Acts

Acts Overview

The book of Acts is one-of-a-kind in Scripture!  It is the only narrative, or story, in the New Testament that takes place after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven.  Other than the four gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), which cover Jesus’ ministry on earth, the rest of the New Testament consists of inspired letters from Jesus’ apostles and church leaders to first-century churches throughout the Roman Empire.  A good understanding of the book of Acts helps us to understand how these churches came into existence and enables us to place the letters in their historical context.  Originating in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), the church begins to ripple out into Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-9) and "to the ends of the earth” (Acts 10-28), just as Jesus told his disciples (Acts 1:8).  

Acts is the “Genesis" of the New Testament church!  Just as the Spirit of God “was hovering over the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2), this same Holy Spirit (Acts 1:2) is hovering over Jesus’ disciples (2:3-4) and empowering the work of God’s church throughout the book of Acts.  Luke, who wrote the book of Acts as a sequel to his gospel (compare the first paragraph of each book), is known for his emphasis on the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus and in the life of the church.  Jesus, who is one with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, continues his ministry in and through his followers by pouring out his Spirit in greater measure than the world had ever known.  

 

Acts 1:1-11

“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  The disciples are asking the wrong question (Acts 1:7).  The “kingdom” was never to be in Israel’s sole possession.  Israel was the earthly manifestation of the kingdom of God for a time, for the purpose of expanding the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth.  Jesus came not to make Israel lords, but humble, joyful servants.  He redirects the disciples' attention toward this end in his response (1:8).  Even despised Samaritans would inhabit the kingdom of God along with Israel.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• As you think about your life goals or even this week’s goals, are you seeking to build your own kingdom, or are you seeking to inhabit and expand the kingdom of God?  What does it look like for you to inhabit and expand the kingdom of God this week? Consider your family, friendships, church, work, play, and other spheres of influence. 

 

Acts 1:12-26

A new epoch in the kingdom of God is marked by a new leadership structure.  Just as there were twelve tribes of Israel, there are twelve disciples who serve as lead witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (1:21-22).  Judas has been lost and a faithful witness must replace him.  

Peter references Psalms 69 and 109 as they begin the search for Judas’ replacement (1:20).  At first glance, it may seem as if Peter is misusing or playing loosely with his Psalm quotations.  However, it’s important to realize that, like the rest of the Old Testament, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Psalms.  This does not mean that every word is a prophecy about Jesus or points directly to Jesus, but Peter’s quotations help us to see that the Psalms do indeed find their culmination in the life of Jesus.  For instance, many of the Psalms are written by or about King David.  As the ultimate Davidic King, Jesus embodies the fullness of the psalmists' righteous anger, lament, joy, and praise.  Both Psalms quoted by Peter express righteous anger against deceitful enemies of the king, so they are perfectly fitting for Judas.  Jesus himself takes words from these same Psalms on his lips (e.g. John 15:25), and New Testament writers describe Jesus with the words of these Psalms (John 2:17).  Peter sees that Psalms 69 and 109 find their fulfillment in Jesus' experience of betrayal as Peter considers the structure of the early church.

Many people today are skeptical of structure and organization in the church, sometimes for good reason. Yet we see Jesus choose twelve disciples as the structural foundation of his church, with himself as the chief cornerstone. We see in Acts 1 that the disciples maintain this structure, and we will see, in later chapters, the expansion of church structure for the good of the expanding church. It's important to realize that though there are millions of good and bad teachers, coaches, CEO's, church leaders, etc., church structure itself is good when it is aligns with Scripture and when leaders are empowered by God's Spirit.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What is your attitude toward church structure and leadership?  Do you believe the best in others?  When you perceive that something is not right, do you make quick judgements and express them to others, or do you express your concern directly to the leaders?  Are there presently any concerns you need to prayerfully bring to leaders of your church?  If you have been strengthened or encouraged by church leaders, take time to thank God for them and pray for them. 

 

Acts 2:1-13

The Holy Spirit has always been at work in God’s people (e.g. Psalm 51:11; Exodus 31:2-3).  Even as the God-man Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit (e.g. Luke 4:1), so no human has ever been able to please God apart from the animating power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:5-8).  But clearly something new is happening in Acts! 

Jesus' death for our sin and resurrection to life change everything. Now that He has definitively broken the chains of sin, conquered death, and ascended victoriously to his Father, the Spirit of God is poured out in greater measure on God's children.  The change is impossible to quantify or fully qualify.  We just know that many more people, especially outside of Israel, now experience intimacy with God and power for godly living and service, so the breadth of the Spirit’s work is greater.  The depth of the Spirit’s transforming work is also greater in most cases, even as the disciples have greater boldness and power after Pentecost.  In this chapter, we see the disciples empowered to speak in other languages so that "God-fearing Jews" from around the world could hear the good news of Jesus in their own language. 

All of these Jews were in Jerusalem for Pentecost, which occurred at the end of Israel's grain harvest, 50 days after the Passover Sabbath and 49 days after the "feast of firstfruits," when Israel would offer the firstfruits of the grain harvest as an offering to God. We see here that Jesus, the sacrificial Passover lamb, is also the firstfruits of the resurrection harvest! He rose from the dead on the feast of firstfruits and now begins to bring in the full harvest on Pentecost, by generously pouring out the Spirit of resurrection on his people.*

It’s crucial to understand this tectonic shift in the experience of the Holy Spirit, which was produced by Jesus’ victory.  The disciples, and other believers around this time, were “baptized with the Holy Spirit” well after their initial conversion precisely because they lived during this tectonic shift, a shift that was accompanied by miraculous signs such as “speaking in tongues."  Once the baptism of the Holy Spirit is extended to Judea, Samaria (8:14-17) and Gentile regions (10:44-45; 19:1-6), the fullness of God's Spirit becomes the common experience of every believer in Christ, the moment the believer is united to Christ by faith.  After the “tectonic shift,” all believers in Christ may be assured that we have been baptized by the Spirit of God and have the fullness of God’s Spirit (Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 5:24-25; Ephesians 1:13-14; Colossians 2:-9-10).   We do not need to seek a dramatic baptism of the Spirit since we have already been baptized in the Spirit, but we are called to daily yield our hearts to the work of the indwelling Spirit who may fill us at any moment (Ephesians 5:18).

*For you mathematicians ... Pentecost is 49 days after Jesus' resurrection and He ascended about 40 days after his resurrection, so this Pentecost was about 9 days after Jesus' ascension. Below are the parallels between the Old Testament holy days and New Testament fulfillment . . .

Friday, Passover                                  ~~~ Jesus, the Passover Lamb of God, is crucified
Saturday, the Old Testament Sabbath ~~~ Jesus is in the tomb
Sunday, the Feast of Firstfruits           ~~~ Jesus’ Resurrection, firstfruits of the resurrection
40 Days after Firstfruits                     ~~~ Jesus’ Ascension
49 Days after Firstfruits, Pentecost     ~~~ Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on the church

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• It is difficult to understand the nearness and transforming power of God in our lives apart from an understanding of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is one with the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit applies the work of Jesus, his death to sin and resurrection to life, to our lives.  We are united to the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit.  How does this reality impact your hope for change in your life and in the lives of other believers?  Today, are you consciously living in the joyful reality that God actually lives in you through the Holy Spirit, as one united to him by faith?  Where do you need to yield to God, that the Holy Spirit might empower you for godly living and service to God?

 

Acts 2:14-41

Peter calls upon the the poet-prophet King David and the prophet Joel as witnesses to the veracity of the Jesus’ resurrection and the Spirit’s presence among them.  These are two witnesses whom the Jews cannot ignore.  In Peter’s references to David, we see another example of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Psalms.  He is David’s “Lord” (2:34) and the ultimate "Holy One” who will not see decay (2:27).  Joel spoke long ago to an unfaithful Israel, calling them to repentance and telling of a day when God would have compassion on them and send his Spirit to restore them to faithfulness.  Like Joel, Peter calls Israel (and "all who are far off") to repent of their sins that they might receive the Holy Spirit (2:38-39).  

Joel’s words help us to understand how prophecy functions in Scripture.  Peter sees the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.  But if Joel’s prophecy is being fulfilled this day, where are the heavenly signs (2:19-20)?  John Stott points out in The Message of Acts that the signs may be literal, having already begun when the earth quakes and the sun darkens at Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 23:44-45), or metaphorical “as convulsions of history” (74).  Still, Joel prophesies of the “coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord” (2:20), the day of Jesus’ return, which will not happen for at least 2,000 years after Peter claimed that Joel’s prophecy is being fulfilled.  What’s going on?  

Jesus’ resurrection and the outpouring the Holy Spirit inaugurated a new age, which Scripture calls “the last days” (2:17).  When Joel and other prophets saw ahead to "the last days," it was as if they were looking at the Rocky Mountains from a great distance.  From a distance, the Rockies appear to be a thin line of mountains.  But once one starts driving into the Rockies, the driver realizes that they are actually hundreds of miles wide.  In the same way, the prophets often speak of "the last days" as a single event.  But once we get to the New Testament, we see that the promises of "the last days" are inaugurated at Jesus’ first coming, continued through the ongoing work of Jesus’ church, and consummated upon his return.*  Peter saw, in the outpouring of the Spirit, that the promises of "the last days" were beginning to be fulfilled.

* This understanding of inauguration, continuation, and consummation is how the New Testament authors, like Peter, understood Old Testament prophecy and, thankfully, it is fairly widespread in today’s church.  The specific language of inauguration, continuation, and consummation is borrowed from lectures given by professor, theologian, and missionary Richard Pratt.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Even as Peter preached, the Holy Spirit was working on his hearers so that “they were cut to the heart” (2:37).  Can you remember when you were first "cut to the heart" by the truth of Jesus’ crucifixion for our sin and resurrection for our life?  Take time to thank God for this work of regenerating your heart! 

• Does the message of the gospel continue to “cut to the heart”?  Ask God to soften your heart through his Spirit, so that the gospel continues to bring true repentance and joy in your life.

• Joel speaks of a day when all of God’s people will prophesy.  All of God’s people are called to be (lowercase) prophets who speak truth to one another, priests who intercede for one another and offer God’s gifts back to him, and kings/stewards who bring God’s goodness, beauty, and truth to bear in the world.  How is God calling you to do these things this week, through the power of his Spirit?

 

Acts 2:42-47

Belonging to Jesus means belonging to his family.  When new believers were baptized into the church (2:41), they were not baptized into a statistic or church roster or heavenly roll call, but into a community and a new way of life!  In recent years, some have entertained the idea of an independent believer, but there is simply no category in Scripture for a believer in Christ who lives on without sharing in the blessings and struggles of God’s people.  

So what does life in the church look like?  We see a commitment to growing in the knowledge of God.  The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.  It was not “ivory tower” learning, as we also see a commitment to doing life together.  In the midst of earning a living, the believers clearly spent much time together, whether it was at the temple, out in the community, or in each other’s homes, especially over meals.  Their life together was marked by sacrificial love and generosity.  It was not a forced commune in which all private property was forfeited, as Acts 5:3-4 makes clear.*  Instead, the believers willingly chose to share their possessions, open their homes to one another and, when special needs arose, sell possessions to cover the need.  This generosity spilled over into the community.  The Lord added thousands were added to their number through their witness.  All of these things — growth in knowledge, life together, generosity, and evangelism — find their source and their end in worship.  They regularly celebrated baptisms and the Lord’s supper together (“the breaking of bread”), prayed together, praised God together and, as already noted, heard the teaching of God’s Word.  

In Acts 5:3-4, Ananias is not rebuked for owning property or even for keeping some of the money from the sale of his property, but rather for lying about the money.  The rest of Scripture supports the concept of generosity with private property.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• As you consider the life of the early church, in what ways do you need to commit to a deeper experience of life in the family of God?  Ask him to help you take the risk of seeking deeper relationships through which you will grow together in knowledge, friendship, sacrificial love and generosity, and outreach.  Who would God have you invite into his family and into a deeper experience of his family?

 

Acts 3

Don’t be surprised when a man paralyzed from birth gets up and walks!  This is Peter’s message to the astonished Jews (3:11-12).  Why shouldn’t they be surprised?  Two reasons.  One, this is what the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, and all of the prophets has been promising them for thousands of years (3:13,18,22-25).  Two, Jesus has just been raised in their midst in fulfillment of God’s promises, breaking the power the death for all who will trust in him.  In Jesus, God will “restore everything,” once He has gathered all of his people (3:21).

Until God restores everything, He is able to heal at any time He desires.  The miracle in our passage and all miracles are previews or foretastes of the restoration of all things.  In this case, the crippled man did not even ask to be healed, but God healed him as a testimony to the firstfruits of resurrection, Jesus’ resurrection (3:16).  This miracle is part of a larger pattern of miracles in Scripture.  Whenever there is a significant event in God’s work of redemption, such as God’s call of Abraham, the exodus and formation of Israel into a nation through Moses, the conquering of the promised land through Joshua, a new prophetic era introduced by Elijah and Elisha, Jesus’ first coming, or the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we see miracles attesting to the redemptive event.  Today, we continue to pray for miracles of healing as we long for the restoration of all things, knowing that God is able to heal and at times chooses to give us a preview of restoration, but we should not demand miracles of God as if final restoration is already upon us.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Did you notice Peter’s humility, deflecting all of the attention to Jesus (3:12,16)?  Only the work of the Holy Spirit produces this kind of humility.  Ask God to search your heart and show you ways that you are seeking to bring attention to yourself instead of Jesus.  

• Which people do you know who are mourning over the brokenness of their own bodies?  Perhaps you are mourning over the brokenness of your own body?  Take time to pray for God’s comfort and healing.  Pray for yourself and others to place hope not in on our earthly bodies, which are so uncertain, but in the God who will heal the bodies of his people, perhaps now and definitively when He restores all things.  

• Take time to rejoice in the reality that your sins have been “wiped out” through Christ and allow your soul to be refreshed in him (3:19).  In this verse, Peter is speaking of initial repentance and forgiveness, a forgiveness that is permanent and complete.  But in order to continue to feel the refreshment of God’s forgiveness and to enjoy his presence, we live a life of continual repentance.  Are there any sins of which you are not repenting, keeping you from refreshment in God?  

 

Acts 4:1-31

Peter and John show great courage and boldness in proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus.  Since Jesus is the only One who can wipe out our sins and conquer death on our behalf, they proclaim that there is no else through whom we may be saved from death (4:12).  They do not back down in the face of warnings and threats, but calmly and shrewdly reply that they must obey God rather than human authority.  There is only one Sovereign in their eyes (4:24,28).  

So what do they do after showing great boldness and after a very full couple of days?  They pray for “great boldness" (4:29)!  This is striking.  So often, after stepping out in faith beyond our comfort zone and seeing God work, we either become proud of ourselves and/or we just want to withdraw to our favorite creature comforts.  Many Christian leaders report that they are most subject to temptation after stepping out in faith and seeing God move.  There is a spiritual letdown.  But Peter and John prayed for more boldness, and God answered their prayers.  Surely it helped that they did not isolate themselves after the day’s events, but instead were surrounded by the community of believers.  

(How did Luke, the author of Acts, have insider information about conversations within the Jewish court known as the “Sanhedrin” in 4:13-17?  This information could easily have come from Saul/Paul, Gamaliel (5:34ff.), or another religious leader who became a follower of Jesus.)  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• What cultural, vocational, peer, or other pressures cause you to fear speaking about resurrection and life in Jesus?  Pray for boldness.  Pray that talking about the life we have in Christ would become a regular part of your life with others.  Pray for boldness, for yourself and for/with others, in specific situations in which you feel pressure to remain silent.  

• Can you relate to the susceptibility and weakness many feel after stepping out in faith?  Think and pray about the patterns in your life and what you need to do in order to stay strong, and even grow in reliance on God, in these situations.

• Today, are you resting upon Christ alone for your life?

 

Acts 4:32-5:42

We find some of the same themes in this passage that we have seen in previous passages.  We find amazing boldness in the Holy Spirit in the face of significant opposition (an answer to the prayer of 4:29!), joyful and sacrificial generosity toward those in need, and miracles galore.  But we also find the shocking deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.*  

Who has not lied?  Isn’t God being harsh?  How are we to understand the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira?  Two days ago (Acts 3), we saw that God attests to significant turning points in his work of redemption through an unusual quantity and (sometimes) quality of miracles.  For instance, the ten plagues of Israel's exodus are unique in history.  Just as we see a proliferation of miracles marking significant turning points in God’s plan of redemption, we also see an acuteness in the judgment of God at these turning points.  When Israel enters the promised land, the Lord approves of Achan’s stoning after he keeps some of the plunder for himself (Joshua 7, esp. 7:26).  When King David is bringing the ark of God to Jerusalem, God strikes down Uzzah when he assumes that he can handle the ark in order to steady it (2 Samuel 6).  When God pours out his Spirit on the church, He strikes down Ananias and Sapphira when they lie to the Holy Spirit.  In every case, the offense is directly related to the new work of God.  Like the miracles, these instances of judgment show that these redemptive turning points are truly from God and are not to be taken lightly.  This makes sense in that both miracles and instances of severe judgment are previews of “the day of the Lord,” when He will put an end to evil and restore all things.  Gamaliel (5:33-40) is wise to heed the work of God, for no one can stop it (5:39). 

* Ananias and Sapphira are not rebuked for owning property or even for keeping some of the money from the sale of his property, but rather for lying to the church. While they received God’s temporal judgment, we hope that they were eternally saved in Christ.  Even Moses’ life was cut short due to sin, albeit not in such dramatic fashion.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira served as a warning to members of the early church, and they serve as a warning to us.  They seemed to be more concerned about the appearance of generosity and whole-hearted commitment than honesty.  They considered it a light matter to lie before God and his people.  As you examine your own life, are there clearcut sins that you tend to see as light matter?  In what ways and with what people are you concerned with appearances instead of faithfulness?  Take time to confess, repent, and receive God’s forgiveness in Christ.

• Are there worries or frustrations about the state of the world, the church, your community, the people around you, etc. that discourage and immobilize you? Take courage from the words of Gamaliel:  “. . . if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men, you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”  God started with just 120 believers in Jerusalem (1:15) and now there are faithful churches around the globe.  Peter and John faced severe opposition and persecution in this chapter from authorities, but they rejoiced because they had been “counted worthy of suffering disgrace” for Jesus.  Ask God to reframe your perspective in light of his power and goodness.

 

Acts 6:1-7

An expanding church required an expanded leadership structure.  The widows of the "Hebraic Jews" were being served, but the widows of the Grecian Jews were being overlooked.  (Grecian Jews had assimilated in many ways to the Greek culture of the Roman Empire, a culture that Alexander the Great helped spread throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond 350 years earlier, while the Hebraic Jews held tightly to Jewish culture.)  We do not know if this was merely an organizational issue resulting from a rapidly expanding church or if intentional favoritism was being shown.  Either way, this is the first instance of the church dealing with significant cultural differences within its body.  

The apostles take immediate action.  They show us that the church is not to be sidetracked from proclamation and prayer by caring for physical needs, but neither is the church to neglect physical needs!  Word and deed, body and soul are the concerns of Jesus’ gospel, for body and soul will be raised with Him.  The apostles’ decisive action also shows us that favoritism, or even organizational neglect, in regard to different cultures is unacceptable.  

We ought to take note of the leaders who were appointed to care for the physical needs within the church.  They were “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”  At least some of them were quite capable of proclaiming the gospel even as they cared for physical needs, as we see in the following chapters.  The church needs Spirit-filled leaders not only to shepherd the people spiritually, but also to make wise, compassionate decisions to care for those in need. 

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• In what ways might you or your church be overlooking different cultures represented within in your body or community?  Take time to pray for yourself and your church, and to praise God for the way the gospel brings people from different cultures into one body.

• In what ways might you or your church be neglecting spiritual or physical needs in favor of the other?  Take time to prayer for yourself and your church, and to praise God for his care for all of who we are.

 

Acts 6:8-8:3

What enabled Stephen, along Peter and John (5:40-42), to endure such suffering with such grace and joy?  We are struck by two distinguishing characteristics in each of these men.  

First, there is overwhelming evidence that they are firmly grounded in the story of Scripture.  They quote Scripture left and right, Stephen summarizes the movement of God throughout the Old Testament on the spot, and they understand all of Scripture in the light of Jesus’ coming.  God’s story, the true story, had become their story.  Their faith had deep, deep roots in God’s Word.  Jesus’ words on the cross were so deeply ingrained in Stephen’s heart that he takes Jesus’ words of communion with God (7:59; cf. Luke 23:46) and forgiveness of his persecutors (7:60; cf. Luke 23:34) on his own lips even as rocks pound his body to death.  

Second, and not unrelated to the first, their lives are yielded to the Spirit of God.  They have knowledge, which leads them not to self-reliance, but to total dependence on God.  When God is working and speaking through us, no one can stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom we speak (6:10).  

(Like Jesus, the apostles to tend to speak to fellow Jews, especially to religious leaders, in a much more confrontational manner than they do to others.  We may see these as “in-house” conversations, in which the apostles expect more of their hearers and feel the freedom/necessity to confront them head on.)

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

• Studying the Bible for prideful, self-righteous reasons is an ever-present danger for all of us, especially if we have more of an intellectual bent toward life.  How are you doing with this?  Take time to pray for yourself and others studying with you that the Spirit of God will lead us toward true knowledge, which leads toward dependence on God, rather than “puffed up” knowledge that leads toward self-reliance.  

• In what situations and with what people do you have fear of making your faith in Christ known?  Where do you need the wisdom and Spirit of God to fill you?

 

Acts 8:4-40

The attempt to defeat Jesus’ church through persecution backfires.  The church begins to spread like fire throughout the areas outside of Jerusalem — Judea and Samaria, and even Ethiopia.  The Samaritans were despised by most Jews because the Samaritans had created their own version of Judaism a thousand years earlier and had became half-blooded Jews when Samaria was conquered by Assyria 750 years earlier.  Jesus showed through his ministry in Samaria (John 4) and the parable of “the good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) that He overcomes the hostility between Jerusalem and Samaria, and now Philip (6:3-5) follows in his wake.  When Peter and John join Philip, the post-Ascension experience of the Holy Spirit is extended from Jerusalem to Samaria.  The Holy Spirit then leads Philip across more distinct ethnic lines, when He has a divine appointment with a powerful Ethiopian official, a black man who had converted to Judaism.  The official is baptized in the name of Christ and travels home as a missionary to Africa!

Peter’s confrontation with Simon of Samaria highlights a struggle for many of us.  Simon enjoyed fame in his hometown because of his demonic magic and, even after believing in Jesus, desires to maintain the admiration of his city by controlling the Holy Spirit (8:18-19).  It is a “Christianized” version of the same pride.  When we begin to follow Jesus, the sin deep within our heart is completely forgiven and its ultimate defeat is sure, but we are still called to join in the Spirit-empowered process of putting it death.  This is especially difficult when our sins are veiled in religiosity.  Peter exposes Simon’s “Christianized” pride and, thankfully, Simon appears to be humbled by his rebuke (8:24).*

* Note that Simon’s name is the origin of the word “simony,” which refers to the buying and selling of religious positions, and some traditions believe that he founded a corrupted version of Christianity.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Do not become weary of the message of reconciliation through the forgiveness of Christ, a forgiveness that not only breaks down the wall of sin between God and humanity, but also the walls of sin between people-groups.  This is a consistent theme throughout Scripture and needs to be a consistent theme in our prayers and actions.  How is God calling you to cross cultures with the love of Christ this week?  Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you into deeper relationships across cultures and into “divine appointments” with those who do not know Christ.  
     
  • What sins in your own life have taken on a Christianized form?  We saw Simon’s pride Christianized. We may also turn the idol of relationships into an obsession with Christian relationships.  We may turn a need for drama and gossip in our lives into a need for drama and gossip in our Christian relationships.  We may turn athletic or vocational idols in our lives into the desire to be seen as an amazing Christian athlete or business person.  Ask God to peel back the onion of your heart and change it, and walk in his forgiveness and grace.

 

Acts 9:1-31

The most dramatic conversion in the Bible, perhaps in history, all-too-easily becomes mundane to us.  Consider, for a moment, the humbling process that Saul endured as God prepared him to be a servant to the nations.  Saul, more commonly known by his Latin name Paul, who believed that he could see through the claims of the Apostles, cannot see for three days.  The learned, self-sufficient Paul, who did not have the navigational skills of a blind person, must be led by the hand.  Most of us do not want to bother a friend for a bowl of soup when we are sick.  Imagine needing to be led everywhere by hand for three days.  And how is Paul’s sight restored?  A Christian, one of his former enemies, must place his hands on him.  Imagine kneeling before your arch-rival to receive healing.  Finally, when he comes to Jerusalem, the disciples are of course scared to death.  If it were not for Barnabas, who seemed to have a special grasp on the depths of God’s grace, who knows how long Paul would have been rejected by the community he now longed to join.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • God used Paul’s great learning as a Jewish Pharisee for tremendous benefit to the church (e.g. 9:22), but extra measures of gifting require extra measures of humility.  Every ounce of our gifting comes from God, and every ounce of glory belongs to Him.  How has God humbled you to prepare you to serve Him?  Humbling is never pleasant, but it frees us from ourselves to enjoy God, so take time to give thanks for the ways God has humbled you.  Ask God to reveal and humble the places of pride that remain.  
     
  • Paul’s conversion reminds us that God does not save us because of anything good in us, but solely by his grace to us in Christ (see 1 Timothy 1:15, written by Paul).  How has God shown you the depths of this grace?

     

Acts 9:32-11:18

Acts 9 is the school of humility for Paul.  Acts 10-11 is the school of humility for Peter.  Among the apostles, Peter wins the award for most frequently countering the statements of the Lord. (10:14; Matthew 16:21-22, 26:31-33).  He has been humbled by Jesus several times in the past, but Jesus' school of humility has a continuing education program.  In this chapter, Peter is still clinging to Old Testament food laws, which pointed ahead to the holiness and purity that could only be truly found in Jesus.  Jesus made it abundantly clear that the necessity of abiding by the Jewish food laws was gone (Mark 7), but misunderstanding and pride in their religious and cultural heritage remained (10:14,28,45).  God breaks down Peter’s pride through these dreams and, when He does, the gospel breaks through the walls between Jew and Gentile.  Cornelius and all who heard the message receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized into the church.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We continue to see the gospel breaking down cultural barriers, divisions between people.  Take time to give thanks for the ways that God has broken down these divisions and barriers in your life and church.  In what ways do you and your church need continuing education in Jesus' school of humility?  
     

Acts 11:19-30

The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is beginning to circulate around the Mediterranean world.  Jewish Christians from Cyprus (an island in the northeast Mediterranean) and Cyrene (a Libyan city near the southern coast of the Mediterranean) begin to lead Greeks in the Syrian city of Antioch to faith in Jesus.  It seems that these Jewish Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene needed less persuasion than Peter to see that the gospel was not only for Israel!  In response, the church in Jerusalem sends Barnabas (first mentioned in 4:36) to investigate this new phenomenon.  

In sending Barnabas, the church in Jerusalem sends the right man!  He is a believer who is able to see the work of God’s grace in others (11:23-24).  This is a crucial gift in the church, when so many of us are preoccupied with our own lives and are often skeptical, even cynical, about others.  Not only does Barnabas recognize the grace of God in the new Gentile believers, he also sees an opportunity for Paul to use his gift of teaching to great effect.  Remember that Barnabas was the one who first welcomed Paul into the church at Jerusalem, when others could not believe that God had transformed the church’s greatest persecutor (9:26-28).  Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement,” was given this name by the disciples.  He was an effective teacher and missionary in his own right, but he was used to even greater effect by encouraging Paul and others in their faith and giftedness.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Some have a true gift of encouragement, but all Christians are called to encourage.  What does sincere encouragement require of us?  Can you think of specific ways in which pride and selfishness keep you from seeing the grace of God in others?  Confess, receive God’s perfect forgiveness in Christ, and ask him to give you the grace of seeing his grace in others.
  • Consider the people with whom you interact on a daily or weekly basis, particularly those people in whose lives you might have a voice.  Who is God calling you to encourage?  Ask God to help you to see!  Ask him to help you see the specific ways that the people around you need to be encouraged.

 

Acts 12

We do not know what is going to happen to our lives. We do not know why God gives long lives to some while others are cut short. Why do Paul, Peter and John have relatively long lives of ministry, while John’s brother, James,* has his life cut short (12:2)?  Why is Peter miraculously rescued from prison in this instance while Paul remained under guard for years?  We do not know.  Jesus prophesied that John and James would follow him in his suffering (Matthew 20:22-23), but James is killed at a young age while John suffers in exile on the island of Patmos at an old age.  Church tradition tells us that Peter and Paul were martyred about 20 years after James’ death, near the end of Nero’s reign (54-68AD), and about 30 years before John’s death at the end of the century.  All four men were faithful, but we do not know why their paths looked very different.   We only know that we are called to be faithful with the time that we have, that God will be faithful to build his family (12:24), and that our eternal future is secure. 

Nor do we know why God allows some evil leaders to live a long life, while he brings swifter judgment to others.  King Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of "Herod the Great" who reigned over Judea and beneath Roman overlordship at the time of Jesus’ birth, is allowed to put James to death, but meets the swift judgment of God when he willingly accepted the praise due to God alone.  We know the reason for King Herod’s death, but we do not know the mysteries of God’s timing or the details of his grand plan to accomplish his good and glorious purposes.  We only know that we are called to be faithful with the time that we have, that God will be faithful to build his family, and that our eternal future is secure. 

This disciple named James, the brother of John, is not to be confused with James, the brother of Jesus (12:17), who was not a disciple but became a leader in the church in Jerusalem.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Following Jesus means surrendering control over our lives, trusting in God’s perfect faithfulness and in his timing for our lives.  This is a freeing way to live since we do not have control even when we think we do.  In what areas do you need to let go of worries/control and let God be God?  
     
  • Peter, Paul, James, and John knew that their lives and their eternal destinies belonged to God.  They lived in light of eternity instead of living in the fading light of human praise (12:22-23).  What might it look like for you to live in light of eternity today?  This week?  Ask God to help you see what this looks like for you and ask him to use your life for his eternal kingdom.  

 

Acts 13-14

Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark are sent out as the church of Antioch’s first missionaries in the context of worship, prayer, and fasting.  They sail to the island of Cyprus, not far from Antioch, and then go on to several cities just north of the Mediterranean in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey).*   The Holy Spirit works through them powerfully to frustrate enemies of the gospel (13:10-11), to heal (14:3,8-10), to persevere in the midst of tremendous persecution in almost every city (13:49-52; 14:5-7,19-20), and to boldly and effectively speak about Jesus (13:12,43,46-48; 14:1,21).  

Along the way, we learn at least three extremely important principles of ministry.  First, they preach the same gospel in every place, but the starting point and language is different depending on the audience.  When Paul preaches to Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch (13:16ff.), he assumes a knowledge of the Old Testament and begins with the exodus of Israel from Egypt.  However, when he speaks to Gentiles in Lystra, Paul does not assume anything, so he begins the message with creation (14:15-17).  Second, Paul and Barnabas do not simply "drop a gospel-bomb" and leave the churches to figure out the rest for themselves.  They truly care for the new believers and return to each city at great personal risk in order to strengthen and encourage the new disciples (14:21-22).  Third, they leave each city’s church with leadership structure, appointing multiple elders to continue to shepherd the churches in the context of prayer and fasting (14:23).

Note that one of the cities is Pisidian Antioch, not to be confused with Syrian Antioch, the city from which Paul and Barnabas were sent.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We cannot forget that Paul, Barnabas and John Mark’s incredibly effective journey began with worship, prayer, and fasting in their home church?  Is your life among the people of God characterized by worship, prayer and fasting?  If not, what opportunities might you have to grow in worship and dependence on God with fellow believers?
     
  • As you think through some of the people in your life, where would you begin if God opened a door to speak about your faith?  What knowledge could you assume with each one?  What questions could you ask them to find out about their current beliefs and understanding of Christianity?  
     
  • Do you have at least one mature Christian personally strengthening and encouraging you in your faith on a regular basis ?  Who can you strengthen and encourage on a regular basis? 

 

Acts 15:1-35

Why such a big deal about circumcision?  Circumcision is given to Abraham and his descendants as a sign in Genesis 17, confirming God’s promise that all nations would be blessed and reconciled to God through Abraham’s seed.  Prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, the males in every believing family had received this confirmation of God’s promise on behalf of the family for 2,000 years!  When Jesus comes and fulfills the promise, a sign that points ahead to him is no longer required.  Peter recognizes what is at stake.  If his fellow Jews do not understand that the sign is completely fulfilled in Christ, but rather demand that Gentiles be circumcised as the first among many religious works to be added to Jesus’ work, then they do not understand the grace of God in Christ (15:10-11)!  James, the brother of Jesus, agrees with Peter and shows how the recent influx of Gentile believers fulfills God’s promise that the Gentiles would be included in the rebuilding of Israel, “David’s fallen tent” (15:13-17).  The Gentiles are not an afterthought or add-on to Israel, but full members of the new Israel, the international people of God.  

How did the church go about handling this potentially divisive issue?  When the apostles and elders realized the seriousness of the matter, they did not divide.  They came together (15:2).  Paul, Barnabas and others from Antioch are welcomed in Jerusalem (15:4).  Different viewpoints are shared and discussed extensively (15:4-7).  In the end, the grace of the gospel is not compromised, but some concessions are made so as to not offend the sensitivities of some Jewish believers.  A letter is written, coming from the entire council of apostles and elders (15:23), clearly explaining the decisions of the council.  The whole church then chooses representatives to go and communicate the decision in person (15:22).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Today, are you resting fully in the grace of God, knowing that, by faith in Jesus, you are included in his righteous life, his death to sin, and his resurrection?  Are there any ways in which you feel the need to add to what Jesus’ has done for you?  
     
  • The actions of the apostles and elders are a model to churches and individual believers for how to handle disputes.  When you find yourself in sharp disagreement with other believers, do you divide or come together for reasonable discussion?  Are there ways in which you need to make cultural concessions to believers who are different from you in ways that do not compromise the core of the gospel?  

     

Acts 15:36-41

A funny thing happened on the way to fulfilling the "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:18-20) . . . Actually, it’s not funny, but it is ironic that Paul and Barnabas, two peas in a pod up to this point, divide soon after the gleaming unity of the Jerusalem Council.  Their division is over an HR issue and not a core gospel issue, but it is still unfortunate.  Family ties are also at play as John Mark is Barnabas’ cousin.  Paul feels burned by John Mark’s desertion of them on their first missionary journey (13:13) and believes that he is not trustworthy.  Barnabas, as usual, believes the best in Mark and sets off for Cyprus with him.  The silver lining of their division is that we are comforted by the Scripture’s honesty about struggles in the church and that God uses the division to send out two teams instead of one, but we should not overlook the human weakness and sin that attends the church’s mission.  Thankfully, Paul was later reconciled to Barnabas and Mark (2 Timothy 4:11; Colossians 4:10; 1 Corinthians 9:6).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • How are you involved in God’s mission to take the good news of Jesus to others?  Are you experiencing division with anyone as you go about the work of God?  How can you work toward reconciliation and a unified mission?
     
  • We do need to remember that Paul and Barnabas’ division does not ultimately thwart God’s mission.  If you see divisions in the church, is it leading you toward despair and cynicism, or are you trusting that God will work even in the midst of human weakness and sin?
     
  • The new believers from the first missionary journey were still in Paul’s heart (15:36).  Paul is committed to their growth and joy in Christ for the long haul.  What might commitment to believers’ growth and joy for the long haul look like in your life?

 

Acts 16

So much happens at the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey!  The churches from the first journey are strengthened.  Timothy, who would become Paul’s protégé, joins in the mission.  Paul had just insisted that circumcision is not a requirement for salvation, but now that the theological matter has been settled (Acts 15), he has Timothy circumcised in order to prevent the mission from being unnecessarily hindered.  As they travel west through what is now Turkey, some doors are closed (16:6-7).  We do not know whether these doors were closed through external obstacles or through strong internal impressions.  But when some doors are closed, others are opened.  Further west, across the Aegean Sea in ancient Macedonia and what is now Greece, Paul and his companions find fertile soil for the gospel in the city of Philippi.  

What is the common denominator in all that happens?  The Holy Spirit!  The Spirit of God is providing wisdom (16:3), guiding (16:6-10), opening hearts to the message (16:5,14,30), casting out evil spirits (16:18), filling the missionaries with joy in the midst of intense trials and suffering (16:25), and working miracles (16:26).  The stories of the first conversions in Philippi are markedly different.  Lydia and her household simply hear the truth of the gospel and the Lord opens their hearts to believe.  The exploited slave girl, who may or may not have believed, must first have a demon cast out of her.  The jailer and his household are converted only after witnessing the power of God and the grace of Paul (16:28).  In every case, it is the Spirit of Jesus who empowers and blesses the work of Paul and his companions.

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Paul is unwilling to compromise on the issue of circumcision when it pertains to the truth of the gospel, but he is quite willing to concede on the matter when the gospel is not at stake and when it is for the peace and effectiveness of the church.  Timothy is not in danger of believing that his circumcision is a work toward salvation.  This can be a fine line in certain situations and we need to be careful not to compromise on the truth of the gospel, but are there cultural concessions that you or your church need to make in order to keep the gospel from being hindered across cultural lines?
     
  • We often grow discouraged when we want to serve God but we see doors closed.  Paul and his companions may have been very frustrated after at least two large regions were closed to them, but God had much more work for them to do.  What doors has God seemingly closed in your kingdom service?  How do you tend to react to closed doors?  Are there any recent circumstances in which you need to trust God to continue to open doors even after some have been closed, at least for a time?
     
  • Even as you seek to be better equipped to serve God, which is itself a work of the Spirit, are you ultimately depending on your own abilities or on the Holy Spirit?

 

Acts 17

The gospel disturbs, divides, and unites.  We see in every city where the gospel is preached, the status quo is greatly disturbed.  When we consider that a new ultimate authority is being proclaimed (17:7,24-31), we should not be surprised.  People who were once united along racial, socioeconomic, or educational lines are divided by the gospel, but they also now experience a much deeper unity in a God who brings people together across the external divides of society (17:4,12,34).

There is another way in which the gospel disturbs.  As Paul walks around the city of Athens, we read that he is “greatly distressed to see that the city was full idols” (17:16).  The gospel of Jesus had not only captured Paul’s mind, it had also captured his heart.  The glory of God (17:24) and the love of a God who made us to know him (17:27) had so captured his heart that it disturbs him to see people worshipping idols that are neither worthy of worship nor able to satisfy those who worship them.  Nevertheless, this disturbance does not cause Paul to speak in a judgmental or condescending manner.  He does not water down the truth — he does proclaim the resurrection of Jesus and the judgment of God (17:31), but he commends the Athenian philosophers and finds common ground with them (17:22-23), he begins his message with creation instead of assuming biblical knowledge (compare 17:2-3 to 17:24), and he gives cultural allusions that they understand (17:28).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • There are Christians who are afraid to disrupt the status quo and Christians who enjoy making waves.  It seems that we should be somewhere in-between.  We should not go out of our way to cause disturbance with purposefully incendiary speech and actions, but at the same time we recognize that the proclamation of a new (and infinitely better!) ultimate authority is bound to disturb and divide before it creates a deeper unity.  Are there places in your life where fear of disturbing the status quo keeps you from speaking about Jesus?
     
  • Is there room in your life to regularly consider the state of those who do not the glory and love of the God who made them to know him?  Is there a healthy disturbance in your soul when you see the idols in your own life and in the lives of those around you?  Take time to pray for the people in your life who do not know Jesus.  
     
  • All of creation points to God (17:24-27).  Are you a student of creation, continually learning how to understand nature, work, play, relationships, literature, arts, etc. point to the beauty of God and humanity’s need for God?  Ask God to help you.

 

Acts 18:1-22

Paul’s confidence to persevere through trials in Corinth for a year and a half (18:11) came from God.  God reassures him in 18:10, saying “. . . I have many people in this city.”  Paul’s confidence comes from the fact that his mission is actually God’s mission.  Paul is on the move each day, interacting with the people of Corinth, only because he knows that God is on the move, opening hearts. God has equipped him to reason, teach, and debate, but these abilities only produce spiritual fruit because the Holy Spirit is working through them.  

The Greek word translated “people” in 18:10 is “laos.”  This word does not refer to isolated individuals, but to a "common people” or assembly of people.  It is the same Greek word used to describe Old Testament Israel.  Its usage in the context of Paul’s multi-ethnic ministry in Corinth demonstrates, once again, that Jews and Gentiles are being gathered into one “common people,” a new Israel, a spiritual Israel!

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We may not have a specific promise that God will work in a specific place (18:10), even though we sense God leading us toward a certain place, group of people, or ministry.  Even Paul did not receive a specific promise in every city.  However, we still find confidence in God’s words to Paul, knowing that He will draw a people to himself, that He is always on the move, and that our mission is ultimately his mission.  What is your confidence in serving God, in sharing your faith with others?  Take time to bring any discouragement and frustration before him, to pray for his mercy and power in the lives of the people in your life, and to rest in the surety that He will gather his people.

 

Acts 18:23-19:41

If you blink, you miss the transition between Paul’s second and third missionary journeys, when he spends some time with his home church in Antioch (18:23).  We also see in this transitional verse that Paul goes back yet a third time to strengthen the disciples in Galatia and Phrygia (aka Asia Minor, aka modern Turkey).  He circled back to them at the end of his first journey (14:21-25), visited them at the beginning of his second journey (16:1-6), and now sees them again at the beginning of the third journey.  They remain in his heart.

After briefly visiting Ephesus at the end of his second journey (18:19-20), Paul makes good on his promise that he will come back if it is God’s will.  The timing was not right for extended ministry in Ephesus on the second journey (16:6), but now the door is wide open and Ephesus becomes the hub of Paul’s ministry.  When he first enters Ephesus, Paul encounters some men who had responded to John the Baptist’s teaching about Jesus, but they did not yet know what Jesus had accomplished in his death and resurrection.  Apparently, they had not met Priscilla and Aquila (18:24-26).  Paul shares the gospel with them, and they believe and receive the Holy Spirit.  Then Paul spends three months “arguing persuasively” in the Jewish synagogue before being forced to move his discussions to the lecture hall of Tyrannus.  From this one hall, the gospel goes out to the entire province of Asia (the western portion of modern Turkey), either through direct contact with Paul or through those who heard his message and proclaimed it in their cities and villages!

Paul’s time in Ephesus is of course not without disturbance and drama.  He is publicly maligned by fellow Jews (19:9).  The Lord chose at this time to do, not just miracles, but extraordinary or unusual miracles through Paul, which led to wholehearted confession and repentance (19:11,18-19).  Finally, conflict in Ephesus comes to a head, as the many who profit from the temple of the goddess Artemis realize that the gospel of Jesus is a threat to their income.  

Questions for Reflection and Payer

  • Paul kept going back to Galatia and Phrygia to strengthen the disciples.  Are there people in your life to whom you need to circle back?  And/or pray for them?
     
  • The door in Ephesus was closed for a time (16:6), but not permanently.  Are there people or groups you have given up on, who perhaps need to be revisited?  Have you experienced resistance and rejection in seeking to serve God (19:9)?  Take time to seek God’s leading and strength.  
     
  • What does wholehearted confession and repentance look like in your life (19:18-19)?  Receive God’s forgiveness and invite him to continue his work of remaking you in his image.

 

Acts 20

Paul's parting words as he passes the baton to the leaders of the church in Ephesus . . . Teach the whole Bible (20:27).  Protect and care for the members of God’s church, who were bought back from death at the cost of the blood of Jesus.  Regard them with this value (20:28).  Protect the truth of the gospel from those who would distort it (20:29-31).  Live in the grace of God (20:32).  Do not live for money and possessions (20:33).  Work hard for the sake of those who are in need (20:34-35).  Paul charges the elders in Ephesus, with whom he spent three years and clearly formed deep bonds of friendship (20:37-38), with these words.

Paul is simply encouraging the Ephesian elders to walk in the way that he and others have modeled to them.  What is Paul’s secret to living a life of self-giving service?  It is found in verse 20:24.  He is not concerned with self-preservation or success by the world’s standards.  The value of his life is measured solely by faithfulness to God’s call on his life.  He trusts that God will take care of the rest, knowing that he will be raised with Christ to eternal life.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Have you considered the beauty of God’s calling on the lives of his church’s shepherds (20:27-35)?  Take time to pray for the spiritual leaders in your life, that God would help them to live in his grace and to fulfill this call.  
     
  • Most believers will not hold an office in the church (e.g. pastor/elder, deacon), but all believers are called to care for each other and to build each other up.  There is a sense in which most of Paul’s words apply to every believer.  Do you regard other believers according to their true value, as those who were bought back from death at the cost of Jesus’ blood?  Take time to pray for yourself, that you would live in his grace, that you would see fellow believers as God sees them, and that God would help you to care for them and build them up.
     
  • In what ways are you clinging to self-preservation and self-promotion for life?  How are those things keeping you from faithfulness to God and his mission?  Take time to offer those things up to God and to find your life in Christ’s death to self-serving and resurrection to life in God.

 

Acts 21:1-36

Is the Holy Spirit sending mixed signals?  Paul insists on going to Jerusalem in spite of the pleas of the believers in Tyre (21:4) and Caesarea (21:12), and the prophecy of Agabus (21:10-11).  The pleas came from a sincere, Spirit-induced love for their brother Paul.  The pleas and prophecy are perfectly in line with what Paul, through the Spirit, already knew was coming his way, yet the Spirit compelled him to press on toward Jerusalem (20:22-23).  In this way, Paul is following in the footsteps of his Savior, who also set out for Jerusalem knowing that suffering awaited (21:13).  Jesus goes to Jerusalem to bear the sins of the world, while Paul goes to display the grace of Jesus in the form of a gift to the poor believers in Jerusalem from the churches throughout the Roman Empire (24:17; Romans 15:25-28).  Little did Paul know that his trials and suffering in Jerusalem would eventually propel him to the heart of the empire, the very place he longed to preach the gospel (19:21; Romans 15:23-24).  

Is Paul compromising the grace of the gospel?  Once Paul is in Jerusalem, he again shows his willingness to make cultural concessions in practice (21:24,26), similar to the time he had Timothy circumcised before setting out on mission (16:3).  Paul and James agree that salvation is by faith alone.  James is still committed to the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 (21:25) and he, along with the elders in Jerusalem, praise God for what He was doing among the Gentiles (21:19-20).  Nevertheless, there seem to be differences between the ways that Paul and the Jerusalem believers practice Christianity.  Paul seems to have a greater understanding of the freedom from the ceremonial elements of the Mosaic law that Jesus provides (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; Romans 14:1-15:13), but he is willing to make concessions in practice in order to promote the peace of the church and to win a hearing for the gospel.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • We are not called to seek out persecution, but we are called to willingly endure suffering for the sake of extending the gospel.  Have you recently counted the cost of following Jesus?  Are there any ways that you are avoiding opportunities to extend the gospel in order to avoid some form of suffering?
     
  • Are there any ways in which you are trusting in conformity to a religious practice for confidence of God’s love for you, or are you resting fully in the finished work of Christ on your behalf?  Take time to praise God for his grace that covers all our sin and restores us to life in Him.
     
  • Are there any matters of indifference (Galatians 5:6; 6:15) in the practice of Christianity, in which you need to make a concession for the peace of the church or for the promotion of the gospel?

 

Acts 21:37-23:35

Paul’s time in Jerusalem alone could be made into a movie.  The movie begins with Paul going “undercover" as a law-abiding Jew, as we read yesterday.  It doesn’t work.  False accusations result in a riot against Paul, who is barely saved by Roman soldiers (21:31-32).  A passionate, biographical speech follows.  The riotous crowd is hushed when Paul speaks in their common language and closely identifies himself with Jewish scruples (22:2ff.).  All is well until he mentions God’s call to go to the Gentiles (22:21).  The crowd’s cultural and religious pride is too great to accept a gospel that does not entail conformity to Jewish custom, and the riots resumes.  Just as Paul is about to be tortured, he plays his last card, his Roman citizenship (22:25).  A more orderly but no less confrontational scene ensues between Paul and Jewish leaders (22:30ff.).  Paul shrewdly plays the beliefs of the Pharisees against those of the Sadducees and manages to come out unscathed (23:6-8).  Finally, just before a secret plot to ambush Paul is discovered and he is safely delivered to Caesarea, a coming sequel is confirmed.  The Lord Jesus comes to Paul at night and assures him that he will testify to the gospel in Rome (23:11).  

John Stott notes the clear parallels between the experiences of Paul and Jesus in Jerusalem.  “Both (1) were rejected by their own people, arrested without cause, and imprisoned; (2) were unjustly accused and willfully misrepresented by false witnesses; (3) were slapped in the face in court (23:2);* (4) were the hapless victims of secret Jewish plots (23:12ff.); (5) heard the terrifying noise of a frenzied mob screaming ‘Away with him’ (21:36; cf. 22:22); and (6) were subjected to a series of five trials - Jesus by Annas, the Sanhedrin, King Herod Antipas and twice by Pilate; Paul by the crowd, the Sanhedrin, King Herod Agrippa II [25:23ff.] and by the two procurators, Felix [24:1ff.] and Festus [25:1ff.]” (The Message of Acts, 336-337).  Though Jesus and Paul go to Jerusalem for different reasons, we see in these direct parallels that Jesus’ followers are truly called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps for the sake of the gospel.  

Paul, whose eyesight was poor and likely did not recognize the high priest in a frenzied crowd of Jewish leaders, responded much differently to being slapped than did Jesus (John 18:22ff.).  

Questions for Reflections and Prayer

  • How is Paul’s suffering, as a sinner, different from Jesus’ suffering, as the innocent and eternal Son? Take time to reflect on and to thank God for Jesus’ sacrificial suffering in Jerusalem, even before enduring the cross.  
     
  • Paul was surely asking himself some heart-searching questions as he considered God’s leading to go back to Jerusalem and as he endured tumultuous encounters in Jerusalem.  What might be the cost of faithfully following Jesus where He is calling you to go?

 

Acts 24:1-25:12

Two things stand out from Paul’s trials and appearances before the rulers of Judea:  the continuity of Paul’s gospel with the Old Testament and the continued barrage of false accusations against him.  First, Paul is steadfast in his belief and his message that the resurrection of the dead in Jesus is in continuity with all of the hopes of the Old Testament (24:12-16).  He is able to speak calmly, confidently, and boldly (24:25), as one firmly grounded in the ancient faith of Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, etc.  Second, Paul’s steady confidence is even more impressive when we consider that he is continually and falsely accused of being diametrically opposed to the Old Testament (24:5-9; 25:7).  He is not rattled, but continues to trust in and faithfully proclaim the gospel during an imprisonment of more than two years in Caesarea (24:27).  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • The resurrection of the dead in Jesus is the heart of Paul’s message (24:21), his hope in prison, and the hope of the world.  His resurrection destroys the power of sin and death.  How does the reality of Jesus’ resurrection speak to you today?  How does his resurrection speak into your discouragement, frustration, worry, fear, and longing?  Take time to see your life today in light of the resurrection.
     
  • Jesus’ claim on our lives always comes into direct conflict with our self-rule, the self-rule that every one of us desires apart from the grace of God.  For this reason, speaking about Jesus brings direct conflict with the world, and we see the response of worldly powers grasping for control in these chapters.  Are there ways that you have been falsely accused or misunderstood because of your faith in Christ?  How do you respond?  Ask God to help you respond out the assurance, peace and confidence that only comes through him.  

 

Acts 25:13-26:32

“Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”  These are the uncertain words of a man who is truly wrestling with what Paul has spoken.  King Herod Agrippa II* does not shoot down Paul’s message, but instead “buys time” by responding to a question with a question.  Paul has spoken more “freely” to him than to other rulers, knowing that Agrippa is familiar with the Scriptures (26:24-27).  

“Short time or long — I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”  Paul challenged Agrippa to declare his belief in the prophets (26:27) and senses Agrippa’s unsettled response (26:28), but he cannot force Agrippa’s hand or heart.  Instead, he gives Agrippa space while straightforwardly declaring his hope for Agrippa and all people, that they would know and experience the transforming grace of God.  

Who are these overlapping rulers in Judea?  According to John Stott in The Message of Acts, “Herod Agrippa II was the son of Herod Agrippa I of Acts 12 and the great grandson of Herod the Great.  Bernice was his sister, and rumors were rife that their relationship was incestuous.  Because he had been only seventeen years old when his father died, he was considered too young to assume the kingdom of Judea, which therefore reverted to rule by [Roman] procurator [e.g. Felix and Festus].  Instead, he was given a tiny and insignificant northern kingdom within what is now Lebanon, and this was later augmented by territory in Galilee.  He was nevertheless influential in Jewry because the Emperor Claudius had committed to him both the care of the temple and the appointment of the high priest” (368).

Questions for Reflection and Prayer 

  • In Paul’s interaction with Agrippa, we see a willingness to directly challenge a person’s thinking (26:27) as well as patience and transparency (26:28).  This is a unique setting.  Every conversation is different, but we may still glean some principles of how to speak about Jesus from Paul.  At the right time, are you wiling to challenge people’s thinking?  Most of us do not do this perfectly.  We either try to push people too fast, trusting in our own persuasive power or seeking our own success in ministry, or we are not bold enough, overly concerned with what people will think and perhaps trusting in our clever subtlety rather than the power of God.  Ask God to help you speak with boldness and patience, for his glory and others’ good, rather than for your own glory.
     
  • Can you say, this day, that you share Paul’s concern, and God’s heart, for all people to know the transforming grace of God?   Ask God to give you a joy and satisfaction in his perfect love that overflows into a desire for others to know his love.

 

Acts 27

Sailors, scholars, and skeptics have long marveled over Luke’s detailed description of the dangerous journey from Caesarea to Rome.  Luke does not write with the technical vocabulary of a sailor.  Nevertheless, his accuracy makes it clear that he actually accompanied Paul on the boat.  

The turning point in the journey comes after “all hope of being saved” was gone and an angel of God visits Paul, assuring him that not one will be lost (27:21-25).  Paul may have slept more soundly after this visit, but notice that he does not sleep-in the next day and then tell the crew to “take it easy,” since everything is going to be fine.  No, he tells them that the ship “must run aground on some island” (27:26).    So they take soundings and drop anchors and eventually cut loose the anchors as they near an island (27:28,29,40).  Paul takes a leadership role, making sure the lifeboats are not used and encouraging the men to eat.  He is at peace, trusting in divine providence (27:34-35), but he knows that divine providence does not nullify human responsibility.  Rather, Paul acts because he trusts.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • What promises of God apply to all believers?  (He promises that He will complete the work of re-making us in his image and that He will use his church to draw people to himself throughout the world, to name a couple.)  Are you truly and joyfully resting in God's promises?  Take time to find rest for your soul in them.  
     
  • Just as an athlete who truly trusts in a coach is moved to action whereas lack of trust may lead to passivity, trust in God’s promises leads to confident action.  Are there areas in your life in which you are living out of a faulty view of the relationship between divine providence and human responsibility, in which God’s promises are actually resulting in passivity?  How might, or should, God’s promises move you to confident action?  Take time to praise God for his promises, to search your heart and life, to confess, to receive forgiveness, and to ask God to use you, perhaps in specific ways where you sense his leading.  

 

Acts 28

Paul may be bound by chain (28:20), but the gospel is not chained.  It is extreme irony that Luke can say, at the very end of his book, that Paul proclaimed the kingdom of God “without hindrance” (28:31).  Neither religious antagonists nor stubborn hearts (28:25-27) nor pagan empires are able to stop the Holy Spirit and the spread of the gospel.  In fact, God actually uses the Roman rulers and soldiers throughout Paul’s travels to protect him and uphold his innocence.  As a result, the gospel of Jesus ripples out from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria to Mediterranean islands to modern Turkey to modern Greece to Rome, the heart of the empire (1:8).  Along the way, the gospel is proclaimed to and preached by Africans from Ethiopia (8:26ff.), Cyrene in Libya (2:10; 11:20), and Egypt (including Apollos, 18:24ff.).  

We do not know for sure if Paul was released from house arrest for further missionary activity. Evidence from the writings of early church fathers supports the belief that Paul was released, that he was able to carry the gospel to Spain, among other places, as he had hoped (Romans 15:24), and that he was martyred by Nero a few years later (around 67 BC).  Regardless, his ministry in captivity in Rome was extremely effective, by God’s grace.  Not only was he able to preach to Caesar’s household (Philippians 1:12-14), he also wrote the four “prison epistles” (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon), which continue to bless the church today.  

Questions for Reflection and Prayer

  • Between Caesarea and Rome, and the journey in-between, Paul spent about five years in captivity.  For someone as active as Paul, he must have faced the temptation to throw in the towel, but he continued to trust in God’s providential hand.  What circumstances in your life have caused or are causing you to doubt God’s ability to work through you?  How does Paul’s seemingly dismal, yet ultimately fruitful experience encourage you to trust in God?