Acts 7 – Stephen

Read Acts 7

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.



Day 354: Hebrews 11-13; By Faith (Israel's Hall of Fame)

Keeping in mind that the whole of this book was written as an encouragement to those believers who were facing persecution, especially from the Jews, and to those who were believers but may have been backsliding into Judaism.  With that in mind, there isn’t much else to say that isn’t eloquently spoken about in chapters 11 and 12.  So, I encourage you to read them again and remember all that we have covered over the last year.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.  By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.  And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.  By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.  Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.  By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.  By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.  By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.  By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.  He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.  By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.  By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.  By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of GideonBarakSamsonJephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,  quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”



Day 352: Hebrews 5-7; Jesus the Great High Priest

Did you ever have that one pastor that didn’t seem like he lived in the real world and couldn’t relate to anything or anyone?  Have you been at a church that has cycled through pastors more times than you’ve had birthdays in the past year?  Sometimes it seems like those that have felt to call to lead the church are the ones that are buried behind a barricade of books and an office door that is too often closed.  Other times is seems like the right people for the job keep moving on to other churches or opportunities.  So many things in life are disappointing; either very good and too temporary, or a bad fit and seemingly way to permanent.  Today’s Scripture though, tells us that Jesus is neither.  Jesus is perfect and permanent!

If you take some time to think about the potential for a Messiah coming, and then remembering that the Messiah was actually God that was incarnated into human flesh, it doesn’t take long to realize that there could have been many things that could have gone wrong with this.  God is holy, perfect in every way.  In some cases, people can and have accused God of being so far removed that He could never fully understand the hurt, pain, and difficulty that we face in life everyday.  Some would consider God to be both unknowable (agnostics) and/or completely disconnected from the world (deists).  In any case, these are both potential understandings for God and could have been how Jesus came to earth, so wholly different that he wouldn’t fit in anywhere and really wouldn’t have understood what human life is really like.

On the other hand, the sending of a Messiah that took on human flesh, and lived a human life in all its fullness is also one that is abundantly temporary for our situation.  We all know that the death rate has held pretty steady at 100% for all of recorded history.  There had been and have been plenty of “messiahs” that have come before and after Jesus whose existence on this earth and in this life was cut short… very short.  Their grandiose claims cut short, followers were left to pick up the pieces and figure out what to do next.

Jesus is neither of these.  Jesus is neither just a human or just divine, He is perfectly both.  To accomplish what He came to do, He has to be both.  As the end of Hebrews 4 says from yesterday’s reading, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The writer of Hebrews goes on to talk about Jesus as fulfilling the office of high priest, the one who intercedes for the people to God.  In the past, these high priests were human and had to offer sacrifices for their own sins before the could come before the Lord and offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.  Yet Jesus, the Great High Priest, knew no sin and as a matter of His intercession for us, offered Himself as the sacrifice, thus cleansing us from our sins forever.

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.  Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.

Yet Christ takes on this office and brings it to its fulfillment.  In fact the nature of the office of priest and all of the Hebrew Sacrificial rites point towards Jesus and the sacrifice that He made.  Without them we would really have no context in which to truly understand the fullness of Jesus work in life and in death.

I like how the writer of Hebrews continues on to talk about the certainty of the promise of God that we have in Christ Jesus.  Because of all that had happened before, and God’s continuing work through His people leading up to Jesus Christ, we can know and have full assurance that through Christ we too can be sure of the promise of God in our lives as well.



Day 351: Hebrews 1-4; Introduction to Hebrews

Today we make a transition out of the Pauline Epistles and into what is known as the “general epistles.”  These books, Hebrews – 2 Peter, and Jude, are books that are written not to a specific church or person, but rather to the general audience of the Church throughout the Roman empire as it continued to grow and address a variety of issues and subjects, which compliment Paul’s writings well.  Paul is not considered to be the author of any of the general epistles either.  Most of the authors’ names show up in the title, with the exception of the book of Hebrews, whose author is anonymous.

The book of Hebrews is the first and longest of the general epistles.  There has a been a great deal of debate throughout the years about the authorship of this book.  Dr. Robert VanVoorst, in his book Reading the New Testament, points out that there have been many suggestions as to who Hebrews was written by.  Some, though this is not generally accepted anymore, suggest that Paul wrote this book.  This has been largely dismissed due to the major grammatical and stylistic differences between the writing in Hebrews and that of the Pauline letters.  VanVoorst writes, “The first author to cite this epistle was Clement of Rome (around 96 C.E.), although he does not say who wrote it… From the Earliest times in church history, whenever Hebrews’ authorship was mentions there has been great dispute about it.  Tertullian (in the second century) was the first to suggest Barnabas as its author.  The Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth was the first to suggest Apollos, and this is a common conclusion today.  Adolf von Harnack, the greatest church historian of the nineteenth century, proposed that Priscilla was the author, which if true would make Hebrews the only NT book to be written by a woman.  (This makes an intriguing explanation for Hebrews’ anonymity.)   All in All, the argument about authorship is full of conjectures.”

While the author may not be known, it is very clear that this letter is written to the Church in general, and especially to Jewish converts to Christianity that might have been backsliding into Judaism.  It could also be that Jewish pressure on the Christian Church was on the rise and this was a letter written by one of the leaders of the Church to encourage those who were facing persecution from the Jews.  Many people think this letter was written in the mid 60’s A.D. because of its many references to the Temple which was destroyed when the Romans put down a Jewish revolt in A.D. 70 and destroyed for the final time, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.  However, it isn’t abnormal for those writing after A.D. 70 to write as if the Temple of God is still standing, something common because of the beliefs that the Jewish people held about the house of God and the deeper nature of God’s existence and presence.

Though it is fun to know the context in which the letter is written, it is the content which is significantly more important and to which we turn now and for the next couple of days.  In some ways, Hebrews could be seen as an exposition on the speech that Stephen gave in Acts 7, when he was before the counsel of Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Remember how he walked through the story of the people of Israel and God’s faithfulness, how it all led up to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, their Messiah?  Well, we see a great deal reference to the Jewish religious systems here in the book of Hebrews as the writer references God’s work in the past and how it points to Jesus as the Messiah and then continues on into what that means for the believers, the Church, and the world.

You can see this general trend even in the beginning chapters of this book, our reading for today.  The author begins by making the point that God isn’t doing something new here, He has always been speaking through various means.  Whether Abraham, Isaiah, Moses, David, or any of the priests that Israel had, God used them to reveal Himself.  Yet now “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”  It is not as though God is doing something different here, He continues to speak and reveal Himself, the truest revelation of which comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Word made Flesh.

We see also that the author is making tons of references to Old Testament Scriptures and again, to Jewish religious systems.  He talks about the high priests, the prophets, Israel’s rejection of God, Joshua, Moses, and Abraham in the first four chapters.  Obviously, whoever was writing this was very acquainted with the Scriptures.  In many ways, one of the messages of the book of Hebrews is the understanding that we can’t fully know or understand Jesus without understanding all that God had been doing in redemptive history to work up to His coming.  As we have said time and time again, the who religious cult of Judaism and the sacrificial rites, the religious structures, the providence of God in their lives, and even the giving of the law all point towards this greater event in the coming of the Messiah.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.



Day 340: Galatians 4-6; Faith, Salvation, and Freedom

Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia continues on as he turns from addressing some of the issues that they had dealt with in the leadership towards the issues that the church itself was facing, many of which were the same.  To do this though, he starts off by pointing out who they are in Christ Jesus, working to solidify their identity.  There is a very particular reason for doing this, something that is a very powerful reality that we tend to overlook in our lives, especially in the church.  Identity is powerful because it reveals at our core who we are.  Now you may be thinking, I know who I am, I am so-and-so the son/daughter of my parents, the husband/wife to so-and-so, father/mother of these kids… etc.  All of this is true and in many ways these truths define your existence.  There are even deeper truths about the reality of who you are as well, and this is what Paul gets at.  His point?  The Gentiles are fellow heirs of the promise given to Abraham.  They are fellow heirs because they are in Christ Jesus.  How does this happen?  It happens through baptism.  At the end of chapter 3 yesterday we read “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

This is the deeper reality of our existence and the truth of the Gospel that we proclaim through Baptism.  As I am of the Reformed tradition and denomination, we practice infant baptism, yet these things are still applicable in a very real way.  In Acts, Peter proclaims that “this promise is for you and your children, and all who are far off, all whom the Lord our God will call.”  We claim the same promise as the children of the Hebrews did.  In circumcision the children of Hebrew parents were made a part of the community of the people of God, engaged to be part of the covenant, and heirs with God’s people.  In Baptism, the children of believing parents are marked, claimed by God as His own, and made members of the community of faith, engaged to profess the faith and heirs to the promise that is in Christ Jesus.  This is the deeper reality of identity that Paul is talking about here, it is at the core of who we really are: claimed by God through grace alone.  Ultimately the prayer and hope is that these children will come to know Christ as their Savior, something that the church body promised to help with as the parents and the community of faith raises the child in the knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ.

I think that as Christians, followers and disciples of Christ, we need to understand this identity a great deal more.  In fact, it is abundantly important that the church come to a deeper understanding of this in our culture today, one that seeks to define and redefine who we are on an almost daily basis.  Companies have identified us as consumer and advertise to us in a way that makes us think that we are defining and identifying ourselves by wearing their clothing and shopping at their stores.  Food companies sell us food that is more than just a thing to consume, it is a lifestyle choice, identifying us as a “Coke” or “Pepsi” person, or perhaps someone who thinks everything is better when we drink Dr. Pepper (I love Dr. Pepper).  You might be a vegan, someone with a food allergy, an organic, etc. etc. etc.  All these are ways that companies try to get us to become identified with them, tricking us into the false notion that we have to do these things because they are part of our identity.

The reality is that our identity lies in something deeper and greater than anything this world has to offer.  Our identity lies solely in Jesus Christ and the Redemption offered through His Blood.  This is what Paul is trying to impress on the Galatian church as they deal with all of these things.  Some people wanted them to be circumcised, others felt that they needed to follow the law, and still others sought identity through doing works to attain salvation.  Paul shows them that none of this amounts to a hill of beans when it comes to the identity that is found in Christ Jesus alone.  More than this though, Paul is showing the believers that, if they are going after these things as a way of attaining their own salvation, trying to win it through works, they are actually devaluing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Paul even says that if they are going to try and win their own salvation through works, they are going to have to follow the WHOLE law, something that would be binding and ‘enslaving.’

But true freedom comes through faith in Christ.  Paul impresses on them here that they were called to be free.  This statement doesn’t come without a warning though, freedom is good but with it comes with responsibility.  He writes, “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”  This paradox of freedom and slavery is often confusing to people; how can one be both free and a slave?  What Paul is saying here is that we are free from the bounds of the Law, something that was given because of transgressions to tell the people of God how to live.  However, what Paul isn’t saying here is that, because we are free in Christ, we can just live however we want.  Rather, Paul is encouraging them to use this freedom as a way of spreading the love of Christ, a self-giving, selfless, unconditional love.  Because of what Christ as done for us, we are free to love each other, to not worry about our salvation which is secure in Christ, but to live that salvation out in life in the Spirit, the fruits of which Paul describes in chapter five verses 22-26.

This is expressed in many ways and Paul closes his letter by talking about living together in the community of faith.  He says that we should be bearing each other’s burdens, lifting each other up, and even working to restore each other in a way that is both gentle and building-up.   He even points to this in the summary of the Law that he writes, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  He ends with a very profound statement that has great implications for the community of faith, “You reap whatever you sow.  “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.  So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.  So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”



Day 339: Galatians 1-3; The Only Gospel is Jesus Chirst

The book of Galatians addresses some of the most pressing questions that the early church had in its infancy.  As the Gospel spread and churches were founded throughout Asia Minor, what was really the heart of the Roman Empire, issues started to crop up and people started to ask questions.  Along with this, there were disputes about salvation and even false teachers that began to preach other ways of salvation, and even skewed versions of the Christian Gospel.  One of these groups, the Gnostics, was a group that the Apostle John directly addresses in his Gospel and in the letters that he writes to the church later in the New Testament.

Paul’s writing to the church in Galatia, which was really a region that had within it over half a dozen major churches like Lystra, Derbe, and Pisidian Antioch, contains within it a great deal of material from which we draw our understanding of salvation by grace through faith.  Also addressed by Paul are some of the issues that the church leaders are dealing with, questions about circumcision and the inclusion of the Gentiles, and Christian freedom.  While this may not seem like a big deal to us today, we need to understand that the Church today is formed by the many issues and decisions that took place in the first couple hundred years of the church.  At stake here, in all honesty, was the proper understanding of salvation, which would have led to people feeling the need to do all sorts of works to earn their salvation.  Also at stake could possibly have been the church’s understanding Gentile inclusion in the promise of God, something that would have had ramifications far beyond a church or two in a Roman province 2000 years ago.

This is really the essence of what Paul is addressing here in the his writing though.  It doesn’t just have to do with the proper understanding of some obscure Christian doctrine, it has everything to do with the salvation of people’s souls.  Right from the get go Paul is speaking against those who would proclaim another Gospel.  He condemns those who would preach it and is astonished that people in the church would so quickly go away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  At the beginning of this letter he really doesn’t go into much detail about the nature of who and what is actually going on, but the fact is these people are trying to pervert the Gospel.

To be honest, this isn’t simply something that happened back then.  It is happening right now, in our churches today.  Across the nation and the world, ‘churches’ are growing by leaps and bounds preaching the health and wealth ‘gospel.’  These places preach of God’s desire to bless you, but only based on the amount you give.  This happens a great deal in the tele-evangelist circles too, sending you trinkets that are ‘blessed’ if you send them money.  Paul says that these preachers ought be ‘accursed’ because of their preaching.  Anyone who preaching a Gospel other than that of Jesus Christ crucified and salvation by grace is absolutely wrong.

Sadly, I think that sometimes stumble into issues like this as well, and it doesn’t just happen to your everyday, average-joe Christian either.  In chapter two of today’s reading we see that Paul has to address, of all people, Peter (the rock on which Jesus is building his church).  Apparently, due to fear, Paul is being sort of hypocritical in his actions with Jews and Gentiles.  There were those, at that time, that felt that the only way to salvation had to do with following the Jewish laws as well as accepting Christ.  They are called the ‘circumcision group’ here and apparently they were intimidating.  In any case, Paul stands up to Peter which, as Paul is explaining it, sends him on a whole explanation about salvation by grace through faith and not any sort of human work.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.

I like too, Paul’s explanation of the relationship between the law and the covenant of Abraham.  Many people had and have come to the belief that somehow the giving of the law nullified the original covenant that was made.  Paul points out that can never overlook the original covenant, which is more than the law, it is a promise which is fulfilled completely in Jesus Christ.  The law was only put in place in the mean time, something to help guide the people of God until the promise was fulfilled.

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.



Day 328: Romans 8-10; New Life in the Spirit

Keeping in mind all that we have talked about over the last two days in the intro to Romans and our talk on faith yesterday,  today’s reading is quite simply the next step along this “Romans Road” that we have been walking.  Paul’s writing in the book of Romans is meant to lay out the whole story of redemptive history in a way that is both logical and systematic.  We have walked with him from the death of our old lives without Christ, when we did not know God and did not have faith, into a new life of faith in Christ Jesus in which we are Justified and made Righteous in Him!  All of this happens because of the faith that God gives us through the working of the Holy Spirit on our hearts.  Yes, even faith is a gift of God.  We often like to think of faith as being something that we produce in ourselves… we want to take some active part in our own salvation.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that it is difficult for people to accept that they can’t do anything to better themselves.  In some ways this is a particularly North American issue.  In the United States especially, we have this notion of “pulling yourself up by your own boot straps” and “working to better your own life.”  Our culture of individualism and “win at all costs” mentality has made it difficult for us to accept salvation as something that we take no active role in.  If we could only work up our own faith and discover for ourselves the way of salvation, then we would “save ourselves.”  But this is not reality.  God has searched us out, the Holy Spirit who has been at work in our hearts since the beginning, drawing us to God and bringing us to faith.  It is also through the Holy Spirit that we are united to Christ when we come to faith!  Our Triune God is at work throughout the salvation process.

So where does Paul go from here?  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the Law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”  This is great news for us!  More than this though, we are not only set free, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God and made to be fellow heirs to the Kingdom of God.  Moreover, we are future heirs of the resurrection and the glory that will be revealed in Christ Jesus, and now in us because we are united to Him.  It is here that we begin to move from the topic of what God has done in us and the grace that we have received toward what it is that we are to do with this new life that we have found ourselves in.  Paul talks a great deal about perseverance here, without actually naming it, and how we need to rest in the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  While life may be difficult, there is nothing at all in this world that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We will talk more about turning this corner tomorrow, but for now Paul goes back into another discussion about election (which is a topic that will come up again and again, so once again we will forego a deeper discussion on election until a later time) and then faith vs. works.  It is clear that he is in anguish of his Jewish brothers and sisters who have really gotten the law wrong.  He points out to us once again that it is by faith that we receive salvation and that it was faith that was the ultimate goal of the Law as well.  Paul echoes the words of the Shema here as well, talking about having the Word of God “in your mouth and in your heart.”  Sadly many of the people of Israel didn’t pick up on this.

This is something that we need to always have before us as we live out our lives of faith.  It isn’t about actions, not about doing all the right things in the right order.  In fact, living for Christ isn’t about that at all.  As we will see tomorrow, we are called to live lives of gratitude for all that we have received in Christ Jesus, but never thinking that what we do somehow makes us more or less saved.  Once we are saved, we are saved forever.  I wonder if that was what C.S. Lewis was getting at when he wrote “Once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen in Narnia.”



Day 327: Romans 4-7; By Faith

We continue in Paul’s explanation of the Gospel as he lays out for the church in Rome the good news of Jesus Christ.  Remember yesterday how he walked through the a sort of “creation narrative” as he explained general revelation and how all humanity is without excuse for knowing God.  He also makes it very clear to us that all of humanity is sinful in its very nature and that there is nothing that we can do to get out of this sin.  Calvinists would call this “total depravity” but it might be better to say that this is a “pervasive depravity” combined with “total inability.”  While this doesn’t necessarily fit in with the TULIP acronym, it most certainly is more correct (and besides, TULIP is a poor representation of Calvinism anyway).  Sin affects every part of our being and there is nothing we can do to make it right or to make ourselves right.  No amount of good works, social status, or even ethic status as the Jews thought can save anyone from their sins.  Quite simply, Paul says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Yet it isn’t all hopeless here!  Paul also goes on to say that “and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”  The good news is that God has done something about our condition!  God knew that we could not do it on our own and so He did it for us by sending His Son to live and die for us.  I added the word “all” into this because it is implied from the first half of the sentence.  It is true that ALL have sinned.  It is also true that ALL are justified.  Now this is something that people might push back on because is smells of universalism.  Our “TULIP” acronym comes back into play here with both “Limited Atonement” and “Unconditional Election.”  Again, I must point out that TULIP is really a horrible acronym for calvinism or the reformed faith because both of these statements can be confusing.  It might be better to put it this way: Christ’s death on the cross was Sufficient for all, but effective for elect.  Who are the elect?  Well… that gets into an entirely other topic…

 Election is something of a difficult doctrine to unwrap.  People often hear it as God has chosen some and not others.  Essentially, this is true… but when said like this, it makes it sound like no one gets to choose anything about anything.  You are either elect and go to heaven or you are the opposite (reprobate) and don’t.  If you throw a word like “predestination” in there, it makes it even worse for some because we think that these choices are already made.  The fact of the matter is, at least on some level, God has revealed Himself to some people in a special way (we call this special revelation).  For those in whom the Spirit is working and gives faith, which is also a gift from God mind you, when they come to faith they become one of the elect, chosen by God and forgiven of their sins by His grace alone.  The ramifications of this doctrine are that there are those who will never choose God and never turn towards Christ.  Paul says that these people are without excuse.  For them, the death of Christ is as sufficient as it is for anyone else to save them from their sins, yet because they have not turned to God in faith and accepted this gift, it is not effective for them.

I understand that these are difficult teachings, but they are clearly laid out in the Bible.  We will return to them in the future, but for now I would like to focus in on the key word here: “faith.”

As we return from this to the readings for today, check out how Paul lays out the stories of Abraham and faith.  Abraham isn’t saved, says Paul, by virtue of being the father of the nation of Israel.  He is saved because “he believed God,” because he had faith.  This didn’t have anything to do with his works or his ethnicity, it had to do with faith and Paul lays this out pretty clearly.  It all depends on faith.

He continues on in chapters 5-7 to talk about the effects of having faith in God do for our life.  It is not simply that when we come to faith our sins are forgiven and that’s that.  Paul shows us that in many ways what happens is that we “put on” Christ in many ways.  When we come to faith in God through Christ Jesus by the working of the Holy Spirit we “die” to our old self.  We are no longer who we were, but we are raised to life in Christ!  This is one of the main promises in the sacrament of baptism and one of its primary meanings as well (more on that to come later as well).  By faith we are united to Christ… in God’s eyes He no longer sees us as a sinful human, but sees us as He sees His Son: RIGHTEOUS.  For those looking for another theological term, we call this “imputed righteousness.”  Calvin, in his institutes says it like this:

“Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body–in short–, because he deigns to make us one with him.” (3.11.10)

Wow, this is a heavy post today.  My head hurts thinking about the theological ground that we covered.  Yet these things are important.  Perhaps not all the fancy theological words, but the premise is at the very core of the Christian faith.  In some ways, these are the things that we need to be able to talk about as Christians.  Granted, I think that people tend to be more open to hearing about the testimonies of people as they experience God in their lives.  However, at some point in time it comes down to faith in Christ Jesus and what has taken place in our lives.  We NEED to know these things… perhaps not the technical jargon so much… but what has happened to us… we need to know this so that we can share this Good News with everyone we meet.  One of the things about election that is so vitally important to the whole of the doctrine is the fact that, in just about every place that it is talked about, the writers and theologians say that we can never know who is elect and who isn’t.  The doctrine of election gives us no excuse to not preach, but actually encourages us to testify even more because WE ARE NOT the judges of who is elect and who isn’t… that is something that has happened in the counsel of God alone and will not be known until the end of time.  So speak boldly the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”



Day 320: Acts 7-8; Stephen, Persecution, and Scattering

Today’s post, at least as I write it, is going to be mostly not my voice.  I think that what Stephen says here is probably one of the most important speeches in the Bible with the exception of the teachings of Jesus Himself.  Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit rehashes the whole story of God’s faithfulness throughout the history of the Jewish people and how He has brought them to this point.  He lays out for them all the things that have happened, the things that are recorded in the Law and the Prophets, of which these folks are supposedly experts, and how they all lead up to Jesus.  I have marked a lot of the names and parts of the grand narrative of the Bible that Stephen really covers, linking them all of what we talked about in the first month of this journey through the Bible, and also some of the narratives of Joshua, David, and Solomon.  I encourage you to re-read this speech and as you do create some space for yourself to remember these stories, remember what we talked about, and remember all that God has indeed done to bring them to this point right now.  We have the opportunity right now to take a step back and, rather than reading individual portions of Scripture, to see if from a “bird’s eye view,” or perhaps more appropriately a “God’s eye view” of all that has taken place.

Apart from this speech, and the subsequent stoning of Stephen, we read of the scattering of the believers, the movement out of Jerusalem because of the great persecution that begins and takes place.  While this may see horrible, at least on the surface, for those of us that are reading it, this scattering actually facilitated the spreading of the early Church outside the city of Jerusalem into the areas of Judea and Samaria, just as Jesus says at the beginning of Acts.  Though their center still remains in Jerusalem, where the Apostles mostly stay, the outward movement that is precipitated by this persecution is really the beginning of the movement outward towards the “ends of the earth.”  Notice too that immediately we read that people are coming to faith outside of Jerusalem because of the preaching that is taking place.  The Holy Spirit is alive and well and very much at work in all that is going on here!

And Stephen said:

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’  Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living.  Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child.  And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years.  ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’  And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.

And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household.  Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food.  But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit.  And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh.  And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all.  And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers,  and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.

“But as the time of the promise drew near, which God had granted to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt until there arose over Egypt another king who did not know Joseph.  He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive.  At this time Moses was born; and he was beautiful in God’s sight. And he was brought up for three months in his father’s house, and when he was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son.  And Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in his words and deeds.

“When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel.  And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian.  He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’  But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying,‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us?  Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’  At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.

“Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush.  When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight, and as he drew near to look, there came the voice of the Lord:  ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and did not dare to look.  Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.  I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt.’

“This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.  This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years.  This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’  This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us.  Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’  And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.  But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:

“‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices,
    during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?
You took up the tent of Moloch
    and the star of your god Rephan,
    the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.’

“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen.  Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.  But it was Solomon who built a house for him.  Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

“‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
    or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?’

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.  Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”



Day 318: Acts 3-4; What We Have Seen and Heard

So the Church has begun to grow and the Spirit of the Lord is alive, active, and moving throughout the believers and the Apostles as they preach the Gospel and heal.  The first narrative that we read today is so very interesting.  I have to wonder what Peter and John were thinking, or if they were even thinking when they encountered this lame man.  How did the Spirit work through them?  Or did it just come to them and they went for it, like calling an audible on offense or something.  When I read this I envision two men walking through the Temple gate with their eyes set on where they were going until they were distracted by the faint, distant voice of a man asking for money.  This voice is not distant because of any physical distance, but because of their focus on the task at hand, yet suddenly it is very near and very real.  They stop, turn, and look directly at the broken man.  Without missing a beat Peter says, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”  He grabs the man by the hand a pulls him up.  I wonder if there was some interaction here, or if they just turned and went on their way like it was nothing.  I wonder if they invited the man to go with them or if he just followed them because he was so excited.  In any case, what we are seeing here is only the beginning of the Church’s continuation of bringing the wholeness, healing, forgiveness of Jesus, the very elements of the Kingdom of Heaven into reality here on earth.

From there, as they walk into the Temple, all the people see the beggar and are in aw of his ability to walk.  Peter is once again filled with the Holy Spirit as we get the second sermon preached by Peter in as many chapters:

Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?  The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.  And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.
And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.  But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.  Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.  Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.  And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’  And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days.  You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.”

Because of what happened the religious leaders arrested Peter, John, and the no-longer lame man, however we read that because of what had happened and the testimony of Peter almost 5,000 people became believers!  I think that this is so crazy to us, sometimes it doesn’t even compute!  Do we expect that when we hear the Word of God on a Sunday morning that people are going to become believers?  Somehow I think that we would claim to hope that this would happen, even though we don’t expect that it will…

In any case, the next day the religious leaders question Peter, John, and the no-longer lame man and Peter once again is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks to them in such a way that they cannot find any fault.  This whole scene has a lot of echoes back to the questioning of Jesus, except this time the people are all for Peter and John, not against them as they were against Jesus.  The religious leaders find themselves in a very unfamiliar and uncomfortable predicament.

Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

When it comes down to it, even with the aid of the Holy Spirit, Peter and John are both witnessing to what they have seen, heard, and experienced in their lives.  While they have the wonderful pleasure of seeing it unfold before them, it is the boldness for the faith and the work of the Holy Spirit that is speaking through them.  Friends, this is the same Holy Spirit that has been placed in our hearts as well.  I am speaking from a purely North American context, but we don’t speak with half the amount of conviction or faith that Peter and John speak and we have experienced the grace, love, and forgiveness of Jesus in very much the same way.  More than this though, we don’t have any fear of reprisal here… NONE whatsoever.  We are free to preach, to speak, to testify to the faith that has been given us!  We can tell people what we have seen, heard, and experienced as well and we do so with such timidity…  The Holy Spirit has been poured out on us!  We have experienced Jesus’ saving grace!  We are given the opportunity to speak each and every day to those around us!  Brothers and Sisters testify to the grace of Christ!  Fear not for God is with you!