Acts 10 gives us the story of Cornelius. He was a good man who was tuned in to God. He “saw clearly in a vision” an angel who told him to send for Peter who was in another place. So Cornelius sends off a few of his servants to retrieve Peter. God spoke to him and he listened and obeyed. If you are looking for a playbook on how our spiritual relationship with God should look – here it is. A devout follower – scripture tells us Cornelius “feared God….gave alms generously…..prayed continually”. Now there is a list of success factors for Christ Followers. As Cornelius is hearing from and obeying God, Peter is in Joppa down the road a ways and doing the same thing – he is praying. Peter “fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending…..in it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds”. God tells Peter to get up and eat as he was hungry. Of course Peter says no because some of these were unclean by Jewish standards. He was a devout follower of the customs and law. But God says this: “What God has made clean, do not call common”. God is persisting and actually “this happens three times” just to make sure Peter gets the message loud and clear. God’s vision here is not really about food as we will find out a bit later.
As Peter is praying and pondering his vision, God speaks to him some more: “the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation”. God has a plan for Peter to get outside his comfort zone and have his territory expanded. So Peter meets the men sent to retrieve him and goes back to meet Cornelius. Of course Cornelius has a plan to connect Peter with all his relatives and close friends, so they are all gathered and waiting. Interesting how God times all this out isn’t it – not surprising what can be done when He sees and controls all the details in life. Peter shares the message of his vision with them that “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean”. Peter was sent there to share the message of Jesus Christ. It was to a people he really hadn’t planned to share with, but that is where God called him and he obediently went. Here is the truth Peter shares: “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”. Becoming a Christ Follower is not dependent on our genes or background or where we live – it is about our heart. It is about trust and obedience. It is about knowing Jesus and making Him Lord of our life. Peter’s eyes are opened to that truth this day. And as he preached, the people responded and came to Jesus. They received the gift that God offered and were saved. And Peter “commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ”. There was no waiting around to get permission from someone to let these folks be saved. God moved, Peter obeyed, and people became Christ Followers. Peter could have refused to go. He could have just blown off the visions – even though God made it clear three times just so Peter was sure to understand. But Peter got out of the box, followed God’s direction, and was part of the harvest. Are you listening to His call and responding the same way?
Acts 9 is in stark contrast to the previous chapter where Saul led the pack in stoning Stephen. He is still on the rampage here – heading for Damascus with letters allowing him to haul any Christ Followers back to jail. But on his journey intended to destroy the church – something happens. “Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him”. He met Jesus. Saul meets the Living Savior and King. “Falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me”. Jesus meets him where he is – a sinner – and considered one of the worst because of the persecution he was doing to the church. Yet Jesus pursues him even though the rest of the church was hiding and running literally for their lives. Saul is blinded and led into the city by his traveling companions and “for three days he was without sight and neither ate nor drank”. So as he sits in this house pondering what has happened – God calls on a man named Ananias to “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying”. Can you imagine being tapped on the shoulder with that call? Hey Ananias – go find this guy Saul who has been killing your fellow believers and heal him. I would have reacted just like Ananias did: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem”. Look God – I am a follower of yours but this is asking a lot. This guy kills people like me. God persists and says “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine”. There was a job for Ananias to do. He wasn’t really being asked – he was being told by God to get up and get moving. Ananias could have refused I suppose. But “Ananias departed and entered the house” and he came to Saul who “regained his sight…..rose….and was baptized”.
What if Ananias hadn’t answered God’s call? What if Saul had not met Jesus and His saving power and been transformed into Paul who wrote much of the New Testament? We often don’t see the impact of the call God has on our life. We may just treat those gentle nudges or whispers as unimportant. But God has a plan for each one – and we need to listen and act when He calls. God’s call is not optional – He isn’t asking if we think it is a good idea when He nudges us. He is God and knows what needs to be done. So we just need to respond and follow His direction. It is so simple yet we resist it so often and fail to follow His leading. Ananias did respond and now scripture tells us that Saul “immediately proclaimed Jesus in the temple”. Because of Ananias’ simple response of obedience to go and do as God asked – Saul has been set free from sin and is not a leader in the church. Immediately the response of the leaders was to try and kill this guy. Saul was wreaking havoc on their plans to shut down the Christ Followers before they got out of control. But “his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall” to save him. He headed on to Jerusalem and the fellow believers were afraid of him but “Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles”. Another man who followed God’s direction even when it didn’t really match up with the common wisdom of the day.
Saul continues preaching boldly and impacting the church. Here is the way the church is described: “the church….had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied”. Did you catch that? The church was walking in the fear and power of God. For that reason – it multiplied. It wasn’t because of the great programs it offered. It wasn’t about the building or campus they were on. It was because they were walking with God. That is what grows the body of Christ – the church. Want your church to grow? Then walk with Him. That is the place growth comes from. He is the vine – He provides the growth – we have to be plugged into that source of power if we want to make a difference in the world around us.
Acts 8 begins with these chilling words: “And Saul approved of his execution” referring to the stoning of Stephen. What a legacy that created. Saul was all about destroying the church and the Christ Followers. “A great persecution against the church…..they were all scattered”. Saul led the charge that caused people to flee for their lives. Look at what he does:
– “Ravaging the church
– Entering house after house
– Dragged off men and women
– Committed them to prison”
Saul was focused on one thing – destroying the church. So how do the Christ Followers respond? Check out what scripture tells us; “those who were scattered went about preaching the word”. Did you catch that? They may have been forced from their homes but they were not forced from their calling – they remained faithful. They stayed on task and went all over Judea and Samaria and preached Jesus Christ crucified. They continued to live out their faith as God had commanded them to do. How do you respond when things get tough around living as a Christ Follower? Do you just give up and stop walking with Him? We are called with a mission to be faithful and to walk with Him making disciples of all people in our patch. We are charged with that task. Just like the early followers – we need to persist and keep on.
Philip has moved on to Samaria and is having much success in leading people to Jesus. But as he ministered there – he received a call from God to move on. We need to learn from this story. It would have been easy for Philip to justify staying put. Things were going well in the ministry. He was having great success. Why pick up and move now? Because God called him to do so: “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, Rise and go toward the south”. So Philip did as God asked and he runs into an Ethiopian eunuch who was a court official riding in his chariot. Philip gets his marching orders again from God: “And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot”. Philip could have resisted or ignored the Spirit’s direction. We get led to do things over and over each day and often ignore the whisper of God through the Spirit don’t we. Obedience is a choice. And obedience when we are out of our comfort zone is a big choice. Philip listened and obeyed and is invited to climb up beside the eunuch and teach him the scriptures. “Philip opened his mouth….told him the good news about Jesus”. No big presentation. No PowerPoint or prepared material. Philip just obeyed God’s direction and shared life with this guy. The result was powerful and “he baptized him”. Why? Because Philip listened to the voice of the Spirit leading him to leave his comfort zone and go where he was called. The Spirit gave him the appointment, the words to say, and the results. All Philip had to do was be willing and obedient. God took care of the rest. He will do the same for us as well. Are you listening? Are you obeying His call? He wants to use each of us just like He did Philip to change the world!
Acts 7 is the story of Stephen before the religious leaders. He has been hauled in after becoming one of the guys selected to serve in the church and making an impact in the people around him. Most of the chapter is a history lesson – if you want to read a summary of scripture this is a good place to get a good overview of some highlights. Stephen recites to them a number of the key happenings that have occurred and how faithful God has been over time. As he gets to the current time he says this: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you”. He is before them being accused of many things but certainly doesn’t back down. He lets them have it. And then he puts in a few more jabs when he says “you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law delivered by angels and did not keep it”. He calls them betrayers and murderers and people who don’t keep the law. This isn’t going to play well with the leadership. They have justified every action they ever took and are not going to just sit back and be treated like this.
Stephen is not even paying attention to his accusers. He “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God”. This is an great example of living for an audience of One. While he is being falsely accused and on the edge of being sent to his own death – Stephen is completely focused on God and Jesus. Forget what these leaders are saying or doing – he is looking to the Father. He is living to serve Him and Him alone. The leaders go ballistic and take these steps:
– “Cried out with a loud voice
– Stopped their ears
– Rushed together at him
– Cast him out of the city
– Stoned him”
But even as Stephen is being struck by stone after stone – led by Saul who later becomes Paul – he still is focused on living for the Father. And he utters these words similar to what Jesus said on the Cross – “Lord do not hold this sin against them”. That only happens if the focus is somewhere other than on those who are stoning you. We can’t have that kind of love in our own strength. He alone can enable us to live that way!
Acts 6 gives us insight into some of the challenges of the growing church. You will recall that there have been many added over the past days – up to 3000 or more at a time as the Apostles have taught and ignored the instruction of the religious leaders to be quiet. The power of Jesus is spreading rapidly and many were coming into the household of faith. And as if often the case – complaints begin to come up. In this case it was a good one – it seems the “widows were being neglected” and not receiving food in the daily distribution. So the twelve received the complaint and dealt with it. Lots we can learn here. Lesson #1 – they did not ignore it nor deflect it nor say it wasn’t their problem. They called “the full number of disciples” and set the stage to solve it. They knew they should not “give up the preaching the word of God to serve tables”. That wasn’t the call God had placed on their lives. So they offered a solution to the problem. Lesson #2 – don’t just receive the problem but rather provide a solution to solve it. In this case it was to select “seven men of good repute” to take on the task of making sure these widows were cared for. The issue was that no one owned responsibility for that in the church. As it had grown and the makeup of the body changed – the way they were caring for the flock had not kept up. Sounds like where a lot of churches are in America today. Lesson #3 – we need to pay attention to the flock and make adjustments in how we minister to, care for and serve them.
The twelve didn’t stop though with just solving the immediate problem at hand. They reinforced their role and told the church “we will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word”. There was no room left for the body to interpret what the Apostles role would be. Lesson #4 – make sure everyone understand the role of leadership and what tasks and responsibilities that group is assigned and committed to get done. Far too often people see leaders delegate tasks but not clearly state what they will spend their time doing. A servant leader makes sure everyone knows their commitment and work focus and leads by example. Even with this momentary bump in the road “the number of disciples multiplied greatly”. Lesson #5 – we can continue to grow in spite of bumps along the way. Often we make excuses that we can’t grow if things are going perfectly. Quite the opposite is often the case. Growth happens most rapidly when things are under attack and challenges are being faced and overcome. Stephen was one of the seven men selected to solve this food issue and was “full of grace and power….was doing great wonders and signs among the people”. So here is a man who God was using mightily to impact people. And the response from those around him – “they stirred up the people….seized him and brought him before the council….set up false witnesses to speak”. Lesson #6 – not everyone will support success and certainly not the people God uses to bring it. Let’s face it – Stephen and his other six fellow servants were taking care of the flock. They were making a difference. And there were some who were jealous and trying to undermine that activity. And note where they came from: “some of those who belonged to the synagogue”. It wasn’t the external people who were trying to tear things apart. It was from within. Lesson #7 – realize that the enemy will attack from within and outside and be prepared to deal with those attacks from every side. Stephen is taken before the council and “all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel”. Lesson #8 – don’t deal with the enemy in your own strength – realize the battle is the Lord’s and allow Him to use you as His instrument to address it. The battle is not ours. We need to allow God to take control. There are other lessons we can learn but know that the reality is that wherever people are – there will be challenges. The key is that we recognize that and take action in God’s power to address them!
Acts 5 is a very sad story of Ananias and Sapphira – people who were part of the followers and property owners who “sold a piece of property” to give to the church. That was a very noble thing to do. The problem was that Ananias “with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds”. When questioned he claimed to have given it all but it was a “lie to the Holy Spirit” and not just the apostles. Ananias did a good thing but because he lied and was untruthful – he actually lied to the Holy Spirit and is told “you have not lied to men but to God”. I’m afraid a lot of us might consider this a little white lie. He did a good thing – gave money to the body of Christ Followers – but he didn’t tell the whole truth. And what we often lose sight of is that our lies or sins that may seem small or insignificant – well they are not such to God. When we choose to do wrong – the definition of sin – we are not just impacting people in our patch – but are really missing the mark with God and the Holy Spirit. And we won’t get away with it. We may be able to fool those around us but God knows all. He knows our motives – He knows the facts – He knows the truth. We can’t pull anything with Him. Yet we try and we deceive ourselves that the little look inappropriately at another person, or stealing a few minutes from our workplace, or taking something that doesn’t belong to us but no one will miss – those things don’t really count. Check out what happens when Ananias hears from Peter the reality of what he had done: “When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last”. That is a serious consequence. Sapphira is given a chance to rectify the story but tells the exact same white lie and has the exact same outcome. God is not going to be mocked. There are consequences for our choices and a price to pay for sinful behavior.
The people responded in two ways: “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things…..and more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women”. It isn’t hard to imagine why people would be afraid and why their fear would cause them to seek and find the Lord. Meanwhile the religious leaders are jealous and afraid of losing control, so they “arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison”. They were not going to let their little kingdom escape so they lock the apostles up to shut them up. God has a different plan and an “angel of the Lord opened the prison doors” and set them free. They don’t run and hide but immediately return to the temple to continue teaching. When questioned by the leaders they tell them why: “We must obey God rather than men”. There is the mantra that should describe our lives – we obey God no matter what any man tells us to do. We serve the God of the universe and should never back down from obedience to Him. The leaders want these guys dead but as they meet privately to determine their fate, a wise man named Gamaliel offers these wise words: “if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them”. So they listen and beat them and again charged them not to speak which the apostles completely ignore. They were “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name… they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” Are you that sold out for Jesus? Will you endure the reaction of people in your patch and stand firm in your resolve to obey Him no matter what the cost? That may mean standing out as different. It may mean losing friends and enduring some suffering. But that is the example the apostles set for us – to follow in obedience at all costs and leave the details to the Lord. It is His battle not ours!
Acts 4 is the story of Peter and John being dragged before the priests and leaders who were “greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection”. Killing Jesus hadn’t silenced the movement. So “they arrested them and put them in custody”. Another attempt to shut down those who believe in Jesus. But they had a problem because “many of those who had heard the word believed….the number of men came to about five thousand”. This isn’t a small problem – it is growing rapidly and people are hearing, seeing and believing in Jesus faster after His death than while He lived among them. So they bring the two before the high priest and his cronies and Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, addresses them this way: “if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done…..by the name of Jesus…..by him this man is standing before you well”. Peter doesn’t make excuses. He challenges them and calls them to face the facts. This lame guy is healed by the name of Jesus. It wasn’t about them at all – it was about Jesus and Peter continues saying “there is salvation in no one else….for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room my friends. It is very clear. You want to spend eternity with God – Jesus is the way. You want to be saved from your sin – Jesus is the way. You want to go to heaven – Jesus is the way. Not “a” way – Jesus is “THE” way. There is not alternative – no other route – no other person who ever lived on this planet who can save you from yourself and your sin. Peter exhibits boldness in his situation – he does not flinch because he is standing before the big whigs of the day. Why? Because the Holy Spirit was in him and upon him. He was not doing this on his own – he was walking in obedience to the Spirit. And then, Peter shows us what we need to do when we are faced with the same challenge.
The religious leaders warn them to keep their mouths shut about Jesus and “charged them not to speak or teach”. Peter and John answer this instruction this way: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard”. There was no intimidation that was going to stop Peter and John from talking about Jesus. The leaders had nothing to charge them with so they had to let them go. And a celebration ensued. Then they gathered and prayed and asked God to help them to “continue to speak your word with all boldness”. That is what we are called to do – to speak boldly of our walk with Jesus. We sometimes are timid or afraid to even let people know we are a Christ Follower at all – let alone be one who boldly proclaims our relationship. Why do we act that way? In a word – it is fear – the fear of man that causes us to cower and hide our faith. We need to learn from Peter and John and just live the life openly like they did: “with great power the apostles were giving their testimony”. They shared what Jesus had done in their life. They lived it openly. They did not live cautiously but completely sold out to him. Are you sold out to Jesus? Are you living your testimony every day, moment by moment?