Friday, November 21, 2014

"The Scriptures … we are sent to proclaim GOD's Word!"

Day #329:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - November 22nd

Scripture Reading:  Acts 17 - 18 …

Following the death and resurrection of Jesus, and then His ascension into heaven and the pouring out of His Spirit on the day of Pentecost, God's plan to bring salvation to all who believed in Jesus began.  Yes, there were some who were saved from God's wrath against sin and His judgment in the days from creation to the birth of Jesus, but relatively few.  With good reason, we are told that "NOW is the time of God's favor, NOW is the day of salvation" (II Corinthians 6:2).  The "now" is the time between Christ's first coming and His second, as the writer of Hebrews says so clearly:  "Just as a man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him" (Hebrews 9:27-28).

Throughout the book of Acts you find the apostles, and specifically Paul and those with him, declaring the Word of God to those who had the Old Testament Scriptures, the Jews, and to those who had not heard of the one true God, the Gentiles, or who had heard of the God of Israel, but did not know about Jesus and how He fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies.  As Paul began his second missionary journey he continued going from city to city, speaking in the Jewish synagogues to the Jews and often to "God-fearing" Gentiles (Greeks).  His teaching is described in chapter 17, verses 2-3:  "He reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead."  Then he added, "This JESUS I am proclaiming to you IS THE CHRIST!!"

It is important to remember that the only "Scriptures" ("writings") that Paul and the Jews had at this time were the Old Testament Scriptures:  the Book of Moses (the Law), the Psalms and the Prophets.  The Old Testament writings, as we have them today, had been gathered and put together at least some two hundred years prior to Jesus' birth.  While the leaders of the Jews, particularly the Pharisees, had added their own traditions and other writings, these were the Scriptures and were considered by the Jews to be the very Word of their God.  That's why Paul, himself a Pharisee well-versed in the Scriptures, began with God's Word.  His "authority" was the authority of the written word and it was God's intention then, as it is now, to prove that Jesus is the Christ, the promised Messiah, God's "Anointed One," who came in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Even today many people fail to grasp the very elementary truth that Christianity is NOT a new religion or a different religion from Biblical Judaism.  Christianity is the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism because Jesus IS the Christ that the Old Testament Scriptures pointed to.  It would have been wonderful to have the Bible study that Paul used in Thessalonica and other places, but the reality is, we DO have it throughout his letters to the churches in the New Testament Scriptures which he and others wrote as they were inspired by His Spirit.  Just as the Bereans "examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (17:11), so you and I must do the same.  False teachers arise today and lead many astray because they twist and distort the Scriptures to their own destruction and to the destruction of those who hear them because their hearers do not examine the Scriptures and see if these things are true!!  You need to be a student of the Word of God!  Remember Paul's words to Timothy:  "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful …" (II Timothy 3:16).

AND … it all talks about Jesus!!  Those who use the Bible only as a moral guide to tell them how to discern right from wrong miss the whole point.  Jesus said to the Pharisees, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about ME, yet you refuse to come to ME to have life" (John 5:39-40).  This is what Paul and the others were doing … explaining how the Scriptures of the Old Testament pointed to Jesus.  And this is why all the other religions of the world are wrong and fail to lead to eternal life.  They miss Jesus.  They don't know who He is, what He did on the cross … and they don't believe He rose again, that He ascended into heaven or that He is coming again.  Without Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, there is no hope.

So Paul came to Athens and saw all of their statues and idols and taught them about their "unknown God" (17:23).  Today many in the church seem fine with allowing people to believe in idols, in false gods that are no god at all!  Paul told the men of Athens, "What you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you" (17:23), and then he began at creation:  "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands …" (17:24).  He then goes on to explain that "now He commands all people to repent (to turn around, to change their minds) … For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead" (17:30-31).

There are always two responses to the preaching of the Gospel, and you can see them here in verses 32-34:  Some believed and some didn't.  Every time the Gospel is preached the hearts of those who hear are moved one direction or the other - either closer to faith in Christ or further away.  Either the Spirit uses the Word to soften their hearts or the Word makes them hardened to the truth … more impenetrable.  No heart is so hard that God cannot soften it and penetrate to its core, but men constantly bring judgment on themselves by hearing and rejecting the truth revealed in the Scriptures.  It was true then and it is true today.  Our hope, and our joy, is that God has assured us that His Word will not return empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).  It is our responsibility to proclaim it and only God can do the rest.

Having left Athens, Paul went to Corinth, where he stayed for a year and a half.  When the Jews rejected his preaching, he determined to go to the Gentiles.  God spoke to Paul and told him that He had many people in Corinth, a very large city at the time (18:10).  Some of the Jews continued to try to make trouble for him, but those who believed helped him wherever he was and from Corinth he went to Ephesus and then back to Caesarea, to Antioch, where he had begun his journey.

Paul was not alone in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout Asia Minor.  He was teaching and equipping others and people like Apollos and Priscilla and Aquila were aiding the spread of the Gospel.  It is hard for us to imagine what it was like in those days, without the New Testament having yet been gathered together the letters Paul, Peter, John and others wrote were like a breath of life to these new believers.  We often study the New Testament as though it was a theology textbook, but it is so much more than that.  God inspired the apostles to write these things to the churches in order to make certain that they and we understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They often quoted from the Old Testament Scriptures and tied what they had said to the reality that is now found in Jesus Christ.  By doing so, it became clear who Jesus is and what He came to do.

In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul explains that the Church, the Body of Christ, was and is GOD's idea.  He says the Church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the Chief Cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:20).  In Christ, Jews and Gentiles were brought together as one body through faith in Him, a faith produced by the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the Word (Romans 10:17).  Many today in the church would not think of trying to "convert" people from other religions, let alone a Jew, but God told the apostles to preach to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.  They forget that all the Apostles and Paul were Jews who had become followers of Jesus because they believed that He was the Christ, the Messiah.

When he wrote to the Romans Paul explained that he was "not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (Romans 1:16).  In Romans 10, Paul says, "My heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved" (10:1).  Being a Jew by birth does not save you, any more than being born to believing parents saves you.  Faith in Jesus Christ saves.  And as you follow Paul's journeys, as well as those of the rest who have proclaimed the Gospel across the face of this planet, you discover that it is when the Gospel is preached that people repent and believe and are saved.  "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ" (Romans 10:17).

Why did Paul and others risk their lives to preach this Gospel, and why are many doing the same today?  Because they and we believe that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, BUT to those who are being saved it is the power of God … For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe" (I Corinthians 1:18, 21).  Jesus said that "this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come" (Matthew 24:14).

How close are we to that end?  Only God knows, but we are closer today than we were yesterday!  Jesus has promised that not one of the sheep the Father has given Him will be lost.  As God told Paul that He had many people in Corinth, so He knows how many are left to be saved and He will save them through the hearing of His Word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  It is one book with one message and it all points to Jesus.  You and I who believe in Jesus today are sent into our homes, schools, workplaces and communities, indeed, into the whole world, to proclaim God's Word.  Let us be doing so with zeal and commitment, willing to bear persecution and to endure suffering for the Gospel, for it is still the power of God unto salvation for those who believe!!

"Father in heaven, I believe the message of Your Word that points me to Jesus, for I have found in Him the only hope for forgiveness and life.  In the Gospel You promise to credit the righteousness of Jesus to those who believe and by Your Spirit You open the eyes of the blind to see Your kingdom and allow us access to Your throne.  How can we possibly thank You for Your gift of grace?!  Use me, Father, to declare this message at every opportunity, pointing people to Jesus through Your Word and showing them who He is and what He did on the cross for all who believe in Him.  May You receive all the glory and the praise, from the thankful hearts of those who come to know Your love, in Jesus' name, Amen"

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