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Persecution

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Agabus warns Paul not to return to Jerusalem
Image source: Sweet Publishing/FreeBibleimages.org

In today’s Bible reading, a prophet named Agabus walks up to Paul and binds his own hands and feet in Paul’s belt. He says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'” (Acts 21:11)

Some are frightened by this visual aid and beg Paul to not go to Jerusalem. Paul brings them back to their senses by saying, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” The people respond, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” (Acts 21:13-14)

Paul’s friends are concerned for his well-being. This is normal. Who wouldn’t want the best for their friend? But Paul reminded them that God is in control. Nothing happens apart from His knowledge and permission.

Application

Adding to yesterday’s devotional, the best place to be is where God wants you and that the worst place to be is anywhere else. And in the case of Paul being arrested in Jerusalem, it turns out that Paul’s life was probably spared because he was in the custody of Roman soldiers. There was a great deal of confusion so Paul was taken to the barracks so the Roman tribune could make sense of what was going on. Otherwise, he may have been killed by the riotous mob. (Acts 21:34-36)

Sometimes the safest place is the last place you want to be: in the custody of Roman soldiers.

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In today’s Bible reading, we see Paul doing a very foolish thing. He says that God has told him that if he returns to Jerusalem, he will face trouble. In fact, Paul says that everywhere he goes, the Holy Spirit confirms that if he goes to Jerusalem, he will face imprisonment and afflictions. (Acts 20:23) So why would he go to the very place where he would face such hardships?

Dr. Luke answers that question with Acts 20:22: “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there.”

Earlier, I said that Paul did a very foolish thing. Actually, it wasn’t foolish at all. In fact, it was the wisest thing he could have possibly done!

Application

Where the Holy Spirit leads, you will find peace. Now, I didn’t say that where the Spirit leads, you will find prosperity. No, where the Holy Spirit leads, you will always find peace and God’s blessings. You don’t want to be where God doesn’t want you to be.

Many years ago, I lamented to a friend that I hadn’t yet been called to my first church ministry position after seminary. He wisely remarked that “No place is better than the wrong place. Trust me, I’ve been there.”

As our son prepares to go back to Australia with YWAM (Youth With A Mission) for two years, many people have asked Amy and me if we were concerned with his leaving and going literally to the other side of the world. We respond, that if God is calling him to study and minister there, the last place we want him to be is here with us. Yes, we will miss him. Yes, we will be concerned with his welfare. But we know that he is in the hands of a totally sovereign God who is always good and Who loves our son more than we do.

If you have a sovereign God (and we do), your anxiety level drops a great deal. God knows what He’s doing and is always in control of every situation.

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As I read today’s Bible reading, I was reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well: One conversation leads to an entire village coming out to hear more.

Paul is in Antioch of Pisidia on the Sabbath. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets (The Old Testament), the synagogue leaders open up the floor, asking for people to speak encouraging words to the people. Paul steps forward and briefly recounts the history of the people of Israel. Paul quotes a few Psalms and points out that Jesus was raised from the dead, according to the Scriptures. (Acts 13:33-35)

As the people left the synagogue, they asked the Apostles to tell them more the next week. On the next Sabbath, more people — Jews and Gentiles — showed up because of the news that had spread through the community throughout the week. Many people were saved in the hearing of God’s Word. But division arose from the Judaizers, those who said that you had to be a good Jew if you wanted to be a good Christian. The Judaizers stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, who were then invited to leave the region.

Their response to the persecution is typical of the Apostles: They rejoice in their persecution. Instead of being discouraged and withdrawing, they are emboldened!

Application

How do you respond when you encounter persecution? I mean real persecution. Most Christians in Western society don’t have a clue what it’s like to be persecuted. We think we’re persecuted when we can’t say “Merry Christmas” and wear a cross necklace. No, real persecution occurs when people want to kill you. Real persecution occurs when people hate you for your Christian faith.

But there is subtle persecution that we may experience, such as the “Merry Christmas” greeting and religious display restrictions. In those cases, how do you respond? Do you feel threatened? What about when people make fun of you because of your faith? How do you respond then?

The Biblical response is not to assume a victim mentality. Instead, the Biblical response is to rejoice that you are worthy of their disrespect … just like Jesus was.

When you experience religious persecution — and you will — take joy! Be encouraged! And be emboldened!

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Today’s Bible reading is about Saul’s conversion. The man who had authority from the High Priests to persecute Christians (Acts 9:2) becomes a Christian. So miraculous and radical is his conversion that he begins to preach that Jesus Christ was Who He claimed to be: God’s Messiah.

Other Christians weren’t convinced. They had heard that he was out to get them and would put them in jail. But Barnabas told the story of Saul’s conversion to the Apostles in Jerusalem. (Acts 9:27)

What was it that made such a difference in Saul’s life? Why would such a devout Pharisee make such a change of worldview and begin to preach that which he had been so zealous to persecute? It’s clear that God did a miracle in his life. And when he surrendered his life to Jesus, he knew what he was doing. He saw in his Bible that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy and that Jesus was God in the flesh.

Application

What about you? How has your life changed since you became a Christian? If you’re like me, you’ve been a Believer most of your life. You don’t remember much about your “BC Days”. But if you understand the Fall and how deeply you were affected by it, you know that even being a “good person” isn’t sufficient to give you a right standing before the Holy God.

You may not remember your “BC Days”. But how much is your life being transformed day-by-day? If your conversion is real, your life will reflect an ever-changing reality of Jesus living in and through you. Your life will look more and more like Jesus over time.

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Stephen is martyred

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.

Application

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)

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