A KINGDOM DIVIDED

Jesus made one of his most powerful statements about life when he was accused of casting out demons by the power of the devil.  It is amazing when people hate you for some reason how they can come up with the craziest ideas of how you are doing good things.  The religious leaders in Israel were frustrated to the hilt with Jesus.  He wouldn’t line up with their thinking. He broke their traditions.  He refused to observe the Sabbath in the way they felt it had to be done.  His teaching often went against the very things they felt were important.  Instead of just focusing on the outward actions Jesus went to the heart and demonstrated it wasn’t what you ate or whether or not you washed your hands right but what was in the heart that determined if a thing was good or evil.  All that was frustrating to them.  But, at the same time he was teaching these things, he was healing people of all kinds of illness, casting out demons that were destroying the lives of people.  He gave many blind people sight, deaf people could now hear and those who had leprosy were being cleansed.  So, in light of the teaching they hated, how could they explain the fact Jesus was doing so many things that were good and helpful to the people?  Their answer, he is doing all this by the power of the Beelzebub the prince of the demons.

“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.  If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?”  From a common sense point of view, the charges that they were making against Jesus to offer some explanation for his powerful deeds to help people, made no sense.  Why would Satan empower anyone to cast his demons out of people they had been afflicting for years?  Jesus answer demonstrated the extreme foolishness of the charges.

But the principle he laid down in that answer reached far beyond the challenge he was then facing.  His point about a kingdom or family or even a city divided against itself not being able to stand is extremely powerful and desperately needed.

We live in a time when division in the country has reached levels that most likely have not been seen since the civil war.  It has moved far beyond the point of people having different beliefs and ways of looking at things to the notion that if you don’t see things the way I do, I don’t want to have anything to do with you and I question your character.  When political leaders call for mistreatment of those who differ from them it sets up situations where some person with mental or emotional challenges thinks they are doing the right thing when they try to destroy the ones on the other side.  This mentality causes us to spread the divide further and further so that there is no dialog between the ones on different sides and thus no possibility of learning, growing or changing what we believe.  This leads to anarchy rather than the building of a great nation.  It can only change as we, individually, personally and intentionally are willing to extend our friendships to people who don’t see things the same way we do and are willing to listen to others as well.  I’ve never seen two groups standing and shouting at each other to change anyone’s mind about anything.

But a divided kingdom isn’t just a national problem.  Too often the household or family stands as a divided as the nation.  It is clear from the beginning that God’s intent for marriage was that two people become one flesh.  This deals with more than just getting together sexually.  Marriage is meant to be a place of oneness, unity, coming together and working together for the good of the whole family.  A house or family divided against itself cannot stand.  When you see husbands or wives that can’t see anything good in their partner and are constantly putting them down for everything, you know that the whole family is in deep trouble.  Marriage problems never stop in the marriage but bleed through the whole family with the children often taking the brunt of the division.  Too often then the parents go away wondering what happened to their children without having the judgment to look at their own actions to see the problem.  Unity doesn’t mean agreeing about everything.  It means working together, listening to each other, building each other up and trying to come together instead of pushing each other further apart.  Too often we read the statement of God in Malachi 2 about God hating divorce and fail to see the reasons given that it brought tears and broken hearts to the altar and children that were intended to be brought to God in the relationship are driven further away from him instead.  If we can’t find unity in the home it is impossible to find it in the nation or workplace.

Finally, the point of a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand must be applied to the church.  Jesus prayed for unity among his followers in John 17:20-21 so that the world might believe that God sent him.  Unity brings faith but division brings unbelief.  Division at church is so common that we tend to accept it as necessary and even try to defend our actions as some effort to stand for the truth.  I’ve known tons of churches to divide or groups of people to leave for one reason or another.  Almost without fail the reason given will be some doctrinal difference.  But in almost every case it wasn’t the doctrine that drove people away but personal problems or failures to get along with others and the doctrinal differences are simply used as an excuse to make us feel better.  Again, as in the home or country, unity at church doesn’t demand we agree about everything.  It demands we love each other and treat each other with respect, being able to disagree on something without challenging the integrity of those who see things differently.  Honest people often reach different conclusions.  But most of the time people in church are still in agreement about the fundamentals of the faith.  The differences normally are found in areas of judgment and things about which the Bible’s message isn’t particularly clear.  Unity matters and is worth fighting for in the nation, in the home and in the church.  

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DEVOTED TO PRAYER

We’ve been looking at the things the first church Jesus established devoted themselves to after they had believed in Jesus as the Son of God, turned from their sins to God in repentance and were baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.  God gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit to be with them and in them for the rest of their lives on earth.  Then it says, they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to breaking of bread and to prayer.  The fact these new Christians devoted themselves to these four things certainly indicates that these are all very important parts of living as God wants us to live.  It wasn’t just that they made a point to do these each Sunday when they worshiped together.  The idea of being devoted to each of these indicates the tremendous value they placed on each.  It is obvious they recognized that these four things are vital to our pleasing God want walking with Christ in our daily lives.

Focus on the matter of prayer.  The other three things on the list refers to things they would do together.  But prayer is both a together activity for a Christian and a very private or personal aspect of faith.  Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount that when we pray we shouldn’t go out in the crowd and pray in a way that is meant  to show the world our devotion to God.  Instead he said if we did these things before people to be seen by them, we already have our reward.  But enter into a private place and pray between you and God alone and the God who hears in secret will reward you.

If we took that to mean that we shouldn’t have public or corporate prayers as a church or even as a family, we would miss the point by several miles.  Jesus prayed in public on different occasions and is pictured in Luke 9 as praying privately in the midst of a crowd of people.  The church that was launched on this occasion in Acts 2 prayed publicly when they had difficult situations to deal with such as when Peter and John were arrested for healing the cripple man at the gates to the temple.  They prayed for God to give them more boldness so they could speak his word with boldness before the world.  Prayer, like every other part of living for God, can become a ritual, a habit that requires little thought or heart.  It is easy to fall into the habit of praying at the same times each day and saying most of the same things, praying for the same people day after day.  Our prayers should rise out of our hearts and our personal devotion to God.  Paul gives a strong hint as to the nature of our prayers when he described how as new children of God we receive the Holy Spirit as a gift from God and we cry out to Him, Abba Father.  Abba was the Hebrew word that a child used in speaking intimately to his dad.  It is comparable to our talking to our Daddy.  If someone ask me who my father was, I quickly tell them about the man I called Dad as long as he lived on this earth.  I can’t imagine going up to my dad and calling him “Father”.  It would likely leave the impression that this is a very formal relationship.  But God wants us to come to him as our Abba or dad.

What kinds of things do you pray about?  It is certainly easy to get into a rut and pray the same prayer over and over again.  But prayer should rise from our heart and the challenges, fears, concerns and joys we experience each day.  It should be full of the names of people for which we thank and praise God.  But it should also be filled with gratitude for all the ways God has blessed us in the last few days.  Our prayers should be for the rulers and authorities in the land and for leaders in the church where we worship God.  But prayer is also about request that we make for God to bring into our life the blessings and opportunities He alone gives, so that we might do good and lead others to him. In Acts 4:25-31 Peter and John had been released after being beaten for their good work in healing the cripple man.  The church prayed fervently for Peter and John, but they prayed for the whole church that God would give them great boldness.  They asked God to “Stretch our your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of you holy servant Jesus.”  God was so moved by their prayer that the place where they were meeting was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.  It is absolutely amazing as you read the writings of Paul and his request for prayers from different churches that it usually will center on God giving him more boldness in preaching the word of the Lord.  Think about it.  How long has it been since you heard anyone in church pray for more boldness?  I hear lots of prayers for healing and comfort for the hurting and that’s good.  But I would plead with us to include boldness in the number of things we ask God for today.

Why did they pray for boldness?  They knew persecution was coming to them right away.  They knew the world was in desperate need of the gospel message they had from God.  They knew that often the very ones who needed the message of Jesus most were often the ones who wanted it least and would even turn on them for telling them God’s truth.

Obviously we need to pray in times of hurt that God will bring blessings into our lives to heal and solve the hurts we struggle with. We need to pray when things are going great as well in thanksgiving and for open doors to spread the message of faith and reconciliation to the world.  As years pass it is amazing that when you pray there are lots of people you want to pray for because of all the trouble and sickness they are facing.  But I must not become so focused on those who are hurting that I lose sight of the marvelous blessings from God that come to us daily.

It is interesting to me how public prayers have changed in church through the years.  I remember the day when just about every person who led a prayer prayed for the preacher, for the elders and the spread of the gospel through the world.  But I don’t hear that prayer often anymore.  Maybe it is circumstances and size the makes the difference but I remember when prayers were very personal and people prayed for family, friends, and fellow Christians by name to help them with the struggles of life.  It seems we become more generic in our prayers as time moves on.

I would strongly suggest to everyone that we spend some personal time reading the prayers of Jesus from the model prayer to his prayer in John 17 and that we read the prayers of Paul in his letters to different churches, especially read Ephesians 1:15-22 and 3:14-21.  I love his prayer in Philippians 1:9-11 so much I want to use it as my prayer for you as you read today.  “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.”

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DEVOTED TO BREAKING BREAD

The first church ever, came into being with a great beginning and a growing heart.  In the second chapter of Acts Luke described this great beginning as 3,000 people heard the message Peter preached and were cut to the heart by what he said.  They readily turned from their sins to the Lord and were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins and were blessed by God with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  But their growth was just beginning. The Lord was adding to their number every day as they were praising God and having favor with all the people.  The event was powerful and I suspect the people there on that Pentecost after Jesus died on the cross, likely never stopped talking about what they saw and heard on that day.  But the event was only part of the story.  It was what continued after that day that led to the massive growth of the church.  

Those 3,000 people who were baptized devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to breaking of bread and to prayers.  That devotion and dedication to living for God was behind the growth that just kept developing with every chapter in the Book of Acts.  We’ve looked at the devotion to the apostles teaching and to fellowship..  Now let’s focus on being devoted to the breaking of bread.

This phrase is used in two different ways both in this context and in the remainder of the Book of Acts.  Sometimes it is used to refer to the taking of the Lord’s Supper as the Christians gathered to commune together in remembrance of what Jesus did for them on the cross.  Jesus had instituted this communion on the last supper before his crucifixion with his disciples. He told them to take the bread in remembrance of his broken body on the cross and to take the cup which is the New Testament in my blood, in remembrance of the blood that he shed for the forgiveness of sins.  The fact Luke said the church in Troas came together on the first day of the week to break bread (Acts 20:7) indicates it was so important in the life of the early church that they saw the communion as the primary purpose of their gathering.  But this phrase is also used to refer to the gathering of people to share a meal together.  Later in Acts 2:46 it says, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”  Even in the Acts 20 story of the church at Troas gathering to break bread, it goes on to tell of them breaking bread the next morning before Paul left them to go on to Jerusalem.  So, when the phrase, “breaking bread” is used in the New Testament you have an immediate decision to make.  Is it talking about breaking bread in the sense of taking the Lord’s Supper or Communion or is it simply talking about Christians getting together to share a meal, likely in someone’s home.

While different writers have seen it in very different ways, some thinking that every time it is referring to the Lord’s Supper and others that every time it is talking about sharing a meal together, it seems more likely to me that in both these context he uses the same phrase in two different ways.  The first use is with regard to the Lord’s Supper and the second use in both text, it seems to me, refers to the sharing of a meal together.  If that is true, and I believe it is, then what they were devoted to wasn’t just people getting together to share a meal, but the church gathering to take of the Lord’s Supper as a part of their worship to God.

During the first century it became common for churches as they gathered, primarily in homes, to have a common meal they called a love feasts during which they would also take of the Lord’s Supper together.  So, it was certainly easy in that time for there to be confusion on the whole matter.  As time went by the common meal became more and more corrupted to the degree that it was dropped as part of the early church’s gathering time.  In I Corinthians 11:17ff Paul described how the meal had been corrupted with some eating too much and others drinking too much.  Efforts were being made to exclude those who were poor from their meal.  The whole concept of fellowship and communion was being lost, so he had to remind them of the purpose and goal of worship was built on love, sharing and focusing on Jesus and his death for us on the cross.

But, why is it important to be devoted to breaking the bread and sharing the cup of communion as a church?  One of the primary purposes is to keep the focus of our gathering as Christians on Jesus and the price He paid for our redemption and forgiveness.  In I Corinthians 11 Paul described the four directions of communion every time we participate in it.  It has to do with a look backward to see the price Jesus paid on the cross so we can be forgiven by the Lord.  It also involves a look upward to Jesus in that we are communing with Him and with each other as we worship him.  We are there to glorify His name and to build each other up.   Paul said we were to take of this communion until the Lord comes again.  So, we are also looking up to him for his return in glory one of these days. Third we are to look inward.  Paul said for us to examine ourselves and then eat of the bread to make certain we aren’t eating in an unworthy manner bringing on us condemnation.  Finally we are to look outward at the body of Christ we are a part of.  We need to see His body on the cross, but discerning the Lord’s body more likely refers to the spiritual body or the church and that we are to consider each other and the unity of the body as we commune with Jesus.

In our time there have been several mistaken ideas about the communion that was never in the thinking of the early church.  Some have tried to make aspects of the communion just for some exclusive group such as the clergy, but it was for the whole body of believers as they took of it and remembered Jesus love for them.  Some have argued that when we take of the bread and cup they literally become the body and blood of Jesus.  But the very use of the phrase “breaking of bread” denies that idea.  It is bread when we break it and when we take of it.  It symbolizes the broken body of Jesus but doesn’t become it.  Likewise the cup is still the fruit of the vine when we drink of it.  The fact Paul accused the people of Corinth of drinking so much that some of them became drunk demonstrates that it was wine and was fermented at the time.  It is done in remembrance of his death for us, not that we are literally eating the flesh and blood of Jesus.

Others have made the mistake of thinking that Paul’s admonition for us to examine ourselves so that we won’t eat or drink in an unworthy manner means that we must somehow be worthy to take of the communion.  The result is that hardly anyone ever feels qualified to commune.  It wasn’t the idea of our being worthy, but of us taking in a worthy manner, so we were thinking about other people instead of just ourselves.  The very word communion, which comes from the same word as “fellowship” demands it be something that people share in doing.  It is done in the gathering of the church to share in the meal and the memory of our Savior and Lord and the price he paid for our redemption in Christ.  While communion was a part of the gathering of Christians, it was not the only reason for their gathering.  Notice even in our text it is tied to the apostles teaching, fellowship and prayers.

Jesus chose two simple elements that would be available for all people to be able to commune with him.  He used the word “bread” to describe the one part of the communion.  We tend to use unleavened bread because that would have been what he used since the Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus on Passover.  But he didn’t use a word that demanded any particular kind of bread to be used.  Also, the word he used for the fruit of the vine didn’t demand either fermented or unfermented drink, it simply demands that it be the fruit of the vine.  I don’t doubt that Jesus used grape juice that may well have been fermented to some degree.  Obviously what was being used in Corinth was fermented since some were leaving drunk.  But the word used by Jesus just demands the use of fruit of the vine.  

It isn’t the elements or the timing that is so significant, but the purpose that we remember what Jesus did for us to be saved, that we think about each other and that we focus on our own way of participating and that we remember Jesus is coming again.  It is vital that we be devoted to the communion with Jesus and with other followers of Jesus.

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DEVOTED TO FELLOWSHIP

When the church was launched in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost described in Acts chapter two, there was a vast multitude of people present as Peter preached Jesus to them.  Three thousand people heard the message, believed in Jesus as the Lord and Savior, turned from their sins to God in repentance and were baptized in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.  Those who were baptized received from God the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit to live in them, lead them, guide them and serve as a guarantee of the blessings to come.  These new Christians devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).

Today, I want to focus on that word, “fellowship”.  When we use the word it commonly refers to some kind of activity where lots of people are participating such as a fellowship meal.  The word used here is one that is translated several different ways in the New Testament that gives us some insight into what is involved.  It is the same word translated “communion”, “contribution”, “partnership” or “joint-partners”.  It can also be translated, “joint participation.”  It can be applied to people gathering to worship where everyone participates, to people gathering to work on some project or purpose, to people getting together to eat, sing, pray or serve others in some fashion.  When we jointly support some cause we are involved in fellowship as described here.

Look at the verses that follow as a tremendous illustration of what they were doing that was regarded by God as fellowship.  “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold their property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Look at different ways these early Christians were involved in fellowship from the very day they became followers of Christ.  They were together.  They had everything in common.  They were so involved in helping each other to meet whatever needs might arise that they willingly sold possessions to be able to support those in need.  They met together daily in the temple courts.  They gathered in homes to eat with each other with glad and sincere hearts.  They were praising God together.  All of these were aspects of fellowship that went on in this new church from the beginning.

In many ways the local church is a fellowship.  Paul described how the churches of Galatia had extended to he and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship so that they were made partners with the church in its work for the Lord.  When a new person comes into the body, they are accepted into the fellowship and are then partners with every other member of the Body in doing the work and worship God calls us to do.  It was based on this bond of fellowship being so strong that every member felt that they were in a partnership with every other Christian in God’s work, that the church was at times commanded to “withdraw fellowship” from someone to cause them to realize what sin was doing in their life and to lead them back to God.

Too often in our own time the fellowship of the church has become so weak that withdrawing it from someone who is involved in a sin doesn’t lead them to repentance, but to anger that they church would have the audacity to carry out such action.  I’ve heard too many times of churches sending letters to someone to inform them they have had fellowship withdrawn from them when the person really had no fellowship with them to be withdrawn in the first place.  Unless there is true, full and loving fellowship in the body on the front end, withdrawing fellowship serves no purpose to but drive the wedge deeper than ever between the church and the one being withdrawn from.  Most churches need to push the concept of fellowship to new levels so that if the day ever comes that you are forced to withdraw that fellowship from a person it will mean so much to them they will quickly repent to be able to be back in full fellowship with the church.

Having such true fellowship means that every member is seen as a vital, working partner in the work and worship of the church.  This bond is seen by God as so close that he describes the church as a body and each one of us as members of that body.  The only way the Bible ever described a person as a member of the church is in the sense that the church is the body of Christ and we are individual members of that one body.  Too often we think of church membership as being like belonging to a social club where we pay our dues, attend some meetings and are regarded a an active member.  But the church is the living, breathing body of Jesus and to be a member of that body means we have a vital place to fill in it.  So, if one member suffers we all suffer with them and if one member rejoices we all rejoice with them.  It was this bond of fellowship that led to them referring to each others as brothers and sisters in Christ.  They each had God as their father, Jesus as their older brother and saw each other as family. 

It was this same sense of fellowship that led the church in Jerusalem to deal with the problem of Grecian widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  They and their families began to complain about the neglect so the apostles gathered the whole church together to talk about the problem.  Peter explained to them that it wouldn’t be right for the apostles to lead the teaching of God’s word and prayer to serve tables so they were to look out among them and find seven men full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, men of good reputation and full of faith who might be put in charge of this work.  They chose seven men and the apostles laid their hands on them to lead in this work.  Notice the texts doesn’t say that these seven men did the work but that they were put in charge of the work.  Their job was to lead in taking care of those who were being neglected.  Fellowship should always mean that no one is being neglected in the body but everyone knows that they matter to God and to the church.  

Think of the fellowship you enjoy as part of a local church today.  What are some things you could do that would build that fellowship?  What if we were really devoted to fellowship in every church?

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TO THE APOSTLES TEACHING

Can you imagine what it would be like to go to a huge religious conference in a city a rather long way from your home and while there hearing some things about a new way of life and new teaching that hit your heart to the fullest extent, so that you made a firm commitment to follow this new teacher and new way of life?  Just imagine that you left home a week ago as a devoted Jew, bound by the Old Testament Law, knowing you were one of God’s chosen people and you were going to celebrate with thousands of other believers the feast of Pentecost.  But while you are there, you hear a loud roar and are drawn to an area where you see men walking around with tongues of fire coming from the top of their heads.  You see they are all men who look alike, yet they are speaking in all kinds of different languages and you can understand what is being said in your native tongue.  Suddenly one man stood up and began preaching to the crowd about a man named Jesus, who was sent from God as Lord and Savior of the world.  Your own people, and people from his own background rejected him and put him to death with the help of Roman authorities.  But then the man preaching said that death couldn’t hold him and that God had raised him from the dead and they were witnesses of the whole thing.  It was this resurrected Lord who had sent the Holy Spirit upon them and this Jesus was now both Lord and Christ. You were one of the ones whose heart broke at the very thought of being part of the reason Jesus was crucified.  You are one of the ones who cried out, “What shall we do?”  When you heard the preacher say, “Repent and everyone of you be baptized into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” you quickly turned from your old ways to God and were baptized that day.

What now?  You are new to being a Christian.  You came from a very different background.  Your whole world has turned around and your family as a whole will not understand or appreciate what you have done.  So, what do you do now?  One of the amazing verses of Scripture is found in Acts 2:42 when it tells of the three thousand people who had been baptized that day and added to the number of Jesus’ disciples.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Think with me today about being devoted to the apostles teaching.  All your life you have been devoted to the teaching of the Law.  You have heard thousands of lessons from different rabbi’s explaining what the law said and how we are to apply it to life.  But now, your devotion has changed.  It isn’t now about what the law said.  The focus is on what the apostles of Jesus are saying is involved in following Jesus as Lord and Savior.  It would be several years before the very first letters of the New Testament began to be written down.  So at this point the concern was what Jesus had taught these apostles as the way to live and follow him.  Too often we use the word “doctrine” as some official creedal statement of what people or groups believe.  But the word translated “doctrine” in the Bible simply means “teaching.”  One of the powerful points to keep in mind when thinking about the apostles’ teaching is that later people like Paul would encourage young preachers and teachers like Timothy and Titus to preach “sound doctrine” or teaching.  The word “sound” mean to be healthy.  It wasn’t at all the notion that sound doctrine was some list of beliefs that we must give allegiance to, but the teaching that demonstrated how one could live a healthy spiritual life in relationship with God.

I wish we had access to the lessons these early apostles taught and preached to these new followers of Christ on how to live and serve the Lord in their world.  But as you read through the Book of Acts the recorded sermons tended to focus on people who were Jews or Gentiles whom they are trying to win to Christ, instead of on how to live for him as a disciple.  One would have to focus on the actions of the early church and their treatment of each other and others around them to get any real sense of what may have been involved in the apostles teaching.  Jude, a half brother of Jesus will later write a short book to the early church in which he makes a reference to somethings the apostles had said to them.  In verse 17-23 he records the following:  “But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.  They said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.”  It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit.  But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.  And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.”  It is difficult to know where he stopped quoting what the apostles had warned about and started making application of their teaching as an inspired teacher, even though our translators have put in the quotation marks to indicate where they feel it stops.  But there weren’t any quotation marks in the original text.  But it is obvious that the whole section related to the kinds of things involved in the apostles teaching.

Think of a few things in this quotation that would certainly be vital for people of all times.  First, the notion that there will be false teachers who strive to lead people away from the things Jesus taught wasn’t a surprise, but was recognized as what would happen from the beginning.  It started quickly and has been the case ever since.  Involved in such false teaching was the longing to divide those who are disciples of Jesus from each other and cause them to look with suspicion on one another.  Second, the answer to such false teaching was for disciples of Jesus to build themselves up in the most holy faith, which is simply another way of speaking of the apostles teaching.  They were to do that by praying in the Holy Spirit, keeping in the love of God and waiting for the mercy of the Lord that leads to eternal life.  Does that sound like what has happened in your life or the teaching you have heard through the years?  Nothing is said about keeping everyone straight or attacking others that you don’t agree with.  It doesn’t mention anything about making list of who is “sound” and who isn’t.  It begins with the focus on staying in a right relationship with God ourselves through prayer and living in his love and mercy.

But notice, he turned to make application of how we are to deal with others out of the apostles teaching.  It sounds strange to us to hear him say that we need to have mercy on those who doubt, save others by snatching them out of the fire, to show mercy to others with fear, hating the garments stained by the flesh.”  It is right to hate the garments stained by sin, but not to hate the people who are wearing them.  It is the need to act with mercy toward the doubting, struggling and questioning.  Our heart must be that what we long for is for all to be saved, no matter what may have been going on in their life lately.  This fits exactly with the heart we see lived out in Jesus life while on this earth.  He was constantly reaching out with mercy toward those who were rejected by the religious world around him, pulling them from the fires of sin, Satan’s rule and the moral and ethical problems of their life.  His whole heart seemed to be summed up in the phrase, “And he had compassion on them.”  If we had been told that the apostles teaching went in a different direction than that, there would be huge reasons to question if they were really giving us what the Lord wanted them to give.  Their teaching, after all, was with the full intent of taking us to Jesus, the Savior and Lord.  Think of the extent to which God intended us to go to try to make certain those who are fellow disciples of Jesus either stay right with the Lord or are brought back to the right way after they have drifted off into some wrong way of thinking or doing.  The very notion of snatching someone from the fire demonstrates the risks to which we are to go to pull people back into fellowship with Jesus and his people.  Way too often we are content to simply let people go because of their problems or the fact they are always challenging things that we don’t like to think about.  We must not allow the huge points of making certain we are right and helping others to stay right or get right is paramount to our being true to the apostles teaching.

How do we devote ourselves to the apostles teaching today?  Obviously, we have the New Testament so we have access to the full teaching of the apostles, including the letters they wrote about Jesus life and ministry on this earth.  We have the record of life in the early church and we have letters written to churches and individuals telling them how to apply the things Jesus taught us to do to every day life.  It is vital in every age to remember that the apostles teaching isn’t what we heard someone teach when we were growing up or what was done when we first became a Christian.  It is what the New Testament of our Lord actually teaches about life and service to God today.  When looked at correctly, the apostles teaching will always drive us right back to the teaching and actions of Jesus who taught them what to believe and teach.

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DEVOTED THEMSELVES

Today we hear a lot about church planting.  It is a great topic and noble ambition to plant a church in a new or different area to try to reach people for God.  Thinking about the whole topic led me to a question.  What if God planted a church, what are things he would do?  Of course, when you raise that question it quickly leads you to consider Acts chapter two when God did first plant the church that was to spread through the whole world.  That church was in God’s plan from the foundation of the earth and its purpose was to demonstrate to the powers and authorities in the heavenly realms the multi-colored wisdom of God.  That first church started with lots of amazing things.  The Holy Spirit came upon the apostles who were gathered in prayer and there were tongues of fire rising from each of them.  They all began to speak in languages they didn’t know, glorifying God.  People heard the great noise and gathered to find out what was going on.  Peter stood with the others and began to preach to them about Jesus.  He pointed to the fact that Jesus had come into the world to bring us salvation but by God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, he was crucified, but God didn’t leave him in the grave.  Death couldn’t hold him, so three days later he was raised as Lord and Savior.

When the people were cut to their heart on realizing they had been involved in putting to death the Savior they cried out to Peter and the other apostles, “Men and brothers, what shall we do?”  Peter told them to repent and for all of them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for the promise was for them, for their children and for all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.  Three thousand of them were baptized that day.  But it was what happened then that really involved the planting of a church.  In Acts 2:42 it says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  In the following verses and chapters Luke described how these four things were dominate in their lives and actions.

Suppose you wanted to plant a church today in a different section of Little Rock, what are some things you would do to assure the success of this new church?  What would you want the people to devote themselves to doing so that it might be, both what would reach people and please God?  The problem so often when we think about planting a church, is that we tend to think more about what will bring people in, than what would please God and that is the reverse of what should be the case.  Being popular with people has never been an assurance that it is what God wants.  The truth is, the church that is pleasing to God will always be one that is devoted to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to breaking bread and to prayer.  These stand as the heart of the church and the heart of God’s plan for the church.

What does it mean to be devoted to something?  One can certainly be involved in something without being devoted to it.  Go to visit any school in the area and look into the classrooms.  You will see lots of young people in class.  Some will be studying and trying to understand what the teacher is sharing with them.  But there won’t be many who are really devoted to what is being taught.  Actually, it is rare to find the teacher that is totally devoted to the class and to the teaching that are being paid to do.  Too often it is a job and one goes through it to fulfill the obligations of the job.  But a devoted teacher who pours their whole being into the subject and the students is an entirely different breed and is one that will bless every student that is privileged to be in their class.

Or choose any work place that employees a large number of people.  Go among the workers and watch their behavior, listening to their conversations and ask, how many of these workers are really devoted to the things this company is trying to accomplish?  There are tons of workers on jobs all over the place.  But finding the devoted worker who has given themselves completely to the mission of their company instead of just being there to do what they have to do to get paid at the end of the week is challenging.  Every employer would love to find that devoted worker who gives themselves fully to the goals of the company.  Usually we settle for workers who will do the job.

Lots of churches do the four things that Luke mentions in Acts 2:42, but that doesn’t mean they are totally devoted to it.  It can just as easily or likely much more so, to walk through the motions and get the job done without any of the passion that we ought to have.  Notice, the text doesn’t say that God made them devoted to these things.  It says they devoted themselves to them.  Being totally sold out to a cause or mission for God is a choice we have to make.  Think about what you are really devoted to in your relationship with God.

I want to think about each of these four things that Luke says the first church was devoted to separately in the next few articles.  I hope you will join me in each of the studies.

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WISE OR FOOLISH

I wish with everything in me that I could have been there that day when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount.  It laid out the entirety of his message in quick and simple language that the people listening, even though they were not as a whole scholars or even educated people, could understand and apply to their own life.  I have been preaching for almost 54 years yet being able to preach with the kind of clarity and powerful illustrations that Jesus used from ordinary life has always seemed out of reach.  When Jesus came to the conclusion of this masterpiece of a sermon he ended with an illustration from their day to day life than no one could miss.

“Everyone then who hears theses words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on a rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Great sermons are interesting to hear and sometimes people marvel at the beauty of the message or the excellence of the words or illustrations.  But the power of the sermon is never in simply hearing it and telling the preacher what a fine sermon it was.  The power is in what we do with it.  Certainly with every sermon preached by a human it is important to examine the message to make certain that what is said is really from God and not one of their own making.  Remember God called the people of Berea a noble people because on hearing Paul preach they searched the Scriptures to see if what he said was true (Acts 17:11).  But the time of examining should come to a conclusion and upon learning that the message is true we should then put it into practice.  Just knowing the truth on anything is of little value if we don’t do anything with the knowledge.

Think about some lessons from this illustration.  Both groups heard the same lesson.  It wasn’t the lesson that made the difference but their reaction to the lesson.  It is also important to notice that the same rain, storms and winds came upon both the wise who were obedient to the message and the foolish who just listened without making any changes in their lives.  Being a follower of the Lord doesn’t protect us from the storms and agonies of life.  As I am writing this a strong hurricane is barreling down upon North and South Carolina and this storm will hit without respect to which homes or businesses are affected.  It won’t skip over the houses or businesses owned by good Christian people and demolish the houses of those who don’t follow His teaching.  Far too often people have gotten the notion, likely from listening to a teacher or preacher who taught it to them, that if we follow the Lord then he will keep us from facing the storms of life at all.  The result of such thinking is that people are shocked when their families are hit with cancer or with some other major illness or problem in life.  Time and again in visiting people in the hospital I have heard people say that they just can’t understand why this is happening to them since they are Christians.  Many asked, “What did I do wrong that God would allow this to happen to me?”  The right answer is that such problems, storms, rain, and winds come upon all people in one form or another.  The old saying is true that if we think that if we could just swap our problems with those of someone else we know that just seems to have everything going their way, we would likely want to swap back within a week of getting theirs and finding out what they were really dealing with.

Have you ever seen a house that was built on a poor foundation?  Some years ago I had a friend to call me wanting me to come look at a house near where they lived that was for sale and they thought it was a tremendous buy and I should think about it.  I went to look at the house and sure enough it was beautiful on the outside.  But when you went into the house the doors wouldn’t shut right.  The floors in some rooms were lower than in others and it wasn’t because it was built to be that way.  I went around back and looked under the house to see what was going on.  It had slipped off the beams that were there to hold it up and was in real danger of collapsing at any time.  They builder had put lots of effort into making the house beautiful, but hadn’t spent the time, effort and understanding to make the foundation secure.

Jesus said that in life it is exactly the same way.  If we take the message he proclaimed and lived before us and do what he teaches us to do to the best of our abilities, we are building our lives on a solid rock foundation and when the storms of life hit us we will stand the test.  But when we make it our practice to listen to the message of the Lord but make no changes in our lives then we are building our lives on sandy soil and when the storms come we will be swept away in the storms.

The real question is how am I building my life?   Am I intent on hearing and doing God’s will or just on hearing it and knowing the truth?

When Jesus finished the crowds were astonished at this teaching and declared he spoke with authority and not like the scribes, but nothing is said about how many of them actually made any change in their life as a result.  Amazing!

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