Friday, December 5, 2014

"Ready to die for the name of Jesus … "

Day #343:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - December 6th

Scripture Reading:  Acts 21 - 22 …

Sometimes people "talk big," declaring what they would do for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21).  But these were more than just words to Paul … it would shortly become reality.  Which leads me to ask what you have given or are willing to give for the proclamation of the Gospel.  It has been said that there have been more martyrs for Christ in the past century than in all the time since Christ's death, resurrection and ascension.  Certainly, the Lord knows the hearts of those who have died because they testified that Jesus Christ was their Savior and Lord.  Yet while some give their physical lives, the fact remains that Jesus said all who would be His disciples must die to SELF, must not only be willing to die for Him, but also to live for Him!!

As Paul completed his third missionary journey, traveling throughout Asia Minor, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, starting churches and encouraging those who believed to stand firm in their faith against persecution, he himself faced continual persecutions and hardships of various kinds.  He explains in the tenth chapter of his second letter to the believers in Corinth how he had suffered for the proclamation of the Gospel.  We have seen before that whenever the Gospel is preached in its fullness, there is opposition, and that often that opposition comes from those who fail to understand GRACE!!  People continually believe they can earn God's favor through their good deeds and religious acts.  When they are told that faith in JESUS is the ONLY way to be saved, to be justified, to be declared righteous in God's sight, they react as the Jews did with Paul.  They refuse to acknowledge their sin and their need for a Savior, and so MISS God's grace!

Paul and those with him were not out to make friends, nor were they trying to make trouble, they were simply being obedient to God's call to proclaim the cross of Jesus Christ, telling people of His death, resurrection and ascension, and calling them to repent and believe and be saved from God's judgment.  The life of the Apostle Paul did not happen by chance.  Your life and mine is not by chance.  God has put us here for this moment in time to be witnesses of the Gospel.  Paul and those with him understood this mission and by the power of God's Spirit took it seriously.

Certainly, Paul had plenty of warning about going to Jerusalem.  As he and his companions landed at Tyre, the disciples "urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem" (21:4).  A prophet named, Agabus met Paul, and taking his belt declared to Paul that "The Holy Spirit says, 'In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles" (21:11).  Again, the people pleaded with Paul not to go to Jerusalem.  Paul's response is telling:  "Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?  I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus" (21:13).  So they stopped trying to dissuade Paul from going to Jerusalem and said, "The Lord's will be done" (21:14).

But why would it be the Lord's will for Paul to be persecuted, imprisoned, or put to death?  We need to understand that it is not God's desire for people to suffer, but it IS at times part of His plan to use the evil other people do to advance His kingdom in ways you and I will never understand this side of heaven.  Like Paul, we need to be obedient, to be faithful to God, entrusting our very lives to His keeping.  The time may come for many of us to have to decide whether we are willing to give even our very lives for the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!  Paul was going to Jerusalem because he believed God wanted him to testify to the brothers in the church there about how God was building His Church among the Gentiles.  And as the rest of the events of Paul's life unfold, it is clear that God had a plan and that this was part of it.

Arriving finally at Jerusalem, Paul met with the elders and "reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry" (21:19).  They, in turn, reported "how many thousands of Jews have believed" and how they were all "zealous for the law" (21:20).  Then they asked Paul to show that he was not against the law by going through some of the rituals that God had given to the people of Israel in the days of Moses.  They said, "Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law" (21:24).  This must have presented a dilemma for Paul.  He knew that all the ceremonies and sacrifices had been fulfilled in Christ.  The apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem knew that, too.  This could be seen as compromising the Gospel.  It wasn't that there was anything "wrong" in doing these things, but the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross made them "obsolete."  Perhaps this is why Paul would write so clearly in his later letters that these things were no longer binding on those who were in Christ.

At any rate, the "compromise" didn't work!  As soon as the Jews saw Paul in the temple they started a riot and seized Paul and began to beat him, trying to kill him! (21:30-31).  He was "rescued" by Roman soldiers, but as they led him away and were about to put him in jail he asked to speak to the people.  Imagine yourself having just been beaten by an angry mob and then asking to speak to them.  What could Paul have been thinking?!!  He was thinking about testifying about Jesus … about explaining to the people what they clearly did not yet understand.  There is something very important to be learned here:  not all those who claim to "believe" really understand the Gospel!

Like the Jews then, a growing number of people in the church claim to believe in Jesus but at the same time tolerate and even work with those from other religions who deny that Jesus is the only way to receive forgiveness from God and eternal life.  In fact, many in the church today stand opposed to the Gospel because it is too "narrow."  They have changed the Gospel to declare that God loves all people, that we are all children of God and that everybody will eventually go to heaven.  Those of us who stand on the truth of God's Word can expect persecution to grow.  As Agabus and others predicted what Paul would face when he went to Jerusalem, so that is what we will face in the years to come … what some are facing even now.  And remember, this comes not only from those outside the church, but from within her walls!!

Paul's testimony begins with his training under Gamaliel.  You may remember that Gamaliel was the Pharisee mentioned in Acts 5 who encouraged the Jewish leaders to release the apostles, who had been jailed for preaching the Gospel.  He had 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).  Paul, and others, had not heeded his counsel, instead persecuting the first believers, throwing them in prison, and even putting them to death.  Now Paul reminds the Jews of his "story," how he was trained by Gamaliel and was zealous for the law of Moses … UNTIL … until he met JESUS on the road to Damascus.  That changed everything!!

As Paul spoke to the crowd they listened intently.  This was "one of theirs."  He was no stranger in Jerusalem.  He had been "on their side" and now they saw him as starting a new religion.  They, like so many since, were blind to the truth about Jesus Christ.  Their eyes were blind and their ears were deaf.  Their hearts were hard and they would not, they could not believe that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah.  After all, they were guilty of crucifying Him!!  Oh, if only they had realized that if they would have humbled themselves and repented … if they had believed in Jesus, they would have experienced God's forgiveness and the freedom that comes from knowing and loving and serving Jesus!!

They listened … until Paul explained that God had sent him to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.  Now they revealed the truth of what was inside them: foolish, sinful PRIDE!  THEY were the people of God!  The Gentiles were unworthy to receive forgiveness.  God was THEIR God … period!  They had forgotten God's promise to Abraham that in his "Seed" all nations on earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3).  They were done listening.  "Rid the earth of him!  He's not fit to live!" they cried (22:22).  Doesn't it make you want to scream back, to tell them that THEY were not fit to live … that NONE OF US are fit to live … that apart from Jesus we would all perish in our sin.

The message of grace meets with strange responses from those who need it so desperately.  Not one of us can stand in God's presence for a moment based on our own obedience, our own righteousness, our own holiness.  Paul himself wrote to the Romans, quoting from Psalms 14 and 53, the very words the Jews claimed to be true, "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  ALL have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one!" (Romans 3:10-12).  If these Jews had realized that, they would have been eager to hear the Gospel, to repent, to believe in Jesus and be saved, but like so many today, they refused to humble themselves, to confess their sin and to come to the Savior.  Instead, they settled for "religion" and would soon face God's just judgment, now not only for their sinful rebellion, but for rejecting the Savior whose name was Jesus!

Afraid that the crowd would take Paul by force, the commander of the soldiers took Paul away and told the soldiers to flog him and to question him to find out why the people were so angry.  The Romans were tired of the Jews and their constant revolts and it would not be long before Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed by their armies.  But God was not finished using Paul for His glory.  He had more work to do!  As he was about to be flogged, Paul asked one of the soldiers if it was legal to flog a Roman citizen.  Roman law treated Jews and Romans differently.  Because of his birth, Paul was both, so in a move similar to what happened to Jesus, Paul was released to stand before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council … the very people who wanted to kill him.

But God had a plan!  God always has a plan.  God had a plan to use Paul's life and He has a plan to use your life and mine.  Whether it's to one person or a hundred or a thousand or more, you and I who believe in Jesus today are no less called by God to testify to the truth of the Gospel.  There are still people who need to hear, some for the first time, some for the thousandth time.  God knows those who are His and He has determined that it is through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that people will be saved from His coming wrath and judgment.  "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the Word of Christ" (Romans 10:17).

Are you ready to die for the name of Jesus?  Are you ready to give your life to be used of God to "tell the old, old story?" Some will listen … most will not … but someday soon that last one of Jesus' sheep will be found and the trumpets will sound and Jesus will return to take us home!  Until then, may we be found faithful as we declare to the world that "there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved!"  (Acts 4:12).

"Our Father in heaven, Your glory shines through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for in the Gospel Your righteousness, Your holiness, Your perfection, Your glory is displayed as sin is exposed and the perfect sacrifice of Your Son is revealed as the only way of salvation.  Give all Your true people wisdom and strength to stand firm in our faith and to proclaim this message to a world in need of good news!  Strengthen those who are being persecuted now and Your whole Church, that we will defend the truth against the attacks of those outside the church and those within who would enslave people to live by the law rather than by grace through faith in Jesus.  Pour out Your Holy Spirit and empower us to fulfill the mission You have entrusted to all who truly believe.  In Jesus' name, Amen"

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