Saturday, October 22, 2016

"In the face of persecution … the church GREW!"

October 23rd, Day #297

Scripture Reading:  Acts 5 - 6 ...

In the face of persecution, the Church grew!  How is that possible?  That truth is certainly contrary to the “church growth” methods of our day, yet it was through persecution and trials that God removed from the Church the "pretenders."  We read in Acts 2:42 that the early believers "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."  In Chapter 4, Peter and John were thrown into prison for preaching the Gospel, but that didn't stop them.  Now here in Chapter 5 we find God impressing on these early believers the importance of honesty and truth for those who would follow Jesus.

Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, wanted to give a donation to the church, but apparently for the wrong reasons.  No one was being forced to support the work of the apostles, but these two had pledged to sell a piece of property and to give ALL the proceeds to the church.  They sold the land, as they had said they would, but Ananias "kept back part of the money for himself" (5:2). The Spirit revealed to Peter what he had done and Peter confronted him: "How is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit …?  What made you think of doing such a thing?  You have not lied to men but to God" (5:3-4).  When Ananias heard this he dropped down DEAD!!  And fear gripped the believers …

… you think??!!!  Then Sapphira came to Peter a few hours later, and the same fate awaited her.  "Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events" (5:11).  You have to ask, "Why would God DO such a thing? Didn't He want the church to grow?"  Of course, but He wanted these believers to understand that He is God!  God does not deal well with phony people, with hypocrisy, with lies (even "half-truths").  You can't pretend with God.  God is holy and He is just and He does not, cannot overlook sin.

What few today understand is that those who are pretending and lying to themselves and to God … whose testimony of faith in Jesus is not sincere or true, and who are half-hearted in their devotion and commitment to God, will ultimately face the same fate as Ananias and Sapphira … they will die because of their sin.  In fact, they will face an even worse fate:  eternal death!  God sees our hearts.  For a time "no one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.  Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number" (5:13-14).  

Once again, the apostles faced persecution and were told to STOP speaking in the name of Jesus.  The Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, brought them before them again and rebuked them:  "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name!  Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood!" (5:28).

Truth:  Every human being is guilty of shedding Jesus' blood!!  Unless you are willing to admit your guilt, you will never receive God's forgiveness.  John wrote, "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:8-9).  THIS is how the true Church grows.  Peter and the other apostles testified, "We must obey God rather than men!" (5:29).  And their testimony continually pointed to Jesus.  "God exalted Him to His own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.  We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey" (5:31).  Truth defeats lies and only those who believe the truth will escape eternal death.

Here we are, nearly 2,000 years later, still talking about Jesus and still pointing people to the cross.  The Pharisee, Gamaliel, was right:  "If their purpose or activity is of human origin it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves fighting against God"  (5:38-39).  And yet, when Stephen became the first Christian martyr, the accusation that was made against him was, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God" (6:11).  Those who do not have the Spirit will never understand that no one will ever be justified - declared righteous in God's sight - by keeping the Law.  The disciples and the early believers did not speak AGAINST the Law of Moses, they simply pointed out that no one could keep it, that everyone needed a Savior, and that JESUS was the Messiah!!

False witnesses accused Jesus, too, and they do the same against all who boldly proclaim that Jesus is "the Way and the Truth and the Life" and that "no one comes to the Father EXCEPT through HIM!"  The apostles understood that it was their responsibility before God to proclaim this message to the world, for without it people would perish.  They appointed deacons, not because they were too good to do the work of ministering to those in need, but because their calling and their gifts were to be used to teach and equip others so that the Gospel would spread throughout the world as persecution grew worse.  "So the Word of God spread.  The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith" (6:7).

This is God's means for REAL church growth.  Beware of those who make boastful claims of how great life is when you "sow a seed," and when you "receive your miracle."  Translation:  when you give them your money!! Simply speaking the name of Jesus does not even make you a true Christian, let alone a faithful teacher or apostle.  

Have you placed your faith in Jesus?  Are you willing to endure suffering for the sake of His name in order to proclaim the truth, the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  We don't need more church members today; we need more disciples of Jesus!  May God help you and me to be faithful to Him, always telling the truth, knowing He is with us always … to the very end of the age!

"Heavenly Father, in Your wisdom you purify the Church through persecution and trials.  As Jesus told the disciples that the world would hate them because it hated Him, so we are called to stand firm in the truth, willing to face trials and to persevere.  Pour down Your Spirit upon us, Father, that we may find in You all we need and never waver in the face of persecution.  Add to our number, Father, those whom You know as Your sheep, as we faithfully declare to the world that Jesus is our Savior and that You alone are God.  In Jesus' name, Amen"

Friday, October 21, 2016

"No other name ..."

October 22nd, Day #296

Scripture Reading:  Acts 3 - 4 …

What distinguishes true biblical Christianity from any other religion is JESUS!  Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God's promises in the Old Testament and the center of God's promises in the New Testament. We proclaim the Gospel because "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (4:12).

There is nothing "magical" in a name.  When the Apostles ("sent-out ones") began to preach the Gospel and do miracles to confirm that the message was from God, they pointed not to their own power, but to the power of Jesus: "It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through Him that has given this complete healing to him (the crippled man), as you can all see" (3:16).  In the name of Jesus the power of Jesus was available, and in the name of Jesus today people are brought from spiritual death to spiritual life – the greatest miracle of all!  

Peter and John were ordinary men, called by Jesus, empowered by His Spirit, who boldly proclaimed the Gospel … the name of Jesus.  Peter's words to the crowd that came running to them after the healing of the crippled man are almost amusing:  "Men of Israel, why does this surprise you?  Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?” (3:12).  Surely Peter could understand why the people would be amazed.  But Peter had been with Jesus for several years.  He had seen things like this all the time and now, because he had seen the risen Jesus and been empowered by His Spirit, he expected things like this to happen.

His words of explanation are important:  "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus … You killed the Author of life, but God raised Him from the dead" (3:13,15).  The entire Bible points to the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This is HIS revelation and He sent His Son, Jesus, the Christ, to testify to HIS power.  Peter calls them to repent so their sins could be forgiven and then points to the future promise of God … "that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that He may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you - even Jesus.  He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through His holy prophets" (3:19-21).

Once again the beauty of the Bible is seen in the continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament.  The coming of Jesus was not "out-of-the-blue," but was the fulfillment of all that the prophets had foretold … and there's more to come!!  Peter boldly proclaims that "all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days" (3:24), and points back to God's promise to Abraham, "Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed" (3:25; Genesis 12:3).  So the prophets also point to the future reign of God's anointed King, as Peter points out in his prayer after his and John's release from jail:  "Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One" (4:25-26; Psalm 2:1-2).

Some today want more miracles as they have their eyes set on the signs and miracles done by the apostles, so it is important to point out that no one else was doing miracles.  Those who look for signs and miracles today are often misled by impostors.  When Paul spoke about these things in I Corinthians 12:28-31, he made it clear that these were specific gifts of the Spirit given to specific people, at a specific time, for a specific purpose.  We read in II Corinthians 12:12:  "The things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles - were done among you with great perseverance."  

It was to confirm the message as being from God that God empowered the apostles to perform the miracles:  "This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Spirit distributed according to His will" (Hebrews 2:3-4).  GOD is in control of the gifts He gives and when, where and to whom He gives them.  But always the purpose is the same:  to exalt the name of Jesus and to confirm the message of the Gospel.   The calling of the Church today is to proclaim this Gospel, for the Gospel, the message of Christ, is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe!

This is what Satan wants to stop:  the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus.  Even signs and miracles can mislead people, but the Gospel always points to Jesus.  When they told Peter and John to stop speaking to anyone in Jesus' name, they replied as we must today:  "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard" (4:19-20).  People through the centuries and people today are still willing to die before they will deny Jesus Christ.  Are you ready and willing to do that?  Am I??  We need to read God's Word and be empowered to be His witnesses.

As the believers prayed together they were empowered by the Spirit and "after they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly" (4:31).  They didn't all go out and do miracles, but they boldly proclaimed the Gospel!  They were all "one in heart and mind … With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all" (4:33).  

It is to that task that we must dedicate ourselves as we work together as one body.  We proclaim the name of Jesus because "salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (4:12).  

"Almighty God, my Father in heaven, I approach Your throne of grace in the name of Your Son Jesus Christ.  I confess that there is no other name, no other way by which I can draw near to You in all Your glory!  I rest in the shed blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of my sins and testify that I am His witness, willing to lay down my life for the sake of His Name.  Empower me, Father, with the filling of Your Spirit, that I may boldly declare the Name of Jesus to those who have not yet heard and to those who need to hear it again.  I offer You, my God, all that I am and all that I have, in Jesus' name, Amen"

Thursday, October 20, 2016

"It's all about God's kingdom!"

October 21st, Day #295

Scripture Reading:  Acts 1 - 2 …

From Genesis through Revelation the Bible talks about one thing a thousand different ways:  the "kingdom of God!"  You will never understand God's plan until you grasp this truth.  As God had revealed His power and authority to and through the people of Israel, so now God expands His activity, in fulfillment of His promises to Abraham back in Genesis, through the pouring out of His Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel to people from all nations.

As the author of Acts, Luke picks up here where he left off at the end of his Gospel account of the life of Jesus.  He explains that he wrote about "all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day He was taken up to heaven" (1:1-2).  He explains that Jesus "showed Himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that He was alive.  He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God" (1:3-4).  From Luke's perspective … from the Spirit's perspective, all that Jesus taught the disciples in those forty days could be summarized by saying that He "spoke about the kingdom of God."

As Jesus was about to ascend into heaven, the disciples asked Him, "Lord, are You at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (1:6).  They, too, were thinking about the kingdom of God, but from a different perspective than Jesus was giving them.  The disciples were still thinking only about Israel, about the Jews, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  They had not yet understood that God's promise was to establish His reign over all the earth and to call some from every people, tribe, nation and tongue to be part of His eternal kingdom.  

All that God did up to this time, and all that He accomplished through the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ had led up to this point:  to the expansion of His kingdom in the hearts and lives of those who would hear the Gospel and place their faith in Jesus, the Christ, the promised King of God's kingdom.  The continuity of the Bible and of human history from beginning to end hangs upon this truth, and all that is happening in our world today is leading toward the coronation of King Jesus when He returns to reign.  

Until then, it is God's purpose to establish His reign in the hearts of those whom He chose to be His before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4; I Peter 2:9) through the work of His Spirit.  The importance of Pentecost in God's plan cannot be overestimated.  Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were "baptized with the Holy Spirit" (1:5), explaining, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1:6).

The day of Pentecost was the "Feast of Weeks" described in Leviticus 23:15-22.  God was revealing all the way back in the days of Moses that there would be a "harvest of souls" for God's kingdom in a future time.  Now God
was doing just that as He poured out His Spirit on the disciples and all those gathered with them in Acts 2.  Those around them "heard them speaking in his own language" (2:5) and declared, "we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues" (2:11).  The Spirit empowered them to speak a language they did not know so that the Gospel would begin to spread to other regions of the world rapidly.  This, too, was part of God's plan.

Peter explains that this is the beginning of what the prophet Joel had predicted (2:17-21).  Moved by the Spirit of God, Peter makes it clear that Jesus was alive and was much more than a dead prophet!  "This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross.  BUT God raised Him from the dead, freeing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to hold Him" (2:23-24).  God was in control of all of these events, moving them toward the desired outcome:  the establishment of His kingdom in and through the Church, those who would believe in Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel.

There can be no question what Peter and these early disciples believed:  "God has raised this Jesus to life and we are all witnesses of the fact.  Exalted to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear" (2:32-33).  "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this:  God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ!" (2:35).  Jesus is the "Anointed King" of Psalm 2, the descendant of David, sent to reign over the throne of His Father, Jacob, as the angel had said to His mother, Mary, only a few short decades earlier: "The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:32-33).

Like pieces of a giant puzzle everything begins to fall into place when you focus on the kingdom of God.  How then should we respond to this information? "Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (2:38-39).  It is the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, applied through the work of the Holy Spirit, moving the heart to repent and believe that brings forgiveness of sins!  And "the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call" (2:39).  All of this points to one thing:  the coming of God's kingdom in the hearts and minds of people from all nations.

As about 3,000 believed in Jesus and were empowered by His Spirit, the Church began and would spread to the far corners of the earth.   God's harvest had begun, and it continues to this day.  If you have believed in Jesus Christ, declare to those around you that our God reigns and stand firm in your faith because you know that it's all about God's kingdom!

"My Lord and my God, I praise You for Your promise that I have been washed by the blood of Jesus and given new life by Your Spirit.  My sins are forgiven and I give thanks for Your love and grace.  Use my life as a constant testimony of the life of Jesus as I live to glorify You and to declare to the world that You alone are God and Jesus alone is King!  Let Your kingdom come and Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, in Jesus' name, Amen"

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"These things are written so that you may believe!"

October 20th, Day #294

Scripture Reading:  John 19 - 21 …

Everybody "believes" something.  You live your life in a certain way based on what you believe.  The majority of people live their lives believing lies, but from the beginning God has revealed TRUTH, first in His creation and then through His Word and finally through His Son.  The writer of Hebrews explains the revelation that came through Jesus Christ and the Apostles:  "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe" (Hebrews 1:1-2).

As you read through the Gospel record of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ you are reading God's special revelation.  John explains the purpose of his writing in Chapter 20, verses 30-31: "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name."  There can be no message that is more important for mankind - for you and me and all people - than this message … the good news that Jesus died on the cross to bear God's wrath against OUR sins and that by believing in Him, trusting in His sacrifice, we HAVE eternal life.

This is what Jesus Himself said back in chapter 3, verse 16:  "God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."  As Jesus hung on the cross the foolish soldiers who mocked Him and cried out, "Hail, king of the Jews!" could not have known the truth of their words.  Neither could Pilate, the Roman governor who had placed above His head for all to see, "King of the Jews!” The religious leaders of the Jews insisted that the Romans crucify Jesus because "we have a law, and according to that law He must die, because He claimed to be the Son of God" (19:7).  They used the very law that THEY had broken over and over again to condemn the One who was perfect, and in so doing they heaped even greater condemnation on themselves.

Pilate begged Jesus to defend Himself, saying, "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" (19:10).  But Jesus knew better!  "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (19:11). Jesus did not go to the cross as a helpless victim, but by the will of His Father in heaven and in obedience to the Father's plan.  Isaiah wrote the amazing words, "It was the LORD's will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer, and though the LORD makes His life a guilt offering, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hand" (Isaiah 53:10).

Even in the tearing of His clothing, God's Word was fulfilled, according to Psalm 22:18:  "They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing."  How could the Psalmist have written such a thing if it had not been revealed by the Spirit of God?  In His last words Jesus spoke of forgiveness, of compassion for His mother and of His coming kingdom … and as He hung on the cross in those hours of darkness, our debt was paid, the veil in the temple was torn, symbolizing the access that believers now have into the presence of the Father, and Jesus cried out, "It is finished!"  The Greek word is "tetelestai," and it means "the debt is paid," or "Paid in full!” Oh, amazing grace, how sweet the sound!!

Though His body was beaten and weak, Jesus did not die in weakness.  It was time … His work was done, so He committed His Spirit to the Father and entered heaven until the third day … His body was placed in a tomb, again in fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, and the disciples mourned.  Jesus had told them He would rise again on the third day, but their hearts were too heavy to imagine the truth of His words and their minds were weighed down with guilt and fear.  … Then it happened, as He said it would … the tomb was empty!!  We who believe do not picture Jesus on a cross or show a body covered in a tomb because the cross and the tomb are empty.  Jesus rose victorious over death!!

Few seem to understand today that the Gospels record for us the eyewitness testimony of those who saw Jesus after His resurrection.  He appeared not once, not twice, but numerous times over a period of forty days.  Some believed immediately, others wanted "proof" that they weren't seeing a ghost, but John explains that all these things, from His birth and the beginning of His ministry, to His death and resurrection … all these things were written so that YOU and I may believe, and by believing have life in His Name … in the name of Jesus.  It cannot be argued that the disciples believed as you turn to the book of Acts.  Peter, the one who denied Jesus three times, but whom Jesus lovingly and powerfully reinstated in chapter 21, would testify to the rulers and elders of the Jews, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

No other religion offers such a promise … no other religion leads to eternal life.  All of them teach their rules and laws and call people to work to please their god, hoping they have done enough to earn a life beyond the grave, but in Jesus Christ GOD provided the only sacrifice that satisfies His justice and delivers those who believe from the guilt and power of sin.  

The sure and certain hope that we have in Jesus Christ is that we who believe will be raised from the dead and made like Jesus Christ and will live in a new heaven and a new earth, a perfect world in perfect bodies, praising and worshiping and serving God forever!!  As we are loved by God, so we will love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength!  Oh, glorious day … for those who believe.  If you have believed these things and know the truth, give thanks to God for His amazing grace!  And if you have not yet believed, may God give you life in Jesus today.

"My Father in heaven, it is You who have given me life in Jesus Christ and it is now for You that I live. Words cannot possibly express my thankfulness.  Let my life, O LORD, my God, display my love for You as I live even now in the light of Your presence.  In Jesus' name, Amen"