acts

Acts 28

Today, read Acts 28.

This is the end of the New Testament’s record of Paul’s ministry. Although it is the end of the record, it seems clear that it was not the end of Paul’s ministry. According to tradition, Paul won his trial in Rome (the first time) and was released. He continued traveling for the gospel until he was later captured again and executed.

We read yesterday of his shipwreck; in the early verses of this chapter, we see how God used that to demonstrate His power to the pagan people of Malta (vv. 1-10). Eventually Paul did reach Rome where he received the welcome he had hoped from the Roman believers (vv. 14-15). He was also able to live privately under house arrest (v. 16) instead of in an actual prison. This gave him the opportunities he wanted to share the gospel, starting as he always did, with the Jewish people (vv. 17-23). Notice the results of teaching the gospel in verse 24: “Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.” This is what will happen whenever any of us shares the gospel. Not everyone will respond to the gospel in faith. That’s one reason why we are hesitant to tell others about Christ--because we know many will reject it.

Here’s the thing about witnessing for Christ: many will reject the gospel message but some will believe. This was Paul’s confidence expressed in verse 28: “God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” Don’t let rejection by some in the past to the truth of Christ shut you down from telling others about Jesus. Rejection of the gospel is part of sharing the gospel but if you faithfully deliver it to others, some of them “will listen!” (v. 28b).

Acts 27

Almost done with Acts; read Acts 27 today and we’ll finish the book tomorrow.

What is there to say about this chapter of scripture?

  • It faithfully described what happened to Paul as he voyaged to Rome to stand trial.
  • It described how God communicated with Paul and through Paul to save the lives of everyone onboard the ship that was wrecked.
  • It described how Paul publicly and unashamedly gave thanks to God for the food that he and his fellow travelers ate (v. 35: “he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all”).

In terms of spiritual growth, however there is very little to be had from reading this chapter, at least on the surface.

But think a bit deeper about this. God is sovereign over all things. He called Paul to salvation and commissioned him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul faithfully did that, experiencing persecutions and hardships along the way as well as problems within the churches he started. Out of compassion for his Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ who were suffering hunger and need in Jerusalem, he led the Gentile churches to collect an offering. As he attempted to deliver that offering, he was told by prophesy again and again that he would face legal problems in Jerusalem, but he went anyway compelled by the Holy Spirit.

Once he got to Jerusalem, the prophesies were fulfilled and he was arrested. To save his life from an ambush, he was taken to Caesarea. While in Caesarea, he was not given the trial he deserved so he used his rights as a Roman citizen to get a free trip to Rome so he could stand trial there.

Now, here in Acts 27, as if being a prisoner and facing legal risk were not bad enough, Paul could not even get safe transportation to Rome. Instead, God allowed him to be transported by a ship that crashed and was destroyed by the sea (v. 40c).

How would you feel about your life and ministry if all of this happened to you? Would you feel that God was mistreating you? Would you worry that his favor was not on your work even though you were doing it in response to his commands and for his glory?

Problems and hardships are part of life. They are the result of a sin-cursed world, not a personal vendetta against you from the Almighty. God uses these trials to test and grow our faith in him, not to hurt us or push us away. Paul was realistic about the dangers around him (v. 31, 34a) but he believed God’s promises to him (vv. 23-25) and counted on those rather than the circumstances around him. Whatever you are facing in your life, it probably isn’t as terrifying or as potentially tragic as the shipwreck Paul endured but even if it is, God allowed it into your life, has a purpose for it, and will get you through it if you trust him.

Acts 26

Today we’re reading Acts 26.

Our reading from chapter 25 ended yesterday just as Paul, in prison in Caesarea, was about to speak to Festus, a Roman governor, and Agrippa, a Jewish governor / client king over the same area as Festus). Here in Acts 26 we read what Paul said to these men and their responses. Paul followed the same pattern that we’ve seen before in this speech. He simply recounted his personal testimony of salvation in Christ (vv. 1-21), then tied his experience to Old Testament prophesies (vv. 22-23) and applied all this truth to his listeners (vv. 25-29). After Paul’s speech, Festus and Agrippa agreed that Paul was being held and charged unjustly (v. 31) and could have been released (v. 32).

Verse 18 of our text today contains one of the most concise descriptions of the Christian gospel and of our mission once we become Christians: “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Let’s unpack this powerful verse; remember that Jesus is the one speaking these words (v. 15).

  1. Paul was sent “to open their eyes.” This refers, of course, to spiritual vision. It is a way of describing one who understands the truthfulness of the gospel. This is a reference to the doctrine we call “regeneration” -- giving spiritual life to the spiritually dead. It is the only way anyone ever becomes a Christian. Unbelievers may understand the facts of the gospel but until God “opens their eyes” they will not and cannot believe it. Becoming a Christian is--first and foremost--a spiritual act that God unilaterally does for a sinner he has chosen.

  2. After a person has his or her eyes open they turn “from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.” This “turning” is the doctrine of repentance. Repentance isn’t about being sorry for sin (although some sorrow usually accompanies repentance). Repentance is about a change of mind. Once God opens a person’s eyes, that person chooses to think differently about everything spiritual--God, himself, his sin, etc. At that moment, the unbeliever is extracted “from the power of Satan” by God himself. This makes a person want to follow God and to begin following him instead of living obediently to Satan’s wicked ways.

  3. The result (“so that”) of the spiritual transformation described in verse 18a is “that they may receive forgiveness of sins.” This is the point at which the blood of Christ--his sacrifice as our substitute--is applied to the believer by God. God credits the person who believes the gospel message with the perfect obedience of Christ and he treats us as if we were actually perfectly obedient.

  4. In addition to receiving “the forgiveness of sins” Jesus gave the person described in this verse, “a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” The word “sanctified” means “set apart.” Once we receive all of this spiritual work and transformation, we then have “a place.” This refers to our new state of belonging to God and waiting for his kingdom to arrive.

  5. And how does a person become “sanctified?” Verse 18 says, “by faith in me.” Faith in God’s word about salvation “sets us apart” for Christ. Now we now belong to him and to his mission.

This is how a person becomes a Christian. It seems unlikely, but it is possible that someone reading this devotional today isn’t even a Christian . Do you believe that Jesus died for you? Have you received his free gift of eternal life? That’s a vital question, one every person needs to believe.

Acts 25

Today’s reading is Acts 25.

When we left Paul yesterday, he was languishing in prison in Caesarea for two years (24:27). Caesarea is a nice place, right on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea but, if you’re in prison, that doesn’t matter. If I had to be in prison somewhere, I ‘d rather be locked up in Miami or Hawaii than in Alaska or Minneapolis, but I’m sure prisoners in Hawaii don’t feel like they’re in paradise, even though they technically are.

Anyway, Paul was in prison there in Caesarea for two years. He was left there by Felix, a Roman government official over Judea. Felix detained Paul for two years without a trial because he was looking for a bribe from Paul (24:26) and, since he didn’t get his bribe, decided to do a favor to Paul’s Jewish opponents (24:26-27). Leaving Paul in prison without a trial was unjust but Felix was a sinful man, so I doubt he felt any guilt in his conscience about it.

The Jewish leaders asked Felix’s successor, Festus (I always think of Uncle Fester when I read his name), to send Paul back to Jerusalem from Caesarea for trial (vv. 1-3a) because they planned to kill Paul en route (v. 3b). Paul argued against a transfer back to Jerusalem and, to ensure his safety, appealed to Caesar (vv. 4ish-11). This was Paul’s right as a Roman citizen (remember Acts 22:27). King Agrippa--Herod Agrippa--was a Jewish client king over the same area as Festus, and Agrippa came with is wife to Caesarea to congratulate Fester (er... Festus) on his sweet new job (v. 13). What do a Roman governor and a Jewish “king” have to talk about? Not much besides work, so that’s what Festus and Agrippa talked about--including Paul’s case (vv. 14-21). Agrippa was intrigued so Festus set up a meet-n-greet between Agrippa and Paul (v. 22). The end of our passage today (vv. 23-27) set the table for Paul’s speech to Agrippa which we’ll read tomorrow in Acts 24.

As I mentioned in my devotional on Tuesday from Acts 23, Paul used his valuable Roman citizenship to avoid a beating by a Roman solider and to protect his life from the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Here in Acts 25, Paul used his citizenship again. This time, he used it to get a free trip to Rome where he wanted to go next anyway (Rom 15:23-33). This was a wise move; Paul creatively used what he had at his disposal to move toward the goal he wanted to reach for the glory of God. But notice this one thing: in Acts 22:28 Paul said, “I was born a citizen” of Rome. This was highly unusual for a Jewish man or anyone else who lived in a territory Rome had conquered. For Paul to be born a Roman citizen, his father must have forked over a lot of money (see 22:27) or he did some heroic act for the Roman empire that got him honored with citizenship. Either way, Paul’s Roman citizenship came to him as a gift. He did nothing to earn it; it was conferred on him at birth. The fact that Paul was able to use it for the Lord’s work shows us the importance of God’s providence. The word “providence” speaks of God’s working his will in this world without using miracles. Often God’s providence is only visible to us when we look back at events in the past. When things are happening to us in the present, we don’t necessarily see God working out his will but, if we look back at our lives, we can often see how seemingly “random” things were actually given or arranged by God to accomplish his will in us. Maybe Paul’s dad was proud to be a Roman citizen or maybe he was embarrassed about it and lost some credibility with his Pharisaic friends. Maybe as Paul was growing up he thought his Roman citizenship had very little use to him but now he could see why God gave it to Paul. I’m certain he was grateful to have that benefit when Acts 25 was happening.

Think back over your life as a Christian for a little bit. Have there been any “chance” events in your life that protected you from harm or helped you serve God or walk with Him? Think back over what God has done in you and for you. Do you see anything that happened before you were born that made you the man or woman you are now? Make a list, then thank God for his providence and how it has worked out in your life. Then determine, as Paul did, to use whatever advantages you have--be they small or insignificant or great and valuable--to the glory of God by the expansion of the gospel.

Acts 24

Today’s reading is Acts 24.

So, Paul was taken from Jerusalem to Caesarea to protect his life from a plot by his Jewish opponents at the end of yesterday’s reading in Acts 23. Five days (v. 1) after Paul arrived in Caesarea, his Jewish opponents showed up there to charge him with stirring up conflict among the Jews (vv. 2-9). Paul answered the charges against him by appealing to what actually happened and the lack of proof his opponents had for their charges (vv. 10-13). Paul skillfully wove the gospel into his defense starting in verse 14. Felix, the governor who was handling this case, punted the case to a later date (vv. 22-23).

But a few days later, Felix and his wife Drusilla set up a private meeting with Paul (vv. 24-26). This meeting allowed Paul to specifically bring the gospel to this couple. An interesting aspect of this is that Felix was a Gentile, a Roman governor, but his wife Drusilla was Jewish (v. 24b). So Paul had a mixed audience religiously when he spoke to this couple. How did he handle this opportunity? According to verse 25, “Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come....” Let’s break that down:

  • “righteousness” refers to what is right, how someone measures up to a standard. In this case, the standard is God’s perfect holiness as revealed in his Law.
  • “self-control” has to do with a person’s ability to say no to his sinful impulses and choose to do what is right instead.
  • “judgment to come” of course, refers to the fact that every person will stand before God to give an account of his or her life.

In other words, Paul spoke to Felix and Drusilla about right and wrong, about their inability to control themselves enough to do what is right, and about the fact that God would judge them individually for doing what was wrong. What was the reaction? “Felix was afraid and said, ‘That’s enough for now! You may leave...” (v. 25b). In other words, Paul’s conversation with them caused Felix to feel the conviction of sin and his need for a savior.

Unfortunately, he did not repent at Paul’s teaching and find forgiveness in Christ. But once again Paul’s approach when talking to him is instructive for us when we speak about Christ to unbelievers. Almost any point of sin is an adequate starting point for the gospel. When you are talking with an unbeliever, if they complain about an injustice in the news or about crime or about the lack of self-control they see in others or in young people, that is an opportunity to talk about Christ. Why do people dislike it when others can’t exercise self-control? Because an uncontrolled population is dangerous and difficult to live in. But what standard do unbelievers use to complain about the sins, injustices, and failures of self-control in others? They appeal to God’s standards, even though they may not know it or even may deny it. The Bible says that the law is written on the heart of every human. That means that we have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. Use that! Show them how they too fall short of the standards they apply to others and admit to them that you, too, fall short but that Jesus didn’t. This will give you the opportunity to share what Christ has done for us to deliver us from the coming judgment of God at the end of the age.

Acts 23

Today read Acts 23.

Let’s tie some threads together as we jump into Acts 23:

  • Paul was in Jerusalem. He went there to deliver the offering collected by the Gentile churches for the Jewish believers struggling in poverty.
  • Before he went there, he was told repeatedly that he would face persecution, be bound and handed over to human authorities.
  • Also before he went there, he sent a letter to the Romans expressing his desire to come to see them after his visit to Jerusalem.

At the end of Acts 22, which we read yesterday, Paul gave his personal testimony before the crowd that had rioted due to his presence in the temple. The crowd settled down and listened until Paul spoke of his commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles. At that point, the crowd called for his execution (22:22). The Roman soldiers who had arrested him (21:31-32) prepared to interrogate him which would have begun by whipping him (22:24). Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen (vv. 25b-29). At that point, the Roman commander arranged for Paul to meet with the Jewish religious ruling council called the Sanhedrin (22:30). That’s where we found Paul today in Acts 23.

As Paul addressed the Sanhedrin, his speech did not begin well (vv. 1-5) so he used his knowledge about the doctrinal conflicts between the Pharisees and Sadducees to create a division with the Sanhedrin (vv. 6-9). The Roman authorities took Paul back into protective custody (v. 10) where the Lord revealed to him that he would be going to Rome to testify for Christ (v. 11). Although it is not spelled out directly, I think this is where we learn why Paul went to Jerusalem despite the many prophesies he received about his imprisonment there. Paul had told the Romans that his desire was to come to them (Rom 15:23-33). At the end of that section in Romans, Paul asked for the believers in Rome to pray for him. Note the specifics of his request: “Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea... so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed” (vv. 31-32). In Acts 22, Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen to protect his health and his life and, as we’ll see, he later used them to appeal to Caesar. Appealing to Caesar required a trip to Rome, so Paul used the prophesied persecution plus his rights as a Roman citizen to gain free passage to Rome where he could (eventually) meet the church there and prepare for his next missionary journey.

Luke recorded all of this so that we would see how the gospel eventually infiltrated the entire Roman world. But we can learn a lesson by example from Paul’s craftiness in this passage. He was willing to use whatever resources available to him--doctrinal division in the Sanhedrin, his Roman citizenship, whatever--to reach the goals he had set for the spread of the gospel and the glory of God. There was nothing dishonest or unethical in what Paul did; he used wisdom to make the most of the situation in front of him. His purpose was to glorify God but he did not wait around passively for God to work. Instead, he asked for believers to pray for his safety, then did what he could to wisely move toward the godly goal he had set.

Do we do this? Do we use the excuse of “waiting on God” to do nothing or do we use whatever is at our disposal to attempt things for God while asking for his blessing and protection? What kind of godly goals have you set for this year? How are you using the tools at your disposal to move toward those goals?

Acts 22

Today we’re scheduled to read Acts 22.

On Friday we read about Paul’s return to Jerusalem, his attempt to mollify the Jewish people by submitting to a Jewish purification rite, and his arrest which had been foretold repeatedly by the Holy Spirit. At the end of Acts 21, Paul asked his arrestors for a chance to speak to the crowd that had rioted. Today’s chapter, Acts 22, recorded that speech.

Given this opportunity to speak to such a large number of his fellow Jews, what did Paul say? He gave his personal testimony. He began with his background as a carefully observant Jew from the Pharisaic tradition (vv. 1-3). He moved to his persecution of Christians for their divergent beliefs (vv. 4-5). He described his conversion experience on the road to Damascus (vv. 6-13) and his commission to reach the Gentiles with the good news about Jesus (vv. 14-21).

People can reject arguments and counter them with other arguments but it is extremely difficult to argue with someone’s personal experience. The personal experience of another person is also very persuasive, one of the most persuasive forms of communication. Paul’s testimony here did not get him released, but it did give him an opportunity to witness for Christ. A straight up sermon about Jesus would have been interrupted a lot sooner, probably, than Paul’s testimony was here so this was a wise way to use the opportunity.

Do you realize how powerful your personal testimony can be when you speak to others about Christ? You don’t have to have a dramatic Damascus road-type conversion story. In fact, if you were saved as a child, your testimony might focus more on what being a Christian has meant to your life than about how much you changed from when you were an 8 year old contract killer or whatever. Let Paul’s example here encourage you to think about your testimony and write it out even to help you be prepared to share Christ when the door to speak for Jesus opens.

Acts 21

Back to the book of Acts today, specifically Acts 21.

It has been a while since we read Acts 20, so when Acts 21:1 said, “After we had torn ourselves away from them...” we need to be reminded that Paul had been speaking to the elders from the church in Ephesus at the end of Acts 20. He was completing his third missionary journey and was on his way to Jerusalem with money collected from the Gentile churches for the Jewish believers struggling in poverty in Jerusalem. Here in Acts 21, we read repeated warnings for Paul not to go to Jerusalem:

  • Verse 4 said that the disciples in Tyre told him not to go: “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.”
  • Verses 10-11 told us that in Caesarea a prophet named Agabus “took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, ‘The Holy Spirit says, “In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.”’”
  • Verse 12 recounted how Luke, the other traveling companions of Paul, and the Caesarean believers begged Paul to change his mind. The verse said, “we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.”

This is a tough situation to interpret. All of these people were speaking to Paul “through the Spirit” (v. 4), so it would seem that Paul went to Jerusalem in spite of God’s revealed moral will. Yet back in chapter 20, when speaking to the Ephesian elders, Paul said, “...compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem” (20:22a). He also knew that the result of his going would be personally painful: “not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me” (20:22b-23). So what caused him to keep going? Acts 20:24: “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” And here in Acts 21: “I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” His motives for going were pure and righteous and to the glory of God. The warnings about suffering, then, must have been to prepare him and the churches so that they would not lose faith in God when Paul was arrested.

And, sure enough, he was arrested (v. 33). We’ll see in the chapters to come what the results of that arrest were. For now, though, we should reflect on the warnings in Scripture. The Bible tells us that the way of following Christ is a narrow way. It tells us that there are few who go that way, so we will be in an uncomfortable minority throughout life if we follow Christ. Other passages tell us that following Christ means dying to ourselves and that it will cost some disciples their families, their homes, their inheritance on earth, and even their lives. These warnings were not given to tell us not to follow Jesus; they were written to prepare us in advance for the costs of following him. So, don’t be surprised or unhappy with God when being a Christian costs you something. Instead, understand that you are on the right path because what is happening to you is exactly what God said would happen to his children. So trust him to do his will (v. 14b) in and with your life.

Acts 20

Back to Acts for 1 chapter, then we go to Romans tomorrow, according to our schedule. Read Acts 20.

As we read 2 Corinthians, we noted that Paul was coming to Corinth both to collect an offering for the believers in Jerusalem who were suffering (2 Cor 8) and to deal with those who were living in sin in the church at Corinth (2 Cor 13). Here in Acts 20, Luke noted that Paul did in fact go to Corinth as he said he would (vv. 1-3). Paul continued on to Jerusalem stopping in Philippi (vv. 3-6) and Troas (vv. 7-12). He decided to travel by ship to Jerusalem and that ship stopped in several places (vv. 13-15). Paul decided not to go back to Ephesus, where he had spent so much time back in Acts 19, but he called for the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him (vv. 16-38). His meeting with them was emotional because God had told him that he would suffer in Jerusalem (vv. 22-23) so he expected that he would not see the Ephesians again (vv. 35, 38).

If you had spent several years of fruitful ministry in a city but believed that you would never go back there, what would you say to the people you had discipled and mentored and taught? Paul’s message which Luke recorded in this chapter is summed up in verse 31: “So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” Paul knew that the church would face some difficult problems in the days ahead (v. 29), so he urged the elders to do the work of shepherding to protect themselves and the flock (v. 28). But what was he getting at when he said, “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears”? That statement is, in essence, “Don’t forget my teaching and my example. When false doctrine comes in, remember what I taught you. Stick to it because it is God’s word; don’t stray from it.” This is something worth remembering. There is a lot of teaching out there, some that claims to be biblical and Christian and some that makes no claim to be Christian but does claim to be true. People sometimes get enamored with new ideas or attracted to big promises to change their lives in some way. If what you are learning is biblical, it will align with what you already know to be true from scripture. If it takes you away from the doctrines you learned when you were saved and discipled, however, it is a trap that will hurt your spiritual life, not help it. So, evaluate everything and don’t ever forget the gospel and the word of God that was taught to you when you first became a believer.

Although Paul was deeply concerned about what the church at Ephesus would face, he did not stay there to try to protect the church himself. Instead, he expressed faith in God’s own oversight of the church and his word: “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (v. 32). When people we led to Christ move away or our children grow up and go out on their own, we can become concerned about the many threats to their spiritual lives that they will encounter and rightly so. It is good to be concerned, to express your concern, and to urge believers you love to watch themselves just as Paul did in this chapter. However, it is impossible to control another person so you can only do so much to try to protect their faith and their doctrine. Instead of being fearful, at some point we must release them and trust God to do what we can’t. Paul ended his time with the Ephesian elders with prayer (v. 36) and we know from his letters how earnestly he prayed for the spiritual life of all the believers and churches. This is the best way to care spiritually for those we cannot be with directly--pray for God’s continued work in their lives, for their protection from sin and from false doctrine, and for God to watch over their spiritual lives.

Are you sending a kid off to college soon? Have a young adult child who is moving to a different area to start a new life? Do you know anyone who is leaving our church or another good church but there is uncertainty about where they will worship? Pray. Warn them and express your love for them, but trust God to watch over them and pray daily for them to walk with him. There’s really nothing better you can do for another person spiritually.

Acts 18

Today we’re scheduled to read Acts 18.

In this chapter Paul met a couple, Aquila and Priscilla, who would become friends and ministry associates. Verse 3 tells us that, in addition to having Christ in common, they also made a living by making tents just as Paul did when he needed money. This work allowed Paul to travel and give the gospel anywhere without asking anyone for money. However, earning a living this way meant spending less time preaching the gospel.

In verse 5, Luke dropped this into the story: “When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching....” Why would he do this? Why would he work part time with Priscilla and Aquila until Silas and Timothy showed up and then, with two other mouths to feed, stop making tents and start preaching the gospel exclusively? The answer is found in Philippians 4:15-16 which says, “Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.” Second Corinthians 11:9 conveys the same information. So here in Acts 18:5 Luke alludes to the financial support the Philippian church sent by saying that “Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching....” Their financial contributions made it possible for Paul and his team to concentrate on giving the gospel instead of splitting time between giving the gospel and earning a living.

Because of this passage, missionaries who work on the mission field are called “tentmakers.” There are some good reasons to do tentmaking, but in most cases the gospel advances better when God’s servants can give it our full attention. That happens when God’s people give faithfully and generously to his work.

So, let me close this meditation by saying thank you to everyone who tithes to Calvary! Your faithful giving allows me to make a living for my family and funds our other staff members and expenses. If you are not giving--or giving very little--please understand how important financial support is to our church and to our missionaries and consider re-prioritizing your finances to support God’s work.

Acts 17

Today’s reading is Acts 17.

Yesterday we read about Paul’s venture into Greece. While there he found people who were ready to receive the gospel and others who were ready to persecute him and his team. As he always did, Paul started presenting the gospel to the Jewish people in every city, then expanded his witness out to the Gentiles (v. 2, 4, 10, 12, 17). Paul went to Athens (vv. 15-34) but not because he was planning to preach the gospel there. Instead, he was waiting there for his teammates Silas and Timothy who were supposed to get there ASAP (v. 15).

While in Athens, Paul did speak to the Jewish people who lived there (v. 17) but he also found a secular audience for his message in the marketplace (v. 17b) and on the hill called Areopagus (v. 19). This passage gives us a glimpse into how Paul presented Christ to Gentile non-believers. Notice that he did not seek common ground with these men; rather, he used their altar “to an unknown God” (v. 23) as a starting point for his message, but quickly moved to direct confrontation by saying they were “ignorant of the very thing you worship” (v. 23b). He told them that the true God, the Creator God, did not reside in manmade structures (v. 24) or need food from human hands (v. 25a). Furthermore, he chided them for thinking that manmade statues had any significance for knowing and worshipping God (v. 29), then he moved to preaching repentance, judgment, and the resurrection of Christ from the dead (vv. 30-31).

Of all the controversial things Paul said, the resurrection of the dead was the one that seemed to create the strongest negative reaction among his listeners (v. 32). This is not at all the only place where people objected to his teaching that Christ rose from the dead. Yet Paul never shied away from teaching that God was invisible, not an idol or that Christ rose from the dead bodily. Instead, he went straight to the truths of the Christian faith that would be most controversial. This approach is quite a bit different than the way that many of us talk about God. When we talk about God, we may be tempted to avoid the supernatural and just stick to talking about Jesus and what he can do for you. But the reason that Paul didn’t retreat from the controversial aspects of the gospel is that he knew that believing the gospel required God’s supernatural gift of faith, not a group of secular arguments.

The point for us to emulate here is not to minimize the difficult points of the gospel like the resurrection but to feature them in our presentation of the gospel. When we do that, we are relying on God’s power to save people, not our ability to argue people into assenting that Jesus is the Christ.

Acts 16

Today we’re reading Acts 16.

Paul’s second missionary journey got off to a great start! On one of his early stops, he met Timothy who became a trusted fellow-servant and a dear friend (vv. 1-3) and God was blessing each visit with spiritual and salvation growth (vv. 4-5).

Then God directed Paul and Silas away from where they intended to go and into Greece (Macedonia) (vv. 6-12). At first, things started off great there in the city of Philippi when Lydia became a believer and gave these missionaries a place to stay (vv. 13-15). Then Paul and Silas liberated a woman from the demons that possessed her (vv. 16-18) and things changed quickly and drastically. The woman who had been demon possessed was a big money maker for others. Now that her powers were gone, these men wanted revenge so they pressed charges against Paul and Silas of inciting a riot (vv. 19-21). As a result of the criminal charges against them, Paul and Silas were “...stripped and beaten with rods” (v. 22b)... “severely flogged [and] thrown into prison” (vv. 22b-23a).

I don’t think my reaction to these circumstances would have been very happy but instead of being dragged down emotionally, Paul and Silas “were praying and singing hymns to God” (v. 25). God worked miraculously and saved the jailor (vv. 26-34) then worked providentially and had Paul and Silas released (vv. 35-40). So it seems clear that the bad treatment these men received was both to teach them to trust God and to bring salvation to the Philippian jailor. The painful, unpleasant circumstances were part of his plan.

James 1 commands us to consider it pure joy when we encounter many kinds of trials. Paul and Silas practiced that truth and God used them. Are you facing a trial, a difficult time, an unexpected setback after a period of good spiritual growth and blessing? Choose to sing God’s praises and glorify him while waiting to see how he wants to use you in that circumstance.

Acts 15

Today’s reading is Acts 15.

This chapter records “The Jerusalem Council” where the apostles came together to decide if the Gentile believers had to obey any of the Jewish law. This may be the same event Paul described in Galatians 2, which is why we read Galatians last week. Not all the details fit, so it is uncertain whether or not this is the same visit to Jerusalem that Paul described in Galatians, but the tensions between the Jewish and Gentile believers were an ongoing challenge that the visit described in this chapter went a long way to solving.

The theological issue of Gentiles and the law seems like it was solved pretty easily in verses 1-35. By contrast, Paul and Barnabas who had been chosen by the Holy Spirit, had a disagreement that was unsolvable in verses 36-41.

  • The occasion for their disagreement was a desire to return to the churches they had founded on their first missionary journey (v. 36). Ultimately, this trip would become Paul’s second missionary journey.
  • The reason for their disagreement was John Mark. Barnabas wanted John Mark to come but Paul was opposed to it because John Mark had deserted them on the first missionary journey (v. 38).
  • The result of their disagreement was that they split and went their separate ways (v. 39).

This passage is instructive in a number of ways. According to verse 40 Paul was“commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.” This suggests that the church at Antioch (see v. 35) officially backed Paul, so he would seem to be the winner of this dispute. Over time, however, God used John Mark to write “The Gospel According to Mark” and even Paul had to admit that Mark was useful in Paul’s ministry (2 Tim 4:11). So while Paul may have been backed officially by the church, apparently Barnabas was wise to include Mark despite Paul’s objections.

One lesson from this passage is that, sadly, there are times when godly Christians have problems with each other that cannot be solved. That seems strange to admit. If everyone involved is walking with God, it would seem that every issue should be solvable. But if godly men like Paul and Barnabas could not agree to extend grace to Mark after his failure, we should accept that sometimes disagreements among God’s people cannot always be resolved.

Another related lesson is to realize that God used Paul and Silas and he also used Barnabas and John Mark. In other words, although they did not agree, that did not mean that one party was in sin and the other was not. Have you ever had a disagreement with another believer that could not be solved? Were you convinced that you were right and they were wrong? Did you conclude that they must be in sin or at least unwise? Let this passage cause you to reconsider. As believers we should do everything we can to resolve our issues with other believers but we should also be prepared to “disagree agreeably” without condemning the other person. Can you choose to believe the best about another believer even if you can’t resolve every problem?

Acts 12

Today’s schedule calls for us to read Acts 12.

In this chapter, Herod wanted the accolades of the Jewish people under his rule (v. 3), so he killed James and intended to kill Peter (vv. 1-5). God answered the prayers of the church and rescued Peter miraculously (vv. 6-18). Then the people of Tyre and Sidon appealed to Herod’s pride by praising him as a god after they settled a dispute with him (vv. 19b-22). God took his life for accepting this blasphemous praise (v. 23) but God’s word kept on growing and reaching more and more people (v. 24).

This incident was a taste of the kingdom clash that Jesus began and will complete when he returns. This world wants to suppress God’s word and silence God’s messengers so that it can take the praise and adoration that belongs to God alone. Although God rarely brings the kind of immediate judgment on the foolish, proud kings of this world, he will eventually defeat them and rule all creation. Then he alone will finally receive the worship that he alone deserves. Until his kingdom comes in its fullness, the gospel of it continues to spread and grow and make more and more citizens who will worship him now and rejoice with him when his kingdom finally does come.

Very few rulers today would demand or even accept overt worship as God but there are plenty of people who still enjoy the ego boost that comes from the praise of people. The power they have, however, is not due to them because they deserve it; it is entrusted to them temporarily as managers of God’s authority as king. We should never give much credit, praise, or admiration to men or women who are politically powerful. Our Lord and king is Jesus; only he will rule perfectly.

Acts 11

Read Acts 11 today.

In Friday’s devotional about Acts 10 I suggested that transitioning the church from a group of Jewish believers in Jesus into a trans-national, worldwide group with no ethnic distinctions was going to create some tension. Here in Acts 11 we read about that tension. Despite facing criticism for his fellowship with Gentiles (vv. 1-3), the Jewish believers accepted Peter’s account of how God saved the Gentiles and how they received the same sign of the Holy Spirit as the Jewish believers did in Acts 2 (Acts 11:4-17). They then praised God for his mercy on the Gentiles (v. 18) and a church that had begun gathering Antioch began actively evangelizing Gentiles (vv. 19-21).

Barnabas emerged at the end of today’s chapter. He was sent from Jerusalem here when the church their heard about all that God was doing at Antioch (vv. 22-24). We’ve actually met this man before in Acts 4. His real name is “Joseph” (Acts 4:36) but was nicknamed “Barnabas” because he was always so encouraging. He’s the guy who sold some property and gave all the money to the church which led Ananias and Sapphira to do what they did in Acts 5.

Barnabas also showed up in Acts 9:27 and he persuaded the church to accept Saul after his conversion. Now, here in Acts 11, when he saw how much God was doing in Antioch, he went and found Saul so that Saul could contribute to the growth and strengthening of that church (Acts 11:25-26).

Although Barnabas did not have the same role that God called Saul to occupy, he knew how to connect people together for the growth of God’s work. By no means was Barnabas a man who just served in the background; verse 36 says that he... met with the church and taught great numbers of people.” So he had a strong teaching gift and used that gift publicly to strengthen and grow God’s church but he was in the shadow of Saul because Saul was such a giant in the early days of the church. Yet he never viewed Saul as his rival or was jealous of how God chose to use Saul. He was a man who was all about the work God was doing, not about who was getting the credit for doing it.

Barnabas could have stayed in Antioch and held even greater authority and respect than he had, but he knew that this church would benefit from Saul’s gifting. So, unselfishly, he recruited Saul’s help because it would be best for the church. This is the attitude that all of us as followers of Christ should have. God’s work is never about you or me; it is about doing what is best for the Lord’s church. If that means serving in someone else’s shadow, then let God be glorified.

Acts 10

Read Acts 10 today.

Two days ago in Acts 8, we read about how God used Saul’s persecution to move the church and the gospel out of Jerusalem and into Judea and Samaria, just as Jesus said would happen in Acts 1:8. Then yesterday in Acts 9 we read how Jesus redeemed Saul and told Ananias how Saul was the Lord’s chosen instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Taking the gospel to the Gentiles was the final phase of Jesus’ great commission in Acts 1:8. But transitioning the Christian church from a Jewish thing to a worldwide thing was going to be difficult. Gentiles could convert to Judaism before Jesus came, but they were always second class citizen to native Jews. For Gentile Christians to have full acceptance in the church, God would have to move in a special way.

That’s what we read about today in Acts 10. Although Saul was God’s chosen instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles, God used Peter to be the first apostle to see Gentile converts to Christianity. Notice how God did this here in Acts 10.

First, God sent a vision to Cornelius in verses 1-8. Verse 2 of Acts 10 said, “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing....” The phrase “devout and God-fearing” indicates that he was a Gentile convert to Judaism. When God spoke to him, he was told to send for Simon Peter and he was told where to find him.

Second, just before Cornelius’ messengers arrived, God sent a vision to Peter telling him to eat foods that were unclean according to the law of Moses (vv. 11-14). Peter saw this vision three times (v. 16)--probably so that he would be completely convinced of what he saw. But verse 17 told us, “Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision...” which shows us that the larger meaning--the broadest interpretation and application of this revelation--was unclear to Peter. Surely God was not only concerned about Peter’s diet but what could be the greater lesson of this vision? According to verse 17, the men sent by Cornelius arrived “while Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision.” Peter understood that the timing was not coincidental and he went to see Cornelius despite the fact that “it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (v. 28b) In verses 28b-29, Peter applied his vision about the unclean food to this meeting with Cornelius. Peter realized then and there “that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (vv. 34-35). Therefore, Peter gave them the gospel which brings us to the next step in God’s process of bringing Gentiles into the church:

Third, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (v. 44b). The Jewish Christians who heard this “were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (v. 45b). This is telling us that these new Gentile believers had the same experience that Jesus’ disciples had in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. The purpose of this dramatic, miraculous demonstration of the Spirit’s power is not to show us that all Christians must have these signs; rather, it is to demonstrate that Gentile believers are equal to Jewish believers in Jesus in every way. As a result of this experience, Peter “ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 48a).

The full implications of a church integrated with Jews and Gentiles alike would still have to be worked out by the church. We’ll read about that in some of the chapters ahead. The point of this chapter was to show that God viewed and treated Gentile believers as equal in the church to Jewish believers. It would be wrong for the church, therefore, to discriminate against any believer.

Although we no longer have those Jewish-Gentile tensions, there are other ways in which the church is sometimes divided by race. Churches here in America are still divided along racial lines with “mostly white” churches, like ours is, frankly and churches for African-Americans, for Latinos/Latinas, for Romanians, for Chinese Christians, and so on. Language differences create some of these distinctions, but all of them are contrary to how God views true believers. In Christ there are no “white Christians” or “black Christians” or any other human category of Christians. To Jesus there are only believers and unbelievers and all believers are accepted fully into God’s family through Him.

We cannot solve the divisions of churches in America on our own, but we can and should fully accept, welcome, and integrate anyone into our church family who has faith in Christ, is baptized in his name, and is seeking to do what the Lord commands. We should strive for this kind of unity, then, because it is pleasing to God.

Acts 9

And now, read Acts 9.

We met Saul yesterday and saw how he persecuted the church and, in God’s providence, was used to get the gospel out of Jerusalem and into the rest of Judea and also into Samaria, just as the Lord had commanded in Acts 1:8. Now, in the most unlikely way (humanly, that is), God saved Saul (vv. 1-8) and called him “my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (v. 15b). The man whose persecution stimulated the spread of the gospel to Judea and Samaria would now directly lead the effort to take the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The focus of Acts in the chapters ahead will begin to move off Peter and the other Apostles and on to Saul (Paul) the Apostle to the Gentiles.

As we read about Saul’s conversion here in Acts 9, we saw the clash of human values and God’s values in how Saul was treated. People value safety and were understandably wary of someone who killed other Christians but suddenly now claimed to be a Christian himself. We see the skepticism and fear in Ananias (vv. 13-14) and in the Jerusalem church where “they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple” (v. 26b). How was this skepticism resolved?

First, Ananias believed God by faith when God told him to go to Saul and pray for him (vv. 11-17a). He even called him “Brother Saul,” acknowledging his claim to faith in Christ. Second, Barnabas became Paul’s ambassador when he “took him and brought him to the apostles” (v. 27). Both of these men had to trust that God’s power had actually changed Saul. Because they did trust the life-changing power of the gospel, they were willing to “credit” Saul--trust him as a brother--before there was a long trail of evidence of Saul’s faith.

If we’re going to live for Jesus, there will be times when we have to take similar risks of faith on people. For example, trusting Christ in your life might mean trusting someone else who has wounded based only on their claim to repentance. We become vulnerable to manipulation, embarrassment, or possible betrayal in those situations but this is what God calls us to do. If we trust him, we should trust that he is changing other people. That means giving them our acceptance and trust in advance--like a credit card transaction. Are you facing any uncertainty in your life because you are not certain you should someone who claims to be changed by Christ? God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace call all of his followers to trust others based on their profession of faith and even to forgive others when they fail to be perfect but demonstrate true repentance. Ananias was afraid of Saul, but he trusted the Lord so he called Saul his “brother.” God will help you and me learn to trust others, too--before they deserve it, if our hope and faith is in the Lord.

Acts 8

Today, read Acts 8.

When Stephen was martyred in Acts 7, two distinct--but related--things happened next. First, a man named Saul became part of the story of the New Testament church (v. 1). Second, “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem.” The result of this persecution was that “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”

Now think about that phrase--“all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” and this verse from Acts 1:8b: “...you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Keeping those two verses in mind, remember how people who lived in other areas of Israel and even other countries stayed in Jerusalem because they were enjoying so much worship and teaching and fellowship and evangelism together. The incredible joy they had as the church was growing was keeping them from doing the mission Jesus sent them to do, so God allowed persecution to disperse the first church to “Judea and Samaria.”

And it worked because according to verse 4 here in Acts 8, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Persecution is the hostile response of unbelief toward the gospel. Sometimes God in his grace restrains unbelievers from persecuting His people and we enjoy seasons of peace; other times God allows persecution to come to purify us and to disperse us into the world to spread the good news in other places where it is needed.

On a smaller level, God works this way in our lives, too. When we get too comfortable, complacent even, in our faith, God allows trials into our lives to purify us and to re-focus our attention on him and his work. Don’t fear, then, trials or even persecutions that may come in your life sooner or later; use them as opportunities to grow in your faith and to bring you into new opportunities to share the Lord’s word.

Acts 7

Today, Acts 7.

At the end of yesterday’s reading in Acts 6, we read about how God was using Stephen and how he was dragged before the Sanhedrin to answer for his message. Here in Acts 7, the story continued as Stephen answered the charge against him and was stoned for his faith, becoming the first Christian martyr.

Stephen responded to the charge against him by summarizing Israel’s history beginning with Abraham. Although the people of his land prided themselves on being God’s people and receiving God’s promises and blessings, Stephen saw a pattern in Israel’s history of rejecting God’s word. That pattern was summarized in verses 51-52a, “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.” Of course the strongest expression of their rejection was in Jesus, “And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it” (v. 52b-53).

Although only Israel had the unique history that Stephen described in this passage, what he said about Israel could be said about any nation or culture on earth: “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised.” (v. 51). Sin so thoroughly marks our nature and character that we impulsively resist God’s word and persecute God’s messengers. Only the grace of Christ through the gospel can penetrate that thick crust of unbelief on us all and bring us back to life spiritually to receive God’s word and desire to obey it.

Still, even after we are believers, we sometimes resist receiving the hard truths of God’s word that convict us. Like the people of Israel, we count ourselves blessed for having God’s word and God’s promises rather than receiving those gifts of grace and using them to bring obedience into our lives. God’s word and his spirit are working on us to relax our “stiff-necks” and make our “hearts and ears” sensitive to and receptive of his word. As James told us, we must “not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (Jas 1:22).

Acts 6

Today we’re reading Acts 6.

A couple of things are important to keep in mind as we read these chapters describing the first church in Jerusalem. First, remember that all of the disciples except for Judas were from Galilee, the northern part of Israel. Second, most of Jesus disciples before his crucifixion were Galileans, too. Third, Jesus death, burial, resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit in power in Acts 2 happened in Jerusalem. Jesus had told the disciples to stay there in Jerusalem until the Spirit’s power descended on them (see Acts 1:4).

After the Spirit came on the disciples in power, people began to trust Christ in large numbers (see Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4). Many of those who trusted Christ lived in Jerusalem and the early church met in their homes (see Acts 2:42). But many of them also lived outside of Jerusalem but they wanted to stay and experience what God was doing in the church. So there are some new believers in the Jerusalem church who lived in Jerusalem and made their living in Jerusalem but many others (more?) who did not live in Jerusalem and, therefore, had no income for as long as they remained in Jerusalem.

These facts explain the need for so much sharing of homes, food, and money in the early church in Jerusalem. It wasn’t that the church was communistic or socialistic by nature; it was that many believers had no means of support while they stayed in Jerusalem, but they wanted to stay there and experience what God was doing. So, their brothers and sisters who had financial means generously shared with those who did not.

Here in Acts 6, then, we see that there were problems--gaps, even--in how people were being cared for in the early church. According to verse 1, there was some discrimination--intentional or not--regarding how people with needs were supported and cared for. In verse 2 the Twelve disciples gathered to discuss how to address this problem. It was a true dilemma because the needs of the people were legitimate and important; however, enough needed to happen logistically that some or all of the apostles could have had their time consumed by making sure all the needs were met.

The answer the Twelve came up with was to distribute responsibility to other people (vv. 3-4). This was to allow the Twelve to give their full attention to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (v. 4). Although the task given to these men did not require any particular spiritual gifting or skill, the disciples felt it was important to give the task to godly men (v. 3). Although this passage does not directly say it, many people (me included) think that this paragraph is how the office of deacon began in the church.

The men who were chosen for this ministry were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3). Yet they did not consider this task to be beneath them. In keeping with their reputations for godliness, these men had servants hearts and took on willingly the responsibility they were chosen for.

When you are asked to serve somewhere in the church, do you see it as a chance to serve the Lord or as a burden to bear? It is true that some people can be overburdened if they take on too many ministries, but it is also true that many people are unwilling to serve when asked. It is a blessing to serve the Lord and, as believers, we should be honored to serve him by serving his church when we are given the opportunity.