Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Divine Conspiracy

[this is the last lesson in my Acts series, and when i presented this lesson in Sunday School this morning at my church, i could tell i was going out on a good note. i'll explain at the bottom.]

Acts 8

This chapter in Acts records two very unlikely encounters, and the even more unlikely results. The Gospel reaches Samaria, a land with a history of enmity with the Jews. An evangelist preaches to a royal official of an African kingdom. In both stories, souls are added to God's Kingdom. God set up people and circumstances so that the Gospel would continue to spread. Today, he does the same. These stories illustrate two key truths of evangelism.

God may call us to witness to anyone.
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. - Acts 8:30-31

The eunuch seems like an unlikely candidate for conversion for a few reasons. This man was an important official in charge of the entire treasury of his queen. (Acts 8:27) We can assume that he was well-educated. And certainly, he was wealthy. Jesus' words for the rich are far from encouraging, on the surface. (Matt. 19:23-26) Yet, this is one of the easiest and most enthusiastic converts we've seen so far. God had already begun to put the pieces together. He had brought the eunuch to Judaism, and put him in the right place at the right time, with the right scroll in hand. In fact, God may have started the process when the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon. (1 Kings 10) Phillip, guided by the Spirit, capitalized on what was already there. He spoke directly into the eunuch's context, and the eunuch responded. Encounters with us may be steps along a non-believer's journey to Christ. We may be pieces of the puzzle that will, in time, fit together.

· Are you ready to introduce people to Jesus?

· Do you reflect Jesus to those around you?

Don't give up on anyone.
They were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. - Acts 8:12-13

The Jews and Samaritans had similar roots, but they were not on speaking terms. There had been bitterness between them since Israel split into two kingdoms. (1 Kings 11-12) When Phillip arrived, there were long-standing cultural and religious barriers between the two peoples. Still, Jesus spent much time in Samaria, with mixed reactions from the people. (John 4:1-42, Luke 9:51-56) But no matter the history, Phillip and the other believers witnessed wherever they went. (Acts 8:4) And when the apostles got word that God was at work in Samaria, they left their prejudices behind, ministering not only to the village where Phillip was, but others as well. (Acts 8:25) Sometimes, those we think of as furthest from God surprise us by coming to Him. Not only is Phillip in Samaritan country, he is faced with a sorcerer who claims to be a divine being. Simon was probably the last person anyone expected to convert. But he did.

· Have we written off certain people or groups as hopeless?

[it was after this point that i said the following: At the risk of being controversial, let me name some examples. Homosexuals. Muslims. Atheists. Let's not write them off. God hasn't. i believe God wanted me to say it, and was pleased that i did.]

[i realize how offensive that is for those who have been burned by the church. for those who believe that the last thing they need is a savior. for those who see Christianity as heresy.]

[thing is, i really do believe that accepting Jesus' sacrifice is God's chosen method of reuniting Himself with us. and Jesus went, in person, to people that lived in a way that offended Him, and showed them love.]

[for me to do otherwise would be un-Christian. because i said this to the Sunday School class this morning, too: It's because God doesn't give up on people that we're sitting in this room today.]

[thank you for reading.]

Friday, December 18, 2009


Acts 5:12-5:42

Peter and John have thus far been arrested once for preaching. Two church members have died suddenly in the face of their own hypocrisy. Now, all twelve of the apostles are put in jail, threatened, and severely beaten. Acts 5:17 records that the religious authorities had the apostles arrested out of jealousy. The word jealousy in Greek is zelos, from which we get the word zealous. Clearly, the apostles had some zeal of their own.

Zeal means focusing on the mission.

Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men!” – Acts 5:29

God is not only granting the church incredible success, He is utterly humiliating the authorities. But you note that the apostles say nothing about the jailbreak, or the fact that the Sanhedrin is simply rehashing their earlier threats. They simply speak the Gospel, just as boldly as ever. They don’t react with pride or fear: only determination. Remember also, this is right after the fiasco with Ananias and Sapphira. The church was increasingly faced with major distractions, but remained on message.

The Sanhedrin had their own sort of zeal. They were so wrapped up in their own perspective that they saw God's miracles as a hindrance. They impotently tried to intimidate the apostles, tried to impose their authority over them. It took one of their most respected elders to get them to even consider the possibility that the apostles could be doing God’s work.

· Are we more zealous in protecting our own interests than we are in advancing God's?

· Do we miss miracles around us because we're looking for the payoff for ourselves?

Zeal means dying to oneself.

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. – Acts 5:41

Peter and John have already been arrested and threatened. This time, the Sadducees target the apostles as a whole. They seek to humiliate them by throwing them in jail, then flogging them. But even when the apostles are physically beaten, they take it with a smile. They praise God for the pain, and they don't even slow down. To them, the Good News is still good, and God continues to empower them to deliver it. They honestly don’t care what happens to them. They preach that Jesus is the Lord over everything, and they prove it by their self-sacrifice.

Gamaliel remembered the rebels of the past, whose followers scattered when things got tough. He was content to let the church prove itself. If it were not God empowering them, they would be like all the others: self-preservation would kick in, and they would go home. They didn’t back down. Soon, the Greek word for witness would give us the word martyr.

· Do your priorities prove your faith?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Death by Dishonesty

Acts 4:32-5:11

We have arrived at the disturbing story of Ananias and Sapphira, who were both struck dead after withholding money from the church and lying about it. That consequence may seem drastic to us; after all, who among us has hasn't gotten away with worse? Why was their punishment so harsh? And what was their sin, really?

Ananias and Sapphira's deaths are not unprecedented.
Similar situations occurred in the Old Testament. Think of Korah and his followers. They rebelled against Moses, and the earth opened under their feet. Soon after, God sent a plague that killed thousands. (Numbers 16) Think of Achan, who took spoils of war against God's command. He, his family, and everything he owned ended up buried in rocks in the Valley of Trouble. (Joshua 7) The results of rebellion against God are drastic in Israel's early history.

Note that Ananias and Sephira are struck down in the infancy of the church. In either case, if corruption were to be tolerated, it could set the tone for generations to come. In order to keep Israel or the church holy from the start, God was willing to go to great lengths.

Furthermore, as Dr. Ravi Zacharias notes, the time of the Exodus was thick with miracles, proofs of God's presence. The early church was similarly surrounded by supernatural displays. There was no excuse for them to doubt; thus, the consequences of their sins were appropriate.

Are we wise enough to learn from others' mistakes? As in the rest of life, some of the most valuable lessons in the Bible can be learned from those who set a bad example.

Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of hypocrisy.
In John, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth. (14:17, 15:26, 16:13) Thus far, the church has been humble, honest, bold, and generous to the point of self-sacrifice (Acts 2:45, 4:34), in keeping with the character of God. Ananias and Sephira's action ran counter to the holiness that the Spirit was cultivating in the church. If they wanted to look more holy and generous than they were willing to act, they were at the least prideful and self-centered. If they were directed by the Spirit to donate the funds, but didn't and lied about it, they were rebellious and greedy. Whatever their motive, they exemplified what Jesus railed against the Pharisees for doing: having a false outer appearance while neglecting true holiness (Matt. 23:25-26).

The Holy Spirit desires us to grow in holiness (2 Cor. 7:1, Eph. 4:22-24). God's goal is not for us to merely appear holy, but to truly be holy, as He is (Lev. 19:2, 1 Peter 1:15-16). Honesty is an essential part of that. Honesty with Him, with ourselves, and with each other. It is crucial for the life of the church. Accountability only works when we are genuine and open. Much-needed conviction can only take hold when we recognize what we have done. And our prayer life loses strength when we hide from God.

How honest are we with God, ourselves, and one another? Is there something left unsaid in prayer, accountability, or within ourselves?

Why Connection is Everything

Acts 3:1-4:31

We look back in awe at the courage and faith of the early church, the incredible miracles that surrounded them, and the overwhelming growth they experienced. Even when persecution arose from the religious and political authorities, the church did not so much as slow down. What was their secret? They were solidly connected with God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We see, through their example, what a difference connection makes.

1) Connection gives us access to God's power.
“It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.” -Acts 3:16
The Sanhedrin ran headfirst into a problem: you can't argue with a transformed life. Though the disagreed with the apostles' spiritual beliefs, they had nothing to say against the miracle standing before them. (Acts 4:14) Note that it was not the beggar's faith that healed him: it was Peter's. (Acts 3:6) Peter's faith allowed something to happen in another person's life that had never happened before. (Acts 3:2) And Peter doesn't even take credit for it! (Acts 3:12) Not for the miracle, and not even for his own faith. Without God's grace, there's nothing to put our faith in. Peter was ready to give up after his betrayal, but Jesus showed him grace, and restored him. Now, Peter is doing his part: taking that faith and putting it into action.

· Does our faith press the limits of the impossible?

If not, we have only to connect with God more, and deeper. He does not expect all of us to come upon that kind of faith suddenly; but He wants us to grow our connection to Him more and more.

2) Connection attunes us to God's heart.

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. –Acts 4:13
Look at the choices Peter and John make. They see past the beggar's immediate problem to the deeper issue. They boldly address the crowd when it suddenly gathers. (Acts 3:12) When they are on trial, they answer even more boldly to the people that have authority to punish them. (Acts 4:13) And when they are released, they pray not for an end to the persecution facing them, but the courage to move forward despite it. (Acts 4:29) The Spirit in them not only guides them to capitalize on the opportunities around them, but is changing their hearts to look more and more like God's. They are in tune with His will, and His character.

· Are we becoming more like Him every day, or less?

Again, the answer is connection. By learning His character in the Word, praying to Him constantly, and using any other means of grace He gives us, we cultivate the connection between us.

When they were ordered to stop preaching Jesus, Peter and John said, "We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." They were on a God-given mission, and were accomplishing it by the power and leading of the Spirit. For them, as it should always be for us, connection was first.