The Early Believers — 3

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, July 1

Read: Acts 4:1-4

Consider: In this very brief passage, we see two things that will recur throughout the Book of Acts and throughout the history of Christianity—the preaching of the resurrection and the persecution of the church.

The officials “were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (4:2). Why was that so offensive? Why were they so bothered by this good news? After all, it’s a beautiful story, isn’t it? A man rising from the dead ought to bring us feelings of joy and celebration.

The response of the officials to the preaching of the resurrection reminds us that the resurrection makes all things new. It changes everything. And change is threatening. In the first century, it threatened the authority of the religious leaders. It threatened the authority of the state. It brought into focus the new thing that God was doing in and through Jesus Christ. And to many, that was frightening.

It still is. That’s why people like to consign the resurrection to a manageable place. As long as it’s a religious myth, they’re okay with it. Or even if they claim to believe it, if they can keep it in the confines of churches, it shouldn’t be too much trouble. But when it threatens the status quo, the powerful shudder. (You may want to re-read Mary’s Song in Luke 1:46-55.)

Do not think that our faith is private. It is personal, to be sure. But it is not private. It is not intended to be kept on a shelf in our hearts. The resurrection is part of the very definition of who we are. And the resurrected Lord, who dwells inside of us, also works through us to touch a world that is afraid of the purity and power of Christ’s love.

Love is hard to manage. So, this world proclaims a form of love (which really is not love at all) that is conditional, predictable and manageable. Political leaders have always taught that love is not the basis of good governing, and they have always had religious leaders who would back them up on that.

But the risky, selfless, lay-down-your-life-agape-love that is given to us by Christ, is wild and freely given. The world cannot understand that kind of love. So, people can feel threatened when we try to give that love in the extravagant manner and measure in which we have received it.

Pray: Thank the Lord for the resurrection. Praise him that he proclaims, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5). Ask him today to make your actions part of the risky, self-giving love that he is using to change the world.

 

Tuesday, July 2

Read: Acts 4:1-4

Consider: With the persecution of those early believers, something happened that their persecutors could never have imagined.

“They seized Peter and John…they put them in jail…but many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” (4:3-4)

We see this phenomenon in the Book of Acts and throughout history. The church grows and becomes stronger during times of intense persecution.

This is so counterintuitive to us. One would think that if people were being thrown into jail for their faith, those around them would give up their faith to avoid prison, economic hardship, separation from their families, or even death. And unbelievers would certainly keep their distance. Why would anyone accept a faith and life that would endanger them and their families?

One explanation is the purity of the faith during times of persecution. Today in America, anyone can call himself or herself a Christian with no fear of reprisal. You may be ridiculed, but you won’t lose your job, your home, your freedom, or your life if you call yourself a Christian. So, many people wear that name. But suppose it would cost you everything. Obviously, there would be fewer people claiming Christ as Lord. It would mean that those who took the name of Christ would be those whose faith was authentic and whose hearts and lives were totally given to him. The church would consist of people like those first century believers who were “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

That’s what we mean by the purity of the faith during times of persecution. Persecution did not make it a “majority religion” as Christianity is seen today. It made it a growing movement that had the capacity to authentically reflect the love of Jesus Christ.

It is said that the purest water is not the stagnant water that is never troubled. The purest water is the water that has been forced to flow underground and over the rough, jagged rocks of the spring. That water surfaces with purity and life.

Persecution is not the biggest threat to Christianity. Assimilation to the values of our culture is a much deadlier threat.

Pray: “Lord, my prayer is that you will purify my heart and my life. Use everything—trouble, adversity, good times, frightening times, everything—to draw me closer to you. Give me an authentic faith—like the faith of those early believers—that draws other sincere seekers to you.”

 

Wednesday, July 3

Read: Acts 4:5-12

Consider: There is a phrase in this story that has become a creedal statement for Christ followers…

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (4:12)

If you’ve been a part of the church for a long time, you’ve heard that so much that it doesn’t seem like a particularly shocking statement. But when Peter made that statement the jaws in the room dropped. They could not believe what Peter had just said. For Peter had just committed treason. He had just opened himself up to the death penalty at the hands of the Romans. You see, that was the creedal statement of the theology of the empire. Peter was messing with—perhaps even mocking—the values of the government.

The Roman Empire of that day had an imperial theology—emperor worship. And one of their statements of faith was that Caesar was Lord, Savior and Deliverer, and that there was no other name under heaven given to men by which we can be saved. That’s right; Peter stole their creed about Caesar and made it a statement of faith in Jesus.

Paul was also adept at this. Richard Horsley writes…

“…we have recently been able to notice the extent to which much of Paul’s key terminology is borrowed from and turned back against imperial discourse. In the Roman imperial world, the ‘gospel’ was the good news of Caesar’s having established peace and security for the world. Caesar was the ‘savior’ who had brought ‘salvation’ to the whole world. By applying this key imperial language to Jesus Christ, Paul was making him into the alternative or real emperor of the world. No wonder Paul had a reputation of having preached in Thessalonica and elsewhere that ‘there is another emperor named Jesus’ and that his assemblies were all ‘acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar.’” (Acts 17:7)

Living for Jesus will mean acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar—contrary to the values of this world and its kingdoms. Greg Boyd wrote, “Our allegiance to God’s kingdom must subvert all other allegiances.”

Pray: “Lord, help me to understand how my allegiance to you and your ways must change everything else in my life. Show me in the daily work of life what it means to live by the values of your kingdom.”

 

Thursday, July 4

Read: 2 Chronicles 7:11-16

Consider: Immediately after the dedication of the temple, God gave promises and warnings to Solomon, the king of Israel. In this communication from God we find a passage that is often cited in our country at this time of the year…

“…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (7:14)

We often hear people use that promise as a call to repentance for America. There’s no doubt that America needs to repent, but that is not the best interpretation of this passage. It was a call to Israel, and the New Testament manifestation of Israel is not America. The New Testament parallel of Israel—God’s people—is the church. If we are to be true to this promise, we must understand that it is a call to us—God’s people—to be humble, to pray, to seek God’s face, to forsake our wicked ways. Therefore, we do not read this passage and say, “If only they would repent” (meaning people in our nation). We read this passage and ask, “For what must we—the church—repent?” God’s people are to be God’s people who live among the nations of this world. The church—the Spirit-filled Body of Christ—is the hope of this world. So, we must always humble ourselves before God and seek his face. When we discover that our love is conditional, that we embrace the might of empire over the vulnerability of sacrifice, that we “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13), our only response can be repentance. 

The story from Acts 4 that we’re looking at this week is important for us to hear. It is the story of the disciples’ allegiance to Christ that superseded all other allegiances. This week, as you celebrate a national holiday, thank God for the privileges that you have been given. Be grateful for what you can give to others. But don’t forget that we are citizens of another kingdom (Philippians 3:20). Our values come from that kingdom and our ultimate allegiance is to that King.

Pray: While living among the kingdoms of this world, ask the Lord to help you clearly see the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. Ask him for the Spirit’s power to live by those values today and every day. By those values, God’s people can bless this nation.

 

Friday, July 5

Read: Acts 4:8-13

Consider: After Peter’s astounding act of treason—his unequivocal statement of allegiance to Jesus Christ (see Wednesday’s thoughts)—Luke stated that…

“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (4:13)

Earlier they had asked Peter and John a question: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (4:7). They wanted to know the source of Peter’s and John’s authority. Perhaps they were expecting a theological discussion since Peter and John were standing before the Sanhedrin—the Jewish ruling council comprised of elders and scholars. Perhaps they were anticipating political justifications, since Peter and John were Jews who were defying the Romans. But they learned that the authority and power of these men did not rest on their education or even on their cause. They realized that the power and authority of their lives rested on one thing — “these men had been with Jesus.” And the result “astonished” them (4:13).

I want my life to be characterized by one thing alone. I want my life to show that I have been with Jesus. If there is any courage in my life, I want it to point to Jesus. If there is any authority or power in my life, I want it to point to Jesus. If there is any love in my life, I want it to point to Jesus. Anything that may come from us, will pale in comparison to what Christ wants to do in us and through us.

Pray: “Lord, when people see me, may they see you.”

 

Saturday, July 6

Read: Acts 4:13-20

Consider: Persecution was not a one-time event for Peter, John and the other disciples. It was their new reality as Christ-followers. They would have to learn how to find peace, how to serve, and how to thrive in the throes of great suffering and hardship. They discovered that following Jesus would cost them everything.

The religious leaders threatened Peter and John and “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (4:18). I love Peter’s response. It was so clear to him what he must do, that he turned it back on those officials, knowing that it must be evident to them as well.

“Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (4:19)

Peter was not hesitating between two futures. He had made the decision to follow Christ, no matter what may come his way. So, when he was presented with the fact that Jesus’ way would be the most difficult way, it did not deter him. He drew on the strength of the Holy Spirit, who had entered and filled his life (Acts 2). He was determined to rely on that strength as he navigated the immense challenges of proclaiming Jesus with his words and with his life.

This would not be the last time that Peter would see his calling in such stark terms. In the very next chapter, again under persecution, we again read his words, “We must obey God rather than men!” (5:29).

This is only possible by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It takes a higher power to live beyond yourself.

Pray: “Lord, I open myself to be filled with your Holy Spirit. For only with your indwelling presence can I overcome the forces and seductions of the values of this world. I do not want to waver between two futures. I want your power to enable me to ‘obey God rather than’ anyone or anything else.”