The Early Believers — 5

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7-8)

 

Monday, July 15

Read: Acts 9:15-16

Consider: Last week we saw the beauty of the Lord’s words to Ananias when he referred to Saul as “my chosen instrument to carry my name” (9:15). I believe you and I are chosen instruments as well. But if we embrace that reality, there is another part of the calling that we must face. The Lord went on to say, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (9:16).

Like you, that makes me a little uncomfortable. I like the serene images of uninterrupted peace and joy. I want wisdom, but I’m hoping I can attain it without suffering.

I’m guessing most of us recoil from that statement but find assurance by deciding that Saul was special, and God does not consider us to be of the same caliber. And yet we know better. We know that ultimately, while our callings are diverse in how they will be implemented, the substance is the same. We are called to give our lives fully to Jesus Christ.

In one of his letters Saul—who, at this point was known as Paul—reflected on the experiences that followed his calling…

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28)

Yet, there is something very special about Paul’s response. Even though he recounts his trials, he never seems to complain. Quite the opposite. He seems to be filled with gratitude and contentment…

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

Don’t fear Christ’s calling on your life. Don’t be afraid of where he will take you. That peace and joy we crave can be present in the most strenuous moments of our journeys. Praise him that you are counted worthy to be his chosen instrument for a hurting world.

Pray: “Lord, perfect your strength in my weakness. I give my life to you. Do to me, in me and through me all that you want to do.”

 

Tuesday, July 16

Read: Acts 11:19-26

Consider: “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (11:26). That term has stuck for two thousand years. Christian. What does it mean to you? What does it mean to our culture? What did it mean when they first used it to describe Jesus-followers?

Originally people referred to the early believers as “Nazarenes” because they were followers of Jesus of Nazareth. But the new name they received at Antioch showed a deeper understanding of what it was that these Jesus people believed.

The Greek word, “Christ”—Christos—was simply a translation of the Hebrew word, “Messiah.” The Messiah that the Old Testament prophets spoke of, was the One who would come and set all things right. Isaiah said….

“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all humanity together will see it.” (Isaiah 40:4-5)

Luke later quoted that prophecy from Isaiah to tell us that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, that Messiah (Luke 3:5-6).

When the people of Antioch called the first century disciples “Christians,” they were calling them “Messianists.” They were saying, “These people actually believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. And they believe it with their lives!”

Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah—the Christ? Do you believe that he is making “everything new” (Revelation 21:5)? Do you believe that he is setting all things right, rather than settling for the cynical belief that this world is going to hell? Are you allowing him to use your life to make his will a reality “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)? If so, Christian, proudly wear the name of the Messiah.

Pray: Thank the Lord that the long-awaited Messiah has come. Thank him that you know Messiah and Messiah knows you. Ask him to empower you to be an agent of the Messiah’s work here on earth—this very day.

 

Wednesday, July 17

Read: John 1:35-46

Consider: As Jesus called his first disciples, we can see that the concept of the Messiah was familiar and important to them. In fact, it was central to their faith. Look at the first words that came from Andrew when he found Jesus (or when Jesus found him).

“The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (that is, the Christ).” (John 1:41)

Nathanael’s response was interesting. After Philip told him that they had found the Messiah—“the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote, Jesus of Nazareth”—Nathanael replied, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:45-46).

Apparently, Nazareth was not a highly respected place. So, when the Jesus-followers were called “Nazarenes” it wasn’t a term of respect. The same is true when the people of Antioch started calling them “Christians” (see yesterday’s meditation). It was probably a term of contempt for many who used it.

I think we would be safe to say that for some people today, the term “Christian” is still a term of contempt. But we discover it usually doesn’t stem from contempt for Jesus, but from contempt for people who have done atrocious things in the name of Jesus. History is replete with those who did unspeakable acts in the name of Christ—the Crusades, the Inquisitions, persecution of the Jews, blatant racism—as well as examples we see in today’s headlines. People can smell hypocrisy a mile away. So, many times the name “Christian” is said with a sneer.

But history is made every day. And today you and I can make history. We can embrace those who are rejected. We can defend the vulnerable. We can give from our abundance to those who have little. We can include the excluded. We can give voice to those who have no voice. We can love with abandon. We can be the face of Christ to hurting people in such a way that the name of Jesus is honored.

Even in our brokenness, we can act like Jesus.

Pray: “Lord, I want my life to bring honor to you. Get me out of the way. I don’t want people to see me. I want them to see you in me. Help me today to bring honor to you by how I serve you and how I serve others.”

 

Thursday, July 18

Read: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Consider: Let’s be honest. Sometimes the world has contempt for Christians because some Christians have contempt for the world. I know we don’t like to admit to that. We say we love the sinner but hate the sin. That may sound good to us, but it doesn’t really connect, or even make sense, to those who feel condemned by our words.

God loves this world and everyone in it. If we claim to be the people of God, we must love what God loves. And that means treating people with whom we disagree with dignity and respect. Listen to Peter’s advice…

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (1 Peter 3:15)

…and Paul’s…

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6)

An ambassador is someone who goes to a foreign land to speak for his or her leader or country. An American ambassador abroad is the face and voice of America to that foreign government. Paul used this image when he said…

“We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)

We must take seriously our charge to be the face of Christ. And that means conveying the love of Christ to the kingdoms of this world. Only then can we carry the “message of reconciliation” and participate in the “ministry of reconciliation” to which we are called (5:18, 19).

Pray: “Lord, today may the world see Christ in Christians—starting with me.”

 

Friday, July 19

Read: Acts 15:1-11

Consider: Old habits and old ways of thinking are hard to break. It is difficult to grow out of old belief systems. The guilt of the past can rear its ugly head again and again. Suppose that for your entire childhood and adolescence you had been taught that it was a sin to wear brown shoes. Only black was acceptable. Suppose this had been driven into your consciousness. Then you became an adult and realized that this prohibition made no sense whatsoever. So, you started wearing brown shoes. You knew that it was fine, that there was nothing wrong with wearing brown shoes. But every time you laced up those brown shoes, you felt a twinge of guilt. Your head knew what was right, but your heart didn’t cooperate.

Now imagine what it must have been like for first century Pharisees. They had a deeply held belief that it was the strict observance of the law that would bring salvation. Some of those Pharisees (like Saul) became followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced the liberating power of the cross. They had been forgiven of their sins based on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But old habits die hard. It seems that there was some residue of belief (perhaps induced by false guilt) that our observance of the law makes our salvation possible. So, when Gentiles—who had never known the law of Moses—started coming to Christ, “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’” (15:5). Some bluntly said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (15:1).

Wow! Imagine that! Christians telling other Christians, “If you do not live in the manner I live, you cannot be saved.”

What was at stake was the very meaning of Christianity. What does it mean to be a Christ follower? What does it mean to be saved? How is one saved? From what are we saved? Is it based on Christ’s work, my work, or a combination of both? Paul and Barnabas disagreed with those who said salvation was dependent upon the laws of Moses. When the apostles and elders met to discuss it, Peter stood up and said…

“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them… We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (15:7-9, 11)

There is so much in that statement, so much that was life-changing for them and continues to be life-changing for us. But, for now, let’s consider just one thing—“it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved” (15:11).

Remember today, that it’s all about grace. You are God’s child because of grace. You can experience God’s presence today because of grace. God has removed your sin from you “as far as the east is from the west” because of grace (Psalm 103:12). If you forget that, you may try today to be good enough to earn God’s favor. You may lose the joy of your service to God, because you’ll be doing it out of duty rather than out of gratitude. Don’t lose your awareness of grace today or you may lose your joy.

Pray:  Thank the Lord that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

 

Saturday, July 20

Read: Acts 15:12-19

Consider: This really is a big deal. The meeting at Jerusalem that is described by Luke in the fifteenth chapter of Acts is one of the most significant events in the Bible. You see, up until that time, the Jewish Jesus-followers were viewed as just another sect of Judaism. You had the Pharisees, the Sadducees (or the Herodians), the Zealots, the Essences, and now the Nazarenes (the Jesus-followers). But when the Gentiles began to follow Jesus, the early Christians had to deal with a specific question: Do you have to be a Jew to be a Christian? Some of the Pharisee Christians said, yes, the pagans must convert to Judaism to become Christ-followers.

“This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them” (15:2). Paul, Barnabas, Peter and others affirmed that you don’t have to be Jewish or convert to Judaism to be a Christian. Later, some Christians would swing in the opposite direction and say you can’t be a Jew and be a Christian. That unfortunate misinterpretation of Acts 15 has brought untold pain to our world. You certainly can be a Jew and a Jesus-follower—the first Christians were. But the wise believers of Acts 15, led by James, said that the grace of Jesus even transcends our religious beliefs or lack thereof.

The leaders of the church at Jerusalem put their conviction on this matter down in writing—in a letter to the Gentile believers. I love the way they worded it as they welcomed them into the family…

“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (15:28)

Beautiful. I’m so glad our early leaders were sensitive to the Holy Spirit. It changed our lives.

Pray: Pray for the leaders of today’s church—local, national and global leaders. Ask the Lord to help all Christian leaders to be humble and to live in such a manner that they can know the leading of the Holy Spirit. Thank God for the humble leaders who have gone before us. And, as the writer to the Hebrews implored us, “Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).