Preachers are always concerned about how their sermons will be received. We agonize over the Biblical text, wanting so much to be true to what God says. We want our hearers to receive the Word as good soil. (Matthew 13:23)
In today’s Bible reading, Stephen (one of the Seven who were chosen to serve tables) recounts the history of the people of Israel, the physical children of Abraham. He begins with God’s call to Abraham to leave everything familiar to him to go to a land he didn’t know about. The trip would take a couple of months, traveling up to twenty miles a day with his family, his servants, and his livestock. Stephen continues through Moses’ call to lead the Hebrew people out of their slavery in Egypt. So far, so good. Finally, he quotes Isaiah 66:1-2 and then makes his application:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:51–53 ESV)
Now, if a preacher was trying to attract new convert with a “seeker-sensitive” sermon, he definitely wouldn’t have concluded his message with those three verses!
But Stephen was true to God’s Word. He applied it to his hearers in such a way that they stoned him to death. They understood his message. They rejected his message. So Stephen became the first Christian martyr.
The Greek word for martyr means “witness”. Stephen was a witness and shared the Good News with these religious leaders. But before you can get to the Good News, must understand the implications of the Bad News. And that makes the Good News all the more attractive. Unfortunately, much of modern preaching and evangelism overlooks the Bad News and its implications. Instead, it offers an incomplete Good News message and cheap grace without the mention of sin and our need of repentance.
We (all of us, not just the ordained, but also the ordinary) need to follow Stephen’s example and be willing to be the witness/martyr that he was. Stephen was unfazed as his audience picked up stones to kill him. He continued to bear witness to the glories of heaven.
Being a witness for Jesus may cost your life. But isn’t that what we’re called to do? A call to salvation is a call to come and die. (Luke 9:23)
In today’s Bible reading, we see how people respond to the miraculous signs and wonders they witness at the hands of the Apostles. “They even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.” (Acts 5:15 ESV)
Any time we see a mighty move of God, we all want to get in on what God’s doing. But at the same time, we need to be careful with our response. It’s easy for our emotions to get ahead of our brains. And that’s what it sounds like Luke reports in Acts 5:15. Verse 16 seems to indicate that being in the path of Peter’s shadow actually caused people to be healed.
But notice that Luke is describing what happened. That’s the nature of the history genre, the type of writing of Acts. History describes what happened. And Dr. Luke was careful in both his Gospel and in Acts to faithfully describe what he learned in his investigation. (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2)
Amazing things were happening in the early days of the life of the church. God did some incredible things. But note that Luke doesn’t say that these things happened at any other time throughout the rest of Acts. Now, I’m not saying that God couldn’t keep on working these miracles. But it’s clear that Luke doesn’t mention it again after these two verses. (Acts 5:15-16)
It’s also important to note that no other New Testament writer mentions it anywhere in their writings either. Also absent is any instruction (even in Acts) which prescribes that people should try to arrange the infirmed so that Peter’s shadow could grace them and heal them.
Before I go any further, let me say definitively that I believe that God is God and I’m not. God can do whatever He wants, whenever He wants, wherever He wants. I believe that the only expiration date God has placed on His gifts is the return of Jesus. (1 Corinthians 13:8–12 [note that we haven’t yet seen him “face to face”])
Now, having said that, I’ll add that when we read history, like Acts, we must remember that we’re reading descriptions (what happened), not prescriptions (how things are supposed to happen).
I hope you can see that we could get into a lot of trouble if we insist that all you need to do is go to a faith healing crusade and sit in the faith healer’s shadow to be healed. To do that is to force a meaning on the Bible text that simply isn’t there. And to do that is to put vulnerable people in very vulnerable situations where if they don’t get what they’re promised, they blame God. God is not honored by someone’s misuse and twisting of the Bible.
Can God heal and do miraculous things today? Absolutely! Can God use doctors and medicine? Absolutely. We’ll see when we get to Acts 28 that it’s wise to pray and seek medical help. Does God always heal and do miraculous things? Yes, but not on our timetable and not on our dictates.
God has not obligated Himself to do anything in response to our requests. We must always remember that God is God. And we aren’t.
In today’s Bible reading, we see Peter and John approach the Temple to worship. They are approached by a lame beggar — we aren’t given his name — who asks for a donation. The only other thing we know about this man is that he has never walked; he was lame from birth. And because he has been lame from birth, he’s completely dependent on someone to carry him to the Temple and place him where he can receive gifts from the worshipers. (Acts 3:2)
Perhaps this nameless beggar has sat at this same spot for decades. If so, many Jews have passed by this man on their way to worship. Occasionally, they will throw him a few coins. But this day is different. What happens this day changes his life.
Peter and John tell the man that they don’t have any money to give him. But they do have something better than money. They command him to get up and walk. And reaching out, they help him stand to his feet. But he doesn’t just stand. He walks. He runs. He leaps.
And for the very first time in his life,
he is able to enter the Temple and worship God.
Imagine for a moment being able to go to the Temple every day for all of your life. But you aren’t able to go into the Temple to worship God because you can’t walk. (Leviticus 21:18) Because of no fault of your own, you aren’t welcome to enter and worship God. Your only knowledge of what goes on in worship is what people tell you because you can’t experience it for yourself.
And then one day, someone tells you to stand up. As they lift you to your feet, your muscles, ligaments, and tendons begin to strengthen. You can stand! You can walk! And you can go in and worship!
I think we don’t consider how fortunate we are as Christians in Western Society. For his entire life, this poor man couldn’t go worship God. As much as he may have wanted to, he wasn’t permitted.
In the Twenty-First Century in Western Society, we are able to go to church to worship with our friends and family. But just because we are able doesn’t mean that we do.
Because of the (literal) sacrifices of many who lived hundreds of years ago, many of us have multiple copies of the Bible in various English translations. We have access to even more translations through our phones and computers. But just because we can doesn’t mean that we do. Or even that we want to. And yet there are still many people worldwide who do not have any access to a Bible in their native language. Many don’t have access to a New Testament in their native language. And many don’t have a copy of the Gospel of John in their native language. They don’t have a Bible, New Testament, or Gospel of John, not because they haven’t been given one. They don’t have access to God’s Word because it hasn’t been translated into their native language. There’s not a Bible to give them. There’s not a New Testament to give to them. There’s not even a single verse for someone to read to them!
You may have all of the blessings of multiple modern translations in your native language, but if you don’t regularly read your Bible, study your Bible, and memorize Bible verses, you have no real advantages over those who don’t have a single verse in their native language.
Spend some time today thanking God that He preserved His Word through the ages and blessed scholars who could faithfully translate His Word so you could read it. And study it. And memorize it. And share it.
Here’s another application point: Prayerfully consider partnering with the Illuminations Project to help translate the Bible for every people group on the planet in the next thirteen years. Ten Bible translation organizations are coordinating their efforts to eradicate Bible poverty in this generation.
Yesterday, I teased that I would explain today why we no longer need to cast lots to determine God’s will. Today’s Bible reading answers that question. On the Day of Pentecost, God fulfilled His promise to pour out His Spirit on all kinds of people, not just special people.
Way back in Joel 2:28-29, God promised that one day He would pour out His Spirit on ordinary people. No longer would only prophets, priests, and kings be able to speak for God. Ordinary men and women, young and old — even servants — would hear God speak. When Peter stood up on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, he said, this is what Joel told us about! (Acts 2:16-18) It’s happened!
No longer would ordinary people have to look to ordained people to hear God speak!
Believer, regardless of your station in life, regardless of your theological training — or lack thereof — God’s Holy Spirit lives in you! You don’t have to go to a priest or a prophet to hear God’s voice. Because the Holy Spirit lives in you, you can learn to hear God speak to you!
Most times and most clearly, God’s Spirit will speak through the Bible. But He will also occasionally speak through other Believers, circumstances, and even a “still small voice”.
Spend some time today thanking God for the awesome gift of His Spirit. Know that it may take a while to tune your ear to His voice, but know that the God Who created you wants to talk with you. And He wants to talk through you to other Believers, as well as to lost friends and family members. Listen to Him. Say what He tells you to say. And do what He tells you to do.
Spend some time today reading God’s Word. Ask God to speak through the words on the page and for His indwelling Spirit to enlighten you to what He’s saying. Remember, He will never tell you anything that’s out of line with what He has already said in the Bible.
Know that hearing God’s voice is never just about you. It’s always about Him and what brings Him the most credit, honor, and glory. It’s also about using what you hear to encourage other Believers in their faith and telling lost people about the God Who saves!
“Which is the most important commandment?” a young man asks Jesus in today’s Bible reading. (Mark 12:28)
At the time, the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day had taken the original six hundred, thirteen Laws of Moses — which included the Ten Commandments — and added thousands of additional laws in the Midrash, a commentary on the Mosaic Law. The main idea behind adding the other laws was to “build a fence around the Law” to ensure that no one broke the laws of Moses.
For instance, the Fourth Commandment concerns resting on the Sabbath Day. (Exodus 20:8–11) The rabbis took that one commandment and added thirty-nine categories of qualifications to it. They defined how many steps you could take before you began to “travel”, thus violating the command to “rest” on the Sabbath.
But instead of helping the people to love, worship and obey God, the additional commandments built a bigger stumbling block that kept people from coming to God at all. The focus became on obeying the Law, not having a relationship with God. And that wasn’t good.
So when the young man asked Jesus which was the most important commandment, he wasn’t asking which of the “Big Ten” was the most important. He wasn’t asking which of the six hundred, thirteen was the most important. He was asking which of the thousands of laws was the most important.
And Jesus told Him which was the most important. In fact, the most important commandment is what the rest of the Law is based on. If you can master this one most important commandment, you won’t have to worry about any of the others. The problem is, no one has been able to master this one: Love God with everything you are. (Deuteronomy 6:5)
Here and elsewhere, I have referred to Christian Hedonism. It’s a term coined by John Piper, which he expanded in his first book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Given that hedonists are pleasure-seekers, Christian Hedonists recognize that the highest source of pleasure can only be found in a relationship with God. And seeking the highest pleasure in a relationship with God brings the most glory to God.
CS Lewis rightly pointed out that our problem isn’t that we seek pleasure/satisfaction. Our problem is that we are far too easily satisfied. We settle for fleshly pleasures found in relationships with people, experiences, and things. But ultimate satisfaction can only be found in a relationship with God.
Do you pursue a love relationship with God? First of all, do you even have a relationship with God? Do you pursue Him with all that you are? Your heart? Your soul? Your strength?
Spend a few minutes today asking God to show you that your ultimate satisfaction is found in Him. Spend time in His Word. Spend time in prayer. Ask Him to satisfy you with all that He has for you in Jesus Christ.