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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Born Again - Paul Before and After

Born Again - Paul Before and After

Saul was a Jewish religious leader- a Pharisee- and he hated Christians! The Christians were preaching that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died to take away sins. And Saul was threatened by this dangerous doctrine! As a Pharisee, he and his fellow priests controlled the Jewish people with the Law. The religious leaders might have to give up some of their money, power and influence if too many Jews started believing in this Jesus. And Saul couldn’t let this happen!

As a zealot, Saul constantly fasted and tithed and prayed and spent his life studying the religious Law with the other Pharisees. He was proud that he obeyed the Torah, kept all of the ordinances and sacrificed daily in the temple. He was so much better than the ordinary Jew. God must be pleased with his diligence. But those evil Christians! Saul needed to kill as many Christians as he could to protect God’s laws and to keep Judaism pure.

So getting rid of Christians became Saul’s main passion in life. He would frantically rush from house to house in Jerusalem searching out Christians to arrest and put in chains. Hundreds of Christian men and women were dragged off to prison by Saul, causing many believers to run away and hide in towns outside of Jerusalem. Saul was there when the mob stoned Stephen and he tirelessly plotted to have other Christians executed as well. By getting rid of Christians he believed he was doing God’s work and he was proud of it. Soon with all of his intense ambitious efforts, praise God, these believers in Jesus would be a thing of the past.

Saul wasn’t satisfied to just kill the Christians in Jerusalem. He needed to stamp them all out, so he turned his energies to catching the believers who had been scattered to the towns outside of Jerusalem. We read in Scripture that he obtained letters of permission to arrest any Christians he could find in Damascus (150 miles away) and bring them back in chains. “Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1-2)

So as Saul was traveling with his men along the road to Damascus, and looking forward soon to be dragging more Christians away to prison; an amazing thing happened. It was nearly noon and suddenly a light from heaven blazed down around Saul. Saul fell to the ground terrified and then he heard a voice speaking to him. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4) Trembling and astonished, Saul asked: “Who are you, Lord?” And then the voice from heaven answered: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 9:5b) Shaking with fear Saul asked: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” And Jesus answered: “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:6b)

The men traveling with Saul stood on the road speechless since they also heard the voice from heaven. Saul got up but the bright light from heaven had blinded him and he couldn’t see. The men with him led him by the hand into Damascus and for three days Saul sat alone in a house not being able to see and refusing to eat or drink.

Ananias was one of the Christians who lived in Damascus. The Lord came to Ananias in a vision and gave him the address of the house where Saul was staying. Then God told him to go to Saul and lay hands on him and pray for him to get his sight back. Ananias was afraid and reminded the Lord that Saul had harmed many Christians. But the Lord answered him: “Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before the Gentiles, kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)

Ananias obeyed God and went to the house where Saul was staying and laid hands on Saul and prayed for him. He said: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17b)

When Ananias prayed for him, Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit. Something like scales fell from his eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. And then Saul began worshiping with the other Christians in Damascus and immediately began preaching in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. Some of the Christians were still frightened of him and all the believers were totally amazed that the man who had hated them so much now loved them and was one of them. But Saul was so excited about his new love for Jesus that he didn’t waste any time going about preaching and bringing as many people to Christ as he could. The Church’s worst human enemy had become her greatest friend.

Saul was as intense and anxious to spread the good news that Jesus is Lord and Savior as he had been in earlier days to stop the spread of the good news of Jesus. Soon the religious leaders were trying to kill Saul because he was making disciples for Christ everywhere he went. When Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus, he accepted Jesus and was “born again”. He became a new person. He even got a new name.

We all know the old Saul as the new “Paul” - the one who tirelessly spread the Christian faith to the Gentiles. Over the years Paul had to suffer and pay the price for his faith in Jesus. He suffered whippings and shipwrecks and he was thrown in prison on many occasions. And tradition has it that he was hung upside down on a cross and martyred in Rome. But during his lifetime he planted new churches everywhere he traveled, and we have all been blessed by the letters the Holy Spirit wrote through Paul to those new churches. He wrote letters of instruction to the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, the Thessalonians, and the Romans. And Paul’s letters in the New Testament are written for us too.

Paul changed and became a new person with a new direction after he met Jesus there on the road to Damascus. And we also become new persons with new directions after we meet Jesus. Jesus comes to give us His Holy Spirit and change us. Jesus describes this change as being “born again”. (John 3:3) Jesus says that without being born again we cannot enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus came for Paul on the road in a blaze of heavenly light but Jesus comes for us too. He may not come for us in as dramatic a way as He did for Paul. I think Paul was a special case and Jesus met him where he was. But Jesus meets us where we are too. When Paul realized that Jesus was God and Savior, he gave his life (his will, his plans, his energies, etc.) to Jesus and Jesus baptized him with the Holy Spirit and came to live in his heart. That is what it means to be “born again”. A “born again” person doesn’t belong to himself anymore. He is under new management and belongs to Jesus. Paul later bragged: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…” (Galatians 2:20b)

Paul said “yes” to Jesus when he met Him on the Damascus road and he was “born again”. And we need to say “yes” to Jesus too and be “born again”. It will be the most important thing that we will ever do.

Monday, June 20, 2011

An Angel Tells Philip Where to Go

An Angel Tells Philip Where to Go

The Bible story begins with an angel giving instructions. “Now an angel of the Lord told Philip, ‘Go south to the road –the desert road -that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’” (Acts 8:26) We don’t know if Philip actually saw the angel or if the angels’ message was delivered to him in a dream. But right away Philip obeyed the angels’ command and started walking down the road through the desert to Gaza. Gaza was about fifty miles from Jerusalem.

As Philip was on his way he passed an important Ethiopian official riding along in a chariot and reading the book of Isaiah as he was traveling. Scripture says that this Ethiopian was a eunuch (a man who had been altered sexually) who worked for Candace, queen of Ethiopia. He probably had been sexually altered so that he could be trusted to work closely with the queen. Eunuchs back then were used in Oriental courts to fill positions of high authority. We aren’t told his name, but he was in charge of all the queens’ treasury. This Ethiopian had gone to Jerusalem to worship and now he was on his way back home.

And as Philip was passing the Ethiopian on the road he got a second message from the Lord. This time his instructions didn’t come from an angel but from the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go over to that chariot and stay near it.’”. (Acts 8:29) And again Philip heard and obeyed the Spirits’ instructions! “Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading from Isaiah the prophet.” (Acts 8:30a) The Ethiopian was sitting in his chariot reading aloud as he traveled down the road.

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. (Acts 8:30b)

“How can I unless someone explains it to me?” the Ethiopian answered. (Acts 8:31)

So Philip got up in the chariot and sat with the Ethiopian and the two continued traveling down the desert road together. The Ethiopian was reading a passage of Scripture from Isaiah 53:7-8.

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,

And as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.

Who can speak of his descendants?

For his life was taken from the earth.”

“Tell me, please, who is Isaiah talking about, himself or someone else?” the Ethiopian asked Philip. (Acts 8:34) He really wanted to know the Scriptures and have a deeper relationship with God.

So Philip explained that in the passage where Isaiah was describing the sheep that was led to the slaughter and the lamb that was silent before the shearer, that he was describing Jesus. And the Suffering Servant, pictured in the book of Isaiah, is also a picture of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and Savior. Philip went through the scriptures with the Ethiopian and shared the good news that Jesus had died to take away our sin. And the Ethiopian kept nodding and smiling and asking more questions.

After the two men had been talking and traveling together for a good long time, they came upon a pool of water beside the road. The Ethiopian said, “Look, here is some water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” (Acts 8: 36) And Philip answered, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And the Ethiopian answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts 8:37)

So they stopped the chariot and the two men got out and went down into the water. And with great joy, Philip baptized the Ethiopian. As soon as they came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit carried Philip away out of the Ethiopians’ sight. And thus the story ends with the Ethiopian getting back into his chariot and traveling on down the road rejoicing that he has found Jesus as his Lord and Savior.

This short story from the Bible perhaps leaves us with some questions. For one, the curtain is pulled back and we see that angels sometimes serve as messengers to Gods’ people. Not only in this story but throughout the Bible there are stories of angels coming to the aid of believers. Angels have also been known to protect believers, feed them, and assist them when they are in need. All of these angelic actions and more have been recorded in Scripture.

We may be questioning why we don’t get directions from an angel like Philip did. Or could there be occasions in our lives when there have been messages delivered to us or angelic intervention taken on our behalf and we didn’t even recognize it? Indeed we read from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels unawares.”

We can not get away from the fact that, in this story, Philip would not have been able to meet the Ethiopian and bring him to faith in Jesus, if he had not on several occasions received supernatural guidance. After the angel told him to walk down the Gaza road, Philip still received more guidance with the Holy Spirit telling him to walk over to the Ethiopians’ chariot and to stay near it. Philip was a great evangelist. Many thousands of people came to Christ through his preaching. But we can see that he didn’t lead people to Christ in his own strength. He must have been open and listening for the Holy Spirits’ voice to show him what to do.

But the question may still linger. Why don’t we get instructions from a visible angel like Philip did? I don’t know all of the reasons, but in reading the book of Acts we do notice that the twelve apostles seem to have received more of the charismatic gifts - like the power to heal and prophesy and evangelize. These dramatic gifts perhaps made the apostles more visible to the public, and angelic intervention might have been recorded more often when it occurred with these public figures that were in the limelight. The rest of the believers often seemed to be given gifts like serving or teaching or helping. Since every believer is a part of the body of Christ, we are each given different gifts by the same Holy Spirit. We can not all be an eye or an elbow. We function differently in the body. But all the gifts are useful and important.

Psalm 32:8 says, “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. I will counsel you and watch over you.” We have Gods’ promises here and everywhere in Scripture that He will always be with us. But do we sometimes forget His promise that He is present with us? He promises to continually teach us how to live. But do we take time to listen for His teaching?

Perhaps the Holy Spirit has tried to speak to us again and again but we have been too busy to listen. Could it be that we can’t hear His quiet voice over the noise of our games and shows and the stuff that clutters our lives? When the angel told Philip to walk down the road to Gaza, he heard and obeyed right away. He had a listening heart and he didn’t let anything get in the way. God was able to do great things through Philip because Philip’s whole life was about loving God. If we have a listening heart and our whole life is about loving God then He will be able to do great things through us too.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

simon the Magician - The Man Who Tried to Pay Money for the Gifts of God

Simon the Magician – The Man Who Tried to Pay Money for the Gifts of God

Simon the Magician lived in Samaria around the time the disciples in Jerusalem were baptized with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Scripture says that Simon made quite an impression with his magic. “Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.’”. (Acts 8:9-10)

About this time a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem against the church. Saul (later named Paul) went from house to house dragging new believers off to prison. So most of these frightened believers had to run for their lives. And since Samaria was near Jerusalem, many of them fled there hoping to find safety.

Philip was one of the Christian apostles who went to Samaria during this time. As soon as he arrived he started preaching to every Samaritan he met that Christ is the Savior. And along with his preaching he performed signs and wonders through the power of the Holy Spirit. Scripture tells the story. “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. So there was great joy in the city.” (Acts 8:6-8)

I wish I could have been there to watch, since amazingly most everyone in Samaria believed in Jesus and was baptized. Even Simon the magician became a Christian and was baptized and followed Philip everywhere. (Acts 8:13)

The good news got back to the apostles in Jerusalem that nearly all of the Samaritans had accepted the Word of God. There was great rejoicing since the Samaritans were now believers, but still they didn’t immediately receive the gift of the Holy Spirit like the Jewish believers had at Pentecost. We don’t know why that was.

Many Jews believed that God would never bless Samaritans since they were considered to be a group of half-breeds. There were serious barriers of racial prejudice to be dealt with here. Until this point, the Christian church in Jerusalem had been completely Jewish. But when the Samaritans believed, it was the first time the Church burst its Jewish bonds and moved toward a truly world-wide fellowship.

So Peter and John went to Samaria to pray for these new Samaritan believers that they might receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit did fall on the Samaritan believers like it had on the Jewish believers when Peter and John laid hands on them and prayed.

Simon, who had been the magician, was impressed when he saw that when Peter and John laid hands on the Samaritan believers, the Holy Spirit would come down with power. Wow, he would like to be able to do that too he thought! Wouldn’t that impress his fellow citizens and make him look important? Simon offered Peter money for the ability to lay hands on people and bring down the Spirit. Perhaps since he had impressed people with his magic tricks before he became a Christian, he might have wanted to impress people now by manipulating the Holy Spirits’ power. We don’t know what his motivation was but we do know that Peter became very angry with Simons’ foolish request.

Peter answered Simon with strong words. “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money? You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps He will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and a captive to sin.” (Acts 8:20-23) Simon immediately begged Peter to pray for him and I like to think that he was truly sorry for his mistake of trying to buy God’s power so that he could use it to build up his reputation.

Simons’ effort to try to purchase the ability to manipulate the power of the Holy Spirit was his sin. And his desire to use God’s power for his own gain is wrong also. The word “simony” which means the buying and selling of church offices and influence comes from this story.

What can we learn from this Bible story? How can we avoid making the same mistake today that Simon made so long ago? I will give my best guesses and if you have other ideas, please pass them on. First Peter accused Simon of being bitter, which possibly meant that Simon was resentful since he no longer held the best and highest position among his fellow citizens. Remember Simon had been treated like a very important person in Samaria when he had practiced his magic arts, but now that he had given that up to become a Christian, he may have missed all of the special attention. Maybe if he could buy God’s power then he could use it to feel important again!

We can follow in Simon’s footsteps and try to use God today to further our own reputations or pocketbooks instead of humbly following the leadings of the Spirit. In the middle ages, indulgences were sold by the Church. When a person paid money for the indulgence he was told that he received forgiveness for his sin. Of course we can never purchase forgiveness of sin with money when our forgiveness has already been purchased by Christ’s blood, and is given to us as a free gift. (Ephesians 2:8-9) But the Church made big money off of supposedly selling Gods’ forgiveness!

Twenty years ago a friend of mine knew a musician who for a year pretended to believe in Jesus to see if he could make lots of money selling Christian music. This singer was a member of another religion but he could fake being Christian if it could be financially profitable, couldn’t he? When his experiment didn’t work out and his Jesus songs didn’t pay off like he had hoped, he dropped his pretending and went back to his secular music which brought in more cash. Just recently I read in the paper that this same musician is back trying out his luck again with his Jesus music! Maybe the new Christian/political audiences today will finally appreciate his songs and this musician can finally cash in on God – and make use of Jesus to build up his reputation while he is at it! And some politicians today are also learning to cash in on God. These folks can appear pious while repeating the correct Christian phrases, and thus gain votes and power.

Are these examples at all similar to Simon’s mistake? Perhaps? Simon was proud and hadn’t yet learned to humble himself before God. In order to move in God’s kingdom we have to learn to be humble. Humility is everything. We need to give up our pride and our selfishness in order to follow Jesus. Jesus is Lord and He wants it all. We don’t use God for our own glory, we ask God to use us for His Glory. Jesus speaks out about this in Scripture. “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) We need to learn to lose ourselves for His sake. It doesn’t work any other way!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Stoning of Stephen - the First Christian Martyr

The First Christian Martyr - the Stoning of Stephen

It had just been a year or so since Jesus had gone back to heaven and left the Holy Spirit to guide and infill His followers, and already so much was happening. Those first new Christians cared about each other so much and were so guided by the Holy Spirits’ power that very soon thousands of their neighbors in Jerusalem believed in Jesus and became Christians as well. There were hundreds of healings and miracles in their prayer meetings, so many that all of Jerusalem was talking about these amazing Christians and becoming disciples of Jesus also.

It was during these early days when the new Christian church was taking shape that we first hear about Stephen. Stephen was a member of that very first church and was chosen along with six other men to wait on tables and serve meals to the widows who belonged to the families of the church members. (Acts 6:1-5)

The early Christians felt that it was their job to be sure that the women without husbands in their midst didn’t go hungry. This may seem strange to us today, but providing for the widows made sense back then. In that culture, the men held the purse strings and the women had little or no control over their own finances. When a husband died, the family inheritance would go to the son or sons. And since the wife would not be able to keep her husbands’ money, her sons would be expected to take care of her.

Since the early church members shared everything in common, they shared their responsibilities in common too. And taking care of their widows was one of their responsibilities. This responsibility was so important to the group that they wanted their very best Christian men to wait on their widows. Let’s listen: “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them,…This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,…” (Acts 6:3 and 5a)

We don’t know how many months or years Stephen served the church by waiting on tables and serving meals to the widows, but Scripture does tell us a little more about him and about his faith. “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, and he did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people,” (Acts 6:8) And also Stephen must have been a good looking guy because the Bible says: “…they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15b) Stephen was such a help to everyone and such a power house for God. He was a man of integrity who went about and shared his faith, but then the trouble came!

Stephen began preaching and discussing the Scriptures in the Synagogues around Jerusalem and some of the Jews who heard him began to spread lies about what he was teaching. “They secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.’ So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the laws Moses handed down to us.’”. (Acts 6:11-14) Sadly the religious leaders were the ones who spread the lies about what Stephen was teaching. One of the falsehoods they told was that Stephen was blaspheming or trying to do away with the laws of Moses. They must have thought that they were protecting the laws of Moses by lying about Stephens’ teaching. But these religious leaders were breaking the very laws that they claimed to be standing up for. They were breaking one of their own Ten Commandments by lying and bearing false witness. The ninth commandment reads: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16) People in the name of God are still breaking that commandment today!

Stephens’ angry accusers brought him before the Sanhedrin for questioning. Caiaphas, the same high priest who had condemned Jesus a few years earlier, was still in power when Stephen came in for questioning. Stephen stood up before the religious leaders and went through the Old Testament scriptures pointing out how the prophets had foretold the coming of Jesus the Savior, the Righteous One, and the One who they had rejected and killed. (Acts 7:1-53 – Stephens’ sermon to the Sanhedrin)

When the religious leaders heard Stephen say that Jesus was the Righteous One that they had killed, they flew into a rage. And then everything happened quickly. The furious priests grabbed Stephen and started dragging him out of the city to kill him. It must have been a frightening scene to see this crazed mob yelling and shouting accusations as they shoved and pulled Stephen through the streets of the city and on to his death. As the men were hitting him and jerking him along Stephen looked up into heaven and saw a vision. “’Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’” (Acts 7:56)

The enraged men yelled the more and covered their ears so they couldn’t hear Stephens’ words as they pulled him along. Finally when they got outside the city they picked up stones and surrounded Stephen for the kill. Saul, who later became a Christian and was re-named Paul, was there with the group giving his approval for the stoning and holding the coats of the men who were throwing rocks at Stephen. (Acts7:58b and 8:1) It was a dreadful day!

Scripture tells the story of Stephen’s death. “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” (Acts 7:59-60) Amazingly right in the middle of this bloody and brutal stoning, he prays for forgiveness for his killers! Stephen was the first Christian to die for his faith in Jesus. And since then there have been many more Christians who have been martyred for their faith.

Right after Stephens’ death, the rest of the Christians in Jerusalem also became targeted for trouble. “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church, going from house to house; he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:1-3)

You would think that the leaders in Jerusalem would be happy that Stephen and the other Christians were living there among them. The sick were being healed and the hungry were being fed. Why would anyone have a problem with that? But unfortunately the same religious leaders who killed Jesus were still in power, and they also wanted to kill these new Christians. Jesus had already warned them that they would be persecuted if they followed Him, and the warning is there for us too. “If the world hates you, remember that it hated Me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18-20a)

It’s easy for us to forget that we may experience rejection by others if we follow Christ. We have been given warnings about this throughout Scripture, but we still can feel surprised when people, even family members, turn against us for seemingly no reason. One of the beatitudes also reminds us to expect persecution. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in this same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

I hope none of you will ever have to suffer persecution because of your faith in Christ. But if you do, just remember that you are in good company, since many Christians down through the ages have had to take up their cross to follow Jesus. Persecution is never an easy thing. But if you are rejected or persecuted because of your faith, just consider it to be an honor.