Resist the World, the Flesh, and the Devil (Acts 6:8-15)

St. Stephen Before the Sanhedrin, by Mariotti di Nardo (1394–1424)

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.

Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”

So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (New International Version)

Stephen was a squeaky clean guy – ethical, upright, above board, honest, spiritual – and a profoundly wise and devoted follower of Jesus. Because of his integrity, Stephen was acutely attuned to systemic evil in all its insidious institutional forms; alert and wise to the sinful nature of humanity; and aware of the devil’s evil intentions and machinations in the world.

And because Stephen had a well-developed Christian spirituality, it put him on the radar of the world, the flesh, and the devil – and ended up getting him killed as the first Christian martyr.

The big three enemies of every Christian are: 

  1. a sinful world system (1 John 2:15-16)
  2. the inherent sinful nature (Ephesians 4:22)
  3. the devil, who seeks to exploit the world and the sinful nature to tempt and move us into rebellion against God (1 Peter 5:8-9) 

However, the good news of Christianity is that Jesus Christ has obtained deliverance and freedom for people from each of those enemies. For this deliverance and freedom to be a practical reality in daily experience, each believer in Jesus must know and practice the truth.

In the original Fall of humanity, there was a passive response to the temptation of the serpent, along with an acceptance of doubt concerning God’s Word. There was also an acceptance of insinuations concerning God’s goodness and wisdom, and a deliberate choice to follow the suggestions of Satan and disobey God. 

The seriousness of that Fall into disobedience cannot be overemphasized. The Fall introduced the dimensions of sin, lust, depravity, slavery, ignorance, death and every form of evil into the human race. People became alienated from God and enslaved to the devil. 

The final effects of this sinful bondage will not be completely severed until the final judgment. The hold of the devil is so profound that it took the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to break that hold and make it possible for humanity to be redeemed.

The descriptive titles given to Satan indicate his activity and what he is up to: 

  • Tempter (Matthew 4:3)
  • Deceiver (Revelation 12:9)
  • Accuser (Revelation 12:10)
  • Adversary (1 Peter 5:8)
  • Murderer and Liar (John 8:44)
  • The god of this world (Ephesians 2:2) 

Holy Scripture indicates that people can be significantly influenced – both personally and corporately – by Satan through: 

  • giving the devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:27)
  • lying (Acts 5:3)
  • physical and spiritual attacks (Job 1-2; 2 Corinthians 12:7)
  • deception (Revelation 12:9-10; 2 Corinthians 11:3)
  • temptation (1 Corinthians 7:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:5)
  • pride (1 Timothy 3:6)
  • corruption (2 Corinthians 11:3)
  • accusations (Revelation 12:10)
  • hypocrisy (Acts 5:1-11) 

People ignore the activity of Satan at their peril.

Just like the religious leaders trying to keep Stephen’s mouth shut, Satan’s purpose and aim is to keep each and every person from spiritual progress and maturity, and from the daily experience of living in faith, hope, and love. 

Unfortunately, the evidence of Satan’s success is all around us, even in the church. Whenever well-meaning Christians experience difficulty in prayer, in reading Scripture, in living for Christ, in overcoming sins, and in maintaining right fellowship with other believers, then this is a reminder of the subtle and powerful effect evil has upon us. 

It is imperative that we know and understand the provision we possess in overcoming the evil one.

Basic knowledge for combating the devil is this:

  • The crucifixion and resurrection the Lord Jesus Christ defeated Satan (Colossians 2:15) 
  • Jesus has destroyed the power of death and delivered those held in bondage (Hebrews 2:14-15) 
  • Christ came to this earth so that he might destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) 
  • Through Christ’s ascension, Jesus is now seated in triumph over Satan (Ephesians 1:19-21; 2:5-6)

In order for this incredible access to become reality, there must be a complete and honest confession which repents and renounces past and present sins. 

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:9, NIV

There must be a complete and honest obedience to God in faith, hope, and love by standing with the truth (Ephesians 6:10-18); and there also needs to be an aggressive resistance of the work of Satan through constant vigilance by being rooted and established in truth. (1 Peter 5:8-9)

If you feel guilty, but don’t know what you’ve done or why you feel this way, then be aggressive about rejecting it. 

If you accuse yourself (“If you were really a Christian you would not be thinking a thought like that…”) then be pugnacious about refusing it. 

If your thoughts, emotions, and desires threaten to get out of hand – then take charge of them and bring them into subjection to Jesus – because you have the authority of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension behind you to reject and refuse all error and every satanic whisper.

Know the enemy’s lies and deceptions. Be hawkish about dealing with false guilt and unwarranted shame according to the truth of the gospel. 

Do not attempt to always do this alone; you are not an army of one. Seek the help and assistance of others who will, along with you, pray and practice the truth.

This is the sort of wisdom Stephen teaches us. So, let us learn from him and submit ourselves to the truth we know.

Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Good Friday (Psalm 22)

Golgotha – Crucifixion, by Romare Bearden, 1945

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night but find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were saved;
    in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not human,
    scorned by others and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they sneer at me; they shake their heads;
“Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near,
    and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me;
    strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
    like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

For dogs are all around me;
    a company of evildoers encircles me;
they bound my hands and feet.
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
    O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
    my life from the power of the dog!
    Save me from the mouth of the lion!

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
    stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
    the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me
    but heard when I cried to him.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
    my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
    May your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth shall remember
    and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
    shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
    and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
    and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
    saying that he has done it. (New Revised Standard Version)

Crucifixion, by Romare Bearden, 1947

It’s one thing to be alone because of other’s mocking, yelling, spitting at you, even physically beating you; that, in and of itself, is terribly traumatic. Yet, it’s quite another thing altogether to feel forsaken by one’s God, to experience a deafening divine silence amidst all the human commotion.

There are levels of suffering – and physical suffering is the least of our agony; the experiences of mental, emotional – and I insist, spiritual suffering – is worse than a hundred kidney stones.

“Suffering” is a word many would like to avoid. Simply seeing or hearing the word might make us cringe. Suffering? No thanks. I’ll pass. Yet, something inside us instinctively knows we cannot get around it. Everyone suffers in some way; it’s endemic to the human condition. 

Sometimes, maybe even most times, we are not immediately relieved of suffering because it is meant to have a redemptive purpose to it – that somehow, some way, the awful affliction shall result in eventual blessing to either oneself, another, or perhaps to many.

Miracles are miracles not because they fall from heaven with no connection to what’s happening on this earth. No, miracles occur because of suffering, because something gut-wrenching is happening, because someone or many people are tragically hurt.

Jesus intimately knows suffering, first hand. And he knows what suffering can produce: the deliverance of many.

For Christians everywhere, today is “Good” not because of the pain experienced but because the crucifixion of Jesus Christ means the redemption of the world.

On this Good Friday, followers of Jesus remember and commemorate the events that led up to the cross; unpack those events and interpret them with profound meaning and significance; and worship Jesus with heartfelt gratitude because of the redeeming work of the cross.

It is today that Christians remember the last words of Christ, and recognize the significant impact his death had on the immediate persons around him. Believers also contemplate the lasting results of that singular death as an atoning sacrifice; perfect love; reconciliation between God and humanity; victory over evil; and the redemption of all creation.

For believers, there’s the recognition that something deeply impactful is happening in the egregious suffering of Jesus. Therefore, we acknowledge and remember the anguish of Christ; and also what that horrible torment accomplished.

With such profound meaning, one would think that Good Friday is a hugely observed day for all Christians in every tradition. Yet, for a chunk of churches and Christians, it is not. The cross is not a popular subject. It could be because neither Christian nor non-Christian wants to ponder something so tragically bloody and sad.

“Religious people want visionary experiences and spiritual uplift; secular people want proofs, arguments, demonstrations, philosophy, and science. The striking fact is that neither one of these groups wants to hear about the cross.” 

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Christ

Indeed, as the Apostle Paul has said, the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians 1:23)

A personalized religion which leaves the cross out of the picture (too much violence and sacrifice) might seem appealing, yet will only leave us bereft of the communion of the saints both past and present. Consider the confessional witness of the Church:

Christ suffered “in both body and soul – in such a way that when he sensed the horrible punishment required by our sins ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’ He cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And he endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins. Therefore, we rightly say with the Apostle Paul that we know nothing ‘except Jesus Christ, and him crucified;’ we ‘regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We find all comforts in his wounds and have no need to seek or invent any other means than this one and only sacrifice, once made, which renders believers perfect forever.”

Belgic Confession, Article 21

And let us consider further the New Testament witness:

“Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.” (Hebrews 13:12-13, NIV)

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NRSV)

The extent of Good Friday goes far beyond a day on the calendar; it is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges.

Because Christ suffered, our suffering has meaning. Each situation of trauma; every case of disease; all suffering, abuse, and hardship makes sense, in the Christian tradition, when they are viewed in solidarity with the cross of Jesus Christ.

So, today, let Christians everywhere contemplate the cross, observe the salvation accomplished through Christ’s death, and offer prayers and petitions for those who need deliverance from the power of evil.

Jesus Is Better (Hebrews 8:1-7)

Exodus by Marc Chagall, 1952

Now the main point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by a mere human being.

Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one also to have something to offer. If he were on earth, he would not be a priest, for there are already priests who offer the gifts prescribed by the law. They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: “See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. (New International Version)

Jesus Christ is superior to everyone and everything – that is the overarching theme of the New Testament book of Hebrews. Jesus is above the angels, over Moses, and the great high priest of a new covenant. In Christ, the sin issue has been taken care of, once and for all.

Through Jesus, every good promise of God is fulfilled. Christ’s priesthood and intercessory ministry is permanent. His sacrifice for sin is thorough and complete. Jesus lives forever. He saves completely. Christ meets our need. He has been made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:23-28). 

Frankly, these bold statements from the author of Hebrews are some audacious claims. In fact, they’re downright radical. And yet, say any of those statements in the typical church, and hardly an eyebrow gets raised – they almost seem ho-hum. Our blank affect testifies that we have lost a great deal of the original force and impact of Christianity.

In the first century, to have one sacrifice to end all sacrifices was unthinkable. Every ancient person understood that sacrifices were temporary; you had to keep offering them over and over again. 

Christianity, however, asked the world to have a new understanding of sacrifice. No longer would there be any sacrifice – no grain sacrifice; no offerings of first fruits; no animal sacrifices; no sacrifices, period. There was no longer any need for them because Jesus himself is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. 

Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1966

This was such a ridiculous notion for so many people that they mocked Christians for it. Both Jews and pagans could barely wrap their minds around such a progressive idea. It would be like saying to us today that there is no longer any need for money because somebody just became the underwriter for everything everybody does.

Despite this incredible spiritual reality, we in the contemporary church sometimes go back to the old sacrificial system, not by physically offering animal sacrifices, but treating Christ’s finished work as if it were just too good to be true. 

We reason that we need to do something to help save ourselves. However, Jesus has not just saved us partially, but fully. Grace has always been scandalous, and so, we try to tone it down a bit, mitigate it’s actual force:

  • Church attendance can subtly be looked upon as a sacrifice to appease God, as if he needed to be soothed into not becoming angry at us. 
  • Giving can become a non-bloody sacrifice that is meant to satisfy God’s furrowed brow against us. 
  • Service can degenerate into a sacrifice to assuage our guilty conscience. 

In all these kinds of instances, and more, we go back to an old sacrificial system that is obsolete. Nonetheless, the biblical and theological truth is that Jesus has thoroughly saved us from our sin, and, so, has cleansed us from all guilt, including a guilty conscience. 

Jesus meets our need and has completely satisfied God’s wrath against the power and deceit of sin. 

Jesus is our mediator and intercedes for us as we come to God’s throne of grace. That means we do not need to try and get God’s attention with performing spiritual cartwheels or some incredible sacrifice that will somehow obligate him to take notice of us. That’s because there is never a time in which we lack attention from God.

Since we have been justified by faith in Jesus, we need not worry anymore about being good enough. Since Jesus is perfect, his work is made complete in us. A constant anxiety of feeling like we don’t measure-up does not come from God. Jesus is sufficient and has taken our place so that we can live in the freedom and joy of a complete deliverance from sin, death, and hell. There is no longer any necessary sacrifice to make!

“Well,” I have been told by some, “if everybody in the church believed that then nobody would ever do anything!” No, it is just the opposite. When we feel like we don’t measure up, we do less, not more. A low level discouragement sets in and we do nothing because we intuitively know it will never be enough. We do just enough to squeak by, never quite knowing if it is doing anything. 

In such a state, we may consider giving up because Christianity doesn’t work for us (which was the state of the believers in the book of Hebrews). But when we grasp the New Covenant of Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and are overwhelmed by grace, then everything we do in the Christian life is a “thank you” with our life and our lips. 

It is the grace, and not the wrath, of God that teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12).

We are justified and made right by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by our own accomplishments, pedigree, or effort.  Trusting in our heritage, relying on our family’s faith, or believing our hard work gives us a leg-up toward heaven will only end in despair. 

But if we trust in Christ’s perfect sacrifice, then a whole new world of mercy opens before us. Because the grace of God in Christ is superior to everything.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Reality Check (Hebrews 10:1-4)

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we silly people confuse the sign for the real deal. It’s important to distinguish between the two. We discern the difference all the time when it comes to more mundane affairs.

People generally know that looking at a movie poster is not watching the actual film; that wearing a string of cheap pearls is only mimicking the real and expensive ones; or that sitting in a doctor’s waiting room isn’t the same thing as being in the appointment.

However, when it comes to our religion, we seem to blur the lines between sign and substance. Praying a “sinners prayer” or making a profession of faith isn’t the same as growing, maturing, following, and living a committed Christianity.

Knowing some Christian lingo and/or going with the flow of cultural Christianity doesn’t necessarily mean that Christ’s words and ways are being followed.

And today’s New Testament lesson is a reminder, and not a guilt trip, that the law points to the actual substance of religious life – and is not life itself.

The laws surrounding the old system of animal sacrifice were never meant to be an end in itself. It pointed forward to the real deal and was, therefore, completely inadequate to bring deliverance from sin, death, and hell to anyone.

The very fact that sacrifices needed to be repeated year and after year demonstrated that they were ineffectual in saving a person. Rather, those sacrifices were designed to cause the worshiper to long for a sacrifice to end all sacrifices – to anticipate that the sin issue would be settled once and for all.

The only thing the sacrifices did was remind people they were sinners in need of a savior. Just as a slap on the hand is grossly inadequate for handling a murderer, so offering an animal was never going to do the trick in taking care of divine justice.

And besides, God has never been pleased with a bunch of sacrifices anyway. So, what is God really pleased with? The Lord is pleased with a heart devoted to obedience and fealty to Jesus Christ; God cares about inner attitudes and dispositions of the spirit which are inclined toward righteousness, holiness, mercy, humility, and justice for all.

Sacrifices, in and of themselves, have no power; they are like a toothless lion who couldn’t bite into you if he tried. The way to set things right is through the once for all mighty sacrifice of the Son – an offering to end all offerings.

God doesn’t want a checklist of daily sacrifices, any more than a spouse only wants supper on the table at night, or a paycheck every month. It’s nice but falls short of the full scope of marital interactions and relations. A marriage built on law won’t stand. It needs real flesh and blood relationship, complete with a devoted heart, sincere attitudes, and loving words and actions.

Since Christ has ably and permanently taken care of the sin issue, what sort of impact ought that to have on the Christian’s life? What kind of people are we to be?

To begin listing things to do is to go back to law and fail to grasp the gospel. And that’s where many churches and believers get tripped up and miss the grace of God altogether. Observing rules of cultural Christian activities or holding to some accepted Christian norms isn’t going to cut it.

Christ’s Sermon on the Mount by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

Jesus described the sort of people who go beyond ritual regulations and rules to embrace the true spirit and end of the law:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of competing or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:3-10, MSG)

That describes folk who have embraced faith as the fulfillment of law. It’s a summary of the law’s intended purpose and end.

So, let’s worship Christ; and not some caricature of him. Maybe carefully reading through the entire book of Hebrews in one sitting will help.

Blessed God, purify your people by your abiding presence. Enlighten the minds of your people with the light of your good news. Bring wandering souls to an awareness and knowledge of Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep them steadfast to the end. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you. Increase in us your many gifts of grace and make us all fruitful in good works for the sake of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.