Monday, May 25, 2020

Romans 4


Key verse: Romans 4:21
Big idea: The greatest and the least all need the gospel.

Sometimes heroes seem to inhabit a different world than the rest of us. Who can think about Apollo 13 without wondering if Jim Lovell is made of a different kind of flesh than we are? Or look at Winston Churchill without wondering if we would have the strength to stare staggeringly powerful evil in the face and hold onto hope against hope? Could anyone claim to be like Jim Elliot and Nate Saint, giving their lives to try to take the gospel to the Huaorani people, and Elisabeth Elliot and Rachel Saint, going to love the very people that had killed their husband and brother (respectively)? For Paul's Jewish readers, Abraham was like all of these combined. He was the founder of their nation, who with staggering faith had marched across the known world to go to the land God had promised. He was a religious, patriotic, and cultural icon. He lived centuries before the Law of Moses was given, and was the first to be ritually circumcised according to the commandment.

Younger kids: Circumcision was a small surgery done on Jewish boys when they were 8 days old to show that they were part of God's people. It was a mark on the outside of their bodies that was supposed to match their hearts that belonged to God.

How does he fit into Paul's radical claim that because we are all sinners, incapable of attaining righteousness by obeying the Law, we are all saved by faith alone? Isn't Abraham's faithfulness the perfect example of someone who was saved by good works? Paul's answer is a challenge to read the Old Testament account carefully. God made a promise to Abraham that he would have a son and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach (although his wife was too old to have children), that he would have a certain land and that all nations of the world would be blessed through him (ultimately, a promise that one of his descendants would be the Messiah). Abraham believed God and God credited that faith to Abraham as if it were a life of righteousness.

Abraham's relationship with God, Paul points out, was because of his faith in God before he was circumcised. Before Abraham took the mark of a Jewish man, he was already God's. He did not comply with the Law first or join a religion first, he simply believed God's Word. The hero came to forgiveness the same way as the murderer Saul and the same way as you and I can. God could have had Abraham be circumcised first, but He controlled the order so that we would know that external acts of obedience follow a change of heart, not the other way around. 

Discussion idea: Why is Abraham's salvation recorded in Genesis, according to Romans 4:23-25? The Bible includes a lot of history; how does God use examples to help us?
Prayer focus: Pray for the ability to grow in faith, and take God at His Word.


Friday, May 22, 2020

Romans 3

Key verse: Romans 3:23

Big idea: The gospel is the universal solution to the universal problem of sin. 

 Suppose I ate a bacon cheese Whataburger, with a large order of fries and a chocolate malt (any similarity to actual events is purely coincidental). I took in a lot of bad things: saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt. Maybe later that day, I started to feel guilty about it. How many salads with low-fat dressing would I need to eat to cancel that out? Or maybe I had a bottle of water, with a little poison in it. How much tea do I need to add to the poisoned water before the good tea cancels out the bad poison? Silly questions. Good things do not cancel out bad things, and what is true in the physical world is even more critical in the moral. No amount of time in a soup kitchen can ever excuse a murder. Good deeds can never remove the burden of sin. 

 Romans 1 and 2 have laid out the case against humanity. Whether we have violated our conscience and the testimony of nature like the Gentiles or violated God's revealed Law through hypocrisy like the Jews, we all have the same problem: sin. The Bible denies the claim that people are basically good. Instead, God tells us that we are all God's good creations, but have been warped and disfigured by the Fall. Our actions and our desires alike have been bent to the wrong ends. We all stand accountable to God, and we all fall short. There is no room for pride because every human being is in the same position. Our behavior can never solve the problem, and the more we try, the worse it gets. 

 This bad news can only be counteracted by the very good news that God has done the work for us. God's Law pointed toward real righteousness, but it could never get us there because of our own weakness. Instead, God has given us righteousness apart from the Law by giving us righteousness as a gift. Our sin earns us death, but He died in our place. No matter who we are, no matter what we have done, there is one problem and one cure—Grace through faith.


Discussion idea: How can God, who is a perfect, holy Judge, forgive us without sacrificing justice? 

Prayer focus: Thank God that when we could never get to Him, He came down to us. 


Thursday, May 21, 2020

Romans 2

Key verse: Romans 2:23
Big idea: The gospel is the answer to religious self-righteousness. 

Doing wicked things is dangerous for our hearts. Our consciences get less sensitive, our habits pull us in the wrong direction and we feel trapped by past sins into future ones. But there is probably something even more dangerous: doing the right thing with the wrong heart. When our actions are right, but our attitude is arrogant and self-righteous, we are like someone with no feeling in their legs sitting too close to a fire. The burning is still dangerous, but the warning sign of pain is removed. Someone who sins without external consequences, and maybe even enjoying external praise, can go far on the wrong path before they realize what they have done. 

Older kids: What is something good you can do for the wrong reasons? Is that more tempting than doing something obviously wrong? 

Younger kids: What is worse, someone who does the wrong thing on accident, or someone who is a tattle tale, but does the same things they complain about? Why?

As Paul continues in his letter to the Romans, he adds to his condemnation of the Gentiles a condemnation of the Jews. Although they had the Law and knew God's Word, their obedience was imperfect. Despite their status as sinners, they believed that righteousness was something they could earn. Paul pointed out the hypocrisy: the ones who thought they were teachers did not teach themselves. "They don't practice what they preach" is how we would probably put it today. Jesus had made the same criticism (Matthew 23:3). People who are overly impressed with their personal goodness are blind to their own faults, and their hypocrisy contaminates everything they do. The gospel leaves no room for those kinds of delusions. If our only hope is the love and grace of a forgiving God, who gave His Son so we could be forgiven, then there is no room for pride. We are all in the same boat, and must all come to God on no basis but mercy. The antidote to hypocrisy is honest self-awareness.

While we try to obey God and follow Him more closely, we have to be careful to not allow ourselves to fall into the sin of self-righteousness. Our obedience is because of our relationship with God, our relationship with God is not because of our obedience. When we get that confused and start to think that our actions somehow earn God's love, our own good deeds from a proud motive keep us from experiencing God's grace and forgiveness. When a good thing comes between us and the Best One, then it is evil. 

Discussion idea: The gospel puts us all on equal footing, whether we seem to be good or bad to other people. How does this motivate us to do the right thing, with the right motive? Doesn't saying God loves us unconditionally give us an excuse to sin?
Prayer focus: Pray that God would help you to see that your value in His eyes does not come from anything you do or do not do, but that His love is unconditional. 


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Romans 1

Key Verse: Romans 1:16
Big idea: The gospel is the power of salvation for everyone who believes.

Today, we begin what is widely considered the greatest book of the New Testament. Paul’s letter to the church at Rome is a letter, addressing a specific congregation with specific problems, but it is his most sweeping, reaching from the pits of damnation to the heights of glory in the first 8 chapters, and unfolding the implications of that theology here on earth in the remaining 8. There is a long way to go, but chapter one begins with the most basic claim: the gospel changes everything. The word “gospel” is simply an antiquated way of saying “good news.” It is not “good advice” for changing our life, or a good secret that will unlock some hidden power. It is good news: something has happened, and that something begs to be announced.

The good news, Paul tells us at the beginning of the chapter, was promised in the past through the prophets, but is now revealed fully and clearly. Although creation and our own conscience warns us that there is a Creator and makes us accountable for sinning against Him (the end of the chapter focuses on this point), the good news is not something which we can discern from that. It is news which we have to hear and believe. What is that good news? That the Son of David has come and died in our place, and been raised again to be declared the powerful Son of God. This God-Man, human and divine, sacrifice and priest, has come and defeated our enemies of sin and death to give us peace. It seems irrational, almost like a contradiction in terms. A King should kill, not be killed! The way to glory should be golden, not via a cross. That is why Paul needs to say that he is not ashamed of this good news: this precious announcement is the power for our deliverance. If we will recognize the King by acknowledging our sin and having faith in His work, we will be His subjects and His family. We will have forgiveness and life.



Discussion idea: Why would God choose to bring salvation to us by faith in an announcement, rather than some list of deeds to perform? How is faith that Jesus is King the foundation of a changed heart?
Prayer focus: If it were not for Jesus, what kinds of things would enslave you? Thank God for coming and destroying the old lords and bringing us a King that loved us enough to die for us.


Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Acts 28

Today's post is a special guest one from Brother Chris Meek.

Key Verse: Acts 28:28 Be it known therefore unto you, that the salvation of God is sent unto the
Gentiles, and that they will hear it.
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus takes the whole word to the whole world.

As we come to the final chapter of the book of Acts, we are reminded again that we are not at
the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. To recap, we have seen the church
spread among the Jewish world, then leap to the Gentile world under the many missionary
journeys of Paul, Barnabas, and company, until finally Paul is bound for Rome - the seat of the
Uttermost in the Great Commission. After being shipwrecked in Chapter 27, we see how God
provides for Paul and his traveling party, first through the “barbarians” at Melita, then through
other Christians at various stops on the way to Rome.

Then we see our big idea in action. Paul, in a familiar situation, is preaching the gospel to the
Jews in Rome, where “some believed,” and “some believed not”. What Paul says to them next is scathing - the kind of message that got him imprisoned. You may recognize the verses in 26-27 from the Parables of Jesus: Paul is saying that their hearts are so broken and dysfunctional, they’ve closed off their own eyes and ears to what God is doing (indeed, not only Paul, but also Isaiah and Jesus!) He further insults them by saying God is taking what they understood to be exclusively theirs - salvation - and making it available to their enemies, the Gentiles! And He does just that: using Rome as a base, Paul is able to help and encourage the church sharing the Gospel there, write many of the epistles that make up our bible today, and gain an audience with the leadership of Rome (which made up the bulk of the civilized world).

The book of Acts begins a story that continues in you and I today: God using His church, a people He has called out, to reach the lost of this world. By His word, He saves us from our own
sin and the punishment we deserve for it (Romans 10:17). But we should not make the mistake that the Jews made, assuming that salvation was only meant for their benefit. Remember: God not only promised that He would make a nation for Abraham, but that through his son He would bless all nations. Many people struggle to know God’s purpose for their lives, but the book of Acts, and the entire Bible, make this clear: our purpose is to bring the Good News of Jesus to those who need it. And to do this, there are only two things you need: to know the Good News, and to tell it to someone else.

Older Kids: Check out vss.30-31. Paul preached “with all confidence, no man forbidding him,”
but at this point, Paul is still in prison. What most people see an obstacle, God used as an
opportunity. What opportunities are you missing because of our “grumbling and complaining”.

Discussion Idea: How can God use us to share His word? Specifically, who is someone in your
life that you could reach out to this week with the hope of Jesus Christ?

Prayer Focus: Ask God to give you the opportunity to share the Good News with someone this week. Ask Him to give you the words to speak. Be bold - pray for the person you named above.
“He who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23)

Monday, May 18, 2020

Acts 27


Key verse: Acts 27:43
Big idea: The character of the members of Jesus' churches allows them to carry on His work.  

Paul is finally able to make his trip to Caesar, but the journey itself is not a quick one. Against Paul's warnings, they traveled late in the year, when the risk of storms was higher and they were caught in just the kind of trouble he had worried about. When the storm grew terrible, Paul had already earned the centurion's trust. When Paul warned him that some of the sailors were trying to escape on a lifeboat and that doing so would cost the others their lives, the lifeboat was cut off into the sea. When the soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners, lest they escape, the centurion stopped them, in order to save Paul's life. 

We could say many things about the events of this chapter, but the simplest and clearest to me is that character counts. Paul was clearly Christlike in his behavior on the ship, even in chains, and the centurion had enough sense to know that the one who was faithful in little would also be faithful in much. Paul could have been a thrown in the centurion's side, but instead he lived the kind of life that opened up opportunities which he could not have foreseen. 

If a possible employer were standing behind you in a slow grocery line, would you be an attractive hire? If your friends could hear everything you said about them, would they still be your friends? The one who is faithful in small things will also be faithful in big things. Never underestimate the protection that a life of character provides.

Discussion idea: How does our character in everyday life open doors for bigger things? How can a lack of character interfere with the opportunities God might give us?
Prayer focus: Ask God for the strength of character to be faithful in little things, to be prepared for the great things. 

PS In Genesis. Joseph was accused of attempting to rape Potiphar's wife. He was eligible for the death penalty. Why was he allowed to live? I suspect that, although Potiphar felt the need to side with his wife, Joseph's proven character laid a foundation of trust that protected him, so he could go on to do God's work and save the known world.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Acts 26


Key Verse: Acts 26:29
Big Idea The churches of Jesus exist to reach people with the message of Jesus.

In high school, I competed with some success in Lincoln-Douglas debate. My favorite part was the cross-examination portion, where you could lead someone along a path, and have them inside the trap before they ever realized it. In a moment, everything they said came crashing down on their head. Although most of the debate was still to come, they had already lost. When Paul stood before Agrippa II and Festus, he could not hope to trap some opponent by a sleight of hand. He had already appealed to Caesar, so his release was out of the question. More to the point, Paul’s biggest goal was not to be released from prison (and certainly not to win an argument) but to see people trust Jesus as their Savior. 

Older kids: Have you ever been arguing with someone, and realized you were wrong? Is it easier to admit your mistake and end the argument, or to keep fighting and hope to “win” anyway?

When Paul had traveled from city to city, he had begun with the synagogue for two reasons. One was theological, the gospel came first to the Jew and also to the Greek. The second was practical: they knew the Old Testament, which Paul could build on to show how it was all fulfilled in Christ. Agrippa was Jewish, and Paul could build on that knowledge while fulfilling the words of Jesus from Acts 9:15.

Younger kids: What is something you are good at? If you wanted to teach a baby how to do that, what would they need to learn first? Do you think Paul had to teach people certain things before they could understand who Jesus is?

Paul shared what Jesus had done for him (for the third and final time in Acts). But Paul was not content to just share information; the apostle wanted the king to make a decision. Agrippa had three pieces of information: the background of the Old Testament, an understanding of Paul’s conversion, and the knowledge of the incredible life of Jesus, perhaps 25 years earlier. He just needed to connect the dots. Herod Agrippa’s response reminds me of his uncle Antipas, who killed John the Baptist because he did not want to go back on a vow made at a party. Sitting beside Porcius Festus, but also before a crowd, Herod would neither confirm nor deny that he believed the prophets. Instead, he told Paul that it would not be so simple to take him all the way to being a Christian. Paul responded that whether it was easy or difficult, he wanted everyone to become as much of a slave of Jesus as he was, the chains around his wrists the only exception.

We exist, whether it is easy or hard, quick or slow, to bring people to Christ. Our goal is not to win arguments on social media, impress people with our debating tactics, or even get someone intellectually to accept what we say. The churches of Jesus are here to reach people with the precious message of Jesus.

Discussion idea: What are some practical ways we can build on what people in our society already know to bring them to Jesus?

Prayer focus: Pray for an opportunity to share Jesus with someone, and the grit to endure, whether it is easy or hard.


Thursday, May 14, 2020

Acts 25


Key Verse: Acts 25:19
Big Idea: The message of the Church of Jesus is the work of Jesus.

As you were reading today's chapter, did you notice an unusual character? Festus had replaced Felix as governor of the region and Paul, now in prison for two years, was finally given a chance to speak. His enemies, who had not been able to ambush him on the way from Jerusalem to Caeserea, decided that they might be able to get him on a return trip. But God had other plans and Paul instead exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to Caeser himself, Emperor Nero. Before Paul was sent to Nero, however, Herod Agrippa and his wife Bernice came to visit Felix. Since Agrippa was Jewish himself, he was allowed to hear the case, although Paul would be sent to Caesar regardless.

If you have been following the narrative closely, you might be confused. Didn't Herod Agrippa die in Acts 12? That was Agrippa I. King Agrippa here is Agrippa II. There are a lot of Herods to be aware of, and a brief review may be helpful. Herod the Great was the Herod from Jesus' birth. He died about 4 BC and his territory was carved up between three of his sons and his sister. His son (by his sixth wife), Herod Antipas, was given Galilee and Peraea. He married his sister-in-law Herodias after she left her first husband, Herod II. John the Baptist opposed him for this sin, and it cost him his head. Herod Antipas later oversaw Jesus' trial and died in AD 39. Herod Agrippa I was the nephew of Antipas, but also his brother-in-law (Herodias was his sister). He is the one who killed James the son of Zebedee and imprisoned Peter. He is also the same Herod that died back in Acts 12. His daughter, Drusilla, was married to Felix (who left Paul in prison for 2 years, hoping for a bribe) and his son, Agrippa II, is the one that we now meet, who will hear Paul's testimony in Acts 26. 
 
Herod family tree diagram
Source: Logos Bible Software

Two other things might help the timeline clear up: Drusilla and Felix had a son (also named Agrippa, because of course he was), who died in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 (some people think Drusilla also died there too). In Acts 23, when the high priest Ananias had Paul struck, Paul called him a whitewashed wall and said God would strike him. Although Paul did not know he was the high priest, his remark was true. Ananias, who claimed to be so devoted to his people that Paul must die, was actually a Roman collaborator and traitor to his people, who would die for his hypocrisy. He was murdered by a group of Jewish nationalists in the rebellion of AD 68. 

What is the point of all of this historical background? Simply that we often think of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the Roman annihilation of Jerusalem as one kind of thing, and the Bible as another. But these events, Jesus' miracles, His resurrection, Paul's trial, and whatever else you care to name, happened with real people in space, time, and history. The Church of Jesus, that same institution assembled and commissioned in the Gospels, empowered in Acts 2 and persecuted by never eliminated in the long centuries since, does not preach a philosophy or set of techniques for living a better life. Her message is always the work of Jesus: a real man in a real time and a real place.

Discussion idea: If our faith is based on actual, historical actions, what would you say to someone who says that it should just be a matter of private feelings and should not affect our public lives today?
Prayer focus: Pray that Jesus would make us as aware of His reality as a friend sitting beside us or a King standing before us. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Acts 24

Key Verse: Acts 24:21
Big Idea: The Church of Jesus is built on the resurrection.

Paul had been providentially protected and smuggled in the night to the palace of Herod to await his accusers. Ananias, the high priest who ruled from AD 48-59, came with a lawyer to make his case against Paul to Antonius Felix, the procurator of Judea. Ananias didn't need to follow Paul through this trial, but the same temper that he had displayed at the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:3) brought him to Caesarea with a heart full of hate. The charges were a desecration of the Temple and inciting the people. 

 

Paul quickly showed that both were ridiculous. He had been purified in the Temple, and if he had started a riot, there would be witnesses. No, Paul told Felix, he was on trial for one thing only: the resurrection of the dead. Over and over again, the book of Acts hammers home this theme. If death is the end, for Jesus and us, then the life of Christ means nothing. But if He rose from the dead, and we will too to give an account of our lives to God, the life of Christ means everything. In Acts, we have seen the ongoing works of Jesus through His body. By this point, the churches have overcome social, racial, and cultural barriers to form coherent bodies.

 

If God is not assembling us by a common set of interests or a common background, what is the secret? Paul would boldly testify that it is the resurrection of Jesus that breaks down all old barriers and brings us together. Our unity is centered not on a style of music, a type of outreach, or an earthly political allegiance. The historical fact that Jesus died and rose again is the center of the Christian faith, and without it, there is nothing. Calvary is the hill worth dying on because all of our hope is in our Savior who gave His life and took it up on the third day.

For two years, Paul would wait in prison without resolution, but he continued to preach the same message, to guards, to Felix, and to anyone else who would listen. Felix was looking for a bribe, Ananias was looking to take a problem off his hands, but Paul only cared about one thing: Jesus died for me and rose again. That is the foundation of my life individually, of your life and of our life corporately. We are bought with a price.

 

Discussion idea: Does it matter that Christianity is based on a historical event, instead of a statement or a vision? Can you have something like Christianity without the resurrection of Jesus?
Prayer focus: Pray for boldness, like Paul had, to preach Christ crucified at all times, and to not let our deepest fellowships be built on anything else.

 


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.

Monday, May 11, 2020

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.

Friday, May 8, 2020

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!

Thursday, May 7, 2020

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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

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. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

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?

Monday, May 4, 2020

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.

Friday, May 1, 2020

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.