The Early Believers — 2

This week we continue to explore the lessons learned by our first century sisters and brothers as they walked together, following Jesus Christ. We stand on the shoulders of that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1).

 

Monday, June 24

Read: Acts 5:1-11

Consider: Wow! That’s not something you see every day! I’m not surprised that “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (5:11). I can’t imagine how I would have reacted.

This is a puzzling story. God doesn’t deal with us in the same way. I’ve never heard of this happening from the time of Ananias and Sapphira until now. Yet it’s important for us to deal with Luke’s account of this strange event from the opening days of the church’s life together.

It appears that this was not an issue about how much was given to God. Peter was straightforward with Ananias concerning the property and the money from the sale of it. Peter said, “Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?” (5:4).

There was no coercion to give. What Peter was pointing to was Ananias’ deceitfulness. Apparently, Ananias, “with his wife’s full knowledge…kept back part of the money for himself” (5:2) but presented himself as having given the full amount to God. Peter was dismayed. “How is it” he asked, “that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit?” (5:3). Sapphira was also trapped in the lie…

Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?”
(5:8-9)

I certainly don’t understand this event. But one thing seems to be apparent—Christ cannot build his church on duplicity. If the Body of Christ operates by presenting one image, and living another reality, the name of Christ is dishonored, and the world cannot see who Jesus really is.

The church is full of people like you and me—frail, prone to fall, and full of inconsistencies. Yet, inconsistencies are not the same thing as hypocrisy. The word Jesus used—hupokrités—was a term for an actor. It reminded people of the huge masks that were used in the Greek theatre productions. We will all deal with our inconsistencies, but we don’t have to wear self-righteous masks. We are all pilgrims on a journey to know Christ and to live up to our calling. We are nothing more than that and we must be nothing less.

When we are honest about our shortcomings, we free ourselves and the people around us. We take the attention off us and put it on Christ.

Pray: “Lord, I don’t want to be two people. I want to be one person—one person, honestly and authentically following Christ. May my shortcomings not be a discouragement to me, but may they simply remind me of my dependence on you. Thank you for always forgiving me and always encouraging me as I walk with you.”

 

Tuesday, June 25

Read: Luke 6:20-26

Consider: Sometimes people wonder why Jesus seemed to go so easy on obvious sinners, and yet seemed so harsh with religious people—people who, by outward appearances, were doing a pretty good job at living clean lives and following the rules. The answer is simple. Jesus hated hypocrisy. The sinner who was willing to admit his or her sinfulness—those who Jesus called “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3)—were never rebuffed. They were always accepted and welcomed by Christ. But those who claimed to be without sin…well, that was another matter.

Today you read the “blessings” and “woes” that Jesus gave in comparing the two groups. Luke’s account is brief. If you want to read the heavy-duty stuff, check out Matthew 23. It will blow your mind.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (23:13)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (23:15)

“You blind fools!” (23:17)

“You blind guides!” (23:24)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (23:25)

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (23:33)

There’s more, but you get the idea. Now as frightening as those statements sound, they can also be comforting to us. You see, what Jesus was condemning was hypocrisy, not imperfection. Don’t lament the fact that on this earth you will never be perfect. God knows that about you and me. Rather, rejoice that when we are authentic before God and before one another, we are always forgiven. And authenticity is possible. I can’t be perfect. But I can be real.

The choice you and I must make is to be one of those who are quick to admit our own unrighteousness, quick to admit that we need God’s grace and forgiveness, and quick to admit our failures. When we keep it real—and really pursue God’s will in our lives—we are always recipients of grace. And then we find it easier to give grace to others.

Pray: “Thank you, Lord, for the constant flow of grace that you pour into my life. May I never take it for granted, as if I somehow deserved it. Help me to always see it for what it is—unearned, amazing grace from the One who loves me more than I can imagine.”

 

Wednesday, June 26

Read: Luke 18:9-14

Consider: Think of the most despicable character you can imagine—someone who cares for no one else, betrays his friends and family, exploits people mercilessly, and makes himself rich in the process. Now think of the most exemplary person you’ve ever seen—a brilliant person whose actions make for success and who would make any parent proud. These are the characters in Jesus’ parable—the tax collector and the Pharisee.

Just when we think religion begins to make sense, Jesus turns it on its head. The despicable one is made righteous. Why?

“The tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (18:13)

And the “righteous” one is condemned. Why?

“The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” (18:11-12)

Some of Jesus’ parables are difficult to understand. At times he used his parables to create some major disequilibrium in us. He wanted us to go away thinking, searching and praying. But other times—as is the case here—the point could not be clearer. It takes humility to come to Christ. And it takes humility to stay close to Christ. If we ever begin to feel superior to others—even to hardened sinners—we place ourselves in danger.

We have often heard it said that we should love the sinner but hate the sin. Let’s retire that statement. It sounds like we’re putting ourselves on the judgement seat. I think I would be better off saying that I need to love the sinner and hate my own sin. With that approach, I’ll never lose sight of my need for grace.

Pray: “Lord, without your grace I am lost. With your grace I have everything. Thank you for your love and grace. Help me to receive it and pass it on to others.”

 

Thursday, June 27

Read: Genesis 12:1-3

Consider: The nation of Israel was formed by God. The Jews are God’s chosen people. There can be no doubt about that. God has made that clear throughout the Old and New Testaments. But there can be a problem with chosen-ness. Chosen people can forget why they were chosen.

God made it clear to Abram (later known as Abraham) that he was chosen so that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). This was clear at the outset of Abram’s call and reaffirmed repeatedly…

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed…” (Genesis 22:17-18)

To Abraham’s son, Isaac, God said…

“To you and your descendants I will give all these lands and will confirm the oath I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed…” (Genesis 26:3-4)

God did not choose Israel for the sake of Israel. He chose Israel for the sake of the world.

The same can be said for us. The New Testament uses this concept of the “chosen” as it refers to the church—the Body of Christ (see, for example Colossians 3:12). In fact, Paul even refers to us as “children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).

“Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Galatians 3:6-9)

The New Testament does not say that the church replaces Israel. It says that we Gentile believers have been “grafted in” to the purposes of Israel (see Romans 11).

As we’ll see tomorrow, some of the chosen people—the people of Israel—forgot why they were chosen. The results were terrible. Instead of having a heart that broke for the rest of the world, they hardened their hearts toward others. The humility of God’s call was replaced with arrogance. They began to believe that they were better than others.

This can happen to us as well if we ever forget our call—our reason for being.

Pray: Thank the Lord that we were included. Praise him that we Gentiles were on his mind when he called Abram. We are part of “all peoples on earth” (Genesis 12:3) who would be blessed by God’s call to Abram and by Abram’s obedience. With the love that included us, ask the Lord to help us include others.

 

Friday, June 28

Read: Acts 10:1-22

Consider: Part of Peter’s life as a Jew was his observance of the dietary laws of his people. There were certain foods that were “unclean” to the Jews. Those foods were never to be consumed. But diet was only one part of their system of cleanliness rituals and laws. There were instructions on how to handle the dead, when a woman was pure and when she was not (relating to her menstrual cycle and childbirth), etc. And among the traditions that had a strong hold on them were those that concerned their associations with Gentiles. They began to see non-Jews as “unclean” and refused to associate with them in any way. Jesus, of course, broke those taboos. But it was difficult for others to change. In Peter and the other disciples, the rejection of Gentiles was deeply engrained.

So, God gave Peter a vision to that shook his world. Three times the word came to Peter — “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15). In the vision Peter was presented with “unclean” animals. But Peter would soon connect the dots. And he didn’t have much time, because knocking at the door were Gentiles who needed Peter.

Imagine having God destroy your religion. Peter’s understanding of his chosen-ness was central to his religion and his identity. His belief in what was clean and what was unclean was built upon his understandings (and misunderstandings) about it meant to be chosen. And then God blew it all away.

How would we respond? Lovingly, “Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests” (10:23). Obedience is better than religion.

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice…” (1 Samuel 15:22)

Pray: “Lord, help me to walk in obedience today. Help me to see every man, woman and child in the manner you see them. May your words to Peter ring in my mind as I treat every person that I meet with the dignity that should be afforded to those made in the image of God.”

 

Saturday, June 29

Read: Acts 10:19-35

Consider: This event changed your life and it changed mine. Up until that time, the Jesus-followers were all Jewish. In fact, people considered them to be just another Jewish sect. You had the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes—and now, the Nazarenes. But God was up to something. You may have noticed God giving birth to this when he called a man named Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul…

“This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” (9:15)

God was not changing the rules. Clear back in the first book of the Hebrew Bible, God made it clear to Abraham that his intent was the salvation of the entire world (see Thursday). No, God was not changing his plan, but he was changing the hearts of his people. Peter articulated his own change very clearly…

“God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (10:28)

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (10:34-35)

Is there anything that needs to change in the heart of today’s church in order for us to participate fully in God’s redemptive plan? Is there anything that needs to change in my heart? Anything in yours?

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-20)

Pray: “Every day, Lord, teach me what it means to ‘regard no one from a worldly point of view.’ Like you did to Peter, change my heart in any manner you wish. I open myself to you for that purpose.”