Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. (St. Matthew 28:20)
This might be as close as you ever get to an action film in church.
Of course I don’t approve of drama in a worship service; it’s simply not biblical to have skits and such during corporate worship. But here you have it in our passage today: scheming to murder … attempted homicide … challenging relationships. All the elements that make drama so compelling.
Only this is real history.
And it might even resemble your 2007.
As we return to our study of The Acts of the Apostles, you and I learn that St. Paul quickly faced opposition in his proclamation of the Gospel. Not long after he was brought to eternal life by Jesus Christ, Paul’s very life was on the line!
We see three instances of God’s grace to His faithful servant(s) in this passage: He delivered His faithful servant from death; He delivered His faithful servant from condemnation by a bad reputation; and He grew His faithful church.
In the year to come, you will face some risk to your earthly welfare – even, perhaps, the affection of a friend – if you stand up for the Gospel. In 2007 you might be saddled with a burdensome past that threatens to keep you from reaching your potential in Christ. And in this new year you certainly will have opportunities to grow in Christ.
The circumstances might have changed from Paul’s situation to yours. Your life might not seem nearly so dramatic.
But the same triumphant Lord Jesus Christ who thwarted schemes, built relationships and caused his gospel-bearing servants to succeed 2,000 years ago is the same Savior who will use you powerfully in 2007.
We note first that God delivered His faithful servant from attempts to kill him.
To remind you of where we are in Acts, Saul – the most-notorious persecutor the church had ever known, that great Pharisee of Pharisees – had just been converted through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. What’s more, after a brief period of recovery and of learning more about Christ, Saul (Paul) had begun to dispute with his former Christ-hating colleagues – and now Paul was confounding them with arguments for Jesus! Needless to say, Paul’s hearers were none too pleased with his new theology.
Their hostility to the Gospel truth shouldn’t surprise you and me. Both testaments concur that the natural human being – man and woman without the inner, transforming work of the Holy Spirit – doesn’t accept God’s Word. He or she might accept some form or part of the truth, but not the whole truth of their own sinfulness before God and of their need for Christ’s redeeming work in their hearts. (Even you and I, regenerate Christians, sometimes chafe at the Word when it convicts us of sin!)
Dr. Luke tells us the Jews were stunned by Saul’s conversion and confounded by his arguments for Jesus: so they sought governmental approval (Paul later writes) to kill him. A few verses later, Luke says the Grecian Jews sought to kill Paul when they couldn’t refute his preaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Twice in a matter of verses, we see unregenerate sinners trying to silence God’s Word, because they cannot bear to hear of their guilt before the Lord. Had they been debating the Bowl Championship Series – or even politics – they surely wouldn’t have grown so incensed at Paul. But this was God’s truth, and it cut in on their pride. So they thought they could shut out the truth by silencing God’s servant.
The fact is, Jesus promised that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against his Gospel. As dramatic as Paul’s rescues were in these instances, and as bold as he was to preach the Word, the point is that Christ always causes his faithful servants to succeed, and he pulls you and me through unthinkably challenging circumstances so we may honor his Name.
You might not find yourself in a life-or-death situation this year as you bear witness for Christ. But chances are you’ll face a friend’s ridicule for being kind, or pure, or honest in the interests of the Gospel. You’ll find yourself in an uncomfortable spot, or you might even risk a relationship or job, for doing the Christ-like thing. You might even lose money for taking the job Christ wants you to have.
Don’t worry. Nothing, not even the gates of hell, can stop Jesus’ work in and through you.
We note, secondly, that God delivered His faithful servant from being bound by a burdensome past.
Reputations are reputations. As the old saying goes, mind your reputation, because you are going to have one.
All in his writings, however, St. Paul owns up to his past as a Christ-hating, self-righteous Pharisee. Part of being saved – being a true follower of Jesus – is being humbled by the realization of your own guilt before God, and Paul was acutely aware of his guilt and shame. He never denied his past.
But it didn’t have to, and by the grace of God it did not, keep him from reaching his full potential in Christ.
Paul kept trying to attach himself to the apostles in Jerusalem, probably for the sake of unity in ministry. He wrote the Galatians that he didn’t need the other apostles’ approval in order to become an apostle (a “sent one”) of Jesus Christ; Paul, after all, had his commissioning from Jesus himself.
Yet the church of Jesus Christ is one body, and the church needed visible unity especially in its early days. Paul, moreover, benefited from associating fully with the “publicly recognized” apostles. Thus he tried to join himself to them – but they were reluctant to welcome him.
On one hand, don’t think poorly of the other apostles. It is okay to be skeptical sometimes of professions of faith; salvation is no small matter, and the church should neither allow wolves in sheep’s clothing to enter the flock nor promote “easy believism.” Far too often in Greene County, churches fail to properly examine professing Christians when they seek membership in a local congregation, and those who really aren’t believers in Jesus are given a stamp of approval and made to think they’re full-fledged members of the true church. For the sake of you and of the church, we need thorough, spiritually minded elders to shepherd the flock and examine those professing faith in Christ.
But on the other hand, we shouldn’t deny true converts full access to the church simply because they have a spotted past. After all, isn’t each of us a sinner before God? And doesn’t each of us deserve hell instead of heaven? And don’t we all have instances of shame in our pasts?
The Lord rescued the situation by providing Barnabas – the aptly named “Son of Consolation” – to vouch for Saul before the other apostles. Again, the gates of hell, and even past reputations, won’t prevail against Jesus’ work on earth!
While you and I must be thorough in examining professing Christians so that no one is misled about salvation, perhaps the Lord is calling you to stand up for a maligned brother or sister in Christ. Perhaps you need to stand beside a believer whom other Christians have shunned or whose conversion is “just too amazing to be true.”
If you’re convinced of another person’s salvation, stand behind that person and encourage him or her in Christ. Jesus, you see, still uses healed sinners to advance his truth.
Third, the Lord grows His faithful church.
Following Paul’s departure for Tarsus, Luke writes, the church “had rest” throughout all Galilee and Samaria and Judea. The believers’ No. 1 persecutor now was on their side; and he no longer was in a position for his (and their) enemies to attack him. For a time the church enjoyed a period of tranquility.
It seems you and I grow fat and lazy, and even somewhat worldly, when we enjoy periods of peace in our lives. We get awfully comfortable in our environs and tend to place the Kingdom of God on the back burner of life.
Not the early church. They remained continually reverent before the Lord, walking in holy fear before Him. They recognized this peace came from Him, and they still were to engage themselves continually in His service. As a result, the Spirit strengthened them as He taught them more of Christ and built their faith in the Savior. Surely they grew in wisdom and in the practice of holiness during this time as they were edified, or built up, as the people of God.
And through it all, as they bore witness to Christ in times of trial and in times of tranquility, the Lord caused His church to multiply.
Curious, isn’t it, how the Lord grows His church? He doesn’t mention lattes or doughnuts or endless activities.
He instead speaks of trials. And of witnessing for Christ. And of spiritual growth. And of reverence for Him.
Let’s be frank: you and I live in a time of physical rest for the church in America. We are fat and happy … and worldly. Instead of growing in Christ and presenting a powerful witness to this darkened world, you and I slouch and slough and look like this darkened world, and we try foolishly to woo unbelievers with gimmicks.
You and I need to focus on spiritual growth – as individuals, as families and as a church family – in 2007. The Lord will take care of the rest.
In some ways, life is different for you and me than it was for Paul 2,000 years ago. But in this new year, you’ll still face obstacles and opportunities in your service of Christ.
As you embark on 2007, remember this: your Savior has brought you to this new year for the overarching purpose of honoring him in your life.
You’ll face risks for his sake. And you’ll certainly face times of trial.
But because Jesus is victorious, every moment – of persecution or of peace – is a time of opportunity for the Kingdom.