Friday, October 10, 2014

"And in the face of persecution ... the Church grew!"

Day #287:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - October 11th

Scripture Reading:  Acts 5 - 6 ...

Since the 1970's "church growth" has been a topic of constant conversation among those in positions to influence those planting new churches and serving in established congregations.  In their desire to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, they seem to have overlooked a very important aspect of the growth of the early church:  persecution.  There is evidence that this method of church growth still "works" today, as believers in many areas of the world face persecution, even death for their faith in Jesus Christ ... yet it is not advocated in western culture and other places.  On the contrary, many are being told that God wants them to be happy and prosperous and successful, while living a relatively carefree life.  This false gospel is being proclaimed in large congregations and small in an effort to attract "listeners" ... but these listeners will never be "followers," will never be disciples of Jesus Christ.  They are unwilling to lay down their lives for Jesus, to turn from self-centered lives to God-centered lives.

Yet, God continues to call some, to give them new life through His Spirit, and to teach them His commands through His Word.  It was by this means that the early Church grew, and it was by 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 are thrown in 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.  I don't know what those who only talk about God's love do with this chapter.  Surely, this cannot be the God of love who sent Jesus to die on the cross for our sins … oh, wait … many in the church don't want to talk about THAT either!  But you see, 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).  Part of the reason was the miracles that the apostles were doing.  Even then there were some who "joined" the church because they wanted to see more miracles … just as when Jesus was on the earth.

How much like today!  The connections between what happened in the church and in the world almost 2,000 years ago and today are endless.  Why?  Because human nature is the same and it is totally and utterly predictable.  Mankind will do anything BUT confess sin and seek forgiveness, unless the Holy Spirit is at work in the one hearing the message, producing a new heart and a new mind.  THESE are the true believers whom God seeks to worship Him "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24).  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.  Anyone can SAY they believe in Jesus.  Everyone loves to see miracles.  Few, however, are willing to endure persecution for the sake of Jesus' name.  But Jesus began His ministry by telling people, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).  Serving Jesus Christ has never been easy.  Those who say otherwise are liars, counterfeits and false prophets.  Paul warns about them in II Corinthians 11:  "For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.  It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness" (II Corinthians 11:13-15).

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.  People need to wake up!  God warns us, as He did the early believers, to watch out for false teachers.  There are many today who point away from the cross instead of toward it.  But Jesus always told the truth.  He said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it" (Matthew 16:24-25).

Ananias and Sapphira lied to God and died on the spot.  God saw their hearts and He sees YOUR heart and mine.  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!  In the face of persecution the Church grew … so it is today.  It's not about numbers, it's about faithfulness.  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"

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