but ironically enough may also be the reason we find ourselves so complacent.



Acts 7 – Stephen

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We first met Stephen in chapter 6 when he was chosen as one of the 7 original deacons.  Stephen is described as “full of the Holy Spirit” and able to do “great wonders and signs.”  His witness to Jesus Christ gets him hauled in front of the Sanhedrin, the whole counsel of religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Think of it as a joint session of the U.S. congress.

While before them, he is questioned vigorously by the authorities and they even bring in false witnesses to testify against him.  They twist his words and think that they have him backed into a corner.  Some things, it seems, never change.

However, Stephen’s testimony is nothing less than spectacular.  Driven by the Holy Spirit, a promise Jesus gave His disciples back in Matthew 10 and Luke 12, Stephen recounts the history of the people of God, drawing it all forward to the one person that all of Scripture points: Jesus Christ.

From Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through Egypt with Moses, Stephen shows how God has been working and continues to work to bring salvation to His people.

All this time, the religious leaders are worried that they are going to get blamed for Jesus’ death.  When Stephen accuses them of also being related to those who “killed the prophets,” they loose it.

Ultimately Stephen looses his life for the testimony that he gave here.  He becomes the first recorded martyr for Christianity.  We see something here that far too often we forget: even here, God is with Stephen.

We worry so much about what other people are going to call us or think about us when we testify to our faith.  Sticks and stones may break our bones, but by the word of our testimony will they know who we are and whose we are.