Friday, May 13, 2022

May 13 - Acts 23


Key Verse:  Acts 23:27
Big Idea: 
God’s sovereignly directs the circumstances of our lives to advance the mission of the Church of Jesus. 

This week, I was putting a new water filter on our faucet (the filter change light on the old one had gone out). In the bag, there were several pieces that were obviously for different sized sink faucets, as well as a few plastic washers. I did not see what point the washer served, so I put it together without it. When I turned the water on, the splattering water gave me a hint that maybe I needed the washer after all. I have had the opposite experience too. When building the playset for our kids in the backyard, there were a few trips to Ace hardware to pick up some bolts which did not come in the four massive boxes. Sometimes it seems we have too many pieces, other times too few. Our text today is a powerful reminder that when God is building our lives, He includes precisely the tools and hardware we need. 

As Paul prepared to address the Sanhedrin, he noticed that there happened to be a mix of Sadducees (who only accepted Genesis-Deuteronomy and did not believe in the resurrection of the dead) and Pharisees (who accepted our whole Old Testament). When he addressed them, he was able to use that fact to show that the issue at hand was the resurrection, and pull them away from condemning him to fighting among themselves. Before Paul was ever born, his parents were Roman citizens (a fairly elite group). How they acquired that citizenship is lost to the mists of time, but they could not have known how that fact would change the course of history when Paul was able to preach the gospel before kings because of it. When a group was trying to kill Paul in ambush, his nephew happened to hear about it, and was able to warn Paul and the man in charge of his care, so his life could be saved. 

These "coincidences" were not coincidences at all, but the master plan of the Master. It is a mystery how our free will and God's sovereignty work together, but they do. Your address, the language you speak, your citizenship, your career, your parents, or your education are no accidents. Do you have a medical problem? A friend? A heartache? A joy? All of these are not ends, but tools in the hands of Jesus, to bring the hope of forgiveness and life to the world. Every detail has purpose and meaning, so you certainly do too. 

Discussion idea: What is a small thing that has had big consequences in your life? How does God use things which we would not expect and might not be able to control to help us be witnesses for Him?
Prayer focus: Thank God for the family He gave you, and how He uses its positives and negatives to shape you and equip you.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

May 12 - Acts 22

Key Verse: Acts 22:18
Big Idea: The churches of Jesus are made up of people who have been changed.

Younger kids: What is your favorite story, that you love to hear over and over again? What do you like about it?

In Acts 22, we come to the second account of Paul's conversion. There will be one more before the book ends, so that the same story is told thrice (with increasing detail) in a book of only 28 chapters. In Paul's letters, he gives the account personally twice more (1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and Galatians 1:11-16). Of all the events in the New Testament, the only one I can think of described in more places is the Resurrection (the Great Commission is a tie). Obviously, it was important to Paul, but why did the Holy Spirit place such an emphasis on his conversion in the Bible? I think perhaps it is because his salvation is a model for all of us. We begin as enemies of Jesus, opposing Him by opposing His work, and yet He still pursues us. When He catches us, it is not to destroy us but to rescue us. Paul's conversion seems dramatic, because his sin was so overt, but our own is no less of a transition from death to life and darkness to light. 

Older kids: Before he became a follower of Jesus, Paul had hunted Christians down, kidnapped them and returned them to Jerusalem for execution. What kind of people today would seem so unlikely to be saved?

When Jesus assembles local churches as His temple and His body, He does not begin with materials that are perfect. Instead, He takes radically sinful people and transforms them from the inside out. This is both encouraging - we are so precious to Him that He does not cast us aside - and humbling - we need such radical transformation to be fit for His use. Paul's account of his own salvation is that he had been as zealous in opposing Christ as anyone, but that when Jesus reached Him, he had to recognize he has been going in the wrong direction. God does not use us because of who we been, but because of who He will make us. 

Discussion idea: Could God have simply used sinless angels instead of sinful people? Why did He choose to use us, despite the difficulty? Does repetition of the same story of God using Paul, even with his past, encourage you to trust that He can use you too?

Prayer focus: Praise God for the radical change He has made in your life, either before or after conversion, with specific examples.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

May 11 - Acts 21

 

Key Verse: Acts 21:13
Big Idea: The path of the Church of Jesus is sometimes a winding one.

Sometimes when we consider history, we imagine roughly straight lines. Rome grew and grew, until it fell. A movie star's fame steadily rises, until they come crashing down. Of course, when we think for a minute, we know it is not so simple. Sometimes setbacks are the beginning of a series, and sometimes they are quickly reversed. In God's plan, this is often especially true. He may take us through difficulty to get us to glory, or allow us a moment of comfort to be removed in a vivid lesson on humility. When we survey the book of Acts, we find periods of tremendous success and periods of apparent failure, intermingled in unexpected ways. Especially now we find that is the case with our friend, the Apostle Paul. He has set his face to go to Jerusalem, against the counsel of prophets and friends who foresaw what he would face. Ready to go and face death, he entered the city.

Some thought that if he would show that he respected the law and was not trying to cause anyone to stumble, then his enemies might be appeased. At first, his reception seems warm, but the path of appeasement is destined to fail. A riot begins, and he is arrested, mistaken for an Egyptian criminal rather than a freeborn Roman citizen (the kind of thing which could tragically have been taken from the headlines of today). Was this path the end? Had the final setback finally taken place? As we will see in the chapters ahead, not at all. God used even this to give Paul opportunities to testify of His grace. This arrest at Rome would take Paul before kings, and open doors previously unimaginable. God did not take him on the most direct path, but on the best one. Could we really expect our own lives to be any different?

Discussion idea: Have you ever had a setback that turned out to be for the best? What was that like? What does that kind of thing tell you about God?
Prayer focus: Pray for the patience to trust God's timing. Thank God for a well-timed setback!

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

May 10 - Acts 20


Source: Faithlife Bible Art
Key Verse: Acts 20:28
Big Idea: The church of Jesus was bought with His blood.


One of the challenges of reading the book of Acts is the way that time is condensed. In the middle of chapter 20, Paul comes to Ephesus and at the end of the chapter, he is leaving a 3-year ministry there. If we read quickly, we might not take the time to imagine how Paul must have felt saying goodbye to this church. He had labored long and hard with them, and now he was leaving this church in the hands of the elders he had trained. Would they faithfully carry on his work? Would they leave it better than they found it? The Holy Spirit had warned him that some of them would reveal themselves to be wolves, and try to take advantage of the little flock he had so patiently shepherded. Now that he was telling them goodbye, what would happen to his church?

"Aye, there's the rub," as Hamlet said. Because it was not Paul's church at all. Paul had been a faithful steward of this flock, but the chief shepherd was the one who owned the sheep. That chief shepherd was now moving Paul on to tend another of his flocks and letting the elders of Ephesus continue as undershepherds here. As much as Paul loved that church, Jesus loved her more and proved it by buying her with His blood. In His hands, the church was safe, and He could be trusted to guide her as long as she heard His voice. Yet, Paul would not have served the church with any less distinction because she was not his own. If anything, he worked harder, because the church was cherished by the Lord He loved. So, when it was time to leave, He entrusted them to their common Shepherd.

When one Christian says "goodbye" to another, the phrase comes from "God be with you." It is admitting that we can no longer care for the person we are leaving, but we trust that God can. Still, goodbye can hurt. Paul prayed with them, cried with them and they embraced him (Greek: fell on his neck, Acts 20:37), but ultimately, he could leave, because He was confident that God did not. When we trust that our church is not ours, but is the prized possession of Jesus,  it changes everything. We can live boldly because He will handle the consequences. We can lay down our own preferences because we have no right to form the church to our feelings. 

Discussion idea: How do you think Paul would have responded to someone who said they loved Jesus, but did not care about the church?
Prayer focus: Ask God to help you see His church and His people the way He does.

Monday, May 9, 2022

May 9 - Acts 19


Key Verse: Acts 19:27
Big Idea: When the message of the Church of Jesus is accepted, it changes everything.

One of the classic business parables is the failure of Kodak. The company that once dominated the photography industry is now a shadow of its former self. Although they invented the digital camera, they still bet big on chemical film, and watched the world they had once shaped leave them behind. Of course, we are all guilty of loving our routine and the familiar so much that it is hard to recognize a better path. How many churches have considered the pain of change sharper than the pain of failing to carry out the Great Commission? How many marriages have collapsed because divorce seemed less frightening than being different? Rarely do we consciously think in those terms, but we recoil from change so that the effect is the same. 
Younger kids: Do you have a blanket or a toy that you always want to have with you? Maybe certain clothes you like to wear over and over again? How do those things make you feel? Can God make you feel the same way when you do not have those things?
Older kids: What is the biggest change you have experienced in your life so far? How did you anticipate it would feel? How did reality compare? 
If you work for a company and a new boss comes in, there will be change. When a new President is elected, there is change. In the ancient world, where a king had much more power, a change of leader could have even more drastic consequences. For a person to recognize Jesus as Lord, there will be a change, and the very thought of change is sometimes too intimidating for the benefits to ever be considered. Surely this was the case in Ephesus. Their business, their culture and their civic pride were built on the cult of Artemis (Diana). To accept Jesus as Lord, whether He was or not, would painfully upend all of these institutions, and that is what the assembly could not tolerate. So, in a town hall meeting which nearly descended into a mob, Paul was forced to leave. The fear of temporary change kept them from receiving the good news that would change their eternal destiny. 
Discussion idea: Do we fear disobeying God or changing our circumstances more? Is the answer the same for every area of life?
Prayer focus: Reflect on the idea that God alone is the unchanging, eternal constant, and pray that we would find our stability in that anchor, rather than our circumstances. 

Friday, May 6, 2022

May 6 - Acts 18

 
Key Verse: Acts 18:10
Big Idea: The churches of Jesus have unexpected allies.

Many storytellers, with a wink and a nod, bring every character back for the great finale. In The Lion King, Timon and Pumbaa show up as some unlikely allies to fight Scar and in Great Expectations, seemingly every minor character is actually a major one. Most of us learn quickly that real life has a lot more loose ends. But as we read Acts 18, we realize that in God's world, nothing happens without purpose. In Corinth, Paul makes two important allies, Priscilla and Aquila. They had moved out of Italy (about AD 49) because the conflict over Christ had caused dissension among the Jews and Caesar had expelled them all from the capitol. The king's harsh edicts placed two people in Paul's path that would have a wide reaching impact for God's Kingdom. Although Paul faced a lot of opposition, God reassured him not to worry: God was with Him and there were many people in the city Paul did not know about. When the persecution reached a fever pitch, the local ruler's laziness protected Paul and he was able to complete his ministry there.

When he left Corinth, he took Aquila and Priscilla with him to Ephesus, where they stayed and eventually discipled Apollos, who became an important ally of Paul's and figure in the development of the church at Corinth. Paul then traveled on, strengthening the churches that had already been established. Every thread pulled together to make a path for the gospel to be spread and for God's servants to be brought together. In your life and mine, there may be threads that we never see the end of, but none of them are loose. God is weaving them all together into a master tapestry, to showcase the beauty of Jesus and make us like Him. There are no accidents, so we can be grateful for everything. We are never alone, because God can raise up friends in unexpected places and unexpected ways. No one knew that better than the apostle Paul, who saw the friends Christ raised for Him, and was surely an unexpected ally himself. 

Discussion idea: In 1 Kings 17, Elijah was convinced that he was God's last faithful servant, but God reassured him that there were hundreds more. Why are we so prone to feeling alone? If we know God is in control of every circumstance, how will that affect the way we respond to those kinds of situations? 
Prayer focus: Who is someone God has placed in your life for your good and His glory that you can thank Him for today?

Thursday, May 5, 2022

May 5 - Acts 17

Key Verses: Acts 17:6-7
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus turned the world upside down.

If you were going to turn the world upside down with some institution, what would it be? Maybe the School - education for the masses might change their behavior. For the less optimistic, perhaps the Military - if bad actors could be stopped, where would evil come from? Taking your cue from the new Pfeizer commercial, you might suggest Science as the institution which could solve the problems that ail us. None of these are bad, but none of them really change the world. Schools help students face the world better, the military removes existential threats and scientists answer a certain set of questions. But what about problems than run deeper than a test or a gun can strike? What about problems that run so widely that every institution is built on a crumbling foundation? When the world itself is upside down, none of the institutions of the world can fix the issue, any more than a hamster can move her cage by running in her wheel. Something outside of the world, but that overlaps with it, is necessary to set the world itself right again. So the institution that you least suspected is the one you actually needed: the institution of the Church. But this was the institution that the Thessalonians could not tolerate in today's chapter.

While most so-called revolutions simply change one tyrant for another, the churches of the Lord Jesus offer a different kind of King. This King was not a new Caesar, come to accomplish the same things with bigger weapons or better propaganda. Rather, He came to win by dying and to ascend His throne by humility. Such a radical approach could not have a muted response. The frustration of many pastors at the seeming reluctance of people to see the depth of the message is expressed in a quote whose originator is unknown: "Wherever the Apostle Paul went there was revival or a riot. Wherever I go they serve tea." If you are a part of a local church, her purpose is not to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, but to turn an upside down world rightside up again. People will either rejoice or rebel, but when the message is understood, they must respond.


Discussion idea: What are some attitudes, beliefs or values in our world that are upside down? How does Jesus turn them rightside up?

Prayer focus: Ask God to adjust your vision so you see things from a biblical perspective, and help turn things in the right direction. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

May 4 - Acts 16


Key Verse: Acts 16:6
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus operates when and where her Lord wills. 

This chapter of Acts involves some unexpected turns, as you probably noticed as you read it. The missionary team wants to reach out to a region, but are stopped by God from doing so. God forbade them from preaching! Then, he sent them to Europe instead, and they had great success in the place they did not expect to ever go (the church at Philippi would later be a big help to Paul, as we will see in a few weeks).  In that city, they were arrested and beaten publicly. When God released them, the prison keeper thought he would be executed for failing at his charge, but instead he found eternal life in Christ. Although they had been beaten, their Roman citizenship forced the magistrates to embarrass themselves (and validate the Christians they would leave behind). 

No master strategist could have laid out that course. There are too many moving parts and too many uncertainties. The work of the churches of Jesus can never rest on their own ingenuity or planning, because our plans are based on insufficient data. Only one knows where we need to go, and we must be dependent on His guidance every step of the way. In the Old Testament, the Israelites got into generations of trouble by failing to consult God (Joshua 9). Whether in our churches or our personal lives, this chapter ought to make clear that unexpected paths might lead to precious places and the path that looks the most appealing might actually go the wrong direction.

Discussion idea: Have one family member look at a picture, and try to describe to the rest of the family how to draw it (for younger kids, trying to duplicate an unseen Play-Doh sculpture might be better). How difficult is it to make something you cannot see? What is the value of a guide who has all of the information?

Prayer focus: Pray for God's guidance in decision making, and the wisdom to recognize our own inadequacy for seeing the path ahead.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

May 3 - 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.

Monday, May 2, 2022

May 2 - 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.