Friday, October 31, 2014

"The only message with the power to save!"

Day #308:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - November 1st

Scripture Reading:  Acts 11 - 12 …

Throughout the book of Acts the power of the Spirit through the spoken Word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is on display.  Much more than a book that records a small sliver of history, the Acts of the Apostles could rightly be called "the Acts of the Holy Spirit THROUGH the Apostles."  As Peter said in his first sermon on Pentecost, this was the fulfillment of God's promise through the prophets to send His Spirit into the world.  Jesus had told the disciples in John 14-16 that He would not leave them as orphans but would send His Spirit to be their teacher.  He had said that people must be born again by His Spirit in order to enter His kingdom, and in reality, the rest of the New Testament and the history of the true Church from that time until today is the work of the Spirit of God in the hearts and minds of those whom He chooses to be His … the "ekklesia," the "called-out ones."

In the very first chapter of Acts Jesus said to the disciples, "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father has promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptized with water but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5).  And in verse 8 Peter goes on to say, "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."  It is now, through the leading of the Holy Spirit, that God sends the early believers out into the world to proclaim the one message that has the power to save:  the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

At the beginning, the apostles could not have understood how God would fulfill His promise to Abraham to bless ALL nations through the "Seed of Abraham."  But having been led to the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and having shared the good news of Jesus with him and his household and seeing the Spirit open their hearts and minds to believe and even to speak in other languages as the apostles had done, Peter rejoiced and baptized them with water in the name of Jesus Christ (10:44-48).  Then he returned to Jerusalem to explain his actions to the apostles and the rest of the Jews.  Their initial response was predictable.

For two thousand years the descendants of Abraham were the chosen people of God.  Even though God had promised to bless all nations through the "Seed of Abraham," the Jews did not understand that since Jesus was the promised Messiah, God was now going to call people from among the Gentiles to be a part of this "new thing," the Church.  This would take some explaining!  The apostles and the brothers in Jerusalem had heard that the Gentiles had also received the Word of God and believed, but those who were "circumcised believers" (11:2) were not ready to accept the idea of mingling with Gentiles.  Had not God told them NOT to do so??

But when Peter explained the vision God had given him, and all that had happened when he went to the home of Cornelius, he told them that God had gone ahead of him and told Cornelius that the one who would come "will bring you a message through which you and your household will be saved!" (11:14).  Peter said, "Then I remembered what the Lord had said: 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,' so if God gave them the same gift as He gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?" (11:16-17).  This convinced them and they praised God that He was now granting repentance unto life to the Gentiles.

Here is the crucial point:  This was NOT a new religion, as some imagined.  This was the fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham, indeed, the continuation of that covenant, as Paul would later explain in Romans 3-4 and Galatians 3 and other places in his letters.  None of the Jews who believed in Jesus thought they were abandoning their place as the people of God or their religion.  They believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, and they believed in Him for forgiveness and eternal life.  The MESSAGE was at the heart of the Church from day one.  And though many are distracted by other things, it is the proclamation of the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that remains today as the foundation for the true Church and the mission for true believers!!

The response to the Gospel on the part of those who heard it as the early believers went out was nothing short of miraculous, as the Spirit of God moved many to believe.  Those who were being persecuted went around the entire area proclaiming Jesus as Lord.  As they did so, "the Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord" (11:21).  When Barnabas went to Antioch and "saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts … and a great number of people were brought to the Lord" (11:23-24).

Paul and Barnabas worked together in Antioch for a year and taught many people and it was here that the believers were first called, "Christians" (11:26).  It is hard to even comprehend what was happening in such a short time in this part of the world.  From Jerusalem the Gospel was spreading throughout the Middle East and thousands were coming to Jesus for forgiveness and new life.  But it was not without resistance on the part of the Jews and the governor, King Herod.  Herod was determined to persecute Christians and had the brother of John put to death, then seized Peter and threw him into prison.  When the believers heard that Peter was in jail they gathered to pray for him.

Those who oppose God's people oppose God, and He doesn't take that lightly!  We do well to remember today that though Satan tries his hardest to stop the Word, he is fighting a losing battle.  Remember the words of the Pharisee, Gamaliel, when he stood before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, as they tried to decide how to stop the apostles from preaching about Jesus … He said, "Leave these men alone!  Let them go!  For 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!" (Acts 5:38-39).  Herod would discover this firsthand!!

But first, Peter, sitting in prison the night before he was to go to trial ... "sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries" standing guard at the entrance (12:6).  No match for an angel!  The angel of the Lord appeared and the chains fell off Peter's wrists and they walked out!!  Past the guards, past the sentries, out of the prison and onto the street.  Peter thought he was dreaming until the angel left him and there he was, free!  So he went to Mary's house, where the church was gathered - praying for HIM to be released.  This has to be one of the more amusing moments in the book of Acts, as Peter stands at the door knocking and the servant girl, Rhoda, leaves him there and goes to tell the people who are praying and they don't believe her.

Isn't this what they were praying for?  And God answered!!  But they weren't the only ones who were surprised.  The next morning the soldiers searched for Peter and couldn't find him.  Somebody had to take the blame and the guards were executed.  That would not be the last word, however.  Herod was about to discover that opposing the apostles and the message of the Gospel was opposing God, and he would pay with his life.  As Herod went to Caesarea and proudly addressed the people, decked out in his royal robes and seated on his throne, the people proclaimed, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man."  Herod, of course, soaked it all in ... for a moment, but because he did not correct them and give praise to God, "an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died" (12:23).  That sounds gruesome, but all those who reject the message of the Gospel will face a similar fate, but even worse.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, "the word of God continued to increase and spread" (12:24).  This is the promise of God to Abraham and his descendants being fulfilled by the power of the Holy Spirit ... and here we are, nearly 2,000 years later, approaching the return of Jesus, and the same message and the same power from God is at work in the true Church, calling people from every nation out of the darkness of sin and into the light of God's kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ.  The message has not changed for 2,000 years and will remain the same until Jesus returns in glory!  We who believe today must understand the great privilege that is ours in knowing the Savior, the Christ, the Messiah, Jesus, and live to proclaim the message to all the world, for it is the ONLY message with the power to SAVE!!!

"Heavenly Father, the testimony of the Church continues today through the nations of the world as a witness to Your faithfulness, Your power and Your glory.  Thank You, Father, for the privilege of being part of the Church.  Fill us with Your Spirit today and empower us to proclaim the Gospel with zeal and boldness until Jesus comes, for in the Gospel is the power to save!  In Jesus' name, Amen"

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