“Dealing with Disagreements” – Romans Chapter 14

We didn’t get a recording of this past Sunday’s sermon so here is a recreation of that sermon in text form from my notes.  Other recordings from the series can be found on the Orchard Community Church website.

“Dealing with Disagreements” – Romans Chapter 14.

We have a problem with disagreeing in our culture.  The problem is not necessarily that we have disagreements – those are inevitable – the problem is that we don’t know how to disagree.  All you have to do is see a few political commercials, debates or speeches to know that art of respectful disagreement in our culture has been completely lost and we have somehow slid into the depths of thinking that disagreeing involves making the other person look as bad as possible.  I found two quotes, related to disagreements (though not necessarily to politics), that are: “It’s ok if you disagree with me, I can’t force you to be right” and “I’d agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.”  While funny, these aren’t very helpful when it comes to engaging in a proper disagreement!  We can’t just start from the position that we are right and everyone else is wrong.

Look around at the people of Orchard Community Church (or most churches for that matter).  Just a week or so ago we had a New Membership Class with about 20 people there.  The youngest was around 10 years old and the oldest was just over 80.  Our church is diverse in ages, backgrounds, and prior church experiences.  This diverse group of people is brought together by the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In this unity, though, there will still be disagreements.  I’m not talking about things that are right and wrong, sinful or righteous.  Anything that is specifically called sin by Scripture is sin – I’m not talking about disagreements on things such as this.  But there are things that are not specifically taught in Scripture and that we may have no clear guidance one way or the other from God.  They may be things from our traditions or our backgrounds or maybe matters of personal preference.  When we come together as the church, these things can threaten to undermine the unity that is so essential for our mission of living and spreading the gospel in this world.

Romans 14 is about dealing with disagreements in the church.  Take a moment to read Romans 14 for yourself.  Paul is specifically writing about disagreements between Christians about spiritual things, but I think there are principles here which apply to other disagreements as well.

First, we need to know a few things about the church in Rome.  As the capital city of the Roman empire, it was extremely diverse and was a true melting pot of cultures and religions.  The Christians in Rome would have been very diverse as well.  As we study what Paul writes about disagreements, it is important to note that the “weak” people he writes about are not people who would say you have to do certain things to be saved or to be more righteous.  Paul had no patience with people who believed this or taught this.  It undermined the gospel and the work of Christ on the cross.  The book of Galatians speaks strongly against such people.  There is also no mention of the “weak” people struggling with sin.  The times he mentions eating meat or drinking wine do not mention that these people struggled with some sort of sinful addiction to these things, just that they believed that they should not eat meat or not drink wine in order to bring glory to God.  I also don’t believe this was a Jew vs. Gentile disagreement – though we have seen a lot of evidence of that throughout Romans.  In the book of 1 Corinthians, Paul writes about the problem between Jews and Gentiles regarding meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols.  The difference is that Rome had a large Jewish population and so kosher meat (approved for eating by Jewish people) would have been readily available.  All this is to say that we really don’t know specifically what disagreement Paul has in mind, but it appears to be general ideas about what should or should not be a part of the Christian life in order to bring glory to God.  These differences came because of their great diversity and threatened to cause problems in the church.

Throughout the passage, Paul uses the terms “weak” and “strong” about the faith of the people on either side of this disagreement.  Some had matured and grown stronger in their faith and realized that eating or not eating certain foods had no bearing on their relationship with God.  They also realized that they didn’t have to celebrate certain days  in order to be holy.  Those who were weak in their faith needed these things as a sort of crutch in their relationship with God.  It’s like when a child learns to ride a bike and uses training wheels.  We don’t mock a four-year-old for riding with training wheels because that is appropriate for where they are at in their bicycle training.  If we turned on the Olympics and saw one of the riders using training wheels we might think a little differently!

Romans 14 is remarkable for the fact that Paul is dealing with seemingly insignificant issues that were threatening to divide the church, yet he deals with these things using deep truths about the nature of God and the work of the cross.  This is a great example for us when dealing with anything in our lives.  We need to reflect on Who God is and what He has done and then live in light of that.

As you study Romans 14, it is tempting to focus on contemporary issues like whether or not drinking alcohol is OK for Christians or whether or not we should go to R rated movies and so forth.  It would be foolish of me to give teaching specific to these issues because as soon as I did people would either judge others in agreement with me or judge me… either way, it would actually cause the very problem that Paul is trying to write against in Romans 14.

So, with that lengthy introduction…. Here it is, three rules of disagreeing.

Rule #1: Remember You Are Not God (verses 1-8)

I truly believe that lots of disagreements would be avoided if we all took a deep breath and realized that the job of being “God” is already filled by the most qualified person and that person is not us.  In verses 1-4, Paul talks about how the “other person” is accepted by God.  In the church when we disagree with someone we need to remember that God has accepted that person based on the finished work of the cross.  That person belongs to God and is God’s servant (verse 4).  We have no right refusing to welcome or accept someone whom God has accepted.  To do so is to put ourselves in God’s place.  In these verses, the specific things mentioned are that those who were weaker in their faith ate only vegetables while those who were stronger in their faith also ate meat.  Notice that Paul doesn’t get into the argument and play the referee.  He simply speaks to both parties and says, in effect, “Who do you think you are?  You are not God!”

Then, in verses 5-8 he says that we are all to live for the glory of God.  If one person believes that they bring glory to God in their life by not eating meat then praise God!  If the other believes they can bring glory to God by eating meat then praise God!  The problem comes when each looks at the other and says, “wait a minute, YOU have to do this MY WAY.”  The weak judge the strong and say that they are sinning and the strong judge the weak and tell them that they must do things that the weak may not be comfortable with.

Notice verse 5 – “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”  Part of our problem today is that people have really strong convictions based on very weak effort.  All too often we argue about things and when challenged why our way is right the only answer we can come up with is “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “it just makes sense to me.”   Paul says that each one should be “fully convinced.”  We need to question our convictions.  Test them against Scripture.  Reason through them and ask why we believe what we do about these things.  I believe God is more greatly glorified through two people who lovingly disagree over how to live for God’s glory but have thoroughly examined their convictions than two people who are in complete agreement but have never thought through what they believe about that matter.

In verses 6-8 Paul says that we are to do everything for the glory of God.  We may disagree about how we should bring glory to God, but when we keep the focus on God’s glory rather than us and our differences, a lot of these disagreements would be left behind.

Rule #2 – Remember Christ Died for the Other Person (and you didn’t) (verse 9-18)

Verse 9 says that Jesus Christ is qualified to be the Lord of everyone because He died on the cross and rose from the dead.  When in a disagreement, ask yourself, “did I die on the cross for this person and then raise from the dead promising them eternal life if they believe in me?”  If the answer is “no” then you are not qualified to judge your brother or sister about these matters.  In the end we will all be held accountable for our actions and, though this may come as a shock to some, it will not be us sitting on the judge’s seat.

In verses 13-18, Paul gives us one of the most important pieces of relationship advice that we can ever hear.  Basically, in verse 13 he says to quit thinking about whether the other person is right or wrong and instead look at what you are doing.  Are you trying to help that person or not?  Are you doing everything you can to seek peace or not?  So often we spend so much time with the excuse of “but the other person did…” and Paul is saying to stop focusing on your perception of their faults (which is flawed anyway) and instead focus on what you are doing to help.  Often in a disagreement we allow our own pride to make the situation worse.

In verses 14-15 and then again later in verse 21 Paul gives some pretty strong teaching.  It almost appears like he is saying that if a fellow Christian thinks something is wrong for them, then it is wrong for everyone.  This would basically make us all slaves to the weakest members in the church.  I do not believe this is what Paul is saying and here’s why.  First, the language he uses is not of causing someone to struggle or question their faith.  In verse 15 he says that the exercise of our freedoms should not “destroy” someone.  Then, in verse 21 he mentions that it is better not to do things that cause someone to “fall”.  These are strong words and would be out of place when applied to someone seeing someone else doing something that they think is questionable (like drinking wine in public).  This is how I hear this passage commonly applied today, but I don’t thing that is what Paul is saying.  The language Paul is using is most commonly used by him to talk about someone’s eternal destiny or falling into grievous sin.  So what are we to make of this? I believe that Paul is writing to a situation where those who were “strong” in their faith were flaunting their freedom and even trying to force those who were weaker to participate in things that the weaker were unsure about.  To pressure someone into doing something they think is sin would be (according to verse 23) to cause them to sin.  This is a serious issue and this is what Paul is writing against.

This all falls under the general category of not being judgmental because we didn’t die on the cross and raise from the dead.  The weak must not look in judgment on the acts of those that are strong and condemn them and the strong must not look down on the weak and condemn them.  We must instead ask ourselves if we are living the sacrificial love that was shown to each of us on the cross.

Rule #3 – Remember the Mission (Verses 19-34)

In verses 19-20, Paul writes that we should focus on something greater and not “destroy the work of God” for unimportant things.  I believe Paul is employing a bit of sarcasm here.  He is basically saying, “Are you really going to undermine the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world for the sake of food???”  Let it go!  Stop it!  Don’t get hung up on these things!  If what you do is causing someone distress then don’t do it!

Paul ends with specific instructions to the weak and the strong.  In verse 22 he addresses the strong and tells them not to flaunt their freedom.  He tells them to keep what they think between them and God.  In other words, it is not their job to convince their weaker brother that they wrong.  Then, in verse 23 he addresses the weak and tells them that if they think something is wrong, they should not do it because if you do something you believe is wrong (even if it isn’t) then you are sinning.  The emphasis, though, is on them and their convictions about what they are doing – not on using their conviction to judge others.

If in the church we would focus more on the mission of the gospel and less on our own petty differences, a lot of things would be seen to be not important enough to allow them to undermine the overall mission of the church.


So how do we apply all this to us?  First, we cannot ignore Paul’s use of the terms “weak” and “strong.”  We need to ask ourselves if we are living a strong faith or a weak faith and if our weakness or strength is causing us to be judgmental toward others.  The stronger we are in our faith, the more we will realize that it is not our job to judge what others are doing in their lives as they seek to bring glory to God.  Again, I am not speaking about things that are clearly sinful.  Scripture tells us that we are to lovingly help a brother or sister in Christ who is in sin, which may involve some difficult confrontation if necessary.  This is not what this chapter is about.  These are things where we have no right to declare them right or wrong – they are clearly matters of preference.

Second, those who hold strongly to convictions about right and wrong that are not specified in God’s Word must understand that this is evidence of weakness in faith, not strength.  It is fine to use some training wheels or a crutch in your relationship with God when necessary.  Just don’t use your crutch to beat up other believers.

Third, those who have matured and realize their freedom in Christ should never, ever kick the crutch out from another believer’s hands.  This is not they way to teach someone to be strong and only does more damage.

Finally, we should see everything in our lives through this new lens of faith – the lens taught in Romans 1-11.  God is God and we are not.  Christ is qualified to be the Lord and the judge because He died on the cross and rose from the dead – we didn’t.  There is an important mission that God has been carrying out since the beginning and throughout all history to save people from their sins and to bring them to be His people, His kingdom, with Him forever.  Let’s keep our sights there and not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by lesser things.

The church is diverse and must be diverse to display the glory of God.  The only way to navigate this diversity and deal with the inevitable disagreements along the way is to focus on what is most important – the glory of God and the mission of the gospel.

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Unholy Togetherness – Thoughts on Romans 3:9-20

Imagine two people, one is obviously sick while the other looks and feels healthy but, unknown to them, has a treatable but serious form of cancer.  The first person will probably seek help by going to the doctor or getting the appropriate medicine.  The second will probably do nothing.  The same help is available to both but only one will accept it.  Why?  Because although both are in need, only one is aware of this need.

I have been preaching a sermon series on Romans at Orchard Community Church (which you can listen to online here) and the past 4 messages have been about our sin.  This is not because I just love to talk about sin – quite the contrary – but Paul spends about 2 full chapters in Romans (1:18 – 2:20) talking about sin.  He has dealt with people who don’t care about God.  He has dealt with people who think they are basically good.  He has even dealt with people who are living religious lives.  This past Sunday was the last sermon on this section and it is where Paul brings his teaching on this subject to a dramatic conclusion in Romans 3:9-20 – all are sinners.  “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).  We are all in a sort of unholy togetherness.  Doesn’t that just give you the warm fuzzies?

No One Left Out:  Scripture makes it very clear that we are all sinners.  Not just the really bad people, not just the people we don’t like, ALL OF US.  Part of our struggle with this is that we have defined sin as merely breaking a rule so if we just don’t break the rules (or, so we think, as long as we don’t break the really big rules) then we’re OK.  But we are created by God and exist for his glory.  Sin is not merely breaking a rule – it is living for anything other that God, and we all do this.

But there is a ray of hope in this passage.  Paul says we “have turned away” and that we “have become worthless.”  Sure, we could crawl into a corner and wallow in pity over this, or maybe climb onto a soapbox and try to argue with God over his assessment of our condition – but to do that misses the incredible truth that is being given even in this judgment – we were created for something better!  If we have turned away then there must be a sense that we were once turned toward.  If we have become worthless then there must have been a time when we were of great worth.  This is part of the message of grace in Scripture.  The bible doesn’t start with sinful, worthless people.  It starts with people who were made by God and judged to be “very good.”  We were made with the incredible privilege of enjoying and reflecting God’s glory and living in his very presence!  Sin is not the definition of who we are – it is an intruder, a slave owner who has caught every one of us because we willing ran to it’s captivity.  But we were made for better things.

Nothing Untouched:  Though sin is an intruder, it is an intruder with devastating effect and no part of who we are is free from its influence.  This is what Paul is saying in Romans 3:13-18.  He uses Old Testament verses that specifically mention different parts of us – our throats, tongues, lips, mouths, feet, ways, and eyes – and show how each is impacted and infected by sin.  This is not to say that we are as sinful as we can possibly be in every area of our lives – oh, no, we can always get worse!  No, it is simply to say that there is no part of who we are that is untouched by sin.  Our physical bodies do not work they way they were created to work because of sin.  Our will does not work properly – we can’t just want to do the right things all the time.  Our emotions are influenced by sin so that we cannot just do what feels good or makes us happy.  Our minds are flawed by sin so that we can’t just think that we will figure things out on our own.  We must always have a caution when operating on our own ideas, feelings, or desires.  Not that they are always necessarily wrong, but we cannot know if they are right or wrong until we have measured them against God’s holy standard given to us in his word.

No Defense: Finally, in verses 19-20 Paul says that we have no defense.  We cannot stand before God and point to the good things we have done or the ways we have tried to keep his rules because the rules (his law) cannot save us and was never meant to.  It can only point out our sinful condition and our need for salvation but still leaves us in our enslavement to sin.  Since our problem is not just doing wrong things, the answer is not as simple as just doing right things.  Our problem is that our life is being lived contrary to what we are created for.  The answer is not a better life – it is a new life (2 Corinthians 5:17).


We like to think that we are basically good.  But just as a sick person who thinks they are healthy will not go to the doctor, a sinner who thinks they are righteous will not accept God’s gracious offer of salvation.  This is why the message of our sin – as hard as it is to hear – is so important.  Christ came to save sinners, but those who thought they were OK (already righteous) wanted nothing to do with him.  It was this way when he walked this earth and it has been this way ever since.  If we don’t accept God’s view of our sin then we will not hear the incredible grace in the following passage (Romans 3:21-31) that speaks about a righteousness that is the gift of God given to us by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Understanding that all are sinners means no one is alone.  We are all in this together, as awful as this “together” may be.  You may think you’re some sort of exception and that you cannot possibly be loved by God because of who you are or what you’ve done, but we are all the same under sin and are all offered the same possibility for being saved – but only those who accept the diagnosis will even consider the cure.

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“Peace” – Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon

PEACE.  The angels appeared to the shepherds and said “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth PEACE to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  The picture above is a pretty good representation of my idea of peace.  Sun…sand…warm water…and a chair.  No worries.  No struggles.  No calendars or agendas.  Just peace.  We have this idea that peace is what we would have if all of our problems were taken away or set aside.  We have this idea that we should have peace.  The problem is that we don’t live in the picture above…our lives look more like this:

So what were the angels thinking!?  They said that peace had come, yet our world and our lives certainly don’t look like the serene picture of the beach!  Later, in John 14:27, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  It is tempting to look at life and say that the angels and Jesus must have been wrong, but I have found that when I’m in a situation like this it is best to take God at His Word and see where I may be wrong.

Jesus’ statement contains an important point – “I do not give to you as the world gives.”  Is it possible that our idea of peace is according to the way the “world gives” peace?  As I thought about this for the sermon, two things came to mind about the way the world says to get peace.

First, the world says that peace comes from being CARE FREE.  By this I mean that the world says that if we can just overcome our cares to the point where we are free from them then we will get peace.  If we could check everything off of our to do list, get enough money in the bank, get that certain title or promotion, or ___________________ (insert your own standard here!) then you would have peace.  So we work…and work….and work in the hopes that we will gain or get to peace, but it always seems just out of our reach.  Why is this?  The writer of Ecclesiastes says these things are meaningless.  That’s not to say they don’t have their place and aren’t important at all, but they are worthless when it comes to finding purpose and peace in life.  Peace is not found by conquering all of our cares until we are free from them.

So since that doesn’t work, the world offers another alternative for getting peace – being CARE-LESS.  This is the attitude of apathy – the person who looks at the struggles in their life and the lives of those around them and simply doesn’t care.  Maybe the less we care about the problems the more peace we can have, right?  I referred to this as the Hot Air Balloon method of dealing with life’s difficulties.  Sure, you can hop in and fly over your troubles for awhile, but sooner or later that balloon has to come back down.  The world offers all sorts of methods to help with the CARE-LESS mentality.  There’s alchohol and drugs to numb the pain.  There’s entertainment to distract you from your problems.  There’s being judgmental and critical of others so you don’t think your problems are that bad.  And, if all else fails, there is just straight up apathy.  The bliss that comes from walking through life not caring about anything (I call this the adolescent method of dealing with problems).  As long as you don’t have to think about your problems you’ll be OK, right?  Wrong.

Our problems are very real and there are real issues at stake and real consequences to face.  Romans 1:18-23 says this:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

We have a very real problem and it is called sin.  We have “claimed to be wise” and have set ourselves in the place of God when it comes to deciding what is right and wrong and how the world should operate.  We have chosen to worship the stuff of this world – technology, entertainment, jobs, money, success, power, image, reputation, etc. – instead of worshiping the God who created us and loves us.

We can’t overcome our sin by working harder and we can’t get away from it by just ignoring it.  The world can’t give peace and all of our efforts to seek peace according to the world’s ways just end up making us more restless and hungry for peace.  It is a vicious cycle.

Peace comes from knowing that you are CARED FOR.  Jesus’ words in John 14:27 are interesting – especially because of the bigger subject he is talking about.  He is nearing the end of his time on earth with his disciples and knows that he will be crucified, rise from the dead, and then return to heaven.  He is giving them final instructions about the difficult times they will go through and he says this:

   “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”  (John 14:25-27).

What exactly is He promising them?  How exactly is He giving them peace?  He is giving them the Holy Spirit – the presence of God – to be with them always!  This is how Jesus gives peace – He gives us HIMSELF because, as Micah 5:5 foretold, “he will be their peace.”  Jesus doesn’t give us a path to peace or steps to peace.  He gives us himself who IS OUR PEACE.  He gives us himself by being born in a manger and living in this messy, sinful, and pain filled world.  He gives us himself by dying on the cross to overcome the greatest problem that we have – our sin.  He gives us himself by rising from the dead and promising eternal life to all who will believe in him.  And he gives us himself by giving us God’s presence in our lives – the Holy Spirit – who leads us and guides us according to God’s will and God’s Word.

To know Jesus is to know peace.  He is our peace.  It is accomplished.  Done.  Bought and paid for.  Peace is our present reality even in the craziness of our lives.  We have peace if, and only if, we have Jesus.  We don’t need to seek peace, we need to trust Jesus to be our peace.  We don’t need to work for peace, we need to get to know Jesus better who is our peace.

One last thing.  When flight attendants give instructions they always talk about what to do if you are traveling with a child and the air masks drop from the ceiling.  You should first put your mask on first and then help the child.  Why?  Because someone who is struggling for air is of little help to anyone else.  We have a lot of Christians that are struggling for peace.  We are so busy grasping at one thing after another in the hopes of gaining peace that we are too busy to help those around us.  But what if we could understand that we already have peace.  The mask is already on our face and we could breathe deeply if we only knew.  If we could trust that we already have peace in Jesus, then we are free to quit flailing around and start helping others to find Jesus and to know the peace he gives.  Because he has promised what we still need to hear:  ” Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

May we know and trust the Peace of Jesus this Christmas season and always.

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“You Better Not Doubt” – Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon

This is the first time I am writing a reflection on a sermon that I didn’t preach!  I invited Dan Keenan to preach for the first Sunday of Advent.  No, I wasn’t on vacation.  No, I wasn’t sick.  No, I’m not just lazy and didn’t want to prepare a sermon – preaching is one of my favorite things I get to do as a pastor!  And no, I did not take the week off.  Not preaching this past Sunday allowed me to look forward to January and February to work on a sermon series that I am planning for then.  It also allowed me more time to meet with people which is always wonderful.

So why did I ask Dan to preach?  Because I have heard that he is a gifted preacher and he has become part of our church.  Ephesians 4:11-13 says that it is the job of church leaders to prepare others for service because this makes the church stronger, more unified, more mature, and more like Christ.  It is one of my greatest goals as a pastor to help people identify ways that God has gifted them and then train them, encourage them, and allow them to use those gifts in the church because this makes the church more about Christ and less about me.  Ok, enough about why I asked Dan to preach and on to the sermon!

We looked primarily at Micah 5:2 – “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”  Dan took us on a whirlwind tour of the many Old Testament prophecies about the birth of the Messiah.  We looked at the fact of the Messiah being born of a virgin.  We also looked at the idea of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem.  It was so interesting to hear all the places in the Old Testament where Bethlehem is mentioned and the amazing things that God did in this town.  We also looked at the fact that the messiah was to be a descendant of King David and therefore would have the right to rule on his throne.  We looked at the fact that both Joseph and Mary come from the lineage of David so that this prophecy was fulfilled in either case.  Dan painted a rich picture for us of all of the ways that God told his people about the coming Messiah and all the ways that prove that Jesus is truly the Messiah.  The weight of the evidence from Scripture really is overwhelming.  Jesus is the Messiah, Emmanuel (God with us), sent to save us from our sins and to reign forever.

One of the things Dan said really challenged me.  If we accept that the prophecies about Jesus being the Messiah are true (and, again, the weight of evidence is extremely strong) then we must also except the prophecies concerning the fact that Jesus is coming again.  In the Old Testament, the people were to be defined by their hope in the coming Messiah.  Today we should still be defined by this hope.  In fact, our trust should be even stronger because we know what Jesus has already done by dying on the cross for our sins!

Thanks, Dan, for a job well done and for this powerful reminder!

photo by Flickr user cmbellman

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“The Mission Continues, Acts 21 – 28” – Thoughts on Sunday’s Sermon

Sorry that I’m a bit late on posting my “Monday’s Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon” (I’m writing this on Thursday!).  

Have you ever thought about the power of “normal”?  We often think of normal as being simple, taken for granted, plain, and powerless, but I think the concept of normal is one of the most powerful things in our lives.  What we think is or should be normal exerts pressure on us.  What we think of as a normal income, height, weight, intelligence, and so many other “normals” in our life, make us evaluate ourselves and we feel the weight of being out of line with normal.  One profound way that the concept of normal impacts us is the idea that life should be relatively easy and smooth.  That in general we should be happy, healthy, and comfortable.

We import this idea of normal life into our relationship with Christ on the Gospel Mission.  We think that following Christ should be roses and green fields, calm waters and fresh air.  This means that when our life goes through ups and downs we feel profoundly not normal which often translates into thinking something is wrong – that somehow we are wrong or doing something wrong or even that maybe God is wrong.  Churches get caught up in this.  We can think that any disagreement or differences of opinion are an indication of a deeper problem.  We can think that if the church isn’t growing or enjoying “success” (whatever that is) then something is tragically wrong.

The problem with all of this is how we define “normal.”  The picture we get from Acts chapters 21 through 28 (and really the entire book of Acts, and, come to think of it, the entire Bible!) is that life in relationship with God is filled with ups and downs.  There is no normal level where we are supposed to be comfortable all the time.  It is often in the ups and downs that God is profoundly at work.

On Sunday I gave an overview of Acts 21 – 28 which I won’t do here.  Instead, I challenge you to read it for yourself.  It is an incredible account of Paul’s arrest, multiple trials, and eventual travel and imprisonment in Rome.  Acts ends there.  There is no grand finale, no plot line wrapped in a bow.  In fact, I would say that Acts ends with a great unwritten “to be continued…”   It think it is part of the genius of God to have this incredible account of the beginning of the Gospel Mission end without an ending because the truth is that the account of the church – the followers of Jesus Christ – living the Gospel Mission in this world continues today with US.

One question I had after studying these final chapters of Acts was how it was possible for Paul to keep going when things were so difficult.  Paul’s speech before King Agrippa in chapter 26 holds some key insights into Paul’s thinking and there I saw three things that really challenged me.

Good intentions do not equal right direction:  In Acts 26:9-14, Paul tells about how he lived before meeting Christ.  He was so sincere.  So passionate. So single-minded in his devotion.  So dedicated to living out his belief.  Yet for all of his good intentions and sincere faith, he had to come to terms with the fact that he was sincerely wrong.  Paul’s direction in his life of following Jesus wasn’t set by good intentions.  When we try to just do the right thing then we might be quick to abandon that when it seems like it’s not working.  Paul’s new direction in his life was shaped by the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead to prove He is the Messiah and offers eternal life to all who believe in him.  Following Christ isn’t about having good intentions or just trying to be a better you.  It is about knowing and living the reality that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is a truth which forever sets a direction for the Gospel Mission and that we must weigh all of our supposedly good intentions against this unchanging direction.

It really is all about Jesus:  In Acts 26:15-17 and 22-29, Paul tells Agrippa what it was that changed his life.  What could possibly make this persecutor of Christians and rejector (I think that’s a real word) of  Christ become willing to endure beatings, imprisonments, and even death for the sake of the truth he once fought so hard against?  It was the reply from the voice that stopped him on the road to Damascus and said, “I am Jesus” (26:15).  The fact of Jesus’ resurrection proves everything Jesus ever said about himself.  It proves that he was able to pay the penalty for our sins and offer eternal life with God.  It also set an entirely new direction for Paul’s life (as it does for ours) because Jesus said, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you” (Acts 26:16).  This is the same language Jesus used when speaking to the disciples when he said, “and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8).  The reason Paul could endure so much difficulty is that he knew his life was not about him.  It had nothing to do with his comfort and it had everything to do with whether or not he lived and spoke as a witness to the truth of the existence, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.  We are equipped to endure the ups and downs of the Gospel Mission only as we accept the fact that our lives are now all about Jesus.

This Changes Everything:  In Acts 26:15-18, Paul tells Agrippa about the mission that Jesus gave to him to take the gospel to the Gentiles.  For his entire life Paul had focused on keeping the Jewish Law and trying to preserve and purify the Jewish nation as God’s people (this is what being a Pharisee was all about).  Now, Jesus tells him to leave all that behind and go to the people Paul once rejected to tell them that God is offering them salvation through Jesus.  Paul’s life was (and our life still is today) radically changed by the fact of the resurrection of Jesus.  Look at these statements of Paul from Philippians:

Philippians 1:12 – Speaking of his beatings and imprisonment – “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.”
Philippians 1:20-21 – “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Philippians 1:27-30 – “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”

These are the statements of a man whose entire life has been changed by Christ.  He has a new definition of “normal” – a definition that is wrapped around the idea of proclaiming the truth about Jesus no matter what happens to him.

So as we end our brief study of Acts, we have to understand that the mission continues with us today.  We are now the witnesses of Jesus in this world.  We must allow this incredible truth redefine our concept of normal life and accept the wonderful, but often difficult, truth that we are living out the Gospel Mission today.

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“Perseverance” (Acts 15:36 – 20:38) – Monday’s Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon

Yesterday was a great day at Orchard Community Church.  We baptized two people who wanted to publicly proclaim their faith in Jesus as their savior.  It was powerful!

The sermon yesterday was on Paul’s missionary journeys in Acts 15:36 through 20:38.  Paul and Silas travel to many different cities as they continue to spread the gospel.  We looked at the idea of perseverance.  Paul and his companions go through so many difficult situations yet they continue to share the gospel no matter the consequences.  In these chapters of Acts, here are just some of the difficult things that Paul and his companions go through:

  • Disagreement w/ Barnabas (15:36-41)
  • Beaten, flogged and imprisoned in Phillipi (16:16-40)
  • A friend named Jason is taken before city officials because of Paul and Silas’ preaching of the gospel in Thessalonica (17:6)
  • Endure a riot against them in Ephesus (19:23-41)
  • While Paul is preaching, a guy (Eutychus) falls out a window and dies – Paul raises him from the dead (20:7-12)
  • Ends by going to Jerusalem where he is certain he will be arrested or killed.
Most of us tend to give up after much less than this.  So what kept them going.  We looked at 4 Principles of Perseverance that are seen in these chapters of Acts.
Know the Destination

You can endure a lot when you know that you are headed in the right direction.  In Acts 20:24, Paul says, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”  Jesus set the goal of the Gospel Mission in Acts 1:8 when he told his disciples, “you will be my witnesses”.  It is not our job to convince people.  It is not our job to grow the largest church.  The destination or the goal is simply to be a witness.  Paul realized this and this is why he could go from one city to another where he was beaten and imprisoned because he knew that the whole point was simply to be a witness.  It was about his “success,” it was about the spread of the gospel.

Trust in the Gospel’s Power

Paul was able to face many difficult situations because he knew that the gospel was God’s power for the salvation of everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).  When Paul and Silas are sitting in prison after being beaten, flogged, and put into stocks so that they could not move, what do you think they did?  They sang praises to God.  Why?  I think it was because they knew that the gospel was powerful in any situation and the best method they had at their disposal in that moment to share the gospel with anyone listening was to sing praises to God.  Where we might have seen difficulty and despaired, they saw an opportunity for the gospel and trusted that the gospel would have an effect.

Because they trusted in the power of the gospel, Paul and Silas were able to share the gospel in many different situations with many different people.  They shared the gospel with people from a Jewish background who knew the Old Testament and understood the promises of the Messiah.  They were also able to share the gospel with people who worshiped everything but the God of Scripture and were completely different culturally.  They shared the gospel with people who rejected them and their message and they shared the gospel with people who welcomed them and readily accepted the gospel.  Why could they face so many different environments with the same perseverance?  Because they trusted in the power of the gospel to impact any situation and any person.

Serve Together

Many people see Paul as a sort of Lone Ranger Christian, but this is certainly not the picture we see in Acts.  He is constantly working with people, discipling people, taking them with him on his missionary journeys, leaving people to complete work that he started, and sending people ahead of him to start the work in a new city.  Paul certainly recognized the need to serve with other believers.  In fact, for Paul this was part of the gospel mission.  Working with people and training them to serve wasn’t a distraction for him as he served, it was an essential part of his ministry.  People like Epaphras, Timothy, Titus, Aquilla and Priscilla and many others all served with Paul and are the unsung heroes of Acts.  Harry Truman once said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  I like this, but I would change it a bit to say “It’s amazing what God can accomplish through us if we only care that He gets the credit.”  A big part of persevering on the gospel mission is that we do it together.

Leave the Results to God

Paul went to cities where lots of people turned to Christ and he went to cities where lots of people fought against him and ran him out of town.  In fact, in one city, Ephesus, both of these things happened (see Acts 19).  Paul understood that we don’t determine our mission and therefore we shouldn’t set the standard for success.  Our role is simply to keep on sharing the gospel.  Keep going – persevere.  The results aren’t up to us so we should not get discouraged by small results and we shouldn’t think that we are doing something right when there are large results.  Our measure of success is faithfulness – perseverance – everything else is God’s job!

A final thing I learn from Paul and his companions in these chapters of Acts is that the mission is about God and not about us.  We are able to persevere because it’s not about us.  If it were about us then the rejections and persecutions would be cause for alarm and quitting, but if it is about God then as long as God gets the glory then we can keep on going.

If you are sharing Christ with someone who keeps rejecting the message of the gospel – keep going.

If you are thinking that you are a failure as a follower of Christ – keep going.

If you get frustrated with the ups and downs in your church – keep going.

The gospel mission requires perseverance.  Will we keep going?

Here are the devotionals for the week that were on the back of the sermon notes:

Monday: Read Acts chapters 16-17.  What are some of the difficulties that Paul and other believers face in this chapter?  How do you face similar difficulties in your life?  What are some of the different groups that hear the gospel in this chapter and how do they respond?  How does this encourage you to share the gospel with different people in your life?

Tuesday:  Read Acts chapter 18.  Who are some of the people who help Paul as he continues his ministry and how do they help?  Who has God brought into your life to help you as you follow Him and who are you helping?

Wednesday: Read Acts chapter 19.  How was the gospel challenging normal life in Ephesus?  How does the gospel challenge some of the thing we consider normal today?

Thursday: Read Acts chapter 20.  What are some of the main things Paul says to the Ephesian Elders and why do you think he thought these things were important as he was saying goodbye?  Do we need to hear these things today?  Why or why not?

Friday:  Read Acts chapter 26 in preparation for Sunday’s sermon.

photo by Flickr user hcii

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“Systems Check” (Acts 15:1-35) – Monday’s Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon

So it’s 11:30pm on Monday night and I’m finally getting around to writing my reflection on the sermon yesterday!  We leave tomorrow for a brief three day family trip so today was pretty busy as I tried to get stuff done that I normally do on Tuesday through Thursday.

I have come to love Acts chapter 15 and the account of the Jerusalem Council.  I love it because I think it shows us a picture of church leadership in action in a powerful way on a very important issue.  The gospel was being threatened by people who said that believing in Jesus was not enough and were saying that people had to do certain good works in order to be saved.  By the end of the council’s meeting, the church has affirmed that salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone and has protected the unity of the church around the central truth of the gospel.

I called this sermon “Systems Check” because the early church had to check it’s way of thinking and doing things against the Word of God.  We all have “systems” or ways that we normally think or act.  Our systems are usually based around the highest priority in our lives.  It could be money, power, what people think of us.  It could be tradition or change, fear or self-doubt.  When we face a difficult situation we grab the handle attached to that central gear of our system and we turn the crank.  The system goes into production and out comes a response.  Oh sure, we have the ability to make different choices, but we have to at least admit that those choices are largely determined by our greatest priorities around which we have built our systems.

The early church could have given a quick answer.  They could have grabbed the handle attached to their greatest priority and turned it and then responded accordingly.  For some churches the greatest priority is tradition – doing things the way it’s always been done.  For some it is change – purposely doing things differently than it’s always been done.  Both represent systems based around a central priority and both can be drastically out of line with the mission of the gospel.

But the early church didn’t just respond out of their “system.”  They took the harder route to judge how they thought against God’s Word.  In fact, it isn’t just what the council decides that is so important – it’s how they decide it.  They start by listening to everyone that they can.  Paul and Barnabas tell their stories of what God has done on their first missionary journey.  The believers from the Pharisee group tell how they think the Gentiles must keep the Law of Moses.  Others must have been given the chance to speak as well because verse 7 says, “after much discussion…”  At several points in the narrative we are shown that there was a rather large crowd.  At the beginning of the meeting, the entire church of Jerusalem seems to be involved (verse 4 says they were welcomed by “the church” – not just the leaders).  Verse 6 tells us that the “apostles and elders met to consider this question” but they either did this with the rest of the church present or greatly involved the rest of the church throughout the process because verse 12 calls the group “the whole assembly” (which would be an odd way of referring to just the leadership) and verse 22 says that after James makes his recommendation for what they should do that “the apostles and elders with the whole church” come up with a plan to carry it out.

As they are listening and involving the people (which turns a crisis into a discipleship opportunity!) they are also weighing everything against God’s Word.  Peter tells about what Christ has taught him in regards to the Gentiles being accepted through Christ and not through the Old Testament Law.  James cites passages from the Old Testament that show that it was always God’s will to accept the Gentiles.   They take this information and use it, instead of their own “systems” to weigh the current situation and the conflict that is being caused by a challenge to the core of the gospel.

This is true leadership in action.  Not only are the leaders not just pushing their own agenda, they are purposely taking the time to check their agenda against the word of God.  No top down authoritarianism.  They are involving the people by first listening to them, letting them see how the decision is reached, and then involving them again in carrying out the solution.

The main “gear” of our “systems” needs to be the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and God’s Word must be the standard against which our systems must measure up.  This is true in the church and in our individual lives.  If we truly believe that we are sinners saved only by God’s grace, then why would we want to try to figure things out and do them our way?  We will instead want to do them God’s way as we check everything against His Word.  This is the role of leadership in the church and it should also be evident in the lives of Christians as we seek to be led by Christ on this gospel mission.

Disclaimer:  any typos or blatant heresy in this post is due to the fact that the author should probably be sleeping…

photo by Flickr user bluebus

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“Grounded and Growing” (Acts 11:19 – 14:28) – Monday’s (well, actually Tuesday’s) Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon

I blame the time change this past weekend for why I’m a day off on posting my reflection on Sunday’s sermon.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

This past Sunday at Orchard Community Church we looked at Acts 11:19 – 14:28.  It was a LOT of information to cover.  In these chapters we get to know the church at Antioch and then read about how they send Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s first missionary journey.  Chapter 14 ends with Paul and Barnabas returning to Antioch and telling the church about the amazing things God has done.

On the surface these chapters seem to be about a lot of action.  There is a lot of travel, a lot of people coming to know Christ, and a lot of churches being started.  What struck me was what was behind this action.  In the church at Antioch and in the churches that Paul and Barnabas start there is an emphasis on being rooted or grounded rather than just doing.

We see this first in Antioch before the missionary journey even begins.  In Acts 11:19-21 we see that God has done a great work among the Gentiles in Antioch and a church is growing.  The Christians in Jerusalem hear about this and send Barnabas to check it out and to help.  (Just as a quick side note, I absolutely love this idea of one church helping another and working together for the Gospel Mission!)  Barnabas arrives and sees “evidence of the grace of God” (Acts 11:23).  Another possible translation is that he saw “evidence of what the grace of God had done.”  Barnabas knows immediately that what is happening at Antioch is God’s doing, not just their own efforts.  This view shapes his ministry there.  He doesn’t challenge them to do more or to work harder, he encourages them “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”  If what was happening was God’s doing, then the way to keep it going was to keep the people focused on God.  The evangelistic and missionary activity of the church at Antioch came from their being grounded or rooted in God so that it was God working in and through them and not just their own clever ideas.

The ministry at Antioch is growing so Barnabas travels all the way to Tarsus (over 100 miles each way!) to get Paul.  From earlier in Acts we know that when Paul first meets the risen Christ he is told that he will be sent to take the gospel to the Gentile world.  For several years Paul  has waited for God’s timing for this huge mission to begin.  I think Barnabas saw something going on in Antioch that resonated with the mission Christ had given to Paul and so he brings Paul there to see what God does.  For a whole year they work together in the church at Antioch.

Acts 12 is a snapshot of some things that were happening in Jerusalem around this time.  The apostle James is put to death.  Peter is arrested and by a miracle of God he escapes from prison.  King Herod is getting a bit full of himself and some people start saying that he is a god to be worshiped.  Herod doesn’t stop them and give glory to God so he is struck down and dies (see Acts 12:23).

Chapter 13 starts back in Antioch.  There are “prophets and teachers” (which are probably leaders in the church since Barnabas and Paul are included in this list and these gifts/functions are listed in Ephesians 4:11-12 as people given to the church to “prepare God’s people for works of service”) who are “worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2)  As I read this, this means that these leaders were not sitting around discussing strategies and programs.  They were focusing on who God is (worshiping the Lord) and what He wants them to do (often associated with fasting).  They knew what Christ had called Paul to do.  They could have been making charts and maps and filling three ring binders with ministry plans, but instead they were seeking God and waiting on Him!  It is this groundedness in the gospel and in God that leads to the incredible missionary work found in the rest of Acts.

As Paul and Barnabas travel, share the gospel, and see churches start in various cities, they also encounter lots of opposition.  They are chased out of cities.  They are under threat of death.  In one city, Paul is stoned and left for dead.  This is no easy or comfortable mission.  The gospel life to which we are called is difficult.  This is why, when Paul and Barnabas start their return trip to Antioch, they go back to these baby churches and do two things.  First, they challenge and encourage them to “remain true to the faith” (Acts 14:22) – stay grounded, rooted, in Christ.  Paul and Barnabas knew that any effectiveness for the Gospel Mission in these cities would be the fruit of a strong and growing faith.  The second thing Paul and Barnabas do is to appoint elders (Acts 14:23).  In order for these churches to stay grounded in their faith, they need leadership that saw this ministry as their highest priority.  It is no accident that one of the words often used in Scripture for godly leadership is “shepherds.”  These churches were going to face difficulty from both inside and outside of the church and they needed godly leaders who led the church in such a way as to care for the people by helping them to continue being grounded and growing in their relationship with Christ.

I truly believe that churches and followers of Christ today are way too focused on DOING.  We have lost a sense of being grounded, rooted, and completely dependent on God.  All too often we see our relationship with Christ like being a rechargeable battery.  We plug in for a short time each week or maybe even each day and then we go out and do our work (taking time along the way to ask for God’s blessing) and over time our “charge” starts running down.  We come back to church, do our daily devotions, or go to a conference to recharge our batteries so that we can go out and do more for God again.

Leadership in churches reflects this understanding.  Leaders set direction, make the decisions, and lay out strategies.  In so many churches, the model of church leadership has slipped into the idea that the leaders “drive the bus” –  do what they think is right – and the people can either get on board or get out (I have actually heard this!).  Leaders push, pull, and even even hurt people all in the name of trying to get them to do the things that the leaders think they should be doing for God.

But God doesn’t need us to do anything for Him.  This idea that we do things for God betrays the fact that we have too small of an idea of who God is!  It is God who is at work.  It is God who is moving and doing ministry.  It is God who has all the power and all the grace.  We need to quit trying to do things for God and focus instead on living lives rooted in what God is doing.  Jesus says this so poignantly in John 15:5 – “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”  We are not batteries that have some capacity to store up God’s power for ourselves and let it out at our choosing.  We are branches that are constantly and totally dependent on the vine for nourishment and it is the health of the vine that works through us to create  the fruit.  Since this is true, leadership in the church is not a matter of getting people to do the right things, but shepherding people to be more grounded and rooted in Jesus Christ so that God can do great things in and through them.

This is true for how we each “lead” ourselves as well.  We often seek tips and techniques to make our lives better.  We want the latest book or fad to tell us the secret of life.  We want to do things that will make us feel better when it is the frantic doing that is keeping us from the One who created us to find our joy in Him.

OK, this is getting really long so if anyone is still reading at this point let me finish with two other observations from this missionary journey.

1. Difficulties are natural and should be expected on the Gospel Mission.  This is all the more reason to focus on being grounded in the gospel and in relationship with God through Christ.  If we are only focused on doing things then when difficulty comes we can easily think we must be doing something wrong.  But if we are instead focused on staying grounded in God’s grace then the difficulties become an opportunity to see God at work.

2. Watch out for Pride.  As Paul and Barnabas traveled and shared the gospel, it was the people who thought they had it all right that were the most resistant to the gospel.  I believe this is just as true for those “inside” the church as those who are outside the church.  When we focus on “doing” for Christ we will feed the pride in who we are and what we can accomplish.  If instead we focus on being grounded and rooted in Christ then any effectiveness, any growth, is what God is doing in and through us and He gets the glory.  The way to fight pride is to keep our focus on Christ and the gospel that says we are dead in our sins and risen to new life only in and through Jesus Christ.  All our plans and strategies are filthy rags that amount to nothing, but God’s work is His glorious grace on display through us that can change people’s lives.

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“Out of our Comfort Zone and into the Gospel Mission” (Acts 10 and 11) – Monday’s Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon


I was a lifeguard for one summer and not everyday is a “Baywatch” sort of day.  The truth is that many days are cold and rainy and I would absolutely dread going into the water.  Could you imagine if a child started to drown and I sat there watching thinking, “I know exactly what to do but there’s no way I’m going into that water on this cold of a day!”  The thought of a lifeguard being unwilling to get uncomfortable in order to save a child is absolutely appalling to us.  So why is it we are not equally appalled when we are unwilling to get uncomfortable in order to share the gospel with a lost sinner?

Acts chapter 10 tells the story of Peter going to visit Cornelius.  Peter had been brought up understanding the difference between clean and unclean things.  It was God’s way of teaching His people that there should be a difference between them and the rest of the world.  At some point this daily reminder of God’s holiness became an end in itself.  Instead of these practices pointing to God, they were simply followed for their own sake and became a sort of comfort zone for God’s people.  As long as they stuck to this list of rules they were fine.  It didn’t matter if they were completely ignoring the one to whom the rules pointed.

Cornelius was a Gentile and did not follow these rules.  In fact, these rules meant that Peter could not even go to Cornelius’ house and certainly not eat any of his food.  The early followers of Jesus assumed that people had to first accept the Jewish rules and then could come to God through Christ.  They understood these rules and were comfortable with them.  They knew God had worked through these rules in the past so didn’t He have to work this way in the future?  But the Gospel Mission in Acts often leads God’s people into uncharted waters.  God teaches Peter that He (God – not Peter!) is in control of what is clean and unclean.  God is not bound by what keeps us comfortable.

Comfort Zones are a form of protection.  We put up walls in our lives saying we are willing to be stretched so far but not any farther.  Life within those walls seems safe and predictable because we know it and understand how it works.

In the sermon I described three steps that God uses in getting us out of our comfort zones and into the gospel mission.  The first step is to LEARN – God teaches us something about Him and His work in the world.  God was teaching Peter something new – that God was making things clean that were unclean before.  Peter had to learn this important lesson if he was to follow where God was leading.

The second step God uses in getting us out of our comfort zones and into the gospel mission is to give us an opportunity to RESPOND.  Peter was faced with a choice.  He could have stayed home and not gone to Cornelius’ house.  He could have stayed in his comfort zone, but he would have missed out on the incredible opportunity to see God at work in a powerful way.  But Peter did respond – he went to Cornelius’ house and he told Cornelius and his entire household about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The third step God uses in getting us out of our comfort zones and into the gospel mission is to give us a new EXPERIENCE of His work.  Peter witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit on these “unclean” Gentiles.  Peter assumed that these people would first need to become Jewish, but God was at work and clearly accepted these people only on the basis of what Christ did on the cross.  This opened a whole new opportunity for the Gospel Mission.  The gospel could be taken straight to people that had no connection at all with the Jewish rules.

So when we LEARN something about God we must RESPOND to what we are learning by faith and obedience and this leads to a new EXPERIENCE of who God is and what He is doing in this world.  Then, and this is the really cool part, this EXPERIENCE means that we LEARN something new – which means we should RESPOND and then EXPERIENCE and….well, you get the point.  It’s a cycle.  LEARN, RESPOND, EXPERIENCE, REPEAT…

Peter makes an interesting statement in Acts 11:17 when he is being questioned by fellow believers as to why he would go and stay with a Gentile.  He says, “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God.”  That last phrase really challenges me.  If we stick to our comfort zones and assume that God has to work in ways that are comfortable to us, then we might actually be in opposition to God.

As I was preaching this sermon, I could almost imagine the younger generations shouting “Amen.”  Churches are still struggling with the whole traditional vs. contemporary issue and I think a sermon like this could be taken as a challenge to the traditional mindset that thinks that the way things were done in the past is necessarily the best way.  I think this is a good application, but it is only part of the picture.  The truth is that the contemporary style of church is just as comfortable for those who like it.  Sometimes the efforts to change a traditional church are simply to bring the church in line with a new comfort zone!  It’s like a lifeguard trading the fuzzy hoodie and sweatpants for an electric heater – much more contemporary, but still unwilling to get in the water!

We don’t get out of our comfort zones and into the gospel mission on our terms.  Too often we seek an experience with God without ever truly learning from His Word and responding to Him in faith and obedience.  This leads to shallow and ineffectual experiences that are only our own poor imitations of God’s real work and it leads to people who are “converted” to our comfort zones rather than being truly converted by the saving power of the gospel.

Throughout this sermon series, people have asked me why God doesn’t work with the same power today that He did in Acts.  Trust me, He does.  But He does so on His terms, not ours.  Maybe the  reason we don’t see (or experience) it is that we are too busy rearranging our comfort zones.  May we be like Peter and be willing to get out of our comfort zone and into the Gospel Mission as we learn, respond to, and experience more of what God is doing.


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“This Changes Everything” (Acts 9:1-31) – Monday’s Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon

Edit (10/26/11): Sermon now available online.

What if…?  This is a powerful question.  When you couple “What if…” with “…is true?” it can be even more powerful.  We often like to talk about whether or not something is true or is real, but then we stop.  We don’t go on to the essential issue of so what.  What difference does it make?  

In Acts 9:1-31, Saul is confronted with a truth that changes everything he believes, everything he lives for, and everything he does.  Paul (Saul is his Hebrew name, Paul would have been his Greek name – I’ll use Paul from now on.) did not accept that Jesus was God’s Son.  He did not accept that Jesus was the Messiah.  He absolutely did not accept that Jesus had risen from the dead.  So imagine his dilemma when he sees a light brighter than the midday son and hears a voice that says “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5)!  This one statement changed everything for Paul.  If Jesus was alive then he had risen from the dead.  If Jesus had risen from the dead then he was the Messiah.  If he was the Messiah then everything he said and taught was absolute truth.  The very foundation of Paul’s life was being pulled out from under him.  The thing about foundations, though, is that if they can be pulled out they are probably too weak anyway!  Paul was about to get a much better foundation for his life.  A foundation built upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ which proves that he is the Messiah (Acts 9:22 – “the Christ”) and that he is the Son of God (Acts 9:20).

In Acts 26:9-14, Paul is retelling his meeting with the risen Jesus to King Agrippa.  There he says that Jesus states, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14).  Goads were sharp sticks that were used to direct animals.  In a world that believes the highest goal of human existence is to be happy the idea of “goads” is somewhat unacceptable.  A goad hurts.  A goad even causes bleeding.  A goad limits our freedom.  But if it is God that is holding the goad, and the path that he wants us to stay on is the path of life – the path we were created for – then maybe the pain of the goad is much better than the pain we will face if left to our own wanderings.  The other thing we learn from this idea of the goad is that Christ was at work in Paul’s life long before this incident on the road to Damascus.  Jesus had evidently been pricking Paul’s conscience for some time.  Maybe it was guilt about what he was doing, maybe it was some unanswered questions or doubt.  I don’t know, but whatever it was, Paul had been kicking against it and feeling the pain.  Maybe we kick against the goads in our lives as well.

I absolutely love Jesus’ creativity in dealing with people.  In this passage he teaches someone who thought he saw everything clearly that he was absolutely blind to the truth by causing Paul to be blind for 3 days.  He also uses one of the people that Paul was going to arrest and possibly put to death as the instrument of Paul’s healing and his commissioning to spread the truth about Jesus.

Think about this encounter from the perspective oo Ananias.  Ananias knew that if Paul was in town it was to arrest Christians (see Acts 9:14).  I made the point in the sermon that we all have people that we think are “too tough to save.”  It could be a spouse, co-worker, or friend, or maybe an enemy.  They are the last person in the world we think will ever accept the gospel.  For Ananias, I imagine Paul was someone who was “too tough to save.”  How could this persecutor and killer of Christians ever accept that Jesus is the Messiah?  There is no strategy or plan that could be made that would end in the conversion of someone like Paul.  But the resurrection of Jesus really does change everything!

Paul is going to go on to be one of the superhero’s of Christianity.  He is someone that we read about in Scripture and think, “if I could only be more like him…”  There are some “Pauls” in the world and they are important instruments that Christ uses in the Gospel Mission.  But I think there are a lot more Ananias’.  These are the people that serve in small ways wherever they are.  These are the people who traveled with Paul and worked in the churches he started.  These are the people who kept the Gospel Mission going, slugging it out in the trenches of day-to-day life.  God may not call us all to be Paul – to leave everything behind and go from place to place sharing the gospel – but I think God does call us all to be Ananias.  We should living daily for Christ and be ready and willing to be used by God whenever and wherever.  We should trust that if God says to go talk to the guy that might put us in jail or even kill us then we go.  If God says to live for Christ in our secular world then we will (oh, and by the way, He does say to do this!).

One last thing that struck me from this passage is that Paul immediately begins telling others about Jesus.  The mere fact of the resurrection of Jesus was all that Paul needed to start telling others that Jesus is the Messiah, the way of salvation.  I didn’t get this into my sermon yesterday, but Paul does go away for about 3 years during which time I assume he is discipled and spends time relating what he knew from the Old Testament to what he now realized about Jesus.  This takes place sometime before he leaves Damascus for Jerusalem (see Galatians 1:17-18).  I am sure that this time of training was good for Paul.  I am a big fan of training and education as tools and preparation for effective ministry.  The problem is that so many believers use the lack of training as an excuse to not share the gospel with others.  In Acts 9, as soon as Paul understands that Jesus is risen from the dead, he immediately (as in before any training happens) starts telling others that Jesus is the Messiah!  The fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is more than enough to get us going on the Gospel Mission.  It really does change everything!

I ended the sermon yesterday with the following lengthy quote from C.S. Lewis that is from his book, Mere Christianity (which I I found on Wikipedia):

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

Jesus has risen from the dead.  This proves he is the Messiah, the Son of God.  It proves that he has the authority to say “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  This is not just some truth that we can stick into our bag of interesting facts to pull out at our convenience.  It is THE truth that really does change everything!  What difference is it making in your life?


Here are the devotional readings and questions from the back of the sermon notes:

Monday: Read Acts 9:1-19.  Why was this such a big deal for Saul (aka, Paul)?  Has Jesus made a big difference in your life?  Why or why not?

Tuesday: Read Acts 9:20-31.  Why could Saul now proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God when before he was arresting people who believed this?  Why do you think Saul immediately begins working at telling others about Jesus?  Has your relationship with Christ had this effect on your life?  Why or why not?

Wednesday: Read Philippians 1:12-26.  How did Paul’s (Saul’s) encounter with Jesus change his life?  What do you think he means by verse 21?  Is this true of your life?  Why or why not?

Thursday: Read Philippians 3:4-11.  What things might Paul have been tempted to trust in before he met Jesus and how did he feel about those things after meeting Jesus?  Why?  Do you see this in your life as well?  Why or why not?

Friday: Read Acts chapter 10 in preparation for Sunday.


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