You Are His Prized Possession

Today’s Reading: James 1:9-18

James starts out his letter encouraging his readers to have faith and endurance in the midst of troubles – to see difficult times as an opportunity for faith to grow and endurance to develop. He is still talking about this when he begins to talk about the rich and the poor.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. – James 1:9

BUT WAIT! ISN’T IT WRONG TO BOAST?

Is James telling us we should take pride in our humble circumstances? No, he is telling us we should be humble no matter what our circumstances. The only time to boast is when we are boasting about what God is doing in our lives. James is saying that even those in humble circumstances can boast about the wonderful things God is doing in their lives. We do not need the riches of the world, we need the blessings of our Father.

And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away with all of their achievements. – James 1:10-11

BUT WAIT! GOD WILL DESTROY THOSE WHO ARE RICH?

No. James is speaking of the ungodly rich, those who place their confidence in their riches. They look to their finances to provide help when trouble comes instead of looking to all God can do to help them during difficult times. They look to the things of this world that will fade away and wither, instead of trusting in God who is eternal.

God does not promise riches to those who have faith in Him, but He has blessed many believers with great riches. Whether God chooses to give us access to many material blessings or few, He wants us to trust in Him more than anything we can place our hands on. Whatever He has blessed us with, big or little, is His to use for His purposes. He wants access to all that we have so that we can embrace Him with empty hands.

God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. – James 1:12

I find it interesting that this verse follows the section about the rich and the poor. How often does our financial situation tempt us to place our faith in money instead of God? We are tempted with the thought that our problems will be solved if only God will give us more material blessings.

BUT WAIT! IS GOD TEMPTING US?

Is God testing us to see how we will spend what He has given us? Is He tempting us to get caught up in worldly treasures when He blesses us with them? James settles that question clearly in the next verse.

And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:13-15

Imagine the analogy of a fish being caught on a hook. All is good and then the fish’s attention is drawn to something that looks pleasing. That something is dangling from a hook, but the fish is not thinking about the danger of the hook but of the temporary pleasure of the worm. The fish has a choice (assuming they have the capacity to think) – to swim away from the temptation or to latch onto it. The latter results in the fish being pulled in a direction it never intended to go.

Temptation comes from our own sinful desires. When we choose to pursue what our flesh desires, we take the chance that the temptation will drag us into sinful actions. As we allow sin a place in our lives, it gives birth to death. But don’t be misled! Don’t be enticed and don’t let temptation drag you into places of sin.

So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. He chose to give birth to us by giving us his true word. And we, out of all creation, became his prized possession.
– James 1:16-18

Our God never changes. He is good and He is holy today, and He will be good and He will be holy tomorrow. We never have to question if He loves us. We are His prized possession and He longs for us to love Him in this same way. In good times and bad, have faith in Him. Whether we have little or much, trust in Him. Don’t let any situation or any earthly possession or any temptation draw your attention away from the One who calls you His prized possession.

Father, thank you for loving us with that kind of love! Thank you for the abundance you provide for us every day as we live the life you have given us. May we always be satisfied with your provisions and may we always be thankful for your generosity. Help us to WAIT on you, the God who never changes or casts a shifting shadow, for all we want and all we need. Amen.

When Your Faith is Tested

Today’s Reading: James 1:1-8

Around the time of Paul’s first missionary journey, followers of Jesus began writing letters to the believers scattered across the region. James, the brother of John, wrote a short letter packed full of inspiration for us today. It is one of my favorite books of the Bible.

This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes” – Jewish believers scattered abroad. Greetings! – James 1:1

James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. James opens up his letter with this short introduction of himself. Have you ever had to introduce yourself or write your own bio? It is not easy to do. Out of all the different ways James could have described himself, he chose “slave” or “servant”. Not brother, not blood relation, not childhood playmate – but servant.

My heart resonates with James’ description of himself. I desire to be completely sold-out to God – a servant willing to do whatever God asks of me. I choose to recognize Jesus as my Lord or my Master, not just my Christ or my Savior. I recognize that it is through his blood that I kneel before him forgiven and with a hope and peace that are precious gifts from God Himself.

WHEN TROUBLE COMES YOUR WAY

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. – James 1:2

Wow! When trouble comes my way, consider it as an opportunity for great joy. When things are going wrong, I should consider it an “opportunity” and not a burden. When problems are unresolved, I should look at the good that can come from it instead of dwelling on the trouble it is creating.

WHEN YOUR FAITH IS TESTED

For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So LET IT GROW, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. – James 1:3-4

An opportunity…a chance…needing nothing. When it seems like all is going wrong and my faith is being tested, I can focus on the positive – that something good can come of this difficulty. I can see my circumstances as an opportunity to build endurance or perseverance. And when endurance is fully developed, when I am growing fully in Christ, I can rest in the knowledge that my life is perfect – all that God intended it to be. I can relax knowing that, if I have Jesus, I need nothing else.

WHEN YOU NEED WISDOM

But there is something I need. I need wisdom to handle the situations that come my way – the relationships, the decisions, the obstacles, the trials, the struggles… I am not equipped to handle everything that may come my way.

If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do. – James 1:5-8

Sometimes I lack wisdom. Sometimes the way I handle a situation causes me to regret my actions before the day is even over – sometimes before the words are even out of my mouth. Apologies are made and I seek God for forgiveness. My GENEROUS God hears my cry for wisdom and He answers it. He forgives me and is willing to turn around and give me wisdom, if only I will ask for it.

WHEN YOU START TO DOUBT

The problem is that my lack of wisdom yesterday can cause me to doubt today. Been there? I get discouraged that I have once again blown it. I begin to wonder if I will ever get it right. It is in those moments that I need to remember where my help comes from (Psalm 121:1-2).

“…we bring all that WE are to all that HE is and all that we NEED to all He can GIVE…” – Beth Moore [Mercy Triumphs, p.51]

I love that! When I am so sick of myself and so frustrated that I am not getting it right, again, I can take all that I am (as pitiful as it may be) to all that He is (holy, righteous and good). He can transform me into the person He needs me to be, giving me the wisdom I need to grow up fully in Him. I can ask my GENEROUS God for wisdom, in absolute confidence that He will give it to me.

Here I am again, Lord, looking back at yesterday – discouraged that I am not as mature as I long to be. I am reminded by your brother, James, that you will give me what I need. Lord, I need wisdom. I ask you to empty me of all that is me, and fill me with all that is you. Generous God, please give me wisdom and continue to grow me fully in You – so that I can be ALL that You intend for me to be. Thank you for never giving up on me. Thank you for continuing to work in me, building patient endurance each time my faith is tested. I choose to LET IT GROW. Amen.

Sometimes It’s Difficult

Today’s Reading: Acts 13-14

While spending time worshiping the Lord and fasting, the early Church heard from God through the Holy Spirit. They were told to dedicate Barnabas and Saul (now known as Paul) to a special work God had for them. The next two chapters of Acts describe Barnabas and Paul’s first missionary journey from Antioch. Their experience varied from town to town and so did their response.

In Paphos, Paul and Barnabas met with the governor, Sergius Paulus. There was an obstruction in the way of the governor accepting the good news of salvation and they were there to remove that barrier. Sometimes there are barriers or distractions in our lives preventing us from trusting in God fully. In the governor’s case it was a Jewish sorcerer named Bar-Jesus. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, identified the man for what he was – a tool of the devil and an enemy. Instantly mist and darkness came over his eyes and he began groping around begging for someone to take his hand and lead him. The distraction was silenced and the governor became a believer for he was astonished at the teaching about the Lord (Acts 13:6-12).

Sometimes we face DISTRACTIONS on our journey.

Next they ended up in Antioch of Pisidia, where they were invited to give a word of encouragement for the people during the weekly service in the synagogue. Paul reminded them of the history of Israel and how Jesus fulfilled many prophecies, how he was condemned instead of recognized and how God raised him from the dead.

“Brothers, listen! We are here to proclaim that through this man Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God…” – Acts 13:38-39

Paul’s message was accepted and they were invited to stay for another week. During that week, the Gentiles were thankful for these missionaries and many became believers. Opposition arose, however, among the Jews and a mob ran Paul and Barnabas out of town.

Sometimes we face OPPOSITION on our journey.

So they shook the dust from their feet as a sign of rejection and went to the town of Iconium. And the believers were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. – Acts 13:51-52

The same thing happened in Iconium. Paul and Barnabas went to the Jewish synagogue and preached with such power that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. Some of the Jews, however, spurned God’s message and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas. But the apostles stayed there a long time, preaching boldly about the grace of the Lord. And the Lord proved their message was true by giving them power to do miraculous signs and wonders. – Acts 14:1-3

Paul and Barnabas experienced the same thing in Iconium that they did in Antioch of Pisidia, yet instead of moving on, they stayed. Sometimes in the face of opposition, the Holy Spirit leads us to WALK AWAY. Sometimes he tells us to STAY. And sometimes he directs us to FLEE. That is what Paul and Barnabas did next when a mob of both Gentiles and Jews threatened to attack and stone them.

Sometimes we face PERSECUTION on our journey.

They went on to Lystra and Derbe and preached the good news there instead. The reaction at first was quite the opposite as the people tried to make Paul and Barnabas into gods to worship.

“Friends, why are you doing this? We are merely human beings – just like you! We have come to bring you the Good News that you should turn from these worthless things and turn to the Living God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them. In the past he permitted all the nations to go their own ways, but he never left them without evidence of himself and his goodness. For instance, he sends you rain and good crops and gives you food and joyful hearts.” – Acts 14:15-17

Trouble followed Paul and Barnabas to Lystra, stirring up the crowds against them. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of town, thinking he was dead. So what did Paul do this time? Did he shake the dust off his feet and leave? Did he choose to stay or did he flee? As the believers gathered around the injured apostle, he rose to his feet and went back into the town.

The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe, where he made many disciples. Paul and Barnabas stopped by Lystra, Iconium and Antioch of Pisidia on their way home from this long journey. They had one more message to convey using the example of their own lives – a reminder that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God (14:22).

Sometimes we face SUFFERING on our journey.

This is a good reminder for us today. God has called each of us to a special purpose. He promises to be with us but He does not promise that our journey will be without distractions, opposition, persecution and sometimes suffering. He has given us the Holy Spirit who will show us what to do when these problems arise. He might lead us to walk away or He may call us to stay. He might warn us to flee from the enemy or He may give us the strength to get up on our feet and go back.

I am so thankful for His direction and strength in any and every situation. I praise Him and thank Him for the wisdom He gives us to know how and when to respond. As long as we continue to worship and fast and remain close to God, He will communicate to us through His Spirit. Praise God!

No Room for Pride

Today’s Reading: Acts 12

I studied the tendencies of two men this morning as I drank my coffee – Peter the Apostle and Herod the King. Peter was highly esteemed and respected in the early Church among both Jewish and Gentile believers. King Herod was highly esteemed and given much power. He was well liked among the Jewish leaders as well, gaining their favor for his persecution of the early Christians and his order to kill the apostle James with a sword.

When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter (This took place during the Passover Celebration.) Then he imprisoned him, placing him under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring Peter out for public trial after the Passover. – Acts 12:3-4

HEROD LOVED RECEIVING PRAISE AND ATTENTION

Herod was SO pleased with the praise and attention he received for himself when he put the apostle James to death that he craved more attention. How could he top this one? By arresting an even more popular apostle, one who had already been arrested at one point but had escaped – arrest Peter. Prove that King Herod could accomplish what others could not! Arrest Peter and put so many guards on him that it would be impossible for him to escape this time.

Consider the timing of Peter’s arrest. Herod wanted the attention of as many of the Jewish people as possible so he arrested Peter during the Jewish Passover celebration with the intent of bringing him to public trial right after the Passover. Sound familiar? At the same time the traditional Passover lamb was to be slain, Jesus was crucified. If the Jewish people wanted a blood sacrifice to save them, Herod would give it to them through the death of Peter.

The night before Peter was to be placed on trial, he was asleep, fastened with two chains between two soldiers. Others stood guard at the prison gate. Suddenly, there was a bright light in the cell, and an angel of the Lord stood before Peter. The angel struck him on the side to awaken him and said, “Quick! Get up!” And the chains fell off his wrists. Then the angel told him, “Get dressed and put on your sandals.” And he did. “Now put on your coat and follow me,” the angel ordered.

So Peter left the cell, following the angel. But all the time he thought it was a vision. He didn’t realize it was actually happening. They passed the first and second guard posts and came to the iron-gate leading to the city, and this opened for them all by itself. So they passed through and started walking down the street, and then the angel suddenly left him.

Peter finally came to his senses. “It’s really true!” he said. “The Lord has sent his angel and saved me from Herod and from what the Jewish leaders had planned to do to me!” – Acts 12:6-11

If you have read this story so many times that you were able to read it just now without getting chills or experiencing any emotion, I invite you to go back and read it again. Let the reality of this moment in Peter’s life truly sink in and join me in praising God for one of the most miraculous moments recorded in Scripture. My sister-in-law, Cheryl Sherwood, once showed a video of the story of Noah’s Ark to a group of children and they broke out in spontaneous applause when the ark landed safely on dry land. How pleased God must be when we read the Scripture with the heart and reaction of a child! God’s rescue of Peter from Herod’s chains deserves applause.

Now laugh with me and have an “In your face!” moment as Herod realizes he has been defeated in his efforts to receive glory for himself. How angry and humiliated he must have been! So angry that he sentenced the guards to death and then fled to Caesarea to sulk.

Imagine what this experience must have been like for Peter. I picture him standing in the middle of the dark street; all is quiet as everyone is already in their homes for the night. He is standing there in confusion and thinking, “Did that really just happen?!!” As reality sinks in, I imagine a big smile coming across Peter’s face as tears of joy begin to fill his eyes. I picture Peter raising his arms towards heaven and thanking the God who loves him THAT much. At some point, I wonder if Peter thought, “I have to tell everyone! The church needs to know how faithful God is!”

PETER POINTED THE ATTENTION OF OTHERS TOWARDS GOD AND GAVE HIM PRAISE

While Peter was in prison, the church was earnestly praying for him (12:5). Peter went to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, where many believers were gathered for prayer. Imagine their shock when they opened the door and saw Peter standing there. Scripture says they were AMAZED. Peter motioned for them to quiet down and then told them how the Lord had led him out of prison. He was quick to let them know that his escape was not about him but about God, not by his strength but by God’s power, mercy and grace! – (Acts 12:12-17)

In contrast, Herod is in Caesarea, dressed in royal robes and sitting on his throne. A delegation of people trying to win his favor from Tyre and Sidon are his audience and he is making a grand speech. The people gave him a great ovation, shouting, “It’s the voice of a god, not of a man!” Just the attention and glory he craved! But God has never been impressed with man’s need for pride or our tendency to soak in the glory of men’s praise.

Instantly, an angel of the Lord struck Herod with a sickness, because he accepted the people’s worship instead of giving glory to God. So he was consumed with worms and died. – Acts 12:23

HOW MUCH DOES GOD HATE OUR PRIDE?

How angry does God get when we crave the attention and praise of others? Consider this – Herod killed the apostle James, whom God loved very much, and nothing happened. Herod arrested Peter with the intent to bring him to trial and God rescued Peter without bringing physical harm to Herod. Herod accepted the praise of men when they worshipped him as if he was a god and God struck Herod with a sickness that would lead to a painful and miserable death.

Oh great and wonderful God, only you are worthy of our praise and glory today and forevermore! Forgive us for our moments of satisfaction and pride in ourselves. May we crave only your attention and may you be pleased with our humility and service to you today. We love you! Amen.

No Room for Racism

Today’s Reading: Acts 10 & 11

GOD DOES NOT SHOW FAVORITISM

Peter told them, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean…I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism. In every nation he accepts those who fear him and do what is right…” – Acts 10:28, 34-35

Peter, like all Jewish young men, had grown up with the false idea that Gentiles were impure – that God’s plan of salvation was only for the Jewish people. It took a vision from God to wake Peter up to the truth. It took God Himself revealing His love for all people for Peter to understand that God does not show favoritism. There are a few things I noticed about Peter’s experience.

GOD SPOKE TO PETER WHILE PETER WAS PRAYING TO HIM

If we want to hear from God, we need to spend time with Him. Peter had gone up on the roof to pray. It was during this time of separating himself and spending time with God in prayer that God was able to reveal to him some erroneous thinking that needed corrected.

The vision was of a large sheet being let down from the sky, full of all sorts of animals, reptiles, and birds. This group of animals included those that the Jewish people considered unclean and were forbidden to eat. Imagine Peter’s confusion when, in the vision, God told Peter to get up and eat the animals.

Peter’s reaction: “I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean.” God’s correction: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.” – Acts 10:14-15

SOMETIMES GOD HAS TO TELL US SOMETHING MULTIPLE TIMES BEFORE WE GET IT

This vision from God was repeated three times and still Peter did not get it. The Holy Spirit told Peter to go downstairs and leave with the three men God had sent. These men took him to the home of Cornelius, a Roman officer – a devout and God-fearing man but also a Gentile. This journey helped Peter to finally understand. He will no longer call one of God’s children unclean.

Peter preached the Good News to Cornelius, as well as to his household and friends, and the Holy Spirit came upon all of them. Peter and the Jewish believers with him were amazed that God’s gift of the Holy Spirit was being poured out on the Gentiles also.

DON’T ARGUE WITH GOD

When God’s presence is obvious in the lives of others, don’t look for reasons to criticize or exclude them. Then Peter asked, “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” (Acts 10:47)

DO NOT WORRY ABOUT WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK

When Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, he was criticized by the Jewish believers. Instead of weakening from their pressure, Peter told them what God had revealed to him and of how the Holy Spirit had filled the Gentile believers. As a result, the Jewish believers stopped objecting and began praising God, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life” (Acts 11:18).

PETER’S ACTIONS HELPED ELIMINATE DISCRIMINATION

If Peter had not stood up for what he knew was right, the beliefs of others would not have changed. Because he was bold for Christ, their understanding of God’s love for EVERYONE led to the sending of missionaries to the Gentiles for the express purpose of their salvation. They went from seeing the Gentiles as unclean to seeing their need for a Savior and investing in their salvation by sending preachers to them.

Two of these missionaries were Barnabas and Paul. They stayed in Tarsus for a full year, teaching large crowds of people. And it was in Antioch that these new Gentile believers were first called Christians. Wait – the best part is coming! These new Gentile believers heard the predictions by the Spirit that a great famine was coming upon the entire Roman world. The believers generously sent relief to their new brothers and sisters in Christ in Judea.

I love it! Those who were once victims of racism are now making a difference in the lives of those who used to treat them unkindly. What a great example of love, grace and mercy. Sometimes God teaches us things and corrects our wrong thinking, not just for the benefit of others, but also as part of a bigger plan to save us.

DO WE SHOW FAVORITISM?

Our God is complex and He is generous. He shows no favoritism. Do we? He does not look down on groups of people because of their ethnicity or background or sin; instead, He loves them. Do we? Let me quote a friend of mine from his sermon last weekend:

“Any form of superiority based on any conceived or constructed identity is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ…One cannot call themselves a follower of the One who died on the cross for the salvation of all humankind – regardless of what they look like, what color their skin is or where they’ve come from – and call themselves a follower of that Savior and Messiah. It’s inconceivable and it is not in any way consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” – Pastor Jeff Stark, Bridgeway Community Church

Lord, give us a heart that loves others like you love them. Help us to show our love for you through our actions towards those around us. Help us never to buy into the lies of racism, cooperate with discrimination or be drawn towards favoritism. Give us eyes to see as you see and a heart that beats in rhythm with yours! Amen.

A Less Dramatic Story

Today’s Reading: Acts 9:32-43

PAUL THE PREACHER

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength to do his work. He considered me trustworthy and appointed me to serve him, EVEN THOUGH I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with faith and love that come from Christ Jesus.

This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. All honor and glory to God forever and ever! He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen. – 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Saul has a huge story to tell after his conversion. Saul, now known as Paul, describes himself as the worst sinner. His testimony is extreme and God used him in powerful ways EVEN THOUGH his past was full of regrets. But what about those of us who do not have a big story to share, whose transformation was still very real, yet less dramatic? This week we have looked at the stories of Stephen, Philip and Saul – all of whom had BIG transformation stories to tell. Now let’s listen to the story of Aeneas the Paralytic.

AENEAS THE PARALYTIC

Meanwhile, Peter traveled from place to place, and he came down to visit the believers in the town of Lydda. There he met a man named Aeneas, who had been paralyzed and bedridden for eight years. Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you! Get up, roll up your sleeping mat!” And he was healed instantly. Then the whole population of Lydda and Sharon saw Aeneas walking around, and they turned to the Lord. – Acts 9:32-35

His story was not about what a wicked man he was, but about how he had suffered. The same God of mercy who forgave Paul and then used his story also had mercy on this unfortunate man and used his healing to turn two towns to the Lord.

TABITHA THE SEAMSTRESS

Consider Tabitha the Seamstress (also known as Dorcas). Tabitha was a good person. She was always doing kind things for others and helping the poor. She made clothing for others and cared deeply for them. Her life was a stark contrast to Paul’s history of making life miserable for others. Two people with two very different backgrounds, both in need of the mercy of God and the salvation available through faith in Jesus Christ.

About this time she became ill and died. Her body was washed for burial and laid in an upstairs room. But the believers had heard that Peter was nearby at Lydda, so they sent two men to beg him, “Please come as soon as possible!”

So Peter returned with them; and as soon as he arrived, they took him to the upstairs room. The room was filled with widows who were weeping and showing him the coats and other clothes Dorcas had made for them. But Peter asked them all to leave the room; then he knelt and prayed. Turning to the body he said, “Get up, Tabitha.” And she opened her eyes! He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then he called in the widows and all the believers, and he presented her to them alive.

The news spread through the whole town, and many believed in the Lord. – Acts 9:37-42

5 people, 5 different stories – all used by God in the lives of other people:

– Stephen gave his life and the result was the scattering of the believers, which brought about the widespread of the gospel.

– Philip obeyed the Lord and the Ethiopian eunuch was saved, possibly changing the lives of many people as the eunuch returned to Ethiopia with an understanding of the gospel.

– Paul changed his ways and began one of the strongest evangelistic ministries in history.

– Aeneas simply allowed God to take his story of suffering and use it for His glory and the salvation of others.

– Tabitha’s reputation as a good and selfless person caused people to care enough about her death that her resurrection ended up changing their lives forever.

WHAT’S YOUR STORY?

Don’t let anyone tell you that your story isn’t powerful enough to make a difference in someone else’s life. Do not convince yourself that you don’t have a story or that God would never use you. In fact, He plans to use you today. Are you ready? Are you willing?

Saul the Villain

Today’s Reading: Acts 9:1-31

The first two verses of Acts 9 show us just how vile a man Saul was. We know Saul witnessed the death of Stephen, agreeing completely with the stoning. Now we see the level at which he is participating in the persecution of those who believe in Jesus.

BELIEVERS FEARED SAUL

Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them – both men and women – back to Jerusalem in chains. – Acts 9:1-2

This man was evil. His heart was full of hatred and an eagerness to protect Jewish law to the extent that he was willing to see the followers of Jesus die. He not only wanted it, he wanted to be the one to do it. Hopefully this paints a picture that explains just how much the believers in the early Church would have feared Saul. But God was not afraid of Saul. He loved him and had a plan for his life. Saul was in pursuit of the Christians but God was in pursuit of him!

GOD PURSUED SAUL

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink. – Acts 9:3-9

ANANIAS WENT TO SAUL

Imagine Ananias’ fear when God spoke to him in a vision telling him to go and lay his hands on Saul. After hearing terrible things about this man and his plans, Ananias now was being commissioned by God to go to Saul, heal him, baptize him and help him receive the Spirit. Because he chose to obey God instead of reacting to his own emotions, Ananias played a key role in the conversion of Saul from a villain to an instrument to take God’s message to the Gentiles and to Kings, as well as to the people of Israel (Acts 9:15).

BARNABAS STOOD IN THE GAP FOR SAUL

Things were not automatically easy for Saul. The believers were still afraid of him, not trusting his motives or conversion. The Jews who had been delighted in Saul’s plan to persecute Christians were now angry with him and plotting to kill him. Like Ananias, another man stood in the gap for Saul. Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them of Saul’s conversion and the way in which he had been preaching boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus.

Ananias responded to God in obedience and God used him in the life of Saul. Barnabas stood beside this new believer, supporting the call he had received from God to preach the gospel. Because these two men were willing to be used by God and to mentor Saul in his first steps as a new Christian, the entire Church benefited and many more became believers.

The church had peace throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and it became stronger as the believers lived in the fear of the Lord. And with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, it also grew in numbers. – Acts 9:31

ARE WE GOING TO HIDE FROM OUR VILLAINS OR PURSUE THEM?

So what will God do with our obedience today? Who does God want us to come alongside and what will be the long-term results of our willingness to be used by God? Are we going to choose our ministry today or allow God to direct our paths? Are we going to hide from our villains or pursue them in love?

God, give us eyes to see those around us as YOU see them. Help us to see even the vilest offender as someone you love and whom you are pursuing for your purposes. Use us, Oh Lord!

Oh, perfect redemption, the purchase of blood / To every believer the promise of God / The vilest offender who truly believes / That moment from Jesus a pardon receives / Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the earth hear His voice! / Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, let the people rejoice! / Oh come to the Father, through Jesus the Son / And give Him the glory, great things He hath done. [To God Be the Glory, Frances J. Crosby, 1875]

Philip the Evangelist

Today’s Reading: Acts 8

A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. HE went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison. – Acts 8:1b-3

GOD CAN DO SOMETHING WONDERFUL WITH OUR DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES.

When I stop and think of how difficult this time must have been for the believers, I find myself sympathetic. I have gone through some difficult times in my life but I have never had to flee for my life. I have had to move my family a great distance from the home and life we knew well, but never under negative circumstances.

There is a great lesson I can take from this passage: No matter how difficult a circumstance in my life may appear now, God can do something wonderful with it. The severe persecution the believers experienced led to the spread of the gospel – to a revival that went beyond Jerusalem and spread across the land, across nationalities, and across the world.

The believers did not just leave Jerusalem in fear, feeling sorry for themselves for the difficult time they were enduring. They left praising God in the midst of the storm and preaching the Good News about Jesus wherever they went (8:4). One of these believers was Philip.

Philip was uniquely equipped for this experience because he was a Jew who could speak Greek. This gave him the opportunity to reach more people. Also consider the fact that Philip went first to Samaria (8:5). The Jews did not like Samaritans and the Samaritans did not like Jews, yet this is where Philip began his ministry as an evangelist and this was the response.

Crowds listened intently to Philip because they were eager to hear his message and see the miraculous signs he did. Many evil spirits were cast out, screaming as they left their victims. And many who had been paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city…the people believed Philip’s message of Good News concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. As a result, many men and women were baptized. – Acts 8:6-8,12

A sorcerer named Simon was among those who accepted Philip’s message and was baptized. The problem was that Simon was so caught up in the miracles and the laying on of hands that his desire became selfish. He wanted this kind of ministry but for his glory and not for the purposes of God. The disciples pointed this out to him and Simon’s response was to repent of his selfish motives (8:14-24).

I think this is VERY similar to what many of us in the Church struggle with. We see how God is using someone else and we find ourselves jealous and wishing God would use us in the same way, but for the wrong reasons. It begins to affect our relationships and attitudes towards our brothers and sisters in Christ.

As for Philip, an angel of the Lord said to him, “Go south down the desert road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out… – Acts 8:26-27a

SOMETIMES GOD MOVES US OUT OF OUR COMFORT ZONE.

His new ministry in Samaria was going great, but Philip followed the Lord’s leading south and it changed lives. Philip listened and obeyed without hesitation.

An Ethiopian eunuch was the next person to benefit from Philip’s new role outside of Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit led Philip to walk alongside the eunuch’s carriage, overhear his struggle to understand the Scripture and offer his help. By coming alongside the eunuch and being willing to answer his questions, Philip had the opportunity to tell him the Good News about Jesus. The eunuch believed and was baptized (8:26-38).

When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. Meanwhile, Philip found himself farther north at the town of Azotus. He preached the Good News there and in every town along the way until he came to Caesarea. – Acts 8:39-40

Sometimes God shakes things up and moves us out of our comfort zone. We then have a choice – to feel sorry for ourselves or to let the Holy Spirit lead us into new situations and new relationships. It may be our presence in someone else’s life that God uses to bring them to a saving knowledge of Him. It may be our willingness to walk beside someone very different than ourselves that brings about new life.

I do not know if anyone else needed to hear this today but I know it is EXACTLY what I needed to hear. Lord, forgive me for my moments of jealousy and selfish ambition. Lord, forgive me for this cloud of self-pity I have comforted myself with all too often. Place me where YOU want me to be today. Give me new opportunities and new relationships for your purposes. Make me an evangelist like Philip, willing to go WHEREVER, WHENEVER and to WHOMEVER.

Stephen the Martyr

Today’s Reading: Acts 5:12 – 7:60

The apostles continued to perform miracles and preach the gospel. Out of jealousy, the high priest and his officials arrested them and put them in the public jail. An angel of the Lord opened the gates and brought them out telling them to go back to the Temple and give the people the message of life. Imagine the surprise of the high council the next day to find the jail empty and the apostles back in the Temple preaching.

The apostles were again arrested and questioned as to why they were doing exactly what the high priest had told them not to do. “We must obey God rather than human authority…” (Acts 5:29)

WORTHY TO SUFFER

They called in the apostles and had them flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go. The apostles left the high council rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. And every day, they continued to teach and preach this message: “Jesus is the Messiah.” – Acts 5:40-42

So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too. Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people… – Acts 6:7-8

A plot against Stephen formed and he was soon arrested and brought before the high council. When questioned, Stephen preached with boldness. He spoke of Abraham and Joseph, Moses and King David. He ended his sermon with a strong accusation against the Jewish leaders.

WILLING TO DIE

“You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One – the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.”

The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!”

Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of the young man named Saul.

As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” and with that he died. – Acts 7:51-60

PREPARED TO FORGIVE

The apostles were arrested and flogged and what did they do? They left rejoicing because they had the opportunity to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. Stephen is arrested and falsely accused and what does he do? He uses his arrest as an opportunity to preach and expose sin. When drug out of the city and while being stoned, Stephen prays. While dying, Stephen forgives those who are killing him.

How will I react to situations in my life this week? Will I complain or rejoice? Will I defend myself or defend Christ? Will I forgive those who wrong me? Will I look for opportunities to glorify God?

Lord, I give you my week. See my heart. See how much work is left to be done in my attitudes and in my perspectives and change me. Lord, do a work in my heart so that my reaction to every situation this week brings glory to YOU. Lord I pray for protection for those who speak out boldly against the demands of this world and for those who are persecuted for their faith. May your message of grace spread and the number of believers increase. Amen.

Confessing or Conspiring?

Today’s Reading: Acts 4:32 – 5:11

All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. – Acts 4:32-35

Scripture is not telling us that we should sell everything we own and give it away. What this group of believers in the early Church did was respond to the Holy Spirit. They were overwhelmed by the moving of the Spirit to take such a grand and generous action. They responded in obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the result was God’s blessings. It does not define the blessings as additional wealth, but we know that they were blessed and everyone’s needs were taken care of as a result. Their response came from the heart, not a legalistic action or desire for public acclaim.

For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means “Son of Encouragement”). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles. – Acts 4:36-37

The apostles did not require Barnabas to be this generous, he simply gave from his heart in response to the Spirit. It does not say if this was the only field he owned, but the action was significant enough for the writer to mention before telling of a contrasting gift.

But there was a certain man named Ananias who, with his wife, Sapphira, sold some property. He brought part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full amount. With his wife’s consent, he kept the rest.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, why have you let Satan fill your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself. The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God!”

As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died… – Acts 5:1-5a

The same thing happened to his wife, Sapphira, when she came in the door and was questioned. Take note, this was not punishment doled out by man. The apostles did not sentence Ananias and Sapphira to death – God did. Lying to the Holy Spirit was that great of an offense. This couple went through the motions of giving a generous gift to the Church, but God judges the heart and knows the truth.

Please stick with me for a couple more minutes and consider this difficult question. In what ways do we lie to the Holy Spirit? If it is such a great offense, we need to consider if we have or if we ever offend God in this way. I am not a theologian nor do I have any kind of Biblical study degree but I do have a concern. More and more often I am seeing or hearing an attitude that I fear grieves the Holy Spirit.

I have had several conversations with believers in which they say they know what they are doing is wrong but they are going to do it anyhow with the intention of asking God for forgiveness later. They are relying on God’s grace to cleanse them from their sins. Now I strongly believe we serve a loving God and that it is by grace through faith that we are saved from our sins, but the attitude seems to be more of a manipulation of God than a true repentance. Remember, God cannot be mocked.

Don’t be misled – you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. – Galatians 6:7-9

Confessing our sins and asking God to forgive them is not a magic wand or secret spell we can use to get ourselves out of trouble. It is not a “get out of jail free” card. God sees the heart, just like he saw the heart of Ananias and Sapphira. I strongly believe that He knows when a person is simply speaking the confession of their sins and when there is true repentance and regret. Sinning with the intention of later confessing is quite possibly “conspiring to test the Spirit of the Lord” (Acts 5:9).

Oh Jesus, forgive us for not taking your death on the cross seriously. Forgive us for the times in which we have knowingly sinned, choosing our own desires over yours. Lord, break us of our tendencies to put ourselves first. Fill us with your Spirit and open our hearts to the desire to be obedient to you in every moment. May we respond to each prompting of the Spirit in our hearts today and give you 100% of what you ask for, whatever that may be. May we be honest with ourselves and with you when we say we are giving you our all. Give us a greater understanding of what grieves you so that we may better serve you. Thank you for your incredible grace and for the many times you have given us another chance. You are a wonderful God and worthy of our praise! To YOU be the glory! We love you. Amen.