Monday, February 19, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 20, Stephen Arrested And Falsely Accused

Yesterday Luke introduced us to a man named Stephen by saying he was "full of faith and of the Holy Spirit". Today we find Stephen persecuted for his faith.

"Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people." (Acts 6:8) We find that Stephen too, along with the apostles, is able to do wonders and signs through the power of the Holy Spirit.

"Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)---Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia---who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke." (Acts 6:9) Bible scholar Adam Clarke observes, "The persons mentioned here were foreign Jews, who appear to have had a synagogue peculiar to themselves at Jerusalem, in which they were accustomed to worship when they came to the public festivals...It is supposed, also, that these synagogues had theological, if not philosophical, schools attached to them; and that it was the disciples or scholars of these schools who came forward to dispute with Stephen, and were enraged because they were confounded." Just as the enemies of Jesus frequently tried to test His knowledge of the Scriptures, we find these foreign Jews doing the same to Stephen.

Who are these Freedmen? Their name comes from the Latin libertini which was a term used by the Romans for freed slaves, or the descendants of freed slaves, to differentiate between this social class and the social class of those who had never been slaves. Most reputable scholars agree that these men are either Hellenized Jews (the meaning of which we discussed yesterday) or foreign converts to Judaism. It is likely they all speak Greek as their only language and this explains why they worship at their own synagogue at Jerusalem rather than at the temple where Aramaic is spoken. This also explains why they choose to argue with Stephen, who almost certainly is a Hellenized Jew himself since he was chosen to help oversee the distribution of goods to the Hellenized Jewish widows. The apostles and Hebraic Jews who are preaching the gospel can't converse with the Freedmen in Greek, but Stephen can.

The mention of men from the province of Cilicia is very important and we don't want to miss the fact that Tarsus, the hometown Saul who will later become the Apostle Paul, was located in Cilicia. Some commentators believe Saul is in the crowd that verbally attacks Stephen. I find it doubtful that Saul attended this synagogue in place of attending services at the temple, but this doesn't mean he couldn't have attended services at the synagogue in addition to worshiping at the temple. He may also have joined classes at the synagogue's school. We know Paul himself was never a slave but it's possible he had an ancestor who was, giving him the right to attend the Synagogue of the Freedmen. He states in Acts 22:28 that he was born free. In Philippians 3:5 he says he has spent his whole life among the Jews at Jerusalem, so if there was ever any slavery in his family it was from a prior generation than his. He may well have known men from Cilicia who visited this synagogue, and he may have socialized with them and attended debates or studies at this synagogue, but in order to move up through the ranks of the Pharisees as quickly as he did, he must also have maintained a regular presence at the temple. Paul wrote and spoke fluent Greek and was at least somewhat Hellenized, as many in Jerusalem were, but in his religious life there is no doubt he strictly observed all the Jewish laws and customs. He could not have been so influenced by the Greek culture that his fellow Pharisees would have considered him worldly and irreverent. Was he in the crowd that argued with Stephen? Possibly so. He always enjoyed a lively debate and he may have gone with some of the men from Cilicia to question Stephen. We don't know, but one thing we do know is that in Chapter 7 he approves when the Sanhedrin declares Stephen guilty of blasphemy. We know he witnesses the death of Stephen and guards the coats of those who stone him.

The men who hotly debate with Stephen are unable to prevail against him so they suborn false testimony. "Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, 'We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.' So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, 'This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.'" (Acts 6:11-14) These are the same type of charges that were brought against Jesus at His trial before the Sanhedrin. These are all bald-faced lies. Jesus Christ never spoke against the law or the prophets but instead He was the fulfillment of everything God ever said through the law and the prophets. Jesus Christ upheld the word of God, and He held it to a far higher standard than any of the Pharisees. Stephen too is upholding the word of God, the very word which foretold the Messiah, the very prophecies which clearly point to Jesus of Nazareth as the only man who could possibly be the Messiah.

"All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel." (Acts 6:15) They see something different about Stephen, just as they saw something different about the apostles when they "took note that these men had been with Jesus". (Acts 4:13) Whether Stephen ever knew Jesus in the flesh or not we don't know. But Stephen accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and he has the same Holy Spirit as the apostles---the same Holy Spirit you and I have. There is a glow to Stephen's face. He knows what he believes and he knows it's the truth. The power of the Holy Spirit upon him ought to have caused his enemies to stop and consider whether he might be telling the truth, but instead they will reject his testimony just as they rejected the testimony of Jesus.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 19, The Apostles Rejoice/A Man Named Stephen

In yesterday's passage we found Gamaliel advising the Sanhedrin to let the apostles go. They do let them go, but they beat them first.

"His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go." (Acts 5:40) Gamaliel said nothing about giving them the thirty-nine stripes, which is probably what is meant by the flogging they receive. But the apostles' enemies hope to intimidate them into going silent. The punishment of thirty-nine stripes is a very severe punishment and the Sanhedrin use it to try and put a halt to the Christian church.

But it has the opposite effect. "The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah." (Acts 5:41-42) These men do something that unbelievers find difficult to fathom: they rejoice that they have been counted worthy of suffering for Christ. They rejoice because the fact that they are being persecuted means they are actually accomplishing something for the Lord. A few years ago I was listening to Dr. Charles Stanley's morning radio program and he said something that has stuck with me, "If Satan isn't bothering you, then you aren't bothering him." If life is going along year after year on a calm and even keel, if no temptations are coming against us, if we are paying no price for following Christ---then perhaps we are not following Christ as closely as we should be. The apostles are bothering Satan, so Satan bothers them. But the Spirit who is in them is greater than the spirit who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

Next we are going to meet a man named Stephen, a man chosen to help distribute goods to the needy, a man who will soon be martyred for his faith. The early Christian church is carrying on the Jewish tradition of tamhui, which means "tray". In the Jewish tradition two collectors from the synagogue would go out every Friday and collect money and goods for the needy. They would then distribute these goods later that same day. A dispute arises in the church regarding how the distribution is being carried out. "In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food." (Acts 6:1) The Hellenistic Jews are Jews who have assimilated into the Greek culture. (Hellas being the original name of the country we know as Greece.) They are from various places all over what is, in the first century AD, the Roman Empire. They have stopped speaking Aramaic and speak and read and write only in Greek. But we must make no mistake: these Jews are true Jews and when they convert to Christianity they are true Christians.

We don't know whether the Greek widows actually were being treated unfairly or whether the Hellenistic Jews, knowing the Hebraic Jews harbor some prejudice against them, are simply looking for areas in which to find fault. It's true that the Hebraic Jews thought the Hellenistic Jews had become less spiritual and had become more worldly. They felt these Hellenized believers had compromised with the world and had left many of the old traditions behind. Luke's words seem to indicate that there actually was some disparity between the distribution of goods among the two groups, but many scholars believe this was due more to a cultural barrier and language barrier than anything else. Holy as the early church was, it's doubtful the believers would have deliberately treated one needy person any differently than another needy person.

"So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, 'It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.'" (Acts 6:2-4) The apostles say, "There aren't enough hours in the day for us to get the gospel message out as we should and to also oversee this distribution. You must appoint seven trustworthy and godly men to handle the distribution to the Greek widows."

It is believed that all seven of these men are Hellenistic Jews. Their names do not sound like Hebraic names. It would make sense that Hellenistic Jews would be chosen to oversee the distribution to the Hellenistic widows. This way no one can be accused of prejudice. "The proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them." (Acts 6:5-6)

"So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." (Acts 6:7) Satan sought to divide the early church into two factions because, as Jesus Christ once said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." (Mark 3:25) Satan sought to use the Hellenized Jews and the Hebraic Jews against each other, causing division in the church. His plot failed. Because his plot failed, the church continues to grow, with even a large number of priests converting to Christianity. Threats haven't worked. Imprisonment hasn't worked. Beatings haven't worked. Divisions haven't worked. Next Satan is going to see if death will work. Stephen, a man whom Luke tells us is full of faith and the Holy Spirit, will be martyred for proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 18, The Voice Of Reason: Rabbi Gamaliel

The high priest and many members of the Sanhedrin are so enraged by Peter's words regarding their need to repent that they want to have the apostles put to death. They might have put their murderous impulses into action if not for the wise words of a reasonable and well-respected man.

"But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while." (Acts 5:34) In the Talmud Gamaliel is given both the titles of Nasi and Rabbi. The fact that he is known as a Nasi (prince, captain, leader) means in the Second Temple period that he is a high-ranking member of the Sanhedrin and likely the highest-ranking member when the Sanhedrin convenes to hold a criminal hearing. This tells us that Gamaliel has a right to take charge of the proceedings as we find him doing in our passage today. In addition, his title of Rabbi means he is a doctor of the law, a master of the Torah, a man recognized by the Jewish public for his understanding of the great number of facts contained in the word of God. The Mishnah has great respect for Gamaliel and his adherence to the laws of God and remarks on what a loss to the nation his death represented, "Since Rabbi Gamaliel the elder died there has been no more reverence for the law; and purity and abstinence died out at the same time." These things explain to us why,  when Gamaliel stands up, all eyes are on him. When he orders that the apostles be put outside the room so he can address the Sanhedrin privately, his word is immediately obeyed.

John Lightfoot, a Christian theologian and rabbinical scholar of the 1600s, says of Gamaliel that he is the son of the Simeon of Luke 2 who through the Holy Spirit recognized the baby Jesus as the promised Messiah. Lightfoot gives Simeon the title of Rabbi and states that he was the son of Hillel, the foremost Jewish teacher of first century Judea. Hillel is credited with giving advice similar to that which Jesus gave by saying, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor." Hillel died when Jesus was probably somewhere around the age of ten to thirteen, so He could not have studied under this particular rabbi (there is no proof Jesus ever studied under any rabbi) but we see in Hillel's wise advice a beautiful understanding of the law in regard to how we should relate to our fellow man. If Hillel was indeed the grandfather of Gamaliel, we can see why Gamaliel is such a merciful and moderate man who does not want to perpetrate an injustice on anyone.

We can also understand from his lineage why Gamaliel is a good candidate to hold authority over the criminal court of the Sanhedrin, but as we study his words we get an even better understanding of why this man is a good choice for the position. He is not led by his emotions like those who wish to stone the apostles. He is led by the word of God and by a calm, reasonable, and moderate form of common sense. "Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: 'Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men.'" (Acts 5:35) He says, "Think before you act! Don't act upon your emotions but upon a careful consideration of this situation from every angle."

He now reminds them of other "movements" that have begun and failed in Judea. "Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered." (Acts 5:36-37) William Barclay says of these references to Theudas and Judas the Galilean, "In those days Palestine had a quick succession of fire-brand leaders who set themselves up as deliverers of their country and sometimes even as the Messiah." Gamaliel says to the Sanhedrin, "After Theudas died his followers scattered and the movement ceased. The same thing happened upon the death of Judas the Galilean. Jesus of Nazareth, the leader of these apostles and of this new movement, has been put to death on the cross. Perhaps soon His followers will scatter and the movement will cease."

But Gamaliel raises another possibility: perhaps this new movement is not one that originates with men, but with God. Because this possibility exists they must set the apostles free. "Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God." (Acts 5:38-39)

In tomorrow's study we find the Sanhedrin setting the apostles free, although they don't follow Gamaliel's instructions to the letter, but right now we want to stop a moment to point out that Gamaliel was the teacher of the Apostle Paul when he was still known as Saul of Tarsus. We find Paul attesting to this fact in Acts 22:3. What influence must Gamaliel have had on Paul? We don't see any of Gamaliel's calm and reasonable personality reflected in Saul of Tarsus while he's persecuting the church, but the teaching of Gamaliel gave Paul such a firm foundation in the Scriptures that when he is confronted by the risen Christ on the Damascus road he recognizes Jesus as the fulfillment of every prophecy regarding the Messiah. Gamaliel no doubt taught Paul to consider every situation from every angle, to reason things out, and to think before he acted. While Paul is young and ambitious and rising in the ranks of the Pharisees he neglects to always observe these teachings, but I believe that the tutelage of Gamaliel helps Paul to see the light spiritually when he sees the light literally. I believe the thorough education he received under Gamaliel helps Paul to become the man who will be the greatest teacher of the gospel other than Jesus Christ. Because Paul understands the law from every possible angle, he can explain to the world how the law is fulfilled in Christ. Because Paul knows the law inside out, and how difficult it is to follow, and how it continually reminds man of his shortcomings and failures, he can fully appreciate the liberty that Christ bestows on all who accept Him as Lord.

It is believed Gamaliel died in 52 AD, so he would have lived to hear about Paul's conversion to Christianity. We don't know what he made of Paul's conversion; some early church traditions suggest that Gamaliel himself became a Christian though there is no proof of this. But Gamaliel lived long enough to see Paul become a rabbi himself, a rabbi of the good news of the gospel, and whether or not Gamaliel believed Jesus was the Christ, I can't help thinking this wise teacher must have felt some pride over the success of his former student. Because he taught Paul so well, when Paul became a Christian he was a better Christian for having studied under Rabbi Gamaliel.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 17, The Apostles Threatened With Death

In yesterday's study we found an angel setting the apostles free from jail, after which the apostles went right back to teaching about Jesus at the temple. When their enemies find out about this they are furious. "At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them." (Acts 5:26) The officers retrieve the apostles from the temple. They peacefully request that the men accompany them for fear that the people, upon seeing the apostles seized or mistreated, will rise to their defense.

"The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 'We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,' he said. 'Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood.'" (Acts 5:27-28) Bible scholar Thomas Scott, who wrote A Commentary On The Whole Bible, says of this passage, "See how those who with presumption will do an evil thing, yet cannot bear to hear of it afterward, or to have it charged upon them. They could cry daringly enough, 'His blood be on us,' but now they take it as a heinous affront to have Christ's blood laid upon them."

The words of the high priest make me think he is painfully aware of his guilt in helping to put an innocent man to death. I don't think he believes he put the Son of God to death, but deep in his heart he knows he committed a great evil against a fellow human being. As Thomas Scott points out, the high priest had no problem saying to Pontius Pilate, "His blood be upon us and upon our children." But now that the deed is done, he wants it forgotten. He wants to forget it himself and he wants everyone else to forget it.

The blood of Christ is going to be on us all one way or another. It will either cleanse our hearts and souls because we have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, or it will stain our hands with guilt because we have rejected Him as Savior and Lord. We see an example of this as the apostles stand before the high priest and the Sanhedrin. The apostles are washed clean by the blood of Christ while the enemies of Jesus are desperately trying to deny the fact that His blood is on their hands.

"Peter and the other apostles replied: 'We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead---whom you killed by hanging Him on a cross. God exalted Him to His own right hand as Prince and Savior that He might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.'" (Acts 5:29-32) Peter, the man who once denied Jesus three times in the same night, now proclaims, "I won't deny Him ever again! I will never stop preaching in His name! I am a witness to the fact that He has been raised from the dead and nothing can persuade me to stop telling this good news to the world."

"When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death." (Acts 5:33) The enemies of the apostles are overwhelmed with rage. How dare these men suggest they need to repent of anything? How dare they claim Jesus of Nazareth is seated at the right hand of God? These men want to put the apostles to death for confronting them with their guilt and for committing what they consider blasphemy by crediting Jesus with being the Son of Almighty God.

But in tomorrow's study we find a great rabbi among the Pharisees standing up in the apostles' defense, not because he necessarily accepts their message, but because he genuinely wants to obey the will of God. If these men are doing the will of God, then he feels no one should stand against them. His calm and moderate attitude is a sharp contrast to the venomous prejudice many in the Sanhedrin harbor toward the apostles. This is the same rabbi under which the Apostle Paul studied, and tomorrow we get an idea of what a great influence he must have been on Paul, and we can better understand why Paul immediately accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior when he met Him on the Damascus road.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 16, The Apostles Jailed By Their Enemies And Freed By An Angel

The apostles have been doing the good works of healing the sick and preaching the gospel. This stirs up jealousy against them among the religious leaders. Just as Jesus predicted, persecution is beginning to come against His followers, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also." (John 15:18-20a) We who believe on the name of Christ are not true citizens of this earth but are citizens of heaven. (Philippians 3:20) We are foreigners and strangers on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13) As such, we are often treated as unwelcome aliens by those who despise the name of Christ. Because there are those who love the world more than they love the things of God, they consider us strange and even dangerous.

Persecution won't always take the form of death or bodily harm, though in some countries that is still the case. Persecution in free countries is more likely to take the form of being excluded from certain activities and events, or being passed over for promotions, or being ridiculed, or being rejected for friendship, or not being a part of the popular "in" crowd. Satan hopes to use the disapproval of others to make us unfruitful workers for the kingdom of Christ by stirring up prejudice against us. We must stand firm, caring more for the approval of God than for the approval of man.

As thousands come to the apostles for help and healing, Luke tells us, "Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy." (Acts 5:17) The apostles Peter and John have already been warned to stop preaching in the name of Jesus and now the high priest finds them disobeying his orders. Furthermore, the Sadducees don't believe in a resurrection, so the gospel of a risen Christ is an abomination to them. It's even more of an abomination to them that people are flocking to the apostles in droves to hear the gospel instead of coming to them---the religious elite---for instruction.. The Christian movement is becoming so popular that the religious leaders see their authority over the citizens slipping away.

"They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail." (Acts 5:18) Apparently all of the apostles are arrested this time, not just Peter and John.

"But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out." (Acts 5:19) I wish more details were given to us about this angel and about how he released the apostles from jail, but the Bible never shines a very bright spotlight on angels. The Lord knows that mankind has a tendency to worship anything and everything that has a connection to the divine, so He purposely steers us away from a "worship of angels", a thing which the Apostle Paul warns us against. (Colossians 2:18) The faithful angels always point man's worship toward God, not toward themselves, and it's important not to get too caught up in the study of these created beings. It's ironic that the Lord uses an angel, another thing the Saduccees don't believe in, to rescue the apostles.

The only thing Luke tells us about this angel is what he says. "'Go, stand in the temple courts,' he said, 'and tell the people all about this new life.'" (Acts 5:20) He reminds the apostles of their commission. They are to keep on doing what Christ instructed them to do. The lost world needs to hear about the Savior. The apostles immediately go out and take up where they left off. "At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people." (Acts 5:21a)

At daybreak their enemies intend to heap more threats and abuse on them. Imagine their surprise when they find the apostles missing! "When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin---the full assembly of the elders of Israel---and sent to the jail for the apostles. But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, 'We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.' On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss, wondering what this might lead to." (Acts 5:21b-24)

I can just picture these men conferring with each other in extreme confusion, saying, "It's bad enough we couldn't keep the body of Jesus contained in a sealed and guarded tomb. Now we can't even keep His apostles contained behind bars! What is going on here? How are we going to handle this? How can we explain such a thing? What can we expect next from these Christians?"

We can't help wondering why these men don't catch on to the fact that God is in the ministry of the apostles. We wonder why they don't become believers and why they don't submit their lives to Jesus and worship Him. To find the answer we have to refer again to John 15, part of which we quoted at the beginning of today's study. When warning His followers of the persecution to come, Jesus said, "They will treat you this way because of My name, for they do not know the One who sent Me." (John 15:21) Jesus and the apostles were hated because their persecutors did not truly know God. Their persecutors did not have a relationship with God, but instead trusted in a religious system (a system by which they profited greatly financially and politically and socially). Jesus told the men who would soon be preaching His gospel, "The religious leaders hate Me because they don't love the Father either. If they knew and loved Him, they would recognize Me for who I am. But they are going to reject Me and, because you are going to preach in My name, they will reject you too. Whoever hates you hates Me. Whoever hates Me hates Almighty God who sent Me."

While the high priest and the Sadducees and the Sanhedrin fret anxiously and pace the floor, even more unwelcome and upsetting news comes to them. "Then someone came and said, 'Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.'" (Acts 5:25) Not only are the apostles missing from the jail, but they are back on the job telling the good news of the gospel! What a wonderful example this is to us to keep on keeping on with the kingdom work of our Lord. The world desperately needs the hope of the gospel. The world needs to hear about the love of Christ. We have been commissioned by the Lord to share His message of hope and love. This is serious work, for lives and souls are at stake. Let us be about the Lord's business, not allowing anything to stop us.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Valentine's Day Card From Jesus

I thought we should take a time-out today from our study of Acts to do a special post about Valentine's Day because it's a day with the potential to make people sad or discontent. It's a day that can make the lonely feel like no one loves or cares about them. I've been there myself. I've spent some of the Valentine Days of my life in bitterness. But we don't have to feel that way. There is Someone who wants to be our Valentine today and every day. There is Someone who loves us more than anyone else ever could and who will do more for us than anyone else ever will.

There is no sweeter valentine than the Lord Jesus Christ. No one has ever loved us more than He does. Who else has died for us? Who else has taken our punishment on themselves? Who else is with us every second of every day and knows all the thoughts in our heads and all the desires of our hearts? Who else made a way for us to live forever in heaven?

Some of my readers may feel lonely at Valentine's Day, and I can assure you it hasn't always been a popular holiday in my house either. It's one of those holidays that makes people feel bad if they aren't in a relationship, or if they are in a relationship but it's an unhappy one, or if their spouse has passed on and they are living alone. 

The Valentine's Day marketing campaigns have the tendency to make us feel like we're nobodies if somebody isn't thinking about us and buying us candy or flowers or nice dinners or diamond rings. But I want you to know that Jesus doesn't think you're a nobody. He thinks you are worth dying for. He thinks you are worth giving everything He has. He thinks about you all the time, not just on a special holiday. You were on His mind before the creation of the world. He loved you even then, long before you ever existed. If you feel today like no one is thinking about you or that no one cares about you, it isn't true. Jesus loves you! There is never a second of any day that He isn't loving you and thinking about you.

Look, sweet friends: here is the love letter of the Lord Jesus Christ to you! If you thought you weren't going to receive a Valentine's Day card today, here it is. Here is how Jesus displayed His love for you. This is how He asks you to be His valentine. You mean so much to Him that He went through all this to ask you, "Will you be Mine?"

"Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him,
    nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.
 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
   He was despised, and we held Him in low esteem.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on Him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,

    yet He did not open his mouth;
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so He did not open his mouth.
 By oppression and judgment He was taken away.
    Yet who of His generation protested?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people He was punished.
 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in His death,
though He had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in His mouth.
 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush Him and cause Him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes His life an offering for sin,
He will see His offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in His hand.
 After He has suffered,       
   He will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by His knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and He will bear their iniquities. 
Therefore I will give Him a portion among the great,
    and He will divide the spoils with the strong,
because He poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For He bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors."
Isaiah 53 NIV

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 15, Sapphira Dies For A Lie/The Apostles Heal The Sick

Yesterday we found a man named Ananias dying for telling a lie about money he vowed to give to the Lord's work. We talked about why the judgment for such a thing was so harsh during the early days of the church and we will take a deeper look at the reason for this today as the wife of Ananias meets the same fate. The clue to why their sin had to be dealt with so harshly is given to us when Luke describes how much the community (even the unbelievers) admires the apostles and church members.

"About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened." (Acts 5:7) Sapphira is probably wondering what's taking Ananias so long. He left the house three hours ago to donate the money he promised to the church and he hasn't returned. I doubt she's concerned that something has happened to him; they believed they would get away with lying to the Holy Spirit. (Acts 5:3) Maybe she's impatient because he's needed at home. Or maybe she thinks he's in the process of being honored by the apostles for his generous gift and she wants to be credited for her generosity as well.

She likely inquires about the location of her husband, but instead of answering her right away, Peter asks her a question. "Peter said to her, 'Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?'" (Acts 5:8a) Sapphira is presented with an opportunity to confess the truth. I think at this point she still doesn't suspect anything is wrong, so she sticks to the story she and her husband came up with together. "'Yes,' she said, 'that is the price.'" (Acts 5:8b)

"Peter said to her, 'How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord?'" (Acts 5:9a) Sapphira and Ananias conspired together in this matter. We sometimes have a tendency to think that in a patriarchal society women are never treated as equals in marriage. But in the Bible we find many examples of strong and courageous women who are admired and respected by their husbands. For example, the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 is just such a woman: one who works both inside and outside the home, who has the freedom to think for herself and make decisions for herself, who is outgoing and active in her community, and who makes her husband proud to be known as the man lucky enough to be married to her. If Ananias were the type of man who treated his wife as a subordinate and as someone who must obey his every word, Sapphira would not fall under judgment. If she were a battered or emotionally abused wife, she could not be held responsible for fearfully sticking to the story her husband concocted. But Peter says the two of them conspired together, so we see here a marriage of equals in which husband and wife make major decisions jointly. Therefore they are both responsible for the sin they've committed.

When he hears her lie Peter pronounces a fearful verdict. "Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.' At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events." (Acts 5:9b-11) A number of Bible scholars believe that Ananias and Sapphira were saved but that they committed a "sin that leads to death". (1 John 5:16-17) The Apostle John speaks of believers who fall into sin, and we know he's speaking about believers because he calls them brothers and sisters. He states that some sins are so bad that the Lord takes the brother or sister out of the world. He indicates that this is the mercy of God, that He would remove a believer from the world so that this person does not fall deeper into trouble or so that the church is not contaminated by the presence of sin. The Apostle Paul seems to agree with John, for when he speaks of those who celebrate the Lord's Supper in a sinful manner he states that some have gone to an early death because of such things, not because they have lost their salvation but so they can be disciplined in order to keep from being condemned along with the unbelieving world. (1 Corinthians 11:27-32) Who knows to what further depths of sin Ananias and Sapphira would have sunk if allowed to remain on the earth? Who knows what they might have influenced other church members to do? God knows, and He handled the matter in the way it had to be handled in that particular season of the church.

The church continues to grow as the apostles go bravely out into the community and preach the name of Jesus Christ and heal the sick in His name. "The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon's Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people." (Acts 5:12-13) Even the unbelievers respect these men. They admire men who stand up for their convictions and who are doing good deeds in the community. Would this have been the case if the deception of Ananias and Sapphira had been glossed over or ignored? No, because most people, believers and unbelievers alike, place a high value on integrity. If the community saw sin flourishing in the early church it could not be said that the apostles were "highly regarded by the people". It's so important that we who proclaim the name of Christ maintain a high level of integrity in every area of our lives. The world is watching us to see whether we are the real deal or not. Sin in our lives or in the church has the capability of turning people off from the gospel message. They will say, "These Christians aren't any better than we are! They are hypocrites! I've never stolen anything from anyone, yet I know some church members who've cheated people in the community. I've never been unfaithful to my spouse, but I could name you several people in the church who are now divorced because of adultery. I've never done drugs or been an alcoholic, but several people at the neighborhood church have fallen into destructive addictions. Why should I listen to the message they're preaching when they aren't being obedient to it themselves?"

This is why the Lord had to remove Ananias and Sapphira from the assembly of believers. The world watches the church, and in its formative years it was of the utmost importance that the church and its members be highly respected. Luke tells us that some who admire the church don't dare join it, even though they respect it, because they aren't going to be hypocrites who join it without being fully committed. They've heard what happened to Ananias and Sapphira and they know that if their hearts aren't completely devoted to Christ they are in danger of meeting the same fate. They can't be part-time Christians. They can't be wishy washy about their faith. They are either all in or all out. So those who aren't yet persuaded by the gospel message continue observing the church and its members but they don't dare join until they've made up their minds to follow Christ.

A great deal of the hearers of the gospel do commit their hearts and lives to Christ. "Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed." (Acts 5:14-16)

Perhaps the reason we don't see more people today delivered from illnesses and addictions is because the church has compromised with the world. We have allowed things to creep in that were not allowed to creep into the early church. The early church was so obedient and so holy that even the shadow of an apostle had the power to heal! This is because sin was rooted out and dealt with as soon as it sprang up. I'm glad no one is struck dead in the church today for doing wrong, but I do think we ought to follow the instructions of the Apostle Paul who said, "Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you may also be tempted." (Galatians 6:1) Paul advocates dealing with sin in the church lovingly and with a spirit of humility, always keeping in mind that each of us is equally capable of falling into sin. We are doing our brother or sister in Christ a disservice if we never go to him or her privately and say, "I love you and I'm worried about you. The path you're on is taking you in the wrong direction. The Lord Jesus has a better plan for your life. How can I and the church help you?"

It hurts when someone we admire and respect comes to us and talks to us about our sin, but if it's done lovingly and in the right spirit it can be very effective in getting us back on the right track. There have been times when people close to me have pointed out a bad attitude I've had about something, or they've pinpointed an area of hypocrisy in my life, or they've chastised me for pride, or they've caught me in a lie. My first reaction was to feel angry and offended, but because these were people who loved me and had my best interests at heart, I couldn't help pondering their words in my heart and coming to the realization that they were right. If I continue to live on this earth, no doubt I'll need my attitude checked many more times, and I hope someone loves me enough to come to me privately and say, "I'm concerned about you. I don't think this is the right direction for your life. I think you're doing harm to yourself. What can I do to help you?"