The Early Believers — 4

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 8

Read: Acts 6:8-15

Consider: Before we consider the impact of Stephen’s witness* to the world, let’s take note of a brief mention of him in 6:5. Stephen was one of seven people who were chosen as leaders in the infant church. And we are told that they were chosen, in part, because they were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3).

Stephen was not one of the twelve apostles. He was one who was chosen to help oversee the daily distribution of food to the impoverished widows in the church at Jerusalem. If we were to look to a contemporary parallel in the church, and use modern parlance, we might say that Stephen was not a clergyman, but was a lay leader in the church. But really his title or lack thereof, was not the issue. The issue was…

He was a man “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (6:3).

He was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5).

He was “a man full of God’s grace and power” who was used by God to do “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (6:8).

He was a man whose enemies “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (6:10).

He was a man who, when he was accused unjustly, slandered and maligned, had a countenance “like the face of an angel” (6:15).

And, as we shall see, he was a man who forgave and prayed for his enemies while he died for his faith (7:60).

The first Christian martyr—the first one to die for his faith in Christ—was a man whose only “credentials” were spiritual. We don’t hear anything about his education, his occupation or his skills. We only hear about how powerfully the Holy Spirit worked in him and through him. That same Spirit is available to each one of us who submit ourselves to God to be his vessel in this world.

Pray: “Lord, help me to be willing to pay any price to walk in your steps. May I not look for my worth in the things deemed important by this world. Rather, help me to find my identity and significance in you. I want to be totally given to you and filled with your Spirit.”

*When Luke shared Jesus’ call for us to be his “witnesses” (Acts 1:8), he used the term márturos, which also means “martyr.”

 

Tuesday, July 9

Read: Acts 7:51-60

Consider: Between Luke’s accounts of Stephen’s arrest and his execution, he recorded Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:1-53). If you ever need a primer on Old Testament history, this is the place to go. Stephen was retelling a story that those leaders knew, but that they did not fully understand. The facts weren’t hard for them to hear. The truth was.

The account of Stephen’s witness—his martyrdom—presents some beautiful parallels to the way Jesus lived, died and loved. We see some striking similarities to Jesus’ final hours before his crucifixion.

At his so-called trial, Stephen was accused of blasphemy as they trumped up false charges (6:11-14).

“…but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke.” (7:10)

“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.” (7:59-60)

It puts Stephen’s spirit into perspective. With all the wonderful things said about him (see yesterday’s thoughts), what we find is very basic. Stephen was striving to be like Jesus. The Spirit of Jesus Christ lived in Stephen and empowered him to be like his master. That kind of greatness is available to any person who is willing to follow Christ, no matter what it costs, and who is humble enough to invite the Holy Spirit to rule their life.

In our culture where so many people define Christianity by what one believes, Stephen show us that the witness is defined by a life lived for Christ—a life that actually looks like the life of Jesus.

Pray:

I have one deep, supreme desire, that I may be like Jesus.
To this I fervently aspire, that I may be like Jesus.
I want my heart His throne to be, so that a watching world may see
His likeness shining forth in me.
I want to be like Jesus.

O perfect life of Christ, my Lord! I want to be like Jesus.
My recompense and my reward, that I may be like Jesus.
His Spirit fill my hungering soul, His power all my life control.
My deepest prayer, my highest goal, that I may be like Jesus. 

— Thomas O. Chisolm (1945)

 

Wednesday, July 10

Read: Acts 7:59-8:4

Consider: It’s a sobering statement. Every time I read it, I hurt for our sisters and brothers who went before us. Luke tells us that…

“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.” (8:1-2)

It’s difficult to comprehend the pain and suffering in those two simple sentences. One of their leaders was murdered and now they had to leave the city. They were spread out—Luke says “scattered”—throughout the rural areas. The Body of Christ that gave them strength, stability and love was no longer physically together in one place. Unlike today, when we can keep contact with family and friends across the miles, those believers had no contact with the church as a whole community. And they had no idea when—if ever—they would be together again. There was deep mourning for Stephen, but also profound grief for all the losses they were taking. This man, Saul, was going from house to house, ripping families apart and terrorizing the children by throwing men and women into prison (8:3). Imagine being separated from your children and not knowing if you’ll ever see them again. Imagine the panic of wondering what had happened to them and hoping that they knew that you had not intentionally abandoned them.

And out of this dreadful chaos came something remarkable.

“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” (8:4)

Saul was trying to “destroy” the church (8:3), but instead, he forced the church out of the city, into the outlying areas of Judea and Samaria. And there the word of God spread. There the message of Jesus flourished. There Christ was at work in new and wonderful ways.

Sometimes the circumstances of life will force us into areas we never intended to go. Life-threatening illness, depression, financial reverses, the loss of loved ones, and many other situations take us from our safe place. But we remember that Christ is still with us. Christ is still at work. And Christ still wants to work through us to touch a hurting world.

Pray: “Lord, when I’m ‘scattered’ to places I don’t want to be, remind me of my brothers and sisters who have gone before me. Thank you for their faithfulness in horrendous circumstances. Thank you that I also can cling to you and be used by you no matter what comes my way.”

 

Thursday, July 11

Read: 1 Timothy 1:12-14

Consider: Ignorance is a dreadful thing. I’ve always been fascinated by one particular scene in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The Ghost of Christmas Present was just concluding its time with Ebenezer Scrooge when it said, “Look here!”

From the folding of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! Look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters’ half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! Are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy…

I’ve always found it intriguing that when Dickens (who grew up in poverty) warned about want and ignorance, ignorance was the thing he said to fear the most. It begins to make sense when you consider today’s scripture reading. Saul was a violent persecutor of the followers of Christ. Mercilessly he separated families, threw men and women in prison, and encouraged the murder of Stephen. And those are just the things we know about him. Only God knows what else he did to “destroy the church” (Acts 8:3). He was a man of “murderous threats” (Acts 9:1). Yet, he would later confide to Timothy, “I acted in ignorance” (1 Timothy 1:13).

What that means is that, at the time that Saul was persecuting the church, he was convinced that he was doing the right thing. His actions were not motivated by a desire to destroy the work of God. He thought he was doing the work of God.

That’s why I say that ignorance is a dreadful and frightening thing. What does Saul have in common with the Crusaders who tried to convert Muslims at the point of a sword, or Islamic terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center? They all did unspeakable acts in the name of God.

We have two mighty weapons against ignorance—revelation and love. Revelation comes to us from God when we humbly seek his face in the accountable context of the Body of Christ. And love protects us when we are confused in our faith. If Saul had put love into action, he would have been able to avoid his gravest sins until he received revelation from Jesus Christ. “God is love” (1 John 4:16). We must always remember that his love must be the context for everything we do. If we love, we can learn. If we don’t love as he loves, we may become the victims of our own ignorance.

Pray: “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” (Psalm 25:4-5)

 

Friday, July 12

Read: Acts 9:1-9

Consider: Saul was an impressive man. Before his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, he had gained prestige and power within the religious establishment.

“I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:14)

He was a brilliant theologian and a leader with tremendous confidence in his religion. That is, until Jesus dismantled his religious props and replaced them with himself. I love the simplicity with which Jesus spoke to Saul in that vision…

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…” (Acts 9:5)

It was as though Jesus was saying, “I’m not going to introduce a new religious system to you, just allow me to introduce myself.” (I know. I’m reading a lot into that, but that’s my paraphrase.)

At some point, we must all make that exchange—experience that conversion. We must discard our religious accomplishments and rely solely on Jesus Christ. The simple call that was extended to Saul is extended to each one of us.

And when he met Jesus, Saul understood. He got it. He later said…

“If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” (Philippians 3:3-8)

Pray: Thank the Lord that it is by his grace, not your accomplishments, that you are saved. Praise him for the relationship he has offered to you.

 

Saturday, July 13

Read: Acts 9:1-15

Consider: I don’t know what kind of underground intelligence system the early church had, but somehow Ananias knew about Saul’s mission.

“Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” (9:13-14)

It strikes me as a little humorous. Ananias seems to be giving the Lord more details so that God will fully understand the situation and change his mind. Well, the Lord already knew about Saul’s mission, but he was planning a greater one.

“But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument…’” (9:15)

I know that we don’t see ourselves as we see the great leaders who went on before us. After all, we now call Saul, “Saint Paul” or “The Apostle Paul.” We don’t put ourselves in the same category as saints and apostles. But that is unfortunate, because saints are precisely what we are called to be. And that is how Paul would later address the people of God. He wrote his letters to “the saints”—to us.

If that seems like a stretch (perhaps you grew up in a tradition that reserved that term for a select group of people), consider another designation. Jesus called Saul his “chosen instrument” (9:15). Now there’s a title we can’t ignore. Each one of us is a chosen instrument for the purposes of Christ on this earth.

Don’t deify Saul (later called Paul). He was not cut from a different cloth than you or me. He was a violent, blasphemous, murderous man who was chosen by Christ to be an agent of God’s grace and mercy on this earth. You may not be violent, blasphemous or murderous, but you are chosen.

Pray: “Teach me, Lord, what it means for me to be a chosen instrument. I humble myself before you. I give myself to discovering and fulfilling your will for my life. I’m honored that you have chosen me.”