Friday, May 30, 2014

MYTHBUSTERS (Acts Chapter 19)

Acts 19:23, “About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.”

Ephesus was home to the temple of Artemis (Diana).  It was one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  According to one historian it took 220 years to build the temple.  It was 425 feet long and 225 feet wide.  The temple was surrounded by 127 Greek columns each bearing sculpted reliefs up the high of a man’s head.  The building was the largest in the temple history.  But Artemis was not real, she was only a myth.

Artemis herself was a goddess universally worshipped throughout the Greek world.  Her sphere was the uncultivated earth, the forests, and the hills.  Homer gave her the title, “lady of the wild things.”  She was popular amongst women because she was considered to be “the goddess of birth.”  Girls who served in her temple did so in short skirts with one breast bare.  She herself was depicted on coins and images as many-breasted.  She was thought to be a source of fertility.  But she was only a fable.

“The city of Ephesians (was) the temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky” (Acts 19:35).  The people believed in the sacred stone, which must have been a meteor.  Someone likely took the stone and carved it into the likeness of the goddess that they then worshipped.  Every year a huge month-long celebration in honor of Diana took place in Ephesus.  Thousands of worshippers from the ends of the earth came to the celebration.  All businesses were closed, all work ceased, and the people gave themselves to the celebration of the goddess’s birthday.  But the meteor was nothing but a rock, hardly deserving of worship or reproduction by craftsmen.

Life in Ephesus revolved around a mythical, not existent goddess.  They prayed to her, appealed to her, and did what they could to appease her so that they could be blessed by her.  And some made a profit off of her.  There were craftsmen, like Demetrius, who worked “to make silver shrines of Artemis” (Acts 19:24).  There was money to be made in the selling of little Diana’s, so Demetrius understood what was at stake in Paul’s preaching of the gospel.  Life in the city revolved around the worship of their mythical god, but, as Demetrius presciently realized, this Paul “has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods” (Acts 19:26).  She was not a god.  She had no ears to hear, no hands to bless.  She was a devilish invention of sin that worked to hold the people in bondage to a futile way of life. 

A riot ensued when the people became aware of the threat to their adored but mythical deity.  Demetrius was concerned lest, “the great goddess Artemis…be counted as nothing, and…may even be deposed from her magnificence, who whom all Asia and the world worship” (Acts 19:27).  The people heeded his concern and were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:28).  “The city was filled with the confusion” (Acts 19:29).  Most didn’t have any idea what was going on (Cf. Acts 19:32).  Alexander, a Jew, was put forward to speak, but when they saw that he was a Jew, “for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (Acts 19:34).  But she wasn’t great.  She didn’t even exist.

The town clerk eventually came forward and quieted the crowd.  He assured them that the city would do everything necessary to protect the goddess and her sacred stone.  But Demetrius and the Artemis worshippers had legitimate reason for concern.  Artemis was but a myth, the sacred stone but a rock, and the grandiose temple an edifice to an illusion.  But the deceived tenaciously served her.  Sin and its associated idols are not easily pried from the hearts of lost sinners.  The Apostle Paul would ultimately spend three years in Ephesus (Cf. Acts 20:31), preaching the powerful-to-save gospel in the shadow of the great but idolatrous temple (Cf. Romans 1:16).  Paul spoke of the true and living God who sent His Son who died for sins and rose from the dead to save lost sinners (Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).  Some ultimately abandoned Diana to find true salvation in the “living and true God” (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9).  Nothing but ruins remain at the site of the temple of Artemis, but the powerful-to-save gospel is being preached to this day.  Artemis has long since lost her appeal, but the glorious gospel shines on.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

HAPPY MAN (Pete Maravich's Story)

I love basketball, and believe it or not, I’m still playing three times a week--with some friends at the local community college.  I also love watching the sport and have been a fan for as far back as I can remember.  I can vaguely remember watching Pete Maravich play.  Years ago I saw a movie and a documentary about his life and was fascinated by his story.  I suppose that why I recently decided to read one of the biographies of his life, “Pistol: A Biography of Pete Maravich” (Mark Kriegel; Simon and Schuster).  There is more to his story than just basketball.

In 1929 a missionary gave Pete Maravich’s father, Press, a basketball.  Basketball would henceforth consume his life and control his destiny.  Press worked hard to become a great basketball player.  He was forever obsessed with the sport and went on to coach for many years even after he quit playing. When his son Pete was born he was born destined, according to his father’s dream, to play the game his father loved and lived for. 

And from the beginning Pete was his pupil.  Press invented a variety of drills though which Pete would perfect his skills.  From a young age Pete went everywhere with his ball.  He would practice his drills for hours on end.  He would play late into the night and in the rain.  He was a skinny an unimposing kid, but even in Jr. High he was a phenomenal player and could do things that astonished both his teammates and opponents. 

There was much pressure on Pete to fulfill his father’s dream that he should be the best basketball player ever to play.  Everything in the life of the household revolved around basketball.  Plays were diagrammed on the dinner table using salt and pepper shakers.  But the household was not a very happy place.  Basketball was an obsession and it required more than some were able to give.  Press’s wife became an alcoholic.  She would eventually, in her despondency, commit suicide.  “Even as Pete Maravich became Pistol Pete--a basketball icon for baby boomers--all the Maraviches paid a price.”

No one had ever before played the game of basketball quite like Pete.  He could do amazing things with a ball.  Upon graduation from high school he played for LSU, where he became the most prolific scorer in college basketball history (he averaged 44.2 points per game).  His Dad was the coach and he refined the team’s offense to highlight Pete’s basketball skills.  The team itself was not that great, but no matter where they played—spectators filled the arena.  He made unbelievable passes and shots that drew oohs and aahs even from his opponents.  He established himself as a basketball phenomenon and professional basketball teams took notice.

He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks.  His rookie season was filled with heartaches.  He had won the largest contract thus far in professional basketball.  His envious teammates treated him accordingly.  The team was not very good, but Pete’s name and play was enough to draw a crowd.  The spectators loved to watch him play, and even worshipped him, but he himself grew increasingly disillusioned with basketball and life.  He drank heavily.  He was haunted by the failure to live up to his own expectations.  He sought for answers.  He involved himself in martial arts for a time.  He interested himself in all kinds of ‘isms” (i.e. vegetarianism; Hinduism; extraterrestrialism; survivalism).  He believed in UFOs and wrote in big letters, “Take Me,” on the roof of his house.  He had it all—fame, fortune, and the opportunity to have fun playing the game he was born to play—but he was lost and miserable. 

He managed in his profession career to set many records and establish himself to be one of the 50 best players of all time.  He was an NBA All Star.  He was traded to the New Orleans Jazz and in playing for them always drew a crowd--despite the team’s terrible play.  But none of that mattered to Pete, he was miserable.  He developed a reputation for being difficult.  He was traded again.  And then injuries ultimately brought an end to his career.  And in that too he was distraught.  He often contemplated suicide, driving his car at ridiculously high speeds, he sometimes thought of veering off the road.

Were that the end of the story it would be a sad story indeed.  But in the midst of his post-career despair God came to his rescue.  One night he couldn’t sleep.  Burdened by his many past sins, he prayed asking God for help.  He hadn’t been a praying man, but his desperate estate brought him to it.  God heard his plea and made Himself known to Pete.  He trusted in Jesus and Jesus saved Him and transformed him.  He had loved basketball, but his love for basketball was replaced by a passion for Jesus and making Him known.  He carried gospel tracts with him and gave them out whenever he had the opportunity.  He proclaimed the gospel at Billy Graham crusades and in other venues.  He was privileged to witness the salvation of both his wife and his father.  He was a great father to his two sons.  Then his father passed away.  He had said, as his father was dying, “I’ll see you soon.”  His wife, Jackie heard what he said--those words stuck in her mind. 

He was to speak on the Focus on the Family radio program.  And beforehand he was invited to play in a pickup basketball game with James Dobson and some others.  It had hardly began when Pete collapsed on the court and died (nine months after his father had died).  The autopsy uncovered a startling truth—he was born with a heart defect that would have killed most people by age 20.  But he had lived, and played basketball, ‘til he died at age 40 (when God had finished His work in his life).  His father’s dream had been for him to be the greatest basketball player ever, but His Heavenly Father had a better plan.  Most know of Pete Maravich as a famous basketball player, but it was in Jesus that Pete Maravich found true purpose and meaning in life.  He seemingly had it all, but he wasn’t a happy man until he had Jesus (Cf. 1 Peter 1:18; John 10:10).

A TEACHABLE SPIRIT (Acts Chapter 18)

Acts 18:26, “And they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”

There is an old proverb which says: “He who knows not and knows not he knows not: he is a fool - shun him.  He who knows not and knows he knows not: he is simple - teach him.  He who knows and knows not he knows: he is asleep - wake him.  He who knows and knows he knows: he is wise - follow him.”  From a Biblical perspective the quote needs some amending, “He who knows and is teachable inasmuch as he realizes that there is a lot more that he needs to know: he is the truly wise man – listen to him.”  From a spiritual perspective, no matter how much we know there will always be room to grow (Cf. Ephesians 3:14-19; 4:13).

Apollos was a man who knew much.  He was a “native of Alexandria” who had come to Ephesus (Acts 18:24).  Alexandria was founded by and named after Alexander the Great.  It grew to become a great commercial center where East met West and both Jews and Gentiles resided.  The Alexandrian Museum, a university, was founded in 280 BC and became the first great university in the world.  It was in Alexandria, amidst the influence of the Museum and its library that the Jewish scholars worked to produce the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament).  Apollos was from such a place, a place that was also birthed men like Philo (a great Jewish scholar) and Clement and Origen (early church fathers).

Apollos was “an eloquent man” (Acts 18:24).  The term translated “eloquent” means “learned, a man skilled in literature and the arts…He had stores of ‘learning’ and could use it convincingly” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary).  In contrast to the disciples (Cf. Acts 4:13), Apollos had benefited from an education.  He was “competent in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24).  The Greek term translated “competent” means literally “powerful, mighty” (Cf. Acts 7:22 where the same term is used in describing Moses’ words).  “He had been instructed in the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25).  We are not given the specifics as to what he had been taught or by whom, but he was not at all ignorant regarding that which he taught.  He was “fervent in spirit” (Acts 18:25).  He taught with enthusiasm, his heart was in it.  “He spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:25).  There was no error in Apollos’ teaching.  All that he said was true, but “he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25).  He was unaware of the baptism Jesus’ had commanded after His resurrection (Cf. Matthew 28:19).  Knowing only “the baptism of John,” he was likely unaware of other pertinent and important post-resurrection truths.

Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos teaching in the synagogue.  They had spent much time with Paul (Cf. Acts 18:1-4, 11) and were as a result very knowledgeable of the truth.  They heard Apollos, he was speaking boldly, but they discerned that something was amiss.  That could have been the end of the story—count the man a heretic and work to steer others away.  But that’s not what they did.  They intervened.  They “took him aside” (Acts 18:16).  They did not rebuke him publicly.  They did not embarrass him by speaking out in that way.  They conferred with him privately “and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).  He was obviously receptive to what they had to say for they sent a letter ahead to where he was going, instructing “the disciples to welcome him” (Acts 18:27).  “When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed” (Acts 18:27).  He went on to serve and minister in others venues.  Priscilla and Aquila were used of God to help him that he might be better equipped to serve.

Paul shared truth with Priscilla and Aquila who then imparted what they knew to Apollos who then passed on what he had learned to others still (Cf. 2 Timothy 2:2).  It ought to be in the heart of every believer to endeavor to know “the way of God more accurately.”  No one fully knows all that there is to know.  We are ultimately dependent upon the Spirit of God to know at all (Cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-13), and mutually dependent upon the Spirit and one another to know Jesus better (Cf. Ephesians 4:15-16).  A teachable spirit is prerequisite to the process.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

UPSIDE DOWN WORLD (Acts Chapter 17)

Acts 17:6, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”

The context of this declaration was the visit of Paul and Silas to the city of Thessalonica.  The city was about 94 miles from where they had been in Philippi.  It was the capital of Macedonia and the most prosperous of its cities.  As with other places in the region, the Gentiles of that city were given to idolatry (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9).  Because of its central location the city served as a valuable epicenter from which to spread the gospel.  Paul would later say of the church there, “For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 1:8).

Paul and Silas came to Thessalonica and spent three Sabbath days in a synagogue reasoning with the Jews from the Scriptures, “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:3).  Some of the Jews were persuaded by his arguments and joined them.  A “great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” also believed (Acts 17:4).  “But the Jews were jealous and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.  And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also’” (Acts 17:5-6).

The men said what they did in a derisive way.  It was an accusation meant to trouble Paul and Silas before the civil authorities, but there was truth to it—they had indeed “turned the world upside down.”  J. Vernon McGee said of their statement, “Now don’t put that down as an oratorical gesture or hyperbole.  When they said that these men were turning the world upside down, that is exactly what they meant.  When Christianity penetrated that old Roman Empire it was a revolution.  It had a tremendous effect.”

And, of course, it wasn’t ultimately the men themselves who were doing it, it was the Holy Spirit and the message of the gospel He empowered them to proclaim.  It was the Risen Christ who was at work radically transforming the lives of those who placed their faith in Him.  The revolution was changing everything.  Slaves to sin were being set free.  Rebellious idolaters were being transformed into worshippers.  By the Spirit, people’s hearts were being filled with hope and love.  Jews and Gentiles were harmoniously working together in a common cause.  Lives, cities, and regions were being impacted.  The revolution would grow to such an extent that the emperor himself would be threatened by it.

The gospel has such an effect on people.  And it is a positive thing.  The world has been askew ever since Adam’s fall.  Created by God, man was made to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  But sin has altered man’s gyroscope and he has lost his bearing.  Christ died and rose again that He might put things back in order.  As A. W. Tozer once said, “Why did Christ come?  Why was he conceived?  Why was he born?  Why was he crucified?  Why did he rise again?  Why is he now at the right hand of the Father?  The answer to all these questions is, ‘in order that he might make worshipers out of rebels; in order that he might restore us again to the place of worship we knew when we were first created.”  (A. W. Tozer; “Worship: The Missing Jewel”).

For 2000 years since that gospel has been turning things right side up in the lives of those who trust in Jesus.  And through the history of the church it has done so whenever and wherever it has been proclaimed.  The Protestant Reformation worked to put the Word of God and the gospel into the hands of the common people and a spiritual revolution ensued.  The gospel preached in the Great Awakening worked to alter the course of history.  To this day, in places ‘round the world, upside down people are being reoriented through that same message that Paul and Silas proclaimed so long ago.  The world is upside-down, the gospel alone has the power to put things in their proper order (Cf. Romans 1:16-32; 2 Timothy 3:1--17).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

TRUE FREEDOM (Acts Chapter 16)

Acts 16:30, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved?”
It was his job.  The authorities would bring to him the criminals, he would lock them up.  He had, no doubt, dealt with many prisoners over the course of his career, but never any quite like Paul and Silas.  Their crime?  They had upset the local economy when they exorcised a demon from a fortune teller.  Her masters had profited much from her fortune telling.  When they saw that their hope of profit-making from her fortune-telling was gone, they dragged Paul and Silas into the market place and to the chief magistrates.  Their indictment against them?  “They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:21).  The magistrates ordered them to be beaten and thrown into jail.
The jailer threw them into the “inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks” (Acts 16:24).  It was undoubtedly a cold, dark, and inhospitable place.  They had, in that setting, no earthly reason to rejoice, but that is exactly what they did.  “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).  Their feet might have been tethered, but their hearts had long ago been set free to worship.  I’m confident that the jailer had never witnessed anything like that before.  Paul and Silas were men of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and utterly devoted to the task of sharing the gospel.  “The prisoners were listening to them” as they sang (Acts 16:25).  Paul and Silas had an attentive audience.  People are attentive to our response to difficult circumstances.  We are sometimes prone to grumble, but the Fount of Blessing is able to tune our hearts to sing His grace.  Praise amidst problems bears an alluring melody. 
God wanted Paul and Silas freed, so He caused a great earthquake.  The earthquake shook the foundations of the jail house, the prison doors were opened, and their chains were unfastened.  They were set free.  The jailer was roused out of his sleep.  Supposing his prisoners to be gone, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself.  The penalty for losing one’s prisoners was quite severe (Cf. Acts 12:19).  Paul realized what was happening and intervened.  He cried out with a loud voice “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here” (Acts 16:28).  The jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas (Acts 16:29).  “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he asked (Acts 16:30).  It is important at this point to remember what has just transpired.  The jailer had locked them up.  He had fastened their feet with stocks.  He was trembling with fear—what would the authorities do to him?  What might these men do to him?  He had treated them harshly-- as prisoners.  He feared retribution.  Had they been common prisoners, he might have had reason to fear.  But they were no ordinary prisoners—they cared more for their message than they did for themselves.   They said to the Jailer, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household’” (Acts 16:31).  And he believed, along with his whole household (Acts 16:33).
Paul and Silas were free though imprisoned.  Born again, they had been long ago set free to worship, serve, and share the gospel—to expend their lives in that which matters.  The jailer was not imprisoned in a cell but he was not free.  He was a slave to sin and fearful of pending judgment.  Circumstances brought him to a point of desperation.  Paul intervened and shared the gospel with him.  He believed.  At the moment of saving faith he was delivered from spiritual bondage and experienced the true freedom that Christ alone can provide.  John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  Jesus specializes in freeing captives.  We are given no indication from Scripture of what happened henceforth for the Philippian jailer, but one might suppose that he went on—as a captive set free—to share the gospel with others still bound in spiritual chains.  True freedom is bound up in Christ.

Monday, May 26, 2014

SOLA GRATIA (Acts Chapter 15)

Acts 15:11, “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Acts Chapter 15 records the events surrounding the calling of a council in Jerusalem to debate a matter of utmost importance to the future health and growth of the early church.  The matter under debate had been a festering concern for some Jewish believers regarding their Gentile counterparts.  The decision made by the council would have serious repercussions one way or the other.

Some Jewish Christians were teaching their Gentile brethren that it was necessary for them to be circumcised to be saved (Cf. Acts 15:1).  That was at the heart of the debate and question.  “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them” (Acts 15:2) and were subsequently sent with some others to Jerusalem to seek council from the apostles and elders (Cf. Acts 15:2).  On their arrival in Jerusalem they were welcomed by the church, “but some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5).

Before proceeding to that which happened in the council, it would be good for us to consider the relevance of the matter which was being debated.  Is salvation entirely by grace, or is there something that man must or can do to contribute to it?  That’s a question which would henceforth occupy much of that which the Apostle Paul wrote about in his epistles.  The book of Galatians centers on this very theme.  Paul’s warning regarding a “gospel contrary to the one we preached to you” was a warning regarding a “grace + works” gospel (Cf. Galatians 1:8).  In the rest of the epistle he explains why such a gospel is contrary to “the grace of Christ” (Cf. Galatians 1:6).  Likewise, the book of Ephesians emphasizes the “grace-alone” nature of salvation (Cf. Ephesians chapters 1-3).  You will find the same teaching and emphasis throughout Paul’s epistles.  Ephesians 2:8-9 summarizes the matter, “For by grace you are saved though faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The question of whether salvation is by grace alone or by “grace + works” was at the heart of what gave rise to the Protestant Reformation.  “Sola gratia” was one of five “sola” statements that were established to summarize the Reformers' basic beliefs during the Protestant Reformation.  The phrase is a Latin term meaning “grace alone.”  

The question of salvation by grace or by grace + works is one thing that distinguishes false teaching from Biblical Christianity.  The false religions all teach that there are things that man can do to accomplish his or her salvation.  That’s a way of thinking that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve’s response to their sin.  They saw themselves naked and “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths” (Genesis 3:7).  But their “fig-leaf” approach to solving their problem was woefully inadequate.  By grace God subsequently clothed them with garments He Himself made (Cf. Genesis 3:21).  The only way by which any “dead in the trespasses and sins” person can be saved is by “his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:1, 7).

The Jerusalem Council listened to “much debate” (Acts 15:7).  Then Peter stood up and spoke to his own experience in witnessing the “by grace” salvation of the Gentiles (Cf. Acts 15:7-11).  Paul and Barnabas then “related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” (Acts 15:12).  Then James spoke and referenced the prophecy of Amos (Cf. Amos 9:11-12) which spoke to God’s inclusion of the Gentiles.  In the end, the council affirmed that salvation is by grace, but encouraged the Gentile believers to refrain from sexual immorality and disputed matters which would trouble their Jewish brethren (Cf. Acts 15:19-21; 15:28-29).  Then they sent some men out with a letter from the council regarding their decision (Cf. Acts 15:22-29).  The believers in Antioch gathered to hear what the letter said.  “And when they read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement” (Acts 15:31).  In a salvation by “sola gratia” we all have good reason to rejoice.

Friday, May 23, 2014


Acts 14:15, “Men, why are you doing these things?” 

Lystra was a city in what is now modern Turkey.  It is mentioned five times in the New Testament.  It was visited a few times by the Apostle Paul.  Acts chapter 14 records the first such visit.  Lystra was populated mostly by Gentiles and had no synagogue.  The people of that region were given to idolatry and worshipped a pantheon of gods. 

Paul came across a resident of Lystra who had been “crippled from birth and had never walked” (Acts 14:8).  The man “listened to Paul speaking” (Acts 14:9).  Paul, discerning that the man had the “’faith to be made well’, said in a loud voice, ‘Stand upright on your feet’” (Acts 14:10).  And the man “sprang up and began walking” (Acts 14:10).  The crowds saw what happened and “lifted their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11).  “Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker” (Acts 14:12).  The priest of Zeus then brought “oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds” (Acts 14:13).

The Communicator’s Commentary offers this insight regarding the situation (The Communicator’s Commentary; Volume 5: Acts; Ogilvie, Lloyd John; Word Inc.; 1983): “There was an ancient myth that Zeus and Hermes had come to that region disguised as mortals.  The community—except for one couple, Philemon and Baucis—rejected them.  The two gods sent judgment on the area except for the old couple, who were rewarded for their receptive welcome by being made guardians of a magnificent temple on the outskirts of Lystra.  Later, when the couple died, they were turned into two giant trees as memorials of their kind deeds.  The legend had become part of the folklore of Lystra, and the people identified Zeus and Hermes with Paul and Barnabas!  When they saw the healing of the lame man, they exclaimed that the two gods had returned.  They were going to take no chances this time.  They gave Paul and Barnabas the key to the city and a welcome befitting the gods they supposed them to be.  Tall and robust Barnabas was deified as Zeus, the head of the pantheon, because of his physical stature; and Paul, because of his ability to speak, they called Hermes, the god of eloquence and rhetoric.”

Immediately when Paul and Barnabas came to understand what was happening, “they tore their garments and rushed out in the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things?  We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.  In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.  Yet he did not leave himself without a witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful season, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15-17).

Paul and Barnabas could have enjoyed much benefit at the hands of those people in their mistaken identity, but they “tore their garments,” expressing their dismay, and diverted the attention and focus from themselves to God (contrast the response of Herod who refused to give glory to God when he received praise from men; Acts 12:21-23).  They reminded the people that they were men just like them.  They spoke of the good news and contrasted the foolhardiness of their idolatry (i.e. “these vain things”), with the worship of the “living God, who created all things.  “Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:18).

Not only were the people mistaken regarding the identity of Paul and Barnabas, they were also confused as to the identity of God Himself.  There was (and is) no Zeus, no Hermes, and no two giant trees memorializing an old couple.  It was just a fable—nothing and no one deserving of worship.  How prone to idolatry are the sons of Adam!  But there is a true God, the creator of all things, who made good news known to the people of Lystra.  The presence of some disciples there (Cf. Acts 14:20) indicates that some had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). 

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Acts 13:49, “And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region.”

The exciting message of the book of Acts is not just how the gospel spread but how it spread in spite of intense opposition.  The opposition was ongoing and pervasive and was directed towards the church in a variety of ways.  God’s work done God’s way for God’s glory will always be met with opposition, but Jesus has promised, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  His purpose cannot be thwarted.

There are those who seek to DESTROY the church.  Saul himself had been amongst them: “breathing threats and murders against the disciples” (Acts 9:1).  King Herod was also: “Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church” (Acts 12:1).  He had James the brother of John put to death, then he arrested Peter and had him put in prison (Cf. Acts 12:2-4).  But Peter was set free (Cf. Acts 12:7f) and God dealt with Herod and “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24).

There are those who DESERT the ministry.  God called Barnabas and Saul to go forth from Antioch to preach the gospel (Acts 13:1-3).  They took along John (Mark) as their helper (Acts 13:5).  We are not given the reason why, but Mark deserted them (Acts 13:13).  The situation so grieved Paul that he refused, on a subsequent journey, to take Mark along (Acts 15:37-38).  The desertion of a fellow soldier is a discouraging thing to those who remain on to fight.  Every servant of the gospel knows of such instances.  But God is able to strengthen and restore His children.  Mark was likewise restored and later proved himself useful to Paul for service (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:11).

There are those who work to DISTORT the message.  Paul and Barnabas made their way to Paphos (Acts 13:6).  They found there a magician, Elymas, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, who sought to hear the word of God (Acts 13:7).  While Paul and Barnabas were sharing with the proconsul, Elymas was working to “turn the proconsul away from the faith” (Acts 13:8).  Paul understood him to be “full of all deceit and villainy,” working “to make crooked the straight paths of the Lord” (Acts 13:10).  For every action there is a reaction.  The preaching of the true gospel is met with enemy opposition.  The evil one is at work to undermine and distort and keep blinded the eyes of the unbelieving.  Many distorted gospels are widely taught and are readily accepted in our day (Cf. Galatians 1:6-8; 2 Corinthians 11:4). But God used Paul to blind Elymas (Cf. Acts 13:11) and open the eyes of the proconsul to the truth (Cf. Acts 13:12).

There are those who work to DISTURB the hearers.  Paul and Barnabas made their way to Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13) and preached the gospel on a Sabbath day in a synagogue (Acts 13:14-41).  The people begged to hear more and on the next Sabbath the whole city was assembled to hear the Word (Cf. Acts 13:42-44).  But the enemy was working.  “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul” (Acts 13:45).  So Paul and Barnabas turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46).  The Gentiles then heard the message of salvation and rejoiced and “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:47-48). 

The early church grew and flourished in spite of opposition.  And the true gospel is met with similar opposing forces today.  Any proclamation of the true gospel will be met with resistance.  Any gospel that does not incite some resistance is likely not the true gospel.  The devil is well-pleased with the proclamation of contrary gospels that diminish Christ and His finished work.  The gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ—that’s a different matter.  It is this gospel that the devil hates, that stirs up trouble.  It did exactly that throughout Paul’s ministry.  He preached the gospel and riots broke out.  Persecution intensified.  Trouble came.  But he fought the good fight of faith and was not deterred. 

Don’t be surprised by opposition!  It is standard fare for those who endeavor to speak God’s truth (Cf. 2 Timothy 3:12).  Remember that the God who raised Christ from the dead is at work to guide, strengthen and direct His children in the midst of it.  Paul and Barnabas were fiercely opposed, but “the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:49).  In the midst of intense opposition people still heard the message.  Some responded unto salvation.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

BUT THE WORD... (Acts Chapter 12)

Acts 12:24, “But the word of God increased and multiplied.”

As I write this a 26 year old Sudanese sister in Christ, Meriam Ibrahim, is imprisoned in Omdurman Federal Women’s Prison in Sudan.  She is presently 8 months pregnant and is in prison with her 18 month old son.  Her crime?  She was accused of illegally converting to Islam and of having committed adultery when she married a Christian (illegal under Sharia law).  She’s been sentenced to receive 100 lashes (for adultery) immediately after having her baby, and to be subsequently hanged for refusing to recant of her Christian faith.  “We gave you three days to recant but you insist on not returning to Islam,” the judge told her, “I (therefore) sentence you to be hanged to death.”  “I was never a Muslim,” she replied.  Pray for her, and others like her, who are suffering persecution: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Hebrews 13:3).  International pressure is being applied to the Sudanese government, but God alone knows what might come to pass in her situation.

Meriam is traveling a well-worn pathway that was first marked out for us by the Lord Jesus Himself (Cf. 1 Peter 2:21-25).  Others soon followed “in his steps” (1 Peter 1:21).  We’ve read of Stephen’s martyrdom (Cf. Acts chapter 7).  His death initiated a “great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1).  People suffered persecution as a direct result of their identity in Christ (Cf. 2 Timothy 3:12).  And through the centuries ever since countless others have trod that difficult pathway on which Meriam now finds herself.

Acts chapter 12 gives the account of the persecution directed against James and Peter.  James was a disciple of Jesus and John the Apostle’s brother (Cf. Acts 12:2).  He had become a prominent leader in the Jerusalem church and was singled out for execution.  Jesus had predicted that he would drink of His Master’s cup (Cf. Mark 10:39).  So it came to pass.  Herod killed him with a sword. 

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs gives the following account of what transpired: “The next martyr we meet with, according to St. Luke, in the History of the Apostles' Acts, was James the son of Zebedee…It was not until ten years after the death of Stephen that the second martyrdom took place; for no sooner had Herod Agrippa been appointed governor of Judea, than, with a view to ingratiate himself with them, he raised a sharp persecution against the Christians, and determined to make an effectual blow, by striking at their leaders. The account given us by an eminent primitive writer, Clemens Alexandrinus, ought not to be overlooked; that, as James was led to the place of martyrdom, his accuser was brought to repent of his conduct by the apostle's extraordinary courage and undauntedness, and fell down at his feet to request his pardon, professing himself a Christian, and resolving that James should not receive the crown of martyrdom alone.  Hence they were both beheaded at the same time.  Thus did the first apostolic martyr cheerfully and resolutely receive that cup, which he had told our Savior he was ready to drink…These events took place A.D. 44.”

Having ingratiated himself to the Jews, Herod decided to have Peter arrested also.  “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (Acts 12:5).  But God intervened and miraculously delivered Peter from prison (Cf. Acts 12:6-19).  Herod himself met a gruesome end.  Dressed in his royal robes and subsequently praised by the people, he “did not give God the glory” (Acts 12:21-23).  So “he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23).

The ESV Bible study includes this note in reference to Acts 12:24: “No power can triumph over the word (cf. 6:7; 13:49, and those who attempt to harm God’s people will in the end face judgment themselves.”  James died and was ushered into God’s presence.  Peter was miraculously delivered from prison, but would die a martyr’s death not many years hence.  Despite Herod’s murderous activities the “word of God increased and multiplied,” such that even 2000 years later a woman in a prison cell refuses to deny, under penalty of death, her Savior.  You can imprison and even martyr God’s children, but you cannot imprison or silence God’s Word (Cf. 2 Timothy 2:9).

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Acts 11:23-24, “When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”

ENCOUR'AGEMENT, noun  The act of giving courage, or confidence of success; incitement to action or to practice; incentive (Webster’s Dictionary 1828 Edition).

Barnabas was an encourager.  A Jew from Cyprus, his given name was Joseph (Acts 4:36).  But the apostles renamed him, “Barnabas” (i.e. “son of encouragement), which served him as an apt description of him and his ministry to others.

He is first mentioned in the Bible in Acts chapter 4.  Many Jews were dis-located in Jerusalem.  They had traveled there for Pentecost from faraway places.  They remained there after their conversion to Christ and needed help with food and shelter.  The earthly church responded: “There was not a needy person among them for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:35).  Likewise Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money” (Acts 4:37).  Imagine how those early believers must have been encouraged through the loving sacrifice of people like Barnabas.  Barnabas would later serve in a “relief effort” to meet the needs of those suffering through “a great famine” (Acts 11:27-30).

Some of those scattered as a result of the great persecution (Cf. Acts 8:1) preached the gospel in Antioch.  “A great number who believed turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21).  The church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas there (Cf. Acts 11:22).  And in Antioch Barnabas worked to encourage the new believers “to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose” (Acts 11:23).  He needed help in his ministry, so he “went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch” (Acts 11:25-26).  Together they spent “a whole year” teaching “a great many people” (Acts 11:26).  Together Barnabas and Paul encouraged those believers in the Word of God (Cf. Romans 15:4).

The Christian life is oftentimes compared in Scripture to a race (Cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Hebrews 12:1-2; Philippians 3:14).  There is a need to run the race with endurance.  The runner is confronted with many distractions, diversions, and discouragements (Cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).  Imagine the scene.  Christians running side-by-side all headed to the same goal.  But some fall behind and others collapse.  Some are weighed down and others entangled.  Too often fellow runners pay no heed to their struggling companions.  They carelessly run past them, step over them, or even kick them when they are down.  But that’s no way for a Christian to behave.  God would have us instead to lovingly assist and encourage each other along the way.

God would have us all to be like Barnabas.  We all have need of encouragement and God is well-aware of that.  The Holy Spirit is the ultimate encourager.  He is called the “Helper” (Greek “parakletos,” “one called alongside to help”; Cf. John 14:16).  Barnabas’ name, “son of encouragement,” is akin to that given to the Holy Spirit (Cf. Vine’s Expository Dictionary: “it (i.e. paraklesis) is akin to parakaleo…and parakletos”).  Being filled with the Spirit, Barnabas functioned in his ministry as the “Holy Spirit with hands.”  By the Spirit Barnabas encouraged others such that they were better off in Christ as a result of his ministry.

God exhorts His people to encourage one another.  By the Spirit they do (Cf. Galatians 5:22-23; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7).  There is a good chance you have someone in your life who is even now desperate for some loving word or deed by which they might be encouraged in their walk with Christ.  There is plenty of encouragement to be had in Him (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:18; Hebrews 10:25; 12:1-3).  We all, like Barnabas, are called to point a Spirit-led finger in His direction.

Monday, May 19, 2014


Acts 10:22, “And they said, ‘Cornelius…was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house.’”

Approximately seven years had passed since Jesus’ commission to the Apostles to be His witnesses “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  It took a “great persecution” to scatter believers to the “regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).  Even then there was no apparent attempt to take the message to the Gentiles.  The gospel outreach to the remotest part of the earth was apparently of remote concern (with the exception of Philip’s outreach efforts; Cf. Acts 8:40).

The problem was that there were longstanding religious traditions and prejudices that stood in the way.  It was unlawful for a Jew “to associate with or visit anyone of another nation” (Acts 10:28) or eat with them (Cf. Acts 11:3).  In NT times the Jews had little regard for the Gentiles.  So strong was their animosity that a common Jewish prayer went something like this, “God thank you that I was not born a woman or a Gentile.”  There were a number of Jewish laws the prohibited contact with Gentiles.  The very dust of heathen countries was unclean, and it defiled by contact.  It was not permissible to enter a Gentile’s home or even converse with them.  A Jewish woman was not permitted to help a Gentile woman, even in child birth.  A Jew was not allowed to drink milk drawn from a cow by a Gentile’s hands or eat bread prepared by a Gentile.  If a Gentile was invited into a Jewish home he was not to be left unattended, lest every article of food and drink be henceforth regarded as unclean.  The animosity by the Jews towards the Gentiles (and vice versa) was pervasive.  It impacted every aspect of life.  It was possible for a Gentile to be proselytized to Judaism, but as a matter of course, it rarely happened.  Gentile converts were rarely treated fairly and were commonly looked on with suspicion.

God would have to intervene if the gospel were to be taken to the Gentiles.  And of course, Christ’s sacrifice had already worked to include them.  From the cross He declared “It is finished.”  He “broke down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14), but the benefits of His work had not yet borne fruit in this sense.  Religious traditions and prejudice kept the gospel from reaching the Gentiles.  God worked though Peter and Cornelius to set it free.

Cornelius was Spirit-prepared to hear the message.  He was living up the degree of revelation he had received when an angel of God appeared to him.  The angel instructed him to “send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who Is called Peter” (Acts 10:5).  And so Cornelius sent the men.  The next day, as they were on their way, Peter went up on the housetop to pray.  Being hungry, while others were preparing food, he fell into a trance.  He was given a vision (Acts 10:10-15).  Three times (Peter experienced many things 3X) a sheet was let down from heaven.  It was filled with creatures of various kinds.  He was instructed to “kill and eat” (Acts 10:13).  Peter refused recognizing the creatures to be “unclean.”  A voice came to him, “What God has made clean, do not call common,” it said (Acts 10:15).  While Peter was perplexed by the meaning of it all, the men sent by Cornelius arrived and spoke to Peter.  He went away with them to Caesarea.  Peter and Cornelius then met and explained to each other how God had worked to bring them together.

Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:34-43).  “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10:44).  The seed of the gospel message fell on the fruitful soil of well-prepared hearts!  What a wonderful day!  The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were “amazed” (Acts 10:45).  In an instant God worked to tear down centuries-old and firmly-established barriers.  The news of that event spread.  The apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard of it.  Peter went to Jerusalem and those who were circumcised took issue with him.  Peter carefully explained to them all that had transpired.  He knew that the news would be both hard for them to accept.  They heard Peter’s explanation and declared; “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

The good news of the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).  It had the power to save a Christian-murderer like Paul.  It had the power to break through strong prejudicial boundaries to bring salvation to the “unsavable” Gentiles.  It has spread from that day to faraway places.  One day a great multitude, people from “every tribe and language and people and nation,” will be gathered in heaven to praise Jesus (Revelation 5:9).  Praise God, brethren, inasmuch as He has made the good news known to you.  It was a wonderful day indeed when your Spirit-prepared heart heard that message!  But long before that day God divinely directed a man with a message, Peter, to meet a man who needed to hear, Cornelius.  The gospel has been spreading throughout the globe, by divine appointment, ever since.  God has some divine appointments in store for you.  He has given you a message.  There are others who need to hear.

Friday, May 16, 2014

SAUL: SAVED BY GRACE (Acts Chapter 9)

Acts 9:1-2, “But Saul, still breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord…”

I love to read Christian biographies and especially about how God intervened in the life of a man or woman to save them.  Conversion stories are my favorites.  There is typically much variety as to the particulars, but some things remain consistent to all of them.  There is a life before conversion, the conversion experience itself, and the transformation that follows.  Sometimes the transformation is radical and profound—such was the case with Saul.

The church has known no greater missionary than the Apostle Paul.  Countless souls were saved and churches established as a result of his missionary endeavors.  He authored more books of the Bible than any other man (all inspired by God of course).  He was a man of profound theology and was privileged to be given a foretaste of heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).  He suffered much for the gospel message he was compelled to preach (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).  But he rejoiced in his sufferings as he understood their contribution to his life purpose--to know Jesus Christ better (Philippians 3:10).  His life was devoted to ministry (Philippians 1:21-24, 2:17).  He fought the good fight and finished the course (2 Timothy 4:7).  He has left to us all an example worth emulating (Philippians 3:17).

It is amazing to reconsider who Paul was beforehand.  Several passages in Scripture give Paul’s testimony.  Collectively they speak to his radical depravity (something that is true of all of us by nature but not always so obvious; Cf. Ephesians 2:1-3; Colossians 1:21).

  • Acts 9:1-2, “But Saul, still breathing threats and murders against the disciples of the Lord…”
  • Acts 26:9-11, “In opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth…I not only locked up many of the saints in prison…but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them…And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them.”  Cf. Acts 22:4.
  • Galatians 1:13, “I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”
  • 1 Timothy 1:13, “Though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.”
Saul was not in any way seeking after Christ.  He was engaged in his murderous activities at the time of his conversion.  He would have undoubtedly been voted “least likely to be saved,” had any such vote been taken.  So repugnant was his reputation that God had to convince Ananias to go to him after Saul’s conversion (Acts 9:10-14).  It was to such a man that Christ appeared.  How are we to account for his salvation?  Obviously there was no Pauline contribution to it--no goodness of heart or work of his own which led up to it.  He was headed in the wrong direction when God turned him around.  Years later Paul himself explained that which transpired—“But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:13a-14).  By what means was Saul saved?  By the love, grace, and mercy which are found in Christ Jesus.  We deserve judgment.  Through Christ’s mercy and graced we receive forgiveness instead.  The distance between what we deserved and what we have received is infinite and speaks to the “overflowing” grace that worked to save Paul.

1 Timothy 1:11-17 is Paul’s testimony to God’s saving work.  He praises God in its introduction and conclusion (1 Timothy 1:11 & 17).  His testimony includes the “trustworthy” saying that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).  Paul explained why he himself was shown mercy: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).  In other words—if Jesus Christ could save Paul, He can save anybody.  His ability to pardon exceeds our ability to comprehend (Isaiah 55:6-9).  Paul’s was a glorious and radical transformation and speaks to Jesus’ ability to “save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25).  Paul was evermore speaking of the glorious nature of God’s grace.  His proclamation of the gospel was not theoretical, his own personal testimony was, in fact, very personal (i.e. He “loved me and gave himself for me;” Galatians 2:20).  “By the grace of God I am what I am,” he said (1 Corinthians 15:10).  By God’s grace he was radically transformed from a hate-filled persecutor into a loving Apostle.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Acts 8:12, “But when they believed Philip as he preached good news.”

Acts 8:35, “He told him the good news about Jesus.”
Philip was an amazing man and much used by God in the furtherance of the gospel message.  He is first mentioned in Scripture in Acts chapter 6.  He was one of the seven chosen by the congregation to assist in the serving of the widows.  He was “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” and therefore met the qualifications put forth by the Apostles (Acts 6:3).
When Stephen was stoned a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1).  Philip was one of those “scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).  Remember the mandate given by Jesus to the Apostles: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8)?  As of Acts chapter 8 the gospel witness was still confined to the city of Jerusalem.  The “great persecution” changed all that…But it was going to take someone special to reach out to the Samaritans.  The Samaritans were despised by the Jews (Cf. John 4:9).  They were even denied the privilege of being Jewish proselytes.  It was Philip who took the first step in overcoming Jewish prejudice and reaching out to the Samaritans in obedience to the Lord’s command.
He went to the city of Samaria and “proclaimed to them the Christ” (Acts 8:5).  “The crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip” (Acts 8:6).  Many were saved as a result of Philip’s evangelistic efforts: “But when they believed Philip as he preached good news…they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12).
But God had another task for Philip.  He took him from that successful evangelistic campaign, and led him to a desert road to meet with a single soul.  An Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Queen, was traveling to Jerusalem to worship (Acts 8:27).  He was reading from the prophet Isaiah (8:28).  He didn’t understand what he was reading (8:31).  He wondered of whom was the prophet speaking (8:34).  Philip used the opportunity to preach Jesus to him (8:35).  The Ethiopian eunuch believed unto salvation and was baptized (8:38).  According to church tradition, the Ethiopian eunuch returned as a missionary to the Ethiopians.  How wonderful the mysterious working of the Sovereign God in the salvation of a soul!  The same God who led Philip to Samaria to evangelize crowds of people was well-pleased and able to direct him to that desert road to preach the gospel to a lone soul.  He was in the right place at the right time with the right words to say—but not by accident.  The Ethiopian eunuch had a desire to know—God took care of the rest.
It is amazing to consider the rapid tearing down of religious and racial barriers that took place through the preaching of the gospel message.  Philip preached the gospel in Samaria, Samaritans were Spirit-united to the body of Christ.  Philip preached Jesus to a black, Gentile, Ethiopian and that Ethiopian was then Spirit-united to the body of Christ.  Red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight!  One day we, as believers, will join a great choir of voices, people from “every tribe and language and people and nation,” (Revelation 5:9) in singing a new song to the Lamb who is worthy—who has worked through His cross to “reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:16).  The gospel message bridges all human boundaries (Cf. Galatians 3:28; Romans 1:16).
Philip was “snatched away” by the Spirit (Acts 8:39).  That must have been quite an experience!  He then found himself at Azotus, from there “as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea” (Acts 8:40).  He was, in that region, a forerunner of the Apostle Paul.  Apparently he settled in Caesarea, for it was there where he served as host to Paul (Acts 21:8-9).  According to church tradition, Philip died on natural causes at Tralles, in Lydia.  One church Father, Basil, reports that he was the bishop there.  Philip was Spirit-led, gospel driven, and held to a “no boundaries” approach to evangelism.  Many came to faith in Christ as a result of his preaching.  He began in ministry by waiting on tables, but was later used by God to evangelize entire regions and at least one future missionary.  Being “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) he was a vessel “useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

KILLING STEPHEN (Acts Chapter 7)

Acts 6:5, “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 7:51, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.”

Martyr: noun One who, by his death, bears witness to the truth of the gospel.  Stephen was the first Christian martyr (Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language; 1828 Edition).

Foxe’s book of Martyrs chronicles the testimonies of saints down through the centuries who suffered martyrdom as a direct result of their faith in Christ.  Stephen’s name, the first martyr in the church, is mentioned early on in the book.

Stephen was a man who was full of the Spirit (Acts 6:3).  Being filled with the Spirit, he was also full of “wisdom,” “faith,” and “grace and power” (Acts 6:3, 5, 8).  By the Spirit he was doing “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).  He was a man much used by God to bless others.

Stephen stood out amongst the brethren and was no doubt much loved by them (Cf. Acts 6:5), but there were others who did not like him at all.  A group of Hellenistic Jews “rose up and disputed with Stephen.”  “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10).  So they instigated others to make scandalous reports about him.  They stirred up “the people and the elders and the scribes” (Acts 6:12).  They “seized him and brought him before the council” (Acts 6:12).  False witnesses were brought forth and accused him.  The high priest asked “Are these things so” (Acts 7:1)?  Most of the rest of chapter seven is Stephen’s response.

Stephens’ defense before the Sanhedrin is the longest discourse in the book of Acts.  In it he recited the history of Israel and made reference to Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Israel’s apostasy.  Some have wondered about the specific purpose to which Stephen spoke and why he spoke at length regarding the history of the Jewish people.  But since he had been specifically accused of blasphemy against the temple and the Law (Cf. Acts 6:13), in his defense he affirmed his own understanding and appreciation regarding the divine origins of these things.  He spoke both of Israel’s history and their history of rebellion against God (Cf. Acts 7:35-50).

Stephen applied the matter of Israel’s historical apostasy directly to his listeners.  With Spirit-imparted boldness he indicted them as being responsible for the death “of the Righteous One” (Acts 7:52).  At that point in Stephen’s defense his audience became “enraged, and they ground their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54).  He was privileged, by the Spirit, to be granted a vision of “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56).  His report of what he saw only intensified their anger.  In a state of rage they screamed, covered their ears, and mobbed him (Cf. Acts 7:57).  They drug him out of the city and stoned him (Cf. Acts 7:58).  As they were stoning him, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).  As he was dying, he spoke in like-manner to the One who had died to forgive his own sins, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

Martyrdom is something that sometimes happens when those who are Spirit-led meet up with those who are Spirit-opposed.  Stephen was Spirit compelled to proclaim the truth.  His listeners were compelled by another spirit to squelch his witness.  They killed the messenger, but not the message.  Saul was there and “approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1).  But Saul, that great persecutor of the church, would later be saved and befriend himself to Stephen’s Savior.  On the day of Stephen’s death there arose “a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).  The church was scattered, but those “who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).  That great persecution, initiated in Stephen’s martyrdom, only worked to expand the outreach of the church.   They shut up Stephen, but not the Spirit.  And Stephen’s legacy—as a bold faithful witness to the truth—lives on to this day.