24. Suffering Under Persecution

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 24 : Suffering Under Persecution

Acts  8:1    On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

There is no doubt about it that the early church suffered real opposition, but the truth is that that opposition has carried on around the world in varying intensities for the two thousand years since and, as we said in one of the recent meditations, it is said that in 70% of the countries of the world today, persecution takes place in some form or other.

Now we have touched on this subject more than once already, simply because it occurs in Acts a number of times, but this time we will seek to consider it in more general terms under several headings.

First, the Reason for Persecution. As we noted in the previous meditation, Jesus came into the world as the Light of the World and the Gospel writer John declared of him, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn 1:5) Light and darkness just don’t go together. Later on he recorded Jesus saying to his disciples, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (Jn 15:20) The apostle Paul warned Timothy, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim 3:12) What we tend to forget is the verse that follows: “while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (v.13)

The implication is that persecution comes from those who are deceived, who are self-centred, godless and unrighteous and who are shown up by believers, and are therefore hostile to anyone living a godly life. Jesus, warning the church at Smyrna, shows Satan as the one causing persecution: “the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days,” (Rev 2:10) but by using the word ‘test’ implies, as is shown in Job 1 & 2, that Satan can only do this by God’s permission, and he does it for a specific reason, to test, try and purify the church. When we wonder at the fact that God allows persecution, we see he is giving Satan leeway to act, and the marvel therefore is that He restrains Satan so much of the time, for Satan is a destroyer and would love to destroy the entire church, but is stopped by the Lord.

Second, the Fact of Persecution. Whether we call it persecution or opposition, it is seen in the book of Acts again and again. We see it in 4:1-3 when Peter and John were put in jail by the temple authorities for preaching Christ. We see exactly the same thing happening again in 5:17,18 when the apostles were jailed over night by the religious  establishment (although released by an angel). They were rearrested and eventually flogged before being released (5:40). Later Stephen was opposed by the Jews of a local synagogue (6:9) who took him before the Sanhedrin with false accusations (6:12-14), the end outcome of which he was stoned (7:57,58). Following this general persecution broke out against the church (8:1) and Saul went after the Christians (8:3) to put them in prison. After Saul was converted and started to preach Jesus, the Jews conspired to kill him (9:23). In Acts 12 we find Herod intending to persecute the church and has James put to death and Peter imprisoned (12:1-3).

Once Paul started his missionary journeys we see opposition again and again, and most times it is from his fellow Jews: in Pisidian Antioch (13:45,50), in Iconium (14:5), in Lystra (14:19), in Philippi (16:19-24), in Thessalonica (17:5-9), in Berea (17:13), in Corinth (18:12,13), in Ephesus (19:23-), although occasionally it was from others who felt challenged by what Paul was saying and doing and who felt threatened.

Third, the Wonder of Persecution. This is not so much about the fact that it happens, but that the disciples, apostles and church generally carried on in the face of this. Anyone with an open mind must be challenged over the way that, despite sometimes the most terrible of opposition from the authorities – later it was less the Jews and more the Roman authorities – with people being mistreated in every way possible. Although the writer to the Hebrews may have been writing about an earlier period, what he said certainly applied also to the early church: “Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Heb 11:35-38) Listen to the apostle Paul’s own testimony: “Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned.” (2 Cor 11:24,25)

In the face of all this, any thinking person must consider, what is it that makes these people go through such awful things for their faith and at the very least the answer has to be, because they utterly believe that all they have been taught about God and Jesus is true. Of the original twelve apostles, Judas committed suicide leaving eleven and of those eleven, ten were put to death for their faith, the apostle John being the only one to die of old age, but not before he had also been persecuted and sent to the prison island of Patmos for some time. The apostle Paul, who we may suggest was Gods replacement for Judas, also died for his faith after many years of opposition. All of these men testified: we have seen Jesus, we saw all he did, we heard all he taught and we are utterly convinced he is the Son of God, the only one who brings true salvation for sinners. Such was their conviction that it drove them on until eventually they suffered violent death for it. Their motivation was what they had seen and heard (see 1 Jn 1:1-3). Similarly Luke’s motivation for writing his Gospel and then Acts was all he had been told (Lk 1:1-4), and it utterly convinced him. Thus it has been down through the last two thousand years, that millions of others have heard and responded and then found, “He is alive! It IS true!”

With such an incredible motivation we end this series.

23. Grace & Power

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 23 : Living with Grace and Power

Acts  6:8-10    Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)–Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.

We have considered opposition several times in these meditations in Acts and those who know this story will know that basically it was Stephen’s goodness that drew him to the attention of the authorities and contributed to his death as the first Christian martyr.

Of course when we say his goodness, what we are referring to is God’s power and goodness in him. Earlier on, as one of the first chosen deacons, he was described as, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” (v.5) Can that description be applied to us? Am I one who is known for my faith and for the presence of the Holy Spirit energizing and flowing in and through me? Well that was Stephen.

Now observe that he was not described as one of the apostles. He had not had that call, but yet we find he was someone who “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”  Now we aren’t told what those things were but he was clearly someone who was flowing in Jesus’ words, “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12) However we put it, he was a man fully energised by the Holy Spirit for there is no other way these things could happen.

But he is not merely a man of power; he is also a man of great grace. Now often we use that word to mean ‘God’s resources in us to enable us to fulfil God’s will for us’, but grace here is more likely to have the more general meaning (as per the dictionary) ‘a pleasing quality, attractiveness, winsomeness, charm’, i.e. he was a nice person to know and be with. Moreover, we find that he was able to speak with his detractors with a wisdom that they could not withstand.  What an all-rounder!

Yes, just pause up with this for a moment. What an example to us. He is a man full of God’s goodness in such measure that he’s a delight to be with, he has all the answers and, more than that, he is open for the Lord to flow through him in power to bless others.

Now in passing I would suggest that the description I’ve just given of him, which I hope corresponds exactly with the Bible’s description of him, is exactly what the world (and God) would like to see of the church as its description, so let’s repeat it: full of God’s goodness in such measure that they are a delight to be with, they have all the answers and, more than that, they are open for the Lord to flow through them in power to bless others.  Isn’t that something to pray for and work for?

But these are meditations about motivation, what it is that makes men and women do what they do. There are, therefore, three things to note here. First there is Stephen’s motivation. He is a man who, for whatever reason, is given over to God and open to God and who is, therefore, energised and empowered, led and guided by the Holy Spirit. See his example, this is, if for no other reason, one reason why we should be praying, “Lord, here am I; fill me with Holy Spirit and take and use me.” The motivation of Stephen has to be twofold: first there is his own commitment to God and then, second there is the responding power of the Holy Spirit.

The second thing to note is that this outworking of the Holy Spirit in him, opens the door for others to see and respect and respond to this by saying, we want this man to be one of those who oversee the administration of our church life.  When you are looking for deacons in your church, are you looking for those who can be described as full of God’s goodness in such measure that they are a delight to be with, he have all the answers and, more than that, are open for the Lord to flow through them in power to bless others? Anything less, is substandard! So, all of this opens doors for Stephen to serve the church.

The third thing to note, and this is clearly a negative thing, is that such goodness etc. attracts the attention of the enemy who is upset by this obvious manifestation of Jesus in his people. This attention will come in the form of attacks by people who do not like being shown up by other people’s goodness. That, for the moment, is all we need say about this. As it was with Jesus, and so it will be with us!  Godly goodness attracts unpleasant opposition. It is a strange thing but darkness is upset by light.

John, speaking of Jesus declared it: The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (Jn 1:9-11) Jesus was rejected, largely because of his goodness, largely because he was light shining in darkness.

The reality is that our godly goodness will both open hearts and close hearts, and will motivate people accordingly. The latter is not for us to worry about, just trusting that the Lord with guard us and keep us. For the former, we simply need to seek the Lord daily for the empowering of His Spirit and do all we can to be those gracious people we have been considering.

22. Administrative Difficulties

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 22 : Administrative Difficulties

Acts  6:1    In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

Sometimes in church life – because church is all about people – we struggle with what we can only call administrative difficulties. We have noted before that when the Holy Spirit is working, we sometimes have to respond to the fruit of what He is bringing. The present difficulties that we now find in Acts are first because “the number of the disciples was increasing.”  When we first meet as a house group or church in a home, the numbers are sufficiently small that ‘organising’ this number is easy. If you’ve never been in such a pioneering situation, just imagine it. I can remember such a time and there is intimacy and excitement in small numbers starting something new.  But then numbers increase and you can no longer just meet in a home. If you want to cater for the people now coming, and cater for them all together, you need a larger place where you can all meet together. This requires much thought, planning and administration. As much as we may wish to avoid ‘organisation’ it does become a necessary part of ‘being church’.

But the apostles now face another problem because, although the church was entirely Jewish, there were two groups of Jews within the gathered church. There were the. Grecian Jews, who were probably born in lands other than Israel who spoke the Greek language and were more Grecian than Hebraic in their attitudes and outlook, and there were Hebraic Jews who would have spoken Aramaic and/or Hebrew languages of Israel and preserved Jewish culture and customs. As is so often the case (even with Christians!!) differences mean division and in their case the widows of one group appeared to be getting missed out when the church handed out food to the needy among them. Perhaps the ‘imported’ Jews weren’t as well known to the local Jews who appeared to be responsible for the local care, and maybe that was why the widows were being missed out. It was quite probably not on purpose, just something that needed a little more thought giving to it. The apostles acted wisely and said to the church, “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.” (v.3)

Note the qualification for these men who would become ‘deacons’ (servants) of the church: full of the Spirit and full of wisdom. They had to be men with good spiritual reputation and known for their wisdom. The ‘being full of the Spirit’ part also suggests that these are men open to God and empowered by Him. It’s like the Lord says He wants only the best to look after His church and ‘best’ in this context is about godliness and wisdom. A word to the wise: if you have deacons meetings that go on for three hours or more, you need to change the men for the ones you have work more on intellect than on Spirit and wisdom! I have been there and done it and I’ve seen it in other churches. Caring for the church should be a matter of divine revelation and divine wisdom, not human intellect. The problem is not a new one. We see it in the Old Testament as well.

Moses and his father in law show us: The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening. When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?” (Ex 18:13,14) Moses may be a spiritual giant but he’s not too good on administration, so his father-in-law makes a suggestion: “You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people–men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain–and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”  (Ex 18:19-23) THAT was wisdom! Share the load, Moses! Note the requirements for these men as well: “capable men from all the people–men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain.”  Firs they have to have a right relationship with the Lord, second they need to be trustworthy (i.e. and already have a good reputation) and third, they need to be strictly honest, i.e. are known for their integrity. These men will then be ‘capable’.

You have difficulties there in church life? Problems are there for solving. If there are administrative problems, then the spiritual elders need to appoint spiritual servants, those who are known for their wisdom and godliness, those who already have a good reputation, those who the flock recognize and feel good about. These ‘deacons’ aren’t responsible for the spiritual oversight of the church, that’s down to the elders, but they are to take the load of the practical caring and administration of the church under the leading of the elders. How simple it is, yet how complex we sometimes make it. Such wise administration brings fruitfulness. We read here, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly.” (v.7) When the elders aren’t taken up with practical matters, they can do what they are supposed to do and hear from God, guide the church, bring the word, and exercises the ministries the Lord has given to them – and blessing will follow! Hallelujah!

21. Living in the Glory

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 21 : Living in the Glory

Acts  5:40,41    His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.  The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.

The reasons or motivation for why we act as we do can be many and varied and I have to confess that I am challenged by these verses above. The apostles had been arrested, put in prison, released by an angel, apprehended by the authorities again, threatened, then been flogged, and then been released. And they rejoice!  I mean, this is on the level of James’ words: Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” (Jas 1:2)  If we’re really honest, we’re not very good at that in the modern church.

Rejoicing because we had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for Jesus’ name, isn’t something we do in the modern church in the West. We like the bits in the New Testament about the church that say, “they were highly regarded by the people,” (Acts 5:13) and “enjoying the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:47) but we’re not quite so happy about the thought of being persecuted and as for the thought of being flogged for our faith….

But perhaps the reason for this is that we are not experiencing the reality of the Lord’s presence moving among us as the early church was in these accounts we have been looking at.  The truth is of course that Jesus warned that persecution would come. In the Sermon on the Mount he taught, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:11,12)

If that wasn’t clear enough we find Luke recording, “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. By standing firm you will gain life.” (Lk 21:12-19)

But if we think that was just for the apostolic period of the early church, we need to remember Jesus’ words speaking about the last days: “There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me,” (Mt 24:7-9) which suggest an ongoing activity against the church.

At the present time there are more and more signs that the church is being marginalized and the spirit of antichrist in the world is ensuring laws be brought in, even by those appearing most respectable, that in fact make life very difficult for the church. It is likely that persecution will not come suddenly, but that it will be a gradual thing that will appear more and more.

So how does a believer live in the face of this sort of thing? The persecuted church around the word knows the answer to that. In recent days it has been suggested that 70% of the nations of the world persecute believers in some way or another. Yet, if the figures coming out of, say, China are to be believed the Church continues to grow and even flourish underground, now being at least 100 million strong, much bigger than even the membership of the Communist Party of China that rules it. No wonder the communists are fearful, no wonder the church receives much physical opposition. How do they cope with it?  I simply make two suggestions.

First they cope because they have to. When there is no escape from it, you have to cope with it. But that could be a submissive and servile ‘coping’, but that is not the picture of the ChineseChurch or of the early Church. The apostles were rejoicing in it all. This says that, second, they had a reality of the presence of the Lord that we rarely seem to have. This isn’t just an academic acceptance of Jesus’ teaching about the fact of persecution. It is an experience of the promises of Jesus: “For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict”, and “not a hair of your head will perish.”   Understand though, that does not mean we avoid death for he did say, “they will put some of you to death.”  The guarantee is that we will have eternal life and if it is cut short down here, it will continue in heaven: “By standing firm you will gain life.”

But it is more than this confident hope of an eternal destiny, it is also the awareness of the Lord being there with you in it, helping you, guiding you, providing for you in the midst of it. We can never know how the Lord’s plans will work out for us individually. James was put to death (Acts 12:2) but Peter was miraculously released (Acts 12:6-11). There is no set formula for our future; we simply have to trust in the Lord.

But there is the key – trusting in the Lord.  When life is easy it is so easy to simply trust in our affluence, but when the way gets hard, we get forced to seek Him and find Him in ways we had not done previously. THEN we find a sense of the Lord’s presence, and THEN we find His assurances, confidence, provision and protection as we had never done before. The truth is that God’s grace IS sufficient for us; it is just that so much of the time when life is easy we have not appropriated it. The apostles were living in the glory of the Lord’s presence, as do all of God’s children in these circumstances.

20. Ungodly Opposition

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 20 : Coping with Ungodly Opposition

Acts  5:17-20    Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

We have, of course, already in previous meditations had to deal with the subject of being in conflict with the Law as a Christian, but here we’ll focus the subject on opposition that comes from other believers. From our perspective this opposition is ungodly. We know the apostles were called and sent by Jesus, the Son of God, and we know they are energised and motivated by the Holy Spirit. Thus anyone positively opposing them is acting in an ungodly way. Indeed we know the opposition here is wrong because we are told it was motivated by jealousy.

Yet there is something here that we tend to forget, and it is that the people opposing the apostles were Sadducees and although we tend to give them a bad press, and although it may well be that among their numbers there were those who acted out of purely political motives, there were surely others who sought to be devout men of God. That we believe they were sincere but sincerely wrong is probably not in dispute; that they thought they had the welfare and best interests of the people of Israel uppermost in their minds is also probably not in dispute – but they are opposing the will of God!

We have already seen the anointed apostles declaring that they must obey God rather than man, but that can be a weapon for what can become unrighteous behaviour. We have also seen them declaring that they can do no more or less than declare what they have seen and heard, and that’s fine.  That much is clear.

But how do we respond to such people, those who are against us and at odds with what we believe? This is no mere academic subject for at the time of writing this particular series, in recent days the media has been full of reports about upheavals within the Anglican church in respect of women in leadership and allowing gay men (or women) in positions of leadership. Now this meditation is not about either of those subjects but on how we, as Christians, cope with what we see (from our own individual standpoint) as the ungodly stance of those who disagree with us.

Just within the last few days I was sent a link to a blog where the writer wrote almost belligerently about his particular stance on these matters. What saddened me, apart from his severe lack of handling the word of God properly, was this ungracious, crusading and hostile spirit that came through that clearly declared that anyone who held a view contrary to that which he was espousing was clearly wrong but even more, a bigoted idiot.

I was put in mind of the writings of Dr, Francis Schaeffer (now deceased) who wrote about how he had been involved in schisms in the earlier part of the twentieth century in the USA, when conservative believers had separated off from liberal believers. He observed how there had been great hostility between the opposing parties and, looking back on it, he now deeply regretted his own heart in the matter, saying how we must learn to disagree gracefully. Jesus came, we are told, “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14) and we would like to think that the Holy Spirit is making us the same. We must remember, therefore, to ensure we balance truth with grace.

Jesus teaching is revolutionary: “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, `Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, `You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Mt 5:22) and “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Mt 5:44) and “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Mt 7:1,2).   Each of these verses challenges us about how we think of others and, in this context, especially about those with whom we disagree. We may appear to win an argument, but it can be at the cost of the person we are supposed to be in Christ.

When the apostle Peter said, Show proper respect to everyone,” (1 Pet 2:17) he didn’t mean just those we agree with, he meant everyone, and that verse follows his call to submit to authorities and is then followed by that incredible instruction to slaves: “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh,” (1 Pet 2:18) and goes on to explain that it is commendable to suffer for doing right, even as Christ did. We need to understand, as we’ve said before in this series, that we are not called to respect wrong behaviour, but we are called to respect people for who they are, those made in the image of God and, sometimes, those called to particular roles in society that are worthy of respect.

The apostle Paul had the same ideas in mind when he wrote, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else,” (1 Thess 5:15) and this must apply as much to speech as to actions. In respect of speech, Paul taught, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Col 4:6) I like the way the Message version puts it: “The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.”

The account of what happened to the apostles is delightful: an angel came at night and let them out. That simple! And he tells them to carry on doing what they have been doing – in public. A closing thought: suppose the apostles had derided and demeaned the authorities, suppose when they were being imprisoned they had shouted threats at them, “God will get you!” Suppose they had acted arrogantly and belligerently; do you think God would have sent an angel to let them out? Do we perhaps fail to see the power of God exercised by the Holy Spirit in and through us, because we do not exhibit the Spirit of Jesus? May we ensure that we are not only full of truth, but also full of grace?

19. Seasons of Revival

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 19 : Seasons of Revival

Acts  5:12-17    The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people.  Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed. Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.

I commented in a previous meditation that I believe these times recorded in the early chapters of Acts are the equivalent of what, in any other period of history, we might call revival, times when God is moving sovereignly and powerfully. These verses demonstrate this. Oh that we might have such days today! Note what happened.

1. Signs & wonders.The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people” (v.12a). Now Jesus did say, I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12) and the apostles are leading the way in that, but it isn’t something automatic because it is only God who does ‘signs and wonders’, yet when He finds those open and available He will do it. Yet there do seem to be ‘seasons’ when the Lord comes in such powerful ways and it doesn’t happen all the time. Yet here were the apostles speaking out the word of God and committed to it regardless of threats to their lives.  Power – miracles – are a clear sign of  revival.

2. Confidence & Fellowship.  Then we find, “And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade.”  (v.12b) There was a confidence in the church that allowed it to meet openly, and fellowship and meeting together was important for them. Another sign of the moving of God.

3. Fear of the Lord. Next we see, “No one else dared join them.”  (v.13a) This was the ‘fear of the Lord’ we considered in the previous meditation. When God turns up in power – including in discipline – it can be scary.

4. Public acclaim. “even though they were highly regarded by the people.” (v.13b)  The church received the favour of the people because the favour of the Lord was clearly on them. Although the world was scared by it they knew that what was going on in the church was good.

5. Conversions.Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” (v.14) Salvation is THE sign of revival as God moves sovereignly in the community, convicting of sin and of need for forgiveness.

6. Miraculous healings.  “As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.” (v.15) We assume that people were healed even by Peter’s shadow falling on them. Such strange things DO happen at such times.

7. The World Comes. “Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.” (v.16)  When this sort of thing happens, the world takes notice and comes looking and seeking. They see here, as nowhere else, there are answers to their needs and so unashamedly they come looking for healing or deliverance – and find it!

8. Opposition. “Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.” (v.17) Sadly, but understandably, such things also bring opposition – but we will leave that for the next meditation.

The key thing we are looking at here is that all these things are motivated by the power of God being unleashed. Sadly history shows that when these things carry on for any length of time, people start growing used to them and almost treat God casually, and so often dissension and upsets occur, such is the folly of residual sin in us. Perhaps this is why that revivals in history have been short lived. The Lord knows that even if He turns up in power regularly, the old sinful nature eventually takes it and Him for granted. After all, it happened in the early life of Israel, so we shouldn’t be surprised when it happens in the life of the church. That should not stop us asking for it and doing all we can to be in a right place for the Lord to come and use us, even if it is not in such widely dramatic ways. Pray for that to happen.

18. Motivation by Fear

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 18 : Motivation by Fear

Acts  5:11    Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

Fear is not something that habits the modern church unless, as we considered in the previous meditation, it is fear of what people think. No, the fear I refer to is the ‘fear of the Lord’. That seems in short supply. Perhaps if we were a little more astute in terms of the Lord’s reality, we might be a little more careful.

The reason for the fear that we find in the verse above is the fact of the death of Ananias and Sapphira who both appeared to drop dead at Peter’s words. The thought of a God who held people publicly accountable scared the church – understandably so – but why don’t the rest of us, the modern church, think similarly? Is it in fact because our belief in the authority of Scripture has become so weak that we no longer really believe those things in Scripture that seem inconvenient?  We are beginning to be good on the belief that God is a God of love but perhaps we have only a one-sided view of that, we only believe in soft, mushy love.

The thing about disciplinary acts of judgment is that they need an announcer to be effective. If Mr. Brown suddenly drops dead, we just attribute it to a heart attack, but if a prophet stood before him and declared, “The Lord says repent right now or he will take you to heaven,” and then he dropped dead, we would all be checking out our lives a little bit more carefully. I did have occasion to meet a prophet of whom it was said that he went into one church and prophesied over two deacons who had been at loggerheads for years and declared that unless they repented they would not see the week out. One repented and the other was dead within the week. I have to say that when we were told that this man was coming to our church, we all started checking our lives very thoroughly. (In the reality I received a life determining word from him.)

Now the more edgy among us will possibly start muttering about, “Where is the God of love in all this?” The father who never disciplines his children fails to lay down boundaries for them and as a result they are both insecure and ill-behaved and are set for self-destruction. A loving father disciplines, and God is a loving father. There were clearly occasions in Scripture when God stepped in sovereignly and death followed, times where He obviously considered the only thing that would have effect and save His people from their stupidity would be the apparently drastic action of shortening a person’s life. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of some of these times.

Let’s put aside destructive judgment on unbelievers such as Pharaoh in Exodus, or the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, for our subject here is the fear of the Lord in the Church or among God’s people. David came under discipline at least four times in his life as king but because he was a man after God’s own heart (still able to get it wrong) and because God still wanted him to be king, that involved other people mostly.

A better example is that of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20 whose life was threatened and his death was only averted by his repentance.  We should remind ourselves at this point of the Lord’s word through Ezekiel 18:23, Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” and 18:31,32 “Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!”

Yet the fact is that the Lord does sometimes bring premature death but, from Paul’s words to the Corinthians, it may not always be dramatic: “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.” (1 Cor 1:29-32) They clearly had not realised what was happening yet Paul attributes some of their deaths to the Lord’s disciplinary judgment. I don’t think I’ve ever heard those verses read out at Communion! Abusing the body of Christ by being self-centred and unconcerned for others in the local church meant that the Lord was taking disciplinary action, and so some were experiencing weakness and sickness as He sought to bring them to their senses, and others were actually dying as they refused to heed the warnings that were coming through their sickness.

Death for Christians is simply moving into the literal presence of the Lord. It is not the end but a moving on. Sometimes it will come through simply old age and your time is up. At other times it comes slowly and maybe the Lord has a hand in it, allowing it to bring us to a new awareness of Him and the goodness of His world and the things He wants to do in and for you. Correction and discipline are the acts of a loving Father and with this awareness comes ‘the fear of the Lord’, a healthy respect that motivates us to check out our lives and not be casual with the Lord. Perhaps we need more of it in the modern church.

17. Wrong Motivation

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 17 : Wrong Motivation

Acts  5:1,2    Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Human behaviour is sometimes very complex. Why we do what we do is sometimes not very obvious. The case of Ananias and Sapphira is a good example of this. We noted in the previous meditation how a sense of unity brings with it a sense of security and a desire to step out in faith, and Barnabas had done just that.

But now we have this couple apparently stepping out and doing the same thing – but not quite! Now here is one of the problems of Scripture. It so often is, as I’ve often said in the past, rather like a set of student’s notes, sketchy! It doesn’t give us the full picture, just enough to tell us basically what was happening but often not why.

We don’t know what it was the motivated this couple. Did they see people praising Barnabas for what he did and wanted similar praise?  Did they genuinely want to bless the church and give, but didn’t have quite enough faith to let go all of what they gave? Were they just a bit insecure and weren’t quite sure if they would be able to get by if they gave all the proceeds of the sale? Now none of these things are sin. We, all of us, need our self esteem bolstering a little. Many of us would like to bless others but worry about how we ourselves will get by. Yes, these are inadequacies but they are not sin. Indeed I am sure that if Ananias had approached Peter and said, “We’ve sold a piece of property and we’d like to give part of the proceeds to the church,” that would have been fine, but clearly he either said or implied that what he was giving was the full amount of the sale. That was the wrong and that was what caused Peter to challenge him, You have not lied to men but to God.” (v.4)

This understanding of what happened is confirmed when Sapphira came in: “Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” (v.8). Neither the man nor his wife had the courage to say, “We’ve only given a part of the sale. We felt we needed some of it for our own needs.” Instead they lied.  The lie is the error and the lie brought about their premature arrival in heaven.

Let’s think about this a bit more. Wanting to appear well in the eyes of others is a common failure among Christians. We are supposed to be ‘good’ people, we are supposed to be ‘nice’ people – at least that is what is so often taught. But therein is a failing and it is a failing of teaching that leads us into hypocritical behaviour sometimes. Trying to make out we are something when we are not, is a denial of truth. How many Christians have fears or doubts, or worries or concerns, but fear acknowledging them because of what they see is the expectation of the church?

Here’s another slant to this: how many Christians belong to a tithe-giving church community, where it is expected that you will tithe your income, yet in fact they hold back and give less. Now please understand me: tithing is a faith issue not a legalistic requirement but if you are made to feel bad about it, it is likely that you are actually living in a place where truth is lacking. It’s all right not to have enough faith to give a tenth of your gross income. Faith is something that grows. What is wrong is pretending!

The biggest example of this are evangelical communities where what I can only describe as a super-spirituality prevails. The language is full of it. The talk is only about God or Jesus and it is as if the rest of God-given life and this world is unreal and unpleasant – so don’t let’s talk about it. Yet these same people have under the surface the same struggles, the same worries and the same doubts and questions as the rest of us – except they bottle them up and pretend they are not there. Pretense means unreality and unreality means lack of truth.

The truth is that as people made in the image of God we have tremendous potential to be wonderful, with the enabling of the grace of God. Yet our starting point is that we are sinners redeemed by grace and there are still bits of that sin nature still prevailing. Thus we allow people or circumstances to stress us, create fear or frustration in us and sometimes we don’t react very well to it, and this is how it will be until we pass through death. Even the great saints have feet of clay. Watch whoever the great man or woman of God is, and you will see less than perfect bits. That’s just how it is. Keep it in proportion. Great for 98% of the time but watch for the other 2%! That is reality so don’t pretend otherwise other wise you might find yourself becoming an Ananias or Sapphira.

If you had forgotten, that’s why Jesus died on the Cross for you – for sins past, present and future, big sins and little sins, obvious sins and less obvious sins. That’s why I talked about ‘their premature arrival in heaven’. These two were Christians. They had mixed motives. Part of them wanted to do good, but part of them was fearful and that fear led them into sin and that sin took them to heaven.  Why? Because God wanted the Church to realise that truth is all important. Jesus came full of ‘grace and truth’ and he is working to make us the same. I see those days of the early church as equivalent to what we normally think of as revival, when God is moving sovereignly. They are days of power and that includes in respect of discipline. Some of us may be glad that we don’t seem to moving in such days because, if we are honest, these words about unreality reflect on us. Well if they do, it is simply the Lord encouraging us to move out of that unreality and into a place where truth brings security and confidence. May it be so!

16. Motivation by Unity

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 16 : Motivation by Unity 

Acts  4:32    All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.

Unity is a rarely understood concept and its value grossly underestimated. Many of us can quote the psalmist’s famous, How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” but perhaps forget the end of that – “For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” (Psa 133:1,3b) Unity brings God’s blessing.

We’re not quite so quick to remember Jesus’ request of his Father: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17:20-23)  Our unity, according to his prayer, comes from being one with God and Jesus and thus one with each other, but it is clearly more than that; it is supposed to be visible unity so that the world will see and believe in Jesus (twice he says it!). Is our lack of unity one reason that so often the world does not believe?

The apostle Paul also obviously understood this when he wrote, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 15:5,6) There is it, that by having one heart and one message we may glorify the Father.  He also saw this as the work of the God-given ministries to the church (see Eph 4:11-13).

Now all this is an introduction to what we find in our verse above: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” That is unity when everyone thinks and feels the same! And just in case you thought this was a purely academic thinking, Luke adds, “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.”   This had very practical outworkings, for a few verses on we find, “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.” (v.36,37)

This same Barnabas became a man of great influence: “News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.” (Acts 11:22-26) Such was his stature that he was sent by the church at Jerusalem as an emissary to the church at Antioch where he was part of a great effort bringing many to the Lord. He is also the one who brought Saul (Paul) into the fold of the church and to acceptance by the church.

So maybe we should not be surprised at his actions here, earlier in the book of Acts, but it was the sense of unity, harmony and purpose in the church at that time, we suggest, that promoted or motivated Barnabas to sell a field that he had and give the money to the church, the first recorded act of philanthropy. But our emphasis is on this sense of unity that prevailed and brought about this action. When this sense prevails in the church, there is a sense of wellbeing that releases people to feel secure and good, and out of that there flow acts of love and goodness. Yet even when that atmosphere prevails, it still needs men and women of faith to step out and do those acts of love and goodness. The truth is that there will be others in the church who, unlike Barnabas, do things for other motives, wrong motives even (as we’ll see in the next meditation) despite this beautiful sense of unity that prevails.

What we might suggest is that when it does prevail it motivates people to act, and in the plethora of actions that flow forth, some may be good and some not good. Yet unity, we are told in the Scriptures, brings forth the blessing of the Lord and lets the world see the reality of His work in us. Unity, we have said, allows people to feel secure and where there is faith, it encourages people to step out in their faith and do things they might not otherwise feel able to do. For these reasons, therefore, we should be doing all we can, as those in the local church, to come in harmony with the Holy Spirit and bring about a unity that is not merely internal, but which is expressive, felt and observed. Quite a challenge in the day of individualism in which we live!

15. What Next

Motivation Meditations in Acts : 15 : What Next, Lord 

Acts  4:23,24    On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.”

Peter and John tell what the authorities had said to them, having told them not to speak about Jesus (v.18) and finally letting them go after threatening them (v.21). At that point they must have had in their minds the thought, what next? They knew what their desire was – to go on sharing the Gospel about Jesus whenever an opportunity presented itself and as the Holy Spirit led them – but what about the authorities? There are times when our activities seem to be brought to a halt and as the Lord’s servants we wonder, well what next, Lord?  How can we carry on?

Now we saw in the fourth meditation in this series how, in desperation after Jesus had gone and they were left alone, the disciples had day by day prayed until the Lord turned up. Now we have a further example given by these early pioneers: if in doubt pray! An examination of what they prayed is worth while.

They start by focusing on just who the Lord is: Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.” (v.24) They remind themselves that their Lord is the all-powerful Creator of all things. That puts everything in right perspective. They then remind themselves that God knew that this sort of thing would happen: “You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: `Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” (v.25 quoting Psa 2) But it was more than just rebellion against God, it was rebellion against His Christ, His Son: “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.” (v.26 continuing to quote Psa 2) They realise that David had actually prophesied (probably without realizing it) that Jesus would be rejected, and so it had been: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.” (v.27)  Yes, that’s exactly how that prophecy had been fulfilled. And in that recognition they realise that this was all part of God’s plan: “They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” (v.28)  Yes, all that had happened had happened because it was God’s plan for it to happen like that. As terrible as that was, it was also reassuring – this is all God’s plan. So what does He want? What should we ask?

They continue, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (v.29,30) They know their calling and it is to declare the truth about Jesus and to do it in the way he did, accompanied by healing and signs and wonders. Is this not a prayer we should be echoing in these days?

And then they got an immediate answer: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.” (v.31)  God turned up again!  Reassurance has been given, but more than just reassurance – power! That power, or energy from the Holy Spirit, motivated them on in their calling to be witnesses to Jesus. Is this why the Church today is so often such a weak witness, because it lacks the power of the Holy Spirit, because it has forgotten its calling and fails to realise its need?

Whenever we come to this point of asking, what next, we need to remember again our calling – to be servants of the Most High. What has He called me to be? A witness yes, but what else, I wonder?  How am I to be a witness in this largely godless community, a community that hardens its heart more and more as every day goes by? Surely it must be to cry for the same thing they asked – Lord come and embolden me, come and empower me so that I am be what you called me to be, come and validate what I say and do by your power, just like Jesus did and the early apostles did!

We have considered in the previous two meditations the fact of the opposition the church was receiving from the authorities, opposition that sought to silence them and keep God out of their community. The authorities wanted to remain in control, to be the ones in charge and although, in this case, they were supposed to be God’s representatives, they were in reality opposed to the Lord. Similarly it may be, that although all authority (in design at least) is from God, it may in reality be against God. Those authorities use their power to silence the Church. We need to ask God to bring HIS power to give the Church a voice again that is backed by works of power that people will see validates what we say. This is not selfish desires; this is simply responding to the word of God which gives us example after example in the New Testament (and Old) of God verifying His word by words of power, works seen in the New Testament especially as bringing blessing to individuals by healing or other divine provision.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts.” (1 Cor 14:1) and “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” (1 Cor 14:12). Some say you shouldn’t go looking for power, but that is not scriptural teaching. No, we don’t go looking for this for selfish reasons; we look and cry for God to come with power so that His kingdom and His will may come (Mt 6:10) and that He may be glorified. Away with this unbelief! Let’s be scriptural, let’s cry out for the Lord to come and enable us to be what He’s called us to be!