Praise and Prayer Update (March 12, 2020)

Thank you for praying for us and being part of God’s work in and through Heritage.  Last week I asked to you pray for some teaching opportunities that Linda and I had scheduled:  I preached in Mississauga on Sunday; Linda presented the gospel to a group of women in Orangeville on Tuesday; we teamed up to teach our first-year students at Heritage on Thursday (on the important topic of men and women in marriage and ministry).  We sensed the Lord’s grace and strength as we taught His Word.  Praise Him.

covidThis week I am asking you to pray for Heritage as we respond to the coronavirus pandemic.  As you know, this virus is impacting our world in a major way.  At Heritage, we are seeking to protect the health of our students, faculty, and staff.  To this point, we are grateful to God that we’ve had no infections on campus.  We want to respond without panic but with prudence.  We want to trust the Lord and taking wise action.  Our desire is to finish the school year well.  (Here’s a link to the actions we are taking in response to the virus).

Would you pray that the Lord would enable our leadership team to be “full of the Spirit” and “full of wisdom” as we make decisions (Acts 6:3)?  On the national and global scale, pray that Christians would be known for our trust in God and our love for others.  Pray that we would speak of the hope we have in Christ to hearts that are filled with fear.

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The Preacher and Laziness

The following is a chapter from my book, The Heart of the Preacher.heart of preacher

“Must be nice to have a job where you only have to work one day a week.”

Like many pastors, I’ve grimaced whenever I’ve heard someone make that statement, not knowing for sure if they were joking or not. But based on the pastors I’ve known over the years, the big challenge we face is exactly the opposite. Instead of only working one day a week, we struggle not to work all seven.

Over the course of my ministry, I’ve never been accused of being lazy. Like many pastors, I lean in the opposite direction—long hours, extra effort, continual motion. While some shirk when it comes to work, most in pastoral ministry live at a pace somewhere between busy and breathless.

But that doesn’t mean busy pastors aren’t lazy preachers. That’s the convicting insight I gained when I first read Eugene Peterson’s article “The Unbusy Pastor.” Peterson contends that busy pastors can easily become lazy preachers. Like the lizards that slip into kings’ palaces (Proverbs 30:28), laziness can slip into our lives as preachers. Especially when we get extremely busy in ministry.

Peterson links busyness to laziness in a surprising way:

The … reason I become busy is that I am lazy. I indolently let other people decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. But these people don’t know what a pastor is supposed to do. The pastor is a shadow figure in their minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious or somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.[1]

He goes on to say this kind of lazy busyness or busy laziness keeps a pastor from becoming a faithful preacher. Busy pastors can become lazy preachers. As I’ve reflected on how laziness can creep into our lives as preachers, I’ve come to see laziness as more of a heart-level test than a time-management problem. I’ve also learned to spot five warning signs that I’m becoming a lazy preacher.

Scattering Sermon Prep Time

The work of sermon preparation demands the best of our mental and spiritual energies. Compelling sermons demand clear thinking.

Paul made it clear to Timothy, and all preachers, that handling Scripture accurately would take our best efforts: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The word translated “do your best” (spoudazō) has the idea of energy, effort, and diligence. The King James version reads, “Study to show yourself approved.” That may not be the best translation of the text, but it’s a fair application.

Our best efforts at studying Scripture don’t happen on the fly, in the cracks, or when we are spent. We sabotage ourselves if we fail to block out time for study and writing when we are at our best.

The most effective remedy is to schedule sermon preparation time first. Block off study time that coincides with your peak level of alertness. For me, that means morning hours. I think one hour of study in the morning equals two or three in the afternoon, so I seek to study in the morning and schedule meetings and appointments for the afternoon. Establishing a regularly scheduled, extended block of devoted sermon prep time frees us from the exhausting dilemma of customizing each week. It also communicates to our congregations that preparing to proclaim God’s Word to them is a high priority for us.

Squandering Sermon Prep Time

It’s one thing to make time for sermon preparation; it’s another thing to make the most of the time. Laziness shows up when we give way to distractions in the time set aside for sermon preparation. We check emails, send texts, or answer phone calls. We opt for easier tasks that don’t demand the same level of focused concentration as sermon prep. We go easy on ourselves, pandering to our undisciplined fleshly desires.

The solution here is not difficult to identify; however, it’s easier said than done. We need to exercise self-control. Paul knew that’s what younger men needed to develop: “urge the younger men to be self-controlled” (Titus 2:6). Middle-aged and older men need it too. Self-control keeps us from distracting ourselves when we are studying. We need to find a place where we won’t be interrupted or put up a sign to signal we are unavailable. We must fight the urge to interrupt ourselves by checking emails, texts, favorite blogs, or news feeds. Self-discipline doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Thankfully, it can come supernaturally; self-control is a spiritual fruit that ripens as we grow up in Christ (Galatians 5:22–23).

Starting Sermon Prep Too Late

Sermons can be written at the last minute. There will be weeks when, due to crisis, illness, or travel, a pastor will need to produce a “Saturday night special.” Still, most Saturday night specials aren’t all that special.

Kenton Anderson says good sermons need to be slow-cooked, not microwaved. “Of course, as any decent chef will tell you, some things taste better when cooked slowly. Time can be a useful ingredient in deepening a rich and full-bodied taste. You don’t always want to rush things in the kitchen. You don’t always want to rush things in the pulpit.”[2]

Slow cooking your sermons requires an early starting time. In my case, I blocked off significant time early in the week with the goal of having a draft manuscript completed by Wednesday afternoon. Later in the week I’d revisit my manuscript several times, making tweaks and revisions as needed.

When it comes to starting early on a sermon, I’ve benefitted from some advice from Haddon Robinson, who was for many years a professor of preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He urged pastors to set aside an hour for studying a passage ten days before they would preach it. For example, if you were slated to preach Colossians 3:1–5 on February 21, you would spend one hour doing exegetical spadework in the passage on February 11. After one hour, you shut down your study on this passage. But, as Robinson explained, your mind will quietly continue to work on it. When you come back to the passage a few days later, you’ll generally find you make progress more quickly.

Skimming the Surface of the Passage

Laziness also shows up when we don’t take the time and effort to understand what the text is saying and preach what we want to say instead. This can happen when we come to a passage with a predetermined sense of what we want to preach from it. Then, as we actually begin to prepare the sermon, we discover there is more going on in the text than we originally understood. In fact, as we dig deeper into the passage, we come to the disquieting realization the text isn’t emphasizing what we had planned to preach. However, we may have already turned in a sermon title to be printed in the bulletin or posted on the church website. The worship leaders may have already selected songs based on the direction we told them the sermon would take.

At this point, we face another test of our hearts. Will we do the hard work needed to understand the passage and preach what it says? Or will we simply use the biblical text as a starting point for the sermon we planned to preach? Eugene Peterson has the right pastoral instincts when he resists a superficial and skewed treatment of God’s Word. He rejects the laziness that skims the surface of a passage rather than diving down deep: “I need a drenching in Scripture; I require an immersion in biblical studies. I need reflective hours over the pages of Scripture as well as personal struggles with the meaning of Scripture. That takes time, far more time than it takes to prepare a sermon.”[3]

If we are going to preach God’s Word faithfully, we must take the time needed to dig into the text and context of a passage; to wrestle with the author’s flow of thought; to prayerfully reflect on the pastoral purpose of the passage; to let the sermon simmer in our souls. Pushing ourselves to start our exegetical work earlier allows us adequate time to understand the biblical author’s message as well as unhurried time to pray the truth of the passage into our souls.

Serving Up Leftover Sermons

Over the years, I’ve heard divergent views on whether preachers should ever reuse a sermon they’ve already preached. Some advocate starting from scratch every time. No reheating leftovers and serving them up again. Old sermons, like old manna, get moldy, they claim. Preaching leftover sermons is a sign of a lazy preacher.

While it’s true that lazy preachers reheat sermons, repeating a sermon doesn’t necessarily mean one is lazy. I’ve found that some sermons, like good lasagnas, actually set up better the second time they are served. Besides, when preaching in a different venue, an old sermon is new to a different audience.

But since it’s easy for experienced preachers to over-rely on past sermons, we need to take precautions to prevent laziness from creeping in. I find it best to go over every line of the sermon manuscript, sharpening the flow of the message and updating illustrations and applications. While my general outline often stays relatively unchanged, changing illustrations and applications gives the sermon a fresh feel.

While there are times when we can heat up and re-serve a message, we should never stop preparing fresh sermons from scratch. In my role as a seminary president, I speak to a different congregation most weeks. For my heart’s sake (and my wife’s sake—she travels with me), I’ve committed to not repeatedly reusing a few favorite sermons. Fresh sermons help keep the preacher fresh.

Most preachers admit to being crazy busy at times. Few would suspect they could be busy and lazy at the same time. But if we fail to stay self-aware and self-disciplined, if we allow others to run our schedules or allow ourselves to squander study time, we can actually become lazy preachers—even when we are busy pastors.

 

[1] Eugene Peterson, “The Unbusy Pastor,” CT Pastors, 1981, http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1981/summer/81l3070.html.

[2] Kenton C. Anderson, “Slow Cooking Sermons,” Preaching Today, https://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/themes/structure/200104.26.html.

[3] Peterson, “The Unbusy Pastor.”

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The Church in Action (Acts 7)

Acts-768x576Acts  7 is the longest in the book of Acts (60 verses), following the shortest (chapter 6 has 15 verses).   In chapter 7 we hear Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin.  Having been charged with “speaking against this holy place and against the law” (6:13), Stephen answers by giving a historical survey of Israel’s history, highlighting the nation’s rejection of Moses’ leadership.  Stephen also makes the case that God’s dwelling place cannot be confined to a building.  Finally, Steven (full of the Holy Spirit) directly confronts the hard-hearted rebellion of the Jewish leaders, pouring gasoline on an already raging fire.  The members of the Sanhedrin lose all decorum and become an enraged mob.  They stone Stephen to death, placing their outer robes under the care of Saul.

Acts 7As I read through chapter 7 using the NIV Study Bible, I realized that Stephen’s speech poses some challenges for harmonizing his words with the Old Testament record.  Most of these differences can be accounted for when considering Stephen is summarizing vast sweeps of Israel’s history, condensing the material and rounding off numbers.  He is clearly a man very knowledgeable of the Scriptures, able to quote from Amos (7:42-43 is taken from Amos 5:25-27) and Isaiah (Acts 7:48-49 is from Isaiah 66:1-2).  He is speaking under fire and not giving a tidy classroom lecture.

My interest in chapter 7 is to understand the flow and purpose of his defense—why does he choose to cite the information he does.  Most importantly, I want to reflect on how he is “full of the Holy Spirit” (7:54) as he delivers this stinging rebuke of those who sit in judgment on him.

While I won’t focus on the historical tour of Israel’s history given by Stephen, I do want to mention several observations that impacted me.  The stories of the Patriarchs and Moses are a reminder to me that God is sovereignly working out His plan for history in accordance with His will and His promises.  He promised Abram a great land and promised to bring his descendants back to that land after 400 years of slavery.  In God’s time and in His way, He kept His promise:  “As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham . . .” (17).  God’s unfolding plan included overseeing (even orchestrating) events that were either perplexing (“He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground . . . at that time Abraham had no child”—5) or painful (“they sold him as a slave into Egypt”—9).  God’s ways did not seem linear or lovely at times.

Also, God’s call to leadership doesn’t guarantee others will recognize or receive the one called:  “Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not” (25); “This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge’” (35).  Leadership can evoke jealousy (“Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph”—9) or rebellion (“But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt”—39).   In spite of this, God was working to confirm His word and fulfill His promise.

It seems the “purpose” of Stephen’s speech is not simply to answer to the charges laid against him (speaking against the “holy place and against the law”–6:13).  Stephen refuses to stay on the defensive but goes on the offensive—charging the Jewish leaders with resisting the Holy Spirit (51).  The specific way they have resisted the Holy Spirit is by murdering the Righteous One (52).  As their fathers had done with Moses, so these leaders failed to see Jesus as God’s ruler, judge, and deliverer.  Like their fathers, they too had failed to obey God’s words (53).  They had also failed to understand God’s Word about the temple:  the God who met Moses in a burning bush (31-32) was the God who “does not live in houses made by men” (48).  Heaven is His throne and earth is His footstool (49).  To try and confine Him to the temple was impossible and foolish.

Near the end of his speech, Stephen is said to be “full of the Holy Spirit”.  The Greek construction uses a present participle (being full) followed by an adjective (full).  This would seem to indicate an ongoing condition rather than having an ingressive force (beginning to be full).  If that’s the case, Stephen’s speech was given with the help of the Holy Spirit.  This lines up with what we are told in Acts 6:10 regarding Stephen’s earlier debates with his attackers:  “they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.”

So Stephen’s defense, including his stinging rebuke and accusations against the Sanhedrin were given while he was full of the Spirit. Evidently, being full of the Holy Spirit does not necessarily make one’s speech politically correct or conciliatory.   This is a good reminder for me as I tend to equate Spirit-filled speech with pleasant, agreeable words.  But that is not always the case, as Stephen’s example shows.

But the mention of the Spirit’s fullness is linked not so much with his speech but his sight:  “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (55).  God’s Spirit enabled Stephen to see the unseen (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).  This glimpse into heaven gives him a supernatural serenity in the midst of a raging mob; his eyes and heart are focused on Jesus and heavenly realities.  The Spirit’s fullness also empowered him with supernatural forgiveness towards those who stoned him to death:  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (60).  Like Jesus, he asks God to grant forgiveness to those who sinned in taking his life.

Gods waysThis chapter, both in its historical review of Israel’s history and in its recounting of the martyrdom of Stephen, is a reminder that God does not always spare His people from unjust suffering.  The Lord knew that Abraham’s descendants would be “enslaved and mistreated four hundred years” (6).  This included the heartbreaking reality of having their infant boys killed (19).  The Lord saw their oppression and heard their groaning (34), but did not intervene to stop the mistreatment.  At least not until the four hundred years were fulfilled.

The Lord did not spare Stephen from being lynched and stoned to death.  All for telling the truth!  Most of all, the Lord did not spare His only begotten Son from being “murdered” (52).  God does not always protect his people from earthly suffering. But He opens heaven to receive His faithful servants.  They receive a royal welcome from Christ Himself (56).

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Praise and Prayer Update (March 6, 2020)

snow

The view out my office window

As I write this update, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” here in Cambridge.  I shoveled 6 to 8 inches off my driveway this morning.  It’s actually quite beautiful but we are still rooting for spring!

I’m rejoicing this morning in the goodness of God to us at Heritage.  Last week, two of our students had the joy of leading a woman to Christ in their door-to-door outreach in the community.  There’s also a strong spiritual vibrancy on campus.  Praise the Lord for His Spirit’s work in our midst.

Here are a few prayer requests that I would ask you to remember:

HNew Students for the College and Seminary:  We are already preparing for next fall and the students who will join us.  So far, the number of students applying to the college is above previous totals.  That’s exciting.  Would you pray that God would direct many young men and women to take at least one year of intensive Bible training at Heritage?  If you know a student who should consider Heritage, please encourage them to check us out at discoverheritage.ca.  (Or email me and I’ll make sure we follow up with them).

Preaching and Teaching Opportunities.  This weekend, I (Rick) am scheduled to preach at Erindale Bible Chapel in Mississauga.  On Thursday, Linda and I team up to teach a class for the Christian Formation Course at Heritage College.  We’ll be speaking about men and women in ministry.  Please pray that God will use us as we present His truth.

Thanks again for praying for us!  We deeply appreciate it.

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The Church in Action (Acts 6)

Acts-768x576This shorter chapter serves several purposes:  1) it gives further evidence of the church’s internal life and external rapid growth in Jerusalem; 2) it introduces us to Stephen—a man who will be prominent in the next chapter; 3) it continues the theme of growing tension and persecution from Jewish leaders.

In verses 1-7 we see the first church of Jerusalem confront an internal challenge that arises due to the convergence (perfect storm) of rapid growth (“the number of disciples was increasing”—1), economic need (“daily distribution of food”—1) and racial blind spots and preferences (“their widows were being overlooked”—1).

Here we see the human dynamics involved in a growing church, especially where there is diversity in ethnic background.  Here the diversity was due to the geographic mix of Jews that comprised the church.  Some were from other parts of the Roman Empire and were Hellenized in culture, compared with the homegrown Hebraic believers.

There are lessons here for churches today.  First, we humans tend to look after our own and overlook outsiders.  In this instance, the slight may have been unintentional, as the apostles do not take the blame or verbally reprimand anyone when correcting the problem.  Diversity can cause discrepancies if we are not diligent to avoid it.  Second, growth in size can create strains on organizational processes to meet needs.  Third, leaders can’t do it all themselves.  Up to this point, the apostles seem to have been overseeing this ministry (perhaps since the money given for benevolence was “put at the apostles’ feet”—4:37).  Here we see the need for godly, Spirit-filled, wise leaders to oversee ministry areas in a church.  The Seven chosen may be seen as the first deacons—or at least the precursors to the role of deacon.

stephenStephen, one of the Seven, is the focus of the rest of this chapter and the next.  Three times he is described as one who is Spirit-directed and Spirit-empowered.  He qualifies as one who is “known to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (3).  He is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (5).  His Jewish opponents could not “stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (10).

One reason the apostles wanted leaders who were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” is because the ministry they were overseeing was already complicated by tension.  Feelings had been hurt.  Charges of discrimination had been laid.  To calm the turbulent waters and navigate a racially-charged situation would require people who were Spirit-filled and wise.  This is true for any ministry, but especially for ministries with high potential for conflict.

As a man who was full of the Spirit, Stephen is described as “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (8).   Previously, only the Twelve had been described as doing miraculous works (2:43; 3:4-8; 5:12).  After they lay hands on Stephen (and the other members of the Seven), Stephen participates in doing miraculous signs and great wonders.

HSOne of the reasons I’m studying the book of Acts is to learn more about the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, especially in the context of ministry.  From this chapter I conclude that those who are full of the Spirit are known to be so; the apostles trust the believers in the church to recognize this reality in one another (“choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom”—3).  Just as we can recognize a wise person, we are should also be able to identify someone who is full of the Spirit.

Being full of the Spirit is linked to wisdom (3) and faith (5).  Whereas wisdom is listed after the phrase “full of the Spirit”, faith comes before it.  Perhaps the implication is that wisdom results from being full of the Spirit where faith is a reason one is filled.

In verse 8, Luke uses a similar phrase to describe Stephen:  “a man full of God’s grace and power.”  Here it would seem that being full of the Spirit is equivalent to being full of God’s grace.  The Spirit is given as a gift of grace (in response to an obedient faith—see the end of verse 7 where we read “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith”).  If this reading is correct, then power (like wisdom) is a result of being full of the Spirit/grace.

The evidence of Stephen’s fullness of the Spirit is seen in his works and words.  God uses him to do powerful works (8) and he speaks powerful words (10).  His words, proclaiming and defending the truth of Jesus, are said to wise and Spirit-directed:  his opponents “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (literally “was speaking” – an imperfect verb tense, signifying ongoing action in the past).

Several observations strike me as significant.  First, being full of grace and wisdom and speaking “by the Spirit” does not mean all will receive our words. The truth still alienates, no matter how graciously and wisely it’s spoken.  Second, Spirit-filled people are not argumentative but will engage in arguing (or at least spirited discussion; the Greek word used means to dispute, argue or discuss).  My reading of the text is that Stephen was proclaiming the truth about Jesus and this proclamation triggered arguments (“These men began to argue with Stephen”—9).  While we should not go looking for arguments, we can’t always avoid them.  We are to proclaim the message of the gospel. When we do, we can expect some pushback.  We will need to be Spirit-filled and wise to respond in these situations.

Stephen is arrested and dragged before the Sanhedrin; this is the third time in the opening chapters of Acts that disciples are brought before this judicial body.  Stephen is charged with hate-speech (against the temple) and blasphemy (against God).  In spite of it all, he remains Spirit-filled.  In fact, those looking intently at him see that “his face was like the face of an angel” (15).  Stephen experiences Psalm 34:5:  “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.”  Stephen is seeing unseen realities and is filled with courage to bear witness (as he does in chapter 7).

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Praise and Prayer Update (February 28, 2020)

abheIt’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted a Praise and Prayer Update.  Linda and I were down in the States at the annual conference for The Association for Biblical Higher Education.  It was a significant time of learning and connecting with other leaders from Bible Colleges and Seminaries across North America.

On the way home from the conference, we had a few days of rest and refreshment in Myrtle Beach and a brief visit to see our grandkids (and their parents!) in New Jersey.

As we turn the calendar page from February to March, we enter the final stretch of the semester at Heritage.  The next two months will rush by quickly as we head towards graduation.  This year we are having the largest group of graduations in many years (over 90 men and women).

prayerHere are some prayer requests that I would ask you to remember before God.

Preaching Opportunities:   Over the next four Sundays I (Rick) am scheduled to preach at six different churches.  Please pray for spiritual and physical stamina.  Also ask the Lord to allow me to serve these churches by preaching with clarity, conviction, and compassion.  It’s a great privilege to preach God’s Word.

building plansBuilding Plans.  As you may know by now, Heritage is in the “foundation phase” of a capital campaign.  We’ve been promised 10 million dollars to construct a new building for the seminary.  At this time, our team is working with the architect to design the seminary building.  Please pray for the Lord’s oversight of the design process.  Also, pray for favour as we work with the city to get necessary approvals and permits (environmental impact report, site plan approval, etc).  By the way, we will launch into the “public phase” of the capital campaign next fall.

Thank you for supporting us through your prayers!

 

 

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The Church in Action (Acts 5)

Acts-768x576

Acts 5 contains two major accounts:  Ananias and Sapphira (1-11) and the apostles’ miraculous ministry and run-in with the Sanhedrin (12-42).  In the opening verses, we see two members of the newly formed church pretend to be more generous than they actually were.  Their hypocrisy is considered a direct affront to God (“lied . . . to God”—4; “test the Spirit of the Lord”—9).  The consequences of their actions are lethal for them and instructive to the church.  This sad scenario doesn’t stop the momentum of the new church.  The apostles preach and heal many in Jerusalem, leading to the continued growth of the church.  The jealous religious leaders have them jailed.  But before they can be brought to trial, an angel miraculously delivers them and instructs them to return to the Temple and continue their teaching.  The next day, the apostles are once again arrested and. this time, successfully brought before the Sanhedrin.  Showing no cowardice, the apostles proclaim the good news of Jesus—which is bad news to the religious leaders.  While the leaders want to have the Christians killed, they are cautioned by Gamaliel, and settle for having them flogged.  The apostles, rejoicing that “they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name”(41), continue their very public ministry of preaching the “good news that Jesus is the Christ” (42).

The story of Ananias and Sapphira continues the discussion of life within the church, showing the shadow side of the sincerity and generosity discussed in 4:32-37.  Ananias and Sapphira’s actions contrast those of Barnabas.  Both sold land and brought money to the apostles to be used for meeting needs in the church.  Ananias and Sapphira however, devise a plan to look more generous than they were.  They claimed to give the total proceeds from the sale, but kept back some of the money for themselves.  Their sin was not their decision to give only part of the money; their sin was being deceptive about their giving.

hypoI want to allow the point of the passage to hit me in fresh ways.  Lord, are there ways I am pretending to be better than I am living?  Am I conspiring with my wife (or anyone else) to create an image that doesn’t match reality?  Am I living for the praise of people even if it means “lying to God” and “testing the Spirit of the Lord”?  Where am I tempted to do this?  Where am I most vulnerable to hypocrisy?

One further note about the first eleven verses:  here is biblical evidence that biblical submission does not expect a woman to follow her husband into sinful behaviour.  While the couple “agree to test the Spirit of the Lord” (9), the text points to Ananias as the leader in this scam.  Verse 2 says “with his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money”; the wording points to his leadership in the plan.  Peter gave Sapphira a chance to come clean and do the right thing when he had a private conversation with her three hours after Ananias died (7).  She lied, continuing the cover-up, and experienced the same judgment as her husband (10).  The implication is that she should have refused to join in her husband’s sin.  A wife is to submit to her husband “as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22).  The phrase “as to the Lord” clarifies (points to the attitude) and qualifies (establishes the limits) the command to submit.  A wife, when asked to go against what the Lord would want and engage in sinful behavour, is to echo the words that Peter speaks later in the chapter:  “[I] must obey God rather than men” (29).  Another clear implication is that husbands are never to ask their wives to do what God would forbid believers to do.  If we are to be a small picture of Christ’s love for his Church, we must remember Christ never leads his bride away from the will of God.  Neither must we.

Beginning in verse 12, we have an extended section that details the growing church and growing opposition to the church in Jerusalem.  Verses 12-16 describe the faithful teaching and miraculous healings done by the apostles.  The Lord answered their prayer:  “Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (4:30).  People with sickness and evil spirits flock to Jerusalem from surrounding towns, and “all of them were healed” (16).  Word on the street causes people to line the streets, even hoping Peter’s shadow would fall on them (we’re not told if this led to further healings).

The growing church was “highly regarded by the people” (literally “magnified”—13) and highly threatening to the jealous Jewish leaders (“filled with jealousy”—17).  Luke records a paradox in verses 13-14:  “no one else dared join them” and “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”  On one hand, the church was seen as frightening; on the other, it was inviting.  People realized that there could be a cost in associating with this upstart movement (“feared to join them” may speak of the “fear of the authorities”).  But in spite of the cost, the church grew.

Lord, what would it take for the church in our land to regain this kind of reputation and magnetism.  Please give us Spirit-filled, fearless leaders who bear witness to Jesus and point people to Him.  Please stretch out your hand to do the mighty and miraculous, showing people your life-changing power (physically, emotionally and spiritually).

Luke’s retelling of the arrest, jailbreak, re-arrest, and punishment of the apostles covers the rest of the chapter (17-42).  This time, instead of just Peter and John being put in prison, “the apostles” are arrested—presumably the entire group of twelve (or at least a large percentage of them).  Verse 17 highlights the motive for the roundup:  the religious leaders were “filled with jealousy” at the power and popularity of the followers of Jesus.  So they go after the leaders to try and decapitate the movement.

During the night, an angel of the Lord miraculously springs them free (“an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out”—19).  This must have been done without commotion, perhaps by causing the jailors to sleep deeply (as in Acts 12).

The next morning, when the authorities send for the apostles, the jail doors are still locked tight and the guards are “standing at the doors” (23).  But rather than instruct the apostles to hide or leave Jerusalem, the angel commands them to go back to the Temple (the scene of the “crime”) and resume teaching about Jesus. Specifically, they are told to “tell the people the full message of this new life” (20).  Literally, the text reads the “sayings of this life.”   The phrase could mean the specific teachings that are part of the Christian life.  It could also mean the teachings of Jesus (He is the way, the truth, and the life—John 14:6).  Functionally, the meaning would be the same:  the teachings of Jesus about the life He offers to all people.  This shows that the message of the apostles was not simply a witness of the reality of the resurrection but also an explanation of Jesus’ words as they relate to His way of life.

At daybreak on the next morning, the apostles return to the Temple to obey the angel’s instruction; predictably they are re-arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, who are now in a really bad mood.

fearlessWhen interrogated and reprimanded, “Peter and the other apostles” give a classic (and convicting) reply:  “We must obey God rather than men” (29).  Here is the principle of a higher authority—when human laws conflict with God’s commands, believers must choose to obey God though it means disobeying human authority.  This is the exception to Paul’s teaching that we are to “submit . . . to human authorities”(Romans 13:1).  There is a place for disobedience to the state, even though this will be seen as political subversion and criminal rebellion.

In spite of hearing a clear gospel presentation (30-32), the religious leaders are “furious” and want to execute the apostles (33).  Not all who hear the gospel are moved to respond with repentance and faith; some respond with fury and hate.  Blinded eyes, heart hearts, and enraged emotions can lead to deadly force.  The story could have ended with the elimination of the twelve apostles (actually 11 plus Matthias) that Jesus has spent three years training.  But a wise, respected rabbi named Gamaliel (the one who trained Saul/Paul) talked sense into them.  God used an unbeliever to preserve his leaders.

Gamaliel gave an insightful warning to the Jewish leaders:  “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.  But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (39).

What a theologically accurate and ministry-helpful insight.  If our activity is only human in its origin—if it was something we dreamed up—it will fail.  However, if we are engaged in work that is “from God”—originated and empowered by Him—it is unstoppable.  God accomplishes His purposes.  As the psalmist put it:  “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (Psalm 115:3).

Lord, may I spend my life doing what is “from God.”  May I listen until I hear your voice and then step out in obedience to “obey God rather than men.”  This doesn’t ensure ease of accomplishment (there may be jail terms and beatings along the way), but it does promise ultimate success.  God will accomplish His will on earth as it is in heaven.

 

 

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