Monday, October 31, 2016

"Called to TESTIFY!"

Day #306

Scripture Reading:  Acts 23 - 24 ...

He stood there, accused by the Jews of teaching things contrary to their law … the very law that he had been trained to teach and which he had been defending by persecuting those who believed in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.  This is the same man who in Acts 9 "went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:1-2).  This was the same Paul who had watched as Stephen was stoned in Acts 7, "giving approval to his death" (8:1).  Something had obviously changed and the rest of Acts 9 reveals that Paul (then Saul) had come face-to-face with Jesus.

Unafraid of his accusers, Paul stared straight at them and said, "I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day" (23:1).  Could THEY say the same thing?  You and I exist FOR God - for no other purpose.  As Paul testifies, he realizes that from a human point-of-view his fate lies in the hands of these men, so he pits them against each other.  The Pharisees believed in a resurrection of the dead, but the Sadducees didn't, so Paul shouted out, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee.  I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead" (23:6).  Such a violent dispute broke out that the Roman commander in charge of Paul took him away.  That night the Lord testified to Paul, "Take courage.  As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome" (23:11).  God had more for Paul to do!

Yet here were the Jews in Jerusalem, some of the same men, perhaps, who had plotted against Jesus, who were now earnestly bent on trying to kill Paul, His witness. As in the case of Jesus, Paul was sent to another court. The commander in charge of Paul ordered two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to protect Paul on his journey from Jerusalem to Caesarea.  And he wrote a letter to Felix, the Governor there, saying, "I found the accusation had to do with questions about their law, but there was no charge against him that deserved death or imprisonment" (23:29).  So Paul was taken to Herod's palace and kept under guard until being brought before Felix.

The Jews followed and once again accused Paul of being a "troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world.  He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect …" (24:5-6).  Incredibly, the Jews and their lawyer offered only false accusations against Paul, whose only "crime" was preaching the truth.  
As he made his defense, Paul explained, "They cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me.  However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect (and which Paul had called a sect before he met Jesus!).  I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked" (24:13-15).  

Paul had come to understand, as the Spirit worked in him and gave him wisdom, that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament … that the Law and the Prophets pointed to HIM!  It is not that God's Word is not clear, it is that the sinful mind is blind to the truth!!  As Paul testified, Felix and others listened … but they did not hear.   When Isaiah had said, "Here am I.  Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8), God had said, "Go and tell this people:  'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving'" (Isaiah 6:9).  We must continually pray that God would open the blind eyes and unlock the deaf ears.  

Several days later, Felix sent for Paul and "listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.  As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, 'That's enough for now.  You may leave.  When I find it convenient, I will send for you'" (24:24-25).  How many today respond in similar ways.  They try to make us be quiet because the truth makes them afraid and uncomfortable.  They want to be "religious," but not to the "extreme."  They want to believe that God loves everybody, that He will forgive everybody, that faith in Jesus isn't necessary to be saved, that maybe there isn't even anything to be saved FROM!  

But then, what about the cross?  What really happened there?  Paul knew what happened there!  "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (II Corinthians 5:21).  What we could not do, because we are sinful by nature, Jesus did for us.  He took our place, He paid our debt, He died for us that we who believe might live for Him.

The tragedy of the human race goes beyond the consequences of sin that we see all around us … the sickness, disease and death that plague mankind … the endless conflict and wars that exist in our homes, in our nations and in the world.  Greater than the horror of all these things is the spiritual blindness that causes people to reject God's offer of grace and forgiveness through faith in Jesus.  

I pray that you know the truth and that through faith in Jesus Christ you HAVE eternal life, that His Spirit lives within you and your heart warms out of love for God, for you know that Jesus is your Savior and your Lord.  And if not … if you have heard the message, but have foolishly resisted God's call to die to self in order to truly LIVE in Christ, I pray that His Spirit may even now prick your heart and produce the transformation in you that He did in Paul as he came face-to-face with Jesus, who is the Way and the Truth and the Life!

All of us who know Jesus are called to testify … whether to kings and rulers … or to our family and friends, or our neighbor or classmate or co-worker.  Fulfill your calling and be a witness for Jesus Christ today, testifying that He is your Savior and Lord! 

"Father in heaven, You have enlightened my heart and mind through Your Word and Spirit and have drawn me to Yourself through faith in Jesus.  My life is Yours!!  Give me a holy boldness to stand before men and to testify of Jesus Christ.  Give me wisdom to know the truth as I study Your Word and to desire above all else to be Your witness as I live in this world for Your glory.  When I am weak, make me strong, for You are my Rock and my Redeemer!  In Jesus' name, Amen"

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Willing to DIE for the Name of Jesus!"

Day #305

Scripture Reading:  Acts 21 - 22 …

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.  Jesus said all who would be His disciples must die to SELF … that we must be willing not only to die for Him, but also to live for Him!!

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 suffering is at times part of God’s 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!  

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).  

But 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.  Paul was thinking about testifying about Jesus … about explaining to the people what they clearly did not yet understand.  

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!!  

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).  

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 is 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"

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"Testifying to the Gospel of God's grace in Christ Jesus ..."

Day #304

Scripture Reading:  Acts 19 - 20 …

We who believe in Jesus Christ are called to testify, to proclaim the message that God has entrusted to us in the Gospel.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ excludes all philosophies, ideas and theories of mankind as to who Jesus is, why He came, what He did and what it means for us and for all of mankind.  If any other idea or theory or philosophy of man is true, then the Gospel is false.  That's why the move toward "tolerance" of any and all religions reveals man's foolishness.  BOTH cannot be true.  The Gospel sits on one side and every other thought of man sits on the other side.  One is true, the other is false.

As Paul and others went out into the world preaching about Jesus Christ, they didn't offer the Gospel as one of many possibilities.   They declared the truth that Jesus IS the Christ, the Messiah, and that only by believing in Him could anyone be saved from God's judgment.  They testified to the truth that Jesus' blood, shed on the cross, was the perfect and only sacrifice for sin and that it was only by God's grace, His undeserved favor, that anyone could be saved through faith in Him.

When Paul came to Ephesus he found some people who said they were disciples of Jesus, but they didn't know anything about Jesus' death and resurrection.  They hadn't heard the Gospel of grace.  When Paul asked them if they had heard about the Holy Spirit, they said, "No."  They had been baptized, but it was "John's baptism," a baptism of repentance.  John the Baptist was the forerunner that Malachi had talked about (Malachi 4:5-6), who prepared the people to receive the Gospel by calling them to repentance.  His baptism was a "baptism of repentance," (19:4), calling people to confess their sin and to turn from it.

But now Jesus had died on the cross to pay the penalty for sin and He had risen from the dead to declare victory over death and the grave for all who believed.  Those who believed in HIM were now called to be baptized into a relationship with Him that pointed to God's grace in the Gospel, that to all who believed righteousness was credited to them by faith.  The Gospel always points not to what WE do, but to what GOD has done in Christ and what He is doing through His Spirit.  Anything that points to something other than grace is not the Gospel!

As he always did, Paul entered the synagogue and offered the Gospel first to the Jews.  He talked to them "about the kingdom of God" (19:8).  But when they stubbornly rejected his words, he went to the town hall and spoke continually about Jesus and who He was and what He did … for two years!!  All the Jews and Gentiles who lived in the whole province of Asia came and listened to him and many believed as God did many miracles to confirm His Word.  There is always opposition to the Gospel because it demands a response.  

Those who were selling idols of “Artemis” started a riot, fearing that their god would “be robbed of her divine majesty" (19:27).  Well, someone is being robbed of their rightful place of honor and worship … but it's NOT Artemis!!  Imagine, for two hours they all shouted in unison, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (19:34).  They were willing to believe that an image of Artemis had fallen from the sky and they declared, "these facts are undeniable," (19:36), but they refused to believe the eyewitness accounts of those who had seen Jesus, who had heard Him speak and who were now testifying of God's grace to all who believed.

As Paul continued on his journey he continued to testify to God's grace in Jesus and wherever he went some believed and others did not.  Some today try to change the message to get more people to believe it.  They may attract a crowd to themselves, but the Gospel draws people to JESUS for forgiveness and eternal life.  Only the power of the Spirit of God can bring new birth and move the heart of man to say, "Yes!" to faith in Jesus Christ.  That's what grace does:  "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith (and that not from yourselves), it is the gift of God, not of works so that no man can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).

As they proclaimed that message in Ephesus and throughout Asia, so we need to proclaim it to people today.  Paul wanted to return to Jerusalem to share what God was doing throughout the region, even though he knew that he would continue to face severe opposition from some of the Jews.  He called the Elders from Ephesus and encouraged them, saying, "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (20:22).  Paul understood the mission God had given to him:  "I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the Gospel of God's grace" (20:24).  That is OUR mission today!!

Paul explained that he would not see them again and said, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the Church of God, which He bought with His own blood" (20:28).  He warned them that false teachers would come, even from among them, and that they would "distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.  So be on your guard!!" (20:29-31).  We need that warning today, for there are many false teachers within the church who are not testifying to the Gospel of God's grace in Christ Jesus.  

Paul and the rest of the apostles preached the Gospel of God’s grace.  As he left the Ephesian Elders he said, "Now I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (20:32).  God's Word brings life to those who are dead.  And once you have received His grace through faith in Jesus, you understand that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (20:35).  The greatest gift you can offer is the Gospel of God's grace in Christ Jesus!  Be bold in testifying to this Gospel and see what God will do in you and through you!

"Heavenly Father, having heard the Gospel of Your grace in Christ Jesus, I pray for a holy boldness to proclaim this life-giving message to all I meet.  Give me wisdom to seek You always and to be on guard against those who would arise from within the church and distort Your truth, leading some away to make disciples for themselves.  Keep me faithful to You, O God, as I testify to the Gospel of Your grace in Christ Jesus, my Savior and my Lord.  In Jesus' name, Amen"

Friday, October 28, 2016

"Sent to proclaim the Word of God ..."

Day #303

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 in earnest.  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 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.  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.

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!!  

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.  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.  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).  

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.  "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 … " (I Corinthians 1:18).  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).

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.  Through the Gospel You save all 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 Christ 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"