Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 60, Paul Casts An Evil Spirit From A Slave Girl

Paul performs a good deed today for a slave girl trapped in a hopeless situation. As we will see tomorrow, this good deed will cause Paul and Silas to be beaten severely and thrown into prison.

"Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling." (Acts 16:16) Bible scholar William Barclay says, "The ancient world had a strange respect for mad people because, they said, the gods had taken away their wits in order to put the mind of the gods into them." Their pagan superstitions led them to believe that when a person was mentally unhinged it meant the gods had emptied that person of his or her own personality and intelligence and had placed the mind of a god there instead. You would think it might have occurred to them that if madness was a sign of possession by a god, the god must be mad too.

The literal translation of Luke's words is, "She was possessed by a python spirit." The python was closely associated with the cult of Apollo. Perhaps you've heard of the Oracle of Delphi (also known as a Pythia), a priestess of the cult of Apollo who would make predictions while under the hallucinogenic influence of vapors that arose from underneath the pagan temple of Apollo. Modern excavations of the ruins have found fault lines running beneath the chamber from which the oracle would make her predictions. It is now believed by many geologists that these fault lines produced a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane that produced a deficit of oxygen, causing the priestess to fall into a trance and see her visions. Traces of ethylene have been found there as well. Ethylene produces a very sweet odor and induces hallucinations. The ancient historian Plutarch attributed the oracle's visions to the presence of ethylene. The predictions given by the oracle were more often than not so cryptic and so open to translation that the hearers were scarcely aided by them. Picture yourself sitting down on the sofa with someone who is deeply under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance and trying to make sensible conversation with them. The senseless things that come out of their mouth will be comparable to the senseless things that came out of the oracle's mouth.

The slave girl in our passage today was believed by her owners and by the pagan community to be possessed by a pythia, the same type of spirit they believed possessed the oracle. This young lady's owners take advantage of her questionable gift by profiting from it. In her case we can only assume she is truly possessed by an evil spirit, for she doesn't make her predictions while sitting in a temple chamber filled with hallucinogenic fumes. For further proof of her possessed state we will find Paul casting the spirit out of her.

"She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, 'These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.'" (Acts 16:17) Just as the demons in possessed persons frequently called out the identity of Jesus Christ when they were confronted by Him, the demon in this woman can't help but confess to the validity of the gospel message. As the Lord's brother James once observed, "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that---and shudder." (James 2:19) These demons are not worshiping the Lord, and they are not saved by their acknowledgement of Him, but they can't deny the truth. There is one God. There is one way to be saved. All other gods and cults and doctrines are useless. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to save souls from death.

"She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, 'In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!' At that moment the spirit left her." (Acts 16:18) Why did it take "many days" for Paul to decide to cast the spirit out? Perhaps the woman didn't want the spirit cast out; she no doubt enjoyed a certain amount of luxury and popularity due to her gift even though she was a slave. Or it could be that, knowing a huge uproar will ensue when he delivers her from bondage, Paul didn't want his missionary work at Philippi to be hindered.

The slave girl is in her right mind again, but her deliverance causes her owners to go out of their minds with rage. "When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities." (Acts 16:19) The fortune-telling business must have been booming. Her owners have been making their living off of her sad condition. They've been exploiting her awful spiritual situation for their own gain and, seeing that they will have to go back to working for a living, they drag Paul and Silas to the authorities to have them punished.

The pagans at Philippi may not be happy about what has happened, but God has not forsaken Paul and Silas. As they sit in jail in tomorrow's study, and as they sing the praises of God in spite of the intense pain from the beating they received, God will break off their shackles and open the prison doors. The jailer and his whole household will come to faith in Jesus Christ and be baptized. The enemies of the gospel will tremble in fear when they find out they have unlawfully beaten and imprisoned Roman citizens without a trial.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 59, A Woman At Philippi Believes The Gospel

The mission team has received a call to go into Macedonia to preach the gospel. Luke is telling the story in the first person now because he joined the group at Troas.

"From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neopolis." (Acts 16:11) The wind is favorable to the sailors, for later on in Acts 20 this same journey will take five days. When we are in the will of God we will sometimes have smooth sailing, but we will just as often have rough sailing. If we are going to place our trust in Him we must stand firm in our calling no matter what the "spiritual weather conditions" are. There will be days when He will strengthen our faith by removing every obstacle in our path. There will be other days when He will increase our patience and our trust by leaving obstacles for us to work through. On this first trip He intends to get the mission team to Philippi as quickly as possible.

"From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days." (Acts 16:12) The mission team will make its first European convert at Philippi.

"On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there." (Acts 16:13) Some scholars believe there aren't at least ten Jewish men present at Philippi or else they could have formed a synagogue instead of worshiping at places outside the city gates. Other scholars believe the Roman colony of Philippi doesn't allow Jewish centers of worship inside the city as a form of obedience to Emperor Claudius who has banished all Jews from Rome. According to the Roman historian Seutonius, the Jews were expelled from Rome due to repeated political disturbances they were causing. In sympathy to Claudius, it's possible that the colony at Philippi banned the Jews from practicing their religion inside the city limits.

The mission team finds a group of women praying at the Gangites River and they begin preaching the gospel to them. These men don't say, "Oh, it's just a bunch of women here. I wonder where the men are. Let's find them and tell them the good news about Christ." No, they are as eager to share the gospel with the women as they would be to share it with the men. Our God believes in giving everyone an equal opportunity. The soul of a woman is as precious as the soul of a man. Throughout history and in most cultures women have been treated as second-class citizens as if they are less important and valuable than men. This is not the case in the eyes of our Creator.

They begin preaching to those who already believe in the God of Israel. Whenever there are Jews present the gospel will first be presented to them, then to the Gentiles, as the Apostle Paul will point out to the Romans by saying, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile." (Romans 1:16) Why the Jews first? Because they are God's chosen people. They are the ones to whom He made the promise of a Redeemer. They are the nation from whom the Lord was born of the tribe of Judah and of the line of King David. It is only fitting that the gospel should first be preached to the Jew, then to the Gentile. In addition, those who already believe in the God of Israel are going to be easier to convert than the Gentiles inside the walls of Philippi who believe in a pantheon of Roman gods. The Jews who believe the gospel message will be able to take it back inside the city and influence everyone they come in contact with. Their testimony and mode of living will have more influence on the pagan culture of Philippi than anything the mission team could say from a podium inside the city.

"One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was also a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message." (Acts 16:14) Lydia is a wealthy woman of high standing in the community. Only the rich could afford purple cloth because of the great expense of the dye used to produce it. Because she is a merchant she deals with people from a number of different cities and a number of different faiths. This puts her in a wonderful position to share the gospel with those who have never heard it.

Not only is Lydia saved, but her whole family believes and is baptized. "When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us into her home. 'If you consider me a believer in the Lord,' she said, 'come and stay at my house.' And she persuaded us." (Acts 16:15) The gospel message is already bearing fruit in the region. It begins with one woman who gives her heart to the Lord. Don't ever think to yourself, "I'm just one person. What can I do for the Lord?" There are many instances in the Bible where God uses just one person to bring about a great deal of change. Most of the characters of the Bible are ordinary people through whom God does extraordinary things. If He could use these people to do exciting things for His kingdom, He can use you and me.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 58, The Macedonian Call/Luke The Physician Joins The Missionary Team

Paul is on his second missionary journey. His plans are to revisit all the towns where he preached the gospel on his first journey so he can see how the young churches are doing. With him are Silas from Jerusalem and Timothy from Lystra along with various other believers who have accompanied them to assist them in the work. They also intend to preach the gospel in Asia Minor, but the Lord has other plans for them.

"Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia." (Acts 16:6) This is not Asia as we think of it today, but Asia Minor. It includes Ephesus, Sardis, Smyrna, Philadelphia, Laodicea, Pergamum, and Thyatira. The gospel certainly does end up going to Asia Minor, and any of you who have studied the book of Revelation will recognize the names of these seven cities as the names of the seven churches in Revelation 1. The Lord by no means wants to keep the gospel from Asia Minor, but He does not want Paul's missionary team entering the region at this specific time. The Bible doesn't provide us with an explanation for this. Like Paul and his companions we must trust the perfect timing of God. Perhaps Asia Minor wasn't ready at this particular moment to receive the gospel. Another region is ready and God is going to send the missionaries there.

Forbidden to enter Asia Minor, the men attempt to go to Bithynia. "When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bythinia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to." (Acts 16:7) They turn north to preach the gospel in Bithynia but the Lord blocks this path as well. Luke uses the name of Jesus here interchangeably with the name of the Lord. He says the "Spirit of Jesus" would not allow the men to enter Bithynia. Luke clearly believes in the Holy Trinity, in the three persons of the Godhead: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Paul is prevented from going both west and north by the Holy Spirit. We don't know what method the Holy Spirit uses to close these doors. Perhaps Paul receives a vision or dreams a dream. Perhaps Silas, whom we've been told is a prophet, receives a message from the Lord. Or perhaps, as a number of scholars believe, Paul falls ill near the borders of both these areas. Earlier in our study of the book of Acts we discussed the theory that Paul contracted a recurrent case of malaria on his first missionary journey. It could be that the Lord uses illness to prevent Paul from going into regions that weren't ready to receive the gospel. The reason many scholars believe Paul's plans are overthrown by illness is because in our passage today the author Luke begins telling the story of Acts in the first person. All of a sudden Luke the physician is a part of the group who travels with the missionaries. We can't know for sure whether Paul meets Luke due to an illness, but it's quite possible, and if so then surely this was a divine appointment set up by the Lord. There will come a day when Paul will speak of the faithfulness of Luke's friendship, "Only Luke is with me." (2 Timothy 4:11a) The Lord is going to choose Dr. Luke to be the author of not only the book of Acts but of one of the gospel accounts. If the Lord had never set up a meeting between Luke and Paul then the possibility exists that Luke would never have become a believer or the author of two books of the Bible.

Blocked from going west and north, Luke says of the missionary team, "So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas." (Acts 16:8) It is in Troas that Paul and Luke meet, for in verse 10 we will find Luke leaving Troas with the missionaries. When Paul arrives in Troas he may have been treated by Dr. Luke the Gentile, who after hearing and believing the gospel decides to accompany Paul as his personal physician. Luke uses the gifts the Lord has given him in order to further the gospel. The Lord has given him a talent for medicine, so Luke uses that talent to help the Apostle Paul remain at his physical best while he preaches the good news of Christ. Luke may not know it yet, but he also has the gifts of being a fantastic storyteller and a meticulous historian. He will use these gifts to further the gospel by writing two books of the Holy Bible in some of the most beautiful and classic Greek used in any writings from the first century.

The team spends the night in Troas. "During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, 'Come over to Macedonia and help us.'" (Acts 16:9) Now we know why the Lord prevented Paul from going west and north. God intends for the gospel to be taken at this particular time to what is known in modern days as northern and central Greece. We don't know who this "man of Macedonia" is, whether he was an actual citizen of that region or whether he was an angel or whether he merely represented the people of Macedonia as a whole. All we can be sure of is that Macedonia is ready to hear the gospel and Macedonia is where God wants the gospel to go. I think too that God intended all along for Paul to meet Luke in Troas, so it was vital that the mission team be directed to that city. God has great plans for Luke, not only so he can assist Paul with his medical issues, but so he can be used to spread the gospel to the ancient Gentile world and to our world today. As proof of this, you and I are studying the very words of Dr. Luke together right now.

"After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them." (Acts 16:10) Luke is now on Paul's mission team. He is now on Christ's team. His life is forever changed by hearing the gospel and it is his heart's desire for the Gentile world to hear that same gospel. This should be our heart's desire too, that those who do not know Christ would find in Him the same salvation we ourselves have found.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 57, Timothy Joins The Missionary Group

Paul is setting out on his second missionary journey. He and Barnabas argued over whether or not to take Mark along, so Barnabas takes Mark and goes to Syria and Cilicia. Paul asks Silas, a prophet and a well-respected man from the Jerusalem church, to go with him. They return to the cities where Paul and Barnabas previously preached the gospel.

"Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer but whose father was a Greek." (Acts 16:1) Lystra is the city where Paul was nearly stoned to death. Indeed he was dragged outside the gates and left for dead. Most of us would consider a missionary journey unsuccessful if a number of the residents there tried to kill us, but we learn today that the work Paul did in that city is bearing fruit. There are believers there, and one of them in particular will become a very close and trusted friend of the Apostle Paul.

Timothy is a young man, or at least quite a bit younger than Paul. Paul will refer to him as "my true son in the faith". (1 Timothy 1:2a) Paul has no wife and children, but he loves this young man like he would love his own child. Paul thinks of him as a son because he converted to Christianity under Paul's preaching (in other words, he was born into the faith when he heard Paul sharing the gospel) and because there is enough age difference between the two men that Paul considers himself a father figure to Timothy. Luke refers to Timothy's mother as a believer but to his father as a Greek, so we can assume that his father has not converted to either Judaism or Christianity. This means his biological father can't set a spiritual example for him. This doesn't mean Timothy doesn't love and respect his father, but his father is unable to give him the guidance in the Christian faith that he needs, so Paul takes on that role.

God has a way of placing people in our lives to make up for those who are absent or who are unable to be what they should be to us. Timothy's father can't guide him in the faith, so God sends Paul to be a father figure to him. God graciously sent me a father-in-law and mother-in-law who have treated me like their own daughter, a thing that is precious to me because my father died twenty-nine years ago and my mother died twenty-two years ago. In addition to that, God has placed other believers in my life who are capable of providing me with motherly and fatherly advice.

God can do the same thing for you. Maybe you come from a broken family. Maybe you don't have loving parents and loving brothers and sisters. God is able to place figures like these in your life from among the body of believers. If you aren't a member of a church or a Bible study group I strongly urge you to get involved in these things. Fellow believers in Christ make wonderful friends, parental figures, and brothers and sisters. They will be there for you when you're lonely or discouraged. They will be there to celebrate God's blessings with you. This is what a real family does.

Timothy isn't the only one who came to faith at Lystra. "The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him." (Acts 16:2) Paul wasn't treated all that well at Iconium either, and yet Luke tells us there are believers at both Lystra and Iconium. These believers recommend Timothy to Paul as a godly young man full of faith and good works who can be counted on not to quit when the going gets tough. Because of their recommendations, Paul decides to take Timothy along on the missionary journey.

Before they depart, there is something that needs to be done. "Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek." (Acts 16:3) Circumcision and the law of Moses don't save a person, as we discussed over the past several days. You will recall that some of the Jews from Jerusalem came down to Antioch and troubled the Christians there by insisting they had to be circumcised and follow the law to be saved. Paul and all the other apostles and elders refuted this erroneous opinion. So why does Paul circumcise Timothy before taking him along? It's not to complete anything that's lacking in his salvation; it's "because of the Jews who lived in that area". Paul does this so that the Jews can't criticize him for keeping close company with an uncircumcised half-Gentile. If they find fault with Paul they won't allow him to preach. The Gentiles to whom they will be preaching couldn't care less about circumcision because they don't practice it, but Paul wants nothing to stand in the way of his relationship with the Jews because he desperately wants to see his own people come to faith in Christ. (Romans 9:1-5) Timothy doesn't need to be circumcised in order to be saved; he needs to be circumcised to help prevent the Jews in the synagogues from rejecting the gospel message of the missionary team.

"As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey." (Acts 16:4) They share the message of the letter from the Jerusalem council. The council concluded, with the help of the Holy Spirit, that Gentile Christians are not to be compelled to keep the law but must only refrain from certain dietary and immoral practices that they previously engaged in. This will allow the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians to work together for the kingdom of Christ like one big family.

"So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers." (Acts 16:5) The faith of the believers is strengthened because more and more they are gaining a better understanding that they are saved by faith and not by works. Good works will naturally flow from the life of the person who loves the Lord Jesus, but it is faith in the Lord Jesus that saves souls.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 56, Paul And Barnabas Argue

The Jerusalem council has written a letter to the Gentile believers and have selected Judas Barsabbas and Silas to go to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to deliver the letter. In yesterday's study we took a look at what the letter said. Now Luke tells us how much the letter encourages the Gentiles.

"So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message." (Acts 15:30-31) We can only imagine how discouraged the Gentiles had previously been after some of the men from Judea erroneously informed them that they had to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses to be saved. The Gentiles didn't even know the law of Moses. They weren't brought up hearing the law read on every Sabbath in the synagogues. They couldn't begin to fully comprehend what keeping the law entailed, but the fact that the ten commandments had grown into a body of six hundred and thirteen laws would have been enough to make them feel like quitting before they even started. They are thrilled to receive the loving letter from their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ. The letter only advises them to refrain from living in sexual immorality and to refrain from eating meat offered to idols or with the blood still in it. These practices of their former way of life were creating a barrier between the Gentiles and the Jews, but now they are to live in a way that fosters unity in the church between the two groups. After all, in Christ these two groups are now one.

"Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers." (Acts 15:32) I have never noticed before that Silas, the man soon to be Paul's close friend and companion on his missionary journeys, was a prophet. Luke doesn't tell us what word from the Lord these men give the Gentiles, but whatever the Lord has to say to the church gives the believers a great deal of comfort and strength.

"After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained at Antioch, where they and many others taught and preached the word of the Lord." (Acts 15:33-35) The believers at Antioch see Judas (also known as Barsabbas) and Silas off on their journey back to Jerusalem with much prayer and blessing and good wishes.

Earlier in our study of the book of Acts we discussed John Mark. He did not finish the first missionary journey with Paul and Barnabas. We talked about some possible reasons why this young man returned home to Jerusalem in the middle of the trip. Today Paul and Barnabas will have a sharp disagreement concerning Mark. "Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, 'Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.'" (Acts 15:36) It was important to give continuing support and encouragement to these new churches that began during the first missionary journey. Paul is concerned about their well-being and eager to hear about all that the Lord has been doing in those territories.

"Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work." (Acts 15:37-38) Luke doesn't record the conversation between these two men, but we can picture Paul saying something like, "Mark already quit on us once. I'm not willing to risk having him quit on us again. Having him leave the missionary trip was upsetting and discouraging for the others in our company. It looked bad to the new believers to have that young man suddenly get up and go home. I don't believe it's a good idea to take him along." We can imagine Barnabas saying, "Give the boy another chance! He wasn't ready the first time. He'd never been outside of Jerusalem before. He'd never seen the spiritual warfare we must engage in when entering regions where the word of God has never been preached. It was all a bit of a cultural shock to him and it was quite frightening. But he's sorry for leaving us. He's matured a great deal. I think we ought to take him along and show him forgiveness."

Barnabas is Mark's cousin. Naturally he wants to give him a second chance. Naturally he is able to make allowances for Mark's youth and inexperience. He feels a familial duty to him and that causes him to strongly oppose Paul when Paul refuses to take him on another journey.

As for Paul, he was probably hurt and embarrassed when Mark left them in Pamphylia. Nothing tends to make us angrier than when someone hurts and embarrasses us, so Paul strongly opposes Barnabas' suggestion that they take Mark on another trip with them.

Both these men feel they are right. Because neither is willing to concede to the other, they are unable to go on a second missionary trip together. "They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company." (Acts 15:39a) This is a sad statement. They have been very concerned about unity in the church and now they have failed to maintain unity with each other. It is often in the area where we feel the strongest in our faith that Satan attacks us, and I think this is what happened to Paul and Barnabas. They were so busy worrying about unity in the church that they weren't prepared to stand up to an attack against their own friendship. This is the last thing they expected to happen and they don't react to it in the best way by praying to the Lord together to find out His will in the matter. Instead, exhausted from their journey to Jerusalem and back and worn down from their worry over division in the church, they lose their tempers and snap at each other.

"Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches." (Acts 15:39b-41) We don't know what the Lord's will was in this situation. Did God agree with Paul not to take Mark along? Did God agree with Barnabas that Mark should be taken along? Or would God have offered a third option, something that would have kept the peace between Paul and Barnabas? We don't know, but we do know that it is worldly and unseemly when brothers and sisters in Christ disagree so sharply that they can no longer be in each other's company.

The division that occurs between Paul and Barnabas underscores the importance of always being on guard against the snares of the devil. While these men were preaching unity to the believers, they were falling out of unity with each other. How many times have we all failed to practice what we preach? How many times have we talked the talk but have stumbled when walking the walk? After this sad disagreement between Paul and Barnabas, it's not surprising to find Paul cautioning the believers in his first letter to the Corinthians, "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (1 Corinthians 10:12) The KJV rendering of this verse has an even more ominous undertone, "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."

Satan finds it particularly pleasurable to cause us to fall into the very sin we've spoken out against. I think he deliberately tempts us with the very thing we think we would never do. This is why it's vital to be on guard at all times. We must pray for strength even in the areas where we feel the strongest. We must never fool ourselves into believing we are standing so firmly that we are incapable of falling.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 55, The Jerusalem Council's Letter To The Gentile Christians

The apostles and elders have met at Jerusalem to discuss which requirements of Mosaic law, if any, the Gentile Christians should be compelled to follow. The Lord's brother James, a leader in the Jerusalem Christian church, concluded after hearing the debate that the only things the Gentiles should be asked to do is observe some of the Jewish dietary regulations and to avoid sexual immorality. The Gentiles, while they were still in idolatry, considered no food unclean and thought little of engaging in the rituals of fertility cults or of committing adultery or of leaving their wives for other women whenever it pleased them. These things belong now to their old way of life and must be left behind them. They will not be able to enjoy close fellowship with their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ if they continue to live by lax moral standards or if they continue to serve unclean foods at their tables. So now the council crafts a letter summing up their decision.

"Then 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." (Acts 15:22) Here we find our first mention of Silas (sometimes called Silvanus), a man who will become a close friend of Paul and who will accompany him on missionary journeys. Barsabbas was previously mentioned in Acts 1 when he and Matthias were chosen as the two top contenders to take the place of Judas Iscariot. The lot fell to Matthias and he became one of the Twelve, but Barsabbas is obviously a very well-respected and godly man who can be trusted with important church business.

"With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings." (Acts 15:23) These men at Jerusalem are quick to assure the Gentile that they consider them family members, calling them "brothers". Whether Jew or Gentile, every believer in Christ has the same salvation. No one can boast about himself. No one can claim to be better than anyone else. Every single person on the face of the earth has sinned and every single person needs the Savior. I applaud the humility of the Jerusalem church for treating the Gentile believers as equals and for addressing them with such love and respect.

"We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said." (Acts 15:24) They say to the Gentiles, "We didn't authorize these men to come and tell you that your salvation isn't complete without circumcision and without observing the laws of Moses. We are sorry to hear they came there and caused trouble among you and made you doubt whether your salvation was secure." Is there any better feeling than having our minds set at ease? I've spent many a day with a troubled mind, haven't you? What a relief it is when we find out the thing we feared isn't true or isn't going to happen. The church at Jerusalem wants to set the minds of the believing Gentiles at ease.

"So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul---men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Acts 15:25-26) The Gentiles need to be certain that what Paul and Barnabas are telling them is true, so to confirm the decision of the council the church sends two of its top men to testify to everything that was said in the meeting at Jerusalem. This way no one can ever claim that Paul and Barnabas lied to the Gentiles or told them something that was merely their own opinion.

"Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by mouth what we are writing." (Acts 15:27) This matter is so important that simply sending the letter won't do. Troublemakers might dare to claim that the letter is a forgery, something written up by Paul and Barnabas in order to maintain their positions of authority over the Gentile church.

The letter contains not the opinion of men but the opinion of God, "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements:" (Acts 15:28) The decision of the Jerusalem council was made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. These men didn't just cast votes for what they thought was right; they prayerfully and humbly sought direction from the Lord.

"You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols," (Acts 15:29a) After an animal was sacrificed to an idol it could be eaten by the family who brought and it could be served to guests in their home. Or it could be taken and sold in the marketplace. A person living in Gentile territory could never be absolutely certain about the origin of the food made available to them, so the letter instructs the Gentile Christians not to knowingly partake of any meat that was previously sacrificed to a false god. The Apostle Paul discusses this matter in detail in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33. He points out that no meat is actually unclean because everything that God created is good, but he also points out that no one should offend his brother or sister in Christ by eating food in front of them that disturbs them. Because of the freedom he had in Christ, the Apostle Paul could have eaten anything sold in the marketplace with a clear conscience and he was able to eat whatever was placed before him in a Gentile home. But he says in his first letter to the Corinthians that, if anyone else at the table remarks that the food was previously sacrificed to an idol, he did not eat of it. This is not because he wasn't free in Christ to eat whatever he was served, but because it would offend the person who made the remark. If he offended that person it would hurt his Christian testimony to them and perhaps cause them to turn away from the church.

The letter advises the Gentiles to abstain, "from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality". (Acts 15:29b) The law said not to eat the blood because the blood was the life of the flesh. (Genesis 9:14, Deuteronomy 12:23, Leviticus 17:14) There are several very clear and practical reasons for this. First of all, raw meat has the potential to cause food poisoning. In our restaurants today there is usually a warning at the bottom of the menu saying something like, "Consumption of undercooked meats increases your risk of contracting salmonella or other foodborne illnesses". Another reason for abstaining from blood is that some of the pagan cults consumed it in their heathen rituals, and God's people were not to behave like the rest of the world. God's people have always been called to be set apart from the world, to be holy, and to live in a way that honors the Lord. The third and the most important reason for abstaining from blood is because it was to be considered sacred, not common enough for consumption. The blood of the sacrifice was accepted by God for the remission of sins. God always knew that His Son, the perfect and spotless Lamb, would shed His blood for the remission of sins, so when He gave the law regarding blood He did it so blood would remain sacred and holy and precious in the minds of His people.

The prohibition against eating a strangled animal is directly related to the prohibition against eating blood. An animal killed by strangling instead of by having its throat slit would still have the blood inside it.

The prohibition against sexual immorality is self-explanatory. No child of God should be guilty of this and, if a person finds himself or herself living in sexual immorality, that person should repent and be led by the Holy Spirit into a right way of living. I don't know that there's anything that will tear a church apart faster than finding out that the pastor has been having an affair. Such things should be unheard of in the church. Such things give unbelievers a reason to scoff at Christianity and to say, "They are no better than we are! In fact, some of them are far worse. What gives these Bible-thumpers the right to think they can tell us how to live when their own leaders are liars and cheaters and scoundrels? If this is what Christianity is, I don't need it."

No wonder the Jerusalem council ends their letter by saying, "You would do well to avoid these things. Farewell." (Acts 15:29c) We would all do well to avoid activities that make us look like the lost world instead of like the redeemed children of God.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 54, The Jerusalem Council

Yesterday we learned that some of the Jewish Christians were advising the Gentile Christians that they had to be circumcised to be saved. Circumcision meant a man was obligated to keep the whole law (Galatians 5:3), so in essence the Gentiles were being told that their faith in Christ wasn't enough to save them. Paul and Barnabas fiercely debated this issue with the visitors from Jerusalem. As a result, the church at Antioch decided to send Paul and Barnabas along with other believers to Jerusalem to settle the matter with the apostles and elders.

"The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad." (Acts 15:3) These men believe in sharing good news wherever they go. I wonder how much more positive our attitudes would be if we got up every morning with the intention of saying something good to everyone we come in contact with. That's what Paul and Barnabas did and I think that's one reason we always find them with joyful hearts.

"When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, 'The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.'" (Acts 15:4-5) The Pharisees, as the strictest religious group in Judea, are finding it difficult to understand and accept the freedom they now have in Christ.

"The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: '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. God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.'" (Acts 15:6-11) Peter asks, "Have any of you been able to perfectly keep the law? Have I? No, neither we nor our ancestors were able to perfectly keep the law. It is through faith in Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God who did perfectly keep the law, that we have salvation."

"The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up, 'Brothers,' he said, 'listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for His name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: 'After this I will return and rebuild David's fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear My name, says the Lord, who does these things---things known from long ago.'" (Acts 15:12-18) This is James the brother of Jesus, a leader in the Jerusalem church. He points out that no one should be surprised that God has called the Gentiles into His family. God declared through the prophets that He would. God keeps His word.

James concludes, "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath." (Acts 15:19-21) Because the Jewish believers are exceedingly familiar with the laws of Moses, having heard them in the synagogues on every Sabbath, they find it difficult to socialize with Gentiles who don't observe the same dietary laws. This is standing in the way of true fellowship between the two groups because they can't break break together if the Gentiles are offending the Jews with unclean foods. So James, in order to foster unity in the church, advises the Gentiles not to serve anything that their Jewish brothers and sisters cannot eat with a clear conscience. In addition, the Gentiles up til now had engaged in fertility cults that included sexual immorality, plus they thought little of adultery or divorce. Such lax moral attitudes were standing in the way of true friendship with the Jews, so James says now that the Gentiles are in Christ they must live in a way that honors Christ. If they want to honor Christ they must honor the institution of marriage. If they want to honor Christ they must treat their wives and children in a way that maintains stability and security in the home.

The law of Moses was a good thing. The Apostle Paul will say in his letter to the Galatians that the law showed mankind his need for Christ. No man could keep the law. No man could earn salvation by his works. The law therefore pointed forward to the coming of Christ who would perfectly keep every point of the law and whose sacrifice would be enough to save us by our faith in Him. Paul says, "Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian." (Galatians 3:23-25) The law, like a guardian hired to take a young man to religious school and back every day, taught its hearers that no man could perfectly keep the law. It taught its hearers that man is sinful and needs a Savior. In other words, the law was the guardian that led its hearers safely home to Christ.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 53, The Christian Church At Jerusalem Tries To Make Gentile Christians Keep The Mosaic Law

In today's passage we find some of the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem informing the Gentile Christians at Antioch that they must observe particular points of the law including circumcision. It will take us more than one day to study Chapter 15, but a council will convened to debate the matter and, after speeches by the apostles on behalf of the Gentiles, it will be decided that it would be wrong to force laws on them that even the receivers of the law (the Jews) have been unable to keep perfectly. No human being, with the exception of Jesus Christ, has ever been perfect. Both Jews and Gentiles have failed to keep all the laws and commandments of God. This is why salvation is obtained by faith and not by works. Just as Abraham was credited with righteousness because of his faith in the Lord (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:1-25) we too are saved not by our own righteousness but by our faith in the Lord's righteousness.

"Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: 'Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.'" (Acts 15:1) The believers of the Christian church at Jerusalem have accepted that God is willing to extend salvation to Gentiles. But now that the Gentiles have come to faith, the Jewish believers want them to keep the law. They want the Gentiles to become like them. But again we must use Abraham, the father of the Jews, to prove that salvation is by faith and not by circumcision or by the keeping of the law, "Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!" (Romans 4:9-10)

Abraham was saved by faith before he was circumcised and long before the law of Moses was ever given. The law was never intended to take the place of faith but was intended to accompany faith. The one who loved and believed in God would naturally try to keep the laws regarding his relationship to God and his relationship to his fellow man. But no one could perfectly keep the law and so sacrifices had to be made year after year. Finally, at the right time according to the will of God, Christ came and gave His life as a sacrifice so perfect and holy that it is able to cleanse us from our sins forever. Salvation by faith does not give us the right to be sinners and lawbreakers, but it extends grace and mercy to us when we repent and rely on the sacrifice of Christ to make us righteous in the sight of a holy God. The Gentiles, through their faith, have achieved the same righteousness that was accredited to Abraham by his faith. Now must they go backwards and attempt to gain righteousness by the law? No, for no man or woman can perfectly keep the law and obtain righteousness by it, and we will find the apostles strongly opposed to forcing the Gentiles into a system where they will soon be concentrating more on the keeping of rules rather than the building of a relationship with the Redeemer.

"This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question." (Acts 15:2) Imagine how upsetting this must have been to Paul and Barnabas who have so lovingly built and encouraged the church at Antioch. They have been preaching salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Gentiles have accepted Christ on faith and have become members of the family of God. Now these messengers from Jerusalem arrive and say something like, "You aren't really saved until you're circumcised. You aren't really saved unless you keep the law. What Christ did for you, and your faith in what Christ did for you, isn't enough."

As we continue tomorrow we will learn what the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter advise the Jerusalem council and we will find the Gentiles asked only to avoid several distasteful practices from their former mode of living. If pillars of the church such as Paul and Peter deny the need for the Gentiles to observe the law, who are we or anyone else to argue against them?

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 52, The Apostles Encourage The New Believers

After Paul was pelted with stones, dragged outside the city gates, and left for dead the Lord revived him and he walked back into Lystra looking like nothing had ever happened to him. Luke doesn't tell us that he preached the gospel there again, but I think we can safely assume he did because Paul preached the gospel wherever he went. When we closed yesterday Luke told us that on the next day Paul and Barnabas and the people with them departed for Derbe, a city located in the Roman province of Galatia about sixty miles from Lystra.

"They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples." (Acts 14:21a) The trip to Derbe is a success. We should take note that they don't win all the people for Christ. It would be a rare thing for every single inhabitant of a city to hear the gospel and accept Christ. It doesn't discourage Paul and Barnabas that there are always some who reject the gospel. It shouldn't discourage us either. If Paul and Barnabas went to Derbe and only one person there came to know Jesus Christ as their Savior, the trip would have been a success. It's not our job to keep count; it's our job to fulfill the commission Christ gave us when He said to go into all the world and share the gospel.

I think it was in a book by Christian fiction author Frank Peretti that a young minister, when asked why he decided to become a preacher of the gospel, answered, "I want to win the whole world for Christ!" The young man's spiritual mentor wanted him to understand from the very beginning that not everyone he preached the gospel to would accept it, so he said, "Not even Christ won the whole world for Christ." Not everyone who actually saw Jesus Christ in the flesh or witnessed His miracles accepted His message from His own mouth. Not everyone who hears the gospel from our lips will accept it either. We can't let that stop us. Paul and Barnabas didn't let it stop them. Jesus Christ didn't let it stop Him. Let's not allow it to stop us either.

"Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. 'We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,' they said." (Acts 14:21b-22) These men return to the same cities where they recently endured persecution by some of the Jewish religious leaders. They return in order to strengthen the disciples, which proves to us that their preaching in these cities was not in vain. Some believed and became followers of Christ. The apostles remind their listeners that it costs to follow Christ. In some areas of the world today it can still cost people their lives to follow Christ, but many of them follow Him anyway. Following Christ can cost us popularity, promotions, approval, or inclusion in the "in crowd". If nothing else it will cost us the achievement of our own selfish and sinful desires and ambitions as we daily say to the Lord, "Not my will, but Yours, be done."

"Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust." (Acts 14:23) Led by the Holy Spirit, these men appoint elders in each church. These elders will be responsible for overseeing administrative church duties and for giving spiritual guidance and encouragement to the church members.

"After going through Pisidia, they came into Pamphylia, and when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed." (Acts 14:24-26) This is Antioch in Syria, not Pisidian Antioch. This is the church Barnabas was working with when he decided to go fetch Paul (at the time called Saul) from Tarsus to help him. This is the church that supported their missionary journey with prayers and with finances and supplies. After completing this first missionary journey the men return to the church that sent them out to report everything that has taken place.

"On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how He had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples." (Acts 14:27-28) This must have been a happy season in Antioch. The journey has been a success. God is doing mighty things. Souls are being saved. Paul and Barnabas and their companions enjoy a time of rest and fellowship with their friends at the church in Antioch as they recount all the wonderful things that have happened.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 51, Paul Stoned And Left For Dead At Lystra

The Apostle Paul endures two very upsetting situations today. First he is hailed as a god and he barely manages to keep people from sacrificing to him. Then he is nearly stoned to death.

After hearing of the plot against them in Iconium, we learned yesterday that Paul and Barnabas and their companions began traveling through the surrounding areas. As we begin today we find Paul healing a man at Lystra. "In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked." (Acts 14:8) When Luke says this man "sat" he probably means he sat begging in a busy area of the city. This man is in the same type of condition as the lame man of Acts 3 whom Peter healed. Neither of these lame men ever walked a step until they were healed in the name of Jesus.

"He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, 'Stand up on your feet!' At that, the man jumped up and began to walk." (Acts 14:9-10) As Paul preaches the gospel he can tell by the look on this man's face that he believes it. He believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God and he believes Jesus is able to heal him. We don't see a great deal of such healing today, in my opinion not so much because we lack the faith but because miracles like this were the signs of the apostles. God empowered the early teachers of the gospel with power to heal so that the hearers of the gospel would understand that the message about Jesus Christ is of God and not of men. In Paul's day no one could go to a Christian bookstore and purchase a copy of the New Testament so they could learn about Jesus. There were no books yet containing the four gospel accounts. The only way people in Paul's day could hear the gospel was if someone preached the message to them. In order to prove that the message was something completely different than anything anyone had heard before, God provided miracles to accompany the preaching of the apostles.

The miracle produces an unexpected effect on the crowd. "When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, 'The gods have come down to us in human form!' Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them." (Acts 14:11-13) There was a legend that Zeus and Hermes once came to earth in disguise and were shown no hospitality except by one man and his wife. Because they were treated so shabbily, Zeus and Hermes brought destruction upon everyone in the region except for the couple who were kind to them. The people of Lystra don't want the same thing happening to them, so they hurriedly try to do everything possible to honor these men whom they mistakenly believe are gods.

Paul and Barnabas are horrified that anyone would even consider worshiping them or making sacrifice to them. The region is so pagan that the preaching of the gospel has gone over most of the people's heads, so heavily entrenched are they in their old religion. Instead of casting aside their false gods and accepting the Lord Jesus Christ, they believe Paul and Barnabas are two of the old Greek gods. They are paying more attention to what these men are able to do (performing signs and wonders) than to what they say (proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord).

"But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed into the crowd, shouting: 'Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.'" (Acts 14:14-15) The tearing of the clothes was a common reaction to the hearing of blasphemy or to the hearing of especially grievous news. The high priest, though he was forbidden to tear his clothes, tore his robes because he considered it blasphemy when Jesus referred to Himself by the Messianic title "Son of Man" in Matthew 26:63-65. Paul and Barnabas, upon hearing that the people of Lystra are about to worship them, tear their robes in intense grief at the very idea of such blasphemy. Like any true follower of the Lord, they point all worship to Him, informing the people that there is one God who created all things and that He alone is worthy of worship.

Paul continues his urgent speech to the people, "In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left Himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your heart with joy.'" (Acts 14:16-17) Paul says something like, "In times past you who are of Gentile heritage wanted to create and serve your own gods, so God allowed you to have it your way. You abandoned Him but He didn't abandon you. During all these years while you served other gods He has sent rain on the seeds in the ground so you wouldn't go hungry. He has preserved your family lines and has not wiped you from the earth as judgment for your idolatry. He has even given you the ability to enjoy life and to love one another and to gain satisfaction from the work you do. Every good thing you have ever had came from God, even though you didn't acknowledge Him. And now, as the ultimate act of grace and mercy, God calls you to be a part of His family through Jesus Christ. Barnabas and I are not gods. You mustn't bow down to us, for we are only ministers of the good news of the gospel. We are here to tell you there is only one God. Worship Him."

Luke tells us, "Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them." (Acts 14:18) Paul is probably the greatest preacher who ever lived, with the exception of Jesus Christ, and yet he barely manages to prevent the people at Lystra from sacrificing to him and Barnabas. As persuasive a speaker as Paul is, the false religion of the people of this region has such a hold on them that he almost fails to keep them from worshiping him as a god.

As if this situation wasn't bad enough already, some of the men from Antioch and Iconium who previously plotted against the apostles show up in Lystra right about now. They have traveled a distance of about a hundred miles in order to continue their persecution. When they see what is taking place at Lystra, no doubt they believe that Paul and Barnabas have encouraged the crowd to treat them as gods. Imagine how it must have looked to the Jewish religious leaders when they encountered such a scene. The high priest of a pagan religion is standing there with bulls and garlands of flowers ready to make sacrifice to two human beings. The crowd is roaring the praises of Paul and Barnabas, referring to them by the names of Greek gods. This sight confirms everything the enemies of the gospel already believed about Paul and Barnabas and about the entire Christian church. I can just picture them looking at each other and saying, "We were right all along! Look what these blasphemers are doing now. It wasn't enough for them to assert that the lawbreaker and blasphemer known as Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. Now their ultimate goal is revealed to us. They want to be worshiped themselves."

Luke describes the arrival of these enemies like this, "Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe." (Acts 14:19-20) Fourteen years later Paul will describe a vision he had while he was left for dead outside the city of Lystra. (2 Corinthians 12:1-10) He will say that he isn't sure whether he actually was dead for a while or whether he was just knocked unconscious. If Paul doesn't know whether he was dead or not, I certainly don't know, but his enemies thought he was. The disciples probably thought he was too. I think as they gathered around him they wept and prayed and maybe asked the Lord to bring him back to life. Whether he was actually dead or not, the Lord grants him such a swift and complete revival that Paul is immediately able to go back into the city to keep on preaching.

The natural thing for him to have done was to have gotten as far away from Lystra as he could, but instead he walks right back into the city looking as if he was never pelted with large stones and left for dead in the dust. This must have made a great impression on the citizens of that city. They must have asked themselves, "What power is this that raises a dead man back to life? Does this mean his message is true? Should we give him a second chance? Should we allow him to tell us more about this man called Jesus?" We don't know how many people at Lystra came to the faith after this, but in Acts 16 we will learn of a young man at Lystra who has been a believer for several years. His name is Timothy and he will become one of the best friends of the Apostle Paul. He will become a great minister and missionary. I like to think that Timothy is one of the inhabitants of Lystra who converted to Christianity after the Apostle Paul courageously walked back through the city gates and began again to teach the gospel to a group of people who have just tried to stone him to death.

No wonder Paul will later say, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31) Satan tried time and again to wipe the Apostle Paul from the face of the earth, yet until the proper time came for him to give his life for the faith, the Lord kept him alive. What if Paul had not had the courage to walk back through those gates at Lystra? What if Paul had not had the courage to keep on preaching every time he was released from prison? What if Paul had not had the courage to keep sharing the gospel after each beating he received? He will tell the church at Corinth that he has been beaten with thirty-nine lashes on five different occasions, beaten with rods on three occasions, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, and imprisoned so many times he doesn't even bother to count the number. (2 Corinthians 11:16-33) But he never gives up. It's too vital for the lost world to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. He can't give up. And why should he? If God is for him, who can be against him? What a great example Paul sets for us. Our God is for us. Why should we tremble in fear? Why should we run for cover? As King Solomon so beautifully puts it, it is the wicked who should flee in fear, but "the righteous are as bold as a lion". (Proverbs 28:1)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 50, Persecution Against Paul And Barnabas

Paul and Barnabas have been ministering to the people at Pisidian Antioch. Some of the Jews and a great number of the Gentiles have believed the gospel message, but others are opposed to the work Paul and Barnabas are doing in the region.

Before the men leave Pisidian Antioch, Luke tells us, "The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region." (Acts 13:49-50) Sometimes we tend to think the women of Biblical times didn't have much power, but God-fearing women have always had a great deal of power and always will. The only problem with the power of the women in verse 49 is that they are using it in the wrong way. They believe they are doing the will of God by rejecting the message of Paul and Barnabas. These women, along with the leading men, feel that it's blasphemy to listen to a gospel about a crucified Messiah. This doesn't jive with their idea of who the Messiah should be, so they virtuously pat themselves on the back for successfully running Paul and Barnabas out of town, believing they have put a stop to what they consider the worst kind of heresy.

"So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium." (Acts 13:51) It was the practice of the ancient Jews to shake the dust from their feet after traveling through a Gentile community. They avoided such areas whenever possible, but sometimes the only way to get from here to there was to pass through a region mainly inhabited by pagan Gentiles. The idol-worshiping Gentiles were regarded as so unclean that no God-fearing man or woman wanted even a few grains of sand from those towns clinging to their sandals. But the Lord Jesus, when sending out the Twelve with the gospel message, said to them, "If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them." (Luke 9:5) In other words, "If the people refuse to hear the truth about Me, treat them as if they are godless heathens." Ancient Jews considered Gentiles unclean because of their religious practices and their dietary habits. And they were unclean. They were living in sin. But in the New Testament we learn that whoever rejects the gospel of God's Son is rejecting God Himself, and that person is as unclean as an idol-worshiping Gentile. Paul and Barnabas shake the dust off their feet as they depart from the self-righteous persecutors of Pisidian Antioch in the same way they would shake the dust from their feet when leaving an idolatrous Gentile city.

When Paul and Barnabas and their companions head to Iconium we don't find them fussing angrily about how they've just been treated. They aren't bitter. They aren't weeping. Instead Luke tells us, "And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit." (Acts 13:52) Opposition is the proof that they are accomplishing something for Christ. If their preaching wasn't effective, those who don't believe in their message wouldn't persecute them. If the gospel message wasn't reaching hearts, Satan wouldn't stir up resistance against the message. The same can be said for all of us. If the devil isn't bothering us, maybe we aren't bothering him.

"At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed." (Acts 14:1) It is fitting that the gospel message should go to the synagogues first. The Jews are the countrymen of the Lord Jesus. The Jews are the ones to whom God made great and precious promises through their father Abraham. But the Lord also made the promise to Abraham that through his offspring all nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 22:18) and God accomplishes that blessing through Christ who is of the offspring of Abraham. It was always God's plan to bring the Gentiles into His family.

Persecution arises at Iconium. "But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of His grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders." (Acts 14:2-3) These men try to reason with the people who oppose the gospel. The Lord provides proof of the truth of their message by giving them the power to perform miracles.

"The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the gospel." (Acts 14:4-7) The Lord warns the men that their lives are in danger, so they have no choice but to flee the city. All of the Twelve except the Apostle John will give their lives for the faith and so will a large number of the other disciples, but right now is not the time for Paul and Barnabas. There will be a day when the Lord will tell each of them to stand firm and face whatever is coming their way, but until that day comes He intends to keep them alive. None of this stops them from preaching the gospel wherever they go. They don't crawl into the caves of the hill country and shake in fear; they simply go to another region and continue teaching boldly in the name of Jesus. Not everyone who heard their message accepted the gospel. Not everyone who hears it today will accept it. But we are called to share the gospel anyway. We are responsible for sharing it; the hearer is responsible for what he or she does after hearing it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 49, Paul Recognizes His Calling As An Apostle To The Gentiles

Paul has just concluded a beautiful sermon in a synagogue at Pisidian Antioch. Large numbers of Gentiles in the area will want to hear the gospel next, but this is when Paul and Barnabas will face opposition from some of the Jews. It is at this point that Paul recognizes that God has called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Certainly he will share the gospel with anyone who wants to hear it, but the particular ministry given to him by God will be to those outside the nation of Israel.

"As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath." (Acts 13:42) The KJV renders verse 42 like this, "And when the Jews were gone out of the synagogue, the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath." The members of the synagogue are made up of those who are Jews by birth and those Gentiles who have converted to Judaism. The Gentiles who have just heard the gospel are thinking to themselves, "I have family members and friends and neighbors who need to heart this! I want to hear it again myself! If Paul and Barnabas will return next week I will invite everyone I know to come and hear them." So they invite Paul and Barnabas to preach the message again the next week when even more people can be present.

"When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God." (Acts 13:43) Quite a few of those who grew up in the Jewish faith find the gospel so compelling that they don't want Paul and Barnabas to leave. They, like the Gentiles, want to know more. This is what happens to anyone whose heart is being captured by the love of Christ. Just a little of Him will never do. The person who is falling in love with the Savior wants to know Him more and more and more. The person who is in Christ will always want to know Him more.

The fame of the gospel message spreads. There is a deep hunger in the hearts of these people at Pisidian Antioch. They are not satisfied with continuing on with life as they have always known it. They want something better. They've heard they can have something better and more fulfilling in Christ. "On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him." (Acts 13:44-45) Not all the Jews oppose Paul's words, just as not all the Jews opposed the words of Jesus. But the Jewish religious leaders in the region are used to being the only authority when it comes to God, so many of them are moved to jealousy when they see almost the entire city hanging on the words of Paul. Jealousy is what motivated the religious leaders at Jerusalem to deliver Jesus to Pilate (Matthew 27:18) and it is jealousy that motivates some of them at Pisidian Antioch to heckle Paul as he preaches and to argue with him and blaspheme the name of Jesus.

"Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: 'We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: 'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'" (Acts 13:46-47) The gospel had to be preached to the Jews first, for they are Jesus' own countrymen. It was to the Jews that God made the promise of the Messiah, it was to the Jews that the Messiah came, and it was to the Jews first that the Messiah was preached. If Israel, by and large, had accepted the gospel message, it would have been slow to get to the Gentiles if it ever made it to the Gentiles at all. The Gentiles would have been left outside the door, bowing to their pagan idols and sacrificing to gods who don't exist. But because the apostles and preachers and teachers of the gospel so often find their message rejected by Israel, they take it to the Gentiles where it is eagerly accepted. Paul quotes Isaiah 49:6 which clearly demonstrates that God always intended the Gentiles to hear the gospel and come to the faith and be a "chosen people" in Christ. Some of Paul's hearers can't accept such teaching. They don't want the Gentiles to be a chosen people or to be equals with them in the grace of God. But the Gentiles are overjoyed when they hear his words.

"When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48) Everyone in the crowd who is willing to hear and accept the gospel receives salvation in Christ. These Gentiles are thrilled to know that God loves them as much as He loves anyone else, that Christ died for them as much as He died for anyone else, and that salvation is as available to them as it is to anyone else. I too am glad the gospel came to the Gentiles, for I am of Gentile heritage and I might never have heard of the Lord Jesus Christ if men like Paul and Barnabas weren't willing to preach the gospel to the nations outside of Israel.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 48, Paul's Sermon At Pisidian Antioch, Part Three: Freedom From Sin

In today's study Paul concludes his sermon at Pisidian Antioch. He has preached the faithfulness of a God who keeps His promises. He has preached Christ as the fulfillment of these promises. And now he preaches Christ as our freedom from the power of sin.

"We tell you this good news: What God promised our ancestors He has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus." (Acts 13:32-33a) This is the proof that Jesus is the Son of God: God raised Him from the dead. If the body of Jesus were still in the tomb, how could we ever know whether He wrought salvation for us on the cross? How could we trust the message He preached? How could we have faith that He is able to make us right with a holy God? But God raised Him from the dead to demonstrate to the world that Jesus' work on the cross was sufficient to save every soul that submits itself to Him.

Paul continues, "As it is written in the second psalm: 'You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.' God raised Him from the dead so that He will never be subject to decay. As God has said, 'I will give You the holy and sure blessings promised to David.' So it is also stated elsewhere: 'You will not let Your holy one see decay.'" (Acts 13:33b-35) The Old Testament saints predicted the resurrection of Christ. While He lived the Lord Jesus presented to the people all the credentials of the Messiah that were prophesied about Him. Following the crucifixion the greatest proof of His identity was provided when He rose from the dead and spent forty days with His followers who were able to testify that they talked with Him, walked with Him, and ate with Him. King David was given a vision of the resurrected Christ and he said in the voice of the risen One, "Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will You let Your faithful one see decay." (Psalm 16:9-10)

David could not possibly have been speaking of himself, as Paul points out, "Now when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay." (Acts 13:36-37) In Acts 2 the Apostle Peter made mention of David's tomb, saying, "His tomb is here to this day." (Acts 2:29) The first century citizens of Jerusalem knew where David's tomb was. They knew he was still in it. So David must have been speaking of another when he said, "You will not let Your faithful one see decay."

The resurrection is the proof that Jesus has the power to forgive sins. "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." (Acts 13:38-39) Paul will later affirm this same truth in different words to the Romans, "For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering." (Romans 8:3) No one could perfectly keep the law because no one was perfect. The same sacrifices had to be offered year after year because none of them were capable of sanctifying forever the ones who brought the sacrifices. So God sent His Son in the likeness of mankind. The Son was able to perfectly and completely keep the law. His sacrifice therefore is able to sanctify us forever. The blood the spotless Lamb of God shed on our behalf is able to do for us what we never could have done for ourselves.

Paul concludes his sermon with a stern warning, "Take care what the prophets have said does not happen to you: 'Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.'" (Acts 13:40-41)

Paul quotes the prophet Habakkuk who warned the citizens of Judah that God was going to raise up Babylon against them if they did not repent and turn back to Him. When prophets like Habakkuk and Isaiah began predicting the rise of Babylon, that nation wasn't anywhere near powerful enough to accomplish such a feat, so those who were living in sin scoffed at the words of the prophets. They didn't believe it was going to happen. In the same way many didn't believe God was going to raise up Jesus. Many didn't believe it when God did raise up Jesus, so Paul warns his listeners, "Don't be like those who laughed in the faces of the prophets! God said He was going to make Babylon powerful enough to conquer Judah if Judah didn't turn wholeheartedly back to Him. Remember what happened? The nation didn't repent and Babylon came and destroyed the city and the temple and took our people captive. God also said He was going to raise the Christ from the dead, and He has done exactly as He promised. Don't harden your hearts against the truth. If you do you will face the judgment of God just as our ancestors faced His judgment."

God sets before us a choice. We can accept Christ and obtain forgiveness of sins through Him. Or we can go our own way and someday stand in the presence of a holy God with no defender. The only way to be accepted by the Father is to trust in His Son who made the only acceptable and permanent sacrifice for our sins. No amount of good works or observances of laws and rituals will wash us clean. Only the blood of Christ, the spotless Lamb of God, can save us to the uttermost.

Our worship song link for today is below.
At The Cross (Love Ran Red)

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 47, Paul's Sermon At Pisidian Antioch, Part Two: Jesus The Fulfillment Of God's Promises

In yesterday's study we found the Apostle Paul reminding his listeners of God's faithfulness to His promises. Today he demonstrates to them that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God's promises and the proof of His faithfulness.

"Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. As John was completing his work, he said, 'Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.'" (Acts 13:24-25) John was well-respected among the Jews who had taken part in his baptism. Paul points out that John himself identified Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. If they are going to accept the other teachings of John, they must also accept his testimony on behalf of Jesus. John was regarded as a great rabbi, but he humbly said of himself, "The Anointed One of God is so great that I'm not even worthy to perform a servant's job of untying His sandals. He's that much greater than me or any other rabbi."

"Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning Him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath." (Acts 13:26-27) Why is it that the religious elite, who should have known the Scriptures better than anyone, did not recognize Jesus? Men like Isaiah, Zechariah, and King David all prophesied about the life and death and resurrection of Christ. Yet somehow the enemies of Christ managed to willfully ignore the testimonies of the Old Testament saints whose words they professed to revere. Paul feels they were without excuse. He is free to feel this way because he considers his old self without excuse when he was a blasphemer of the name of Christ. Paul was once one of these enemies of the gospel, but now he is a minister of the gospel and his most earnest desire is to help others find what he has found in Christ.

He goes on to describe the illegal trial and execution of Jesus. "Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have Him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about Him, they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb." (Acts 13:28-29) The religious leaders of Jerusalem who bore such hot hatred toward Jesus were actually fulfilling prophecy when they falsely accused Him and had Him put to death. Yet they seemed oblivious to this fact, blinded as they were by their bitterness and envy. Isaiah said the Servant of God would be despised and rejected, arrested and falsely accused and condemned, yet somehow Jesus' enemies fail to see that their actions are fulfilling this prophecy. They are unable to see that those who put the Servant to death are the villains in the story and that the Man who stands accused is so innocent and so holy that God will give Him a portion with the great because of His obedience. (See Isaiah 53 for the entire prophecy of the crucifixion.)

The enemies of Christ think He is finished. They believe His name and His memory will perish from the earth. God, however, has other plans. "But God raised Him from the dead, and for many days He was seen by those who had traveled with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now His witnesses to our people." (Acts 13:30-31) The prophet Isaiah's vision of the Christ didn't stop with His death and burial. Isaiah saw the outcome of these things and said, "After He has suffered, He will see the light of life and be satisfied." (Isaiah 53:11a) The story didn't end at the cross. The story didn't end at the tomb. The story was only getting started, because early on Sunday morning the Lord Jesus Christ arose from the dead, saw the light of life again, and was satisfied by His redemptive work on behalf of mankind. His return to life was the proof that God the Father accepted His sacrifice as being holy enough to sanctify forever those who would believe on His name. I like to think the Lord Jesus smiled as He came out of the tomb and took a deep breath of fresh cool air and viewed the sun coming up over the hills. I think He smiled because He knew He had done for us something we could never do for ourselves.

Easter Sunday is fast approaching but because our Savior lives we can celebrate Easter every day of the year. Let's conclude today's Bible study by listening to the song at the link below.
My Redeemer Lives

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 46, Paul's Sermon At Pisidian Antioch, Part One: God's Faithfulness To His Promises

The Apostle Paul has been preaching the gospel for some time now, but in Chapter 13 one of his sermons is presented to us for the first time. It's quite lengthy so we will have to study it in portions.

The missionary team is on the go and Luke tells us, "From Perga they went on to Pisidian Antioch. On the Sabbath day they entered the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the leaders of the synagogue sent word to them, saying, 'Brothers, if you have a word of exhortation for the people, please speak.'" (Acts 13:13-15) In his letter to the Galatians Paul mentions that he was quite ill when he was in the area of Pamphylia, the coastal town he has just departed from. Quite a few medical experts believe that the "thorn in the flesh" Paul struggles with throughout the rest of his life is a recurring case of malaria which he contracted in the lowlands of Pamphylia. They think he went to Pisidian Antioch immediately after becoming sick in the hopes that the higher altitude would help him to feel better. So we must keep in mind that, as he preaches this brilliant sermon, he was suffering in body. Yet he gives the Lord his best.

"Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: 'Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me!'" (Acts 13:16) Those attending services at the synagogue are both Jews by birth and Gentiles who have converted to Judaism. Many members of this congregation will become Christians after hearing the gospel.

Paul continues, "The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors; He made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power He led them out of that country; for about forty years He endured their conduct in the wilderness; and He overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to His people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years." (Acts 13:17-20a) He reminds his listeners that God chose the children of Israel as a special people. Although they tried Him in the wilderness, He remained faithful to His promises to them. God knew everything about the nation of Israel before Abraham ever even had a son. God knew the nation would at times reject Him and rebel against Him. Yet He never went back on His word. The same can be said of those of us who are in Christ. Jesus loved us even though He knew everything about us. He will not go back on His word. This doesn't mean we are free to live in sin, but that when we realize we have sinned and when we repent of that sin He will never say, "Sorry. You've really messed up this time. I'm done with you."

"After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king, and He gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. After removing Saul, He made David their king. God testified concerning him: 'I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.'" (Acts 13:20b-22) David truly loved the Lord but he committed a sin that most or all of my readers have never committed: he had a man murdered. Did David do the things God wanted him to do as the leader of Israel? It can honestly be said that for the most part he ruled the nation according to the laws of God. Did David do things God didn't want him to do? He most certainly did! Yet God accepted David's sincere and brokenhearted repentance. As much as King David is revered by those listening to Paul's sermon, each of them is aware of David's mistakes. Each of them is aware that David was not the promised Messiah. Even though David fell into a shocking trap of sin, God didn't take back His promise to send the Messiah from the line of David, as we will see in our next passage. God could have withdrawn His mercy from the inhabitants of this earth at any time, considering how wicked and sinful we all have a tendency to be, but in His faithfulness He still sent the Savior of the world.

"From this man's descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as He promised." (Acts 13:23) Every Jew and every convert to Judaism knew the Messiah was to come from the line of David. Jesus of Nazareth was a descendant of David on both His mother Mary's side and on his step-father Joseph's side. It doesn't matter that Joseph was not His biological father; the law of adoption was that an adopted son had all the rights of a natural son. In addition, if Joseph had been Jesus' biological father, Jesus could not have been the perfect and sinless Savior that He is. His blood would not have been capable of washing us clean. His sacrifice would not have been enough to make us sanctified forever in the sight of a holy God.

The portion of Paul's sermon we've looked at today displays God's faithfulness to His promises. We weak and mortal creatures are prone to going back on our word and to falling into rebellion. But God is not like us. "God is not human, that He should lie, not a human being, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfill?" (Numbers 23:19) There are blessings and promises in the Scriptures which are dependent on our obedience, but the promise of a Messiah was not dependent on our obedience. On the contrary, the Messiah was given because we are not obedient. The Messiah was given because we are sinners who need a Savior. Nothing mankind has done was able to break God's promise of a Redeemer. When God made this promise He knew everything about each of us that there was to know, long before we were born. He knew exactly how much it would cost Him to offer salvation to us. But He did it anyway.

Our worship song link for today is below.
What A Savior

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Acts Of The Apostles. Day 45, Why Did John Mark Desert Paul And Barnabas?

Yesterday's passage concluded with Luke informing us, "From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia, where John left them to return to Jerusalem." (Acts 13:13)

Luke offers no explanation for Mark's departure. He makes no personal remarks condemning Mark's actions. He simply reports what happened. This would almost lead us to conclude that Mark had legitimate work to do in Jerusalem with the church that met at his mother Mary's house and that he could not spare enough time away to complete the whole journey. But we learn from Acts 15 that this was not the case, "Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, 'Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.' Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work." (Acts 15:36-38)

Luke says Mark "deserted" Paul and Barnabas. When we look up this word in the thesaurus we find it also means "to betray, to avoid, to backslide, to commit dereliction of duties, to escape, to forsake, to relinquish, to resign, to retreat, to be treacherous, to fall away, to run out on". This is what Mark does when he leaves the group in Pamphylia and returns to Jerusalem. The question is why he does it. So today we are going to take a look at some of the foremost scholarly opinions on the matter.

One opinion is that Mark resented Paul's ministry taking prominence over the ministry of Mark's relative Barnabas. After all, Barnabas is the one who fetched Paul out of obscurity in Tarsus where he had fled for his life. Barnabas is the one who invited him into the ministry at Antioch. If it weren't for Barnabas, Paul wouldn't even be accepted among the apostles at Jerusalem, for they were deathly afraid of him when he first tried to join their group. But all of a sudden, in verse 13, we find the entire missionary team being called "Paul and his companions". Could it be Mark was offended by Paul's meteoric rise in popularity? If so, we can safely conclude that Barnabas himself harbored no jealousy toward Paul. Barnabas wasn't that kind of man. Barnabas was the kind of man who encouraged the spread of the gospel and who encouraged all the preachers and teachers of the gospel. He desired no glory for himself. The suggestion that Mark felt Paul was taking the spotlight away from Barnabas isn't one of my favorite explanations, partly for the very reason that I think Barnabas would have comforted and counseled him through such feelings.

Another scholarly opinion is that Mark isn't comfortable ministering to Gentiles. He's evidently been quite active in the church at Jerusalem which meets at his mother's house, but this group is most likely made up entirely of Jewish Christians. Right before he deserted the team we found them going to the palace of the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus to preach the gospel to him. This man converted when he heard the word of the Lord and he was probably baptized immediately after. There are some Bible historians who believe Mark's job in the group was to baptize new believers since Paul states that he himself rarely baptized anyone, "Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel." (1 Corinthians 1:17a) Did Mark balk at the idea of dunking believing Gentiles in the water? Did he shrink back from associating with those whom he was formerly taught were unclean? If so, why did he leave Jerusalem with Paul and Barnabas in the first place to go to the Gentile church at Antioch? I don't find the idea very compelling that he suddenly decided he wanted nothing to do with the Gentiles. He knew before he packed his suitcase in Jerusalem that he was going to minister to non-Jews. I think he fully understood the amount of interaction with Gentiles that would be required.

Could it be that Mark was frightened by the spiritual warfare involved in taking the gospel where it had never been preached before? Another thing that happens right before Mark deserts the team is that a sorcerer, influenced by Satan himself, tries to stand in the way of the influential politician Sergius Paulus from coming to Christ. Through the power of Christ, Paul strikes the man blind for a season as a rebuke for his wickedness and in the hope that his blindness will lead him to the light. Was this situation so frightening to Mark that he wanted no more to do with taking the gospel into regions where Satan had strongholds? I've heard missionaries tell stories about taking the gospel to tribes who have never heard it before, and I've heard them speak about the intense feeling of heavy darkness in such regions. It's a spiritual darkness. There's a sense of a very active presence of dark powers. Maybe Mark was horrified by the presence of spiritual darkness. When he set out on the journey he envisioned all the wondrous things he would see accomplished by the mighty power of God, but perhaps he didn't reckon on all the terrifying things he would see attempted by the evil power of Satan. After witnessing these things at Serguis Paulus' house, it could be that he didn't at this time desire to witness any more of it, so he headed back home to Jerusalem to work among those who had already heard and received the gospel. In my opinion this is one of the better theories. Mark is a very young man who has never been far from home. He has certainly never entered regions where Satan holds sway over the citizens through sorcery and idolatry. I can understand him being frightened enough to go home, especially considering his young age, which brings us to our final theory.

Mark may be too immature in age and too immature in the faith to go on a missionary journey at this time. Some Bible scholars and historians have referred to him as a "mama's boy", and while I highly doubt he returns to Jerusalem because he misses his mommy, I think we definitely have to take his youth into account when considering why he deserts the missionaries. It could be that he simply isn't ready. I think he believed he was ready. I think this belief was so strong that Paul and Barnabas were convinced he was ready. A time will come when he is ready, as we will learn later on in Acts as he recommits himself to mission work. He will be so ready to spread the gospel of Christ that Paul, who has written him off, will consider him a valuable co-worker in the ministry. He will be so ready that the Lord will choose him to write one of the gospel accounts contained in the Holy Bible. But Mark isn't ready on this first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, and that's alright, because which of us has never bitten off more than we could chew? Which of us has never overestimated our courage and abilities? Which of us has never backslidden or doubted our calling?

When Mark runs away from the first missionary journey it may not be the first time he's run away. We find an interesting clue in the gospel he wrote, for he tells us that on the night before the crucifixion there is a young man following Jesus in the shadows. This young man watches the agony of Jesus as He prays to the Father and weeps desperately on His knees. Mark is the only gospel writer who mentions the young man who is the only person who witnesses the distress of Jesus. We know this because the disciples remained at a distance from Jesus while He prayed, plus they fell asleep. So how does Mark know about the young man and about the distress of Christ? It is believed by a large number of well-respected Bible scholars that Mark is the young man. When Jesus is arrested and the disciples flee the scene, Mark tells us, "A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind." (Mark 14:51-52)

The young man (probably in his early to mid teens) is outside during the night in nothing but a linen nightshirt. His parents think he's home in bed. His parents may not even be aware of his interest in the words and deeds of the popular carpenter from Nazareth. He watches the scene under cover of darkness, not understanding the distress of Jesus, not expecting the sudden arrival of soldiers who seize Jesus and take Him away. When he is spotted and seized himself, his desperate fear leads him to struggle so hard he loses his nightshirt and runs home naked. Why would Mark tell such an odd story if it isn't about himself? Why is Mark the only gospel writer who recounts this strange happening? I agree with those who believe he is the young man who flees in terror, leaving his nightshirt behind. He's very young. He's very inexperienced. He isn't yet willing to risk his life for Christ, especially not before His crucifixion and resurrection, and he isn't yet willing to risk his life for Christ on the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas.

Barnabas immediately forgives his cousin Mark and offers him a second chance, which Mark accepts, in Chapter 15. Paul eventually forgives Mark when he realizes that he has matured and has become a mighty soldier of the Lord. Most importantly, Jesus forgives him, so much so that He chooses Mark to write the story of His own life, death, and resurrection.

Maybe people have written you off because of things in your past. Maybe you've even written yourself off. But Jesus hasn't written you off! He says to you the same thing He must have said to Mark, "You've repented and I've forgiven you. Leave those mistakes behind. I'm not dwelling on them and you shouldn't either. There is still much to be done in getting the gospel out to others and I want you to work alongside Me. You aren't disqualified by your past. It is I who qualifies you for the work. It is My power that gives you courage and enables you to fulfill your calling in life. Stop looking behind you. Move forward with Me."