As you drive or walk past those who are working (remembering advised Social Distancing if on foot) why not pray for them as they go past. Lift them in a silent prayer to God, He knows them and their situation. Those doing postal deliveries, refuse teams and utility workers, to name a few who keep our neighbourhoods working.
We have a growing prayer team here at Christ Church, if you would like prayer, please add it to the comments box. If it is for others please do not include personal details that could identify them to others.
This was titled as a prayer blog but really it is a daily bible reflection based on the New Testament readings for morning prayer. Where the readings may be changed, for a feast day, for example, the bible thread will be maintained for continuity. I do hope that out of these reflections you will find themes for prayer and your own reflection and study.
01/10 – In Acts 20:17-end we read of Paul’s farewell to the leaders of the church in Ephesus, which in the verses before, Paul had decided not to visit ‘to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, for he was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem’. Now, however, he sends for the church elders to join him in Miletus. Miletus, of which only the ruins exist, is on the Western seaboard of Turkey, south of Ephesus. It is well worth reading this passage taking in both Paul’s emotional plea and how the elders would have received it. The passage covers the threats to Paul and the threats to the church in Ephesus. It is very clear that Paul is not saying the future will be a bed of roses for them or him. He again, as always, testifies to the gospel, to redemption and salvation through Christ: ‘turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus’. Paul’s warning to the church is focuses on the need to ‘keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God.’ The warning Paul gives is clear: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock”, even from their own membership. At the end they prayed together: ‘They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.’ What a powerful, emotionally charged, ending to his work among them. A parting in pain not in joy, but Paul had said “my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me —the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”
His charge to the elders is not an easy one, but in truth is one that is laid on each member of a church. We must always be on our guard against splits occurring in churches. His warning that “even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them” is worth noting; not just men. The church has been spilt too often, unity is a precious gift and one we, all churches, should protect with passion. The questions we should always ask is: does this build unity? Does it build up the church? Will Christ be glorified and God honoured?
We need to pray for unity and fellowship that seek the good of others and not ourselves, whatever gifts we may think we have to offer. God sometimes calls us to find other gifts to build His church. Lord God, help us, guide us, lead us, to be a people who seek to build Your church Your way not ours. Lord help us, like Paul to be aware of the cost, but never to stop preaching the kingdom by word and action.
30/09 – This section of Acts 20:1-16 marks a change in style as shown in the statement ‘we sailed from Philippi after the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days.’ Luke is now including himself in the account. He has joined Paul now, along with quite a few others: Sopater, Aristarchus and Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus, Trophimus but possibly Erastus stayed in Ephesus. It’s started to be quite a following. The account now also starts to be a bit more of a travelog. Luke is giving very personal accounts of all the places they visited or where Paul went on his own as the rest waited for him. They all came together in Troas, where we hear an account of poor Eutychus, who fell asleep by a third floor open window as Paul ‘talked on and on’! Eutychus fell out of the window and it seems was declared dead. Paul must have been desperate to save him as he threw himself on Eutychus and put his arms round him. “Don’t be alarmed,” Paul said. “He’s alive!” Though the intention of the meeting was to ‘break bread’ together, it seems that didn’t happen till after this event, for Luke tells us ‘then Paul went upstairs again and broke bread and ate.’ Time to call it a day perhaps – but no; ‘after talking until daylight, he left.’ What hunger for God’s word there must have been to keep the gathering there all night. Luke then gives the travel plans as Paul aims to reach Jerusalem by Pentecost.
For those who preach and teach in church it is both a privilege and a big responsibility. It is always sad when congregations limit the length of the teaching they receive to no more than ten minutes. Yes, a talk can convey a lot in that length of time, but it often has to be quite limited and assumes some background knowledge of the listeners. The real issue is: where is the hunger to hear God’s word preached or taught? Again the skill of the speaker is important, but Luke tells us Paul ‘went on and on’. It was possibly not captivating material but it was important teaching. However, they stayed with it, right through the night. The statement ‘a learning church is a growing church’ is so true. Once it would have been through books, but now the great variety of media resources can feed hungry people. But with one overriding observation: it must be true to the gospel and lift Christ as Lord of all.
Let us pray for hungry churches, churches that long to hear God’s word proclaimed and to learn from what they hear. But out of all that, the most important things to pray for is that, as churches, they apply what they learn to their lives. Lord God Almighty, we ask for spiritual food, for knowledge and understanding of Your ways. Inspire those who teach with the Holy Spirit, with the gift of truth, to lift Jesus, Your Son, above all else, so that we may long to follow and walk with Him each day. We lift to You, Father, those media outlets like Sat-7, Premier, CWM and TBN UK and the many others. Lord may they be true to Your word and lead people to Your truth only.
29/09 – Today the church celebrates Michael and All Angels, and so misses out this part of Acts 19:21-end. This reading is important because of the great disturbance that arose in Ephesus. It was centered around belief in, and financial exploitation of, the goddess Artemis. The power, number and effect of the new Christians (followers of the Way) had robbed the craftsmen, like Demetrius, a silversmith, of their income because Paul had said ‘that gods made by human hands are no gods at all’. Demetrius claimed that Paul had convinced and led astray large numbers of people in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. The income of the craftsmen in producing images of gods had taken a big hit. The city was soon in uproar, with the unfortunate Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s travelling companions from Macedonia, being taken to the theatre, a meeting place of the people. ‘The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.’ Mass hysteria, which the city clerk had to calm. He said that there was no justification for dragging Gaius and Aristarchus before the assembly and that if the craftsmen led by Demetrius had a grievance it should be resolved through the legal process. “As it is”, he says, “we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today.”
Yesterday we looked at the incredible power of the growing momentum, the almost unstoppable forward motion of conversion that Luke writes about. Today it hits the buffers! The opposition mounts the counter-attack, born out of self-interest, misguided beliefs and fear. Could this be why the extraordinary, miraculous events we read about in the first part of chapter 19 seem to come to an end? Paul had wanted to confront the crowds but disciples and ‘officials of the province, friends of Paul’ warned him not to. Would things have been different if he had?
There has to be little doubt that the powers and principalities of darkness (Ephesians 6:12), with whom we do spiritual battle can and do obstruct the gospel. This passage is testimony to that battle. Yes, we need to be disciples and to win for Christ new disciples, but at the same time we need to be spirit-filled prayer warriors, and do what Paul suggests in Ephesians 6:12-18 – put on the whole armour of God.
28/09 – Paul, we are told in Acts 19:8-20, had been in the synagogue for three months teaching about Jesus, but unsurprisingly some of the Jews ‘became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way’. So Paul did what was natural, he went somewhere else to teach, ‘the lecture hall of Tyrannus’. He carried on for two years until ‘all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord’. What a thought! ‘God did extraordinary miracles through Paul’, which led to copy cat ministries of deliverance by non believers, Jews, even ‘including the Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest’. But, for them it all went wrong when they were attacked by an evil spirit who overpowered them. ‘When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honour’. As a result those that practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly, at great cost to themselves. The account says that the estimated value of the scrolls was ‘fifty thousand drachmas’. Based on a drachma being a day’s wage then, and taking today’s minimum wage, set by the EU, it would mean a value of around £3,180,375.00! It is of no real surprise that Luke reports that ‘in this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power’.
Possibly back in the ‘80s, when the evangelist John Wimber was teaching on ‘Signs and Wonders’, he longed for this result we read about in Ephesus. However, he and others through time have been disappointed. There have been revivals through time as well. Great preachers have spoken God’s word but what has been lacking? We have to understand that even these amazing events in Ephesus have not been repeated (as far as we know). Is God moving in different ways? Looking back at Luke’s account in Acts we see a growing momentum, an almost unstoppable forward motion of conversion. It is based on a willingness of people, hungry for answers, to press the pause button on their activity and listen to the gospel of hope and accept it. That acceptance changed their lives so much that people who couldn’t see the truth tried to recreate it themselves. Will we see such events ourselves? Perhaps, when people crave that hope, fellowship and redeeming love that Christ brings. But for that to happen we, as Christians around the world, need to be truly united as the ‘Bride of Christ’ and not only proclaim the gospel but live it 100%; a high calling indeed. Luke constantly refers to the new Christians as ‘disciples’ and that could be the answer – to build true disciples of Christ. We as a church have a vision to win new disciples for Christ, to do that we need a plan to disciple people. Lord God, may we learn to be true disciples, not afraid to live for You. Lord show us how to teach others what it means to follow You. May we be part of a new impetus that brings the highest honour to Your name.
27/09 – Luke 11:37-54 – This reading is where Jesus has a go at the Pharisees and teachers of the law, even though a Pharisee had invited Him to share a meal with them. Jesus has just declared that He was in the midst of a wicked generation, that even the people of Nineveh, who Jonah called to repentance, would rise up and condemn the people. He warns people not to let the darkness rule in them but to let light fill them. Even though Jesus wasn’t that popular with the Pharisees perhaps they saw a chance to work with Him. Probably an unwise move. Jesus picks up on the fact that they are surprised He didn’t wash before the meal, so He uses that to lecture them on inner and outer cleanliness. He has a go along the same lines with the teachers of the law. He zeroes in on their hypocrisy and the stark contradictions of their attitude and lifestyle to what they teach. His closing statement: “Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” He talks about Himself and the fact they hinder the people in following Him just because they will not and do not see any reason to.
“Woe to you”, Jesus says to both the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. What is ‘woe’? Jesus was calling on them suffering, misfortune, affliction. Luke uses ‘woe’ more than any other book in the bible, 13 times. In Revelation 8:13 it is used three times in succession to reinforce the suffering mankind will experience. In that passage the six angels blew their trumpets and disastrous events took place on earth. ‘Woe’ is a powerful word and is the ultimate condemnation humanity can experience. We probably underestimate what Jesus is saying to those two groups and the power of His words.
Even today we have people like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who exhibit the same hypocrisy as the leaders back then, and who will do all they can to turn people from following Jesus. They will, and do, discredit the name of Jesus. Jesus on the cross prayed ‘forgive them, they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34). We need to pray the same prayer, but also be prepared to challenge those people and stay firm in our faith. Lord God, help us to challenge those who face the ‘woes’ that Jesus calls down on them. May we help them to see the truth, to pray they will come to know your Son and turn to You and so be spared.
26/09 – Acts 18:22-19:7 Paul spends his time visiting the new Christian churches, but we pick up on Aquila and Priscilla and their encounter with Apollos, a Jew from Alexandria, a city of the western edge of the Nile delta. He has arrived in Ephesus. He is described as ‘a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately in the synagogues’. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him they invited him to their home where they ‘explained to him the way of God more adequately’. Clearly he needed instruction and it’s interesting that Priscilla and Aquila provided that; they must have gained a lot from their time with Paul. The two actively encouraged him when he wanted to go to Achaia, as they wrote to the church there, urging them to welcome him. ‘When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah’. Paul mentions Apollos in 1 Corinthians 1:12-13. Apollos clearly had a great influence on the disciples there. But pick up on the statement in verse 25, ‘though he (Apollos) knew only the baptism of John’.
We move on to the next chapter and Paul arrives back in Ephesus and discovers disciples who knew only of ‘John’s baptism’ and nothing of the Holy Spirit. In fact Paul asked them “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” Interestingly, Paul tells them that John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, and he had pointed the way to Jesus. Paul then baptises them in the name of the Lord Jesus. ‘When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.’ In this simple account starts a whole theological debate about baptism and the role of a ‘believers’ baptism’ adopted by many Christian churches as the only meaningful baptism. For Anglicans confirmation could be seen to take that role. But that needs a lot more unpacking!
Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-13 writes about the differences of opinion and loyalty appearing in Corinth. He writes: ‘One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul?’ Clearly people showed allegiance to those who influenced them, but Paul calls for unity in Christ alone. In verse 30 Paul writes: ‘It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”’ Unity and correct teaching are such important components in our Christian growth. We need to be cautious that we don’t put people or rituals on a pedestal and make them more important than living in Christ by His grace. Let us fervently pray for unity, in our church family and between the different denominations around us, that God may move in great power because we stand together in Him.
25/09 – Paul seems content to stay in Corinth in this passage from 18:1-21. It opens and closes in the company of fellow tent-makers Aquila and his wife Priscilla. They had left Italy as Claudius had told all Jews to leave; the date can be fairly accurately placed as between January 51 and August 52, as a letter from Claudius about Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia has been preserved. Gallio is mentioned in this extract from Luke’s account. There are lots of names in this section. Silas and Timothy join Paul who devotes himself to preaching. Luke writes that Paul testified ‘to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”’ (Reminiscent of Jesus’ instructions to the twelve in Luke 9:5.) Again Paul finds a safe house; when rejected by the members of the synagogue, he simply ‘went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God’. Interestingly, even though the Jews in the synagogue rejected Jesus, ‘Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord.’ In a vision Paul is told to stay in Corinth, but yet again the local Jews stir up trouble and complain to Gallio, who rejects their complaints. The unfortunate new synagogue leader gets beaten up infront of the proconsul; however, ‘Gallio showed no concern whatever’.
Paul eventually leaves Corinth in the company of Aquila and Priscilla for Syria. They part company and Paul returns briefly to Jerusalem, then off again back to Antioch.
The focus is now very much on Paul. Though Silas and Timothy are with him, they don’t get a mention. The emphasis is on new disciples. It is probable Silas and Timothy were doing support work with the new believers. By the end of his stay Paul is quite confident to leave Corinth, even though there is a curious reference to Paul having his hair cut off because of a vow he had taken. (There is much conjecture over this but it may be concerning a Nazirite vow Paul may have taken, the end of which is marked by the shaving of the head.)
Paul is clearly focusing on the preaching, still starting in synagogues, until rejected by those who don’t believe. You have to admire his persistence! But the results are really positive and the Corinthian church holds a special place for Paul from this time he spent with them. Good friends and a support team are vital to any evangelist, and there are times Paul does seem to get disheartened, perhaps even a bit depressed. But it is clear in his letters how much he values those who support him. Evangelism may seem to be a solitary role but it is most effective when supported. That applies today as much as when Paul was in action. Let us pray for those who share God’s word, pray that they have friends who hold them in prayer and support them. Let us hold each other and support each other as we share God’s story with others.
24/09 – Acts 17:16-end is possibly a familiar account of Paul in Athens and his invitation to speak to the philosophers at the Areopagus, a place where ‘all the Athenians, and the foreigners who lived there, spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’. A place of debate, but a place also where people would listen with interest and absorb ideas. Paul observes what is around him and takes the opportunity to use the inscription on an altar ‘to an unknown god’. Paul proclaims the truth about God, His Son and all that God had done for the people listening. To those people who were seeking fresh understanding he said: God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us”. For people who worshipped man-made images of gods Paul confronts them by saying of God: ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ God becomes personal, not a remote deity. As always there was a mixed reaction, some sneered at the idea of the resurrection of Jesus. However, “some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.” Paul, we must remember, started by just wandering around, looking, getting a feel for things; also he was on his own as Silas and Timothy were still to join him.
Looking back, Paul had always worked in the company of others. This it seems is the first time he taught about Jesus on his own. He was in a powerhouse of thought and ideas. It seems the challenge invigorated him regardless of the outcome. As Paul introduced the resurrection, Luke tells us the people were saying ‘“We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council.’ Paul left them hungry for more.
There is always a danger we can say too much, and in doing that we end an effective dialogue. In sharing the good news sometimes less is more. We, like Paul, need to lead people to where they want more. It is where the limit of our knowledge is a real asset; all we need to do is let our faith shine through and let the Holy Spirit do what He does best: open the heart of the hearer to Jesus. It is also the perfect open door, as an invitation to join Christians in fellowship and learning, to come to church. Once people were expected to believe before they joined a church. Now we want seekers to join us, explorers and those wanting fellowship. Heavenly Father, we know it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that people’s eyes are opened to Your Son. May we be a people who attract others to meet with You, and not try to give all the answers. May Your light shine through us.
23/09 – In Acts 17:1-15 Paul and Silas travel to Thessalonica (Thessaloniki, North West port on the Aegean Sea, just south of North Macedonia and Albania). It’s really worth looking at maps of Paul’s journeys as then we get to appreciate how far from home they were and what distances they covered, all on foot (or by boat). We are so used to high speed travel today we fail to understand the difficulties and need for places to stop, often no doubt supplied by believers. Such an example is Jason, in Thessalonica. We underestimate the risks that those people took by giving hospitality to Paul and Silas. But in this reading that risk is revealed as the mob ‘dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials’ as they couldn’t find Paul and Silas. The accusations were laid at their feet but thankfully ‘they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go’. At night the three disciples were moved on to Berea (Veria today) a distance of about 45 miles, into a more hilly region of Western Greece. Paul and Silas again preach the word which is accepted better by those in that city: ‘the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica’. But word got back to Thessalonica (interesting how quickly things happen!) and people went to Berea with the aim of ‘agitating the crowds and stirring them up’. In both these cities people (Jews, God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women and Greek men) came to believe in Jesus as Saviour. Interesting to note both times the word ‘prominent’ is applied to the women. Lydia was also a ‘prominent’ woman, by nature of her business and wealth. Why is it important for Luke to make that distinction? As a result of the disturbances Paul is escorted off to Athens, well to the south, a distance today by road of over 200 miles (141 as the crow flies). Silas and Timothy stay in Berea with instructions to join Paul when they can.
There definitely seems a repeating pattern: preach and teach, welcome those who hear and receive the word, then face those who are jealous and fearful, meet with hostility and civil disturbance and leave. It’s been the same pattern for all who have shared the gospel through the centuries, in so many different places. Jesus has been called a rabble rouser, a subversive, and a trouble maker, among other things. It seems Paul, Barnabas, Silas and Timothy all fall into the same category at this point in Luke’s account. Dare we be the same!? Don’t panic! We aren’t all called to that; God made us unique individuals so that we can best serve Him. But the lesson before us is to ‘up our game’. We have to find out how God has uniquely wired us to follow Jesus. But we should never be satisfied or complacent about where we are; we need to stretch ourselves. It is only when we stretch our muscles that we get stronger. That can be painful, but if we don’t use them we become weak. Heavenly Father, may the light of Your presence in our lives so set our hearts on fire with love for You, that we want to stretch out to reach the goal of serving You each day of our lives.
22/09 – Luke continues the amazing events that follow the imprisonment of Paul and Silas in the rest of chapter 16. It starts with all the other prisoners listening to Paul and Silas praying and singing hymns. What a thought, what a witness. In their bad situation praising God was their default position. Then earthquake, chains falling off, but none of the other prisoners try to escape. The only person in a panic seems to be the jailer, thinking the worst and wanting a way out as quickly as possible. The jailer, it seems, identifies Paul and Silas as the reason no-one has escaped and falls trembling before them. Had he been listening to their songs and prayers before he fell asleep? “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They, Paul and Silas, replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.” Like Lydia, the jailer takes them to his house and feeds them. Is there something about hospitality as a sign of gratitude? The jailer was now filled with joy ‘because he had come to believe in God — he and his whole household’. Don’t we long to see whole families turn, as one, to Christ? The final piece of the chapter introduces something that Paul takes up later, the fact that both he and Silas were Roman citizens. The magistrates knew they had overstepped their authority and needed to appease the two disciples, which they did. Paul and Silas leave via Lydia’s house, quite possibly visiting to pick up their belongings. Their account of what happened, rather like Peter telling others about his escape from prison (12:17), encouraged the brothers and sisters. No doubt they went on to tell others in turn of the remarkable events.
The phrase ‘gossiping the gospel’ comes to mind, not negative gossip but excited chatter underpinned with joy. How can we emulate that? How do we build excitement in the ‘living word’ – the gospel, the good news? The way that Paul and Silas, Barnabas and Peter, did it was to take risks so that God’s power was revealed. They moved in the power of the Holy Spirit, under His influence – perhaps. Remember Paul landed in jail because he became annoyed by the slave girl following them, even though she was ‘shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.”’ (v17) Did Paul get it wrong by commanding the spirit to leave her? The fact is Paul was stepping out in faith, perhaps not always getting it right – but what God did because of that led people to believe in Him. We won’t always get it right, but fear can stop us sharing the gospel and could be denying God the opportunity to reveal Himself to people. The account by Luke so far is about disciples who take risks, whatever the cost, like Stephen (7:59) and James (12:2). Lord God, through the Holy Spirit, strengthen us, embolden us, to share the good news about Jesus with others, trusting in You alone and not fearing our inadequacies. Lord may You be revealed as people turn to You, even whole households, with joy. Praises be to God!
21/09 – The reading today would be 16:6-24 of Acts, but today is the celebration of Matthew, gospel writer, evangelist and Apostle. So this reading would be skipped in favour of 2 Timothy 3:14-end. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” That statement by Paul to Timothy applies to all Christians. So to that end let us continue with Acts. Paul and Silas go island hopping, to Samothrace, a Greek island in the northern Aegean, then to northern Greece, Neapolis, then the southern region of North Macedonia. That must have taken a while. There they meet Lydia, who was from city of Thyatira, a city in south west Turkey. People really seemed to travel around in those days, perhaps far more than we expect. Lydia was clearly a woman of wealth as purple cloth was an expensive and desirable colour to acquire. She clearly hears Paul’s message and God opened her heart to it; and as a result she and her household were baptised. Paul and Silas accepted her invitation to stay at her house. But from this positive we move to a difficult situation for the disciples. Paul, it seems, is capable of losing his patience! He got so annoyed with a female slave who had the gift of fortune-telling who was following them. Her owners were making money from her and when Paul cast out the spirit in her they were clearly very upset. They took Paul and Silas to the authorities who had them beaten, “severely flogged”, then imprisoned. The “jailer was commanded to guard them carefully”, so he put them in an inner cell with their feet locked in stocks. What was their reaction? They “were praying and singing hymns to God”! What else would we expect?
One of the major impacts of Roman occupation was the mobility of people, good roads, easy access and an understandable common system of governance, though with degrees of local autonomy. So, as the two disciples travelled, those they met and led to Christ, themselves travelled, so the word spread exponentially. Is there something we can learn from that? Perhaps we can learn something from the Covid ‘R’ number, the infection rate of one person on those around; perhaps churches should have a ‘D’ number, those who become new Disciples from one Christian! Just a thought.
Paul and Silas landing up in prison could be viewed as Paul’s own fault by losing his cool and antagonising the owners of the female slave. But God used that, as we read tomorrow, we may think things are not working out as we would want, but God can use every situation. What we need to do is continually sing His praises. Lord give us such faith, such joy, that we may sing Your praises whatever the situation. Thank you Lord for those who write songs of praise and those who lead us in worship of You. “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.” Psalm 104:33
20/09 – Revelation 14:1-5 again calls on us to be ‘bible detectives’, but this time mostly staying in John’s account of the revelation before him. Some today find this uncomfortable because the 144,000 are all male, virgins, undefiled by women, who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. Women seem excluded from this imagery; is that how we should read it? This imagery takes place on earth, “I heard a voice from heaven”, a voice that carried a symphonic arrangement to which the 144,000 sang a new song. A song to which only the 144,000, the redeemed from earth, could know the lyrics. A new song was mentioned in 5:9 and was a song of redemption; “because You were slain, and with Your blood You purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation”. We seem to be looking at martyrs here: “They follow the Lamb wherever he goes”, for the Lamb they follow was slain (5:6). The notion that the 144,000 are unblemished goes back to sacrificial purity. In 1 Peter 1:19 Jesus is described as ‘a lamb without blemish or defect’. Why male though? In 7:4 John writes “Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel”. But included is “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language”. It has the feel of an army being assembled; sexual purity before battle was a feature, but there is more within Revelation to explain this. The interesting thing of course is that these ‘males’ are also female, depicted as they are as ‘the bride of Christ’, 19:7-8, 21:2,9, 22:17. In Revelation all corporate communities are described as female without exception – we have to read Revelation reflecting on Galatians 3:28 “nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There is so much more to this text!
There is so much more to a song that just the lyrics. The melody, the arrangement, the accompaniment move it into a different experience, one that sways our emotions. Can we, as Christians, communicate the gospel to the accompaniment of God’s melody? Do we allow ourselves to hear and be moved by His melody? Sometimes we hear a familiar song that is transformed by a new arrangement that lifts it to a new place, a fresh experience. Dare we let God use us to sing to His arrangement through the power of the Holy Spirit? Lord God, help us to hear Your music and help us to sing the words You give us. Lord, transform what we say thorough the Holy Spirit.
19/09 – Acts 15:36-16:5 makes an interesting read, not that the rest of Acts doesn’t, but we have two situations that merit more thought; they are not as straightforward as it appears. The first is the fall-out between Barnabas and Paul over the inclusion of John, also called Mark, on a mission to revisit churches where they had preached the word of the Lord, to see how they were getting on. Paul was concerned because John, it seems, had let them down in Pamphylia; Luke uses the words ‘deserted them’. After a ‘sharp disagreement they parted company’. However, there is more to the disagreement than just John Mark. It seems Barnabas was no longer willing to share food with the gentiles (Galatians 2:11-15) following Peter’s example, and this upset Paul greatly. The outcome was that Barnabas left with Mark for Cyprus. In Colossians 4:10 Paul writes that Mark was a cousin of Barnabas. He affirms Mark in that passage, as he does in 2 Timothy 4:11. Paul, on the other hand, joined up with Silas (did he leave for Jerusalem (verse 33) or has he returned?); whichever, they set off through ‘Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches’.
The second point is the circumcision of Timothy, whom Paul wanted to include in the journey onward from Lystra. We’ve just read about the debate and decision over that act with the apostles and elders, saying it was not a requirement. But we have Paul making Timothy go through it because his mother was a Jew and father Greek. It’s worth reading Galatians 2:2-9 to understand Paul’s reasoning in more depth. Again not straightforward!
Both these accounts show that we must look deeper into the bible. We can’t take things at face value. The bible reveals itself. Study of God’s word is so central to our growth as Christians and our ability to live as people of faith. It is not necessary to know the bible by heart. However, it is more important to know how to use it and where to look; be a biblical detective! Let us pray for the skills of biblical scholars and teachers, that they may seek the truth and that we may learn from them.
18/09 – Acts 15:22-35 : Yesterday we read that James had suggested to those in Jerusalem that they should not make it hard for new disciples to follow Jesus by making them follow rules the Holy Spirit chose to ignore! All that was required was for them to behave appropriately. What an impact James must have had as the “apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers.” So Paul and Barnabas had backup to go and deliver a letter which admitted that they had heard “that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said”, a genuine admission that an error had been made, something they wanted to disassociate themselves from. What do we think the “believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” thought? They had been corrected in the error of their thinking. Interesting, because Paul wrote in Philippians 3:5 that he was a Pharisee and studied at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a prominent member of the Great Sanhedrin holding a lead position in that court. So Paul was also a Christian from the party of the Pharisees, but clearly held very different views! The letter was read to the gathered churches. Is this setting a precedent for Paul to follow? Judas and Silas stayed a while, encouraging the believers, before being sent back to Jerusalem with the blessing of peace. “But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord.”
It is worth noting how the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem were really quite quick to respond and counter the incorrect teaching that was being given to new disciples and the added weight they gave their letter by sending disciples Judas and Silas (both prophets) to deliver the letter, so reinforcing the teaching of Paul and Barnabas. Another point to note is that after the letter was read out and Judas and Silas set off for home (or did they?) Paul and Barnabas and ‘many others’ taught and preached the word of God.In this new Christian faith we hear leaders are appointed in churches by Paul and Barnabas, and disciples are given the freedom to teach and preach the word of God. What a dynamic and energised church it was! Yes it was possibly a bit messy but the core message of salvation through Christ was maintained. Is the Church today actually too controlling? Is it scared of freeing people into ministry? The reality is that we are in very different times from the first century after Christ’s death. We live in an unforgiving litigious environment where all things are acceptable except where offence may be caused. Are we as a church being cowed into submission out of fear? How would those early disciples respond now? They were not fearful of persecution, they almost seem to relish it as testimony to the power of God’s word. They had a certainty of faith that gave them courage to stand up to opposition. Lord, strengthen your church here in Europe and the United Kingdom, that we may grow in courage to stand for You, whatever the cost. And heavenly Father we lift those to You who are standing up for You in the face of oppression around the world. Give them strength, protect and empower them, we ask.
17/09 – In this reading from Acts 15:1-21 the tensions come to the surface again of the Jewish traditionalists (those from the party of the Pharisees) and those who saw God working among the Gentiles in grace. It starts with believers form Judea arriving in Antioch wanting to reinforce the Mosaic tradition of circumcision and subject the Gentiles to that ritual. “This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them’, not really very surprising. The two disciples are sent to Jerusalem to seek the opinion of the disciples and elders, and as they travelled they spread the news of God’s work with the Gentile converts; “this news made all the believers very glad”. Arriving in Jerusalem, the same issue was there, that the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses. (Genesis 14:9-14: – God establishes His covenant with Abraham.) Mosaic Law refers to the teaching contained within the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the authorship being attributed to Moses; therefore what is written is ‘the law of Moses’. Peter responds by talking about his first encounter with the conversion of Gentiles; “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.” (Peter’s vision and the conversion of Cornelius and his household – Acts 10.) Peter ends with “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” Barnabas and Paul then tell of the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. James closes down the discussion by quoting Amos 9:11-12 and saying “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.”
Even today in the Christian faith we have the hardliners who allow for very little leeway in biblical interpretation, which can lead to actions that are in themselves counter to Jesus’ teaching. People who quote verses fo scripture to win an argument and force a view are on dangerous ground. We need to take a wider view of scripture and understand what the guiding principles are, how God reveals Himself and how Jesus brings out all that His Father reveals. Once we ground our understanding, then focusing closer on God’s word helps us to understand more; it takes us deeper into God and closer to Jesus. That process can take a while and that is why home groups or bible study groups are so important in our growth as Christians. But what we should always do is to encourage others and not put obstacles in their way. However, there is a caveat. We need to inform what is expected of Christians in their conduct and behaviour; to do that we have to be the models for people to follow. Lord God, help us to be role-models for others to learn from; strengthen us in our walk with you.
16/09 – Acts 14:8-end. Now in Lystra, Barnabas and Paul continued with their message about Jesus and, as expected, “the Lord, who confirmed the message of His grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders” (14:3), this time through the healing of a lame man who had always been that way from birth. Now of course the people acclaimed Paul and Barnabas as gods, Hermes and Zeus! So we remember the lesson of Herod in 12:22-23 who was acclaimed a god, and was quite happy with that. However, these two disciples respond by tearing at their clothes, rushing out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you.” They then give all the glory to God and told the people of the grace and kindness of God through His self-evident testimony to all His people. That is even though God had let them go their own ways, still God watched out for them. How fickle people are, one minute acclaimed as gods, then “some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul”, to the point they thought he was dead. The sentence: ‘but after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city’, is ambiguous. Was it the prayer of the disciples that restored Paul so he could walk back into the city? He must have been badly injured if his attackers thought he was dead. So is this healing through collective prayer? Paul and Barnabas then worked their way back through the churches that had been established and appointed elders “with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.” They then return to Antioch, from where they had been sent to report all that “God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.”
The first lesson being reinforced is: give credit to God always. Don’t ever let us take the credit, for it is by God’s grace alone that things happen; we are His channels, broken vessels, clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:7). Lesson 2: expect miracles! If we faithfully proclaim the message God will reinforce it, sometimes a headline – ‘lame man walks!’ Or a side line statement: “disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city”. Lesson 3: always affirm those who have come to faith, and however new they may appear to be, some are clearly ready for leadership, the only requirement is that they put their trust in the Lord, 14:23. Sometimes we make people wait too long and ask for them to jump hurdles. Let us continue to pray that we can hear God’s guiding voice through the Holy Spirit, that we build confidence in each other, affirm each other in the gifts we see in them or discern them to have. Let’s pray that we can be an expectant people, a people God can work with to proclaim His kingdom.
15/09 – In Acts 13:44-14:7 Paul and Barnabas hit the Jewish hard core who, through jealousy, heaped abuse on them. It probably wasn’t just Paul, as written. Even though Paul had said in verse 27: “The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognise Jesus, yet, in condemning him, they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.” Still the Jewish leaders in Pisidian Antioch didn’t hear what was said. How encouraging that on the “next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord”. The response from Paul was straight forward: “since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles”. So Paul and Barnabas are expelled from that region and, shaking the dust off their feet, move onto Iconium. What would you think their reaction to be? Perhaps despondent at the reaction? Not a bit of it! We read: “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit”. Again, Paul and Barnabas spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. But again “the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.” What closes verse 44 is fascinating, for we read “the Lord confirmed the message of His grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders”. But again “there was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them.” The two disciples had a tip off and left for the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe. And, it almost goes without saying, – continued to preach.
The stark reality is, if and when we preach the gospel we often face opposition, the deceiver is at work! (Look back to Sunday and Revelation.) When we lift our heads above the parapet and are identified as Christians we will face criticism of some kind, even though we are, in theory, protected from discrimination. That is another reason why self-identifying as Christians can be hard for many people to do. But this reading is clear, as is most of Acts and the gospels: being a follower of Jesus is no easy path. For those who say that ‘Christianity is a crutch’ clearly have no idea! Once again it is in fellowship that we have strength, support, resilience and courage. Fellowship with each other, but also fellowship within the Trinity. The reaction of the disciples in leaving Pisidian Antioch, filled with joy and the Holy Spirit, says a lot. God was at work. Let us know God is at work through us and perhaps because of what we do God will confirm the message of His grace by enabling us to perform signs and wonders! Let us move forward to obey His commands. As Emma reminded us on Sunday, Jesus tells us to keep his commands (John 14:14, 21,23, 15:10); he also said “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16), and in Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus commands us to go and make disciples. Let us make all that foremost in our prayers for the church.
14/09 – In Acts 13:13-43 Paul and Barnabas continue their journey crossing the Mediterranean again for Perga in Pamphylia (modern day Turkey). Here we have Paul preaching at the request of the leaders of the synagogue. His listeners included gentiles who had converted to Judaism. A history lesson follows from the Torah, God’s leading of the Israelites and revealing Jesus as the Messiah. Paul recounts the fate of Jesus at the hands of the leaders, how in condemning Him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. He moves on to the resurrection of Jesus and that “for many days He was seen by those who had traveled with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem”. He concludes: ‘“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through Him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses”’. As he left, people walked with him and Barnabas “who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God”. Paul certainly made an impression! Almost too good to be true.
It is not really surprising that so much of the book of Acts is about mission and evangelism. The Christian church was really growing and as people were spread out by persecution so the word spread. People were not silenced, and now the ability of Paul to unpack the Torah and communicate the gospel was added to the mix. The message of Acts is relentless in its account of spreading the gospel. A message close to Luke’s heart no doubt, if not he wouldn’t have given it such emphasis. The truth today is that while there are many church congregations in this country not that many of the attendees are willing to talk about their faith in Jesus, or why they go to church. In reality many don’t really know why they do, they just believe. We need to know why we believe, and be able to share the reasons when people ask. An encyclopaedic knowledge of the bible isn’t needed, all we need to say is what keeps us close to God and what Jesus means to us. Lord God, open our hearts to know You and Your Son our Saviour better. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts and minds with knowledge of You that we can share.
13/09 – Once again Sunday breaks the thread of Acts with Revelation 12:1-12. This leaves a gap from the reading last Sunday which is going to make it harder to interpret. But, perhaps this reading can stand a little more on its own. We have the rich imagery of a woman in child-birth and a devouring dragon in hot pursuit. The dragon is also identified as ‘the ancient serpent’, a reference to the Garden of Eden perhaps (Gen 3:1,14-15). The male offspring taken to safety is probably Jesus, so this account may well be the birth of Jesus and satan’s attack. It’s worth noting that satan has fallen from heaven, having been defeated in heaven by Michael and the angels. We read: “For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” A reference again to the martyrs (Rev 2&3) and those who value God more than their own lives. There is an upbeat message here as well. “Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short.” The devil is reduced to being a deceiver, and his time is short (1,260 days is not exact but represents a short time). Jesus in Mark 13:20 says “and if the Lord had not cut short these days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, he has cut short these days.” As mentioned before, John’s Revelation mixes timeframes and references backwards and forwards in the book, so much of this reading is flowing out of previous chapters.
What are we to make of it? Probably things we already know. The battle is ongoing but victory is assured, through Jesus. Yes, the devil is very busy, and perhaps quite successful, in his role as a deceiver, but our work is to battle against that deceit by sharing Jesus. (A website worth looking at is ‘yesheis.com’.) If it isn’t already apparent much of the New Testament is about sharing faith. In a way it’s a call to arms, our weapon being the word of God, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”. Look up Ephesians 6:13-17 for our whole armour. Let us continue to pray for the strength to spread the Word and the opportunities to do so as revealed by the Holy Spirit. But let us pray also that we may be attuned to His instructions, and not be like Jonah, who went in the opposite direction!
12/09 – Acts 13:1-12 is the start of the first missionary journey of Saul “also called Paul” and Barnabas, in the company of John (also called Mark, Acts 12:12, so not John the apostle). They were sent out after a word was given to prophets, those with prophetic ministry, that God had called Paul and Barnabas to missionary work spreading the gospel. “So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” They sailed to Cyprus from Seleucia, and once in Paphos they were invited to the house of the proconcul, Sergius Paulus. Luke writes that he was an intelligent man (curious comment). They were invited because Sergius Paulus wanted to hear the word of God. The twist in the account is that the proconsul, an intelligent man, had as his advisor a man called Elymas, the name we are told means sorcerer. The question has to be: why does such a person have a place in advising the proconsul if he is an intelligent man? Or, was he deemed intelligent because he sent for Paul and Barnabas? However, Elymas “opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith”. Paul was quick to identify the problem and called him ‘”a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!”’ Paul cursed him with blindness (for a while, so not permanent). When that happened, unsurprisingly, the proconsul believed, “for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord”. Interesting he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord, or was he amazed at the authority and power shown by Paul? Thinking back to Herod not attributing his power to God, we must assume Paul was clear that his authority and power came from God, not him; that is why the proconcul attributed the visual teaching he witnessed to ‘the Lord’.
This reinforces yesterday’s message, but makes it clear that by giving credit to God we witness to His authority and power and it is a way of bringing people to know Jesus. That is why testimony is such an important part of our witness to each other and also to point the way to God, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Signs and wonders in our Christian walk are meaningless if we don’t give witness to what God has done. We are meant to tell others. Remember Peter’s instruction after his miraculous escape from Herod’s clutches; ’tell the other brothers and sisters’. Let us look at bringing testimony back into our worship ministry to God.
11/09 – In this section one has to feel sorry for the guards, who really through no fault of their own were put to death for letting Peter walk out of the prison. Or is it more a reflection of the tyrannical nature of Herod? That comment by Luke at the start of 12:18 that ‘there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter’ must have reflected absolute confusion and panic. They knew what to expect from Herod Agrippa. Herod’s fervor against Christians may have been driven by his ‘friendship’ with the emperor Caligula who had freed him from imprisonment, as a result of Herod’s support of him during the time of Tiberius. Herod had taken over the country governed by Herod Philip II and the land of Herod Antipas; a powerful man, whom Caligula had given the title of King. When Herod had returned to Judea he lived continually in Jerusalem, observed all the laws and kept himself entirely pure and observed days of sacrifices (ref Antiq 19.7.3). Perhaps Herod was showing his devotion to the Jewish faith by persecuting the Christians. However, Herod comes unstuck when he delivered a public address to the people. The reaction was that the people ‘shouted, “This is the voice of a god, not of a man”’. ‘Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down.’ This is in contrast to the disciples who give credit to God the whole time. For all his religious fever, Herod did not know or recognise God; that was his downfall. The section ends with reference to Barnabas and Saul completing their mission and going to Jerusalem.
How often do we take credit when it should go to God? Mission and bringing people to faith is all about God’s work of which we are part. Sometimes there is a danger that the miracle of conversion is attributed to the evangelist’s ability, when really it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that people see the truth. All that we are should be given to God, as Paul writes in Romans we are to ‘live in Christ’, to walk in His ways. So all our achievements are through God’s gifting and quite often what we see as blocks are part of God’s plan as well – hard to accept sometimes. Continually praising God and giving Him the glory is central to our walk with Jesus. Do we do that enough? How can we do it more? Especially when things are tough. That’s where holding each other up before the Lord, praying for each other, not just when they are ill, but in the good times as well. Alleluia, Lord, for all your work in and through us. Amen
10/09 – Today in Acts 12:1-17 we read about the second named martyr, that of James, brother of John, the sons of Zebedee (Mt 4:21). Herod had him put to death and ‘he saw that this met with approval among the Jews’, so, being a crowd pleaser, he went for Peter. But though Peter was in prison, heavily guarded, in fact bound by chains to two guards, an angel released him and walked him out of the prison into the street. Luke writes that Peter thought it was a vision, not really happening, but once in the street ‘Peter came to himself’ and realised he had been released by God. The pace moves on, Peter goes to where the disciples are, but no one would believe poor Rhoda when she said he was at the door! ‘“You’re out of your mind,” they told her’; so really high expectation, even though ‘the church was earnestly praying to God for him’. ‘When they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished’. The fact ‘Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet’ indicates the excitement with which they greeted him, almost in disbelief but also praising God for the fact he was back with them. He told them about his miraculous escape, then tells them to let James (probably James the less, the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18)) and the other brothers and sisters know about this”. Peter was eager for the news that he was free to be spread about. Wisely, he left for another location.
It’s quite encouraging in a way, that the disciples, though in prayer for Peter almost, it seems, didn’t expect results. After all James, son of Zebedee, had died at Herod’s command. That must have disheartened them, as James was one of the ‘some who belonged to the church’ that Herod intended to persecute. The disciples must have been praying for James and the others. So we have to understand their apparent lack of faith over Peter. But how real and relatable this account is! We wouldn’t be telling the truth if we didn’t admit to failing in faith a bit when those we are praying for don’t have the outcome we so fervently lift to our Lord. Even in the early church, one that many hold up as an ideal, there were times when prayer wasn’t answered. Disciples died, Stephen and James, in the very early days. But it didn’t dishearten those fleeing from persecution. In fact it seems it spurred them on to be more zealous in the declaration of the gospel. Jesus was worth dying for, a hidden treasure, a pearl of great value (Matt 13:44-46), a man risen from the dead bringing forgiveness and salvation. They accepted that God’s decision was His alone and, whatever the cost, they would give all to follow Him. Is there a risk we forget that today? That, with the trappings of lifestyle that we are blessed with, we put God in second place? To those early disciples Jesus was their reason for living. Yesterday we read that Barnabas was glad and encouraged those new Christians to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. That encouragement is still there for us. Let us pray for our courage in the Lord and strength of faith, to live that out.
09/09 – Acts 11:19-end tracks the activity of those faithful who fled because of the persecution that resulted after the death of Stephen. However, it led to a spreading of the gospel up the coast of Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Phoenicia stretches through Northern Israel, Lebanon and Syria, Antioch is in South central Turkey and of course to get to Cyprus you have to sail across the Mediterranean. We are looking at quite large distances. News spread back to Jerusalem. Again, that must have taken a while, so the dispatch of Barnabas to Antioch would not have been immediate. Once Barnabas arrived he ‘saw what the grace of God had done’. Much had been accomplished by those from Cyprus and Cyrene who had preached to the Greeks and all Barnabas could do at that point was to ‘encourage them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’. Even though we are told Barnabas was ‘a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord’, he acknowledged he needed help. So where did he look? To Tarsus and Saul, whom he fetched and together they ‘taught great numbers of people’. Luke tells us that the ‘disciples were called Christians first at Antioch’. Was that due to the large number of Gentile converts? Had it moved away from being a breakaway Jewish sect and did it need an identity of its own?
Barnabas must have taken quite a step in reaching out to Saul. He travelled to Tarsus to find him and then managed to convince him to return to the mission field. Barnabas clearly saw in Saul a valuable asset in reaching out to Jews and Gentiles alike. Once there were the big evangelists, such as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts and Luis Palau, to name a few, but now it seems, at least here in the UK, there aren’t the big staged events headed up by a big name evangelist. The approach has changed; big names are there but the approach is different. Perhaps what we read about in Acts is more helpful: evangelism and mission by ordinary people but affirmed and supported by headliners like Peter, Barnabas and now Saul. Perhaps in our outreach to others we need to be equipped with some resources, big names we know about and can trust, available in books or through the internet who can support us as we share the ‘Good News’. One such is RZIM set up by Ravi Zacharias in the USA (sadly he recently died) but RZIM is active here, based in Oxford. Speakers such as Amy Orr-Ewing and John Lennox are worth a search, there are many others of course. If we can’t answer questions they probably can. Let’s pray for those who share their knowledge and passion for the gospel on-line and teach others in the process.
08/09 – It’s interesting that the news media reports that Pope Francis said that gossip is a plague worse than Covid for in this reading from Acts 11:1-18 we learn that ‘when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticised him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”’ How much gossip was there about Peter and what he had done before his return and could that have caused a fracture in the new church? Later we read about the running friction that existed between the Jewish purists and those who looked to welcome Gentiles into ‘The Way’. Of course with the authority and respect that Peter had he was able to explain what had happened and ‘when they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”’
There is something in this about the way we handle criticism and censure over things that happen. Peter faced criticism from people before they had taken the trouble to find out the truth. The focus was on their objections; however, the positive is that they were prepared to listen and then change their view. Perhaps today we don’t see that willingness to listen; the volume of the criticism is so loud that any response is smothered in protest. Views are so fixed that any response is ignored because we live in an era of fixed opinions. We so often encounter that when we try to share our faith, it is off-putting and discouraging. How do we navigate the fixed opinions and flawed knowledge that are gleaned from incorrect or biased sources? We have to do it by listening, by seeking to understand what people think and know, by asking questions that reveal the true objections and misunderstandings. Rather than putting our views across, we ask for theirs, and just listen, as the objectors listened to Peter. So often when we give people space to share their views they are more willing to hear us. The circumcised believers criticised Peter and he gave them space, then responded. Let us be people who listen first, to each other, both in the church family and beyond, and respond with prayerful consideration, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Listening is a powerful gift, let us use it. “He who has ears let him hear” (Matthew 11:15, Mark 4:9 & Luke 8:8, 14:35).
07/09 – Acts 10:34-end is the outcome of the vision and the invitation from Cornelius to Peter to visit his household. Peter recounts the story of Jesus, His death and resurrection, including the important detail that Peter and others “ate and drank with Him after He rose from the dead”, affirming that Jesus was not some spiritual manifestation but very real and a living person. He then says that “all the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.” Then the shocking happened, “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” Those present then started “speaking in tongues and praising God”. Those who had come with Peter from Joppa “were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles”. Peter was probably just as astonished; he found himself having to acknowledge God’s intervention by declaring: ‘“surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. The vision now made total sense; he willingly submitted to God’s will and had no doubts in what he witnessed.
Before anything could happen Peter had to proclaim the Good News, culminating in the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ, – his message then, and our message now. What is so amazing is that the Holy Spirit came upon all those who heard the message and believed, each one of them was convicted by the truth Peter spoke. Remember back to verse 33 when Cornelius said, “now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” The uncomfortable truth is that that command is still applicable today, we are to share the Good News just as Peter did then. We may need to reframe it for our time but people are looking for a change in direction from where the lifestyle of today is taking them. So many are hungry for the Good News, and yes, just as the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15) shows us not all will receive the word, that doesn’t mean we don’t share it. The harvest is ready and we need to join the workers in bringing in the harvest. To fulfil our shared vision to add one hundred new disciples we must share with those outside our church family the hope that Jesus brings.
06/09 – It is always hard to do a reflection on just part of the book of Revelation and the reading from 8:1-5 proves the point. It is the final part of the opening of the seven seals and links back and forward, into that which is yet to be revealed to John. Imagine someone reading this in church; they come to the part where “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. The reader stops for a full thirty minutes without warning, what would happen? How would those in church react? What would the silence be like? Embarrassment, discomfort, concern, lots of nervous fidgeting, perhaps? What is the silence for? Perhaps it is so that the resumption of activity is all the more dramatic and the sound has more of an impact. Then we have the prayer of all the saints, in the opening of the first seal John heard the prayers of the the “souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:10). This time the prayers are not heard but in 8:3 “He (another angel) was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people . . . The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” Are we to understand that prayer is the driver for God’s plan for the completion of His will? Then we have the dramatic sounds and actions as the “angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake”. That is an image looking down towards the earth; what would it be like looking from earth? Perhaps in Exodus 19:17-19 we can see the image: “Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.”
Don’t we pray on a regular basis: ‘Your kingdom come’? What is our expectation of that event? Is the rich, somewhat violent image given in Revelation how we see it? Most probably see it more as the moment the ‘kingdom of God’ is realised, God’s people everywhere, God’s values being the driving force for mankind and Jesus Christ being the uniting love that flows through all people, a form of utopian existence. The revelation John was given doesn’t seem to fit that picture, not until the ’new Jerusalem’ comes down from God and ‘God’s dwelling place is among the people’, will there be the kingdom presence. But Jesus is the forerunner of that time. He initiated the kingdom’s breakthrough leaving His disciples, past and present, to carry on His work. Let us keep praying for God’s kingdom to come and for all those who work to fulfil that prayer, for those saints who suffer and die to maintain the testimony of God’s action in their lives. Let us pray also for each other as we are built in faith to be workers for the coming kingdom.
05/09 – With Acts 10:17-33 the story of Peter’s vision continues. Now it comes to have meaning, though it seems Peter had to have clear direction for ‘while Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”’ This vision and what follows is all about the expansion of the kingdom to the Gentiles. The issue was to be thrust in Peter’s face, it was impossible for him to avoid, though, as we shall read later in Acts, it was a recurrent theme that seemed always to cause Peter problems. But for now he showed hospitality by inviting the men into the house to be his guests. That’s quite challenging. How did Simon the Tanner, whose house it was, feel about that? How would you feel if you had a guest who invited people alien to your own culture (my assumption) as guests? Cornelius the centurion never, it seems, doubted that Simon Peter would turn up. Note the use of both names again. There seems to be a bridging exercise going on in the writing of Luke, a deliberate merging of cultural identity perhaps. When they arrive in Caesarea Cornelius has a room full of people invited to hear Peter talk about Jesus. Peter was not the only one to have had a vision, for Cornelius says, “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me”, and told me to send for “Simon who is called Peter”. The other interesting thing Cornelius says to Peter is that “we are all here in the presence of God to listen to everything the Lord has commanded you to tell us.” All in the ‘presence of God’, – that is quite an emphasis to make, but it also shows where Cornelius was in acknowledging the presence of God.
The flow of this account is definitely revealing two men of faith, a bridging of a massive cultural divide and the revelation of one God over all. It is very relevant in the context of today’s confusion of how we live and mix in a multi-cultural society, whether we appropriate the culture of others and how we respect other cultures but integrate. Today there is so much about maintaining cultural identity and protecting it, sometimes quite vigorously. This account talks about an incredible meeting of minds and the dropping of barriers, brought about by a common desire to know God, through Jesus Christ. As Paul’s letter to the Roman church shows, the divisions between Jew and Gentile was still very much an issue, but living within the love of God, manifest in Christ was the healing that was needed for people to come together. Let us pray for two things, one that people who call themselves Christians understand what love is, the love that Jesus calls us to have for each other, a love that calls for sacrifice. Let us also pray that Christians can be the light that brings healing and integration, not loss of identity, through Christ and that we can all worship together One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May we listen and act on His call to us.
04/09 – Acts 10:1-16 is about Peter’s vision about food, very appropriate if you’re feeling hungry and waiting for food to be prepared. It’s amazing how God uses the moment to share a message with Peter, especially one so challenging about food and what he did or did not eat. Unlike us, Peter did not know what was about to happen, so the vision would have made very little sense, other than to challenge his existing attitudes to food. So at that moment in time it was a message from God with no context to anchor it to.
Have you ever felt God was leading you, but didn’t know why? That you had a strong feeling about something that was later revealed? It seems to be the way God works sometimes. Often when we look back we can see God’s touch on our lives, when at the time we didn’t know or sense it. God can be guiding us but perhaps we are wrapped up in the moment, just as Peter probably was, waiting for the meal to appear; he was after all hungry! Perhaps he was thinking, ‘well, I’m hungry so that was just about food, that’s logical.’ It was the events that followed that transformed the moment and gave it meaning.
As we live our lives we have to be aware that God is there, revealing Himself to us, seeking to guide us. Do we see Him? Do we hear? Sadly, possibly not. But we need to develop an awareness of God with us, and wait on His word, however faint that may be. Remember Elijah in 1 Kings 19:12-13, it was in the calm, not the earthquake or fire, but in the sound of a low whisper, that God spoke to him. Let us attune ourselves to God, wait on His word and, both as individuals and as a church, move in the direction He takes us.
03/09 – The focus turns again to Peter in 9:32-end. We have already learnt that Peter went to Philip and now we read that ‘he went here and there among all the believers’. Firstly he heals Aeneas, then he is told about the death of the disciple Tabitha (Greek name Dorcas). It was often the case that people would have two names, one Aramaic, or in the case of Saul, Jewish, and the other Greek or Roman.Today often people with names that are difficult for the average English speaker to pronounce will have a British sounding name as well. So, back to Dorcas, many may know that we have a window showing the work of Dorcas, and that the pastoral care team was once, before my arrival here, known as the ‘Dorcas Team’. In verse 36 Dorcas is described as “always doing good and helping the poor”, and when Peter arrived he was shown “the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them.” A lot has been made of this short reference to Dorcas but it is clear that she was well respected and valued as a disciple of Christ. Her selflessness in her ministry is very apparent from this short account. That in itself says a lot. The pastoral ministry is so central to our expression of showing our care and love for each other and to those outside the church family; it is a way that we can be a light in the darkness, and that has been the case over the centuries. Those who are involved in pastoral ministry tend to work in the shadows and can be easily overlooked. It is often a ministry that just happens. But to be really effective it has to be carefully organised, especially if supporting those outside the church, or if the church is growing in numbers. Pastoral ministry goes hand in hand with evangelism, showing and spreading the word of God. We need a strong pastoral care team, especially if we are to fulfil our vision of 100 new disciples. Let us pray for that to happen and give thanks to those, who over the past years, have worked to provide that support and leadership. It is time for us to develop this ministry; there is real need, we should work to fill it.
02/09 – Acts 9:19b-31. The shock waves of the conversion of Saul predominate the narrative of Luke. But what must it have been like for Saul? He wouldn’t have been popular with the Christians but his hard line may well have found favour with the Jewish community. The authorities had given him a mandate to round up any Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem, so popular with them no doubt! Now, after his Damascus Road experience, he was held in suspicion by Christians and with hostility by the Jews, who tried to kill him more than once. He seems to have lost out through his experience and was going to have to start again, which is perhaps why at the end of the reading we find that the ‘believers’ looking after him send him home to Tarsus via Caesarea. We know that relatives of his were converts before him (Romans 16:7) and he had a nephew (Acts 23:16). He states however that he was a ‘Pharisee born of a Pharisee’ (Acts 23:6). So, in a way, his position mirrored the divided nature of his own family. His Jewish name Saul is used in Acts by Luke till 13:9 when Luke changes it to Paul, the Roman version of Paul. So we read about the dramatic shift going on in Saul’s life. What must it have been like for him returning to Tarsus, and what about his family? What would they make of his abrupt change of heart? We are unlikely, in this country anyway, to be killed because we become Christians, but in other countries becoming a Christian could indeed be a death sentence. Here certainly it can be difficult, in family relationships when people become Christians, especially when behaviour changes and what was once okay becomes unacceptable. It is very hard for people to understand or relate to such an experience and it is a real joy when families want to have what the Christian family member has and so follow in the way of Christ. But that requires an openness of mind, or a willingness to change, that perhaps so many lack. Paul’s story shows us that the difficulties many people face are not new or unique, but look at what Paul did and achieved with his new life in Christ. Let us pray for those experiencing real relationship difficulties as a result of their turning to Christ.
01/09 – Acts 9:1-19a is Luke’s account of the conversion of Saul. Though God is sovereign in His action on the road to Damascus with Saul, he still draws in others to help. The disciple Ananias was God’s chosen assistant. Unsurprisingly Ananias was reluctant, he didn’t want to put himself, and possibly others, at risk. So a frank chat with God was called for, but even though he had fears Ananias went and did as instructed by God. He found where Saul was, as told by God, and laid hands on Saul. What trust Ananias had in God’s guidance! Even though Ananias was unsure of Saul he still greets him as ‘Brother Saul’. What an amazing statement, again reflecting the total obedience Ananias had in God’s word. Saul regained his sight. Then it is written “for several days he (Saul) was with the disciples in Damascus.” Did Saul (Paul) later remember this experience when he wrote in Romans 12 “Bless those who persecute you . . . do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved never avenge yourselves.” (12:14,17) He had that generous love shown to him by those disciples in Damascus in the early days. How that experience must have shaken him as he was shown forgiveness and love by the disciples as they ‘overcame evil with good’ (12:21). Not only had he been confronted by Jesus but he was witness to people honouring Jesus in their actions. Do we still see people showing amazing love and forgiveness to others? Yes, we do. Do we demonstrate that conduct, that way of living ourselves? Being the ‘light of Christ’ is demanding; we have to be reshaped by the Holy Spirit. More than that, we have to actively want to be reshaped and pull ourselves up when we fall short. As Paul writes in Romans 7, how he wants to behave but too often falls short. Romans 7:21-23 “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” However, Paul discovers that “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death”. Saul is a changed man, living in the company of changed people. The truth Saul/Paul writes about in Romans must have taken some time to form, but those initial contacts must have been vital for him. We need to be a people who by demonstrating grace, love and hospitality to others can help and guide people who are new to Christianity. That is especially true as we seek to live out our vision, to welcome 100 new disciples to Christ Church. Let us be prepared and mobilised to live out that welcome to others.
31/08 – Acts 8:26-end is the well known account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, an important official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. Candace is not a name but a title for queens, queen mother or queen regent, in the kingdom of Kush, now Sudan. It seems some may have ruled in their own right as queens after 170BC. The capital of Kush was Meroe, and was known for its fabulous wealth. In 300CE it was invaded and abandoned 20 years later. The queen at the time Luke wrote this account was Amantitere. Some try to use the fact that the title was used as the queen’s name in this account to bring discredit to the bible’s accuracy; however, would Luke have known? And does it matter? What does matter is that here we have a man, of good education, in someone’s service, who is seeking understanding of the scripture he reads. Philip is placed by God where he can unpack the reading from Isaiah 53:7-8 to teach about Jesus. The Ethiopian eunuch is baptised and goes on his way rejoicing, not noticing, it seems, that Philip has been transported to Azotus to carry on his ministry of preaching the gospel.Jesus set the model for all on the road to Emmaus by explaining to the two disciples all that was said about him in the scriptures.
Turning back to the eunuch, how was he feeling? Obviously really happy, in fact so happy his rejoicing took over. Today we sang ‘Holy Water’ by Andrew Bergthold. These were some of the words – Oh, God, I need You So, take me to the riverside, Take me under, baptizeI need You Oh, God, I need YouYour forgiveness Is like sweet, sweet honey on my lipsLike the sound of a symphony to my earsLike holy water on my skinCould that in some way reflect his emotion? God had come into his life through Jesus; new light had been shone into and through the words of scripture. How can we not seek to share such good news, news that changes lives, with those around us? We may not be eloquent like Peter, Stephen and Philip, but God can guide us from where we are. Let’s be open to His leading to bring light into this world. Heavenly Father, lead us, we pray, so that we can share You with others. Lord may Your word grow in our hearts, like streams of living water, to nourish Your Word in others.
30/08 – Revelation 3:14-end. The letter to the church in Laodicea, possibly one of the best known and quoted letters at the start of the Revelation to John on Patmos. “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” What follows is applicable now as it was then: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.'” The fearsome image of Jesus depicted in 1:13-18 instructed John to write, “But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” There are volumes upon volumes written on this but the truth is obvious, let’s not be deluded or self-satisfied; this applies to us all. Sometimes in churches things may well be done, valuable work for the kingdom but how many people are doing the work? Are the majority basking in the success and dedication of others? Some may not be doing the actual work but may be financing it, praying for it and making sacrifices for it to happen; that is part of the work. Let us all be honest and examine ourselves. Are we lukewarm? Does our complacency ever hide the fact that in spiritual matters we may possibly be ‘wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked’? John writes that Jesus says, “I council you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your nakedness; and salve to put in your eyes, so you can see.” It reminds me of an old hymn, though now reworked – ‘O Fire of God, come burn in me, renew a holy passion till Christ my deepest longing be*’. A question I recently read (to paraphrase) was ‘do we spend more time worrying about how we worship on Sundays than doing the work of God?’ I suspect that is true of many churches, let it not be the case with us. Let us seek the Lord earnestly in order to serve Him faithfully.
*William Cowper (1731-1800) Adapt. & new music: Stuart Townend & Keith Getty Copyright © 2009 Thankyou Music
29/08 – Acts 8:4-25 is our introduction to Philip, who went to Samaria as a result of the persecution taking place in Jerusalem. He proclaimed Christ and did miraculous signs, and people listened to what he had to say. We also meet Simon, a sorcerer, who amazed people with his magic and claimed to be ‘great’. But upon meeting Philip, Simon (a Samaritan) understood Philip to be someone different and followed him closely. However, perhaps his intention or understanding was flawed. Simon was even baptised, but was that just a way for him to join the inner circle? News of all that was happening spread back to the apostles so Peter and John joined him. When they came, they laid hands on him for the the gift of the Holy Spirit, and this revealed Simon’s misunderstanding. He offered to pay the two apostles to lay hands on him so he might have the gift as well. “You cannot buy the gift of God with money” came the response. “You have no part or share in this ministry because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord.” Simon asks the apostles to pray for him. The act of simony, praying for a position, or influence, in the church, viewed as a wrong attitude, comes from this man’s name and behaviour. Put the brakes on for a moment and think about that.
Nothing further is written about Simon in the account of Acts. After this encounter the two apostles return home and Philip continues with his ministry. The disciples, including Philip, understood the sacrificial nature of ministry. We should open ourselves to God to use us as he sees fit. This reading emphasises, as though the account of Stephen leaves us in any doubt, that our willingness to be open to God, letting go of all ambition and aspirations of greatness, is core to our relationship in service to God. Today we still see an approach to God through good works, as though an easy route to God can be bought. People still enter the church to seek positions of importance to feed their own egos rather than to humble themselves before God, doing nothing, being nothing, if that is God’s will. No one in Christian leadership has a right to be in that role; it is God’s to give, and to take away. In fact Proverbs 4:23, Luke 12:48, James 3:1 and 1 Timothy 4:16 all tell of the burden of leadership and need for a right attitude. Today many leaders have fallen off their pedastol, some great and respected names have had to resign their positions. All leaders, teachers and those in positions of influence, require our prayer. But most of all let us search our hearts and ask God to show us where we may have a wrong approach to being in His presence. Let us seek His forgiveness and as a ‘new creation’ step forward to do His kingdom’s work.
28/08 – Acts 7:54-8:3 is the account of the death of Stephen and our introduction to Saul, the persecutor of the new sect following Jesus the Christ. Stephen knew what his fate was going to be and seemed to welcome it: “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” And even as he was being stoned to death he echoed the sentiments of Jesus in Luke 23:34,y”Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Then, it is written, ‘he fell asleep’, something Paul reflects on in 1 Corinthians 15:51 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” Death is not permanent for those who believe. It was after this that a wave of persecutions broke out (ably assisted by Saul) and all except the Apostles were scattered. However, in 8:4 we are told that “those who were scattered preached the word wherever they went.” So, clearly the persecution had the opposite effect, something even today those hostile to Christians don’t seem to understand. The other message we get from this is that death in Christ was viewed as an honour, almost something to be sought; Paul longed to escape this life. Certainly in today’s western view of Christianity that could not be said to be true. But sacrifice, even to death, is our calling, an uncomfortable point Francis Chan makes in his book ‘Letters to the Church’.
If we think back to the Old Testament, God scattered His people at the hands of invading nations, the Babylonians and Assyrians. However, that didn’t lead to an expansion of Judaism. Now, under the New Covenant that is not the case; Gentiles were already being accepted, and the door was open for the gospel, as it is today. So what part are we to play?
Firstly, we should pray for the perpetrators of persecution, that, like Saul, they may see Christ and change. We should pray for the gift of discernment, to hear the Holy Spirit and to pray for the gift of courage, to speak the words He gives to us. Pray also for those facing persecution, who experience it in its many forms, that they may have strength to stand firm in Jesus, their feet upon the rock. Finally, that we may not hold things of this world so tightly that we cannot hold onto Jesus.
27/08 – Stephen in this part of the passage comes to his climactic conclusion! In 7:44-53 he holds back on no punches. First the Temple that the Jews so revere: Stephen reminds them of the origins of the temple, but then says in verse 48 “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands”, then he quotes Isaiah 66:1-2, “Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?”. Next he goes for the members of the Sanhedrin and those they represent, calling them a ‘stiff-necked people’, among other things. He makes the accusation that their forefathers killed those who ‘predicted the coming of the Righteous One’. This is an accusation that Paul makes in 1 Thessalonians 2:15, probably the earliest Christian writing (c50/51AD) and is in Matthew 23:31. However, none of the three Major Prophets or the 12 Minor Prophets died at the hands of the Israelites, though in the Old Testament there are occasions where prophets of the Lord are killed, 1 Kings 18:4. Finally Stephen lays at their feet the responsibility of betraying and murdering the ‘Righteous One’ and of not following the law.
We have to acknowledge this is fairly incendiary stuff! Not perhaps the best way of winning his opponents over. Was he right to be so blunt? Is it what we would do in the face of a hostile crowd? But let us pause. Stephen was a man filled with the Holy Spirit, full of grace and power, working with signs and wonders of the Kingdom. Is this what Jesus predicts in Luke 12:12, “for the Holy Spirit will teach you at the time what you should say”? Was this what God wanted Stephen to say? After all, Jesus was openly condemning of the temple and religious leaders. Today are we afraid, is the Church afraid, of confrontation? Is the Church timid today and fearful of speaking the truth? Is the Church so muddled in its thoughts that it cannot discern God’s truth anymore in order to speak it out? The answer has to be both a yes and a no.
The real question for us is: how do we stand up for God’s truth and defend Jesus, our Lord and Saviour? Do we look for strength in the Holy Spirit? Do we expect the Holy Spirit to stand with us? Do we have faith? Lord God, be with us as we discern Your will and speak in Your name. Give us the courage to defend You in the world, together, united, as one. Lord, as we come together as Your family, may we learn Your truth together and support each other as we speak it out.
26/08 – We are now into Stephen’s apologetic arguments giving the background to Jesus as the promised Christ and grounding it firmly in the Torah. That would make it very hard for his opponents to argue against, even though, to put him before the Sanhedrin, false witnesses had accused Stephen of speaking words of blasphemy against Moses and God, and also saying that Jesus of Nazareth would “destroy this place and change the customs of Moses” (6:11,14). However, note the repetitive theme that Stephen uses in his account of Moses. How Moses was pushed aside, abandoned as a baby (7:21), pushed aside by a man, one of his kinfolk, wronging his neighbour (7:27) with the words “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” In 7:35 Stephen recounts how it was again Moses’ own people who rejected him, even though God had sent him as both ruler and liberator. In 7:39, Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt, and even though angels spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai and Moses received living oracles “Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him: instead they pushed him aside.” It was through the action of the Israelites in the building of the Golden Calf and the worshiping of other gods that God turned away from them.
There seems to be a clear parallel here with the rejection by the Jews of Jesus and the rejection by their forefathers of Moses, a prophet they now honour and worship and seek to protect. Were those meeting in the Sanhedrin too deaf to hear or so fixed in their prejudice against Jesus and His followers they couldn’t accept what was being said? But how difficult it would have been for them to accept the narrative that Stephen presented; their ancestors rejected Moses and God rejected them! Talk about being wrong footed!
Today we seem to live in a time when we are being forced to look at our past, not just here in the UK, but around the world. The Church has had to be introspective in self-examination. The Church in history has, too often, not served God well, or at least as well as it should. Even today Christianity is subverted and used by people to satisfy their own objectives, or present an image that does not match reality. The positive is that certainly many of the Christian denominations have listened to the voices, like Stephen’s, that present a different, difficult, narrative. And in reflection have sought to move to be more faithful in conduct to the way Christ would have His people be.
How willing are we to listen to others and dwell upon the words and allow ourselves to change? Are we willing to change? Many people are now fixed in behavioural patterns that are destructive, and they see it as their right to behave as they do. If we are to grow in faith, in character, if we are to become more like Jesus we must welcome change and listen to others we respect and trust. As Christ Church we will have to change, we are a different kind of church from many of those around us and that identity is God-given, for us to thrive as His people. Let us listen, be a listening church, but not forget who we are and how we seek to express our worship of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
25/08 – We are now being drawn into the story of Stephen, who in 6:5 was nominated and approved to be a pastoral support to the Apostles in supporting the widows of the Grecian and Hebraic Jews and to resolve the friction between the two groups. It seems that Stephen stood out from the others; he was a man “full of God’s grace and power” (6:8); he did “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people”. For some reason he became the focus of opposition; possibly after Peter and John had evaded the temple authorities Stephen was seen as an easier target. However, it was a different group, though members of the Synagogue, who wanted to silence Stephen. They tried to argue but “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke”. So, after false accusations Stephen was taken before the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was part of the Jewish court system and had jurisdiction over religious, civil and criminal matters. It was headed up by a Chief Priest and met in the temple. There were two courts: the main Sanhedrin with 70 members and the Lesser Sanhedrin with 23; Luke does not indicate which this was. The High Priest asks Stephen if the charges brought against him are true. Stephen does not give a direct answer but instead launches into an apologetic argument using the Torah to give the background to Jesus as Christ. We get into that in the next few days, ending on Friday. What can we learn so far from the account about Stephen? Perhaps that it’s best not to get noticed, keep your head below the parapet! Or quietly get on with the Lord’s work without drawing any attention to yourself or to the fact it is the Lord’s work being done. But then, that doesn’t seem to be the message, does it? Often I have met new Christians who simply can’t keep the fact in that they have turned to Christ and have found the answer they have been looking for. They just want to tell anyone who will listen: family, friends, work colleagues, – they are bursting to share the good news with others. Sadly, they soon find the rebuffs too hard to take and tune down their enthusiasm; they come to the conclusion they need to learn more to answer the critics and that associating with other believers is the best way forward. But actually in that period of raw enthusiasm the Holy Spirit is empowering them. Is that where Stephen is in this account?
As we will read, Stephen knew his Torah, he knew the background to Jesus and explained it with eloquence, just as Peter does; Stephen doesn’t hold back! The truth is, he isn’t in the apostolic ‘A Team’; he was called to serve at tables, but even at his selection he was recognised as a “man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5). Stephen was clearly a man set apart, a ministry route that most of us would not willingly want to travel. But, should we define our call to service?
Sometimes others see the gifts God gives us better that we do, or we choose to ignore them for fear of where we would have to go or what we would have to do (Stephen clearly doesn’t have that problem.) Is that willingly serving God? As a church we need those with pastoral gifts, evangelists, enablers and faithful servants. We are embarked on a mission, just as the early church was. Let us mobilise ourselves and support each other to take us beyond our goal. Let us realise the future God has given us.