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Week 36 Devotional Guide (September 3-9)

Day 1

Acts 21:17-36

Paul's Freedom

We actually see, in these verses, Paul embodying some of the themes that are threaded throughout his New Testament letters. Paul emphasized the freedom we've received in Jesus, particularly from the burden of the Law. He stresses salvation by grace alone, through faith, in Christ alone, that this "not the result of works, so that no man may boast." And yet here, he almost betrays these doctrinal distinctives which are so key to Christian theology and an understanding of the biblical gospel. But it's very instructive for us.

Paul's emphasis on freedom is different than our modern American emphasis on freedom. We tend to think of freedom as our individual rights to asserted on our own behalf. Paul sees our freedom as having right which we are empowered to lay down for the good of others. That is a radically different view of freedom. And that's the freedom Paul display here.

He is asked to engage with Jewish religious practices which the gospel has freed him from, and which Paul proclaims as oppressessive, enslaving and anti-gospel. And Paul willingly and humbly does enter into these practices in order to remove barriers to the gospel among the Jewish Christians. Paul does not want to present a stumbling block as he would later write about in the epistles. This is such a good example of how love for his brothers and devotion to the gospel led Paul to do that which he felt free not to do. His focus was the honor and glory of Christ. And what we see here in Acts 21 is Paul didn't just preach or write about that... he lived that.

Paul's Suffering

In the later part, v. 27-36, we see just some of what Paul was willing to suffer on account of the gospel. I just think about our brothers and sisters across the world who suffer like this for identifying with Jesus and proclaiming the gospel. And I think about our own cultural descent and the increasing hostility toward the gospel and Christianity.

We certainly aren't to this point yet, but the insanity of the Jewish leaders, plotting against and violently persecuting Paul for believing and preaching a doctrine counter to their own, is something our culture is moving toward rapidly. For Jews, it was the dogma of Mosaic law. And for us as Christians, we could certainly become consumed with religious conformity to the point of personal cruelty. We must guard against such drift and corruption of the biblical gospel.

But it's our cultural doctrine of tolerance and inclusivism that is reminiscent of the Jewish response here. An ethos of universal acceptance and embrace of all lifetsyles is underneath a hatred and hostility toward Christian conviction on moral matters in general and sexual ethics and identity in particular. To be on the "wrong side" of these issues in todays climate is to subjet oneself to public shaming at the very least. Worse things are coming for God's people in the U.S... it's essential that we are grounded in the grace of God if we are to hold fast to the word of truth against the mounting social pressure to accommodate the culture, and to steadfastly endure with Jesus, whatever the cost.

Day 2

Acts 21:37-22:21

There are lots of little things in this text that I notice... like in v. 38 where the Roman ruler links Paul to the "Assassins in the wilderness," like he's a gang leader or something. This is so common in our culture. So much speculation and rumors linking people to causes and other people and cartonnish portrayal that are aimed to discredit and embarrass people we oppose. I can only imagine the blog articles, tweets and social media posts about Paul in the first century and what they would have said about him. There is a degree of silliness out there that we simply must not participate or get caught up in... Foolish arguments and controversies as Paul would later call them. They're to be avoided now as much as ever.

I appreciate Paul's approach to his own defense too. He speaks the lagnuage of his accusers, and establishes common ground with his accusers, as a precursor to sharing his testimony with his accusers. He even identifies himself with the Jews as one who formerly persecuted and killed Christians. He's not posturing as better than them or even different than them. He's simply saying, "I was just like you... even more zealous than you... but something happened. I encountered someone."

Paul is using his own defense as a defense of the gospel. I love that. You can't shut this guy up. No matter what they do, he's confronting people with the reality of Jesus, crucified and risen. Wherever God gives him an audience, and no matter the context, he's going to bring up Jesus. Nobody has to accept his testimony of Christ, but everybody is going to have to consider his testimony of Christ.

I wonder if Jesus is real enough to you that you can't help but speak of him to others. This isn't about a goal or program or commitment or something we should do... it's about our identity being so bound to Jesus, our hearts being so captured by his glory, and our lives being so tied to his purposes that, like Peter and John in the early part of Acts, "we can't help but speak of what we've seen and heard."

Day 3

Acts 22:22-29

The point at which Paul's Jewish audience stopped listening was the point at which Paul explicitly expanded God's salvation to include the Gentiles, whom the Jews despised. There are all kinds of legal things in play here, and Paul's familiarity with the various laws being enforced or violated by the different governing bodies, and who had what jurisdiction over which aspects of life. I don't want to get bogged down in those things here...

I'm just overwhelmed that the Jews actually were listening to and seemingly considering Paul's testimony until he had the audacity to place Gentiles under the umbrella of redemption. They had a murderous and violent outrage over his suggesting that a salvation they did not believe in was available to and inluded non-Jews.

v. 22 exposes the racism and nationalism that was prominent in first century Israel, as it is among 21st century peoples. This is an evil and dehumanizing instinct that pervades all human societies throughout human history. Some mask it better than others, but we must be aware of this deformity in our own hearts and honest that we too are tempted to diminish the worth of people based on earthly factors. We have an instinct to elevate ourselves above others based on factors such as race, ethnicity, status, success, neighborhood, dress, religion, sexuality, education level, political affiliation, and all manner of other things.

The intrinsic worth and dignity of every person is equal regardless of their standing before God. We are all image bearers of God and our lives have eternal value and earthly significance. Additionally, the scope of redemption and the gospel is as wide as our diversity dares to categorize us. Everyone is within the reach of God's grace. We are all invited to come to Christ, without regard to our past sin or present status or personal stories... we are all welcomed on the same basis: repentance of sin and faith in Christ.

To define anyone outside of the scope of the gospel is to deny the gospel. Period. I think about the language of John's gospel, and how Jesus, over and over again, offers salvation to "anyone" who believes; welcomes "whoever" will come; and promises real life to "everyone" who eats and drinks of him. The gospel is good news for anyone, whoever and everyone, always.

I hope our gospel is big enough to include forgotten people. I hope our gospel offers dignity and deliverance to the most marginalized. I hope the grace we've been given is sufficient for the most morally deficient people in our lives. I hope the grace that we cherish so deeply is the grace that we embody faithfully. If it's not, it's not the gospel and grace of the real Jesus.

Day 4

Acts 22:30-23:11

Paul proves to be quite clever here… it makes me think of Jesus’ urging us to be shrewd as serpents but as innocent as doves. Paul simply uses what he knows about the Sanhedrin against them… that there are doctrinal matters that they are greatly divided on and it’s easy to spark that controversy throw them into upheaval. So Paul frames his testimony before the Roman authorities in such a way as to provoke the Jewish council to this infighting described. Luke points out that Paul knew exactly what he was doing and it worked.

An observation I would make here is that we followers of Jesus are too often prone to playing the part of the Pharisees and the Sadducees here. We are too easily distracted from our main objective of declaring and displaying the gospel, and provoked instead to argue with each other about secondary or peripheral matters of doctrine. This emasculates mission and undermines our witness. That’s why Paul consistently calls us out of such foolishness and fruitlessness. Even if you win the dumb argument you’re having you are likely losing your voice, influence or testimony. Winning an argument or making a point is not worth the price of a compromised witness. We can’t sacrifice relational beauty on the altar of doctrinal clarity. The gospel produces a culture where both are taken very seriously.

Sadly, though sometimes unfairly, the Christian community is known more for it’s doctrinal doggedness and despised for our relational laziness. I think we can learn from what Paul incites among the Jews here, and guard against such pettiness and silliness that causes people not to take us or the gospel seriously.

Just notice v. 11 before you move on… “The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” God was very much involved and present with Paul. He was speaking to Paul and ministering to Paul. Paul is drawing strength and courage from the reassurance of God’s protection and plan.

That’s a particular promise to Paul in that moment, but what it tells us more generally is that God is near to his people as they suffer for his sake. And he speaks to us and strengthens us as we endure for his purposes. Jesus promised to always be with us, even to the very end of the age, and Paul is a living testimony of His faithfulness to keep that promise and empower him to keep pouring himself out for the glory of God among the Gentiles.

Day 5

Acts 23:12-22

So, with God’s presence and reassurance, Paul is not fearfully wondering what’s next, he’s confidently moving forward in faith. God did not tell Paul anything about how he would get from Jerusalem to Rome, or what factors would play in. God didn’t tell him it would be painless or easy. He simply told him he wasn’t done with Paul yet. And independently of that, God is positioning other people favorably disposed toward Paul… so Paul’s nephew gets clued into what’s going, outs the Jewish leaders, and the Romans get another example of their corruption and backwards administration of justice.

So, God uses the Roman empire that’s adamantly opposed to Christianity, to protect Paul from the Jewish council who also hates Christianity. And at each step along the way, they keep creating a context for Paul to speak of the gospel and represent Christianity to a wider and more influential group of the very people who oppose Christianity. The gospel they want silenced, they keep giving a platform to have proclaimed. This is God displaying his divine power over earthly forces to use even them and his enemies in service to his purposes.

Whatever you fear, grieve or despise about the cultural moment we find ourselves in, I hope you’ll see it as under the sovereign rule of God and trust that sovereign rule to cover both the means and ends of his good purposes for you, his people and his creation.

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Week 35 Devotional Guide (August 27-September 2)

Day 1

Acts 19:11-20

The key verse here to me is v. 20... "The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily." Despite great opposition. Despite real harm. Despite credible threats. Despite doctrinal corruptions. Despite counterfeit works. Despite everything the kingdom of darkness and the culture rooted in darkness uses to hinder the progress of the gospel and the preservation of God's people, the word continually increases and prevails mightily. The gospel is an unstoppable force.

Our cultural would have us believe that we're on the wrong side of history... that our religion is antiquated... that we're standing in the way of progress... that people too deeply devoted to religion in general, and to Jesus and Christianity in particular, are what's wrong with the world. Pay them no mind Christian... to hold fast to the gospel and cling tightly to Jesus is to be on the right side of history... this is the one thing that's right with the world... and it's the power of Christ and the gospel that will make all things right with the world. We see glimpses of this even in the text, where people are putting away sin, idolatry and darkness and turning to Jesus and his glorious reign over the forces of hell and the grave.

Do not grow weary or fainhearted, you followers of Jesus. Our God is a God who saves and redeems. Our Savior is one who puts our enemies to open shame. He is and will be victorious over all forces of evil and he will reign over all things, and if we're his by faith then we will reign with him. We are the future kings and queens of the universe, so don't get discouraged by forces within you and around you that seek to oppress and oppose you... the times in which we live are indeed dark, but take courage, beloved, your future is very bright.

Day 2

Acts 19:21-41

v. 23... "there arose no little disturbance concerning, the Way..." I love that. The new community which the gospel gives birth to is beautiful and redemptive and attractive to be sure. But don't miss this: a people being truly formed and fueled by the gospel will absolutely be socially and culturally disruptive. In the case of Ephesus, it was particularly disruptive to their economy.

Don't miss the massive impact the gospel is having. This silversmith, Demetrius, who is part of a profitable industry that generates all their revenue from creating and forging idols and fale gods for worship. And he says, not only Ephesus, but all of Asia, is being impacted economically by Paul's preaching ministry and the advancement of the Church. That is awesome!

Can you imagine so many people turning to Jesus and actually following Jesus so that the pornography industry in North American was imperiled, or drug trafficking into the states no longer threatened our society? And you can imagine if it did, and everybody knew that it was the gospel that was causing such a downturn?

The whole city is in an uproar, rioting over the gospel undermining their existing culture and economy. This means that Jesus had become the talk of the town. If you lived in Ephesus, and really, based on their testimony in this passage, if you lived in Asia, you were either coming to faith in Christ, or you had loved ones coming to faith in Christ, or you were having your life affected by people coming to faith in Christ. In any case, the residents of Ephesus could not escape Jesus. He became non-ignorable.

I pray that Jesus, in our day and in our own city and nation, would become non-ingorable all over again. That he would move so powerfully and widely and so deeply as to unsettle the moorings of our society and force us to deal with the reality of the Risen Savior. What a glorious thing that would be. Even if many rejected him. Even if there arose a violent mob against those who follow him and preach him.

The scariest part of our "christianized" nation is the seeming ease with which people ignore Jesus, talk around Jesus, shy away from Jesus, avoid Jesus, and dismiss Jesus. Jesus is the real issue. How we respond to Jesus and what we do with Jesus is the most important thing about us. May God in his mercy do again among us what He did in Ephesus, to make Jesus non-ignorable because of the faithful and fruitful witness of His people.

Day 3

Acts 20:1-16

I remember when I was about 7 or 8 years old, sitting in the front row at our church. We had plastic folding chairs throughout the sanctuary. I leaned forward elbow on my knees, chin leaning on my fist, and there I dozed off while the word was preached. I remember the jolt of falling over and the embarrassment landing on my face, chair on top of me. My dad was the preacher so there was that.

I'm not comparing that to a three story fall by any means. And I didn't die... at least not physically. And I don't mean to trivialize this miracle or make light of it. So, let me acknowledge that this story is first and foremost about a boy dying and being raised to life. The power of Jesus breaks into this moment. And while Paul's preaching didn't have the power to keep the kid awake, the power of God was able to keep the kid alive... more acurately, God's power reclaimed his life. Jesus is all about resurrection.

What I can relate to in this text is that I have dozed off when people are preaching or teaching. And I've been preaching when lots of people have dozed off. Acts 20 helps me not take myself too seriously. Even Paul preached too long and put people to sleep. Acts 20 also helps me take the Bible more seriously. In the midst of the early church's history shaping movement; in the midst of the powerful outpouring of the Spirit in those early days of formation; people still got tired.

We love to romanticize different periods and events and we imagine if we did things today like they did things then, we would be more interested, engaged, changed, and effective. But there is an ordinariness to the early church. An ordinariness that bolsters believableness. There is a realism to the Scriptures that we gloss over and too often miss. The early church, though it was bathed on divine power, had no lack of humanity. God did among them and in spite of them what he is still able to do among us and in spite of us.

Day 4

Acts 20:17-38

This is a really helpful but weighty text for me as an elder. Paul spent three years in Ephesus discipling people and developing leaders and now he's about to leave and his charge to the elders is loaded. I want to just want to create a profile below, from both what is explicit and implicit in the text, of what an elder is supposed to be and do. Here we go.

Elders are...

  • to live among the people (v. 18)
  • humble servants of the Lord (v. 19)
  • to be tender hearted but tough minded and thick skinned (v. 19)
  • bold, courageous and helpful (v. 20)
  • to call everyone to repentance and faith... they're gospel-centered (v. 21)
  • submitted to the Spirit (v. 22)
  • eternity minded and willing to suffer for Christ (v. 23)
  • selfless, steadfast, and grace-filled (v. 24)
  • realistic and not sentimental (v. 25)
  • devoted to the word of God in it's entirety (v. 27)
  • self-aware, self-governing, and self-controlled... they guard their hearts vigilantly and diligently (v. 28)
  • watchful over those they shepherd... they are aware and actively engaged with the church they serve (v. 28)
  • appointed by the Holy Spirit and entrusted to steward a blood bought bride (v. 29)
  • alert to wolves... they guard the gate to the church wisely and aggressively... they are shepherds to the sheep only (v. 29)
  • willing and able to identify those who are predatory and exploitative (v. 30)
  • willing and able to recognize and correct false teaching and doctrine (v. 30)
  • willing and able to root out divisiveness and strife (v. 30)
  • emotionally connected to and affectionate toward the people in their church (v. 31)
  • tireless in their work and tenacious in gospel ministry (v. 31)
  • not controlling or territorial... they hold people with an open hand and ultimately trust the power of God and the grace of God, not their leadership or ability (v. 32)
  • not materialistic (v. 33)
  • diligent (v. 35)
  • committed to strengthening people (v. 35)
  • sacrificially generous (v. 35)
  • prayerful (v. 36)
  • responsible to set a healthy culture of love, affection and unity (v. 37)

This is a massive set of responsibilities. I pray God forms these things more fully in me as a pastor, in our elder team at Generations, and I pray he fills our church with men who aspire to this and are giving themselves to becoming like this. I am absolutely certain that God would do an amazing work among us and through us if we had a culture of men sincerely giving themselves to embodying these realities in our own time and place.

Day 5

Acts 21:1-16

I love the unity of the Spirit displayed in this passage. There are all these people in all these different places who are just opening their lives to Paul and his companions, opening their homes, opening their hearts. Their is a very real hospitality and willingness to be interrupted and intruded upon. And in every cae there is this mutuality of ministry. Paul is always encouraging and teaching and pouring into disciples. But then you also have these people ministering to him and his team. They are all giving to each other, bringing what they have to offer interms of resources and giftedness. They are all making themselves available to build up one another and they are intentionally seeking to encourage and strengthen. This is why the Holy Spirit gifts God's people... for their building up in maturity and unity. And that's what we see hapenning here.

That, and then Paul, willingly walking out what he charged the Ephesian elders with in Acts 20. Knowing that he will be bound and imprisoned in Jerusalem, he is undeterred. He is willing even to die for the sake of Christ, the advancement of the gospel, and the expansion of the church. He is all in in every way. And each place, whether it's a week, or a day, his heart is being knit to the believers they're with, and theirs are being knit to him. This is what Christian love and brotherhood is all about. It's beautiful. This is what we're part of and it's what we can experience together if we'll give ourselves fully to the high call of making disciples and planting churches.

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The Finger of God

I'm preaching through Exodus and this last Sunday covered the first 9 plagues which God hit Egypt with, prior to delivering Israel from slavery. Because I tackled so much content in one message I wanted to offer a couple blogs where I could touch on some things I skipped over in my message. They won't be long but they were insights which were meaningful to me in my preparation so I thought i'd pass them along.

The third plague God sent was swarms of Gnats throughout all the land, on people and animals. They were everywhere. And in the decadent culture of Egypt, that loved comfortability the way we 21st Westerners do, it was as if God was completely undermining what they cherished. Gnats everywhere are tiny but they are such a nuisance. They have the ability to ruin a good cookout, or a refreshing day by the pool, or a day playig at the park. They just make ordinary, fun, every day relaxing routines miserable.

This was the first plague which really grabbed the attention of the Egyptians, particularly Pharaoh's diviners and magicians. They were confounded because they could neither duplicate the sign nor undo the sign. They were just stuck living in it and could do nothing about it. It exposed their helplessness and God's power over whatever power they imagined they had. The world’s system is to worship comfort and pursue comfort. God’s design is to use discomfort in order to reveal our need for him so that we might lean more fully on the Comforter… and find our peace and rest in him.

The gnats had such a profound impact that Pharaoh's own magicians - who until now were complicit and allied with him in their rebellion against God - that they confessed to Pharaoh that "This is the finger of God."

What they were saying was that God's is making a divine mark, an undeniable imprint that clearly reveals something of existence and nature. Gnats weren't being used to reveal God's plan for redemption in Jesus by any means, but they were revealing that He is real; He is powerful; He is present; and He is to be taken seriously. They were essentially saying to Pharaoh that this God is not like their puny Egyptian gods... He is making himself known in a visible and tangible and even personal way. Pharaoh, as you know, hardened his heart again.

And this is what we are faced with each and every day. The evidences of God are all around us. The indicators that He is real; He is powerful; He is present; and He is to be taken seriously are everywhere. Romans 1 says that His divine attributes and invisible power can be seen clearly through that which has been made, so that we are without excuse.

We watched a solar eclipse this week. This rare moment in time and space. And yet it was preditcable. We've so advanced in science that we could accurately identify down to the minute, when it would occur in every different place that it would occur. It's really quite remarkable. So here's this moment. Is that in ode to science? Is it a time that we just marvel at the wonder of creation and the wisdom of men? Do we magnify science? Or do we, in worship, see and declare, "This is the finger of God?"

Moses would later receive the 10 Commandments “on tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” David writes in the Psalms, that Creation is the work of God’s fingers. The evidence of God is everywhere. His fingerprints are all around us, if we will open our eyes and be willing to see them. The alternative is to follow in Pharaoh's footsteps and harden our hearts. When the finger of God is visible around us we will either give him glory or deny him glory. There is no third option.

Creation isn't the only place to look either, by the way. 2 Corinthians 3 says about the church that “you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” The finger prints of God are not just all around us, they are all over us. You are evidence of God’s grace and power, which testify to his glory and supremacy in all things. Your brothers and sisters in Christ bear witness to the infinite wisdom and perfections of Jesus. The local church exists to display the beauties and glories of Christ, which are beheld in the lives of His people as they are being increasingly conformed to the image of God's Son. It's so popular to criticize the local church, but God's desire is that we would read the lives of God's redeemed sons and daughters as letters from Christ. We are to identify and affirm and rejoice in the evidences of Christ's power at work among his people. That won't just happen. We must give ourselves to this practice and celebrate everywhere we see the finger prints of God.

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Week 34 Devotional Guide (August 20-26)

Day 1

Acts 17:1-15

It is really clear as I keep reading and writing about these passages that the Apostle's missionary strategy was really simple. They just faithfully executed that simple strategy. They went into the social environments of the cities they visited, and they listened, observed and discerned points of connection between the longings and beliefs of people and the gospel of Jesus Christ. And then they unapologetically and ashamedly proclaimed Christ. Some beleived and were persuaded from among the Jews, the Gentiles, the men and the women, but always some resisted and opposed them. They weren't secretly identifying with Christ or subtly alluding to Jesus. They were clear. They were bold. And they were fruitful.

They weren't results focused, they were obedience focused. The results were in God's hands and led to the next gospel opportunity, whether that was through the hospitality of someone like Lydia, or the imprisonment by officials like in Thessalonica. God was orchestrating things and each moment and interaction was an opportunity to join Him in what He was doing by the Spirit.

I love the example of the Berean Christian converts who teach us that critical thinking about the Scripture is characteristic of real Christianity. Real Christianity isn't unthinking, blind faith, or unconditional acceptance of what your taught. Real Christianity takes biblical teaching seriously, but also takes personal biblical study seriously. This is not the sign of a skeptics of God's word. It's the sign of a student of God's word. They were receptive and open to waht was taught, but they wanted to dig in and confirm what was being taught. For churches to be biblically faithful they need people with an appetite for the word, and devotion to the word, not just among their leaders, but among their members.

  • Are you taking the word seriously yourself, or is it something you totally rely on others for?

  • How can you be both more eager in receiving the word, and yet also more eager in confirming what is taught from the word?

Day 2

Acts 17:16-34

This is one of the great examples in the bible of how to engage as a missionary anywhere. Paul goes into Athens, and he makes the rounds through the social center of the city. And as we mentioned yesterday, he is observing the cultural artifacts and being attentive to cultural hopes and longings, and he's filtering those things through the gospel. He establishes commonality between the beliefs of the culture and the truth of the gospel.

He affirms their shared status as religious people, and calls their attention to their altar "to an unknown God," as if to say, we're all searching for God, longing for God, seeking meaning and deriving purpose from something bigger than ourselves, and he says, what's unknown to you as of yet, I want to disclose to you now. So he starts with where they are and what they believe, and then connects that to the gospel. Notice he doesn't stay there and nurture the deception that all spirituality is compatible or equally true. He starts with there belief and connects it to Christ. But then he clearly differentiates their belief from the truth that is in Jesus. Faithful cultural engagement doesn't placate the false beliefs of deceived people.

Faithful cultural engagement takes people seriously wherever they are in their journey, but seeks to clearly and explicitly proclaim Christ as the only way to salvation. The missionary endeavor is not to be implicit in our gospel representation but to be explicit in our gospel declaration. Again, Paul uses their philosophers and poets, their culture makers and the art and ideas they promulgate, as clear springboards to the ultimate reality of the gospel.

A little insight here... art moves people. Whether it is ancient poets and philosophers, or modern day filmmakers, authors and musicians, art has the power to reach in and open up peoples hearts in profound ways. Paul was brilliant in leveraging those things, and the openness they create, to draw straight lines to the gospel. Good art is always a signpost to the ultimate Artist. Creativity always echoes something of the Creator. We should be leveraging the stories, the beauty, the music and the creativity of our culture to make gospel connections... that's how missionaries operate, and if you are in Christ, you are a missionary by identity and you have a divine commission for this task.

  • Watch a movie this week and think through the elements of the story that touch you, move you, inspire you, trouble you, etc. Think about how the story reflects aspects of the gospel and where it diverts. In other words, where is the story written on all of our hearts echoed in this story (there are always echoes). Think through this and have a conversation with someone else who's seen the movie and explore the themes of creation, fall, redemption and new creation, within the story. Learning to approach tv and film this way is an indredibly enriching practice and really helpful in developing critical thinking and gospel fluency.

Day 3

Acts 18:1-17

So we see the birthing of another church made famous by Paul's letters in the NT. Here is the planting of the church in Corinth, to whom Paul sent two letters that are preserved in Scripture. I love the hisoricity of this... all these names and places and the time periods mentioned. We can sometimes start to read the Bible as stories and disconnect it from history. These are real people, in real places and at real times, and with real lives unfolding with real lostness and need, and they are finding real redemption and salvation in the real Jesus. I love it.

We largely see the same elements again. Paul is preaching and reasoning on the Sabbath in the synagogue. He starts with Jews, faces some opposition, and then moves toward the Gentiles where he finds more acceptance. But there is this verse in the middle where Paul receives a vision with instructions from the Lord, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”

I am comforted to know that the great fearless missionary Paul, was apparently afraid. He had suffered much forthe sake of Christ already at this point, and there is growing opposition in Corinth from the Jews, and it makes sense that Paul may be dreading what's coming. He may be anticipating and fearing more suffering and he may be shrinking back. Paul was not immune from the worries and cares that ail us. And God mercifully shows up and personally gaurantees his safety in this situation, which Paul takes his word on. I love the way God moves toward us in personal ways at pertinent moments in our lives when we really need a word from him. And he ministers to us in ways and in an inner place that only He can, to bring peace and reassurance and give direction. God is so loving and personally involved with us, and I'm so grateful for that.

And then I love the assurance of ministry fruitfulness too. "I have many in this city who are my people." God has many people in every city who are his. They just don't know it yet. And the way they come to know it is through the faithfulness of God's already redeemeed people to obey our commission and bear witness to the risen Jesus so that those whom He is calling to himself can hear and respond with repentance and faith. He's at work all around us and among those surrounding us. We need only boldly and prayerfully surrender to Him ourselves and then speak of him with others, and we'll see his kingdom flourish and grow right where we live.

Day 4

Acts 18:18-28

Paul's apostolic ministry is reall representative on a larger scale of what so much of Christian discipleship is all about. v. 10 says that he "went from one place to the next... strengthening all the disciples." This is what we need from each other to grow and how we contribute to each other's growth. We strengthen one another. The implication here is that Paul is fortifying the believers whom he has previously led to Christ personally or those who are part of the churches he helped establish. He isn't coming up with new ideas and new strategies and new thoughts and new methods and new beliefs... he is reinforcing what is already there. He is helping to more deeply persuade the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus, that Jesus is absolutely worth following.

I wonder what would happen if we took on this mindset and approach to relationships. I wonder what would happen if we entered into Christian community with the conscious aim of strengthening one another, how much stronger we ourselves would be, and how much stronger our churches would be. It's almost overly simplistic, but I wonder if we haven't made thigns overly complicated. What would change in our engagement and participation with our small group, bible study, neighbhorhood book club, etc., if we adjusted our approach to answer the question, "how can I strengthen my brothers and sisters tonight?" I wonder what kind of social environment that would create.

That's the kind of place I want to belong to and be part of. That's the kind of place I think anybody could connect to and thrive in. That's the kind of place we all could flourish.

Real quick... this part about Apollos is fascinating. Here is this gifted and competent communicator. He loves Jesus. He knows the word. He's preaching faithfully and fruitfully. He is charismatic and effective. He is a stalwart for the kingdom. But Priscilla and Aquila have to pull him aside and correct some of his theology.

They are not vocational ministers. But they are serious about the gospel and ministry. And they are well studied enough to discern some slight error in Apollos' theology. They appreciate his gifting and affirm that, but they also love him enough to correct his theology. Doctrine matters. We want to get the gospel right. We want to teach the Scriptures accurately. Which means not only that we teach right beliefs, but we give beliefs appropriate emphasis. I love that these to lay leaders in the church were diligent enough student sof the Word to pick up on some nuances with Apollos' teaching that were off. And I love that they loved him and Jesus enough to speak to it. And I love that rather than shaming him publicly or gossipping about him in backrooms, they wisely and humbly took him aside privately to help him be a more faithful servant of Jesus. This is such a good example of older, wiser, stable people, empowering and helping younger ministers to grow into who God has called them to be. We need more of this in the church.

Day 5

Acts 19:1-10

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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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