Acts 17

Today’s reading is Acts 17.

Yesterday we read about Paul’s venture into Greece. While he was there, Paul found people who were ready to receive the gospel and others who were ready to persecute him and his team. As he always did, Paul started presenting the gospel to the Jewish people in every city, then expanded his witness out to the Gentiles (v. 2, 4, 10, 12, 17). Paul went to Athens (vv. 15-34) but not because he was planning to preach the gospel there. Instead, he was waiting there for his teammates Silas and Timothy who were supposed to get there ASAP (v. 15).

While in Athens, Paul did speak to the Jewish people who lived there (v. 17) but he also found a secular audience for his message in the marketplace (v. 17b) and on the hill called Areopagus (v. 19). This passage gives us a glimpse into how Paul presented Christ to Gentile non-believers. Notice that he did not seek common ground with these men; rather, he used their altar “to an unknown God” (v. 23) as a starting point for his message, but quickly moved to direct confrontation by saying they were “ignorant of the very thing you worship” (v. 23b). He told them that the true God, the Creator God, did not reside in manmade structures (v. 24) or need food from human hands (v. 25a). Furthermore, he chided them for thinking that manmade statues had any significance for knowing and worshipping God (v. 29), then he moved to preaching repentance, judgment, and the resurrection of Christ from the dead (vv. 30-31).

Of all the controversial things Paul said, the resurrection of the dead was the one that seemed to create the strongest negative reaction among his listeners (v. 32). This is not at all the only place where people objected to his teaching that Christ rose from the dead. Yet Paul never shied away from teaching that God was invisible, not an idol, or that Christ rose from the dead bodily.

Instead, he went straight to the truths of the Christian faith that would be most controversial. This approach is quite a bit different than the way that many of us talk about God. When we talk about God, we may be tempted to avoid the supernatural and just stick to talking about Jesus and what he can do for you. But the reason that Paul didn’t retreat from the controversial aspects of the gospel is that he knew that believing the gospel required God’s supernatural gift of faith, not a group of secular arguments.

The point for us to emulate here is not to minimize the difficult points of the gospel like the resurrection but to feature them in our presentation of the gospel. When we do that, we are relying on God’s power to save people, not our ability to argue people into assenting that Jesus is the Christ.

Acts 14

Read Acts 14.

Paul and Barnabas are still on that first missionary journey which concluded here at the end of Acts 14, specifically verses 26-28.

As God’s miraculous power worked through these chosen men (vv. 8-10), it was inevitable that someone would ascribe deity to them (vv. 11-13). Unlike Herod back in Acts 12, Barnabas and Paul did not receive the worship that was offered to them; instead, they turned the attention back to the one true God (vv. 14-15) and used this misunderstanding as another avenue to deliver the true gospel. In just a few short verses–verses 15b-18, to be exact, Paul began to describe the religious history of humanity:

  • First, God created everyone and everything. Verse 15b says, “…the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.”
  • Second, humanity rebelled against God by sinning. As families developed into nations, God chose Abraham and the nation that would come from him and let all other “nations go their own way” (v. 16).
  • The third point would have been “but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30b) but Jewish opponents interrupted Paul’s message in verses 19-20.

Going back to the second point where God “let all nations go their own way” (v. 16), one might think that it would be unjust for God to punish pagan nations that did not receive his law and his promises like Israel did. Paul and Barnabas anticipated that objection in verse 17a and said, “Yet he has not left himself without testimony….”

God did not speak directly–theologians call this “special revelation”–to other nations as he did with Israel. But he did communicate with these nations through “general revelation.” Barnabas and Paul specified what this general revelation–the “testimony” they referenced–was in the next few phrases of verse 17: “by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.”

We tend to focus on the hardships of living in a fallen world and there are severe hardships. Some of these hardships are death and the sorrow it causes, physical pain due to illness and injury, sin and the consequences and pain it causes, natural disasters, and others.

But God has been very good to us all–believers and unbelievers alike. During our lifetime, we enjoy food, friendships and family, physical affection, excitement, joy, rest, and many other blessings. These are all gifts of God; he could have punished Adam and Eve with immediate death that would have disallowed the human race from ever growing beyond them. That would have prevented us from ever knowing the joys of God’s creation and from wondering about the Creator who is the source of them all. Unbelievers, then, know enough about God to damn their souls for eternity. This knowledge gives us a starting point for evangelism, just as it did for Paul and Barnabas in this chapter.

As Christians, now that we know God and have the better light of his word–“special revelation”–we have all the things Paul and Barnabas listed here and more to lift our hearts in praise and worship to God. Think of one blessing in your life that you may have taken for granted today. Now let that be the starting point for your prayers and praise to God today.

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 4

Read Acts 4.

This chapter continues the story we started yesterday. Remember that Peter and John were going to the temple to pray and, by the power of Christ, Peter healed a man who had been unable to walk for his entire life. Peter then used the attention from the man’s healing to call people to repentance and faith in Jesus. That was Acts 3.

Here in Acts 4, we read about the fallout from that healing. The religious leaders who engineered the Roman execution of Jesus were very unhappy to see his power on display through the disciples and to hear the message about Jesus going out through them (vv. 1-2).

So, those religious leaders jailed Peter and John (v. 3) but the gospel did its work as “But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand” (v. 4). Unable to deny the miracle that had happened (vv. 5-16), the religious leaders of Jerusalem commanded them to stop evangelizing (vv. 17-18).

Verses 19-20 describe how Peter and John refused to obey the command to stop teaching about Jesus. Verse 33 says, “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all” which shows that they did not stop spreading the gospel message.

But what if they had stopped spreading the gospel message?

First, the advance of the gospel would have been much different. Jesus had said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, so he would have chosen others to spread the gospel even if the disciples had been disobedient. We can see that somewhat in his choice of the Apostle Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

Second, and more importantly, I think the unity, selflessness, and joy of the early church as described in verses 31-37 would have dissipated.

When the church focuses on itself, conflicts and strife inevitably come in. Satan wants to disrupt God’s work and get us off mission by stirring up conflict and strife.

When we’re reaching outside of ourselves, however, there is a lot less time and energy available for internal factions, arguments, and strife. Outreach and evangelism aren’t going to ward off problems because problems are inevitable in a fallen world. But spreading the gospel keeps us focused on Jesus–his work and our need for his power–which helps us keep our focus off of ourselves.

So let’s not forget that we are here to introduce Christ to the world. Our contact with other people is limited these days by the pandemic. But that won’t go on forever (I hope) and, when life returns to normal, we should remind ourselves that we are here to bring the gospel message to the world.

Acts 1

Today let’s read Acts 1.

Acts continues the story of Jesus’ ministry after he left this earth as told by Luke, the author of the Gospel we just finished reading. Here in chapter 1, Luke briefly addressed Theophilus in verse 1. This is the same original reader Luke was writing for when he wrote the Gospel According to Luke (see Luke 1:3).

As we saw in Luke 24 on Friday, Luke ended that volume with a brief description of Jesus’ ascension. Here in Acts 1, Luke rewound the tape a bit and described for us some of Jesus’ final words to his apostles in verses 4-8.

Remember way back in Luke 3:16 that John the Baptist said that Jesus would “…baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Here in Acts 1:5 Jesus echoed that saying of John when he said, “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So Christ told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem (v. 4).

Now that Jesus had died and was raised from the dead, the disciples are curious about what would come next. Their question to Christ in verse 6 was, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” That’s what they had expected of Messiah all along. They expected him to become king of Israel, defeat the Romans, and then establish Israel as God’s eternal kingdom.

Jesus ducked their question. In verse 7 he told them that the restoration of the kingdom to Israel was none of their business. But notice that he didn’t refute the idea that the kingdom would be restored to Israel; instead he said, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” God’s promise of a kingdom for Israel is still valid; it’s the time period we call “The Millennium” and it still awaits at a future day and time set in God’s will.

Until the Millennium comes, God’s will for us is clear and simple: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (v. 8). The rest of the book of Acts unfolds how the first generation of Christians obeyed this command.

Since Jesus has not returned yet, however, the responsibility for obedience to this passed down from the apostles to the rest of us who make up the church at this time. One of the easiest ways to contribute to this mission Christ gave us is to invite people to church with you.

During this COVID-19 lockdown, we can’t do that! But someday we’ll get back to meeting together in real life. And, I think people will be looking for opportunities to get out of the house and do something when this “Stay at home” order is lifted, so people may be more open to visiting church when this is over.

Maybe this is a good time for you to think about who you should invite to church. Maybe you should reach out to them by text today and let them know you’re praying for them.

Luke 23

Read Luke 23.

Yesterday we read about Jesus’ religious trial in Luke 22:66-71. That trial was for blasphemy (see Matt 26:64-66). Since Jesus claimed to be “the Son of God” (vv. 69-70 here in Luke 23) and that he would “be seated at the right hand of the mighty God” the religious leaders of his era concluded that he was speaking irreverently of God, which is what “blasphemy” means.

That was worthy of death in Jewish law (again, Matt 26:66); the problem was that these religious leaders did not have the legal authority to perform capital punishment. If they killed Jesus themselves, they could have been charged with murder by the Roman government. So, here in Luke 23, Jesus was taken to Pilate, the Roman governor of their area, for trial (v. 1).

Their religious reasons for killing Jesus were insufficient for Roman law, so they charged Jesus with sedition (v. 2) before Pilate.

Pilate found the charge unpersuasive since Jesus answered indirectly and didn’t seem like much of a threat (vv. 3), so Pilate ruled in Jesus’ favor in verse 4.

The “chief priests and the crowd” in verse 5 tried to muster some evidence against Jesus so they talked about how many multitudes had been following him in Galilee. Galilee was under the political government of Herod Antipas who happened to be in town (vv. 6-7). Note that Pilate was governor of Judea, the southern part of Israel while Herod was in charge of Galilee, the northern part of Israel. Jerusalem is in Judea, the South, so they were in Pilate’s territory when Jesus was arrested, but as a Galilean, Herod could be responsible for dealing with Jesus (v. 7). Pilate tried to dodge responsibility by letting Herod deal with Jesus. Herod tried to talk to Jesus, but Jesus refused so, after mocking Jesus, Herod sent him back to Pilate (vv. 8-12).

Once again Pilate tried various ways to release Jesus, knowing that his death would be unjust (vv. 13-22), but he finally buckled to the pressure of the crowd and approved Jesus for the death penalty (vv. 23-26).

Jesus was not alone in his crucifixion. Two other men were crucified with Jesus (vv. 32-43) but they had very different reactions to him. One man joined the mocking of the crowd (v. 39) but the other man spoke up and rebuked the first criminal (v. 40). Notice the words of the criminal who spoke up for Jesus: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

That criminal was someone who understood sin and punishment. In his own case, and apparently based on what he knew of the other man, he knew that he was guilty and deserved the death penalty. But how could he know that Jesus was innocent? Did he overhear the trial of Christ before Pilate? Had he heard Jesus teaching at some point earlier in his life? Maybe one or both of these things is true and maybe that’s what caused him to say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

But whatever he knew of Jesus and however he knew it, he believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that even though Jesus was dying, he would still be king!

What a remarkable thing! Yet it is a testimony not to the man’s keen spiritual insight but to God’s saving grace. In the final hours of his life, this man turned to Jesus in faith and believed that his eternity would be safe in Jesus’ hands. Jesus comforted him with the promise, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43). Despite all the sinful things he had done, sins so bad they got him executed, he found forgiveness in Christ at the end of his life.

Time seems to harden people to the gospel. It is very rare to see an elderly person–even someone who is dying–accept Christ as savior. Many prisoners who hear the gospel profess faith in Christ but certainly not all of them. Facts like these sometimes cause me to be pessimistic when giving the gospel to adults.

But my pessimism is wrong. God can save anyone he chooses to save. Hardened criminals who have done wicked crimes can be changed by the power of Jesus Christ. The conversion of this criminal should remind us and encourage us not to pre-judge whether someone will be saved or not. We shouldn’t decide in advance whether or not we think someone will turn to Christ in faith; we should understand that God is saving people all over the world at different points in life and, in some cases, with very little knowledge about Jesus. Let’s trust God, then, and be faithful to give the gospel when we can.

Luke 13

Read Luke 13.

A few weeks ago, workers in China built a new hospital. The hospital was needed to quarantine and treat victims of COVID-19 which was spreading rapidly.

Construction on the hospital took 10 days. The time-lapse video of it being built is very impressive.* It’s incredible how rapidly they were able to built it.

God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that. God does not build his kingdom rapidly. Instead, Jesus said it was like a mustard seed that grew into a tree (v. 19) or yeast that permeated a huge lump of dough (v. 21).

Both of these things happen slowly, imperceptibly. You can plant a mustard seed and look at it everyday. You will see that it has changed over time but you can’t see it changing in time. The growth is happening too slowly to see in real time, but it is happening.

So it is with the gospel. There have been times in church history when thousands came to Christ at the same time (Acts 2:41) but every salvation happens individually and usually those individuals believe alone or in a small cluster. Yet, everyday, all over the world, people are being saved. The church worldwide grows a little bit all the time and, when Jesus returns, we’ll enter the kingdom and see how that little mustard seed has become a massive tree.

If you’ve lost faith in God’s saving power, take heart. The kingdom of God is not a hastily assembled hospital built by people forced to work around the clock by their tyrannical government.

Instead, it is a tree, growing slowly but constantly. And you and I contribute to that growth as we share the gospel message with others.


*https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7VvV10S4QSw