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Diane and I are traveling to see family and connect with some folks from St. John over the several days. I have not decided whether or not I'll post regular devotional blog posts during this time. If you care to follow our travels, however, you may wish to go to my travel blog and see what we're up to.

We will be traveling with Martin Luther for these next several days. See where he shows up!

And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name.15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,

16 “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
     and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
    and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
     says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’ – Acts 15:12-17

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Cactus Blossom | Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

Whenever Christmas or Easter rolls around we preacher types look for some new angle on the old, old story of Jesus’ birth or his death and resurrection. There is good cause for this, people who have heard the stories over the years can too quickly become jaded by it. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all that before,” we imagine them to say. So we look for something new.

In fact on this occasion Paul and Barnabas are telling the Jerusalem church leaders something really and significantly new: The Gentiles were receiving the Gospel, and were coming to faith, and were manifesting signs and wonders as testimony (not to themselves, but to Paul, Barnabas, and now the leaders in Jerusalem) of the legitimacy of their conversion and faith. This is new. This is very new!

But not so fast. This is really not new at all. This is a 750-year-old story – if not older. Paul quotes Amos and Isaiah, who had expressed these things as fait accompli when they wrote those words. God had already made up his mind to save the Gentiles. It was a done deal, for what God decides, God does.

This is good news for us today, for God decreed that the Good News of the Gospel would be spread from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). So it is an old story of sin and grace, love and redemption, mercy and justice, from the foundations of time. That’s an old story worth telling and sharing. Thank God someone shared it with me…and you…and your brothers and sisters in Christ. I wonder with whom he would have you share it this week?

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” – Acts 15:6-11

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Cactus Blossom | Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

I once heard a way of describing our status as Christians in this way:

  • We have been saved through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.
  • We are being saved by God’s continuing work in our lives to keep us in the faith and bring us ever closer to him, and ever more like Jesus.
  • We will be saved on the Great Last Day when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead and brings us with him into the fullness of the rule and reign of Christ.

Peter speaks here of all three: Clearly the final verse has “will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The hope for that is founded in what God has already done in appointing Peter to speak to the Gentiles about Jesus, announcing the Good News of Jesus that their hearts were cleansed by the Holy Spirit through faith. What hangs in the balance is their being saved – the on-going work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and the vital role we play in other’s being saved.

This is the the whole point of the meeting in Jerusalem. This is a big deal. And all joking aside (“It’s the first synodical convention,” some Missouri Synod Lutherans will say!), this convocation will set the direction of the church into the coming centuries in regard to the salvation not only of those already having been brought to faith, but for any future missionary efforts.

Let’s just say this: if the conclusion was to be that the Gentile believers had to become Jewish in their religious practice I very much doubt Paul would have continued his missionary activities. I realize that hypotheticals are difficult to prove, and this one does come out in favor of a very open approach to non-Jewish people. Nevertheless, there is much at stake here – including the ongoing mission of God/mission of the church.

I’m not certain this is as settled in the minds and hearts of us today as it should be. Any time we make requirements for entrance into the fellowship of believers beyond faith in Jesus and a willingness to lead a moral life (this is implied in the requirements set for the new believers – stay tuned), we are impinging on people’s salvation and the mission of God.

The final verse of this section of Acts speaks wonderful grace and truth. Grace: we will be saved. Truth: We need to be saved. But thanks be to God! We believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” – Acts 15:6-11

 

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” – Acts 15:1-5

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

When I was growing up, I would go over to my next door neighbor’s house and just walk in the front door. I didn’t knock. I didn’t ask if I could come in. I just went in. I would find Kenny either in his bedroom in the basement, or watching TV in the living room. It’s just the way things were. I just presumed that I could go into his house.

In somewhat the same manner many Christians today presume upon God, believing that we can just enter into his presence with little or no fanfare, or minimal trepidation. It seems quite the case for North American Protestant Christians. We belong to the church. We can simply go into any church and presume to be served a good sermon, a great choir, a comfortable pew, and a warm welcome. In fact, if we don’t find these things, we are prone often to complain about it.

What if, however, we were to take a different approach to entering into the presence of God and claiming a fellowship with other believers? What if we considered it a high privilege to call God, “Father,” and be welcomed into any fellowship of believers? We take for granted our equal access to God’s grace and easy acceptance by God’s people.

That makes it difficult for us to grasp fully the quandary and sincere debate that was to be had in Jerusalem over the entry of the Gentiles into the rule and reign of God. That God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles meant something. But just what did it mean? And when Paul and his company shared that Good News with the people in Jerusalem was it seen as unmitigated Good News?

Many years ago I was leading our church to become more inviting and accepting to people who were not yet part of our fellowship. Two reactions to our plans and the prospects of success stand out in my mind even today. At a leaders retreat our long-time church secretary said, “We don’t just want all these other people to come in here, do we?” She was literally afraid of the implications of that. She apparently felt threatened by having to deal with “all these people.” Another younger person (who was 16 going on 60) said, “Why can’t they (the people we were inviting into our church fellowship from outside the church family) become like us (first, before coming into our church)?

This was the question that would be put to the leaders in Jerusalem on the occasion of Paul and Barnabas’ visit there. What would be necessary for the new Gentile believers in order not only to be received into the fellowship of the believers, but even to be saved?

We might think this is a slam-dunk question, and that those who were asking these questions were petty and small-thinking. That may be true. It may also be important for us to watch carefully as this issue unfolds in the early church. While Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension with those who wanted to impose the Mosaic laws on the new Gentile believers, this would not be the last of those conversations. And apparently Paul and Barnabas thought this was important enough – and that those who were saying this deserved to be engaged in the conversation – that they spent the “no little time” it would take to talk this through.

They didn’t just throw up their hands in disgust and dismiss these Pharisees. But neither did they dismiss the new believers. Fellowship in the church is earned by Jesus, and not by our efforts or behavior. When we start there we are truly representing the heart of God.

Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples. – Acts 14:24-28

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

The foundation of the Christian faith is the grace of God in Jesus Christ who offers forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to everyone who believes. Whether we point to John 3:16 or Ephesians 2:8-9, the Good News has to do with God’s grace to you and me, and all people. It is Good News indeed when we hear that our sins have been forgiven, that we have the gift of eternal salvation, and God’s favor.

But there is something even deeper about God’s love and salvation that will eventually work itself into the heart of the believer. It will begin to matter to us that others do not have this grace we have received. It will become important to us that someone shares the Good News with people, and that they repent and believe the gospel.

As time goes on, we may even pray for the opportunity to share the gospel with others. Even those who are not particularly gifted as evangelists will sometimes wish to tell a friend or family member of God’s love and grace. The Good News is good news for me, to be sure. But it’s good news to hear that others are being brought to faith in Jesus. This is evidence of God’s Holy Spirit at work in our hearts.

I see the joy and celebration of Paul, Barnabas, and the Christian brothers and sisters in Antioch. This was the church from which they had been sent. And when they reported that God had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles the people there rejoiced. It was not only a homecoming, but also a victory celebration. It was also a celebration of God’s work through the church at Antioch and the missionaries whom they had sent.

We rejoice when we hear that Eric and Linda Funke in Tanzania have made a new inroad, or that our missionary team in Kenya experienced God’s favor in their work there, or that our connection with LINC ministries in Houston have borne fruit.

The Good News is for us, and we rejoice when we learn that others have received God’s favor, for that is good news to the heart of a believer.

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. 20 But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. 21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. – Acts 14:19-23

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

I have experienced only one time when I felt that I was in danger of being physically harmed by someone (beyond childhood fights and squabbles). I was a foolish 16-year-old and had irritated someone who decided he’d had enough. We were in our cars, and he chased me down onto a dead end street. I was pretty scared when he got out of the car and came menacingly in my direction. Fortunately he didn’t do anything but bluster. I was young and foolish – and graciously protected by God!

When trouble came looking for Paul and Barnabas on this occasion it did not back down. Nor did God protect Paul and Barnabas from grave harm. He had proclaimed the Good News of Jesus and had made an impact in the Jewish synagogues and communities. The men from Antioch and Iconium wanted to stop them from doing anything further to change their world or undercut their worldview. So they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, leaving him for dead.

Paul, however, is not to be intimidated or dissuaded from sharing the gospel. After going on to Derbe, and preaching the gospel there, he returns to the very places where he was attacked and troubled. He must have realized that the disciples in those places would need encouragement and bolstering of their faith.

His message is not a gospel of prosperity, but a reminder of God’s calling – even to the point of suffering for the sake of the gospel. The spread of the gospel by means of faithful servants teaches us that Jesus-style salvation is not about gold, glamor, and the greatness of man’s abilities. Salvation, Jesus-style is a call to faith in the One who entrusted himself to God perfectly and completely.

Jesus did for us: he obeyed perfectly and then suffered unjustly without losing faith in his Heavenly Father. His was the perfect faith. His righteousness and perfect faithfulness is ours through faith in him. Our faith will never be perfect, but our Savior is perfect. He is our righteousness.

Blessings and pleasantly-drawn lines may come and go. But God’s faithful servants will point us to the Good News of Jesus again, and again, and again. Thanks be to God!

Now at Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet. He was crippled from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking. And Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and began walking. 11 And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was at the entrance to the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. 14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out,15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” 18 Even with these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them. – Acts 14:8-18

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | March 2017

Have you ever tried to explain yourself to someone only to have them set aside your comments and continue on in their stubborn ways. It might be an issue of misunderstanding – a false conclusion about a word or event – about your place or responsibility in their pain. They blame you for the trouble you had nothing to do with. It could be an unwillingness to play by the rules: “I know I’m not supposed to take photos in here, but no one’s around and besides, you’re in charge of this area.” Or, “Surely it’s OK to take a few photos.” Or possibly even, “Yes, I know I shouldn’t put you on the pedestal; you’re just a mortal, but you’re so beautiful. I just want to worship you.”

It seems that Paul and Barnabas are in this situation with the people of Lystra. Paul and Barnabas did everything in their power to dissuade the people from worshipping them. They pointed people to Jesus. They gave glory to God. They refused to be identified as any kind of god whatsoever. But they barely persuaded the people from deifying them, and even offering sacrifices to them.

The temptations are two-edged in this regard. First is the temptation to take credit where it is not due. We can easily fall prey to the idea that we are hot stuff, and that we are doing what God is actually doing through us. The water needs the pipe to get to the faucet. But not just any water will suffice, while almost any pipe will do. We must constantly guard against believing that we are anywhere near indispensable.

The other temptation is the one to which the Lyconian people were falling prey. They saw the instrument of God’s blessing and confused the instrument for the Giver. That’s no call to undercut or diminish those who serve God’s purposes in our lives. But it is a call not to idolize even the most faithful servant. The world does indeed need a Savior – as my friend tells his seminary students – and he (the most famous, committed, and faithful servant of Christ) is not the Savior. That’s Jesus’ job.

When we say that Jesus is Lord, we are saying that he is our Savior, redeemer, and source of life, forgiveness, and salvation. Any other one than Jesus will not sustain us nor save us. People who are put onto pedestals often become easy targets. Their shortcomings too easily become visible. Their limitations intrude. Not so Jesus. Faith in him will never be found lacking. He is worthy of all our praise.