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!

Lessons from Acts – Alliance, Defiance & Silence

Francis Bellamy (1855-1931) was a Baptist minister’s son from upstate New York. He distinguished himself in oratory at the University of Rochester before following his father to the pulpit, preaching at churches in New York and Boston. Later in his life, while working for a family magazine called the Youth’s Companion, he set to work on a patriotic program for schools around the country, commemorating Christopher Columbus’ 400th anniversary of arriving in the New World.

Included in that program was now famous ‘The Pledge of Allegiance’ which Bellamy wrote in August 1892.

In its original form it read: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” In 1923, the words, “the Flag of the United States of America” were added. Ultimately, in 1954, in response to the Communist threat of the times, President Eisenhower encouraged Congress to add the words “under God,” creating the 31-word pledge we say today. Today it reads: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Today, the ‘under God’ part is creating quite a stir in America! Yes, allegiance to His authority is polarizing!

In fact, allegiance to His authority has always been a polarizing proposition.

Jesus was not only the most polarizing figure in His day, He is the most polarizing person in history. And hence, those who declare allegiance to Him are now squared off against those who not only reject Him, but defy His authority.

Perhaps that’s why we can resonate with Jesus’ words: ‘He who is not with Me is against Me’ (Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23).

As one bible commentator rightly notes, “When you declare allegiance to heaven, you declare war on hell, and hell fights back pretty hard.”

The Apostle Paul is a prime example of one caught up in the storm of alliance or defiance to the authority of Jesus!

In Acts 9, after Saul (Paul) is converted, he begins preaching the gospel to the amazement of many:

“Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, “Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Messiah [Christ]” (Acts 9:20-22).

Saul, who acted in defiance of all things related to Jesus, is now allied with the Lord. And as passionately as he fought against gospel, he is now fighting for the gospel. Defiance turned to alliance – this is the very power of God!

For those not willing to pledge allegiance to the Lord, they not only defy the gospel through unbelief, they also at times will actively try to silence it, as seen in the intense opposition to Saul.

“Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket.” (Acts 9:23-25).

At this point in the narrative there is uncertainty and confusion among some of the disciples. I imagine their thinking something along these lines – ‘What’s the deal with Saul? We thought he was against us. Now he appears to be for us.’

Time will soon tell – Saul is the real deal! This is no ruse. No trap. He’s now a bold believer…one who will not remain silent despite the threats of those who want to silence him:

And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out. And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him. When the brethren found out, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him out to Tarsus. (Acts 9:26-30)

Paul lived ‘out loud.’ His alliance to the Lord Jesus required it. Those in defiance of the Lord Jesus sought to silence the propagation of the gospel.

Fast forward to our current 21st Century religious environment.

Today we live in world that is increasingly hostile to the gospel message. Here in the United States of America, this hostility is rising at an alarming pace. And yet, as we see, there is nothing new under the sun!

For those of us who pledge allegiance to Jesus, the question is this:

Will we stay silent about our faith, or will we ‘live out loud,’ like the Apostle Paul, engaging those in defiance of the gospel who seek to silence our witness? For we all have a choice.

Practically speaking, to live out loud is to express our alliance to Christ. And in this way our alliance to Christ is defiance against silence!

Therefore, LORD, gives us the grace and faith to live out loud, proclaiming Your gospel among an increasingly hostile world that so desperately needs You! Amen.

“Sing to the Lord, bless His name; Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the nations, His wonders among all peoples” (Psalm 96:2-3).

Lessons from Acts – No Lost Causes

Have you ever felt tempted to quit praying for a lost person in your sphere of influence – be it a family member, long-time friend, or anyone else you’ve known for a period of years? It’s one thing to talk about persevering in prayer. It’s another thing to actually do it!

Why?

Because somewhere within may lurk the idea that there is no way this person is going to come to faith. The thinking may include sentiments like – I mean, if you only knew them. They’re reprobate. They’re never going to change. They don’t want to hear about Jesus. In fact, they’re downright hostile to the gospel. Well, I hate to say this, but they are a lost cause!

Been there? I have!

Well, I have a biblical and no so subtle response to this kind of thinking – not so fast!

You see, we have a not so obscure example of one who, if it were possible, certainly would have qualified in his day as being a ‘lost cause.’ Yet, with God all things are possible, including the salvation of the ‘most unlikely’ of people.

Let me introduce – drumroll please – Saul of Tarsus.

As Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5), and a man full of grace and power (Acts 6:8), testifies and then is martyred in Acts 7, Saul makes his ignominious first appearance in the Bible:

“…and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. 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. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.” (Acts 7:58-59, Acts 8:1, 3.

No we can only imagine early believers response to Saul’s raging persecution. It seems to me there possibly were two camps of thinking regarding his rampaging.

First, there may have been a group of believers who viewed Saul as a ‘madman’, as ‘bad news’, and someone to avoid at all times in all situations. Is it possible there may have been some followers of Jesus who may have coined Saul a ‘lost cause?’ For here was this learned religious Jewish man who certainly would have, to some degree, been exposed to Jesus’ teaching and would have known of His miracles and renown during HIs earthly ministry. And this man categorically rejects everyone and everything associated with Jesus.

On the other hand, there must have been those disciples who remembered Jesus’ words regarding human enemies:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45)

Wow! This is not a natural response. Rather it’s a supernatural response – and one I believe would have been undertaken by some of Jesus’ faithful followers to Saul’s opposition and persecution.

And you say, how?

Through an attitude of love and compassion for Saul’s spiritual lostness along with prayer for his salvation.

There is no biblical record of anyone actually ‘witnessing’ to Saul. But in Acts 9, Jesus comes to seek and to save this one who is lost, bringing Saul out of the Kingdom of Darkness and into the Kingdom of Light:

“Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts 9:1-6)

The Apostle Paul would later write: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

As we think about people in our lives, you most likely don’t know a ‘Saul’ like figure personally. But you definitely know people who are lost and difficult to love, serve, and pray for. You may even have someone you’re tempted to coin a lost cause.

Well, not so fast!

Remember the Apostle Paul, and if your so inclined, think about your own faith journey. I can tell you I only uttered the name of Jesus Christ in vain for the first 23 years of my life. Yes, I was an enemy of God! Yet, I’m eternally grateful that people witnessed to me, prayed for me, and showed me God’s love. And I’m eternally grateful to God for saving me.

So, persevere in prayer, persevere in good works, persevere in love, and persevere in proclaiming the good news of Jesus. And remember, there are no lost causes, just lost 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)

Divine Appointments

Friday morning – Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, July 1. I’m flying home to Tennessee. As I’m passing through security I notice the gentlemen directly behind me also putting his MacIntosh Computer in a bin. The computers looked alike. I made eye contact with him and jokingly commented, “I wonder if people have ever gotten their computers mixed up.”

Moments later, a security official told me to take my shoes off just before passing through. I did as she said, but hurried, I placed my shoes on top of the computer. The woman gently rebuked me for doing that, as I suppose the computer and shoes needed to be separate for some reason.

Finally, I passed through scanner and went to the bin to gather my belongings. The man behind me also came through. We gathered our computers and other belongings, then parted for our respective gates.

As I sat at my gate a few minutes later, I was curious. Did something just happen back there…at security? I had to know.

Immediately I took the computer out of the bag and turned it on. To my shock and horror, what showed up on the screen was Nick Edwards* (not his real name) and guest! “NO!”, I moaned as silently as I could without making a scene. Our computers had been switched. This was no laughing matter!

After about 15-20 minutes of going to security and apprising them of the situation, one of their workers found Mr. Edwards at his respective gate and brought him over to where the scanners were located. The officials showed him his computer, which I had in my possession, and vice-versa. We made the switch. And just before we went our separate ways, I looked at this 30-something man and said, “Nick Edwards, from now on, you and I are inextricably linked.” He smiled and disappeared into the mass of humanity.

Relieved that this small crisis had been averted, I thought to myself, “Why did that just happen?” After pondering for a moment, I stopped and prayed for this man. Mind you, he was a complete stranger – the only thing I knew about him was our computers got mixed up. Yet, I was compelled to simply pray that if he knew the Lord, God would strengthen him, give him safe travels, and meet him at his point of need. But if he was lost, I prayed for his salvation.

I wonder – was this brief encounter more than a simple mishap? Could it have been, in some small measure, a divine appointment of sorts, were I intersected with this person in order to pray for him. I can not say. But since I walk by faith, I don’t know, and that’s ok.

What is clear is that the Lord does orchestrate divine appointments – circumstances whereby he leads people, knowingly or unknowingly, into situations in order to accomplish His will.

Here are some examples, just to name a few:

In the biblical book titled after her namesake, Esther, a common Jewish girl – through a series of events – rises from anonymity to become Queen of Persia. It turns out, she is the last and only hope in changing the grisly outcome of Haman’s evil intent to exterminate her Jewish people.

For she happens to be strategically placed “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14)! If you remember, Esther takes heed and follows Mordecai’s exhortation to go to the King and expose Haman’s plot. The result: deliverance. The Jewish people are spared and Haman is executed.

Esther was strategically placed in the court of King Ahasuerus, so at just the right time, she could bring a word ‘aptly spoken’ – a word that changed the immediate destiny of her people.

In Acts 8, the Lord led Philip out of prosperous ministry in Samaria to a desert road in the middle of the Judean wilderness, not telling Philip what was going to happen or who he was going to meet, if anyone. As it turns out, he meets and then leads an Ethiopian Eunuch to Jesus.

In Acts 10, Peter was sent to the house of Cornelius with the express purpose of sharing the gospel with Cornelius and his household. Cornelius and the others who hear Peter come to faith (Acts 10:44-48)!

It’s good to remember that there are no coincidences in the Kingdom, just providence.

What is providence?  I like this definition by the late J. Vernon McGee, who stated: “Providence is the means by which God directs all things — both animate and inanimate, seen and unseen, good and evil — toward a worthy purpose, which means His will must finally prevail.”

Additionally, the psalmist said, “his kingdom ruleth over all” (Psalm 103:19). And in Ephesians 1:11 Paul tells us that God “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.”

What principles can we draw from these and other stories of divine appointments?

Simply, we need to be available and obedient to God. We also need to be prayerful – asking the Lord to help us be ready to give a ‘word aptly spoken’ as He orchestrates divine appointments with people. Because whether we’re aware of how He’s moving us, or simply walking by faith, we can know He is moving and working.

Have you had any recent divine appointments involving an evangelistic component? If so, let me know how the Lord orchestrated it and how you participated in it. It would be great to be encouraged and to encourage others as God moves each of us out for ‘such a time.’

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

Call to Me (part 2)

I recently had lunch with a pastor friend of mine named Jim. He’s been witnessing to his pediatrist – a Jewish man named Mark, who is open to spiritual things and is searching. Jim, has shared Isaiah 53 with the man in the midst of their conversations, and the Lord has used that to draw Mark closer to Himself.

Mark told Jim he also read Isaiah 53 on his own. This would have included these powerful verses:

Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

“That really got me thinking about Jesus!” added Mark, as he shared with Jim upon his own reflection of Isaiah 53.

Jim asked me what I would suggest testimony-wise going forward. I suggested he encourage Mark to read the gospel of Matthew, the gospel originally written primarily with a Jewish audience in mind. At the same time I also suggested he encourage Mark to ask God, as he knows him, to reveal the truth about Jesus.

As I mentioned in the last submission, this is exactly how I cried out to God in September 1987, three months before I was saved. A traveling insurance salesman challenged me on an airplane to pray what I would call a ‘seekers prayer’ – “Why don’t you ask your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, if Jesus is the Messiah?”

I prayed a prayer of faith that fateful September afternoon and three months later was born-again. Jeremiah 33:3 is a verse I attach to that wonderful season of the Lord bringing me out of darkness into His Kingdom:

‘Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.’

The Lord desires people to know and understand Him (Jeremiah 9:23-24). In my Christian life, as I’ve witness to many people over the years, I have often challenged and encouraged people to ask God to reveal Himself to them. And I believe the Lord will answer that prayer of faith, because ‘He desires that no one perish but that all would come to repentance’ (2 Peter 3:9).

For the person who is open and searching, like Mark, I would coin that prayer a ‘seekers prayer.’

But what of the skeptic – that individual who is doubtful about the gospel message, who doesn’t believe anything without strong reasons – especially when that something hasn’t been experienced.

The skeptics prayer goes something like this: “God, if you’re real and Jesus and the gospel message are true, reveal this to me.”

The critical issue that informs our witness, both to the seeker and skeptic, is openness. Do they have the courage…and faith, to ask God, whom they don’t yet know, to reveal that which they don’t yet understand and believe!

In many witnessing encounters, I have met people who told me Jesus may be the Messiah or Christ and the gospel may be true, but they didn’t want to know! And hence, they wouldn’t pray for revelation.

However, others have taken the challenge. Once, I was witnessing to a man named Ron. He believed in God, but not Jesus. He said the stumbling block to faith was the resurrection. I encouraged him to ask God to reveal the truth of the resurrection. Eighteen months later, after asking God and searching the scriptures and other sources of evidence supporting the resurrection, Ron came to accept the veracity of the resurrection and received Jesus.

If you’re in an ongoing relationship with an unbeliever, it’s certainly appropriate to exhort them to go directly to the Source of truth – the Lord Himself – for revelation only He can provide.

Because in the mystery of God’s providence, He uses the testimony of the Church, namely you and me, to reveal Himself to the lost. For it is the Holy Spirit who convicts unbelievers of their sin, need of a savior, and ultimately accomplishes the work of regeneration – delivering people out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light (John 1:12-13, John 16:8, Titus 3:5-6)

It’s comforting to know that as we testify and provide evidence to the veracity of the Word of God, the person of Jesus and the gospel message itself, the Holy Spirit is the the one who ultimately reveals truth – opening the eyes of the blind and unplugging the ears of the deaf.

If your audience is not willing to call out to God, continue to pray that some soon tomorrow they would. Yet, if they are, also encourage them, to read the bible as part of their search. For the bible is God’s written revelation to man!

So, we conclude our meditation as we began – with this witnessing principle in mind:

Challenge people to go to directly to the Source!

The challenge has been made, the opportunity available. And the question remains – ‘Will they you have the courage to ask? Pray that they will.

Lord Jesus, as we interact with unbelievers in our midst, please lead our witness, opening doors of opportunity to point people to You – the Source of revelation and salvation. Give us wisdom and discernment to know when and how to challenge people to call to You. May many in our midst take heed, cry out to You, and be saved! Amen.

Call to Me (part 1)

Bottled water is a fascinating phenomenon. I sometimes wonder if bottled water today is a matter of necessity or nicety – do we consume it because it’s convenient or because we think our tap water may not be so good? Perhaps, it’s a combination of both, depending on where you are at any particular moment.

Whatever your view of the bottled water industry, there is no debating that it’s big business! From a marketing perspective, many companies play up this benefit – ‘It’s bottled at the source.’ Certainly bottling at the source is desired over having water travel through  miles of pipe prior to bottling. There is wonderful satisfaction in slaking one’s physical thirst with a nice cold bottle of water.

In the spiritual, going to the source of the only One who can truly slake our spiritual thirst is not only important, it is imperative! For Jesus, the source of living water, promises that living water to those to those who will put their trust in Him.

While speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:10, Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” The living water was a reference to the Holy Spirit, which Jesus later reveals while teaching at the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles in John 7:37-39: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

Here is the simple yet relevant principle for our witness today I want to draw from these two passages –

Challenge people to go to directly to the Source!

I remember it vividly. It’s September 1987 – I’m on an airplane flying from Atlanta to St. Petersburg, Florida. Sitting next to me is a gentleman who is telling me his story of how he came to faith in Jesus. After he shares the gospel with me, he asks me a question that rocked my world. Knowing I was Jewish and believed in God, he said, “Why don’t you ask your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, if Jesus is the Messiah?” Wow! And you know what I did? I got off the airplane and did just that. And you know what God did? He answered my heartfelt cry for revelation. Three months later, in December of 1987, the Lord revealed Himself to me, I believed the gospel, and was born again – putting my trust in Jesus.

Through the years of my Christian life, whenever I have the privilege of sharing my testimony, I like to quote from the prophet Jeremiah, where the Lord says,

‘Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know.’ (Jeremiah 33:3)

As you think about witnessing in your daily walk, look for opportunities to challenge people to go to the Source, the source of Truth – the Lord Himself, to reveal the truth about Jesus and the gospel message.

Jesus, in speaking with the Samaritan woman, presents a conditional proposition: If she would ask, she would receive. As we seek to share the Lord with people, we would do well to follow His example.

But there’s more! In the Scripture we see a pattern of God imploring people to go directly to Him in order to receive that which He alone can bestow. For example, notice God’s conditional proposition to provide restoration, revelation, and salvation for those who go to Him:

In Jeremiah 29, the prophet spoke to a wayward people, namely Judah, about God’s promise of restoration, should they turn back to Him:

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive.” (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

In Matthew 7 the Lord implores people to ask, seek, and knock in order to receive that which is ‘good’:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)

Among other things, is not the very revelation of Jesus’ true identity and veracity of the gospel message good?

Lastly, the Apostle Paul simply and powerfully exhorts people to call upon the Savior in order to receive salvation:

“…that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

As we ponder our evangelistic efforts in light of these truths, be encouraged. As His witnesses, we proclaim truth and implore people to receive the Lord. At the same time, we need be mindful to challenge people to go to the Source, God Himself, for revelation, and ultimately, for salvation. This should lighten our load, knowing that if and when they ‘get it,’ it will the Lord who gives it…when they ask!

Next time, we’ll focus on our audience and how to specifically challenge them to call to God – the Source. For now, may we rejoice that God has heard and still hears our heart cry!

“I sought the Lord, and He answered me.” – Psalm 34:4

Praying for Boldness

A careful reading of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution reveals that it protects several basic liberties — freedom of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly. Interpretation of the amendment is far from easy, as court case after court case has tried to define the limits of these freedoms.

In regards to speech, the First Amendment specifically prohibits the making of any law impeding abridging the freedom of speech.

There is good reason the protection of free speech was written into law – the framers anticipated that there would be opposition to this right!

And they were right!

In our current PC environment, speech is front and center. For increasing opposition to free speech seems the order of the day for those who appropriate this precious right!

In the spiritual, as Kingdom citizens, we not only have the freedom to speak, we’re commanded to speak. And what is we are to utter? The truth!

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;” (1 Peter 2:9)

The gospel message itself centers on the person and work of Jesus, and we are to proclaim His praises, which includes telling of Who He is and what He has accomplished through His death and resurrection.

But as with opposition to our First Amendment rights regarding speech as American citizens, we are also opposed spiritually as we strive to proclaim in word the gospel of our Lord!

And make no mistake, this opposition is relentless. You see, Satan and his minions seek to muzzle our witness or simply keep us from speaking at all. There is nothing new under the sun, so it’s no wonder the Apostle Paul exhorted the saints in Ephesus to pray for him to boldly open his mouth and proclaim the gospel.

As believers we are familiar with Ephesians 6, where Paul exhorts the church at Ephesus to be strong in the spiritual battle by putting on the ‘whole armor of God’ (Ephesians 6:10-13). He then  specifies the components of the armor (Ephesians 6:10-18).

I have recently been struck by the last two verses of this section on spiritual warfare, because they apply precisely to not only our gospel witness, but the proclamation aspect of that witness:

Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will boldly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I should.” (Ephesians 6:19-20)

The Greek word parrhesia is rendered “boldness” in these verses. It also conveys the idea of free and fearless confidence.

Paul wrote Ephesians while a prisoner in a Roman jail. It certainly took boldness to make known the gospel in the midst of constant opposition, hostility and persecution while in the free world. And now an imprisoned Paul is asking the Ephesians to pray for him to boldly proclaim the gospel – ‘as he should.’

In my Christian life I have prayed this prayer for myself and have asked others to pray for me in this manner. For whether it was sharing my new faith with my Jewish family as a baby Christian – I was the first believer in my family, or sharing the gospel on the streets of New York City – there have been situations that absolutely intimidated and scared me…situations where I needed boldness to open my mouth and boldly proclaim the gospel! And there are situations I face in my current walk with God where I need boldness to open my mouth and speak truth!

Because opposition, hostility, and persecution are real possibilities. And therein lies a component of the spiritual battle we must face. Specifically, we may called to proclaim the gospel in situations where the possibility of painful consequences exists.

We think of Paul as a tremendous witness for Jesus and he was. Yet he experienced fear in ministry.

Paul experienced fear even among believers when he shared these words in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5:

“I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,  so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”

Additionally, in his second letter to the church in Corinth, he also revealed fear in ministry:

For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within.” (2 Corinthians 7:5)

I don’t know how the opposition to your witness today is being manifested, but I do know the enemy wants you silent. He wants every witness for Jesus silent. For we are in a spiritual battle.

May we not only put on the whole armor of God, but may we pray for ourselves and each other to exercise our responsibility to boldly proclaim the gospel message as God provides opportunity.

For we pray for open doors and open hearts. But we must also pray that when opportunities arise, we are given the words to boldly proclaim the gospel about our Lord Jesus, Who is the hope of the world. Pray for me and I will pray for you.

Father, I thank you for my brothers and sisters who desire to proclaim Jesus! I pray for them and myself, that whenever we speak, words may be given us so that we will boldly make known the mystery of the gospel. I pray that we may declare it boldly, as we should. Amen.

A Coordinated Effort

The bomb – it’s a beautiful thing! You may be thinking, ‘What? A bomb – beautiful?’ Yes, I’m actually talking about a pass in football, otherwise known as the long bomb. If you don’t watch football, it is a long, distinctly arcing pass that – when completed for a touchdown or score, can be one of the most breathtaking, exhilarating, and graceful moments in sport.

So simple – a pitch and catch, pigskin style. The quarterback drops back and throws the ball – some 40, 50, or even 60 yards down the field a receiver is running full speed – then the timely moment when ball meets hands…and he’s in the end zone – touchdown!

For those who know me well, I’m a football fan. And the purity of the bomb in football is a wonder for those who have an affinity for the sport.

And while the essence of the bomb is simple, the execution is not! You see, it actually takes a coordinated effort by the whole team to make the play work. The center has to snap the ball to the quarterback, the offensive lineman have to block encroaching rushers, the receivers have to run the correct routes, and the quarterback must make the right decision of where to throw the ball. This coordinated effort by the team is headed up by the coach, who has the plan for success.

In the spiritual realm, the Lord coordinates the effort of His ‘team’, otherwise known as the Church, to bring about the salvation of souls. Yet in the spiritual, unlike football, the team members may not have any idea about the efforts of teammates.

I know along my journey to Jesus in the 1980’s, the Holy Spirit brought a number of people into my life, people for whom to this day I’m eternally grateful. For it was through the testimony of people like Mark, Greg, Herb, and Steve that God used to bring me to Himself in December of 1987. And while I can attest that there was no coordinated effort among the above named saints – they never knew each other – it absolutely was an effort coordinated by our Lord!

In our daily witness, we ought have faith to believe that we also are a part of a coordinated effort in reaching people for Jesus. And though we may not be aware of how this team effort is working, we trust that God is working in and through us to save souls, and in the process expanding His Kingdom.

The fascinating dynamic to ponder regarding the work of God and the work of His people in the area of evangelism, is that while we walk by faith, He knows the beginning from the end. Additionally, He is coordinating His body, the Church, to accomplish His will – which in simple terms is to fulfill the Great Commission.

And what of the possibility for success?

Well, Jesus said it was a guarantee – not because we’re such hot stuff – but because He said so:

“I will build My Church and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

As the Lord builds His Church, He grows it numerically by ushering people into the Kingdom, accomplishing this work through the evangelistic effort of you and me.

While it takes 11 players on the offense in football coordinating their effort to score a touchdown, the Lord is coordinating the efforts of His people to build His Church.

The Apostle Paul uses the analogy of the human body in sharing insights about this coordinated effort in his first letter to the Corinthian church:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 18)

Certainly a word study on ‘body’ in the New Testament will provide a fuller understanding of this foundational aspect of the Christian life. For our purposes, we’re touching upon this truth as it relates to our witness.

As Paul equates you and me as parts of the body, he elaborates on the purpose of the parts working in unison to accomplish a definitive goal:

…we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)

The goal being the growth of the body. Qualitatively, this refers to the maturing of the saints. Quantitatively, this highlights adding to the body through the salvation of souls. And it is this quantitative component which is directly related to both our individual and collective witness as His people.

You see, although we may not be aware of how the Lord is coordinating each of individual testimonies, we understand that He is!

As you ponder your witness, seek to fulfill your role in the body. Although our individual witness be be highlighted primarily by one of the following – praying, serving, proclaim the truth and the gospel message in word, or simply manifesting the fruit of the Spirit – it should not be strictly limited to one area.

As you go forth from this reading, be encouraged – the Lord is using our individual evangelistic efforts through the power of His Spirit in a coordinated fashion – as He builds His Church.

And one the first things we’re going to say when we get to glory and grasp the wonder of this reality will be – ‘Of course!’

So carry on brother and sister, tarrying in the field that God has placed you in, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord, for we are on the winning team. Touchdown!

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. (I Corinthians 15:58)