Monday, May 25, 2015

The pure and passionate early church

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Acts 2:22-47

TO CHEW ON: "So continuing daily with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved." Acts 2:46-47


What a contrast is this band of happy, praising people with the cowed and timid group that had clung to each other a few weeks earlier. Jesus' resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit had changed everything.

We can learn a lot from this honeymoon stage of the church. Some things that stand out:

1.Their singleness of purpose.
So taken with and absorbed in this new life were these early Christ-followers that they sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with each other so that no one had material needs.

2. Their simplicity.
They pared down their lives and activities to a few essentials:
- spending time with God in the temple.
- spending time with one another, sharing hospitality and eating together.

3. Their success.
Their Spirit-inspired lifestyle caught the attention of onlookers who, noting their God-focus, generosity, the way they took care of each other, and their satisfaction with life's basics, wanted it too. The result was that every day the Lord drew people to be saved and join them.

Through the years people have tried to copy these elements of early church life, with mixed success. I don't think God expects us to mimic them by quitting our jobs and adopting a communal lifestyle. But there is much we can learn from them.

I ask, do I have the singleness of Kingdom purpose, so immune from materialism, that these early Christians had? Do I take joy in the simple activities of fellowship / koinonia?

[koinonia: sharing, unity, close association, partnership, participation, a society, a communion, a fellowship, contributory help, the brotherhood. koinonia is a unity brought about by the Holy Spirit. In koinonia the individual shares in common an intimate bond of fellowship with the rest of the Christian society. Koinonia cements the believers to the Lord Jesus and to each other" - Word Wealth, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1494]

Is there about my interactions with my Christian family such an attractiveness that those around would like to be part of it?


PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for this picture of the church in its pure and passionate beginnings. Help me to be infected with that same God-hunger, generosity, contentment with simple things, gladness and gratitude. Amen.

MORE: What's the difference between the early church and us?

In a message called "The Fear of God and the Freedom from Goods," John Piper lists the elements of early church life from this passage:

They focused a lot on the teaching of the apostles (which we have in the New Testament).
• They experienced wonders and signs .
• They lived in a state of wonder and awe as they saw day in and day out the stark reality of God in healings and deliverances and changed lives of people being added to the church.
• They shared their possessions as freely with the needy as though they didn't even own them.
• They spent time in big groups in the temple.
• They ate together in their homes almost every day.
• And when they met each other, they met God. They prayed and they praised.

Then he asks:
"What makes all this hang together? What's the driving force that made those believers free from their possessions, and eager to meet needs, and full of gladness and generosity and praise and prayer when they ate together day after day?


I think the key is found in verse 43 in the phrase, "fear came upon every soul"—a joyful, trembling sense of awe that you don't trifle with the God of the apostles. That is not our experience. Today for most people, including most professing Christians, God is an idea to talk about, or an inference from an argument, or a family tradition to be preserved. But for very few people is God a stark, fearsome, stunning, awesome, shocking present REALITY. He is tame. He is distant. He is silent. Where are the churches of whom Luke could say today, "Fear—awe, wonder, trembling—is upon every soul"?
The absence of this fear has a direct effect on the way we accumulate possessions for ourselves, the way we ignore the needy, the way we trivialize fellowship, and the way we play more than we pray." - By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org

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Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The secret of the church's success

Pentecost - Estella Canziani
Pentecost - Estella L. M. Canziani (1905-1936)

TODAY'S SPECIAL: Acts 2:1-21

TO CHEW ON: "Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, 'Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? …. We hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God'" Acts 2:7,11

The odds of those 120 Jesus-followers gathered in that upper room ever making anything of their movement were almost non-existent. They were mostly uneducated people without influence. They were out of favor with all the ruling factions, especially their own Jewish leaders. They had just been through the traumatic lynching and crucifixion of their rabbi, and though He had returned, it had been different than before. He came and went mysteriously. Recently He had physically disappeared into heaven.

But from the Day of Pentecost, those 120 never stopped growing.  From that day they gathered new followers wherever they went. What was their secret?

It was the Holy Spirit.

My Bible has an outline called "The Work of the Holy Spirit" that references the ways He has been active on this earth from the beginning through to now. In relation to fulfilling our mandate to spread the Gospel, the Holy Spirit works in all aspects.

He inspired the writing of Scripture—the good news we share - 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21.

Now he works in the hearts of the news-spreaders as He:
  • Pours out God's love in our hearts - Romans 5:5.
  • Gives power to proclaim the gospel - Acts 1:8.
  • Imparts gifts for ministry - 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.

On the other end, the Holy Spirit also works in the hearts of the hearers as He:
  • Brings conviction - John 16:8-11.
  • Regenerates - Titus 3:5

Still today we need to take into our work a sense of our own inadequacy without the Holy Spirit. It is only through His empowering that we can accomplishing anything of eternal value:

"… the church was birthed in the worshiping, ministering power of the Holy Spirit; and shortly, three thousand people received Christ. This enablement by the Spirit initiated the spread of the gospel in the hostile environment of persecution, idolatry, and political oppression, and it is still the answer for the spread of the gospel today" - Scott G. Bauer, "The Miracle of Pentecost" - New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1492 (emphasis added).

PRAYER: Dear Holy Spirit, thank You for coming and indwelling all believers—me too. Help me to give You full rights and access to my life so that my life and work will have eternal significance. Amen.

MORE: Day of Pentecost (Whitsunday)
Today the church celebrates the Day of Pentecost, also called Whitsunday.

The liturgy for today begins with the following collect:

"Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

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The Holy Bible, New King James Version Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. - Used with permission.

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

The best is yet to come!


Photo from RGBStock.com
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Romans 8:18-30

TO CHEW ON:
"Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified." Romans 8:30

A few weeks ago our pastor preached a series of sermons on the Holy Spirit. He listed four works of the Spirit in our lives: 1)Salvation; 2) Sanctification; 3) Power for Ministry and 4) Glorification.

Until he pointed it out, I had never thought of glorification as a work of the Spirit in my life. But our focus verse today bears that out as well, when it talks about Christians—the predestined, called and justified—also being glorified.

We've done a little study on Jesus' glory in the past little while so today I'm going to dig into the hope of glory for Christians.

[Glory - doxa was originally an opinion or estimation in which one was held. Then it came to mean reputation, good standing and esteem given to a person. It morphed then to mean honor or glory given to people nations and individuals. In the New Testament it means splendor, radiance and majesty centered in Jesus - from Word Wealth by Dick Mills, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible p. 1446.]

What's fascinating about the concept of glory is its interplay between the now and the not-yet.
  • For the disciples and people who saw Jesus in the flesh, glory was now. His glory was manifested in Jesus' miracles and His life generally - John 2:11.
  • For Jesus, His glory was also past—eternity past. He laid it aside to come to earth - John 17:5; Philippians 2:5-7.
  • In Jesus' John 17 prayer, He mentions glory several times both as a present reality and future hope. He prays that He will be glorified in His disciples (then and those who would believe in the future through their unity) - John 17:10,23. But He also prays that they will join Him in the future: "…be with Me where I am" to "… behold My glory" - John 17:24.
  • Paul talks about life on earth as a prequel to glorification—but not unrelated to it. He reminds the Romans in our passage that life's hardships are a contrast to the glory that's ahead - Romans 8:18.
  • He reminds the believers in Corinth that their hardships and sufferings also prepare or change them for that anticipated state, are "working for us a far more exceeding weight of glory" - 2 Corinthians 4:17.
  • And he tells Timothy that the way we endure hardships can help to encourage our fellow Christians as we journey together toward this glorified state (2 Timothy 2:10).
  • But these are just glimmerings of a hope that is future—a hope that is as old as Asaph and the Sons of Korah. "You will guide me with Your counsel, And afterward receive me to glory" Psalm 73:24, see also Psalm 84:11.

What does this have to do with you and me today?
- We live in a way that reflects Jesus' glory.
- We understand that our hardships are part of our ripening for future glory.
- We face death—the death of believing loved ones and our own deaths—with hope,
even anticipation of future glory.


Cheer up. The best is yet to come!

PRAYER: Dear Holy Spirit, have Your way in me to help me live to the glory of Jesus in my life now. And may I cooperate with you as You prepare me for glorious heaven that is still to come. Amen.

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Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Prophecies so accurate they're spooky

Judas - Artist unknown
Judas - Artist unknown
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Zechariah 11:1-17

TO CHEW ON:
"So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me, 'Throw it to the potter'—that princely price they set on me. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord for the potter." Zechariah 11:12,13

Does today's focus verse remind you of another passage in the Bible that involves 30 pieces of silver, that silver thrown into the temple, and the money used for something to do with a potter?

What about the story of a traitorous disciple named Judas? Read the account in Matthew 27:3-19. There are identical elements in both passage, only Zechariah's was written about 400 years before Matthew's historical reporting of the story. The similarity almost gives one shivers!

Zechariah is full of such messianic prophecies. My Bible's introduction says:
"Zechariah is sometimes referred to as the most messianic of all the Old Testament books. Chapters 9-14 are the most quoted section of the prophets in the passion narratives of the Gospels. In the Revelation Zechariah is quoted more than any prophet except Ezekiel" - David Warren Shibley,  New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1248.

Note these prophetic references to Messiah in Zechariah as he writes of:
  • The Lord's servant the Branch - Zechariah 3:8, of man the Branch - Zechariah 6:12 and that Branch as ruler and priest - Zechariah 6:13.
  • False shepherds - Zechariah 11:4-11. This brings to mind Jesus' words about good and bad shepherds in John 10:1-30.
  • Messiah's triumphal entry into Jerusalem - Zechariah 9:9, compare Matthew 21:5 and Mark 11:7-10.
  • Messiah's betrayal for the sum of 30 pieces of silver (noted above).
  • His crucifixion - Zechariah 12:10.
  • His suffering - Zechariah 13:7.
  • His second coming - Zechariah 14:4.

The Bible's reputation and track record as a book of reliable prophecy is one of the reasons I trust its message in other categories as well, like its way of salvation and its ethical and moral principles. What an amazing library of books, authored by many individuals over centuries, yet with a consistent message throughout. I look back at how it has come true in the past, then look ahead with confidence that its predictions for the future will come true as well.

PRAYER:
Dear God, thank You for the amazing word I know as the Bible. Help it to stay fresh and powerful to me as I apply it to my life and obey it. Amen.

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Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

They shall return

Old passports
"Old Passports" - Image from RGBStock.com
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Zechariah 10:1-12

TO CHEW ON:
"I will sow them among the peoples,
And they shall remember Me in far countries …
And they shall return…
Until no more room is found for them." - Zechariah 10:9,10


The prophecy Zechariah is making here, has it already happened or is it still in the future?

My Bible's notes say about this passage:

"Though the covenant people be sown among the nations, God promises that they shall return. This prophecy was partially fulfilled in Zechariah's day in the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon. The prophecy will have its final fulfillment in the New Jerusalem, where not only Jews but all nations come to worship God" - David Warren Shibley, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1259.

Hmmm. I'm not finding the above totally convincing. On the hunch that Zechariah's prophecy is being fulfilled literally in our day, as Jews from around the world stream back into Israel, I looked around for statistics and found the "Latest Population Statistics for Israel."

According to the report, Israel's population growth was 2% in 2014, much of it from immigration. Top countries from which Jews are emigrating to Israel: Ukraine, France, Russia and the U.S. From the report linked above:

"A study performed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one in four Jewish individuals currently live in a country other than the one they were born in.  In contrast, one in twenty Christians and one in twenty five Muslims live in a country other than that of their birth.  This makes Jewish individuals the world's top migrants."

Another article from the "Word Population Review" says this about population projections for Israel:
"Atypical of the population growth rate for a developed country, the State of Israel has a rapid growth rate. Since the establishment of the State, the population has increased approximately tenfold, primarily as a result of the high immigration of Jews into the country."

Some prominent theologians believe that the church has replaced Israel in God's plan and that prophecies of a renewed Israel apply to the church, not literal Israel ("Replacement Theology").

The writer of my Bible's notes seems to tilt in that direction. From his "Introduction to Zechariah":
"Many Bible students believe the promises of a restored Zion are to apply primarily to a cleansed, invigorated church" - David Warren Shibley, New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, p. 1248.

I don't agree. I believe these prophecies and promises also concern the literal Jewish people and are even now being fulfilled before our eyes. Let's continue to watch world events with an eye to how God is fitting things together in fulfilled prophecy in our time. And let's continue to pray for the country of Israel and the Jewish people.

PRAYER: Dear God, it's exciting to see things prophesied in the Bible happening before my eyes. I pray for Jewish people everywhere, especially in places where antisemitism is again on the rise. Most of all, may they find a home in Jesus. Amen.

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Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Your King is coming!

Palm Sunday scene in stained glass - Artist unknown
Palm Sunday scene in stained glass - Artist unknown
TODAY’S SPECIAL: Zechariah 9:1-17

TO CHEW ON: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold your king is coming to you
He is just and having salvation
Lowly and riding on a donkey
A colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9


For anyone familiar with the Bible I'm sure today's verse recalls an event from Jesus’ life – along with, perhaps, the memory of waving palm branches in Sunday School or singing songs like “Hosanna Loud Hosanna”  or “All Glory Laud and Honor.”  Here the prophet Zechariah predicts, 400 years before the event, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We celebrate it on Palm Sunday.

Old Testament prophecies fulfilled hundreds of years later illustrate how remarkable the Bible is. Its storyline of creation, fall, redemption and consummation (ending in heaven and hell) is still playing out.

Though donkeys might not seem an appropriate mode of transportation for nobility, other Old Testament rulers used them. Jair, a judge, had thirty sons who rode thirty donkeys to their thirty towns (Judges 20:4). Another judge, Abdon, stabled seventy donkeys to accommodate his sons and grandsons (Judges 12:14).

Donkeys were a symbol of humble, patient service. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not only did the people recognize Him as a king, but one who came in humility.

That day the people of Jerusalem “rejoice(ed) greatly” by taking off their cloaks and spreading them on the ground for the animal to walk over. This was another ancient custom of the recognition of a ruler (2 Kings 9:11-13).

They also waved palm branches – something that was reminiscent of the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40). By spreading their clothes and palm branches in front of the donkey carrying Jesus, they proclaimed Him as their expected king and deliverer – the Messiah.

Of course we know the story of how a few days later all that changed. The crowds shouted another verdict – and Jesus was crucified. But God’s plan was not thwarted. Instead, Jesus’ death and resurrection proved Him king of so much more than just the nation of Israel in 1 B.C. (or however that year is designated).

The same prophetic Bible that predicted Jesus entry into Jerusalem predicts His eventual coming again as King (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Timothy 6:13-15; see also Revelation 19:15-16 and Revelation 17:14). Do we believe this will actually happen? Do we live with the expectation of this in mind? For just as surely as Old Testament prophecies came true, this one will too. It could happen today!

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, I acknowledge You as King of my life. Help me to live today with the expectation of Your imminent return in mind. Amen.

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Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Delivered from idols

All My Money - RGB Stock Photos
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Ezekiel 37:15-28

TO CHEW ON:
"They shall not defile themselves any more with their idols nor with the detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions; but I will deliver them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. Then  they shall be My people and I will be their God." Ezekiel 37:23

If you're at all familiar with the Old Testament you'll know how big the temptation to worship idols was for the Israelites and how often they capitulated to it. Here God makes the promise that when this exile finally comes to an end, they will be cured for good of their inclination toward idolatry.

We have only to observe how many Hebrew words there are for "idols"—Easton's Bible Dictionary lists 18—to realize how multi-faceted this problem was. The two expressions for idols here: "idols" and "detestable things" are gilluwl and shiqquuts. Besides meaning "idol" these words infer contempt, dung, refuse, filth and impurity. Another word for sin in our passage—"transgression" (pasha)—means "rebellion."

Their release from this ungodly worship, these impure practices and rebelliousness comes in two ways:

1. They are removed from the source of temptation: "but I will deliver them from all their dwelling places."

2. They are cleansed and set apart: "but I will … cleanse them" and from Ezekiel 37:28: "I the Lord will sanctify Israel" (sanctify means to set apart, declare holy). 

What does this have to do with us? Plenty.

We may not bow down to god-images of gold, wood or stone, but how easily we give our allegiance to other things than God. In the powerful book and video series Gods at War: Defeating the Idols that Battle for Your Heart, pastor Kelly Idelman exposes modern idols. What are these idols and how do we recognize them? From the book description:

"According to Idleman, idolatry isn't an issue it is the issue.

"By asking insightful questions, Idleman reveals which false gods each of us are allowing on the throne of our lives. What do you sacrifice for? What makes you mad? What do you worry about? Whose applause do you long for? We're all wired for worship, but we often end up valuing and honoring the idols of money, sex, food, romance, success and many others that keep us from the intimate relationship with God that we desire." (Emphasis added.)

Once we've recognized our false gods, we can begin to deal with them—and in the way God helped Israel do it:

1. Remove ourselves from the place of temptation. This brings to mind Jesus' words from the Lord's prayer: " 'Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil' " - Matthew 6:13. 

2. Ask God to change us / cleanse us and cooperate with Him through the process. I love verses from the previous chapter of Ezekiel in this regard:

"Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them - " Ezekiel 36:25, 26, 27.


PRAYER: Dear God, please make me sensitive to my own idols. Help me to avoid temptation and cooperate with You as You show me my sin and soften and change my heart by Your Spirit. Amen.

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Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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