Acts 15-16 (NLT) 

Discover His heart:  He guides our decisions through His Word and godly leadership

I really look forward to the biennial meeting of the ministers in my fellowship from churches all across the United States.  It’s a great time to visit with old and make new friends from all over the country.  We eat together, shop together and talk for hours about our lives, the ministry and the future.  The evening services are inspirational, encouraging and they challenge us to reach more souls with the gospel. What I must admit is that I don’t enjoy the business sessions, a primary purpose of the General Council meeting.

In these business meetings as well as those on a state level, I’ve observed a few men and women through the years act in a way that should have been an embarrassment to them.  Fortunately, I’ve seen godly leadership respond with grace and wisdom in these situations, and decisions were made in a calm and friendly atmosphere…for the most part. That being said, I still rather spend my time visiting with a friend over a cup of coffee or walking around the huge exhibition hall receiving free pens, mints and other good stuff, but I guess somebody has to do the business. 

@ Acts 15
Well, a little altercation had developed in the early church, and it was causing some dissension within the body of believers.  Some were insisting that Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised like the Jewish Christians.  They were calling for a strict adherence to the Old Testament laws.  Paul and Barnabas, who were out on the front lines, strongly disagreed with this requirement.  “So the apostles and elders met together to resolve this issue.  At the meeting, after a long discussion…” (6)  Yes, welcome to the first General Council!

The main contributors to this discussion were James and Peter, elders of the church in Jerusalem, and Paul and Barnabas, missionary evangelists.  Paul and Barnabas, who were in the trenches ministering to the Greeks and others, had come to accept the Gentiles as is.

Peter’s very liberating experience with Cornelius earlier in Acts 10 had softened his heart to the acceptance of Gentiles, “God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us.  He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?” (8-11)  According to Peter, circumcision was not going to change God’s love and acceptance of the Gentiles.  Let’s hear it for sound reason in a business meeting!

James, who had been a strict Palestinian Jew and who was obviously the leader of this Council, could have been the sticking point in this discussion, but instead he only proved his godly spirit-led character.  “When they had finished, James stood and said, ‘Brothers, listen to me. Peter has told you about the time God first visited the Gentiles to take from them a people for himself…And so my judgment is that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.’” (13-14,19)   All were in agreement and the matter was settled.  Letters confirming the agreement were delivered throughout the church world. “And there was great joy throughout the church that day as they read this encouraging message.” (31)

This agreement not only affected the church world at that time, but also right up to today.  Godly men discussed and reasoned together according to scripture. (16-18) From what we read, it appears there were no politicians or agenda-driven dialogues to cloud the issue or bring division.  I think I could have handled this business meeting and would have been blessed for having been there.   However, at this juncture in church history, I wonder if women were welcomed in the dialogue.  Just as the decision that day, change and acceptance can be good. 

Moving Forward:  I’m thankful for our early church leadership and for leaders today who listen to all sides and make godly decisions to bless the church.

Tomorrow @ 2 Peter

Acts 13-14 (NLT) 

Discover His heart:  He gives His Holy Spirit to guide our mission in life

When we set out on a mission to buy a new product of any kind, we’re the most successful when we do our homework first.  We check the advertising flyers and then visit the store to touch and hold the product.  Or we scour the internet for consumer reports, special sales and anything that will inform us about the product.  Really, a savvy consumer would not depend on impulse or guesswork to complete a mission like this.  However, as believers, we are on a mission every day and so often we don’t take the time to do our homework.

Whether we choose to accept it or not, the Gospels presents to us our mission, the Great Commission, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.” (Mark 16:15)  When we step out into our world each day, how prepared are we to accomplish our mission? 

@ Acts 13
It’s only right that Paul, the Great Evangelist, the great consumer of souls, would serve as our template for our mission. “One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them’…So Barnabas and Saul were sent out by the Holy Spirit… Saul, also known as Paul, was filled with the Holy Spirit.”(2,4,9)  Paul did his homework!  He spent time in prayer, worship and fasting to where his will was surrendered to God’s will.  He was filled with the Holy Spirit to where his steps were surrendered to God’s steps.

Throughout Acts, we read how God guided Paul to the right place at the right time. “On the Sabbath [Paul and Barnabas] went to the synagogue for the services.  After the usual readings from the books of Moses and the prophets, those in charge of the service sent them this message: “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, come and give it.” (15)  I just love when God opens the doors for our mission.  When we are led by the Holy Spirit, we see the open doors, His set-ups, and walk right through them to present the Gospel.

Sometimes we are hindered by the response we receive on our mission.  Once again, Paul was not threatened by the response of his listeners.  Many people, especially Gentiles, accepted his message and received the Lord as their Savior, but many others rejected his message to the point of physical attack, “They stoned Paul and dragged him out of town, thinking he was dead.” (14:19)  Paul was not responsible for the response of his listeners.

It’s our responsibility to present the Gospel, and it’s the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to touch the hearts of men.  Of course, when we surrender our day to the leading of the Holy Spirit, we have Him right there with us, partnering in our mission.  We need not be discouraged when our message is rejected because we have no idea where the Holy Spirit will take it in those hostile lives.  Remember, Paul was present at Stephen’s stoning.  Every day we are challenged to accept our mission, do our homework and follow through with unhindered tenacity. 

Moving Forward: Yes, I’ll accept my mission today. Yes, I will do my homework.  And yes, I will tenaciously complete my mission just like any savvy shopper would do.

Tomorrow @ I Peter 4-5

Acts 9-10 (NLT) 

Discover His heart: God uses our difficult experiences to touch the hearts of others

When we receive salvation and follow the Lord, we make a decisive break from the old way of life, the old way of doing things.  We become new creatures yet we bring along with us memories from our experiences in life to date.  God is faithful to help us move past the difficult moments we’ve experienced so that we can look forward to better days ahead, but He doesn’t always remove all painful memories and feelings.  He has a purpose in this.  Paul is a great example of how our past experiences can serve God’s greater purpose for our lives. 

@ Acts 9
“Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers.  So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.” (1-2)  When we think about hateful leaders and individuals throughout history who murdered Christians for their faith, we might as well throw Saul into the mix because he was one of them.  Talk about painful memories and feelings.

Better than just about anyone, Paul understood the hearts of those who were blinded to the truth about Jesus.  Highly educated and qualified, Paul made his appeal for Christ to the Jewish leaders, to government leaders and to Jews and Gentiles alike.  He understood their hatred, their confusion and their doubt because he had lived it.

Just as the scales fell off of Paul’s blinded eyes after his glorious conversion, we read throughout Acts how he was so very capable to open the blind eyes of others to see their need for salvation. “Saul’s preaching became more and more powerful, and the Jews in Damascus couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.” (22)

Paul remembered enough of his painful past to make this statement to Timothy, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all.  But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life.”(I Timothy 1:15-16) God used Paul’s hateful past to serve a greater purpose of which we, too, are the recipients today through his written words.

Remembering our difficult experiences in the past makes us more sensitive to others who are walking through similar trials.  We understand their fears, their broken hearts and sometimes even their anger at God and everyone.  Like Paul in his day, we are able to help them and convince them to believe in God.  “[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others.  When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” (2 Corinthians 1:4)

We can fulfill His greater purpose to touch others who walk where we have walked only through opening our hearts and eyes to see their need of Him.  Our understanding of this walk and our victory through Christ challenge us to share with them that “they, too, can believe in Him and receive eternal life.”

Moving Forward: My prayer today is that God will open my eyes to see those whose pain I, too, have felt so that I may lead them to Him. 

Tomorrow @ James 4-5

2 Chronicles 21-24 (NLT link) 

Discover His heart: He loves when our guidance directs others to dependence on Him

A lot of families carry some bad blood in them due to jealousy or unfaithfulness.  Often communication is nonexistent and sometimes crimes are committed.  However, nothing I’ve heard really holds a candle to a Queen Mother who so desperately desired to rule a nation that she killed all her grandchildren and other heirs in order to make it happen.  But then what would you expect from the daughter of Jezebel.

The story of the early years of King Joash is about as exciting as they come, and I’m sure the movie industry has produced some variation of it through the years.  Jehosheba, the aunt of Joash, hid him as a baby from wicked the Queen Mother Athaliah when she was on her killing spree.  He was raised by the faithful priest Jehoiada who mentored him through the years and encouraged many Godly reforms for Israel.  Unfortunately, all of Jehoiada’s reforms and counseling did not bring the final results he desired. 

@2 Chronicles 24
“Jehoiada lived to a very old age, finally dying at 130.  He was buried among the kings in the City of David, because he had done so much good in Judah for God and his Temple.  But after Jehoiada’s death, the leaders of Judah came and bowed before King Joash and persuaded him to listen to their advice. They decided to abandon the Temple of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and they worshiped Asherah poles and idols instead!” (15-18)  It seems Joash did not have a love for God like his mentor Jehoiada.

The specific training and guidance given Joash by Jehoiada is sketchy in the Bible and because of that I offer no criticism, but obviously something went terribly wrong in the process.  Some mentees are resistant to the guidance offered them or choose not to respond favorably to it.  Some mentors have difficulty releasing those they are helping, allowing them to fly on their own.  Mentoring and counseling are serious undertakings, and I’ve never taken the task lightly.

Guiding young hearts in their move forward through life with positive results is challenging, yet so very rewarding.  This is especially true when we see them move past the handicaps of difficult families or circumstances to become thriving adults.  I know I’ve been successful as a mentor when I’m no longer needed.

As Christian mentors, our goal is not for others to be dependent on us forever, even though it may affirm us and make us feel needed.  Our goal is to lead those we mentor to a dependency on the Lord, where they are able to trust His guidance in their lives.  The greatest reward comes when they have matured to the point of teaching and mentoring others.  I would imagine that the apostle Paul was busting his buttons, so to speak, at the successful ministry of his young charge, Timothy.  May button busting be in your future!

Moving Forward:  Once again I am challenged by the role of mentor, praying that my guidance directs others to a dependency on the Lord and not to me.  They deserve to follow the very best and that could only be Him!

Tomorrow @ Psalm 120-121

Philemon (NLT link)

Discover His heart: He is blessed when we generously forgive others

As a rule, we’ll do just about anything for our good friends.  We celebrate with them on their joyous occasions, and we run to them to give comfort and aid in their difficult moments.  It is disheartening to have a friendship dissolve over a dispute or offense.  In our reading today, Paul was treading on dangerous ground in his friendship with Philemon.

Philemon was a prosperous businessman in Colossae who hosted the church in his home.  Paul had nothing but good to say about him, “I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people.” (4-7)  A careful reader may catch that this is not just a casual letter, but one with an agenda of sorts, “praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith.”  A request was coming.

Philemon’s slave from the past, Onesimus, had either stolen from him or damaged his property and had run away.  This betrayal by someone he trusted had obviously caused heartache to Paul’s dear friend. Sometime later, the slave happened to encounter Paul in Rome and accepted the Lord as his Savior. Paul had some choices to make – keep Onesimus as his assistant and remain silent, turn Onesimus over to the Roman authorities where he could possibly face death or return him to Philemon for punishment.

And now the request, “That is why I am boldly asking a favor of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do. But because of our love, I prefer simply to ask you…I appeal to you to show kindness to my child, Onesimus.  I became his father in the faith while here in prison.” (8-10) Circumstances had changed over the course of time. Yes, Onesimus was a slave, sadly a role that was acceptable at that time, but now he was a fellow believer.  Salvation is the great equalizer in life. “Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.” (I Corinthians 12:13).

Paul may have been referring to the meaning of the name “Onesimus” which means profitable or useful as he continued in his request, “Onesimus hasn’t been of much use to you in the past, but now he is very useful to both of us. I am sending him back to you, and with him comes my own heart.”(11) Paul was definitely placing their friendship on the line when he added a promise to personally pay everything Onesimus owed Philemon. He added, “I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it. And I won’t mention that you owe me your very soul!”  (19)

Although this comment sounds remarkably like a major guilt trip, Paul was counting on Philemon to remember that at one time he, too, was forgiven and set free from sin.  Jesus paid a debt for him that he did not owe just as Paul was willing to do for Onesimus.  This personal letter of Paul’s serves to remind us all of the forgiveness and grace that has been extended to us.  How could we not extend it to others?

In situations where others have cheated us or been unkind, it is so very helpful to remember that God loves them as much as He loves us.  He may not like their deeds, but He sent His Son to die for that very reason.  When we forgive and offer mercy to others, we are behaving like Jesus, and that could only be good. 

Moving Forward: Should the occasion arise today, I choose to forgive others for any unkindness, remembering that God loves them.

Tomorrow @ Numbers 21-24

2 Timothy 1-2 (NLT link) 

Discover His heart: He gives us a spirit of power, love and self-discipline to keep our lives burning brightly for Him

For most of us the idea of “Passing the Torch” immediately brings to mind the Olympics. The torch is lit in Greece, home of the first Olympics, and then is passed from runner to runner until it reaches the Olympic host city where it remains lit throughout the games.   What an exhilarating experience for the last runner who carries the torch to its final destination, the Olympic Stadium.  2 Timothy is all about torch passing, certainly a somber moment for Paul.

The writing of 2 Timothy was Paul’s last words to Timothy and also to us and was written during his final imprisonment in Rome where he sat in a dungeon awaiting execution at Nero’s hand.  Of all the notorious individuals from my Italian background, Nero would be right there at the top as most despicable.  Needing to blame someone for the burning of Rome, he murdered Christians throughout the empire and Paul was one of his casualties.  But first, Paul wrote his final letter, passing the torch of ministry to his young charge now pastoring in Ephesus.

“I am writing to Timothy, my dear son.  May God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord give you grace, mercy, and peace.  Timothy, I thank God for you—the God I serve with a clear conscience…Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. I long to see you again, for I remember your tears as we parted. And I will be filled with joy when we are together again.” (1:2-4)  The God I serve with a clear conscience.  Paul had no regrets in his final days, he was passing on a torch that was lit and shining brightly, and this is the responsibility of the torch bearer – to keep the flame going.

Paul continued his letter with advice for his young son in the faith on how to keep the flame going, burning and moving forward.  “Never be ashamed to tell others about the Lord.  And don’t be ashamed of me, either, even though I’m in prison for Him…I am not ashamed of it, for I know the One in whom I trust…” (1:8,12)  Keep the flame going.

“Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching you learned from me—a pattern shaped by the faith and love that you have in Christ Jesus.” (1:13)  Keep the flame going.

“Be strong through the grace that God gives you in Christ Jesus…Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2:1,3)  Keep the flame going.

“Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive His approval. Be a good worker..who correctly explains the word of truth (2:15)  Keep the flame going. 

“Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts…pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love and peace.” (2:22)  Keep the flame going!

Someday the responsibility to carry the torch will be on those who follow us.  Paul’s challenge to Timothy was to “fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you.  For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.” (1:6)  Fanning those flames will keep it going!

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.” (4:7)  Paul’s faithfulness to God to the very end credentialed him to pass the torch, the torch that was aflame.  As we live and work, in whatever we do, will those who come behind us find that we were faithful to God?  Will the torch that we pass on to the next runners be burning brightly? And will we say, “I thank God for you—the God I serve with a clear conscience.”

Moving Forward:  Planning to keep my flame burning today!  “May all who come behind me find me faithful.  May the fire of my devotion light your way.” (J. Mohr) 

Tomorrow @ Numbers 9-12

I Thessalonians 1-3 (NLT link) 

Discover His heart: He calls us to nurture and care for His young ones

We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:2-3)  Paul loved his children. Well, at least we know he loved his spiritual children.  Almost two years earlier Paul had started a church in Thessalonica but had to leave the city abruptly because of hostility from the Jewish leaders (Acts 17).  He sent Timothy back to the city to check up on this new congregation because he was anxious to hear how they were standing up under the Jewish opposition. After receiving Timothy’s report, Paul immediately responded with a letter of encouragement and counsel to his dear ones in the church in Thessalonica.

@ I Thessalonians 2
Paul’s demonstration of his love and commitment to this new church reminds me of my feelings after the birth of my newborn baby girl.  I found myself constantly checking up on her, feeling for the rise and fall of her little chest, inspecting those diapers, just wanting to be sure she was okay.  You see, I just loved her so much and I needed to know that all was well with her.  With similar feelings, Paul wrote, “we were like a mother feeding and caring for her own children. We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too.” (7-8)  He loved these new ones in the faith and wanted to encourage them and help them grow in the Lord

This causes me to think about the new Christians I encounter in my walk each day whether at church, in the neighborhood or on the job, and I think about how much God loves them and wants to see that all is well with them.  Many are filled with questions about their new faith and some even face persecution for their decision just as the Thessalonians did. They really need our encouragement and help.

Of course, just as Satan hindered Paul’s attempt to visit this church (18), the enemy will discourage us from helping new Christians. He would love for us to feel inadequate or too time-pressed to be of any help to them.  Just as my baby daughter did not need constant professional tending, these young ones in the Lord do not need a theologian.  They just need someone to check up on them and guide them along as they grow in Him.

Well, my newborn baby girl is now grown and a mother herself.  The joy she brings me as I watch her faithfully serve the Lord and raise her own family is indescribable.  I am blessed beyond measure.  And Paul, too, understood this blessing, “After all, what gives us hope and joy, and what will be our proud reward and crown, as we stand before our Lord Jesus when He returns?  It is you!  Yes, you are our pride and joy.” (19-20) Indescribable joy! 

Moving Forward:  I’ll keep my eyes and heart open today for the young, the newbies in the Lord, encouraging them, helping them and making sure that all is well with them. 

Tomorrow @ Leviticus 19-21