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Week 33 Devotional Guide (August 13-19)

Day 1

Acts 15:1-21

Threaded through these recent chapters, and Acts 15 in particular, is an embodiment of the human struggle to see ourselves as equal with those who are not like us. The ethnic and religious divide between Jew and Gentile in the first century is not unlike the racial, class and religious tensions that exist in every culture. The majority culture, the keepers of power, are guarded and skeptical by nature of sharing there status with others. This is an impulse that has plagued Christians as much as it plagues every other social group or demorgraphic. The early church leaders got it right ultimately here in Acts 15, but not without serious challenges.

Beware of your impulse to protect your place and keep others from finding theirs. If we are those in positions of power and privilege, God has placed us there to leverage that influence for the benefit of the vulnerable and marginilized, not for the exploitation or exclusion of them.

I love Peter's piercing question in v. 10. "Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" Some of the early Jewish Christians wanted to add circumcision and other demands to repentance and faith as legitimate requirements to be considered in Christ. They promoted a false gospel of Jesus plus certain works as a means to salvation and inclusion in God's family.

And we're all tempted to to do this at times. We all have values and convictions that are core to who we are and how we feel led to live and we're tempted to bind other people by our consciences. Peter's question is essentially an acknolwedgement that for centuries the laws they are trying to burden the Gentile converts with had been a crushing weight to every Jewish generation. It's as if Peter is saying, "we've tried this for hundreds of years and we know it doesn't work. We know we fall short. We know the demand can't produce obedience to the demand. We know the crushing weight of these laws has never empowered any of us. Why would we try to reproduce the pain of our own futility and require something of others that we know that can't achieve?"

Peter gets it. The law tells us what is good and right but it's powerless to produce what it demands. Therefore, the function the law ultimately reveals our weakness, sin and need for a Savior. Peter is hurling himself into the grace of Jesus. The Jewish Christians are hoping in the grace of Jesus. Why wouldn't the solution for sin in Gentiles be the same?

We must resist the urge to slap on culturally conditioned behaviors, disciplines and requirements that obscure the grace of Jesus or steer us away from the grace of Jesus. Our only chance is the grace of Jesus. So let's go all in ourselves on grace, and let's invite and encourage everybody else to do the same.

Day 2

Acts 15:22-42

This passage is really highlighting the reality and challenge that human relationships and differing opinions present to gospel ministry.
First, the church leaders in Jersualem rightly land on strategy to receive and refresh their Gentile brothers and sisters in the Lord. They send a letter of embrace and encouragement but also the respected and influential men from the church to deliver that letter and confirm the authenticity and sincerity of the message. They eagerly and enthusiastically open their hearts to the new Christians, celebrate their conversion and invest considerably in their discipleship.

There is a tone and message of gospel reassurance that is desperately needed among and between followers of Jesus. Rather than heaping demands on them, the commend them to the grace of Jesus and rejoice in their shared faith. The only instructions given emphasize their need to pursue holiness in light of their newfound identity in Christ. They are to thoughtfully abstain from former practices that identify them with the world, in order to live now in the world as those set apart from the world. There remains an urgent and serious need for this kind of pursuit among God's people today.

Second, is the conflict between Paul and Barnabas surrounding John Mark. And I don't want to do all the exploration of and speculation of different details. If we just cnofine ourselves to the text, here's what we know... Paul didn't trust John Mark. Barnabas did. At it's simplest level, Paul felt John Mark proved himself to be unreliable, while Barnabas either felt he was reliable or deserved another chance. And the disagreement was severe and intense.

It was intense enough, in fact, that Paul and Barnabas, these two friends and ministry partners who loved each other and were extraordarily fruitful together found their difference of opinion to be intractable. This was a hill to die on for both of them. What I appreciate is the realism of the Bible. God doesn't cover up this kind of conflict and difficulty. The Bible exposes it. And we simply don't know who was right or wrong.

My guess is, neither was fully right or fully wrong. We love the oversimplification of right and wrong, victim and villain. But relationships are rarely that cut and dried. So we know they were both stubborn enough to not bend on this point. But they, by God's sovereign design and mercy, leveraged it for ministry multiplication. I just want to say this is a great model for how we can use conflict to our advantage.

Unless clear and overt sin is involved, we have to be willing to acknowledge differences and disagree without demonizing each other. And in doing so, we can find ways of separating or diverting that actually advances and extends ministry rather than undermining and sabotaging ministry. There are ways that we can retain a spirit of unity while finding an off ramp to partnering together in such a close way. In fact, It's the burden and responsibility of leaders and Christians, to find ways to move through entrenched conflicts with a determination to multiply ministry wherever possible.

God may often bring us to places of conflict and tension between people to get us to move into areas of ministry that we would otherwise ignore because of familiarity and comfort with existing realities. When conflicts between faithful men and women reach an irreconcilable point, I wonder if it's not usually because God is trying to multiply Kingdom efforts.

Day 3

Acts 16:1-10

One of the most difficult things in walking with Jesus is submission. It's entirely unnatural to submit to God's authority, the authority of His Word, to those he's placed in authority over you, to spiritual authority and even to the desires and needs of others over your own desires and felt needs. Everything in me, and in us, resists authority. Yet this is integral to walking with God. We must embrace his authority and the authority he delegates to people in our lives as legitimate, and be willing to submit our natural will to those God's positioned in authority over us. I say that here because I see to short passages today which are beautiful but unlikely examples of submisssion.

Submission to Spiritual Authority and Christian Community

Timothy is a genuine Christian with a great reputation among the churches mentioned here. He is a faithful man who loves Jesus and is a worthy partner in ministry even for Paul. Timothy is an exemplary young man in his character and faith. Yet, the very thing that some were troubling the Gentiles about, circumcision, and which the church leaders had dismissed as a requirement, is what Timothy willfully submits to.

Understand, Timothy has every right not to go through what would have been a very painful procedure. He had the authority of the apostles in Jerusalem freeing him from this obligation. He had every reason and right not to be circumcised. Yet, here's Paul, who pushed for the Gentiles to be free of this burden and requirement, suggesting that he needs to be circumcised. I can imagine how I may have looked and Paul and gotten angry about the double speak going on... "well you said I'm free from that, Paul. Now you're trying to force me. Which is it?"

What Timothy displays here is a mind boggling submission. He does not have to do this before the Lord. But, Paul seems to think it would help give him more credibility with the Jews he will minister to. And Timothy submits his own will (I assume he wasn't excited about this) to the wisdom of Paul, not because it's required of him, but because it's helpful to others.

This is the mark of real freedom. Freedom isn't really about the asserting of my rights for my good, but the laying down of my rights for the good of others. This is something our culture knows little about. We typically see our freedom as a freedom from authority. We often use the freedom we have as Americans, and as Christians, to retain the right to do what we want. But the biblical idea of freedom, the freedom we have received in Christ, is not the freedom to do what we want, but the freedom to do what is right.

Submission to the Spirit

The second section here demonstrates the attentiveness of Paul's missionary team to the Holy Spirit. We aren't given details obviously, but it is clear that they were seeking the Lord, and listening to His guidance, discerning together the wisdom of the Spirit. And it was the Spirit who forbid them to speak the word in certain places and at certain times. This is a great example of not geting ahead of God's plans. Here they are, ministers of the gospel being prevented by the Spirit from fulfilling their ministering.

It's a great reminder that even as we study and apply the word of God, we must do so with the wisdom of the Spirit of God. Understanding the Scriptures, in other words, does not free us from moment by moment dependence upon the Spirit. We must diligently seek and submit to the SPirit as we faithfully apply the word and walk in obedience to God. Even good, godly thing done in the flesh can end up undermining the work of the Spirit.

Francis Schaeffer was wrote:

"The real problem (in our world and culture) is this: the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than the Spirit. The central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them."

I love the collective yieldedness and dialed-in-ness of Paul and his companions to the Spirit, and their willingness to have their plans rearranged by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit will always be faithful to lead us and convict us and direct us, as Jesus promised. The real question is whether we will be surrendered and responsive to the Spirit.

Day 4

Acts 16:11-24

Acts 16 is a very short synopsis of how a church gets planted in a new location or community.

Prayer and Obedience

Paul and his ministry team have followed the directio nof the Holy Spirit to Macedonia, the city of Philippi specifically. And it's clear that they were devoted to prayer. In fact, that was the primary strategy for their ministry it seems. I have no doubt they were culturally aware and sensitive. They were eager learners, and thoughtful about their engagement in each new geographic area, and they were always looking and discerning where they may find open doors for ministry and boldly walking through those doors when they presented themselves.

In this case, it's as they are praying or making prayer a priority that they come across a group of women were there for prayer too. So they start talking to the women, which was culturally uncommon and a little frowned upon. But they engage them with the gospel. And the Holy Spirit opens one woman's heart, Lydia, to receive the good news of Jesus. She is an accomplished woman, of some means because of her business savvy and her conversion opens the door to her household who all come to believe and are baptized.

Then, again on their way to prayer, Paul and the rest are confronted by a girl who is under oppression from a demonic spirit. This keeps happening day after day, and you can imagine Paul, as they pray together is wrestling with how to respond to the opposition of this spirit, through the young girl. Eventually, he responds boldly in the Spirit to the demonic harrassment, causing the demon to leave the girl. The trouble was that the demonic power was teh source of her divination which was a considerable means of income for people who were using her for their own gain. And now, Paul and Silas have essentially killed their business.

The response is accuse Paul and Silas of stirring things up and causing a raucus which gets them a beating and imprisonment. We leave off in the text there for today. And really this is all just a description of what happens, not a prescription for how we plant churches. We don't all go to jail first, thank God.

But, the pattern we see is a bold confrontation with demonic forces and cultural idolatry that arrests the attention of the power brokers as well as the ordinary citizens. There is no more universal idolatry than money, so discerning and confronting demonic influences is a must. But also being willing to challenge the normative and accepted practices which people questionably or unethically employ to gain and protect their economic status, is a real need. The Gospel and the Kingdom are not friendly to existing wordly systems and structures. We should not expect to plant churches in communities by befriending everyone and affirming or celebrating everything. There are cultural things which the Gospel and Kingdom expose, confront and undermine.

We should expect spiritual warfare, cultural pressure, and even governmental opposition at times. We will rarely see the power of the gospel without first displaying the beauty of the gospel. And it's often in the face of conflict, pressure and opposition that we have the best opportunities to embody the beauty of the gospel. So, God, in his sovereignty has ordained hardship and persecution here for Paul and Silas, to draw greater attention to the gospel and to give greater credibility to the gospel.

  • What is the role of prayer in your life right now? What if you started praying every day, not for your felt needs only, though that's fine... but what if you started praying every day, kingdom oriented, expectant prayers. For example, start praying each day, "Father, I know you want to use me as an ambassador of Christ. So please fill me with your Spirit, and lead me by your Spirit, to be aware of open doors through which I can humbly and boldly represent you in serving others, listening to them, encouraging them, testifying about you to them, or praying with them and for them."

Day 5

Acts 16:25-41

I love seeing Paul and Silas' joy, graciousness and love for people coexist with their resilience, toughness and doggedness. He is singing hymns to the Lord, worshipping Jesus, after being brutally beaten and while wrongfully sitting in prison. They have the meekness and humility to endure their persecution and suffering while remaining full of the spirit. And yet when it come time to leave, Paul will not go while there are legal battles to win and public opinion to sway. It's an interesting example for those of us who are always inclined to let things go and just be peacable and non-confrontational. Paul is determined to confront his persecutors, and make every effort to see them held accountable for their unlawful actions.

And in between Paul witnesses to his jailer and sees his whole household converted and baptized. So there's lots happening here. We have God's intervention to free Paul and Silas... their gospel opportunism, saving the soldier's life and then seeing the Spirit save his soul... then they are freed legitimately, but refuse to go. And before it's all over they Roman rulers are apologizing to Christian missionaries for having treated them so horribly. God is supernaturally and powerfully invading their lives in ridiculous ways.

Just don't miss that. They are giving themselves to God's mission and making disciples and God's power keeps landing on them. God displays his power in and through those people who make His priorities their priorities. And it's when God's power is joined to God's people laboring for God's purposes that churches are planted and disciples are made.

They get out of jail and return to Lydia. And in just a few days, they've seen a well-off, single woman who owns her own business give her life to Jesus. They cast a spirit out of a demonically oppressed girls, upsetting the business ventures of those using her. And then they get imprisoned and see a Roman guard and his household come to faith. And this is the beginnings of the church in Philippi, to whom Paul would write the letter, Philippians, a few years later. This became a faithful church, that Paul was deeply affectionate toward and greatly encouraged by. And it all started with these three unrelated people, who by God's sovereign design, would be put in positions to hear Christ preached. And for different reasons and under different circumstances, each would receive him...

This is the reason diversity should be found in churches... because the gospel has a way of bringing unlike people together in Jesus, and making them into a new humanity, a new community, a new family. That doesn't happen without challenges, but if we'll give ourselves to it, we can add relational beauty to doctrinal purity, which is what God calls his church to anyway.

  • Pray to these ends... pray for God to make us spiritually alert, and situationally adaptable and aware. And pray that he would give us the privilege of open doors to diverse spheres of people who need the gospel and whom God is calling to himself.

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God's Eternal Obligation

"What we all desperately need to see is that the love of a holy God is manifested covenantally at the cross. In the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, the Father promises to receive contrite sinners on a daily - no, hourly - basis. The cross says, "No matter what your sins, unlimited mercy is available to those who turn to God through Jesus' merits." Thus, at Calvary we behold the infinite nearness and compassion of the infinitely majestic God. The Father, in the gift of His Son, has put Himself under eternal obligation to returning children. Having satisfied the demands of His own holy law, the Father must open His mighty arms and embrace every returning child." - John C. Miller, Repentance, p. 11-12.

As children of earthly fathers it is in our DNA to grow and want distance and autonomy. We feel the need to differentiate ourselves and move toward independence. This is right and good and developmentally appropriate. Even on the parenting end we want our children to grow into strong, capable, self-sufficient adults who do not need us. The trouble is when felt need to detach from our parents is projected onto our relationship with God and our desire for distance in our relationship with our aging children is assumed to somehow reflect God's heart to his children.

As children of a heavenly Father, it is always in our best interest to reside in his presence, and nurture deeper deependency. Our hearts impulsively imagine that He is disinclined to receive us in our moments of rebellion and recklessness. Our natural assumptions are to allow for some ambiguous time frame to pass until we feel God may receive us back. So we sit in our sin, we marinate in our guilt, we linger in our lostness long enough to feel some vague penance has been paid, and then we sheepishly approach the Father, tails tucked, heads hung, not really wanting to talk about anything but slink back into "the way things were."

But it's right at the height of our rebellion, and in the moments of our disobedience that the Father's embrace is waiting for us. We need not stay away for fear of the severity of his anger or the guilt of his disappointment. He is standing by with a heart open to you and inclined toward you. The scowl you wrongly conceive of is actually the smile you crave. With the empty hands of faith you have been clothed in the infinite perfections of Jesus, so the Father is not only eternally obligated to receive his returning children, he's eternally delighted to receive his returning children.

We instinctively delay repentance because of some misconception of a fearful and uncertain interaction with God where we are made to feel small and worthless. The biblical conception of repentance, however, is one of a glorious return and reconnection to the One whose response to us is faithful and certain. Repentance is not a drag. Repentance is a joy. He will receive us and embrace us... again and again. Every day. Every Hour. Every moment.

The cross beckons us to come home from wherever we have wandered. The cross also guarantees us of a warm reception every time we come home. And if we'll make that journey and enjoy His embrace often enough, we may just find ourselves more content to remain with him than to rebel against him. Repentance is not to be delayed and avoided as a scary and unpredictable endeavor. Repentance is the only activity humanity can undertake and be assured of a full and glad hearted approval and embrace.

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Week 32 Devotional Guide (August 6 - 12)

Day 1

Acts 13:1-12

This is really the first time that a local church, and one not led by the Apostles in Jerusalem, begins to prayerfully and strategically adopt the great commission as their responsibility. This church in Antioch was established by ordinary, faithful Christians, heard about in Jerusalem by the Apostles, encouraged and strengthened by Barnabas and Paul, and now becomes the first sending church for the express purpose of gospel advancement into un-evangelized places.

There was both a plurality of leaders and a diversity of leaders represented in discerning together the leading of the Spirit, but make no mistake about it, Luke is absolutely clear, that it was in fact the Holy Spirit leading them. And those leaders are willing and eager to part with some of the mature leaders, in order to see the gospel go forward. Antioch is a model for any local church that aspires to be a faithful church in these ways. They are sacrificially committed to fulfilling the great commission, not as an add on to ministry, but as a first concern and priority of ministry.

The next thing we see, then, is Paul and Barnabas actually engage in the work of Christian mission. They are preaching the gospel broadly but paying attention to the doors opened by the Spirit more personally. They are responsive to opportunities and open doors and they are actively and thoroughly engaged in spiritual warfare, which every missionary must be if they want to be fruitful and effective. And it the midst of their faithfulness in these areas, God lends his power to their words, demonstrates the power of Christ over the powers of darkness, which gives credibility to their preaching and testimony, and a governing official believes in Jesus.

This is a great example of what Paul would later say in one of his letters to the Corinthians, that the Kingdom of God does not consist in words, but in power. This was the power of Christ joining itself to their preaching and prophetic confronting of a false teacher. It's Awesome!

  • Oh, that we would be so bold and faithful to proclaim the truth, and be dialed into the Spirit. Oh, that in our boldness, Christ might display his power and glory for the salvation of many thousands in our community and city. Let's pray to that end... let's expect and anticipate that end. Let's be available and eager to be used of the Lord to that end.

Day 2

Acts 13:13-41

We are looking at this in two parts, Paul's sermon itself today, and then the response of people to his sermon tomorrow.

I will offer one observation regarding the scope of his sermon and then zero in on part in particular that really grabs my heart personally.

1) The Scope of the Sermon

The gospel is a multi-faceted message. It is news to be heralded, a story that needs to be told, and a reality that needs to be embodied by people whose lives have been changed by it. Paul gives a great example here of preaching the gospel in it's narrative arc. He's connecting propositional truths to a random audience. He's connecting the story of Israel directly to Jesus because the audience is Jews. This is appropriate contextualizing of the message of the gospel. In this sense, the gospel is the story of God's redemption through the story of Israel resolving itself in the story of Jesus, and then connecting to our own stories.

Paul succinctly recaps Israel's history of slavery, wandering, longing, all leading up to Jesus who has freed them from the crushing demands of the law which has held them captive for generations. Paul draws straigh lines from numerous OT passages to their fulfillment in Christ and invites them to respond in faith, that they might receive forgiveness and be free from their bondage to the law of Moses which they could not keep, no matter how hyper vigilant they were.

This is the task of gospel proclamation in a nutshell. To connect the stories of your hearers, their hopes, dreams, disappointments and needs, to the reailty of Christ.

2) An Encouragement from the Sermon

v. 36, Paul says that "For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers..." Man I love this. Rather than feeling pressure to be some generalized ideal of a super-Christian, or some imitation of a celebrity pastor, or pattern ourselves after the most mature Christians we know, what if we allowed ourselves the room to only aspire to this much... that we would fulfill the purpose of God for us in our own generation.

There's such relief in that because I don't have to fulfill the purpose God gave anybody else, nor do I need to fulfill the prupose that anyone else wants to give to me. I want my ambition to line up with this verse... to simply fulfill God's purposes for me in my own generation. That's so freeing, and not at all minimalist. That's glorious. What if we all stopped trying fulfill the ministries God's given to others and ignored the ministries others expect of us and just sought diligently and humbly and securely to fulfill God's unique purposes for us in our own time? If we'd all do that I have no doubt that we'd see many thousands come to know Jesus in our own generation and that our faithfulness would echo into eternity, to the praise of His glorious grace.

Day 3

Acts 13:42-52

I see two things happening here. One ofthem I've experienced, the other I have not but I earnestly pray for it.

Personal Awakening to the Gospel

I love how when the gospel lands in receptive and open hearts it just creates more hunger for the gospel. Those who were listening in Acts 13 to the preaching os Paul and Barnabas want to kep learning, listening and understanding. I know what that's like. I have found personally that since my heart became truly awakened to the gospel, I have never grown calloused or cold to it. My heart is stirred contiually by the gospel. I have found it to be only more compelling as time goes on and understanding increases. There is a depth and breadth to the gospel that does not get old or tired but is always fresh, always sweet, always savory, always refreshing. This is how a truly gospel wakened heart responds to the gospel... with eagerness and openness to be more alive to ultimate reality.

Widespread Awakening to the Gospel

v. 44 says, "almost the whole city was gathered to hear the word of the Lord." Oh man, I love that. I want to see that. I long to be in the middle of that kind of gospel movement and Spirit wrought revival. ALMOST THE WHOLE CITY GATHERED TO HEAR THE WORD OF THE LORD. They didn't gather for a festival and have the word of the Lord preached. They didn't go to some city event and have an Apostle hijack the mic. They didn't go shopping ona beautiful day in the public square and have some crazy person get on a bull horn or megaphone. They turned out specifically to hear the word of the Lord preached. A whole city unable to ignore the reality of a resurrected Jesus. A whole city provoked and compelled by the apostolic witness to the gospel. A whole city captured by the grace of Christ and seeking a deeper understanding of Christ and Christainity. This is such a miracle, and I so want to experience it my own day.

What would it be like to have our roads congested with people hungry to hear Christ proclaimed, rather than just because of commuter traffic. What if our parks and public squares were filled on Friday nights, not for cover bands and food trucks, but to celebrate the cross and forgiveness of sins. What if our stadiums and sporting events were gatherings for true worship of a worthy King and not idolatry of gifted athletes. I dream and pray for a day when almost everyone in my community gathers to hear the word of the Lord, receives and believes that word, and then scatters into their various spheres of influence to share that same word of the Lord boldly, broadly and fruitfully.

Day 4

Acts 14:1-18

We are seeing in this passage the polarizing nature of Jesus. We Paul and Barnabas preaching the gospel and some Jews and Greeks are continuing to respond with faith. The Church is growing. The Kingdom is advancing. And yet, in that same setting where many are surrendering their lives to the Risen Christ, there is a hostility and strong opposition to Christ. There are literally Jews trying to incite violence against the apostles.

I am learning more and more just how divided people become around the real Jesus. And it’s important to distinguish between cultural version and diluted, distorted iterations of Jesus that effectively reduce him to our glorified buddy, counselor, advisor or cheerleader. There are a lot of people in the Bible Belt, for instance, who are fairly neutral on Jesus. Some see him as having some good things to contribute to society, or as a good example, teacher or philosopher. But they don’t worship him or accept the claims of Christianity about him. They don’t believe, but neither are they outwardly hostile. Similarly, you have professing Christians who confess certain things about Jesus and their belief in him, but functionally, Jesus is an add on to their life, a consideration or feature they are willing to factor in at times, but he’s not Lord, God and King. In many ways, they are somewhat neutral on Jesus.

I would argue that people in that place of neutrality, neither opposing Jesus nor surrendered fully to Jesus, are responding to a watered down Jesus, not the real Jesus. The real Jesus and the biblical gospel tends to have the impact we see in Acts 14. Some respond in repentance and faith while others respond in rejection and hostility. The real gospel isn’t typically met with apathy and indifference, but with excitement or opposition.

We even see the tendency of people, in their zeal for the power of God, elevate ministers of the gospel beyond their deserved status. In Lystra, because of the healing power of God over a crippled man, people deify Paul and Barnabas. I love how eager and aggressively they were in denouncing such exaltation. Today, when we see pastors seeking celebrity status and nurturing the cult of personality that can emerge from their ministry, it makes me think of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra. There is certainly nothing wrong with appreciating and respecting and learning from faithful preachers, teachers, authors, and ministers. Nor is there anything wrong with being so fruitful in ministry to gain an enlarged platform and leveraging that for gospel purposes. But the ego and pride of man is such that not many of us denounce the inflated status we might receive because of the power of God.

There are two dangers that I believe must be vigilantly guarded against…

The Danger for Leaders

For the pastor/leader, we must pursue humility with great intentionality and specifically fight against the temptation to believe our own inflated status which others will ascribe to us. This is a trap on the small scale of a local congregation as well as the large scale of media and megachurch. Part of this means that those charged with teaching and preaching in particular, must be appropriately honest about their own weakness, limitations and struggles with sin in ways that point people away from them and to Christ. It means we must refuse to let people believe we’re better or more impressive than we actually are. This means too, that it is an absolute abomination for leaders to prey upon foolish audiences to boost their pride, pocketbooks or pedigree. That has no place among the Lord’s servants.

The Danger for Everybody Else

For those of us being led and influenced, we must fight any urge to canonize people and exalt them. All men and women are sinful, weak and flawed. All great teachers are always better teachers then people. And none of them are right about everything. It’s just too easy to assume that who a person is on a stage and with a mic is always who they are when they are alone or in private settings. You don’t know what you don’t know. Some of the most faithful preachers in church history have aspects of their lives that were horrifically out of step with the gospel.

Some of them owned slaves. Some of them had terrible marriages. Some of them were terrible parents. Some of them were unfaithful spouses and immoral people. Some of them had horrible tempers and struggles with addictions. All men are just men. Even great men are just men. There is no substitute for Jesus. But he is a worthy substitute for us. That’s why we worship him and no mere messengers. It’s the responsibility of the general public not to deify any man or woman with a platform. We set them up for failure when we prop them up… let’s knock that off and magnify Christ alone.

Day 5

Acts 14:19-28

Returning to the idea of celebrity pastor culture that we touched on yesterday, this is such a stark contrast. Consider the benefit of being a celebrity pastor in the 21st century western world. While you may get some public ridicule and negative media attention, you will also get a huge church, enormous influence, book deals, platforms on the conference circuit, a massive social media following, the praise and applause of people who adore and admire you, the wealth and material comfort of first world success, etc. None of this touches on any eternal reward, but the earthly benefits are far reaching. First century celebrity pastors were rewarded with eternal blessing for sure, but their earthly benefits were things like stoning, imprisonment, the ire and opposition of the Jewish leaders and the persecution of the Roman empire.

I am certainly not accusing any contemporary celebrity pastors of any unfaithfulness just because of their celebrity status. Not at all. But I love Paul and Barnabas’ faithfulness and resilience in the face of suffering. And something seems culturally bizarre and out of whack, even within the Christian subculture. Perhaps its the consumeristic tendencies that muddy things. There is just a tension in my own soul about these things.

I love too, their strategic ministry. The were about making disciples and planting churches. And the maturing of disciples was done through encouragement and gospel reassurance in the midst of present struggles and anticipated suffering. They weren’t preaching a fun life. They were preaching the fullness of life. They weren’t preaching an easy and prosperous life. They were preaching a difficult but enduring life. Churches were strengthened by that emphasis and clarity. They didn’t need to be placated, shielded from reality or promised comfort. They need truth that could hold them fast when everything around them threatened to crush them.

And we see that part of the responsibility of a local church is not only to send out missionaries, but surround them continually. Churches are planted by churches. And the work of planting churches belongs to local churches. We pray. We send out. We give. We support. We receive back. We encourage. We celebrate. We rejoice. And then we do it again and again and again trusting God’s Spirit to accomplish God’s purposes through us as God’s people.

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Week 31 Devotional Guide (July 30-August 5)

Day 1

Acts 11:1-18

This passage gives us some important insight into the power of personal stories. It's amazing to think that Peter changed everyone's theology through the mechanism of story. Literally, an entire group of people believed one way for thousands of years, generation after generation, and in one powerful personal encounter and the testimony of that encounter, their whole belief system is radically altered.

In this case, the Jews' nationalistic and ethnocentristic views are enlarged so that they see and include non-Jews within the scope of redemption in Christ. This theological shift was necessary and right. Most Christians today and throughout history are non-ethnic Jews so I'm grateful for the reorienting that occurred in Acts 10-11. I am struck today, though, at how common it is for our personal encounters and stories to reshape our beliefs and theology even today.

Isn't this largely the force behind the sexual revolution. It's the power of personal stories that have erased so many boundaries around sexual practices and sexual identity. And the most troubling thing as Christian is not the political legalizing of formerly unthinkable behaviors and identities, but the ecclesiastical legitimizing of those behaviors and identities. In other words, it's not so surprising that the culture affirms an ever widening array of practices and personas, but those who presume to lead and belong to the church are affirming the always expanding sexual ethics of the culture.

More than anything else, I think it's the power of personal stories that is shifting our theology. Our sons or daughters who we love embrace a certain ethic and we want to embrace them. A co-worker or neighbor who practices something we thought sinful, we're now rethinking because they're the nicest and kindest person we know. A same sex relationship we're exposed to seems healthier than most marriages we're around so it must be okay. And on and on. It's our personal encounters with people that don't fit some long held paradigm and we start to reconsider everything in light of them. Isn't that what Peter and Jewish community does here? So, when we do that in our time, is it not in the spirit of the Apostles and the early church that we adjust and expand our categories to include more in the scope of redemption rather than less? Shouldn't we, along with Peter, ask "who am I to stand in their way?"

It's easy, but wrong to land there. Here's why...

The Rest of Scripture

The promises of redemption throughout the bible, which all find their "YES" in Jesus, align thoroughly with Peter's reinterpretation. The radical new understanding which the Jews came to in Acts 11 of the expansiveness of the gospel is actually plainly obvious when looking back through Scripture. They didn't adjust God's revealed plan for salvation or reimagine God's revealed standard of holiness. They actually came into alignment with it. This wasn't first century progressivism. This was first century biblicism. They weren't moving beyond the Bible to accommodate emerging social pressures and practices. They were moving deeper into the Bible even at personal and painful cost social cost.

The Revelation and Filling of the Holy Spirit

Secondly, this was not some sentimental anecdote that changed Peter's most deeply held convictions. This was a supernatural announcement of self-disclosure by the Lord. The Holy Spirit superintended every aspect of this development. It's the Spirit who spoke to Cornelius and gave direction to go to Peter. It's the Spirit who shared a vision with Peter and spoke to him claerly about the men sent by Cornelius. It's the Spirit who compelled Peter to go and it's the Spirit who gave him the words to say. It's the Spirit who in the middle of Peter preaching the gospel, fell on Cornlius and his whole household, opening their eyes, softening their hearts and imparting to them faith to believe in Jesus as the defining and ultiamte reality of their lives. And it was the Spirit that filled them, presumably with some outward demonstration, or observable transformation. Whatever the case, these were not people who could now recite some version of the gospel, or who had some story of some prayer they prayed asking Jesus into their hearts. These people were filled with the divine presence of the living God by the Holy Spirit. They were new creations in Christ. And the power and presence of the Spirit so clearly marked their conversion that nobody was questioning it's legitimacy.

The Repentance of Guilty Sinners

The last thing Luke recounts in this section is that those on whom the Spirit fell gave themselves to repentance that leads to life. That is that they wholeheartedly embraced the pervasive and comprehensive reality of their sinfulenss, need, and total reliance upon Christ alone for salvation. They repented. They turned from an old way of life, an old way of thinking, an old way of believing, and an old way of being, for a new way in Jesus. When God creates whole new categories for us, it will always lead us to repentance for the broken ways of seeing and engaging the world which previously characterized our lives. If the new categories make us more comfortable and more convinced of the way we already saw the world, it's probably not God because his way of seeing is altogether unnatural for us.

Day 2

Acts 11:19-30

Back in chapter 8 of Acts, because of the violent opposition against the church in Jerusalem, led by Saul, many of the early Christians were spread around Judea and Samaria, except for the Apostles who stayed there. In this passage we see the fruit of that dispersion of believers. People were hearing the word and receiving the gospel. The church in Antioch, introduced here, was birthed through the ministry of ordinary Christians faithfully bearing witness to the resurrection of Christ, and calling people to repentance and faith. This church planting specifically took place among the Hellenists, who may have been ethnic Jews but were Greek-speaking Jews, and culturally gentiles.

Word of this gospel advancement circled back to Jerusalem around the same time that Cornelius and his family received the Spirit. So, the Apostles send Barnabas to check on Antioch and veryfiy what the Spirit was doing there. And sure enough Barnabas sees clear evidence of God's grace among the church that has formed in Antioch.

Now, if you remember, in chapter 9, Saul was converted from a persecutor of Christianity to a preacher of Christianity, the Apostles and others were scared of him and the genuineness of his transformation. It was Barnabas who welcomed him, trusted the Lord and lent his credibility to legitimizing Saul's conversion. Seeing the sincerity of faith in Antioch but the lack of clear leaership and teaching, Barnabas tracks down Saul, and invites him to come to Antioch where they can do ministry alongside one another. They spend a year together teaching and discpling the believers in Antioch, and it's there that followers of Jesus are first called Christians.

Make no mistake... the DISCIPLES were first called CHRISTIANS. Brothers and sisters, there is no distinction between being a Christian and a Disciple of Jesus. "Disciple" is not a special category of Christian. It's the only category of Christian. To be a Christian is to be a disciple. We must erase any unbiblical distinction between these terms. Christians are not those who loosely identify with Christ or claim to have prayed some prayer but who don't follow Jesus super seriously. Christians are followers of Jesus. Period.

Disciples aren't serious minded Christians who actually study the Bible and try really hard to obey Jesus. Disciples are followers of Jesus. Period. If you are a Christian, you are a disciple of Jesus. That's what it means to be a Christian. We need to recover the biblical identity of Disciple.

In the last paragraph, we are introduced to Agabus, a prophet. The Spirit revealed to him a coming fmine in the land and we see the family nature of the Church start to take shape. The disciples in Antioch give generously and sacrificially to make sure that they're brothers and sisters in Christ are cared for in Judea. And it's Saul and Barnabas who are entrusted with the money, and sent to deliver it to their fellow believers. I love this sense of shared responsibility for their Christian family, the sense of brotherhood. Church is Family. We belong to one another and must care for one another.

Day 3

Acts 12:1-5

2 things in these few short verses:

Persecution

We see here the continued outrage of the Devil, using human agents and people in power to oppose the gospel and God's people. Even with Saul converted, there are other opponents who make a sport of persecuting Christians. This is a reminder that on this side of glory, we will always find people who are not just unresponsive to the gospel, but who are antagonistic to the gospel. And it's often people in high places, cultural influencers, who hate Jesus, reject the gospel, and are hostile to the Church. The spirit of Herod lives on today and every generation of Christians will be confronted by that in their own time and lean into the Lord for strength to stand firm and remain faithful to Christ.

Prayer

When persecution inevitably comes, as with Peter being imprisoned amidst this persecution in Acts 12, the response of the church must always be prayer. Not just prayer for an improved situation, or a more comfortable life, but kingdom advancing prayer. The word "earnest" in v. 5 indicates a degree of intensity and relentlessness. They were fervently crying out to God. The focus of prayer we see in the NT is toward gospel advancement, kingdom expansion, and God's usefulness of all situations to reveal himself more fully, redeem powerfully, and glorify himself continually. Brothers and sisters, there is a place for prayers for our needs and wants to be sure. But when difficulty comes our way, when darkness assails us, prayer should be our first, continual and desperate respone. And not a prayer for our physical and earthly comfort, or ease of life, or indulgence of appetites, but the emphasis of our prayers, should be toward his glory, the salvation of the lost, and the ongoing transformation of His people, including us.

Day 4

Acts 12:6-19

This is such an awesome story... and a true story. This is the realities of heaven breaking into the earth, the supernatural power of God overwhelming the natural forces of evil. Herod will not get the last word. God will. As at the cross and through the resurrection, this is God making an spectacle of darkness, putting it's power to open shame.

It would be easy to read this as fanciful and sensationalized. What rings so true and earily human is the way the church responds when all this happens. They are gathered together praying for Peter, presumably his protection and release. And when Peter shows up in miraculous answer to their prayer they don't believe it or take it seriously. Isn't that like us.

Notice their explanation in v. 15. They believed it was Peter's angel. It's like a ghost of Peter was more believable to them than God actually answering their prayer and freeing Peter from jail safely. We will naturally believe anything before we believe God. We will naturally dismiss or explain anything away with all kinds of bizarre theories, rather than simply trust God. And that's true of the natural impulses of genuine Christians.

I'm reminded of the hymn, "prone to wander Lord a feel it, prone to leave the God I love..." We are not predisposed to faith in Christ in any way. We are predisposed to disregard God and diminish him in favor of earthly things, selfish things.

I wonder what we have prayed for, received, and then not given God credit for? I wonder what prayers God has answered for us only to have us rob him of glory and acknowledge other factors.

It's worth taking time to day to repent for withholding gratitude, robbing him of glory, refusing to believe when he responds graciously to us, etc. It's worth acknowledging him has God and giving thanks for his immeasurable grace and kindness to us, but in as many specific ways as possible.

Day 5

Acts 12:20-25

We have seen God's remarkable power to heal people, reveal himself in visions and dreams, send angels as messengers, and prophets too. We've seen God give new life physically to a dead girl and spiritually to deadened people, and now in this text we see his power to also bring death to those whose hearts are set against him to brazenly presume the status, power, authority and glory that only belongs to God.

Herod is like a first century Pharaoh, an evil taskmaster treating his people cruelly and demanding their worship. But God opposes the proud. He humiliates those who exalt themselves. And Herod is a very real example of that. And through all these things, persecution, famine, imprisonment, the sword... the Word of God increases and multiplies.

The gospel is an unstoppable force and it's been proven to be so time and again throughout the centuries and all over the world. Kingdoms of earth continually and violently oppose the kingdom of God, and yet the Kingdom of God endures. The Kingdom flourishes despite the forces of darkness. The Lord Jesus will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

We are the result of the word of God increasing and multiplying. We are the fruit of that. And we are called to follow in the footsteps of our first century brothers and sisters, entrusted with that same mission of making disciples and multiplying churches. And God gives the same authority and power to that end. He is still advancing his kingdom through flawed, failed, redeemed people like us. And it's our joy to be involved. It's our privilege to participate.

Let's get after it. Let the word of God increase in you and multiply through you personally.

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Nurturing Mental Health

I confront the realities of anxiety and depression every day, both personally and pastorally.

That is not to say I have some clinical diagnosis of these conditions myself. Nor am I an expert or even in any way well versed in the field of mental health or caring for those with clinically diagnosed conditions. It's just a confession of my growing awareness of my own inner world and the deep, dark struggles that so many people face each day because of the thoughts and feelings that overwhelm them.

I have a bent toward melancholy. I always have. Sadness is far more accessible than happiness to me. I see the brokenness in everything. My natural interpretive filter is to identify what is lacking. I'm overly competitive and Betsy always laughs about how I don't even enjoy winning, I just hate losing. She's not wrong.

This disposition like repellant to joy. Just as soon as you find something beautiful, fun, satisfying or thrilling, your thoughts start to identify what is missing, still needed, deficient or the doom around the corner. Contentment is very elusive in my soul. That's not unique to me and I don't even necessarily believe it's inordinately strong in me. The more I get to know myself and others, the more I see this thread running through the interiority of humanity, just to varying degrees.

This is why gratitude and joy are difficult to sustain, because we're naturally given to a thoughtless and effortless identification with the discordant realities of our world, the things that don't fit, don't reconcile, don't resolve, and don't relent. For some of us, there is a dibilitating degree to which these things swirl in our hearts and minds. They rule our lives in a deeply discouraging way.

If you relate to this in any way, I am deeply sympathetic. For some, you are thinking of how I'm barely scratching the surface and how I can't even imagine how disoriented your inner life is or how powerfully it governs your day to day existence. I won't argue you. I'm probably not and can't.

But I am walking with so many people who express degrees of struggle and enslavement to anxiety and depression and my heart is burdened for them. Pastorally, I am positioned to encourage, comfort, counsel, support and walk with many through these things helping to bear their burdens. Personally, I bear some of this burden myself as well, and others are positioned to help carry that with me, for which I'm grateful.

All this is to say that mental health is a real category and a real concern for me. So, I was reading a personal anecdote from John Piper's life today, in which he quoted a former literature professor of his, Clyde Kilby. The quote caught my attention and I had to trace it to it's origins. I discovered that in 1976, Kilby gave a lecture appealing to his hearers "to stop seeking mental health in the mirror of self-analysis, but instead to drink in the remedies of God in nature."

What followed was pure gold. Kilby offered 10 Resolutions for cultivating and sustaining mental health. (The quote from Piper was #6). They ministered to my own soul and gave me some sense of how I might minimize my own struggles with anxiety and depression today and tomorrow, not by shrinking my world and turning inward, but by enlarging the world and turning upward. While the current of my own heart and mind pulls me toward mental dysfunction and emotional affliction, these resolutions offer a means of paddling up stream. If your own soul is powerfully pulled into a sea of depression and anxiety, I share these with you in order to help you swim against that tide.

  • At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.

  • Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death when he said: “There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”

  • I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event, filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parentheses in my existence, but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual manhood.

  • I shall not turn my life into a thin, straight line which prefers abstractions to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which of course I shall often have to do.

  • I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to. Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.

  • I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.

  • I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”

  • I shall follow Darwin’s advice and turn frequently to imaginative things such as good literature and good music, preferably, as Lewis suggests, an old book and timeless music.

  • I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, as Charles Williams suggested, “fulfill the moment as the moment.” I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is now.

  • Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life on the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls himself Alpha and Omega.

These are really specific application of Paul's Spirit-wrought strategy for fighting internal oppression in 2 Corinthians 10:5, where he tells us to "take every thought captive, and make it obedient to Christ." We will not stumble into joy and contentment. We will not inadvertantly happen upon peace and rest. We must nurture these things, knowing that our natural habit is to nurture their opposite.

Brothers and sisters, may you mount an offensive against the torrent of anxious thoughts and tidal waves of depressed emotions that come at you with such relentlessness. And may God grant you the strength and fortitude to arrest every errant thought that comes through your mind, and every wayward emotion that chokes your heart, to be refiltered through the truth of the gospel, God's steadfast love and mercy toward us in Christ, and the eternal riches that are ours through our union with Him - not the least of which is the internal rest your soul longs for and is made to enjoy.

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