Thursday, April 30, 2020

Acts 15

Key Verse: Acts 15:19
Big Idea: The churches of Jesus may not add cultural barriers to the gospel.

What does a Christian dress like? How is her hair cut? What kind of music does he listen to? The Old Testament law included these kinds of regulations, from the kind of food that the people ate to the kind of clothes they wore. Their unique behavior showed that they were unique people. We should not be surprised that some people want to impose similar standards on Christians. But should they? If so, what are they?

Younger kids:  What does a good person look like in a cartoon? What about a bad person? Do those kinds of things really help us tell a person's heart?The New Testament is absolutely radical about these points. Christians are not marked out by any of these things, but by love (John 13:35).  Many of the first century Jewish Christians could not wrap their minds around this, so the leaders of the early churches gathered in Jerusalem for an associational meeting. Surely a Gentile convert must at least be circumcised? They needed to become Jewish to become Christians. But the firm decision was no: cultural barriers should not be added onto the gospel.

Older kids: While cultural barriers are illegitimate, what kinds of things should Christians refrain from? Can a Christian listen to music full of vulgar language, or watch a dating show that glorifies sexual immorality?  How is this different from regulations about church decorations or haircuts?
Today, circumcision is unlikely to be the barrier that we add. Maybe we look at other churches and say they must be unfaithful because they use old music or new music. Because they have a coffee bar or do not. The preacher wears a tie or he wears jeans. But none of these are God's markers, and what we are really saying is that people must become like us culturally before they can join our family spiritually. We want to tame the radical gospel, and make it into a plan that turns people into respectable citizens of our neighborhood, rather than citizens of Heaven. But it won't work. The restraint on our behavior is love, and a desire to keep our neighbor from stumbling (Acts 15:21). The only change necessary to come to Christ is one of the heart. Christ's message is offensive enough without us adding barriers: you and I are such wicked sinners, that the only way to defeat the sin in our lives was for the Son of God to come and overcome it as priest and sacrifice. If someone will be offended, let it be by that, not our opinions.

Discussion idea: Why do we like to label people by external things? How does God see people?
Prayer focus: Pray for a heart that loves people like God does, and a desire to reach the lost.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Acts 14

Key Verse: Acts 14:23
Big Idea: Jesus builds his churches, little by little.

Sometimes life is full of highs and lows, but no matter how intensely you have felt, I suspect it has never reached the levels of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14. Great multitudes were saved, then a handful of people sewed dissent until the whole city was divided. The people tried to worship them and then they tried to kill them. They went from popularity to being run out of town. What is most interesting to me is that God does not seem to build His churches through these extremes, but through the ordinary. Paul and Barnabas performed mighty miracles and saw thousands of people come to Christ, yet their real strategy was much more gradual. They led people to Christ, raised up pastors and then left them to grow. After they had traveled elsewhere, they returned to encourage the churches they had already planted. The growth of God's churches was not done all at once, but a little bit at a time.

This is the same way that God matures us. It is in the everyday, somewhere between the dishes and the laundry or between the coffee pot and the diaper bin, that God helps us to grow up. When we are faithful in the little things, God tends to reveal the next step. We do not get the whole roadmap at once, but little glimpses as we grow. The extremes may happen, but it is the discipline of the ordinary that prepares us for them. Churches, families, marriages and individuals are not built in a day, but in the gradual strengthening of a lifetime. Paul and Barnabas did their part, and entrusted them to the Lord on whom they believed.

Discussion idea: What little habits do you have every day? Every week? How do those shape your life?
Prayer focus: Jesus taught us to pray "Give us this day our daily bread." Pray for the strength and wisdom to face today, and the faith to leave tomorrow to God.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Acts 13

Key Verse: Acts 13:2
Big Idea: The leaders of the churches of Jesus are chosen by Him.

What makes a leader? We might provide different answers to this question. Most of us would agree that someone getting a promotion does not make them a real leader; John Maxwell says that position is the lowest level of leadership. Just as there are plenty of people with positions who are not leaders, there are plenty of leaders without a position. Then what makes a leader? Is it charisma? Intelligence? Skill? All of these things help a leader to be more effective but are not what makes the leader. Fundamentally, good leaders are followers first. In the church world, a leader is someone who is following God, and to whom God delegates a portion of His leadership. We do not choose our leaders, we recognize the ones God has already chosen.

In Acts 13, we see this in a big way. Barnabas and Saul are chosen to go out as missionaries from the church at Antioch, but it is a strange double-choosing. On one hand, God has selected them, and it is God who is sending them out. On the other, the church at Antioch sends them. But the church at Antioch is not presented by God with a choice about what they would like to do; that is not their role. The task of the church members is to identify what God is doing, and to follow in His footsteps. This is true in every decision we make in churches, whether selecting pastors and deacons, choosing a missionary to support or more mundane things. The question can never be "What do I want?" It always has to be "As I have been serving God and praying, what is God leading me to do?" If we follow His leadership, we will be wise leaders ourselves.

Discussion idea: Who is someone you want to be like? Why?
Prayer focus: Pray for the wisdom to see God's will, and to duplicate His leadership.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Acts 12

This week's summary video is available on YouTube.

Key Verse: Acts 12:24
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus outlives her enemies.

Acts 12 begins with one of Jesus' three closest apostles being martyred. We might expect Luke to dwell on this, describing some of the drama like he did with Stephen's martyrdom back in chapter 7. But instead, the death of a key figure from the gospels is recorded so quickly that a skimming reader might miss it - a single verse. Why is this tragedy not dwelled on? I think the answer is obvious: because this defeat is no defeat. Individual Christians might die, local churches might fall, but Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of Hell would never overcome His church; the institution prevails. Throughout the ages, churches have faced persecution (often from others claiming to be churches!), but they have always persevered. Sometimes driven underground, sometimes few in number, but the right side of history is ultimately God's side.

Younger kids: Have you ever run in a relay race? How does it work? How are churches like that?

Older kids: When you die, what will remain of your life? Do any of your goals and ambitions stretch beyond yourself enough to be part of God's age-long movement?

Herod Agrippa, who killed James, was himself killed by God for his blasphemy. But when that kind died, the word of God grew and multiplied. In chemistry, there is a principle called Charles' Law: the greater the heat, the greater the expansion. Over and over again, the churches of the Lord Jesus have proven that is true for us. The enemies of God's people may seem triumphant for a minute, but joy comes in the morning.

Discussion idea: What are some things now that seem to oppose the expansion of Christianity? Will any of them be successful? Why or why not?
Prayer focus: Praise God that He is the One who accomplishes His work, and ask Him for help prioritizing the things that will last.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Acts 11

Key Verse: Acts 11:22
Big Idea: The churches of Jesus must work together.

The events of Acts 10 are so monumental that Acts 11 largely recapitulates it. A group Luke called the "circumcision party" (although that was probably a name they did not go by until later) from the church at Jerusalem heard about the inclusion of the Gentiles and called Peter up to explain himself. When he did, their objections were silent and they glorified God. The conflict would return later, but for the present was quieted. Stephen's death and the broader persecution of which it had been a part had driven the saints out into the world, so many churches were formed. Each operated autonomously of the others, although all were under the authority of the apostles.

Trouble struck. A famine over the known world struck everyone, but especially the poor Christians at Jerusalem, who had been living off their pooled resources.Although these churches were autonomous, they were not merely independent. They worked together, with the other churches providing resources to support the church at Jerusalem in their time of sorrow. Barnabas and Saul took the offerings back to Jerusalem, the church that had helped reach them with the gospel repaid in spiritual support.

It is one of the great encouragements of life s Christians that we do not have to do God's work alone. It is too big for any one church to handle, so God has set the institution of the church up to persist, where the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18).  But he intends for us to cooperate, to send out missionaries, to meet physical needs and to bring Him glory.

Discussion idea: How much responsibility do we have when other churches are struggling? What about other individuals?
Prayer focus: Pray for others who are hurting and for opportunities to serve them.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Acts 10

Key Verse: Acts 10:28
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus transcends all races and nationalities.

It seems like every time I open my Bible to write these devotionals in the book of Acts, I am saying "what an important event!" It is always true, but today's reading might be especially important. The church at Jerusalem had been made up of Jews and Jewish converts, who had come to Christ. Some had been Hellenistic Jews and some Hebraic Jews, but they still shared a basic identity. The new churches also fit this same demographic, including the one Peter was worshipping with at Joppa. From childhood, they had been raised not to go into a Gentile's home (that is a non-Jewish person) or to have a Gentile in their home. Racism and nationalism ran deep, and even once Christ had freed them from the Law, they still carried an assumption about the way things ought to be.

This all changed when God gave Peter a vision, where He offered him a wide assortment of foods forbidden under the Law. God told him to eat, but Peter declined, because he had never broken kosher. While it is true that God had lifted the food restrictions (the mark of a church today is not food, dress or furniture, but love), that is not the point He was making. Instead, God was showing Peter that the old lines of clean and unclean no longer applied. Anyone in Christ - whatever their past (as the case of Saul), whatever their ethnicity (as in the case of Cornelius) and whatever their hardheadedness (as in the case of Peter) - came together as one family. The local churches formed were not to be Jewish churches or Gentile churches (still less black churches, white churches, rich churches, poor churches, old churches or young churches). They were to be churches that called no man unclean that God had cleansed; the only lawful division was the blood-bought and the lost. This was hard for the members of the church at Joppa to admit, and it took a miracle to get their attention. Before we judge them too harshly, a frank drive around the churches of today show a sharp separation too. Some may look with disdain on those underweight or overweight, Republicans or Democrats, people wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. The division may be class based, racial, cultural or something else, but the fact that we are One Family with One Lord should overcome all the old barriers. He has built His churches of His people, and our identity in Him makes everything else a footnote in comparison.

Discussion idea: Why do you think that some boundaries are so hard to overcome? What kind of person do you think you would struggle the most to see as a leader in your church? What kind of person would you struggle the most if they married your child?
Prayer focus: Pray that God would help you to not call someone unclean that He has cleansed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Acts 9

Key Verse: Acts 9:17
Big Idea: There is no one too undeserving to become part of the church of Jesus.

Chapter 9 is a watershed moment in Acts, in the Bible and in human history. Saul of Tarsus, who has supervised the death of Stephen and gone house to house persecuting the saints, is breathing murder against the Christians at the beginning of the chapter, but by the end he has almost been killed twice for being a Christian. In the first verses, we find him on the way to Damascus, intending to take Jesus' followers captive and back to Jerusalem where he would have jurisdiction to kill them. But a brilliant light intervened, and God struck him down and blind. As one of the most-loved hymns of all time puts it, his physical blindness allowed him to say that spiritually, "[I] was blind, but now I see."

When confronted by the risen Jesus, Saul had to admit that though he had been sincere, he had been sincerely wrong. So he humbly went to Ananias, and on the way, he fasted and was blind for three days. God warned Ananias that Saul was coming, and Saul was initially reluctant. His prayer was essentially: "Lord, do you know who this is?" God replied that Saul was going to suffer, but it was going to be for His Name. So Ananias, in an incredible act of faith, trusted God that Saul had been changed. The first thing that a Christian said to Saul which we have a record of is "Brother Saul." Ananias called Saul his brother while Saul was still blind, before he had been baptized, and perhaps while he was still wearing a bloodstained robe. He was part of God's family immediately and was baptized to show it publicly.

Younger kids: Do you have a hard time admitting when you are wrong? How do you think Saul felt when he had to admit he had done so much because he was wrong?

Older kids: What do you think of God forgiving a murderer like Saul? How does his sin compare to ours? How does an enemy of Jesus being converted add evidence for the truth of Christianity?

No one is so bad that they cannot become part of God's family, and no one is so bad that we in His churches should reject them once they come to Jesus. Although there was some hesitation to accept Saul, the saints soon came to treat him as a brother, until all the churches were given peace and strength by his work and they multiplied (Acts 9:31).

Discussion idea: What sins in someone's past would make you reluctant to accept their profession of faith? Why?
Prayer focus: Pray for your church to recognize that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and to be given that special unity that only God can provide. no matter who we are or what we have done.

PS: Unfortunately for our chapter-a-day plan, Acts 9 includes two major and somewhat unconnected events. At the end of the chapter, Peter raises a woman named Tabitha from the dead, an incredible miracle. But the name Tabitha is interesting. In Acts 9:40, Peter says "Tabitha, get up." In Mark 5:41, Jesus said "Talitha (little girl), get up." It is another incredible example of how the churches continue the work of their Lord. Indeed, when Saul is confronted, Jesus says to him: "Why are you persecuting Me?"

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Acts 8

Key Verse: Acts 8:4
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus has to hit the road.

When Jesus ascended to Heaven, He told His first church to wait in Jerusalem until they received power, then to go into all nations with the good news of the Kingdom of God. But by the time we get to the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7, they have not gone anyway. They are still in Jerusalem. It must not have seemed unreasonable since there was so much work to be done. But there was a whole world waiting, and it was time for the church to go. God let His enemies attack His people, which they must have seen as a great setback, to scatter them throughout the world. When they were scattered by persecution, they were not like the Israelites of old, just trying to hold on until they could get home. Instead, they preached the word everywhere they went. God applied some pressure and His people were squeezed out into the world.

We often perceive difficulties as working against what God is doing in our lives, but actually, God uses those difficulties to position us where he wants us. When things are easy, we get comfortable and we get lazy. In churches, it is easy to let the familiar become an idol, especially in a world where everything seems to be pulling apart at the seams. But God's people are people on the move, until the day that we rest in His Kingdom. A church is not who she ought to be until she is taking the gospel out and bringing the people in.

Discussion idea: Why is "normal" so comfortable for us? What struggles in your life right now could be a kick in the pants from God to get you moving in the right direction?

Prayer focus: Pray for the wisdom to be obedient to God in the little things, so when the push into the big things come, we will be ready.

PS: I would like to invite you to, the Alvin MBC Facebook or the Alvin MBC Youtube this Thursday at 6 PM. 3 other area pastors will be joining me to answer any biblical questions you may have. Send those questions to!


Monday, April 20, 2020

Acts 7

Key Verse: Acts 7:59
Big Idea: Sometimes the Church of Jesus is victorious in what looks like defeat.

Today's reading marks the first great tragedy of the church at Jerusalem. They had been beaten and rejoiced, they had faced sinners within and overcome, they had dealt with division and emerged stronger. Yet in Acts 7, we read about one of the first deacons who gave a bold testimony for Jesus and did not find himself rescued by an angel. No one stood up and talked the crowd down. After Stephen summarized the whole history of the nation, to show how Jesus and the people's rejection of Him was the culmination of the whole Bible, they grew furious instead of convicted. Stephen was given a special vision: he saw Jesus standing at the right side of the Heavenly Throne, and told the people so. They stuck their hands over their ears and screamed to drown him out. In a mob, they pushed him out of the city, picked up stones and threw that at him until he died. His crime was blasphemy, for suggesting a man who had been crucified could be at God's throne. The witnesses took their outer robes off to participate in the stoning and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul, who we will meet again.

After such a string of victories, was this finally the end of Jesus' assembly's success? No. It was through defeat that they would triumph. Stephen, even in His death, prayed for Jesus to receive Him and to forgive those who killed him. He overcame them, even in death, by refusing to crumble into sin. He overcame them because his prayer would be answered dramatically when the man overseeing his execution would be forgiven and used by God to write more books of the Bible than anyone else. In a powerful imitation of His Lord, Stephen was most powerful when he appeared the weakest.

Discussion idea: How can not defending yourself sometimes accomplish more than defending yourself? How does God make good out of a bad situation?
Prayer focus: Pray about a difficulty in your life, and ask God to use it to advance His Kingdom, no matter what the consequences for you personally.

Older kids might be interested in the way that stoning was legally carried out in Israel (at least by the late second century, the earliest detailed record we have). The first witness was required to push the person off a cliff of about 12 feet. Then the second witness was to drop a large stone on the criminal's chest, and if they survived, the crowd was to throw rocks at them until they died. The idea was that the witnesses were required to fully accept their status as murderers if they lied, and that like a firing squad, no one would know for certain who had delivered the lethal blow, making it an act of the community's justice rather than individual revenge. This is a far cry from the way stonings are carried out in some Muslim countries today, where it is designed as a form of torture.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Acts 6

Key Verse: Acts 6:7
Big Idea: The biggest threat to the Church of Jesus comes from within. 

When persecuted, the body of Christ grew stronger. When some in the body lived in hypocrisy, the sin was removed and the body grew stronger. Is there anything that could stop the tremendous success of this church at Jerusalem? The one enemy that posed a serious threat was far more subtle. As mentioned in Acts 4 and 5, the church at Jerusalem was pooling their resources and living with all things in common. As the church grew, the logistics began to grow more difficult and the Hellenistic widows (culturally Greek) began to complain that the Hebraic Jews were being treated better than they were. The division in the church caused a grumbling that forced the apostles to intervene. What the outside could not do, the bickering within almost did.

They argued that they should not leave their real work - the Word of God - to settle disputed about food. The fundamental job of the apostles, like the job of pastors today, was to pray and apply the Word of God to people's lives. Being caught up in divisions in the church and micromanaging the physical needs would undermine that, so the church selected 7 men to focus on these needs. The forerunners of deacons, their primary job was to maintain the unity of the church, at least partially by making sure the vulnerable in the church were cared for. 

One of them, Stephen, became the first martyr when he was killed for preaching the truth about Jesus. But when he died, he prayed for their forgiveness just as the Lord did. The church was victorious again. The threat from within was handled, and the threat from without was overcome with faith.

Discussion idea: What kinds of division threaten churches today? What kinds of divisions threaten families?
Prayer focus: Pray to be a unifier and a peacemaker, for God's glory. 

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Acts 5

Key Verse: Acts 5:3
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus can only operate with integrity.

The continuing saga of the church at Jerusalem is interesting: God's people grew stronger when faced with external opposition. As they were rejected by the outside world, they were forced to depend on each other ever more intensely. They sold their property and lived with all things in common, probably because finding work when their Jewish neighbors considered them heretics was more and more difficult. But the greatest test to their fellowship yet was not beatings or mockery, but plain old human greed.

Older kids: What kind of temptation is more challenging for you to resist: direct challenge, or someone acting like a friend? Why?

Ananias and Sapphira were members of the church at Jerusalem, who sold their property, but held part of it back for themselves. They apparently wanted to live out of the community's resources, while still keeping something for their own luxury. It is obvious that if many people did this, the whole community would collapse. Maybe it is less obvious that the risk was much more than financial: a church can only function when she has integrity. Hypocrisy and self-serving attitudes undermine everything Jesus taught, and miss the point that God knows our hearts and wants us to belong to Him completely. Ananias, and then Sapphira, were struck dead for trying to lie to God (a silly claim), and the whole community was awestruck. God removed a bad witness, where their sin was undermining the gospel, and created a good one: God is holy, and cannot be deceived. The church at Jerusalem was protected, and Jesus' ministry continued to spread.

Younger Kids: Have you ever had to leave somewhere because of the way you were acting? Did your family still love you? If God took Ananias and Sapphira home to Heaven because of their actions, did He still love them?

Discussion idea: Why did God act so decisively in response to this sin? What are some similar actions today regarding the church which we might take lightly, but which God does not?

Prayer focus: Ask God to help you identify the subtle areas where you are most vulnerable and protect you from those temptations.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Acts 4

Key Verse: Acts 4:20
Big Idea: For the Church of Jesus, the greater the heat the greater the expansion.

Acts 4 feels like it could have been a scene from Luke. Jesus performs a miracle, the religious leaders don't like it and their conflict begins to ramp up. The only difference is that this time, Jesus is already seated in Heaven and is performing this miracle through the hands of His people. Peter and John were held overnight and questioned about what had happened. They did not cower to the pressure of the authorities, but used the opportunity to boldly talk about what Jesus had done for them.

When Jesus had been in Jerusalem, the religious authorities were nervous about what to do with Him: they could not leave Him to continue undermining them, but they knew if they struck out publicly, the people would side with Him. They faced the same problem with Peter and John: here was a public miracle, and a peaceful message. What could they do? They called them back in and threatened them. They were getting a warning this time, but if they continued to preach about this Jesus, there would be repercussions. Peter's response was simple: they had to money God instead of people, and they could not help talking about what they had seen. Through their boldness, the church's ministry to the outside world strengthened, and their connection to each other grew deeper. The work Jesus started could not be doused by opposition: persecution only seemed to make His people stronger.

Discussion idea: Why would times of peace be more dangerous than times of persecution?
Prayer focus: Pray for the skill to find gospel opportunities in difficulties, and lift a specific current challenge in your life up to God for His help in using it for His glory.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Acts 3

Key Verse: Acts 3:6
Big Idea:  The Church of Jesus has treasure greater than what money can buy.

Outside the temple was a beggar. He had been unable to use his legs from the day he was born, and depended on the kindness of others to survive. His eyes facing the ground in shame, he reached out his hands and asked some men walking by for a little money to help him get something to eat. Instead, they gave him something much greater. The apostle Peter told him that, although they did not have silver or gold, they would give him what they did have, and by the power of Jesus, he healed the lame man. Instantly, the lame man had the strength and skill to walk and leap. But he had not yet received the greatest gift that Peter and John had to offer.

A crowd gathered to see this man's miraculous recovery, and Peter began to preach to them. It was not his own power or holiness that had healed this man, but his faith in the risen Jesus, who they (as a society) had handed over to Pilate to kill. That same Jesus had reached down and healed the lame man, and that same Jesus was ready to forgive them, if they would ask him. Far better than gold or silver and far better than the ability to walk: they offered the gift of eternal life.

Discussion idea: Do you think churches should help people with physical needs? How should that be tied to the priority of the gift of eternal life?
Prayer focus: Who are some people who told you about Jesus or taught you to walk with Him? Pray and thank God for them by name.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Acts 2

Key Verse: Acts 2:47
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus is built by Jesus.

If we were to trace the story of the Church of Jesus, as an institution, we would need to begin with John the Baptist. All of Jesus' first disciples - and Jesus - submitted to John's baptism. From those raw materials, Jesus assembled His first church and promised that He was building an institution against which the Gates of Hell would never prevail. Indeed, His own death could not stop His assembly from being salt and light in a lost and dying world, because He rose again on the third day to be her eternal head. In Acts 1, we saw Jesus ascend up to be enthroned in Heaven, no longer physically in our midst. But the Church he established to be His body persisted, although she waited in Jerusalem until the promise of the Father was fulfilled.

At the beginning of our chapter, the Church that was built by Jesus and began operating during His life was hooked up to her full power supply, when the Holy Spirit came to indwell and empower her to fulfill her Great Commission - taking the gospel and its implications to all nations. They spoke in other languages they had never learned as a sign that God was now building an assembly not of physical ancestry, but of faith. Peter preached a simple sermon about what Jesus did for us and how He fulfilled the promise of the Old Testament, and thousands were pricked in their hearts, coming to Jesus by faith.

But, it was still Jesus building His church, just as surely as when He looked Peter in the eye and said: "Follow me." They did not win people by their powerful oratory (they were fishermen), fancy buildings (they met in homes, no Christian church buildings would exist for centuries) or the promise of popularity and wealth (they had persecution instead). They simply had the evidence of Jesus, both His resurrection and the change He made in their lives. It was enough because building the church was not their job - it was His. It was the Lord who added to them daily those who had been saved, and their baptism was merely God's people, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, publicly proclaiming what He had already done.

Discussion idea: How did Jesus place you in your church? What circumstances or individuals did He use to get you into the local body that He intended for you? [Parents of young kids: tell your salvation testimony and how God connected you with the church]
Prayer focus: Pray for God to keep adding people through our obedience and that we would have the same kind of unity that amazed the people in Jerusalem back in the first century.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Acts 1

Key Verse: Acts 1:1
Big Idea: The church of Jesus continues the ministry of the Son of Man.

Luke opens the book of Acts with a brief introduction to Theophilus, the Greek man he originally wrote the book for. He explains that the first volume, what we call The Gospel According to Luke, was the record of what Jesus began to do and to teach. The book we call The Acts of the Apostles then begins with the ascension of Jesus, and describes the expansion of the early churches throughout the world. This might make the word "began" in Acts 1:1 seem strange, but it is a powerful truth. The work of the churches, Christ's body, is the continuation of His work. He lived a perfect life, doing good and spreading the good news and now He gives us the responsibility of carrying it on.

Our task is simply to be witnesses, at home, in our region and around the world. Because Jesus is our King and is enthroned in Heaven, it is our job to continue the work which He began. This Resurrection weekend, take the time to remember that Easter is not the end of the story, but the beginning.

Discussion idea: What are some of the specific things Jesus did which we carry on?
Prayer focus: Thank God for giving us the privilege of carrying on His work and the strength to do it. Ask for forgiveness for trying to live our lives as if they are our own story, apart from His. Pray for an opportunity to share the gospel.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Luke 24

Key Verse: Luke 24:27
Big Idea: The Son of Man fulfilled the whole Bible when He conquered death.

Christianity, unlike most religions, tells a story. The story has a distinct beginning: God created the world perfect and gave it to humanity to govern and enjoy. It has a crisis: mankind chose to reject God, breaking our relationship with each other and with our Creator and spiraling the world into pain and death. Then there is a climax: the power of sin broken once and for all by the Creator becoming a human, to endure the punishment for our sin and rise from the dead to serve as the bridge back home. Finally, there is the resolution: the risen Savior returns from Heaven to restore the paradise He had always intended.

Like the first time you watch a sophisticated movie, there are undercurrents you do not notice. But when you see them, it becomes clear that the whole story was working together. After Jesus rose on Sunday, He walked with some of the disciples and told them the story, with Himself at the center. Everything in the Old Testament had been building to this moment, and now all that was left was their response. It is true for us too. Our whole lives lead up to and flow out of our relationship with Jesus.

Discussion idea: What is your favorite Bible story? How does it point forward to Jesus?
Prayer focus: Many in our world are grieving the loss of loved ones and trapped by fear of who else might be lost. Pray for the comfort that online Jesus' life can provide. If you know someone grieving, mention them by name, and pray they will see that Jesus is still the climax of the story.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Luke 23

Key Verse: Luke 23:43
Big Idea: The Son of Man died among and for sinners.

From the illegal Sanhedrin trial, Jesus was led to Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate found no crime but decided He was Herod's jurisdiction and Herod's problem. Pushed through the night, Jesus stood his third trial. Herod stalled, mocked, but sent him back to Pilate without making a decision. But the people cried out for Him to be crucified, whipped into a mob. Jesus was then led to a hill called "The Skull" to be crucified.

He was not to die alone, but with one criminal on each side. The One who had done no wrong was counted among the wicked and the wicked surrounded the foot of His cross, gambling for His clothes and scoffing at Him. He prayed for them to be forgiven, and although He could have, ignored their challenges to come down off the cross. He was not just between two thieves but voluntarily stayed on the cross for their sakes. Although both of the criminals initially joined in the verbal attacks, something about Jesus must have touched the heart of one of them.

He acknowledged that He was crucified justly and that Jesus was not. He asked Jesus to remember Him when He came into His Kingdom. This crook, on his last day alive, admitted He was a sinner, believed that Jesus was dying for Him and that He would rise again victorious, then He called on Jesus to save Him. As He has untold millions of times, Jesus did save Him. When our heart sees Him on the cross, the response that we need is: that ought to be me. Lord, rescue me! The Son of Man, who was sinless but took the penalty of sin for us, is ready to deliver us from it. When He died on the cross, the veil that separated people from God was torn and He voluntarily gave His life up.

Discussion idea: Why do you think the thief came to faith in Jesus? What about the events of the chapter might have touched His heart? What about it touches yours?
Prayer focus: Pray for the salvation of those far from Jesus, and forgiveness of our own sins.

PS Here is a great song about the thief on the cross:

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Luke 22

Key Verse: Luke 22:19
Big Idea: The Son of Man gave His life for ours.

On the night before He died, Jesus called His disciples together to celebrate the Passover. Almost the equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined, Passover was such a dramatic event in Israel's history that the entire calendar was changed to make it the first month (Exodus 12:2).The feast, where each family gathered and ate a lamb, remembered the night that God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and truly made them a nation for the first time. But it also looked forward, to the day that the slavery to sin would be broken by the blood of a new Lamb, who would make a new family, not of genetic ancestry, but of faith. 

Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper, one of two pictures He gave His churches, by refashioning the Passover. The unleavened bread would represent His sinless body, and the wine His blood. When they took the Lord's Supper, they would reflect on how the loss of His life is what gives us the sustenance we need to live. But just as the Passover pointed both forward and backward, the Lord's Supper has another element. It looks forward to the day when the risen Jesus returns and breaks the power of sin once and for all. The basis of our unity with one another is our simple dependence on God and our common hope in His return.

But before this symbol had been digested, one of the apostles, Judas Iscariot, had already betrayed Jesus into the hands of the mob that took Him to an illegal trial before the Sanhedrin. When Jesus waited on them to come and take Him away, He prayed alone. Beaten, mocked and denied by even Peter - Jesus knew it was coming, and proved it by instituting this supper. He could have stopped it, but He chose to give His life for ours.

Discussion idea: Why do you think Jesus gave us symbols like baptism and the Lord's Supper to serve as pictures of our faith?
Prayer focus: Pray for the kind of two-sided perspective the Lord's Supper teaches: one eye on the death and resurrection of Jesus and another on His return. May God give us the ability to have that point of view for our lives.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Luke 21

Key Verse: Luke 21:34
Big Idea: The Son of Man is coming soon.

 Luke 21 is sometimes called the little Revelation. It describes in abbreviated form the events of the end of the age and ends with a call to be ready. Many people are consumed with prophetic charts and timelines, trying to set a date or place a name on every detail. Interestingly, that is not the emphasis that Jesus places at all. In the Texas CDL handbook, one piece of advice stood out to me. It said something like: "The best way to have both hands on the wheel in an emergency is to always have both hands on the wheel." Jesus' warning is that, because He will come suddenly, we should always live the lives we would want to be living if He came today.

He describes two temptations that lull us to sleep and complacency, and they seem almost like opposites. The first is surfeiting (the CSB translates it as the more familiar term "carousing" and one commentator rendered "unbridled indulgence") and drunkenness. Don't get caught up in a partying lifestyle that chases after the momentary pleasures of this life, because they are going to be taken away in an instant, like the snap of a mousetrap. The second temptation is to be overcome by the anxieties of this life. Perhaps this one is more insidious because of course, we must be aware of our need for shelter, food, and clothing. But daily anxiety shows a heart that is too fixed on things of this world. Don't get caught up in the pressures of this life, because they too are going to be taken away in an instant.

What should we do instead? The Son of Man's simple advice is to pray that we will have the strength to stand. We cannot resist these pressures in our own strength, and if we really believe the coming of the Lord is soon, we have no time to fool around with impossible schemes. Be alert and pray - the two hands on the wheel.

Discussion idea: What kind of temptation, negative or positive, is the most distracting to you? Why? How can you pray about that?
Prayer focus: If prayer to have the strength to stand is key, we must pray to have the strength to remember to pray! Ask God to show you your own inadequacy, not that it might cause anxiety, but replace it by removing the illusion you could ever handle your life in the first place.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Luke 20

Key Verse: Luke 20:14
Big Idea: The Son of Man is the heir of all creation, but invites us to share as joint-heirs with Him.

The parable of the tenants in Luke 20:9-18 is essentially a history of the world and of Israel in particular. God is the landowner, who planted a garden for mankind (and put Israel in the land that flowed with milk and honey). Everything we have really belongs to Him, and He sent His servants (Moses, the prophets, the apostles) to ask us for a portion of what was all His. Imagine! God lets us live in His world and experience His blessings, and all He asks in return is that we return a small portion of what is already His. But, the tenants beat the servant and sent him away empty-handed.

Younger kids:
Take a minute to explain to younger kids that an heir is someone who will receive something when the owner dies. Eventually, they have a right to possess it. With God, things are a little different. Jesus, as the heir of all creation, is the one who has the right to possess it all. But when we are saved, we become God's children and are allowed to share in His blessings like we are His siblings.

So the Master sent others, but they were mistreated too, one after the other. Finally, He decided to send His own Son: if they would listen to anyone, it would be Him. Instead of obeying, they cast Him out and killed Him. If they had accepted the Son, they would have had mercy. But if they reject the Son, there is no later messenger of grace. Time is up. The tenants who destroyed His Son will find themselves destroyed, and find the vineyard given to others instead.

In the immediate sense, because the nation of Israel finally rejected Jesus' plea, God offered the Kingdom to the Gentiles. More generally, the wise and the "righteous" of this world are rejected and those who come to Jesus with simple faith are the ones who inherit the Kingdom. When God comes to us, demanding what is rightfully His, do we respond with gratitude or entitlement?

Discussion idea:
Compare the way they treated the servants to the way they treated the Son. Who was treated worse? Why?
Prayer focus: Thank God for some specific blessings in your life, and ask Him to show you some ways to give a portion of them back to Him.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Luke 19

Graphic: - Logos Bible Software

Key Verse: Luke 19:10
Big Idea: The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.

In Luke 18, Jesus told us a story about an imaginary tax collector who was accepted by God when the self-righteous Pharisee was not. Today's reading introduces us to a real tax collector - the chief one! Tax collectors were franchise operators for the Roman government, which was occupying the land of Israel. Zacchaeus, the tax collector in our narrative, would likely have collected tariffs on merchandise carried through Jericho, with the aid of other subcontractors he would recruit. He was hated for the strain that taxes put on daily life, for his aid to the oppressive Roman regime and for his own personal immorality - defrauding people of taxes beyond what they actually owed to line his own pockets.

Younger kids: If you lived in Zaccheus' town, what would you think of him? How do you think Jesus thought about Him?Older kids: Who are the "tax collectors" today? In your school? In the eyes of adults you know? How do you treat them? How would Jesus?
If there was anyone to condemn, it was Zaccheus. If there was anyone to walk past without slowing down, it was Zaccheus. But that is not what Jesus did. Luke reminds us time after time that the gospel is for the sin-enslaved and the outcasts. It is good news for those with no other good news. Jesus did not come to condemn these people, but to rescue them by dying in their place. As the rest of the chapter makes clear, this does not last forever. Eventually, the time to repent is up, and we will be judged for whether or not we submitted to Jesus. We must turn to Him now, because now is the hour of salvation.

Some parts of this narrative, although it was very real, seem almost allegorical. The man who was too short physically to see Jesus climbed up in a tree, but spiritually, he still could not reach high enough. The only way to truly go up was to come down the tree to Jesus, like the tax collector in the parable who humbled himself. Ultimately, Zaccheus looked like an unlikely candidate to be a friend of God, but because he answered Jesus' call, he was. Many others who looked more promising would be rejected (Luke 19:42-44) because they did not recognize Jesus' voice when He called them down.  Will we?

Discussion idea: Why did major sinners like Zaccheus seem to have an easier time accepting Jesus than the scribes and Pharisees?
Prayer focus: If Jesus came to seek and save the lost, that must be our same goal. Pray for an opportunity to share the gospel with someone and the courage to take that opportunity.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Luke 18

Key Verse: Luke 18:14
Big Idea: We all come to the Son of Man on equal footing.

Why is one person blessed by God, while another struggles? There will always be a mystery to some of these scenarios because God's plans are beyond our comprehension. Sometimes there is no reason that we could ever know. Part of the problem is that our understanding of a blessing is too superficial, and one person may be poor in earthly possessions, but rich with God. Our heavenly Father, and the Son He sent to save us, are primarily concerned with the state of our hearts. It is our heart that ultimately leads to the blessing of fellowship or the curse of separation. To take a simple act of devotion, in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told a parable of two prayers and the men who prayed them. One was accepted and the other rejected. Why?

The Pharisee, faithful and religious, prayed with bold confidence. He waltzed up to the Temple, lifted up his eyes to Heaven (the normal pattern for prayer in the entire Bible) and thanked God that He was not a sinner like other people - including the tax collector he had walked past - and told God about the good works he did. The tax collector did not approach the Temple and beat his chest as a sign of mourning, simply recognizing his sin and asking for forgiveness. God rejected the Pharisee and accepted the publican because the first trusted in his own hollow righteousness and the second trusted in God's mercy, which we receive by faith in Jesus' sacrifice. If we want intimacy and blessing from God, the only path is to recognize that we could never deserve it.

Pride is a particularly dangerous sin because it is always within arm's reach. Even when we are doing something good, pride is crouching in the shadows, waiting to pounce and consume us. The Pharisee looked at the tax collector and sinned even in his prayer. But let's be careful, lest we read this story and say "I thank You that I'm not like other people - or even like this Pharisee." Self-righteousness is the enemy of self-awareness and pride is the enemy of blessing.

Discussion idea: How can we follow God without being proud? Why is comparison with other people always a losing game, whether we think we are doing well or not?
Prayer focus: Pray for God to break the brokenness in our hearts that leads us to compare ourselves with others, and simply come to Him through the cross.