Those tricky doors

“They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6). Luke records times when travel plans were changed due to being forbidden by the Holy Spirit or not being allowed by “the Spirit of Jesus” (16:7). Paul then has a vision from God to communicate an open door not forbidden by the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere we read of Paul wanting to visit people but being “blocked by Satan” from doing so (1 Thessalonians 2:18). Am I the only one who finds it tricky to know whether it is the Holy Spirit who is forbidding or Satan who is blocking my plans?

Don't make it difficult

“Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:10-11). I am convinced there will always be some who want to demand certain behavior from people or else they “cannot be saved.” Further, I am convinced that those same enforcers are completely unable to keep the code they are trying to enforce.  Oh, and one more thing, I need to be aware of the possibility that I could be the hypocritical enforcer.

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19 NIV). Imagine having this mindset toward people, especially “those people,” who are turning to God. What would it look like if we stopped putting up barriers and stopped making it difficult for them. A woman once told me she met with a church leader to request baptism. The leader told her she was “not a candidate for baptism.”  He presented her with a lengthy list of demands she must meet before she could be considered a “candidate.” Lord, have mercy.

“Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:37-39a). I have found it is much easier to talk about and apply grace to the world than it is to extend it to someone who has disappointed us personally. Interesting to consider side-by-side the accounts of the Paul vs. Barnabas disagreement and the willingness to have Timothy circumcised.

Seasons

“The same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers” (Acts 14:1). Experience is one of the greatest blessings of experience and longevity in ministry. I am far more likely to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of turmoil if I have seen and experienced the scenario before. Of course there is a way in which every situation is different. Different contexts. Different people. But there are times when the same thing happens and God blesses you with the memory of the previous occurrence.

“After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch. There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith…” (Acts 14:21-22). Ministers go through seasons of ministry. Churches go through seasons of ministry. Sometimes there will be a time of boldly proclaiming the word to unbelievers and seeing them respond by turning their lives around to follow Jesus. Sometimes in large numbers. And in other seasons, there will be a time of strengthening the souls of disciples, urging disciples to continue following Jesus, and appointing elders in churches. One season is not better than the other. They are just different. They are seasons. And both are important to the life of ministry, in ministers and churches.

Hands on

“While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2). As I read and re-read this passage I am drawn to the beautiful themes of being “set apart” and “called.” To those of us who have shared a similar experience with Barnabas and Saul, these are beautiful words. I can hardly read them without tears in my eyes. But I want to comment on something else here. I love that the “calling and sending” of Saul and Barnabas is in the context of worship. They are worshipping and fasting. They are fasting and praying. And in the middle of all of that worshipping, God is calling and the church is sending. What a beautiful picture of worship. (And by the way, did you notice the contrast between the worshipful “laid their hands on them” here versus “King Herod laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church” in 12:1?)

We belong

“About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church” (Acts 12:1). There is an awful lot going on in Acts chapter 12. Violence. Prison. Guards. Chains. Escape. Prayer. Surprise. Disbelief. Politics. Death by worms. But with all of that going on in this chapter, six words captured my attention; “some who belonged to the church.” And of those six words, one in particular grabbed my heart: “belonged.” Luke writes of people who “belonged” to the church. They belonged to the church. We belong to the church. The church is a group of belonging. These words remind me how important it is to value the church and this reminder leads me to worship, thanksgiving, and, quite honestly, to repentance. Belong. I just need to sit here and reflect on that word and the concept it communicates.

The challenge to change

“When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18). The circumcised believers were sharply critical of Peter when he arrived at Jerusalem because he had eaten with uncircumcised men. This went against everything they had been taught their whole lives. This went against everything they had believed their whole lives. Peter explained to them exactly what happened, step by step, that led him to eat with the circumcised men. His account ended with his explaining that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles just as it had been given to the Jews who believed in Jesus in the beginning. Their reaction, after listening to Peter recount the events that led to his change in behavior was silence. They had nothing more to say in speaking out against Peter’s behavior.  They were silenced, and then they praised God that the Gentiles could be saved. As I read this text I am reminded of times when I have been challenged to change my beliefs. Times when I have been challenged to rethink everything I had been taught and believed my whole life. Times when I have been challenged to change my behavior. I can think of several times when I was confronted with a challenged, at first pushed back, and eventually was silenced before breaking out in praise. What about you? When have you changed long-held beliefs? When have you changed long-practiced behaviors?

Roof-top vision

“…but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28). Peter had always known who it was proper to associate with and who he needed to avoid. He knew better than to visit with one of “those people,” which to Peter meant, Gentiles, or more broadly, non-Jews. But in this passage everything changes. There is a roof-top vision. There is a messenger from God. There are guests arriving with an invitation to visit from one of “those people.” And God makes it clear, Peter is not to consider anyone unclean or profane anymore. There is no more “us” versus “them.” And as I read this passage I think of the people I grew up believing were “those people.” We didn’t use religious language like “unclean,” but we had words for them. God has taught me, just as he taught Peter, not to consider anyone unclean. Have you had an opportunity recently to open up your heart, life, and home to someone you at one time considered unclean?

Humility in waiting

“But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do” (Acts 9:6). Can you remember a time when the presence and power of God knocked you off your feet (literally or figuratively)? A time when you didn’t know what was going on or how to respond? A time when all you could do is call out to God? A time when you were so confident in yourself and were so sure what your mission was only to be knocked off your “high horse?” Take a moment to pause and reflect on that experience or those experiences. Go back and re-live it in your mind. The suddenness. The confusion. The helplessness. The questioning. How difficult was it to allow people to help you get to a safe place? How difficult was it to sit and wait in your confused and direction-less state? When we replay events like this in our minds, we often just jump to the end when we get the answers and rediscover our direction and purpose. But not so fast. We need to take time to remember the humility that comes with being knocked off our feet. We need to recall the humility that comes from waiting on direction.

Ministry priorities

“It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait tables” (Acts 6:2). When certain people were complaining about being neglected, the apostles responded. The response was not a defensive “how dare you accuse us!” The response, interestingly, was not even, “we are so sorry the widows have been neglected.” The response was a restatement of their clear ministry purpose: we cannot neglect the word of God. The apostles didn’t ignore the problem, they asked the people to address it; and the apostles did not allow themselves to be sidetracked from their clear purpose. Reading this passage reminds me how important it is to have a clear understanding of the purpose of my  ministry and to remember it when faced with complaints, valid as those complaints might be. It reminds me how important it is to address rather than ignore problems without being sidetracked.

At the apostles’ feet

“You did not lie to us, but to God!” (Acts 5:4). The beautiful account of Barnabas selling a field and laying the proceeds “at the apostles’ feet” is followed quickly by the ugly account of Ananias and Sapphira who followed suit but “brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” The problem was not that they did not give the entire amount to the apostles. The problem was that they lied to Peter (and lied to God and lied to the Holy Spirit) by falsely claiming they had indeed given all the proceeds. Why would they lie? It seems to me, they wanted to get the honor, respect, and glory they had seen given to Barnabas, without making the same sacrifice. They were craving the “applause of people,” to use the words of Jesus. Reading this passage, I cannot help but examine my heart for envy and jealousy. Both can be heart poison. Both can lead me places I do not want to go.