Galatians 2

Read Galatians 2.

In our earlier readings from Acts, we noted the tensions that began when God saved Gentiles and gave them the same spiritual status as the Jewish believers in Jesus had. Here in the book of Galatians, Paul urged the churches he started in this region not to succumb to the teaching of the “Judaizers.” That was a group of people who claimed faith in Jesus but insisted that all Christians conform to Jewish law.

Here in Galatians 2, Paul recounted his own first-hand struggle as a Christian against the idea that Christians must obey the law. Peter recognized Paul as a genuine believer (v. 9b) and Peter and the other apostles also recognized the commission of Christ to Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles (vv. 7, 9c). Yet Peter himself failed, at times, to act “in line with the truth of the gospel.” (v. 14b).

Sometimes Peter acted as if his Jewish background didn’t matter, so he blended right in with the Gentile believers (v. 12a). But when there were Jewish believers around, Peter feared their disapproval and segregated himself from the Gentiles (v. 12b). That was hypocrisy (v. 13a) and Paul spoke to Peter directly about it.

The point of this chapter is to emphasize the implications of the gospel. If Jesus really has fulfilled the law of God and if we are justified simply by believing in him, then it is wrong to add any religious or moral works as requirements for salvation.

But a secondary lesson in this passage has to do with Peter’s hypocrisy. Despite how much Jesus loved Peter, taught him, and entrusted to him as an apostle, Peter was still human. He was still vulnerable to fear the opinions of others and, therefore, still susceptible to hypocrisy.

Yet, despite his status as an apostle, Peter had the humility to receive Paul’s correction. Let none of us, then, think that we are above or beyond the correcting power of truth. We remain sinners until Jesus glorifies us finally, so let’s be ready to accept correction and grow from it when we are corrected with the truth.

Acts 12

Read Acts 12 today.

Persecution by the religious leadership in Jerusalem started back in Acts 7 with the stoning of Stephen. It continued in Acts 8 through Saul, but God saved him in Acts 9.

Here in Acts 12 we were told that Herod, a Jewish political leader, joined in the persecution of the church. Herod began this persecution in a brutal way with the execution of James (vv. 1-2). There are a few guys in the New Testament named James; another one of them is actually mentioned in verse 17. The James that Herod killed in verse 2 was “the brother of John,” which identifies him as one of the Twelve apostles and the son of Zebedee (see Matt 4:21 & 10:2).

The religious leaders of Israel were happy that Herod had joined them in persecuting the church (v. 3a), so he arrested Simon Peter and intended to try him publicly (v. 4). Because it was Passover season, Herod waited for Peter’s trial and execution and that time of waiting bought the church some time to pray for him.

Verse 5 told us, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” And God answered their prayers in a miraculous way by sending an angel to rescue Simon Peter (vv. 7-11).

Yet, when Peter showed up to the prayer meeting, people had a hard time believing that he had really been freed (vv. 12-17). When I was taught this passage as a child in Sunday school, the teacher suggested that the church didn’t really believe that God would answer their prayers, that why they were so startled to see Peter.

I’m not sure that’s right; in fact, I’m pretty sure it is wrong.

The fact that the church was “earnestly praying for Peter” (v. 5) suggests that God’s people were doing the right thing–prayer–from sincere hearts. They wanted God to free Peter and believed that God would, if it was his will.

That last part, “…if it was his will…” is important. Verse 2 didn’t tell us that anyone was praying for James to be freed but it is hard to believe that they weren’t praying for that. Yet God did not will to rescue James from death as he did for Peter.

I think the church was startled when Peter was released because of how God rescued him, not that God rescued him. I think the church was expecting a more providential release, meaning that God would change Herod’s heart and Peter would be acquitted at his trial (v. 4d) or just outright released.

Instead of that, though, God performed a miracle to release Peter. It was so startling–and unexpected–that even Peter himself was unprepared for it (vv. 6-11).

The lesson here, then, is not that we should have more faith when we pray. That’s always true; as fallen people, our faith could always be stronger and purer.

The lesson instead is that we shouldn’t set our hopes on the method by which God answers prayer. Part of praying in faith is submitting our prayers to God’s will–both for the outcome and for the way in which God makes that outcome happen.

Have you ever been surprised by how God answered your prayers? Maybe he made your faith stronger through a trial in your life. Maybe he helped you get rid of a sin in your life by causing that sin to be exposed instead of making your desire for it go away suddenly.

What have you been praying for? Is it possible that God is answering–but you just don’t see it yet because you’re looking for a different answer?

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.

Luke 22

Read Luke 22.

This lengthy chapter in Luke’s gospel detailed Jesus’s betrayal, last supper, and his religious trial by “the chief priests and the teachers of the law” (v. 66).

In between his last supper and his arrest, the disciples argued (again) about who was the greatest (vv. 23-30). Jesus assured them that they all would be great in his kingdom when he said, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (vv. 29-30).

Then he turned and spoke to Simon Peter in verse 31. He told Simon that just as Satan had requested permission to strike Job, he had also “asked to sift all of you as wheat” (v. 31b). This is a visual reference to separating the edible part of wheat from the inedible chaff that covers wheat. Satan was asking to put all the disciples through trials in order to try to separate them from their faith.

This should have been a chilling thing to hear, so Christ quickly added that he had prayed for Simon specifically “that your faith may not fail” (v. 32). But then he said, “And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” These two phrases suggest that Peter would be the first to face the trial of his faith in God and, having withstood the test with his faith in tact, he should help the other disciples as they faced tests of their faith.

But notice the phrase, “And when you have turned back” In verse 32b. This phrase indicates that Peter would struggle with the test of his faith. The specifics of that struggle were explained by Christ in verse 34 when he told Peter that he would deny Christ three times.

Peter did face the test of his faith in verses 54-62 and, as Jesus predicted, he struggled with the test. In three separate incidents, Jesus denied knowing Jesus (v. 57), being a follower of Jesus (v. 58), and even understanding what was going on with Jesus (v. 60).

So here we have one of the most vocal of Jesus’ apostles, a natural leader who was part of Jesus’ inner circle of three people, a man who had proclaimed himself ready to die with Jesus just a few hours before (v. 33) who evaded association with Jesus altogether when the pressure was on.

And yet apparently his faith did “not fail” (v. 32). It sure looks like failure, so how to we reconcile all of this?

First, we need to understand that there is a difference between a failure of faith and a failure to admit to faith in Jesus. Peter’s denial of Christ was a failure to admit to being a disciple, not a complete renunciation of Jesus. The fact that he “wept bitterly” (v. 62) after it happened shows that his faith was genuine. The problem was that his faith was also weak. In that moment, his fear of being punished with Christ outweighed his belief that God would protect him or allow him to endure the trial with Jesus. It did not mean that he no longer believed in Jesus.

Second, we need to understand that “denying Jesus” or renouncing your faith is more about a complete break with the Christian community than it is about a particular incident in someone’s life. Judas rejected Jesus; he conspired with the religious leaders to betray Jesus (vv. 4-5) which meant finding “an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present” (v. 6). That was a complete rejection of Jesus and all that he claimed to be.

Judas’s break with Christ and Christianity was premeditated and based in greed. Peter’s denial of Jesus was not premeditated and it was based in fear, not greed. What Peter did was lie about his faith in Jesus out of fear of persecution; what Judas did was completely reject Christ personally in such a way that Jesus would also be eliminated publicly.

Finally, Peter’s faith was strengthened by this trial, which is why God allows us to go through trials of faith. Later in life, tradition tells us, Peter did pay the ultimate price for following Jesus.

So what about us? There are times, aren’t there, when we are put on the spot and fail to speak up for Christ. Does that mean we are “ashamed of Jesus” and that he’ll be “ashamed of us” when he returns (Luke 9:26)?

No–or at least, not usually. Maybe someone, when put on the spot, might blurt out for the first time that he doesn’t really believe in Jesus after he had already decided that in his heart. But Peter shows that genuine Christians sometimes have weak faith; that faith may cause them to waver from publicly claiming Christ. It might even, at times, cause them to question God as we see in some of the Psalms. A true believer may have doubts and denials at times caused by weakness in faith but if you are a true believer, God will strengthen your faith over time so that you will stand for Christ later on in your life.

So, be encouraged! If Simon Peter could deny Jesus three times–after all the miracles and teachings he experienced first and–and still become a great apostle for Christ then people like us who are weak a times may fail in our walk with Christ at times. But know that God’s grace is powerful! He will strengthen you when you fail and teach you how to walk with him and stand for him when it is scary and potentially costly to be a Christian.

Matthew 17

Read Matthew 17.

God’s Law required Jewish men to pay a flat tax at every census “for the service of the tent of meeting” (v. 16 of Ex 30:11-16). By the time of Jesus, this tax had become an annual fee required of every man in Israel between twenty and fifty years old.

So, the tax we read about here in Matthew 17:24-27 was not a Roman tax but fee paid for the ongoing ministry of the temple. Every good Jewish man paid it as part of his faithfulness to God in obedience to God’s law.

This is why Peter answered so quickly and confidently when he was asked if Jesus paid the temple tax (vv. 24-25). Other men might be tax-cheats and religious deadbeats but Peter was certain Jesus wasn’t among them.

It turned out, however, that Peter spoke out of turn. If you were an Über driver, you would not charge your kids for rides to school even though you charge everyone else for a ride. That would just be weird and stupid.

Likewise, Jesus did not pay that tax because he’s the Son of God (v. 5). There was no need for him to pay his Father for admission into their “house” (vv. 25b-26).

Peter had just witnessed Christ’s transfiguration (vv. 1-8) so he could have–should have–reasoned his way to the right conclusion. Jesus HAD to pay the tax now; otherwise, he’d appear to be deceptive and this situation would have caused stumbling (“offense,” v. 27) to those who had asked the question.

Because Peter is the one who put Jesus on the hook for the taxes, he could have taken responsibility to pay Jesus’s tax himself. Christ could have insisted that Peter do so for the same reason. “Learn your lesson, Peter.”

Instead, Jesus told Peter how to perform a miracle that would pay both Jesus’s and Peter’s tax (v. 27).

This story demonstrates the implications of two truths in this passage:

One is that Jesus is the Son of God as the transfiguration demonstrated (vv. 1-8, esp. v. 5). The implication of that truth is that the temple belongs to him so he doesn’t need to pay for it.

A second implication grows out of verses 22-23. There Jesus predicted his death. That passage did not explain that his death would cover the disciples’s sin obligation before God but we know that was the purpose of it. Here, Jesus takes on the obligation of Peter, providing for his temple tax as well as the one his quick mouth obligated Jesus to pay (v. 27). Instead of making Peter pay these obligations himself, Jesus provided payment for Peter’s obligations to God if Peter believed and did what Jesus told him to do (v. 27).

This is a simple illustration of what Christ has done for all of us. We not only are obligated to serve and worship God but we incur greater obligation to him every time we speak untruthful words or do evil things. Yet Christ provides the means to cover all our obligations to a holy and perfect God.

One other truth to think about from this passage: How confident are we about the things we say are true or false based on our faith-relationship with God? When people ask us if:

  • …a loving God would send people to hell?
  • …would God ever disapprove of two people loving each other, even if they are the same sex or one is already married or a guy and girl want to live together without getting married?
  • …if Christianity is the only way to God or could a sincere adherent to another religion who never heard the gospel be saved?
  • …or any other of a long list of questions

…do we give scriptural answers or answer off the cuff on God’s behalf like Peter did?

What about if someone asks whether all infants who die go to heaven or not or whether Jesus would vote for a certain presidential candidate or not. Do you speak your answer confidently like Peter did in verse 24 or do you talk through the scriptural principles with the person who asked you?

We are often too quick with our words, too confident about our answers. There are biblical principles that apply to any question in the previous paragraph and many others. I’m not at all saying that we can’t give a good answer to those questions.

Instead, I’m asking you to consider your words. Do you speak for God recklessly like Peter did in verse 24? Is there a better way to handle the question of unbelievers?

1 Chronicles 15, Zechariah 8, John 21

Read 1 Chronicles 15, Zechariah 8, and John 21 today. This devotional is about John 21.

After his resurrection, Jesus made several appearances. We read about an important one today here in John 21. The purpose of these appearances, of course, was to demonstrate his resurrection. But although he spent extended time with the disciples, he did not resume his previous ministry, nor did he overthrow the Roman government and establish his kingdom as the disciples expected.

That must have been unsettling to the disciples. Jesus was alive and he showed up at times, but he didn’t stay around; instead, he would spend time with them, then disappear. What was the plan going forward? They did not know.

So, Peter being the natural leader that he was, announced his intention to go fishing (v. 3). The other disciples who were with him followed (v. 2, 3b). We do not know if Peter did this to pass the time, to resume something familiar in his life, or if he was dabbling with the idea of returning to his previous occupation.

Regardless of why, he was no good at it anymore. Verse 3b says, “…that night they caught nothing.” Hard to stay in business if that happens to you often. While it probably wasn’t unprecedented for Peter before he became a disciple of Jesus, it was far from normal. After their failure to catch any fish, Jesus revealed himself by giving them a miraculous catch (vv. 4-7).

Although they now had plenty of fish to eat themselves and to sell, Jesus had already made breakfast preparations for them (v. 9). He fed them (v. 13), then turned to the matter of Peter’s restoration.

Peter had seen Christ after his resurrection before this incident, but his denial of Jesus at his trial was still unresolved. Until Jesus addressed it, Peter’s denial would be a barrier to Peter becoming the leader Jesus had appointed him to be. In this passage, Jesus asked Peter to affirm his love–his commitment–to Christ three times, one that corresponded to each of his denials of Jesus. Each time he affirmed his love for Jesus, Jesus commanded him to care for his followers. The point was made that Peter’s denial was forgiven; now he must do what the Lord commanded by caring for God’s people (v. 15c, 16c, and 17d). The final command to Peter was to be ready to die for Christ (v. 18) but to follow Jesus anyway (v. 19).

Do you have any failures in your past that are impeding your present ability to serve Jesus? Take a lesson from this passage. Jesus was gracious toward Peter; he knew that Peter was repentant for denying Christ but that he felt lingering guilt about doing it. Jesus refocused Peter’s attention, calling him to commit to Christ in the present and stay committed to him in the future, even though it would cost him his life. The issue wasn’t that Peter had failed Jesus and so he had to go back to fishing because he couldn’t be an effective apostle. The issue is that he needed to focus on following Jesus–doing what Christ commanded him to do today.

So it is for any one of us. If you are consumed with regret or sorrow over failures in your life, let this passage be restorative for you. No matter what you’ve done, it isn’t as spectacularly bad as denying you even know Jesus while he was being treated unjustly. If Jesus forgave and restored Peter to useful service, he will do so for you, too. Forget about the failures of the past; focus today on following Jesus and doing what he commands right now. That’s the way forward if you’re his disciple.

John 21

Today’s reading is John 21.

After his resurrection, Jesus made several appearances. We read about an important one today here in John 21. The purpose of these appearances, of course, was to demonstrate his resurrection. But although he spent extended time with the disciples, he did not resume his previous ministry, nor did he overthrow the Roman government and establish his kingdom as the disciples expected (see Acts 1:6).

This must have been unsettling to the disciples. Jesus was alive and he showed up at times, but he didn’t stay around; instead, he would spend time with them, then disappear. What was the plan going forward? They did not know.

So, Peter being the natural leader that he was, announced his intention to go fishing (v. 3). The other disciples who were with him followed (v. 2, 3b). We do not know if Peter did this to pass the time, to resume something familiar in his life, or if he was dabbling with the idea of returning to his previous occupation.

Regardless of why, he was no good at it anymore. Verse 3b says, “…that night they caught nothing.” Hard to stay in business if that happens to you often. While it probably wasn’t unprecedented for Peter before he became a disciple of Jesus, it was far from normal. After their failure to catch any fish, Jesus revealed himself by giving them a miraculous catch (vv. 4-7).

Although they now had plenty of fish to eat themselves and to sell, Jesus had already made breakfast preparations for them (v. 9). He fed them (v. 13), then turned to the matter of Peter’s restoration.

While it is true that Peter had seen Christ before this, it is also true that the memory of his denial of Jesus was still fresh in his memory. Until Jesus addressed it, Peter’s denial would be a barrier to Peter becoming the leader Jesus had appointed him to be. In this passage, Jesus asked Peter to affirm his love–his commitment–to Christ three times, one that corresponded to each of his denials of Jesus. Each time he affirmed his love for Jesus, Jesus commanded him to care for his followers. The point was made that Peter’s denial was forgiven; now he must do what the Lord commanded by caring for God’s people (v. 15c, 16c, and 17d). The final command to Peter was to be ready to die for Christ (v. 18) but to follow Jesus anyway (v. 19).

Do you have any failures in your past that are impeding your present ability to serve Jesus? Take a lesson from this passage. Jesus was gracious toward Peter; he knew that Peter was repentant for denying Christ but that he felt lingering guilt about doing it. Jesus refocused Peter’s attention, calling him to commit to Christ in the present and stay committed to him in the future, even though it would cost him his life. The issue wasn’t that Peter had failed Jesus and so he had to go back to fishing because he couldn’t be an effective apostle. The issue is that he needed to focus on following Jesus–doing what Christ commanded him to do today.

So it is for any one of us. If you are consumed with regret or sorrow over failures in your life, let this passage be restorative for you. No matter what you’ve done, it isn’t as spectacularly bad as denying you even know Jesus while he was being treated unjustly. If Jesus forgave and restored Peter to useful service, he will do so for you, too. Forget about the failures of the past; focus today on following Jesus and doing what he commands right now. That’s the way forward if you’re his disciple.