The Wonder of Newness

Stepping on board brought forth a sense of excitement, nervousness, opportunity and adventure. This would be a milestone in my life – not earth-shattering mind you. Yet, stepping into the cabin of a helicopter in Glacier National Park (Montana) with three teammates from my traveling Jewish gospel music team was a thrill…and we hadn’t even taken off!

The tour of the park from the air in early August was spectacular too say the least – glaciers and mountains as far as the eye could see.  And the helicopter ride itself – a bit surreal. It felt kind of like floating – “Am I really doing this?”

That whole experience in the late 1990’s could’ve been summed up in a word – new. A new day brought forth a new opportunity for a new experience in a new place. Ah, the wonder of newness!

As new creations in Messiah (2 Corinthians 5:17), God has blessed us with the new birth. Yes – ‘His mercies are new every morning’ (Lamentations 3:23). Additionally, there is a future reality for God’s people  – the new heaven and new earth – of which He says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Pondering these truths brings to mind that God is in the newness business and evokes within me praise and thanksgiving!

In context of our witness, we close the book on 2015 and enter a new year filled with the potential of new opportunities and experiences, and perhaps new relationships. For 2016 will bring forth a new season of striving to know God and making Him known.

Whether you are a seasoned missionary, feel like a witnessing flunkie, or feel somewhere in between, the truth is that none of us ever arrives. You see, we don’t rest on our laurels and the past doesn’t necessarily equal the future. For the Great Commission mandate continues and much work remains to be accomplished as the Lord continues to build His church.

So, what will the new year mean for your witness?

May I suggest a few ideas to prompt your thinking, praying, and doing:

New Learning Opportunities

You may have heard this famous quip from Ray Kroc – founder of McDonald’s – “If you’re green you’re growing, if you’re ripe, you rot.” Regarding the development of our witness, since God is not done with you or me, we should never stop seeking to grow. Take advantage of the myriad of learning opportunities 21st Century technology affords – you can watch, listen, or read online. One of my preferred ways to learn is to listen to various teaching online. For example, I listen regularly to Ravi Zacharias (RZIM.com), one of the foremost apologists in the world. Perhaps you’ll attend an evangelism/apologetics conference or seminar in your area, or read a good book or two. If you want some specific ideas and suggestions, please contact me.

New Ways to Engage

Perhaps God will lead you to engage in different ways evangelistically in 2016. Prayer should be a foundation for all our activity, for evangelism should begin on our knees. Kingdom Praying is an excellent online resource for you if you’d like some structure – it has prayers for the lost, prayer walking guidance, praying for open doors and more.  I’ve prayed biblical prayers from this website for a couple of years now and found it quite useful.

Journaling is a powerful tool in our Christian life in general. Maybe this new year you’ll begin a witnessing journal where you record interactions, prayers, what God is teaching you and how you see Him working among those in your sphere of influence.

Volunteering time and expertise, in the name of Jesus, in your community may be something new for you. That service may be for someone in your own life or with your church or local mission organization. It may even be an out of town or international mission trip. It’s been said good deeds lead to goodwill that can open doors for the good news to be proclaimed.

As you engage people in faith-based conversations about Jesus and the gospel, think about allowing others to witness to them via evangelistic books, videos, or through sharing cyber links. You may even have an opportunity to give a bible to someone who has never read one or currently doesn’t have.

New Relationships and Witnessing Opportunities

The adventure of a new season of life is a blank canvas for the Lord to birth relationships. Along with people to whom the Lord may have you connect, witnessing opportunities may also arise. Perhaps you’ll reach out and have a cup of coffee, share a meal, or watch a ballgame with someone new in order to develop rapport and trust. This summer and fall I’ve struck up a friendship with an elderly man I regularly see at Starbucks. We’ve watched some ballgames at a local sports bar and have had some good faith-based conversations.

One prayer that’s been something new for me the past couple of years is to regularly ask God to provide open doors, ministry opportunities and divine appointments. If you’ve never prayed a prayer like, I’d encourage you to do so, but with one caveat – God will answer that prayer – so be ready!

If you don’t have any regular contact with an unbeliever, perhaps you’ll pray that God will bring someone into your life for the purpose of being salt and light.

Growing Existing Relationships

Sometimes opportunities to be salt and light are already in place, but it just takes eyes of faith to see. For example, recently I had a friend ask me how to be a witness in his workplace, as he manages a store and doesn’t want to alienate those he supervises or abuse his authority. I told him he could simply ask the guy or guys he knows best out to lunch or invite them to hang out or get together beyond the workplace. This way the relationship can move beyond the professional to the personal, which is a wonderful environment for trust and rapport to be built and for faith-based conversations to take place.

I encourage you to ask the Lord to reveal if there is someone in your existing sphere of influence He would have you reach out to in order to take the relationship to the next level.

In Season and Out of Season

While newness is beautiful and fresh with opportunity, the mandate be a witness remains a constant:

Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2)

As we close the book on 2015 and a new chapter called 2016 opens, may God renew our witness as we recommit to be salt and light to a world and people desperately in need of the ‘truth that sets men free’ (John 8:32). Amen!

Go Tell it on the Mountain

He was just out of college, not much older than us. It was my junior year of high school – an English class – fantasy literature to be exact. “What were we doing?” – I thought. Sure, I loved music, but the teacher led our class in breaking down the lyrics of some popular rock n roll songs of the day – exploring deep meanings. This was school, right?

Looking back all these years later, I ponder that exercise and think, ‘Yes, that was school, but that was cool!’ Why? Well, in one sense, it was getting us high schoolers to think, and thinking is good, yes? But more than that, there is value in understanding.

Fast forward to Christmastime 2015! I’ve been a Christian now nearly three decades and thoroughly enjoy Christmas music. Yet a high school teacher exposing this ‘once upon a time teenager’ to an educational exercise over music many moons ago had an affect upon my mind and spirit…and still does.

You see, I still enjoy studying the lyrics of music, both secular and sacred. For there is value in understanding. In the spirit of Christmas and the Great Commission, ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’ (based on Luke 2:8-20) is a song of which I’d like to briefly reflect (click here to listen to a splendid rendition).

Go, Tell It On The Mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, Tell It On The Mountain

That Jesus Christ is born.

Go and tell that Jesus Christ is born. So simple and at the same time, so profound. When Jesus gave His final marching orders to the disciples in Matthew 28 and Acts 1, He said ‘go and make disciples’ (Matthew 28:19), letting them know they would be His witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8).

Why go tell people about Jesus? Because He is good news! In fact, He is the embodiment of The Good News, the gospel. And good news is something to be shared. For sharing it blesses not only those who receive it, but also those who deliver it: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, Who proclaims peace, Who brings glad tidings of good things, Who proclaims salvation” (Isaiah 52:7).

While shepherds kept their watching

Over silent flocks by night,

Behold throughout the heavens,

There shone a holy light:
The shepherds feared and trembled

When lo! above the earth

Rang out the angel chorus

That hailed our Saviour’s birth:

The routine, mundane activity of life shattered in a moment by supernatural revelation – shepherds rocked in fear, angel chorus rocking God’s praises. And the reason? The birth of a baby in Bethlehem:

Down in a lowly manger

Our humble Christ was born

And God send us salvation,

That blessed Christmas morn

God, the Son, leaving the throne in Heaven in the dead of night – in order to bring salvation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Like those Shepherds of old, I was also rocked by supernatural revelation. But it was not only the reality of Messiah’s birth that moved me and changed me, it was also the reality of His death and resurrection. For I believed and received life in His name at 23 years of age. And because of HIs grace, I can join the angel chorus of praise. For I am eternally grateful to God and desire to proclaim His excellencies because He has delivered “me out of darkness and into HIs marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

When I am a seeker,

I seek both night and day;

I seek the Lord to help me,

And He shows me the way:
He made me a watchman

Upon the city wall,

And if I am a Christian,

I am the least of all.

A seeker I desire to be. Jesus said in John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” To follow Jesus is to abide in Him, to seek after Him – in order to fulfill His Kingdom purpose – to know Him and make Him known!

A watchman He has made me to be. What kind of watchman will I be? In general, the Old Testament watchman served to protect from the physical enemies, standing upon city walls (Isaiah 62:6, Ezekiel 33:6). The New Testament watching is spiritual protection from enemies of the soul (Acts 20:28, I Timothy 4:16). To be a watchman is to steward a Kingdom responsibility. Oh to be a faithful watchman! But how? “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:10). [See also 2 Corinthians 3:5, Philippians 4:13]

The enemy of our soul and the souls of all people is sin and death. In one sense to be a watchman in regards to the Great Commission is to proclaim salvation in Jesus’ name (Colossians 1:28-29). For the Savior was born to die – that we might be delivered from the power of sin and death. And this is not only the good news, it is the very best news! So…

Go, Tell It On The Mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, Tell It On The Mountain

That Jesus Christ is born.

Lessons from Acts: Move On!

Acts 17:1-15

The Christian walk is a walk of faith. And so is the process of sharing our faith. For there are times in the providence of God when doors of opportunity open and times when doors that were once open seem to close.

“To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven.” For “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 11)

As we journey through life, people will enter our lives along with opportunities to sow and water gospel seeds. And sometimes those same doors that once were open now close, windows of opportunity fade and a season of sowing and watering ends. Have you been there?

I certainly have!

And what ought our response be to such circumstances? Move on!

But isn’t that difficult and sometimes painful? In my life with various people through the years, I invested time, energy, prayer. There were times of demonstrating God’s love and other times I had the opportunity to proclaim the wonders of His love found in the gospel.

And then that person exits my life. It may be they move away. It may be they no longer want to hang out with the ‘Jesus freak’ – was I really that overbearing or forthright [my thoughts, not theirs]? It could be a natural or an abrupt conclusion. In any case, they are removed from my life and I’m left to simply move on.

Have you been there?

I certainly have!

As we continue our study in the book of Acts, we turn our attention to the Apostle Paul, examining the circumstances surrounding his ‘moving on’ in Acts 17. And though the circumstances surrounding his ‘moving on’ are unique and most likely different from ours, perhaps there are some principles we can draw from his experience that can inform and encourage our witness.

While Paul and Silas continue ministry during Paul’s 2nd missionary journey, their travels take them to Thessalonica, where Paul taught for 3 weeks. While there, the ministry was fruitful:

Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas. (Acts 17:1-4)

So far, so good! The fruit of salvation blooming! But no so fast. You see, this blooming would bring forth brewing – namely the brewing of trouble. There was a group of Jewish people who opposed the gospel in Thessalonica. And there opposition becomes violent:

But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people.But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king—Jesus.” And they troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things. So when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go. (Acts 17:5-9)

The security was a pledge or bond which would be forfeited by Jason if Paul and his companions continued to share the gospel, which was trouble-making in the eyes of the authorities. Claiming another king but Caesar was a serious crime. The security granted safety for Jason and others, under the condition Paul and friends would cease and desist their activity.

Though the church at Thessalonica is born, Paul, Timothy, and Silas leave town immediately and go to Berea, a town 50 miles west of Thessalonica. When they arrive they continue in ministry – again seeing fruit. And once again, the rabble-rousers follow them all the way from Thessalonica. This time, however, it’s only Paul who leaves town. Silas and Timothy remain, but only briefly, as Paul would command they join him in Athens.

Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds. Then immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both Silas and Timothy remained there. So those who conducted Paul brought him to Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him with all speed, they departed. (Acts 17:10-15)

In the case of Paul, Silas and Timothy, the time to move on was quite clear. And although they left, the Spirit of God remained, as did those people filled with the Spirit – those who believed through their ministry.

In our lives moving on generally won’t involve such hostile circumstances. Yet, there are times people with whom we have a gospel witness will exit our lives. And there are times the Lord may call us to stop ministering to someone in our life.

I’ve noticed in my own Christian journey it’s easier for me to discern when someone has exited my life and testimony. This tends to be fairly natural. However, I find it more difficult to know when to ‘cut someone loose,’ so to speak. How about you?

There are no cut and dried answers in this instance. For we walk by faith and must trust and follow the Lord’s leading in all areas, including this area of moving on.

As we follow the Lord, may He give each one us greater wisdom and discernment as people come into our lives and when the Lord calls us to move on. And may we praise and thank God for the time He does give us to sow and water gospel seeds into the lives of people – until that time they may exit our lives.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Lessons from Acts – Bloom Where You Are Planted

Like a vast array of of parachutists descending from an airplane, seeds travel the wind currents and gentle breezes of the earth, possibly colonizing a distant mountain slope, a fertile valley, or perhaps your back yard. Literally hundreds of species in many plant families have adopted this remarkable method of dispersal.

As believers in Jesus, the method by which God disperses us in the world is also remarkable. Instead of blowing in the wind, we are moved by the Spirit. You see, we are carried by the Holy Spirit to various locales, in order to bloom where we are planted.

Jesus, while explaining the new birth to Nicodemus, refers to this move of the Spirit:

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit”(John 3:8).

Sometimes, we are easily grateful for how and where God plants us. But there are times and seasons in our lives where we are not ‘where we want to be.’ In other words, we may be currently planted in a locale, job situation, or life circumstance that is not desirable…or what we would choose. The planting of God may be a moment in time, or a season of life. Perhaps you find yourself in that situation today. If not, just wait. Soon enough you will be!

It was July 2008. A missionary friend of mine named Susan and I were handing out gospel literature at a public outdoor concert in a Long Island (NY) park – a place where the ministry we served with had experienced first amendment issues in the past.  We were illegally detained and Susan willingly was arrested for trespassing – so we could go to court. While being held by the authorities, we had a chance to witness to law enforcement officials and give testimony about Jesus. Later, in a court of law, our ministries’ 1st Amendment right to distribute literature in that park was upheld.

As Paul and Silas are engaged in ministry, we examine a fascinating occurrence where they bloom where they are planted. In this case, they are planted behind the bars of a prison cell.

After delivering a fortune telling slave girl from a spirit of divination, her masters create a riot which results in Paul and Silas being put in jail (Acts 16:16-24).

While there, the two are praying and singing hymns of praise to God, as ‘the prisoners were listening to them’  (Acts 16:25). And not just the prisoners, but apparently the prison guard was also listening:

Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed. And the keeper of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? (Acts 16:26-30)

I find it remarkable that seeing the prison doors open, the prisoners didn’t run for it! Now, we don’t know what Paul and Silas may have shared with the prisoners, but obviously, there was a powerful influence upon them.

Upon hearing the ‘word of the Lord’ (Acts 16:31-34), the jailer and his entire household are baptized!

What happens next is confounding:

And when it was day, the magistrates sent the officers, saying, “Let those men go.” So the keeper of the prison reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Now therefore depart, and go in peace” (Acts 16:35-36).

What? Let them go? We don’t know about the other prisoners, but Paul and Silas willingly stay in the jail overnight – at least whatever is left of it!

You see, Paul and Silas had been jailed illegally. For they were Roman citizens. And now they were being released and exhorted to leave the city (Acts 16:37-39).

You could say, that in one sense, the sovereign hand of God was orchestrating all these tumultuous events for the jailer and his household to be saved. And I even wonder about the prisoners. You see, God planted Paul and Silas in a jail so they could bloom – be a witness for Jesus!

Now when Susan and I were detained illegally in 2008, it would be great to tell you God worked miraculous signs and wonders and people were saved. That was not the case.

But I can tell you there was great comfort knowing God had a plan in the planting – for we certainly were given an opportunity to be a distinct witness for Jesus.

God has a plan in the planting of your life. It may be in a moment of time, or a season of life. For “there is a time and purpose for every season under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). What is that plan, you wonder? To bloom, of course! The blooming being a distinct witness for Jesus in your unique sphere of influence.

You see, where you live, work, shop, go to school, travel – wherever God has you planted at any particular moment of time or season of life – you have a grand opportunity – an opportunity to bloom! And while it can be in the midst of ‘want,’as we’ve highlighted, it can also be in the midst of ‘plenty.’  So, regardless of whether the planting be a moment or season that is ‘uncomfortable,’ ‘desirable,’ or otherwise in our estimation, take advantage of the opportunity to bloom for Jesus!

Lord, thank You for planting me where You have chosen. May I bloom for Your glory. Amen.

Lessons from Acts – God Gives the Increase

I enjoy internet research. I find it fascinating that with a click of a button, one can access a literal world of information. Curiously, upon thinking about this submission, I wondered about our result-oriented society and the longing for success. Hence, I typed ‘three easy steps’ into the google search engine, figuring someone out there, regardless of their endeavor, wants success and a simple path to get there.

There were 417 million results for ‘three easy steps!’ So, yes – people do resonate with this sentiment. I must admit, I like a track to run on and yes – keep it simple. Three easy steps? Sign me up!

The evangelistic endeavor is not a ‘three easy step’ engagement! Rather, it is a step of faith. Can I get a cyber-amen?

Another not so easy reality of evangelism is that the result of our efforts must be left to the Lord. In fact, best definition of success in witnessing I’ve found comes from Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ:

Success in witnessing is simply taking the initiative to share Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and leaving the results to God.

Additionally, the results of successful witnessing may not result in salvation or even a ‘positive response’ to the gospel (click here to read more). Yet when our witness results in someone receiving the Lord, we rejoice, remembering that while one plants, one sows, and one waters, it is ‘God who gives the increase’ (I Corinthians 3:7).

In Acts 16, Paul begins his second missionary journey, accompanied by Silas and Timothy. Their travels take them to Philippi, where we find them ministering one Sabbath day:

Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days. And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there (Acts 16:11-13).

And what do you suppose Paul’s team was sharing? Well, based upon revelation in other sections in the book of Acts, often during the Sabbath we find Paul teaching things of the Kingdom, and more specifically – the good news of Jesus the Messiah. One example we’ve examined previously was Acts 13:13-47.

Open Doors

Evangelism should begin on our knees. I have a pastor friend of mine who told me he starts every day praying specifically for God to open doors, provide ministry opportunities and orchestrate divine appointments. This certainly applies in the evangelistic endeavor.

In Colossians 4:2 Paul asked the Church in Colosse to pray that ‘God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ.’

Open Hearts

As the Lord directs the steps of His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), He also opens the heart of people who hear the gospel. He does this through the power of the Holy Spirit, yet with whom He does this is quite a mystery.

We don’t necessarily understand the true condition of the human heart, but the Lord does (Jeremiah 20:12, Luke 16:15, John 2:25, Acts 15:8). So how a person may or may not respond to the gospel is ultimately an issue between them and the Lord –  for we plant, we sow, and we water in faith, but it is the Lord who gives the increase when there is an increase. For the human heart is likened to the soil in the parable of the soils (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). So we need to pray God would soften the hearts of people (make it ‘good soil’) to hear the gospel and receive the Lord.

God Give the Increase

God not only opens up the heart of Lydia, but her entire household:

Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us (Acts 16:14-15).

So simple, yet so profound and powerful! This truth should encourage and inform our evangelistic efforts. Yes, we are to pray for others. We are to lovingly serve them. We are to proclaim the gospel as God opens doors. But we can’t and won’t open the heart – this is God’s work (John 6:44-45). So stop trying to ‘get them to see the light.’ Rather, pray God works in their heart and delivers them out of darkness and into the light (Colossians 1:13)!

Seek to be faithful – faithful to plant, sow and water through prayer, service, and proclamation – all done in love! And along the way praying that God will do what only He can do – give the increase!

Lord Jesus, we commit our witness and those among whom we give a witness to You, praying God would give the increase. Amen.

Lessons from Acts – When God Says Don’t Go!

Frenetic, meet confusion and chaos. Speed dating? No! Rather, the afternoon rush hour on the lower East Side of Manhattan – New York City. I’m walking around trying to find an apartment building – for I had an appointment to meet a Jewish man in order to share the gospel of Messiah Jesus. For 6 1/2 years (2003-2009) this was a core ministry as a missionary to my Jewish people – one on one visitation with Jewish men, sharing the gospel with seekers and discipling new Jewish believers.

This initial meeting was not going well. Well, to be honest, it wasn’t going at all! You see, the lower east side of Manhattan is primarily made up of immigrants. I couldn’t find anyone on the street to speak English with and ask directions of, nor would cab drivers stop! I had an address and a phone number, but the man I was scheduled to meet with couldn’t give me proper directions, as I was a bit disoriented as to my exact location and more than a bit frustrated.

After perhaps thirty minutes of wandering, I called off the search. Most of Manhattan is on a grid – simple to navigate. But the lower east side isn’t quite so simple to navigate – and on this day was kind of like the Bermuda Triangle – and I was its’ latest victim!

I never made it to that appointment. In fact, that initial visit with this Jewish man never happened!

Could there have been more to this incident than meets the eye? Is it possible there was some kind of Divine intervention in this bizarre and singular experience I encountered? Could it have been that the Lord was actually forbidding me to go?

We find in Acts 16 a very interesting passage where the Lord says, in essence – ‘No, don’t go!’ Moreover, He actually forbids Paul and Timothy from going and ministering as they had desired. As we seek understanding, perhaps there’s a lesson for you and me!

Earlier in Acts 16, as Paul begins his second missionary journey, he meets Timothy for the first time while in Lystra. Timothy then joins Paul and Silas in the work of the gospel. In Acts 16:5 we see God blessing the ministry as ‘churches were strengthened in the faith, and increased in number daily.’

As they continue their journey, they are now forbidden by God to minister in Asia!

“Now when they had gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia”  (Acts 16:6).

Why does God forbid them? And more so, how does He forbid them? We don’t know. Luke doesn’t tell us. At this point I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words form 2 Corinthians 5:7, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Walking with the Lord is a faith journey. And the Lord, in His providence and sovereignty, has the prerogative to guide, lead, and even forbid without explanation.

As Paul, Silas and Timothy continue, they are once again stonewalled by the Lord:

“After they had come to Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit did not permit them” (Acts 16:7).

Here we get a bit more information about the team’s intention as ‘they tried to go into Bithynia.’ Again, questions. I’m wondering how they they ‘tried,’ how the Spirit stopped them, and why. And again, Luke doesn’t divulge an explanation.

Proverbs 16:9 is one of my life verses, which I find applicable to this situation and perhaps to that strange afternoon years ago on the lower east side of Manhattan – “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.”

Paul’s team had felt compelled to go into Bithynia and tried to go, yet were not permitted. I’m beginning to wonder that in spite of my desire to visit that Jewish man years ago, if it was the Holy Spirit who did not permit me. I don’t know for sure, but I suppose Paul, Silas, and Timothy didn’t get lost along the way and simply give up! “Can anyone tell me how to get to Bithynia?” – was probably not part of the conversation.

Ministry, like life, has a way of moving along. And that’s precisely what Paul’s team does. And as they do, we again see the hand of God intervening and orchestrating events:

“So passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:8-10).

Some doors close. Others open. And it is God who is Lord over all! In fact, history is His story. And the Lord orchestrates all the events of history in order to accomplish His perfect will. You see, what may appear to be chaos and pandemonium to us is not to God – for He has it all under control.

When it appears to not be working, remember – God is always working. In fact, the will of God always works!

“Remember this, and show yourselves men; Recall to mind, O you transgressors. Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure’” (Isaiah 46:8-10).

It was God’s pleasure to move Paul, Silas and Timothy to Macedonia, where they had an appointment, a divine appointment – with Lydia. For she and her household come to faith!

You see, what may appear to be interruptions or disruptions may actually be the Lord’s way of redirecting our paths in order to accomplish His will. I don’t know how Paul and team reacted when they were stonewalled by the Spirit, but I can tell you I was not happy at all with the events of that surreal afternoon years ago on the lower east side – the day I got lost.

Saying ‘yes’ to God’s ‘no’ takes faith. And what this looks like in our lives may be different in application, yet is the same in principle. As you strive to reach others with the gospel, be flexible, seeking God’s best, allowing Him to close doors and redirect your paths, to the Glory of God and for the building of His Kingdom. Amen.

Lessons from Acts – Contextualizing the Gospel (part 2)

It was Earth Day and I happened to be visiting my sister in Atlanta. I must admit, I don’t get too excited about Earth Day, but on this particular Earth Day I was confronted with a sad reality. You see, as we meandered through Centennial Olympic Park gazing at the revelry surrounding this ‘holiday,’ I thought to myself – ‘Interesting, people worshipping mother Earth, when they should be worshipping Father God!’

Yes, people were created to worship. People do worship. Yet, in life, the object of our worship as human beings may very different.

As we think about contextualizing the gospel, a general principle to keep in mind is that all people worship someone or something whether they realize it or not.

The Apostle Paul was keenly aware of this reality as he engaged the marketplace in Acts 17.

Understand your audience

The Scene: The Areopagus in Athens. The Areopagus literally meant the ‘rock of Ares’ in the city and was a center of temples, cultural facilities, and a high court.

Earlier, when Paul entered the city, “his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols” (Acts 17:16). Now Epicurean and Stoic philosophers conversed with Paul:

“Then certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers encountered him. And some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign gods,” because he preached to them Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:18-21).

Epicureans believed “pleasure” was the greatest good, but the way to attain such pleasure was to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires. Epicureanism emphasized the neutrality of the gods, that they do not interfere with human lives.  Stocism believed human virtue in accord with nature was the way to happiness. Stoicism equated God with the totality of the universe (pantheistic), which was deeply contrary to Christianity. Additionally Stoicism, did not posit a beginning or end to the universe.

Though these philosophies differed greatly from the doctrines of Christianity, Paul’s audience is curious about his message, despite its’ perplexing character. Paul, being a Roman citizen, a learned man, and God’s chosen apostle to bring the gospel to the nations (Gentiles), would have understood this particular audience.

We mentioned last time that understanding our audience will inform our witness. And one of the primary means by which we gain understanding in personal witnessing encounters is to ask leading questions, which are many. Click herefor a link with lots of conversation starter questions.

Find points of connection

Paul, knowing his audience, then contextualizes the gospel, by initially connecting with his audience:

Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:

TO THE UNKNOWN GOD.

Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: “God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring’ (Acts 17:22-28).

In our last study, we noticed Paul in the synagogue opening up the Scriptures. This audience at the Areopagus knew little about the Scriptures (specific revelation). So instead, Paul begins by arguing for a creator through general revelation. Notice, Paul affirms points of connection while also communicating points of distinction. For example, He connects by proclaiming to them ‘The Unknown God,’ while distinguishing that He is Creator, rather than something ‘made with hands.’

This connecting of the dots for his audience is a rational argument in contrast with a scriptural argument he could start with in the synagogue. For you and I, connecting with our audience takes time and practice. Paul is a tremendous example for us.

Communicate the Gospel

Paul concludes his argument by presenting Christ ,the resurrection and the need for repentance:

“Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31).

Paul, in no uncertain terms, proclaims Jesus, the resurrection, judgment and the need for repentance. Clear and direct. Paul has contextualized the gospel without compromising it.

Expect the Unexpected

As we’ve stated, be prepared for any response and you won’t be caught off guard. Over the years of experienced a wide variety of responses to gospel proclamation. The book of Acts certainly corroborates this phenomenon.

Notice in Acts 17:33-34 the response to Paul’s proclamation here at Mars Hill:

And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” So Paul departed from among them. However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

Some mocked. Some believed. Some remained curious. The important thing for Paul was to be faithful in sowing and watering while leaving the ‘results’ to God (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

May we contextualize the gospel without compromise, seeking to understand and connect with our audience – for the glory of Jesus and for the building of His Kingdom!

Lessons from Acts – Contextualizing the Gospel (part 1)

Once I was witnessing to a friend of my sister-in-law named Don*. We were having an engaging dialogue about spiritual things. After asking Don about his spiritual orientation, he said he leaned toward Hinduism, as was his parents orientation.

I asked Don if he wanted to experience nirvana, and he responded in the affirmative. In Hinduism and Buddhism, nirvana is the highest state that someone can attain, a state of enlightenment, meaning a person’s individual desires and suffering go away. Nirvana is a place of perfect peace and happiness, like heaven. And the way you attain nirvana is through reincarnation.

As I was explaining the gospel to Don, I mentioned that adherents to most religions desire to experience heaven, paradise, or nirvana. I asked him if he agreed with that statement, and he did. Then I quoted Jesus’ words from John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

Then I said to Don, “You know, most people want to experience nirvana, heaven or paradise. One difference between your belief and my belief is simply the vehicle by which we get there – your believe it’s through reincarnation, I believe it’s through faith in Jesus [The Incarnation]. Would you agree with that statement?” Don agreed.

In very simple terms, I was attempting to contextualize the gospel in my conversation with Don.

In these next two lessons from the book of Acts, we’ll briefly touch upon the topic of contextualizing the gospel using the ministry of the Apostle Paul as our example.

While there are certainly books written on contextualizing the gospel and much banter and thought associated with the subject, let’s begin with Paul’s own words from 1 Corinthians 9:22:

I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

Paul desired to share the gospel in culturally relevant ways. Or in other words, he desired to share the gospel in a way his audience could understand. Paul contextualized without compromising the gospel. In one sense, to contextualize is to provide appropriate context for the audience.

The Jewish people will be Paul’s primary audience in Acts 13:13-52, for this lesson from Acts. Take a couple of minutes to read this passage, as it will provide context for our discussion.

In Acts 13:14 when Paul and his companions arrive in Pisidian Antioch, they went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. Now we pick it up in verses 15-16:

And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, “Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. Then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said, “Men of Israel, and you who fear God, listen:

Understand your audience

The first lesson in contextualization is to understand who it is you speaking with. Whether you’re talking to a stranger or have a closer connection, it’s always helpful to understand their ‘God-paradigm.’ For this will inform your witness.

In this case, Paul obviously knew his audience well! For he had a been a ‘Hebrew of the Hebrews and a Pharisee’ (Philippians 3:5).

For you and I, leading questions are a crucial way to know you’re audience. Asking Don about his spiritual orientation informed my witness and helped me discuss share something about Jesus in a context he could grasp. Here’s a link with lots of conversation starter questions – home.snu.edu/~hculbert/assess.htm.

Find points of connection

In Acts 13:17-23 Paul begins by sharing some of God’s relationship with Israel in the Old Testament – culminating with his testimony that Jesus was Savior and the promised Messiah of Israel (Acts 13:23).

In Acts 13:24-25 Paul refers to the testimony of John the Baptist, whom the Jewish people would have known about prior to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Paul makes the connection by starting with the history of God’s dealings with Israel. He then connects God’s promises regarding Messiah with the claim the Jesus was the fulfillment of those promises, using the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament).

One of the ways I tried to find a point of connection with Don was to find consensus on both our desires to ultimately arrive at a place of complete happiness and peace.

Communicate the Gospel

This may be stating the obvious, yet it must be stated. To communicate the gospel without compromise, we must clearly communicate the gospel.

And this is exactly what Paul does in Acts 13:26-41.

He talks about the message of salvation (verse 26), the rejection and death of Messiah Jesus as foretold in the Scriptures (verses 27-29), the resurrection of Jesus (verses 30-37), and the exhortation to receive forgiveness of sins through faith in Him (verses 38-41).

Expect the Unexpected

Or in other words, be ready for any response! With this mindset, you’ll be prepared for complete acceptance or utter rejection of your witness, and everything in between. In this narrative, Paul witnessed salvation and rejection of the message, as they were encouraged and persecuted.

In Acts 13:42-43, many of the Jewish people and ‘God-fearing proselytes’ (Gentile converts to Judaism) encouraged Paul and Barnabas to ‘continue in the grace of God’ (Acts 13:43)

The next Sabbath we gaze upon the polarizing nature of the gospel, as Jewish people fight against the gospel, while many Gentiles embrace the message and believe (Acts 13:44-49).

As Paul and Barnabas are driven out of the district (Acts 13:50-51), they move on to Iconium with joy in their hearts:

And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:51).

As I ponder my Christian experience, I have experienced the great joy in simply being a vessel of God’s grace in delivering the most important message – the gospel message. We can’t and don’t control the response, but we can and should be joyful in communicating the gospel and providing people the opportunity to respond.

Contextualizing the gospel is important for the reasons stated. To add, when you examine the ministry of Jesus, you will find that he is continually communicating in ways the audience could connect with. One prime example is His use of agrarian illustrations in communicating truth, as in the Parable of the Soils (Luke 8:4-21). You see, ancient Israel was an agrarian economy – so Jesus often couched gospel truth in agrarian terms.

So, seek to know your audience, and connect with your audience through the contextualizing the gospel. Next time we’ll examine Paul’s gospel presentation among a completely different audience. For now, may you be filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit as you share the good news!

* not his real name.

Lessons from Acts – The Power of Persecution

The Christian life is full of paradoxes, seemingly absurd propositions that when investigated prove to be true!  There are theological paradoxes. For example, we believe in the Trinity, that God is one and God is three. One God eternally exists as three distinct Persons – Father, Son, and Spirit. The oneness of God is the plurality of Persons in community. We also have living paradoxes – like slavery leads to freedom (Romans 6:18, 1 Corinthians 7:22) and the foolish are wise (1 Corinthians 3:18, 4:10).

As we think about the Great Commission venture, we engage another paradox – the power of persecution. You see, on a human level, we may initially perceive persecution as being undesirable, counterproductive, or simply bad. Yet, upon further inspection, through the eyes of faith, we will see persecution as something else – something powerful.

And we know that all things [including persecution] work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose(Romans 8:28).

As we continue learning lessons from the book of Acts, I want to briefly highlight 3 ways the Lord used persecution to accomplish His plans and purposes in the early church.

Persecution accomplished three things in the early church:

  1. It mobilized the church.
  2. It confirmed the words of the Lord.
  3. It unified the disciples.

Persecution mobilized the church

Remember Jesus’ words to the disciples just before His ascension: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

It was persecution that propelled the disciples to share the gospel ‘to the end of the earth. And we see the genesis of this dynamic in Acts 8:1-5:

Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. Christ Is Preached in Samaria. Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them.

Persecution was both a crucible and catalyst in the early church – and the result of this scattering was just the opposite of the desire and design of the persecutors!

Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:19-21).

Persecution confirmed the words of the Lord

The disciples were certainly carried along by the power of the Holy Spirit as they were scattered and spread the gospel, as Jesus had foretold. As they experienced the explosion of church growth amidst the intense opposition and persecution, I wonder how often they would have reminded themselves of Jesus’ words, when He stated, “I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Jesus spoke of persecution all throughout His earthly ministry. We note two bookends of teaching on the topic, first with words from His first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake (Matthew 5:10-11).

And near the end of HIs earthly ministry in the upper room, just before Jesus is taken, He leaves the disciples with this promise:

Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (John 15:20).

Following the Lord is a path marked with suffering, yet at the same time, a path also filled with blessing –  another paradox! His words would no doubt have affirmed the disciple’s experience!

Persecution unified the disciples

After hearing of the phenomenal growth of the church, Barnabas goes to Antioch to encourage the believers:

The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch. Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord (Acts 11:22-23).

Why did Barnabas encourage them to remain true to the Lord? Because the fiery darts of persecution sought to scatter and silence them, for a house divided can not stand! Unity in the Lord was paramount in continuing to fight the good fight of faith amidst the opposition and persecution.

Applications

For much of our history in the United States, the church in America has experienced a relative lack of persecution as compared with much of our brethren around the world. Today this is changing before our very eyes, as open hostility, opposition and persecution to believers in America grows at breakneck speed.

How shall we then live in light of this growing persecution? Our 1st Century brothers and sisters should inform, instruct and inspire our witness!

First, we should see persecution not as a stumbling block, but as a catalyst to our witness. As persecution galvanized the early church, we should be galvanized to keep the main thing the main thing – and what is that main thing? With a resolute heart, remain true to the Lord. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “May God in His mercy lead us through these times; but above all, may He lead us to Himself.” As we abide in Christ, He will empower and work though our witness, even in the face of increasing persecution, as we see in the book of Acts.

Next, remember the words of the Lord. Remember persecution is an affirmation that God’s Word is true. And on a personal basis, persecution can serve as a confirmation that we are ‘living out loud,’ as the Lord Jesus commands us to do and as those 1st Century believers could attest.

Finally, persecution should serve to crystalize our unity of purpose as God’s people – to know Him and make Him known! We see that purpose exemplified as we track with the early Church in the book of Acts. So encourage one another, exhort one another, pray for one another and stand with one another in the Great Commission!

Lessons from Acts – The Inclusivity of the Gospel

Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300 million to 500 million deaths during the 20th century alone, making it one of humanity’s most merciless scourges. The smallpox vaccine was the first successful vaccine to be developed. It was discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796, after he noticed that people who caught the more innocuous cowpox virus seemed to be immune to the smallpox virus. A worldwide eradication campaign in the 20th century eventually led to the destruction of the smallpox virus. To this day, it remains the only virus that afflicted humans that has been 100 percent eradicated.

There is another virus, however, that makes smallpox seem like a minor nuisance. Unlike smallpox, this virus infects and has infected every human being since the beginning of time. And like smallpox, its’ affects are devastating. In fact, everyone infected by this virus is deemed ‘terminal.’ What is this virus, you may wonder? The S-I-N virus, of course!

But thank God, in His grace and mercy, has provided us a serum to counteract the devastating and deadly results of the S-I-N virus. For the gospel found in the person of Jesus Christ is the solution to the S-I-N problem. And thank God also, that His invitation to partake of this SIN Solution is available to all people:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

But when the early church was born at Pentecost in Acts 2, the early believers were exclusively Jewish. For it was Jesus who said, “I came to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

Yet, God’s redemptive plan for mankind, is not one of partiality! In fact, we get a hint into the inclusivity of God’s plan for man in the Old Testament revelation:

Even them I will bring to My holy mountain, And make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. (Isaiah 56:7)

Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles! Laud Him, all you peoples! For His merciful kindness is great toward us, And the truth of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 117:1-2)

‘Gentiles’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘goyim,’ meaning nations. These were the non-Israelite peoples of the world. There has always been access to the God of Israel for all people’s. Additionally, the Lord promised that Messiah (Jesus) would be a ‘light to the Gentiles’:

Indeed He says,‘It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, And to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth’.” (Isaiah 49:6; see also Isaiah 42:6)

So when God calls Peter to proclaim the good news of Messiah Jesus to Cornelius, a gentile, it’s rather surprising that Peter initially resists the Lord, apparently forgot the memo – Old Testament promises concerning the inclusion of Gentiles in the Kingdom!

I encourage you to read the whole narrative beginning in Acts 10:1. After Peter and Cornelius compare notes regarding God’s divine appointment (Acts 10:24-33), Peter opens his mouth and says:

“In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ—He is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:34-36)

Peter then goes on the share the gospel message, affirming the inclusivity of the gospel message.  Still, when Cornelius and his household are saved, Peter is amazed:

“And He [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.” The Holy Spirit Falls on the Gentiles. While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.” (Acts 10:42-45)

Following this remarkable series of events, the disciples have a meeting of the minds in Acts 11. For this fulfillment of prophecy startled the apostles and other brethren, causing them to confront Peter (Acts 11:1-3). After Peter explains, his Jewish brethren glorify God:

“If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” (Acts 11:17-18)

As I like to say on occasion: ‘It’s not about your ‘Jewishness’ or your ‘Gentileness’ – it’s about your ‘Jesusness!’ Do you know Him?

The Jerusalem Counsel in Acts 15 will further engage Jewish-Gentile issues within the church. Suffice it to say, there was a time in the early church when the potentially awkward question went something like this: ‘So, your a gentile for Jesus? How’s that work?’ Oh, how times have changed.

One of the beautiful aspects of the Church of Jesus is that He has called and is calling a people “out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9, 7:9).

Additionally, God is “not willing that anyone should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

May we rejoice in God’s plan for mankind, praising Him and thanking Him for the inclusive nature of the gospel message!