Acts 10

Read Acts 10 today.

Two days ago in Acts 8, we read about how God used Saul’s persecution to move the church and the gospel out of Jerusalem and into Judea and Samaria, just as Jesus said would happen in Acts 1:8. Then yesterday in Acts 9 we read how Jesus redeemed Saul and told Ananias how Saul was the Lord’s chosen instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

Taking the gospel to the Gentiles was the final phase of Jesus’ great commission in Acts 1:8. But transitioning the Christian church from a Jewish sect to a worldwide movement was going to be difficult. Gentiles were allowed to convert to Judaism before Jesus came, but they were always second class citizen to native Jews. For Gentile Christians to have full acceptance in the church, God would have to move in a special way.

That’s what we read about today in Acts 10. Although Saul was God’s chosen instrument to take the gospel to the Gentiles, God used Peter to be the first apostle to see Gentile converts to Christianity. Notice how God did this here in Acts 10.

First, God sent a vision to Cornelius in verses 1-8. Verse 2 of Acts 10 said, “He and all his family were devout and God-fearing….” The phrase “devout and God-fearing” indicates that he was a Gentile convert to Judaism. When God spoke to him, he was told to send for Simon Peter and he was told where to find him.

Second, just before Cornelius’ messengers arrived, God sent a vision to Peter telling him to eat foods that were unclean according to the law of Moses (vv. 11-14). Peter saw this vision three times (v. 16)–probably so that he would be completely convinced of what he saw. But verse 17 told us, “Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision…” which shows us that the larger meaning–the broadest interpretation and application of this revelation–was unclear to Peter. Surely God was not concerned about Peter’s diet, but what could be the greater lesson of this vision?

According to verse 17, the men sent by Cornelius arrived “while Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision.” Peter understood that the timing was not coincidental and he went to see Cornelius despite the fact that “it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile” (v. 28b) In verses 28b-29, Peter applied his vision about the unclean food to this meeting with Cornelius. Peter realized then and there “that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (vv. 34-35). Therefore, Peter gave them the gospel. That brings us to the next step in God’s process of bringing Gentiles into the church:

Third, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (v. 44b). The Jewish Christians who heard this “were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (v. 45b). This is telling us that these new Gentile believers had the same experience that Jesus’ disciples had in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost and that the Samaritan disciples had in Acts 8. The purpose of that dramatic, miraculous demonstration of the Spirit’s power was not to show us that all Christians must have these signs; rather, it was to demonstrate that Gentile believers are equal to Jewish believers in Jesus in every way. As a result of this experience, Peter “ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 48a).

The full implications of a church integrated with Jews and Gentiles alike would still have to be worked out by the early church. We’ll read about that in some of the chapters ahead.

But the point of this chapter was to show that God viewed and treated Gentile believers as equal in the church to Jewish believers. It would be wrong for the church, therefore, to discriminate against any believer.

Although we no longer have those Jewish-Gentile tensions in every Christian church, there are other ways in which the church is sometimes divided by race. Churches here in America are still divided along racial lines with “mostly white” churches, like ours is, frankly, and churches that are mostly African-Americans, or Latinos/Latinas, or Romanians, or Chinese Christians, and so on.

Language differences create some of these distinctions, but all of them are contrary to how God views true believers. In Christ there are no “white Christians” or “black Christians” or any other human category of Christians. To Jesus, there are only believers and unbelievers. All believers are accepted fully into God’s family through Him.

We cannot solve the divisions of churches in America on our own, but we can and should fully accept, welcome, and integrate anyone into our church family who has faith in Christ, is baptized in his name, and is seeking to do what the Lord commands. We should strive for this kind of unity, then, because it is pleasing to God.

Acts 6

Read Acts 6.

Every growing church experiences growing pains. It is a good problem to have because it means that the Lord is working and blessing his word. Acts 6:1 continues to describe the growth of the first church, the church in Jerusalem. Part of growing as a church, however, is dealing with growing pains. These are the problems that result when a church has more people and, therefore, more needs than the leaders of the church can handle.

The early church in Jerusalem experienced this, too. Verse 1 says that because the church was growing in numbers, some of the Gentile widows were not being cared for by the church like they once had been. This resulted in complaints and the apostles had to address the situation.

What are some ways they could have addressed responded to the discontent?

  1. Denial. They could have just refused to acknowledge the problem.
  2. Excuses. The apostles could have said, “We’re just 12 men and are going the best we can with the time and resources we have!”
  3. Blame-shifting. They could have said, “If you took more responsibility for the widows, the church wouldn’t have to care for them!”
  4. Time management. The apostles could have chosen to spend more time serving the widows and less time in prayer and the Word. Actually, that’s what they knew would happen unless found another way to meet the needs (see verse 2).

Fortunately, the apostles didn’t fall into any of these traps. Instead, they decided to enlist godly men around them. These men were chosen to take responsibility for meeting the needs of these widows (Acts 6:2-3). This gave a place of service to these believers. It also helped the apostles say focused. According to verses 3b-4, “We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” We don’t know for sure, but many scholars think this is the beginning of the office of “deacon” in the church.

The result of the focus and diligent service of these first deacons was that the church grew even more. Verse 7 says, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” When people are focused on one ministry objective and work diligently toward that objective, God entrusts more people to their care. But it was essential for people in the church to be willing to help when they were asked.

Every church needs committed believers who will give what time they have to serving the Lord. Have you found a place of service at Calvary? Are you willing to serve where needed when you are asked? Are you willing to volunteer when you see a need instead of waiting for someone else to do it or waiting for someone to ask you?

This is one of the best ways you can help Calvary to grow because it allows the elders of our church to focus on prayer and God’s word (v. 2).

2 Chronicles 3-4, Revelation 3

Read 2 Chronicles 3-4 and Revelation 3 today. This devotional is about Revelation 3.

Years ago, when I was in seminary, I was in the driveway of my house, scraping the old grass off the bottom of my mower. A couple that lived a few doors down the street walked by on the sidewalk. They asked me if I was a minister; I said I was in seminary preparing to become a pastor. The wife said, “You need to come to our church and become our pastor!” I was startled by that and said, “What church do you go to?” “St. Matt’s” she said, referring to a  church in our neighborhood, just around the corner from my house on the next block. They were walking home from a church members meeting at the time.

“Don’t you have a pastor?” I asked. “Yes, but all he does is tell stories about going to the grocery store and doing this and that. We need someone who will come and preach the gospel!” I was surprised by this conversation because the church she mentioned was part of a denomination that left orthodox Christianity a long time ago. I knew the church she was referring to had dwindled to only a few members and attenders, just like most of the churches in the denomination had. So, my surprise wasn’t that the preaching was unbiblical and weak; it was that there were members still there who knew the Lord!

That’s kind of what was going on at the church in Sardis that we read about in verses 1-6. The church was “dead” (v. 1b) and what little life remained was “about to die” (v. 2b). Yet verse 4 described a “few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes.” Christ commanded the entire church to repent and hold fast to his doctrine (v. 3) but the promise in verses 4-6 was that those who truly did trust Christ would be saved, even if the church died around them. Verse 5 promises, “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

In New Testament times, there was one church at the most in any town. So, if your church was dying, you couldn’t leave it for a living, growing one. That’s what most Christians would do today but there is something to be said for those who don’t give up the faith or the fight for a faithful church.

This passage also underscores the importance of walking with God personally even if others around you are not. At the last judgment, you will stand alone before God and so will I. We will be accountable to him for what we believe and how we lived, regardless of whether anyone else led us properly or walked with us in a way that pleases God. It must be strange to be one of the few (or only) true believers in a church, but that is no excuse to stop seeking the Lord yourself. I hope none of us is ever in that position, but regardless this passage should encourage us and challenge us to be diligent about our discipleship. If there are people who keep seeking the Lord in a dead and dying church, how much more should we be faithful to walk with him when we have so many others to encourage us, lead us and teach us to follow God!

Numbers 3, Isaiah 28, Acts 13

Read Numbers 3, Isaiah 28, Acts 13 today. This devotional is about Acts 13.

Being part of the first church in Jerusalem must have been an amazing experience. People were being saved all the time and everyone who believed started meeting in one another’s homes for prayer, instruction, and fellowship. Here in Acts 13, the first Gentile church at Antioch, seems to have had a similar experience. Verse 1a told us that there were “prophets and teachers” there and they are named in the latter half of that verse. Although they enjoyed great worship and fellowship, God’s work needed to go forward so that more and more people would become part of the church and, when Jesus returns, experience eternity in the kingdom of God. So God spoke in the person of the Holy Spirit and called on the church to send Barnabas and Saul out to evangelize people and form new churches.

Thus began both the “first missionary journey” of Paul and Barnabas and the final stage of the Great Commission as described in Acts 1:8: “…to the ends of the earth.”

God worked through Barnabas and Saul (and, for some reason, Luke the author of Acts, switched to calling him “Paul” in verse 9). People came to believe in Jesus and they were organized into local churches. But I want to focus for this devotional on the importance God’s mission over our comfort. The church at Antioch sounds like an amazing experience and, human nature being what it is, Paul and Barnabas may have desired to stay there for many years doing the Lord’s work. It took the direct voice of the Holy Spirit to compel the church to send Barnabas and Paul out on their first missionary journey. They needed God’s prompting to do what Jesus had commanded us to do in Acts 1:8–just as the Jerusalem church needed the prompting of persecution to move to “Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8).

God acts sovereignly to make sure that his will is done so we never have to worry about the mission failing.

What we should remember, however, is that until Jesus returns, we have work to do. It is easy to get very comfortable with the familiar–even (especially?) when God is using us and ministry is going well. But God did not call us to be comfortable, he commissioned us to spread the gospel and start churches.

This means that our church will sometimes have to part with people we love who are obedient to the mission. It has already happened to us in recent years and it will happen again.

This is also why we send 8-10% of our giving as a church away into missions and church planting. If we spent 100% of what God provided to us on our own work–even good, spiritual work–we would be disobedient to what God commanded us to do.

Maybe you’ve been considering some kind of change–giving more to the church or to missions, starting a new ministry here at Calvary, or going into church planting yourself. If comfort with the present situation is stopping you from taking on a new challenge for God’s glory, will you reconsider that in light of this passage?

Leviticus 21, Isaiah 17-18, Acts 6

Read Leviticus 21, Isaiah 17-18, and Acts 6 today. This devotional is about Acts 6.

A couple of things are important to keep in mind as we read these chapters describing the first church in Jerusalem.

  • First, remember that all of the disciples except for Judas were from Galilee, the northern part of Israel.
  • Second, most of Jesus disciples before his crucifixion were Galileans, too. 
  • Third, Jesus death, burial, resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit in power in Acts 2 happened in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is in Judea, the Southern part of  Israel. Jesus had told the disciples to stay there in Jerusalem until the Spirit’s power descended on them (see Acts 1:4).

After the Spirit came on the disciples in power, people began to trust Christ in large numbers (see Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4). Many of those who trusted Christ lived in Jerusalem and the early church met in their homes (see Acts 2:42). But many of them lived outside of Jerusalem like the Twelve disciples of Jesus did. These new believers, though, wanted to stay in Jerusalem and experience what God was doing in the church. So there are some new believers in the Jerusalem church who lived in Jerusalem and made their living in Jerusalem but many others (more?) who did not live in Jerusalem and, therefore, had no income for as long as they remained in Jerusalem.

These facts explain the need for so much sharing of homes, food, and money in the early church in Jerusalem. It wasn’t that the church was communistic or socialistic by nature; it was that many believers had no means of support while they stayed in Jerusalem, but they wanted to stay there and experience what God was doing. So, their brothers and sisters who had financial means generously shared with those who did not.

Here in Acts 6, then, we see that there were problems–gaps, even–in how people were being cared for in the early church. According to verse 1, there was some discrimination–intentional or not–regarding how people with needs were supported and cared for. In verse 2 the Twelve disciples gathered to discuss how to address this problem. It was a true dilemma because the needs of the people were legitimate and important; however, enough needed to happen logistically that some or all of the apostles could have had their time consumed by making sure all the needs were met.

The answer the Twelve came up with was to distribute responsibility to other people (vv. 3-4). This was to allow the Twelve to give their full attention to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (v. 4). Although the task given to these men did not require any particular spiritual gifting or skill, the disciples felt it was important to give the task to godly men (v. 3). Although this passage does not directly say it, many people (me included) think that this paragraph is how the office of deacon began in the church.

The men who were chosen for this ministry were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3). Yet they did not consider this task to be beneath them. In keeping with their reputations for godliness, these men had servants hearts and took on willingly the responsibility they were chosen for.

When you are asked to serve somewhere in the church, do you see it as a chance to serve the Lord or as a burden to bear? It is true that some people can be overburdened if they take on too many ministries, but it is also true that many people are unwilling to serve when asked. It is a blessing to serve the Lord and, as believers, we should be honored to serve him by serving his church when we are given the opportunity.

Genesis 3, Ezra 3, Psalm 3

Today we’re reading Genesis 3, Ezra 3, and Psalm 3.

This devotional is about Ezra 3, so read that chapter if you can’t do all of today’s reading.

The events recorded in Ezra happened late in Old Testament history. They happened after the kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon and after those kingdoms were divided into the Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom). Because of idolatry, God used the Assyrian Empire to scatter the northern kingdom of Israel. Years later, God then used the Babylonians to take the Southern Kingdom into captivity. Daniel and his friends were living in Babylon due to that captivity. Daniel, while reading Jeremiah, realized that the captivity would end after 70 years. Ezra recorded what happened after that 70 years of captivity ended.

First Cyrus the king of Persia was moved by the Lord to send the people of Judah living in exile back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. We read about that in Ezra 1. Ezra 2 recorded the names of those returned. At the end of Ezra 2, yesterday, we read, “When they arrived at the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, some of the heads of the families gave freewill offerings toward the rebuilding of the house of God on its site” (Ez 2:68). Then, today in Ezra 3 we read that the people “assembled together as one in Jerusalem” (v. 1b). They built an altar and began the routine sacrifices commanded in Moses’ law (v. 3). They also celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles (v. 4) and began rebuilding the Temple (vv. 7-13).

One thing that is impressive about this chapter is how quickly the people organized to begin worshipping the Lord together as a group. Verse 1 refers to the “seventh month” but that doesn’t mean seven months after they arrived. It means the seventh month on the Jewish calendar, the month when the Feast of Tabernacles would be celebrated (v. 4, 6). Although Ezra did not say so, the events of verses 1-6 happened probably only 3 or 4 months after the exiles returned to Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem they returned to was a mess. It had been completely destroyed by the Babylonians 70 years before and was uninhabited during that time. When they got there, they had to figure out who owned what property, then repair or rebuild some kind of home to live in. They also needed to make a living, so they also had to begin working to start an economy going again. Verse 3 says that they “had settled in their towns” but that “settling” was only a bare subsistence. They were far from a thriving, vibrant community at that point.

And yet, they began their worship as a nation and their obedience to God’s word pretty quickly. It is true that Cyrus sent them there to rebuild the temple (chapter 1), but it would have been easy to make excuses–very plausible excuses–about the importance of making sure they could survive before they began worshipping God corporately again. They also could have said, “Well, we need to rebuild the temple first, then we can do the sacrifices and feast days.” But the temple took two years to get going (v. 8). Rather than wait, their faith in God and zeal for his glory caused them to obey his word as soon as they could.

All of this indicates what a priority worship was for these Israelites. Unlike their ancestors who worshipped idols and mixed God’s word with pagan gods and rituals, the 70 years of exile had chastened them and had shown them the importance of faith in God’s word and obedience to it.

I wonder if we would respond the same way? If some natural disaster wiped out all of our homes and businesses and leveled our church building, would those of us who survived that want to get together as soon as possible to start worshipping again?

I’d like to think that gathering again as a church family would be very important to us. Maybe a tragedy like that would make it so. But, when I think about how many people in our church attend our Sunday worship here and there, I wonder. Many people are faithful to our worship services Sunday after Sunday but many others attend for a Sunday or two, then disappear for weeks at a time. They all have reasons but how many of those reasons are just excuses laid on top of poor priorities? And that’s just Sunday services we’re talking about. Small group attendance and Calvary Class attendance is even more random and unpredictable.

This passage, and the coming of a new year, give us a chance to think about our priorities and where our time is spent. The fact that you’re reading these devotionals probably puts you in the category of people who are committed to the Lord and his work in our church. But, there is always the temptation to get distracted and let priorities fall out of whack. Don’t let that happen to you and, if you have a chance to encourage someone else who isn’t attending regularly, take the opportunity to speak to them for their good as a believer in Christ.

1 Corinthians 5

Today the reading schedule invites us to read 1 Corinthians 5

This short chapter discusses the difficult subject of church discipline. The occasion for the Corinthians was a man in their church who was committing adultery with his father’s wife (v. 1). The fact that she is not called his mother probably means that she is a step-mother to the man. Regardless, Paul was appalled (no pun intended though enjoyed) both that someone who claimed to be a believer would do this (v. 1) and that the Corinthian church tolerated this sin in their church family (v. 2). In fact, “tolerated” may be too mild a term; the phrase, “and you are proud” indicates that the Corinthians celebrated this sin. It would be nice to know more about what Paul was suggesting. Maybe the Corinthians saw their tolerance of this sin as some advanced display of grace? Regardless, Paul called on the church to remove this man from the church through church discipline as we saw in the phrase, “put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this” (v. 2b). What, then, does this passage teach us about church discipline?

First, that church discipline is public. Verse 4 told the Corinthians to handle this matter, “when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present” (v. 4). That phrase is speaking of a public gathering of the church, not a private meeting or a letter. When someone is removed from church membership through discipline, all the other members of the church should know of his removal and why he was removed.

Second, that church discipline is for the spiritual good of the person placed under discipline. Verse 5b describes the purpose of this act with this phrase, “so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.” Remember that no one should be disciplined from the church until they have been confronted with their sin and given the opportunity to repent. A repentant believer is not removed from the church because he is responding to sin the way that a Christian should. But a person who will not repent when their sin is addressed is acting like an unbeliever. Paul is very concerned that the man described in 1 Corinthians 5 will go to hell because his open practice of sin is not consistent with the life of a believer. A main goal of removing him publicly is to shake him out of the false confidence of salvation he has so that he will repent of his sin like a believer should or turn to Christ genuinely for salvation.

Third, that church discipline is for the good of the church, too. Verses 6-8 compares sin to yeast (leaven). A little bit of yeast expands throughout baking dough to make the resulting bread soft and cause it to rise. The image is that the yeast grows to affect the whole loaf; likewise, sin unaddressed in the church also grows and expands until it pervades the entire body. Church discipline, then, removes the sin by disassociating the church from the person under discipline. While the people in the church might still see this man around, they are no longer to regard him as a brother in Christ who is growing in his faith. This has a sobering affect on the rest of the congregation, showing them that sin will not be tolerated in the body of Christ.

Church discipline is always a difficult thing, stressful for everyone involved. It is like surgery for the body of Christ. A surgeon wounds your physical body in order to remove or repair something that is affecting your health in the long term. Church discipline, likewise, is painful to the body, but God uses it to bring long-term health and healing to the body of Christ.