God is always beginning.
I was struck by the opening remark in this book: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” (vs 1-2)
Seems like a pretty unassuming remark, but I love the things we can learn about God from the smallest of details. Here, I think it’s significant that Luke didn’t write “all that Jesus did and taught.” What this indicates to me is that Luke realized a marvelous truth about God—that He is always beginning.
All that Jesus did here during His life and death on Earth wasn’t the end, but only the beginning. And it wasn’t even the first beginning. He had many, many beginnings with the Israelites in the Old Testament, and John reminded us at the start of his Gospel that Jesus is the Word who was in The Beginning.
He is every beginning. He is always beginning.
In fact, this chapter was one full of beginnings—a new beginning for the eleven disciples and a new beginning for the one chosen to replace Judas; a new beginning for Jesus’ mother and His brothers, who also joined with the disciples in prayer and waiting; and a new beginning for the rest of that fledgling company of believers who would take the message of Jesus to the world.
I like to think that what God does in our lives is never past tense, but is always present, because He is always present with us—every second of every moment of every day. Whenever and wherever and however we need a new beginning, we can always have one with God.
His work is never done. He is always beginning.
God speaks a language we can understand.
How did “speaking in tongues” go from something that was characterized by its ease of understanding to something that is characterized by its difficulty of understanding? For the first “speaking in tongues” occurred at Pentecost, and it was a very practical and purposeful tool that day: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’” (vs 4-11)
“Speaking in tongues” still apparently happens today, but I’ve rarely (if ever) heard of someone speaking in another person’s native tongue so that they may understand the message being given. Usually, the speaker speaks in an “unintelligible” language and another person arises to provide the “interpretation.” But I don’t often hear about any of these tongues being identifiable as languages that exist somewhere in the world.
Now, that’s not necessarily a problem, but it does tend to obscure a very important lesson we can learn about God from this very first instance of “speaking in tongues,” and that is that He speaks a language we can understand. When we come to Him, we don’t have to learn His language. He is more than fluent in ours and able to communicate with us by using it.
This alternate method of “speaking in tongues” actually turns that idea on its head. Instead of God coming to us to speak in our language, He apparently comes to us with the “language of heaven” and must provide an interpreter so that we may understand Him. Thank God for the interpreter, but is God unable to speak our language in the first place?!
On the contrary, the story of Pentecost assures us that God knows no limitations in communicating with us. He can speak any language and every language necessary to bring His message of love to our hearts. When we meet God, one of the first things we’ll discover is that He always speaks a language we can understand.
God always has a bigger plan.
This was such an interesting story. It made me think of all the people I have known over the years who have prayed for healing—some of whom are praying even now. The man in today’s story didn’t pray for healing. He was just hoping for a little money, but instead, he got a miracle!
Our circumstances are sometimes the opposite, especially in this wealthy country. We would happily pay for a miracle if one could be bought.
But I think there is something important we can learn from this story, particularly when we are hoping for the healing of a loved one (or ourselves). Notice what happened after the man was made whole: “He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with [Peter and John] into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” (vs 8-10)
This man wasn’t healed just so he could walk. I mean, the fact that he could walk was great, and I’m sure it made life much easier for him! But his healing became the occasion for everyone else who was present (1) to recognize God’s power at work and (2) to hear the gospel. Thus, they were also the recipients of something life-changing that day! God used a miracle to pave the way for an even more important miracle!
Now, that’s not to say that it wasn’t awfully nice that this poor man who had been crippled was able to walk again. But let’s face it: God has no problem with healing crippled legs. He could do it all day with His eyes closed and one hand tied behind His back. And He will heal every single physical infirmity we have one day if He doesn’t heal us in the here and now.
But changing hearts and minds is an entirely different thing than reversing physical deformities, and I would like to suggest that whenever God miraculously heals someone, He has a much bigger plan in mind than a simple physical healing. He has the hearts and minds of His wayward children in His sights, and He will do all He can to reach them—whether that means healing or not healing us or a loved one.
That’s right. I believe that God’s bigger plan may sometimes be served by a miraculous healing, but it may be equally served by not providing a miraculous healing. I became very aware of this during my father’s illness five years ago. I wanted him to be healed, and I prayed for that outcome many times.
Since he had a terminal diagnosis, I knew that if God did work a miracle in his life, it would be an unbelievable opportunity to witness for God. And because of that conviction, I also came to the conclusion that if God would pass up such an opportunity, it would only be because, ultimately, His bigger plan would be served even better if my father wasn’t healed.
And he wasn’t.
I don’t think that what I’m writing about today is something easy to contemplate. We are so invested in our lives and the lives of those we love, and more than anything, we just want those lives to continue. Of course! That’s natural! But sometimes, with that heavy investment comes the danger of losing sight of the fact that our lives are continuing. In God, our life is eternal, no matter what happens to us in the here and now.
God always has a bigger plan. Remember that the next time you pray for anything, but especially for a healing. If you get that healing, be on the lookout for the awesome opportunities God is going to open up because of that experience. And if you don’t get that healing, be on the lookout for the awesome opportunities God is going to open up because of that experience.
And regardless of how things pan out, remember that you are never forgotten or forsaken.
God always has a bigger plan—and you are part of it!
God saves by revealing His character.
Well, obviously the religious leaders didn’t like the fact that Peter and John were running around the temple preaching the Gospel. It ruffled their feathers because they were talking about the same man who, only weeks earlier, had been convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.
And they thought one little crucifixion was going to end it all!
On the contrary, that was only the beginning, and once the disciples realized they had actually been walking and talking for three years with the very God of the Universe, they had no intention of shutting up about it. And it landed them in the temple jail overnight until the authorities could figure out a way to put a stop to it.
The next day, they were brought before the Sanhedrin, and the question they were asked gives us a glimpse into the theological thinking of the day: “They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: ‘By what power or what name did you do this?’” (vs 7)
The ideas behind these questions—what “power” or what “name”—are virtually the same. In the Jewish mind, the power of any person actually resided in his name, because the name represented the person’s character. And that’s why Peter’s response is equally interesting. After reminding the religious leaders that they had killed God, he said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (vs 12)
Through the years, many people have taken this verse to mean that every person must hear and know the literal name “Jesus Christ” in order to be saved. But that’s not really what Peter is saying at all. Since, in the Jewish mind, the name represented the person’s character, he’s saying that the reason we are saved through Jesus is because He is the one who revealed the truth about the character of God to humanity.
This is very significant because, if you’ll think back to the Garden of Eden with me for a moment, didn’t the serpent at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil cast doubt upon God’s character? The serpent insinuated that God was a liar and that He would use His power in a selfish way. And when Eve, and subsequently Adam, accepted those lies about God, they ate the fruit and plunged us all into a life of sin. In essence, this “sin” simply means that we have become separated from God and are afraid of Him because we have believed these lies about Him.
Jesus came to undo all of that. He came to reveal that God was not the kind of person Satan had made Him out to be. He came to reveal that we have no reason to be afraid of God and that we can trust Him completely.
And when we see and understand that we have no reason to be afraid of God, He can begin to bridge the gap in our relationship that has been caused by sin and help us trust Him again. This is the only requirement for salvation, and Jesus is the one who has provided the means by which this trust can be rebuilt. That’s why there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved, for no human being has ever perfectly and completely revealed the character of God to us. It really isn’t more complicated than that.
God saves us by revealing His character.
We thought He couldn’t be trusted. Now we know He is completely trustworthy.
If we are willing to respond to this revelation, we are saved. Yes, it is that simple.
God only requires honesty.
The story of Ananias is to the Book of Acts what the story of Achan is to the Book of Joshua. Both tell the stories of men who faced dire consequences when they tried to cheat. Right off the bat, I’d like to say something clearly: Neither of these stories deal with the eternal destinies of the men involved. Cheating is not the unpardonable sin. Lying is not the unpardonable sin (although, if persisted in long enough, it may become the unpardonable sin). Cheating was the reason they went to the grave, but that doesn’t mean they’re “lost.”
Having said that, let’s examine the story of Ananias in a little more detail. It’s interesting that it comes on the heels of another generous gift given to the church, mentioned in the previous chapter: “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.” (Acts 4:36-37)
It is in this context that the story of Ananias begins: “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. Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.’” (vs 1-4)
The context here is clear. The problem isn’t that Ananias didn’t hand over all the money he received from the sale of his land. The problem is that he lied about it, which means that he apparently led the apostles to believe he was giving them all the money he had received when, in fact, he wasn’t.
Why would he and his wife do such a thing? Perhaps because they had witnessed the generosity of Barnabas and seen the accolades he received. Perhaps they wanted some of the “fame” that came along with giving it all to God—without actually giving it all to God. Whatever their reason, “greed” wasn’t the problem, and “pride” wasn’t the problem. Dishonesty was the problem.
I think this is still true today. God only requires honesty of us. He doesn’t require that we sell everything we own. He doesn’t require that we make certain sacrifices or give certain gifts. Ananias and his wife weren’t required to sell their property, nor were they required to give any of the proceeds to the church.
The only thing God requires is honesty. And the only reason He requires honesty is because a relationship cannot flourish when one party refuses to deal in reality. If one party is constantly “hiding” from the other, cheating their way through things, pretending that what is true isn’t really true . . . how can a relationship even be built on such a foundation?
It can’t. Honesty is the only foundation upon which a healthy relationship can be built, and that’s why the only thing God requires of us is honesty. He can fix everything else that’s wrong with us. He can fix the greed, the pride, the anger, the violence, the arrogance, and every other sinful attitude. But if we’re totally unwilling to deal honestly with Him, there isn’t much He can do for us.
God shines through.
For today’s blog, I wanted to share a bit of a personal story with you. My father was admitted to the hospital in February 2009 with pneumonia. He was in the advanced stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which meant that during his stay, he couldn’t move or talk or eat or cough. He was completely paralyzed. The only thing he was physically able to do was blink his eyes—once for “yes,” twice for “no.” Though we didn’t know it at the time, he had only a few weeks left to live.
One day during his stay, a new doctor came to do rounds. She was part of the same medical practice as my father’s primary doctor, but neither he nor my mom had ever seen her before. She just happened to be the one on call that day. She checked his vital signs, said a few words to him and my mom, and then she was gone. The whole encounter lasted less than three minutes.
Sixteen months later, my mom decided to change doctors in that same medical practice, and she made an appointment with the doctor who had come to check on my dad that day. She hadn’t seen her before or since those few moments in the hospital—so she was floored when the doctor came into the room, looked at her for a brief second, and then said, “Are you Ken’s wife?”
Shocked, my mother replied, “Yes, but how could you possibly remember that?”
The doctor said, “Some patients make an impression, and you never forget them.”
When my mother told me that story, I was equally shocked. You never forget some patients? What had there been to remember? She spent a few minutes in a room with a dying man who couldn’t move or smile or talk, and this was just one patient in a sea of patients she must have seen in the ensuing sixteen months. Yet, even after all that time, she remembered him so well that she instantly recalled his name.
I wondered how that could be possible . . . and then I read about Stephen in today’s chapter: “Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power.” ( vs 8 ) He was hauled before the Sanhedrin, and some of his enemies had cooked up some false testimony in order to destroy him.
But before Stephen could even say a word, he was already testifying: “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” (vs 15)
Would those members of the Sanhedrin ever forget Stephen? I doubt it. He was a man full of God’s grace and power, and there is no hiding God. When He is living within you, He shines through. That means that if God has taken up residence in your life, you are a witness, even when you aren’t aware of it. You don’t have to talk. You don’t have to walk. You don’t have to do anything in order for God to be seen.
If He is in you, He’ll shine through.
God is coming for you.
Well, that could sound rather ominous, I suppose, but it’s actually a huge part of the good news about God. And it was also a main component of Stephen’s Spirit-filled speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7: “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. . . After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him. However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’” (vs 44-50)
Stephen had been accused of speaking against the temple, but he used the opportunity to reveal to the religious leaders that they had turned the temple into an idol—just one more in a long succession of idols in Israel’s history. These people turned everything into an idol! They had long given up their statues, but their spirit of idolatry remained.
The tragedy of this idolatrous spirit is that it completely obscured what God was trying to do in and through His people with the temple. When God first had the Israelites build a sanctuary for Him, it was nothing short of a daily invitation to relationship. God wanted His people to come to Him, and to make that easy and accessible, He lived right in their midst! How unprecedented was this for any nation and their “god”?!
But over time, as the Israelites shunned the relational invitation behind the temple and turned the building into an idol, the message of the temple shifted subtly from Please come to Me to You must come to Me. In the minds of the religious leaders, if anyone wanted to know God or have dealings with Him, they must come to Him. To them, the temple (and God) had become the exclusive “property” of the nation of Israel, and they were the gatekeepers to salvation.
This is why Stephen reminded them that God Himself had said, “What kind of house will you build for me?” (Isa 66:1) God is not limited to any time, space, or building, and part of the wonderful message about God is that He doesn’t sit back and wait for us to come to Him. He comes to us! Of course, as soon as He comes, He extends the invitation for us to also come to Him, just as He did with the Israelites. But we are the ones who have tried to stuff God into some exclusive box and claim that we have some ownership over His movements. God has never practiced such self-containment.
The good news of the gospel is that God is coming for you. You don’t have to go searching for Him. Wherever you are, He’ll find you. And hopefully, when He does, you’ll be more willing to listen to Him than the Israelites were!
God is at work in your suffering.
Will there be any more shocking (and then joyous!) reunion in heaven than Stephen and Saul? (Maybe David and Uriah?!) Stephen certainly died as if he knew that God had it all under control, but I’m sure he couldn’t have imagined how God would use his suffering to both work on the heart of Saul and spread the gospel message like wildfire.
Yes, did you catch that in this chapter? Stephen’s martyrdom was like lighting a fuse under a gospel bomb that produced an explosion heard ’round the world: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (vs 1-4)
As Stephen was stoned to death that day, it would have been so tempting for him to think that this was “the end.” And who knows? Maybe he did. But if he did, the rest of us know that he was wrong. His death wasn’t the end; it was just the beginning. God turned the circumstances of his martyrdom into the occasion to spread the Good News to the entire Mediterranean world! In fact, when you consider that Stephen’s whole passion was to make sure he told as many people as possible about Jesus, God actually used the circumstances of his death to fulfill his greatest wish in life.
That is the power of God, my friends. And let me assure you, God is at work in your suffering. He is at work in your family’s suffering. He is at work in every single situation of suffering you see around you in the world.
And even though it’s usually what we pray for, God rarely deals with suffering by removing it. Instead, He transforms it. I think Saul learned that lesson after he oversaw the stoning of Stephen, because he later wrote, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Rom 8:28)
Saul was a firsthand witness to the incredible good that God brings out of our suffering, and I’m sure he couldn’t wait to meet Stephen again and fill him in on “the rest of the story.” You remember, too, that your own suffering will have a “rest of the story,” because God is at work even now in the most difficult circumstances of your life.
You can trust Him with every hurt, every pain, every tear, every hardship.
Just like Stephen did.
God sees the heart.
I am so taken with the story of Saul’s conversion. I think it’s one of the greatest stories in the Bible because it illustrates (almost as no other story can) just how well God sees the heart. This story is the tangible evidence that what God said in 1 Samuel 16:7 is really true: “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
So here was Saul, running around Israel, persecuting the very first Christian generation. He was rounding up both men and women and carting them off to be executed for daring to preach about Jesus. Overseeing the stoning of Stephen had sparked off in him a kind of frenzied zeal to destroy any and all traces of Christianity. In fact, he was on a self-appointed mission to “clean up” Damascus when God broadsided him.
This is the first part of the story where we really see how well God knows us. In fact, He knows us so much better than we will ever know ourselves! He knew all about Saul, and He knew that—even in the midst of his murderous rage—Saul’s heart was open to conversion. And because He knew Saul so well, He knew just how to get Saul’s attention and turn him around.
God knows each of us that well.
I had to chuckle at the response of Ananias when God told him to get up and go to Saul: “‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’” (vs 13-14) In other words, Ananias was saying, God, are you really telling me to go see this guy who’s killing Christians? Seriously? But God was serious, and Ananias went.
Imagine what it must have been like for the Christians who had lived in fear of Saul to hear him suddenly preaching about Jesus in the temple. Understandably, it took the Christians in Jerusalem a little while to warm up to him because they were all a bit skeptical of his conversion (vs 26).
How often have you looked at a serial killer and seen a world-famous evangelist? How often have you considered that people who have done the worst, most vile things could become God’s closest friends? If there’s anything that the story of Saul should remind us, it’s not to give up on anyone. God sees the heart, which means He sees people completely differently than we do. It also means that He sees you completely differently than others do—even differently than how you see yourself!
God specializes in surprises, and you never know when that person you’ve written off will have a Damascus Road experience. That person might even be you. That’s right. If, like Saul, you need to “see the light,” God knows you well enough to know just how to bring it to you!
God uses imperfect people.
You just gotta love Peter, don’t you? He has been born again. He has been filled with the Holy Spirit. But he is still Peter, and that includes the tendency to say no! to God. I’m sure you’ll remember that he actually took Jesus aside and rebuked Him for talking about His impending death (Matt 16:22), and later, when Jesus tried to wash his feet in the Upper Room, he said, “Absolutely not!” (Jn 13:8)
And here he is, some time later, still rebuking the Lord. God shows him a vision of some unclean animals and tells him to eat them, and—being a devout Jew—he says, “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” (vs 14)
Well, as we know from the rest of the story, God wasn’t trying to broaden Peter’s culinary horizons. But He was trying to help Peter begin to break out of some of the traditions and prejudices that would hinder the spread of the Gospel. Specifically, He wanted Peter to go and preach to some Gentiles—and not just any Gentiles, but elite Roman guards! This would have quickly excited the prejudice of any devout and patriotic Jew.
But Peter listened, and he went.
As I read this story once again, it occurred to me that this was the second time in Biblical history that God sent a man from Joppa to preach to some Gentiles. Hundreds of years earlier, He had called Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh—the arch enemies of the Jewish people at the time.
But Jonah ran away. He was not as eager or willing to reconsider his prejudices and traditions. In fact, he knew that many of the feelings and beliefs he cherished about “the enemy” were in direct opposition to God’s own feelings and beliefs about them. But he was a lot more stubborn than Peter.
When I consider both of these men and their stories, I have so much admiration for God—that He loves us as we are, He takes us where we are, and He uses life’s circumstances to make us better.
Lord, thank you for challenging all my misconceptions, preconceptions, and prejudices. Thank you for exposing all my blind spots. And thank you for using me, even with all my numerous, numerous imperfections.
God is getting His message out.
In this chapter, Peter had to defend his visit with Cornelius to his fellow Jews, but surely, they were as initially opposed to fraternizing with Gentiles as Peter had been! But as Peter explained the circumstances to them, they began to see and understand that God was moving on the hearts of the Gentiles as well—and they were excited about it.
This made me think of a conversation I was recently having with a group of friends who are concerned that the good news about God has been somewhat obscured in the world, even in the church. They are very sincere, heartfelt folks who want to do what those first Christians wanted to do—get out the message about God!
But many of them are frustrated because they feel like their efforts to spread the word are being frustrated. Let’s face it—there’s more than enough evil, decadence, and immorality in the world to go around, and sometimes, even the very vocal efforts of a minority don’t seem to go far. So we begin to ask questions like, What must we do to finish the work? How can we get this message out in order to change the world?
While it’s interesting to consider those questions, and while I have a lot of respect and admiration for the ones who are asking them, the story of Peter and Cornelius suggests to me that God is getting His own message out. That’s not to say that we don’t have a part to play—because Peter certainly did!—but we may be expecting to play a different part than the one we’re called to.
For instance, Peter was sent to preach to Cornelius, but Cornelius had already received a message from the Lord. In fact, it was Cornelius who sought out Peter in order to hear the message! Peter didn’t seek out Cornelius.
In the same way, those of us who still want to spread the good news about God may not need to hunt down our own audience. I have heard bits and pieces of (what I think is) the good news from people all over the religious spectrum, and to me, that indicates that God is getting His message out there in His way and in His time.
Don’t get me wrong. God still needs an entire army of Peters who are willing to speak for Him when the time is right. God needs messengers to go where He sends them, in order to confirm and strengthen the faith of those He has already been speaking to.
But I don’t think we need to figure out how to finish anything. In fact, I’m quite sure we can’t figure it out. Peter had to be convinced to go where God was sending him. If he had been sitting in his house in Joppa that day, thinking, How can we finish getting this message out?, do you think it would have ever crossed his mind to start preaching to the Gentiles?
We can’t anticipate where God is heading, but we can be willing to go with Him when He shows us the way. Until then, God is getting His message out. He is speaking to millions of His listening children all over the globe, preparing their hearts to hear what He will send us to say . . . when the time is right.
Are we willing to wait on Him?
God doesn't always rescue us.
This chapter addresses one of the realities of living in this world that we sometimes find difficult to comprehend: God doesn’t always rescue us. He heals some, but not others. He protects some, but not others. In any given set of circumstances, He doesn’t give all His children the same outcome. Some are rescued. Others suffer.
What better example could there be than the two stories of the apostles presented in Acts 12? James’ story here is a short one: “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” (vs 1-2)
Up until this time, though the church had already suffered persecution at the hands of the Jews, there was likely a general belief that the original disciples of Jesus—those who had walked and talked with Him—were under some sort of divine protection. The martyrdom of James shattered that illusion. The church had lost one of its founding fathers.
And right on the heels of this, Peter was also arrested and thrown into prison to await execution. But he didn’t stay there. Peter’s story ended up being much longer than James’, as Luke (the author of Acts) then recounts how God engineered an incredible jailbreak to save Peter’s life.
Why did God save Peter and not James? Did He love one of them more than the other? Was James executed too swiftly for God to put a plan together? Isn’t it unfair that God should allow James to be martyred, but make a way for Peter to go free?
Well, before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s not forget that Peter was also martyred. Even John, the only apostle to not be martyred, went to his own grave in his old age. Just because God broke Peter out of prison on this occasion and kept John from martyrdom altogether doesn’t mean either of them would live forever (at least not in this world).
And that’s the point. God doesn’t always rescue us, but when He does, it’s because He knows that it is what is best in the grand scheme of things. And when God doesn’t rescue us, it’s because He knows that it is what is best in the grand scheme of things. God has made many promises of protection to us, but all of His promises are ultimate promises. In the meantime, many things temporarily befall us that might make us think we’ve been abandoned by God.
That’s where trust comes in. Do we not yet know God well enough to trust that He knows what’s best? Do we not yet know God well enough to trust the bigger picture He can see, even if it’s obscured from our view right now? Has God not given us enough evidence that we can see to be able to trust Him for the things we can’t yet see?
Indeed He has. And, somewhat ironically, those who trust in God are the ones who are able to endure the worst kinds of suffering and hardship. The more we trust God, the more we can handle.
Just ask Job.
He’ll be the first to tell you, God doesn’t always rescue us.
God has a good memory.
Beginning with Jesus’ little history lesson to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24) and continuing right on through several stories in the book of Acts, I’m struck with just how much time God spends reminding us of the past. In fact, it seems like every single sermon Peter and Paul preached to the Jews began with a recounting of Israel’s history from Egypt right up through the present day.
Is this a bad thing? Reminding us of our past? It makes me think of that popular saying: Whenever Satan reminds you of your past, remind him of his future. Is it worthwhile to remember our past, or should we just forget about it?
Let me assure you, for starters, that Satan reminds us of our past in a very different way (and for a very different reason!) than God does. When Satan reminds us of our past, his goal is to make us remember all of our mistakes so our future will be filled with guilt, shame, and regret. But when God reminds us of our past, His goal is to make us remember all that He has done for us, so that we will trust Him for the future.
This was the point of Jesus’, Peter’s, and Paul’s history lessons. As we remember how God has led us in the past, we are better equipped to trust Him in the here and now—even when we can’t see clearly what His plan is.
God has a good memory, and He wants us to have good memories too. We don’t need to remember our failures; we need to remember His successes. For if we will meditate on all the ways He has led us in the past, we won’t fail to lean on Him for all we need in the days to come.
Especially when life is difficult and it’s hard to see where God is headed, let Him refresh your memory.
He’s never failed you in the past, and He’s not about to start now.
God uses different approaches.
One of the things I’m looking forward to most in heaven is hearing people tell all the different stories of how God “got” them. I’m sure there will have to be as many different stories as there are redeemed people, each with his own account of what it was that convinced him of the truth about God.
Are any two people the same? We all have different backgrounds, different family histories, different prejudices, different viewpoints, and different ideas about right and wrong. As God weaves through the tangled webs of truth and error, He must speak different languages and use different approaches to reach us, according to what He knows about what we’re able to “hear” at the time.
For instance, did you notice the difference in this chapter of Acts? Paul had a message for the Gentiles in Lystra, but it was quite different from the one he had preached in the past: “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (vs 15-17)
Sermons preached to the Jews usually included recitations of God’s history with Israel and explanations of how Christ fulfilled the Messianic prophecies. But there was none of this to be found in the sermon to the Gentiles at Lystra! He didn’t quote the Old Testament to them. On the contrary, Paul appealed to the testimony of God’s natural revelation. He appealed to their experiential knowledge of God by citing things which even pagans understand by observing the world around them.
This is one of the things I love most about God. There is no exclusivity in Him. He will do whatever it takes to meet us where we are, speak a language we can understand, and lead us no faster than we are willing to go. I have no doubt that His creativity and ingenuity in reaching us will certainly make for a myriad of interesting stories in the hereafter!
God is not a legalist.
For centuries, the Jews had been adhering to the “law of Moses.” This refers to the additional laws Moses gave the Israelites (recorded in Exodus and Leviticus) regarding civil and social life. The Israelites had become masters of trying to keep this law. In an effort to encourage obedience, they had written laws for the laws and laws for the laws for the laws. By the time Jesus came, the law of Moses had ironically become a huge obstacle to spiritual living.
But one of the reasons the people had gone to such lengths to “observe” the law was because God had given it, and they believed it was important. And I’m sure that’s what made the events of Acts 15 so bewildering to many of the Jews. All of a sudden, the law of Moses—which the Israelites had spent centuries protecting—was seemingly swept aside for the benefit of the new Gentile converts to the faith. All that remained was a few rules regarding food and a reminder to abstain from sexual immorality.
Circumstances were different. The times had changed, and with them, the “important” points of law had changed too. This doesn’t mean that the law of Moses wasn’t important when God first gave it to the Israelites. On the contrary, it was very necessary! God was establishing a new, fledgling nation made up of a couple million recently-emancipated slaves. They needed a lot of structure and guidance! So, God gave them the laws that were appropriate to their situation.
The needs of new Christians in the first century were very different, so God established guidelines for them according to what was appropriate for their situation. This is very good news about God! It means that He is most definitely not a legalist. He doesn’t arbitrarily make rules for the sake of making rules and enforcing them. When He makes rules, sets guidelines, or creates laws, it is for very good reasons—the main reason being that it is what will contribute to our best good in any given situation.
Outside of the one, overriding principle of Love, God responds to our changing situations with fluidity and flexibility. He’s not a “because I said so” kinda guy. He’s more of a “because I want what’s best for you” kinda guy. And He will not adhere to any law (or ask us to adhere to any law) which has outlived its useful purpose.
God is in love with us, not law. He definitely isn’t a legalist.
God inspires singing.
For me, this chapter epitomizes what happens in the lives of people who have truly met the living God—to a large degree, they stop behaving “normally.” Once again, Paul got into trouble while telling others about Jesus, and he (and his companion, Silas) were seized, brutally beaten, and then thrown into prison until officials could decide what to do with them.
It’s hard to even imagine living in a place where that could happen, since I have grown up in a land dedicated to religious freedom. Alas, Paul and Silas found themselves without the sort of “rights” I enjoy, and they ended up in prison, victims of horrendous abuse. Can you put yourself in their shoes? What would you do if such a thing happened to you?
Here’s what they did: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” (vs 25)
What?! After being horribly beaten and abused and wrongfully imprisoned, they began witnessing?! Weren’t they worried about what the Roman officials were going to do to them? Weren’t they busy trying to figure out how to escape? Weren’t they feeling sorry for themselves after they had been so mistreated? No! They were singing!
As if that weren’t enough, when God actually sent the prison break—”Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.” (vs 26)—Paul and Silas didn’t run away!
That’s right. Once the poor jailer realized that the jail had been compromised by this earthquake, he was about to kill himself because he thought all the prisoners had escaped: “But Paul shouted, ‘Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!’” (vs 28) Unbelievable. Paul and Silas missed their chance to get away. Instead, they ended up dining at the jailer’s house that night and preaching to his family about God. His entire family was converted—how awesome!
Even then, Paul and Silas didn’t escape. They went back to prison! In the morning, they were released by the Roman officials, but they had no way of knowing that would happen. They voluntarily returned to jail that night and, no doubt, slept like babies, knowing that they were in the loving care of their God.
Incidentally, it was in his letter to the Romans that Paul famously wrote, “If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:31, 38-39)
Paul and Silas were singing and praying that night in prison because they were convinced that being in prison was just as good as walking out on the street. They knew that no Roman official, no brutal beating, and no jail bars could separate them from God—and they knew that was the most important thing.
Their experience can also be ours. For when we know the truth about God, we will find that He inspires us to sing—even in the darkest and most unfair circumstances we face in life. How I wish more of us would grasp this truth!
We don’t need to stand up for our rights. We don’t need to protest being abused. We don’t need to break out of prison. We don’t need to look out for ourselves.
We only need to remember that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate us from God.
And then we will sing, no matter what.
God loves skeptics.
This chapter compares and contrasts three groups of people to whom Paul preached: The Jews in Thessalonica, the Jews in Berea, and the Gentiles in Athens. In all three locations, Paul saw different results, but it is the comparison between the two groups of Jews that caught my eye: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.” (vs 11-12)
Interesting, isn’t it? Why were the Berean Jews praised as having “noble character”? Because they were skeptics! They were eager to hear this new message about God, but they weren’t about to believe it without doing some third-party investigation. If the things Paul said didn’t line up with Scripture, they wouldn’t believe.
God has no problem with this kind of attitude. In fact, He encourages it! He has never asked us to believe without having adequate evidence to do so. On the contrary, He has warned us time and time again about the dangers of believing without evidence. He loves it when we ask questions, when we are willing to reason things through.
I have a lot of friends who are skeptics about God and the Bible, and I never discourage their skepticism. In fact, I routinely remind them of how healthy it is! But I fear that we, as a society, may have gotten away from the ultra-important second step taken by the Bereans: Personal investigation and study. They didn’t just refuse to listen to Paul because it didn’t make sense to them or because they had questions about it. No, they took their skepticism with them to the source and studied the Scriptures for themselves.
I wonder how much that happens nowadays, even among Christians. Most people have strong opinions about the Bible, but I wonder how many of those opinions are actually based on intense personal study. If a person is skeptical of the Scriptures, have they ever taken much time to study the Bible for themselves, or are they relying on the statements of others? And I wonder the opposite as well: If a person is a champion of the Scriptures, have they ever taken much time to study the Bible for themselves, or are they relying on the statements of others?
We can’t afford to find ourselves in either ditch! Whether you believe in God or not, you must admit that the question of His existence (and of His character) is far too important not to investigate fully for yourself! If you have spent time studying and searching the Scriptures for yourself and still come away an unbeliever, then I take my hat off to you. And if you have spent time studying and searching the Scriptures for yourself and come away a believer, then I take my hat off to you.
The point is, don’t leave your opinions about God and the Bible to anyone else but you. God loves skeptics, and no one is more eager than He is to have you search and test and try the Scriptures for yourself. Don’t take anyone else’s word for it—not even God’s. Do your own research!
God doesn't want you to be afraid.
As I have read through the Bible chapter by chapter in order to write this blog, I have been struck more than once that God’s primary message to man in the Scriptures is “Don’t be afraid.” This is quite literally the first thing out of His mouth nearly every time He (or one of His angels) encounters a human being.
I saw it again so clearly in this chapter, but at the same time, the circumstances were such that it made me see this message from a different angle: “One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.’ So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.” (vs 9-11)
Often, when God says, “Do not be afraid,” He is telling human beings not to be afraid of Him. But here is God, approaching one of His own spokespeople in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid.” Only this time, He means, “Don’t be afraid of anyone else either!” Apparently, Paul had encountered so much opposition in Corinth that he was afraid of what was going to happen to him if he kept preaching there.
Let’s step back for a minute and think about what fear actually is. It’s the emotion that arises in your mind when you believe that you are, or will be, threatened in some way. The greater the perceived threat to your safety, the more fear you will feel.
I say “perceived” because we know that fear feels the same—whether the danger actually exists or not. Do you know what this means? It means that as awful as fear feels, it exists entirely in the mind. It is generated in anticipation of a negative experience, not by something negative that actually occurs.
This means, then, that fear—as crippling and paralyzing as it can be—may have absolutely nothing to do with reality. When we marinate in fear, we are simply letting ourselves be controlled by the anticipation of something that may or may not ever come to pass.
No wonder God doesn’t want us to be afraid! Instead, He wants us to live in reality—and the reality is that He’s ultimately got our back. No matter what. We not only don’t have to be afraid of Him, but we don’t have to be afraid of anything or anyone else either!
As long as God is for us, no one can stand against us. Therefore, we should not spend one second anticipating (or being afraid of) any negative experience. For God has promised that if and when we do encounter such experiences, we will never go through them alone, and He will provide all we need to make it through.
God doesn’t want you to be afraid of evil. He wants you to be a force for good. And there’s no way you can do that if you’re paralyzed by fear!
So today, remember Whose you are. Nobody can separate you from Him, and that means nothing’s going to happen that you and He can’t handle together.
Lean back into the arms of His perfect love, and let Him cast out all your fear.
God is not magic.
Okay, even though I’ve read this chapter many times, I swear I’ve never heard this story before: “But there were some itinerant Jewish exorcists who attempted to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus when dealing with those who had evil spirits. They would say, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus whom Paul preaches.’ Seven brothers, sons of a chief priest called Sceva, were engaged in this practice on one occasion, when the evil spirit answered, ‘Jesus I know, and I am acquainted with Paul, but who on earth are you?’ And the man in whom the evil spirit was living sprang at them and over-powered them all with such violence that they rushed out of that house wounded, with their clothes torn off their backs.” (vs 13-16)
Wow, those guys sure got a rude awakening. These were “professional” Jewish exorcists who traveled around Ephesus casting out demons through various means (mainly sorcery). But then Paul came to town, and he began performing some extraordinary miracles in the name of Jesus. That’s when these guys thought, Aha! We can add “Jesus” to our little list of exorcism methods. Imagine how shocked they were when the first demon they tried it on—who certainly knew all about Jesus—beat them up instead of coming out of his host!
I’m sure they quickly learned that saying “Jesus” wasn’t like saying “abracadabra.”
I thought about this for a long time. It’s obvious, given this story, that there was great power behind driving out demons in Jesus’ name (whether it was Jesus Himself or His disciples who did it). But whatever this power was, it wasn’t simply in uttering His name. It wasn’t as though saying those syllables held any sort of magical power over the demonic world. No, the power was in the character, in the person Himself. So, when these exorcists tried to use the name without the relationship to the person, it blew up in their faces.
Now, it might be tempting to chuckle at this story. (I was tempted.) But it really made me think, are we still practicing some form of this “magic” today? Stop and think about it for a moment. How many songs have you ever sung in worship that have some reference to the “blood of Jesus”? I can think of several off the top of my head.
“Power in the Blood” comes to mind. And what about that? Is there really any power in the blood of Jesus? If we were to cut open His arm and collect His blood in a jar, would it have some kind of magical properties that we could exploit? Is there something in the literal blood of Jesus that is powerful or transforming or healing?
In a word, no.
Just as in the example of this story, the power is not in the blood, but it is in the character, in the person Himself. So when we poetically say that there is power in the shed blood of Jesus, what that means is that there is power in the truth about God’s character which was shown most clearly through the circumstances that also resulted in the shedding of His blood. The true power is in the kind of person God is, but when we focus so much on “the blood,” it’s very easy to miss the point.
Maybe it’s time to stop singing about bodily fluid.
God is not magic. There is nothing bewitching in His name or His blood or His clothes or His little pinky. The power is in Him, and accessing that power is as simple as getting to know the One behind the name.
God is worth dying for.
I can’t get over the beautiful irony of Paul’s story. He was a hunter who became hunted, a predator who became prey. After starting his young life as a crusader against Christ, he ended as an evangelist for God, now on the receiving end of the very kind of persecution he had once dealt out.
And it didn’t bother him one bit: “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” (vs 22-24)
Paul went from knowing a God he would kill for to knowing a God he would die for. He went from believing he had to somehow “secure” everything to believing he already had everything. He went from insisting that others believe as he did to insisting that everyone should be convinced in their own minds.
In other words, he discovered the truth, and the truth set him free.
Would you like to be free? All it takes is knowing the truth about God—the truth that you are safe in His hands, that He has your best interests at heart, and that nobody can snatch away all the blessings He has for you. You don’t have to fear any person, any pain, any burden. Nothing you can say or do could ever make God stop loving you.
Whether you realize it or not, right now, you have everything you need.
God is worth dying for. And because everything we love is held safely in His hands, we can face our days as Paul did—with peace and assurance, even when we don’t know what will happen to us, even when we are convinced that hardships await.
God really can transform you.
One of the most wonderful things about God isn’t just that He saves us, but that He transforms us. When we accept Christ as our Savior, He doesn’t just wink at our filthiness and promise to cover us for the rest of eternity. He actually cleans us up and changes our hearts, turning us into truly righteous people. And we don’t even necessarily have to wait until we get to heaven to begin this transformation!
Could there be a better example of this in Scripture than Paul? He began his life as one totally opposed to Jesus. He didn’t want to hear about Jesus. He didn’t want to think about Jesus. In fact, he went to the very extreme, determined to kill anyone who wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus. He certainly didn’t have much in common with Christ.
But after God got Paul’s attention on the road to Damascus, his entire life changed. And what I realized over the course of our last chapter and this one is that Paul didn’t just eventually become a spokesperson for Jesus, he actually became like Him. God transformed Paul from the inside out so that, in the end, he ended up actually walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Consider these similarities in the lives of Jesus and Paul as described in Acts 20 and 21:
- Both journeyed to Jerusalem with their disciples.
- Both experienced hostile opposition from people who plotted against their lives.
- Both predicted the sufferings they would face in Jerusalem.
- Both had disciples who tried to stop them from going to Jerusalem.
- Both declared their willingness to lay down their lives.
- Both were determined not to be swayed from completing their ministries.
- Both expressed surrender to God’s will.
- Both were unjustly arrested based on false accusations.
- Both were surrounded by an angry mob shouting, Get rid of him!
In many ways, through God’s transforming power in his life, Paul ended up more closely associated with the Jesus he had at first persecuted than he ever would have imagined possible. And this can and will be the case with anyone who opens their heart to the Holy Spirit. In His own time and way, God will undo all the damage sin has caused in our lives until we are conformed to the image of His Son.
How encouraging this is! It doesn’t matter how filthy we are; we are cleanable. It doesn’t matter how sick we are; we are healable. It doesn’t matter how deformed we are; we are transformable. For, as Paul himself said, “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished!” (Phil 1:6)
God has a special purpose for you.
As a student of literature and a writer, there is nothing better than a sudden, unexpected turn of events in a story. And this chapter of Acts certainly didn’t disappoint! Could you envision the scene? Paul has been bound by Roman officials (who really only care that a riot doesn’t break out in their city), but before he is taken away, Paul asks to address the crowd.
When he begins speaking to them, it is in Aramaic of course, for they are Jews. And as Paul recounts the story of his conversion, they are listening with rapt attention—right up until the moment Paul says the word, “Gentiles.” At that moment, this quiet crowd erupts into chaos once again, and the Roman officials take Paul away. Remember, the Romans had no idea what Paul was saying to the crowd. All they knew was that the crowd had been quiet, and Paul once again put them in an uproar.
So, the officials decided to beat Paul (assuming he was guilty of something) when all of a sudden, Paul said, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (vs 25)
The commander was stunned, and he questioned Paul about his citizenship, for it was illegal to even bind a Roman citizen without just cause. I’m sure it never even occurred to those Roman officials that Paul could be a Roman citizen, for he was known as a ranking Jew, and he had obviously just given a very eloquent speech in Aramaic.
The Romans released him.
Let’s stop for a moment and consider what a unique situation Paul was in. It was extremely rare for Jews to also be Roman citizens, since that designation only came through birthright or reward. But Paul revealed to the Roman officials that he had been born a citizen of Rome (vs 28), likely indicating that either his father or grandfather had been awarded citizenship for some valuable service they had provided to Rome.
Thus, Paul was a very unique individual. It was not only uncommon to find a Roman citizen who was a Jew, but also one who was so educated, intelligent, and devout! This background allowed Paul to have special access to and communicate with both Jews and Gentiles in a way that not many others could. Paul was a prime candidate for becoming the man who could launch the message of Christianity throughout the Jewish community and far beyond its reaches—into the world.
God obviously had a very special purpose in mind for Paul when He encountered him on the road to Damascus. And God also has a special purpose for you. Just as Paul’s unique background had prepared him to be used by God in an extraordinary way, so God can use your unique background to use you in a special way.
That’s right. Because of where you have come from, because of your outlook on the world, and because of your unique blend of experiences, interests, and abilities, God can use you in ways that He can’t use anyone else. He has a special purpose for you, and every moment of your life up to this point has been preparing you for it.
You may not have had your Damascus Road experience yet, but you will. And when you do, if you are willing to go with God, you will discover that He knows how to throw a few sudden, unexpected twists into your story as well. Just look at Paul: A man who was in quite an “exclusive” position used by God to spread His message of “inclusiveness.”
Ha! You gotta love the irony.
God will deliver you.
The life story of Paul is so rich, because in it, we get to see so many realities of the Christian life—perhaps some we would rather not see! And I discovered yet another one in today’s chapter: “The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks. The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, ‘Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.’” (vs 10-11)
Paul had landed in prison yet again. This was becoming a sort of regular occurrence for him! And at least one other time that we know of, God had cut his jail stay short by sending a mighty earthquake to demolish the prison. But . . . not this time.
This time, God did something completely different: He came and met Paul in the jail cell. He spent time with him and encouraged him. Instead of breaking Paul out of prison, the Lord broke in.
It may seem simple, but I think there is a very profound lesson for us in this story. And the lesson is that God will deliver us. Sometimes He miraculously delivers us from our circumstances, but other times (and I would say, much more often), He wants to deliver us in them. Sometimes He just wants to break into our prison, spend time with us, and encourage us.
Would we even notice if He did? I know that when I’m facing difficult circumstances, I am so busy trying to find a way out that I probably wouldn’t even notice if God was standing right next to me! When suffering comes, I am often so busy prayingprayingpraying with eyes squeezed shut that I couldn’t even see it if the dazzling presence of God Himself filled my prison.
It is so difficult to give up the control we want to have and trust that the Lord knows and will do what is best for us. If He knows it’s best to break us out of prison, then He’ll do just that. But if He knows it’s best to meet us in our prison, then He’ll do just that. We really don’t have to worry.
God wants to meet you in whatever you’re facing right now. And whether He ultimately works a miracle to whisk away those prison walls or not, He will deliver you.
Of that, you can be sure.
God keeps coming to us.
You talk about an interesting life! Paul sure had one, never knowing where he was going to be next, with an opportunity to talk about Jesus. After his narrow escape from the murderous Jews in Jerusalem, Paul was taken to Caesarea to stand trial before Felix. And after listening to both sides of the case, Felix decided . . . not to decide. He adjourned the case and kept Paul imprisoned for two years.
But Felix wasn’t simply indecisive. In fact, Luke (the author of Acts) gives this little insight into the governor: “Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings.” (vs 22) In other words, Felix had had plenty of interaction with these new Christians. He knew Paul wasn’t guilty of what he had been accused of, because he was familiar with those who practiced “the Way.”
Still, he didn’t release Paul.
And that provided the opportunity for God to speak to Felix through Paul for the next two years—even though it was with an ulterior motive on Felix’s part: “He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, ‘That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.’ At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him.” (vs 24-26)
Now, outside of Paul’s first discussion with Felix regarding righteousness, self-control, and judgment (which were clearly warranted in the case of Felix and Drusilla, if you read the history about them), we don’t know the details of what Paul preached to him. But I find it no coincidence that Paul had all these opportunities to speak to Felix—on top of the fact that Felix had already had considerable interaction with other Christians.
God was trying to get hold of Felix.
And I think God always works this way. He keeps coming to us. He’ll try one avenue, and if we shut that down, He’ll come at us from another direction. And He will even use our own sinful, ulterior motives (of which we all have plenty!) to further His purpose. In this case, Felix may have been hoping to get a payoff, but he only kept getting earfuls of the Gospel.
I know a lot of people who are afraid that, though they want to seek God, they won’t be able to find Him. Don’t worry—He’ll find you! And He won’t just find you once. He’ll find you again and again and again, millions of times if need be.
As long as it takes, God will keep coming to us.
God knows people in high places.
Jesus once said, “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matt 10:18-20) If this was ever true for anyone, it was certainly true for Paul!
After being kept in prison under Felix for two years, Festus came to power in Caesarea, but he was also sympathetic to the Jews and decided to keep Paul in custody for a while longer. As a result, Paul received an audience with King Agrippa and was even sent to Rome to meet with the Emperor himself! As an ambassador for Jesus, Paul talked to more influential, highly-ranking people in his life than most people even dream of.
Have you ever wanted to meet someone famous or powerful? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a chance to tell a person in a prominent position of influence about the God you serve? What if you had the opportunity to meet the Queen of England? A popular TV show host? The President of the United States? A famous actor or actress? The Supreme Leader of Iran?
What would you say?
And what would you give in order to be afforded such a meeting?
Notice that Paul’s road to the highly-influential people went straight through prison—and he was there for quite some time. He didn’t just pick up the phone and request an audience with King Agrippa. He spent more than 700 days in jail before the door to this opportunity opened.
What are you willing to endure to be a witness for God in the world-at-large? For God knows people in high places, and He has promised to arrange meetings for you with them, but the road to such appointments will likely be rocky, thorny, and difficult. The promise, however, is that you will never travel it alone.
God is goading you.
Of the three accounts of Paul’s Damascus Road conversion in the book of Acts, this is my favorite one, because it includes a little detail Paul previously left out: “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’” (vs 12-14)
This gives us a little bit of insight into exactly what Saul was doing as he went around persecuting Christians—he was “kicking against the goads.” Now, if you’re unfamiliar with what a “goad” is, it is a stick with a pointed end that is used on oxen when they plow. The farmer uses the pressure of the pointed end to steer the oxen in the direction he wants them to go, much like a horse rider uses reins to steer a horse.
Oxen, however, are known for being stubborn, so sometimes, an ox will resist the goad. They will even “kick against the goad.” When they do this, the pointed end pricks them in the flesh, only reinforcing the direction in which they are to go. If the ox continues to kick at the goad, it will only go deeper into the flesh. The harder they kick, the more they are at risk of being injured. Of course, things don’t usually get to the point of serious injury, because it’s painful. Thus, it’s very hard to “kick against the goads.”
Every human being is also born with an attached goad—except ours isn’t a pointy stick, it’s a conscience. That’s right. As we make our way through life, if we are heading in a wrong direction, our conscience will “prick” us. At that point, we have a choice: To accept the correction of the “goad” or to kick against it.
As with the oxen, the interesting thing is that kicking against the goad harms only ourselves. The harder we kick, the more we resist, the more painful it becomes. That’s because the harder we kick and the more we resist, the more we are putting ourselves in jeopardy of being totally separated from God. And He doesn’t want that to happen!
I’ve heard a lot of Christians claim that it’s easy to be lost—almost as if someone could make that choice without even trying. Nothing could be further from the truth! God doesn’t want anyone to be lost, and consequently, He makes it very hard to kick against the goads. If we are determined to continue in that direction, it only gets more painful. Solomon (who did a fair amount of “kicking against the goads”) acknowledged that in one of his proverbs: “Good understanding wins favor, but the way of the sinful is hard.” (Prov 13:15)
God made us to walk in the way of life, and whenever we deviate from that path, He will goad us. If we are determined to reject His guidance and kick against the goads, the only person we’re going to hurt is ourselves. But we will continue to feel the pricks and prods of our conscience until either we surrender or we lose the ability to surrender.
God gives us lots of chances.
How did we get this picture of God as One who is just waiting for us to screw up so He can pounce? Where do we get the idea that He is like some sort of cosmic meter maid who is just waiting for the time to run out so He can slap a ticket on our car? Wherever that comes from, it’s a Satanic picture.
Not only is God not like that when it comes to the big issues of sin and death, but He is also not like that in the little things either. This chapter gave us a small glimpse into God’s heart, which is neither punitive nor vengeful.
Paul was put on a prison boat and shipped off toward Italy. After a lot of slow-going because of the weather, Paul advised the Roman centurion in charge to put in to harbor and wait for a little while until the storm season had blown over, warning that the ship would be destroyed and they would die if they tried to continue. But the centurion wouldn’t listen to him.
And sure enough, it wasn’t long before they got into trouble. Real trouble. A huge hurricane came upon them, and for two weeks, they were blown and tossed all over the Adriatic Sea. But, even though they had ignored Paul’s warning, they weren’t left for dead: “After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: ‘Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.’” (vs 21-22)
After they had ignored Paul’s initial warning and gotten into trouble as a result, the sailors then listened what Paul had to say. And his prediction came true. They were eventually shipwrecked, but everyone made it ashore safely.
It may seem like just a simple little story, but to me, it was such a tangible reminder that God gives us lots of chances. Even if we ignore His warnings and do our own thing, He doesn’t abandon us. He doesn’t leave us to try to work things out on our own. Instead, He comes back to us again and again with more chances—looking for any opportunity He can give us to put our trust in Him.
Sometimes, we may only be willing to reluctantly put our trust in Him after we’ve been in what feels like a hurricane for two weeks! But even then, we’ll find that God hasn’t left us. And He isn’t just a “second chance” or “third chance” kinda guy, either. He has more chances up His sleeves than we can imagine!
God doesn't overwhelm us with truth.
After a short stay on the island of Malta, Paul and his other shipwrecked companions finally reached Rome. He had traveled there to make an appeal to Caesar, which we assume he eventually did. However, the book of Acts never relates that story. Instead, the last chapter tells how Paul spent two years in Rome, preaching to the people—particularly the local Jews, who were curious to hear more about The Way:
“They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.” (vs 23-24)
If there was ever a persuasive evangelist in the history of the church, it was certainly Paul. Not only was he fully educated in Jewish tradition and thought, but he had also discovered how Jesus was the fulfillment of every Old Testament Messianic prophecy, and it was his mission to share this news with as many people as would listen.
The interesting thing is that those who were faced with this truth were not compelled to believe. Some were convinced, and others weren’t. Some believed, but others didn’t. They all heard the same testimony, but different people responded in different ways.
I think that is highly significant. For certainly, God must want us all to believe what is true, yet He is so committed to our personal freedom that not even The Truth can overwhelm our sensibilities or our power to choose to believe something different. Just because we encounter the truth (and, with God, we will encounter it again and again and again) doesn’t mean we are ever forced to accept it.
There is nothing more important to God than freedom. As much as He wants us all to respond to the truth, what He wants even more is for us to willingly make the choice to believe. Thus, even when He shines the light of truth into our hearts, it will never overwhelm us.