Acts 2:14-24 – From Flaky to Faithful

Preaching of the Apostles (crayon on paper) by Peter Gorban, 1990

Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

“Fellow Israelites listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (NIV)

In the New Testament Gospels of the Holy Bible, the Apostle Peter was a flake. He sometimes got it, and sometimes didn’t. Peter could discern Jesus was Messiah, but then would turn around and refuse that Christ had to die on a cross. He would get bold and walk on water, then, end up falling short and needing help from drowning. Peter stood tall for Jesus, and then denied him three times.

However, following the Gospels in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is a completely changed man. He now gets it. He is brave. He confesses Christ with confidence and boldness. And, while the reader might be waiting for the other shoe to drop yet again, all the while Peter does not falter, flinch, or back down. Alright, Peter, way to go!

So, what is the difference between the Gospels and Acts with Peter? Why is there such a turnaround from flaky to faithful? The Scriptures make it plain: The Holy Spirit comes upon Peter. And he is never the same again. Everything falls into place for Peter. He proclaimed the life and death of Jesus in such a way that thousands changed their way of thinking, as well as their way of life, and placed their faith and hope in Christ as Savior and Lord. Not a bad day’s work for a former fisherman.

Peter’s message was pointed and straightforward: God raised Jesus up, forever changing the nature of death. Peter was dogmatic about stating that it wasn’t even possible for death to get a grip on Jesus. Oh, death thought it had him, the Grim Reaper believed he had Christ nailed to death for certain. Not so. The grave could not contain the immense and incredible power of divine love for humanity.

Inherit the Mirth

If it was impossible for death to keep its grip on Jesus, then there is absolutely nothing that can deter Jesus or hold him back from accomplishing what he wants to accomplish. Flaky believers are not going to frustrate Jesus or upset his plans; he’ll just send the Holy Spirit. 

We too often imprison ourselves in self-made spiritual jail cells, flaking-out in the Christian life, sometimes getting it right and once-in-a-while hitting upon some right combination we can’t explain, like a golfer who hits an amazing shot but can’t reproduce it no matter how hard he tries. The truth is: Jesus has conquered sin, death, and hell. By faith, we have forgiveness of sins in Christ and have the way opened to a new life in the Spirit. It isn’t a secret; it is a new reality.

The season of Lent is a time of remembering those things which hinder us in our walk with Jesus and repenting of our sins so that we can live anew. As we quickly approach Holy Week, the golf clubs of vulnerability, confession and prayer will keep us in God’s fairway and allow us to shoot par.

Gracious God, who raised Jesus from the dead, may the same power reside in me so that I can do your will in every situation through the power and presence of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Life by Death

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A lot of people don’t like change. That is likely an understatement. Change means adjusting to a different reality and adjusting is not something we prefer doing. Many folks would much rather keep things the way they are. Routine, consistency, predictable outcomes—these are things we rely on for a sense of safety and stability in our lives.

Even good change is difficult, if for no other reason than what it takes to get there. Becoming debt-free, getting in shape, or starting a new job are all good changes to make, but to making them can take a lot of determination and effort on our part. In many cases, to change something about ourselves, we must be willing to admit what we are doing is not working and try something different.

God’s love in Jesus Christ changes everything. The kind of change Jesus talked about and died for was not making a few alterations to our lives or re-arranging some of our schedule. For Jesus, change is neither about exerting more effort nor adding things to an already full to-do list.

The change Jesus embraces is a complete transformation from the inside-out. For that to happen, to have a new life, the old life must die. What’s more, Jesus does not want us half dead because then we are only spiritual zombies, not really living the life God intended for us. No, if there is to be a resurrection and new life, there must be a death (John 12:20-33). There are three ways people need to die to live the life that God desires….

1.We need to die to our plans.

Jesus had a crowd of people following him wherever he went. He was interesting and compelling, even magnetic. Christ taught like no other person before him and healed all kinds of people. In the first century, Jesus became the latest fad.  With his fame, there were people who looked to Jesus to further their own agenda and their plans about how things should go.

Earlier in chapter twelve of John’s Gospel, the Apostle recorded a contrast between two people: Mary and Judas. Mary is a picture of dying to her own plans of how things should go. Mary took some expensive perfume, the kind that could have set her up for some needed financial security and poured it all on Jesus’ feet. Then, she humbly wiped it on him with her hair. It is a picture of giving herself completely and wholly to Jesus, no matter the cost, with no strings attached and no other agenda other than total devotion.

Judas, on the other hand, piously objected to Mary’s act of worship. We might hear him rationally pushback on what Mary was doing, saying to his fellow disciple, “My friends, this is a lot of money – money that could be used for the poor instead of needlessly wasting it. A little perfume is fine, but to use the whole bottle is over the top – it isn’t fiscally responsible!” Judas had a secret agenda. He was not thinking of giving himself completely to Jesus, but of how he could use the cash for himself and his own purposes. 

Judas is the picture of a spiritual zombie – half dead, walking around saying all kinds of spiritual things, but only devoted to Jesus and God’s kingdom when it agreed with him. Judas had his own ideas of how the kingdom operation ought to go. When he became convinced Jesus was not going to operate according to his agenda and plans, Judas betrayed him.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

galatians 2:20, niv

In John 12:20-22, we have some Greeks (Gentiles) who want to see Jesus. They are interested in him. Unlike Judas and Mary, we are not told why they wanted to meet with him. But the fact that Jesus does not jump on the chance to interact with them probably says something about their motives. 

It is the nature of many people to want to observe whatever big thing is going on. They want to be in the know and talk about the latest happenings. Whenever we see “the crowd” in the Gospels, it is typically a negative connotation, a statement of by-standers, just looking on. 

Much of Christ’s ministry was to teach, heal, cajole, and do whatever he could to press the crowd, the by-standers, into not just following him as a novelty. Jesus wanted them to really follow him by dying to themselves and adopting a new life in the kingdom of God.

When I was a senior in high school the Pope came to Iowa, of all places! Never had that happened. 350,000 people came to see him. It was on a Friday, and we got two days off from school, mainly because trying to get around those two days was nearly impossible. Literally, everything shut down for the event. There were so many people that John Paul II got dropped in on one of Jimmy Carter’s presidential helicopters. 

I lived exactly thirteen miles from where the Pope spoke and had mass with the Catholic faithful. Protestants and Jews flocked to see him, as well. No car was allowed within a five-mile radius of the Pope. People had to park miles away and get shuttled-in. I knew several people from my small town that walked the thirteen miles one way just to see John Paul II. It was exciting and incredible, and is still talked about today in Iowa, forty years later.

Not everyone there that day in Iowa was a faithful Christ follower. Most people do not remember much about what John Paul II said, other than affirming the work of farmers as a needed vocation. Jesus was not at all interested in being a king in the conventional sense. He did not seek popularity or work to consolidate power through sheer force of will or personality. Instead, he died. And he calls us to die, as well – to die to our plans and to our perceived need to be in the know and hob-nob with a celebrity.

2. We must die to self.

This was the message of Jesus. There is no wiggle room to it. There are no walking dead zombies. Jesus responded to the request of the Greeks to see him by not even dealing with it but going on about what people really need to do: die to self.

To make his message clear and understandable, Jesus used the illustration of a seed that must die before it bears fruit.  Seeds wait to germinate until three needs are met: proper amounts of water, warm temperature, and good soil. During its early stages of growth, the seedling relies upon the food supplies stored within the seed until it is large enough for its own leaves to begin making food through photosynthesis. The seedling’s roots push down into the soil to anchor the new plant and to absorb water and minerals from the soil. And its stem with new leaves pushes up toward the light.

This is exactly the kind of process Jesus said needs to happen with people in the kingdom of God. People must never settle for remaining as seeds because that is not what we are designed for. Jesus wants us to be transformed, to experience new life, and to bear righteous fruit. To follow Jesus means to die being a seed and growing into a fruit bearing plant with more seeds to have the whole process occur again.

Jesus said that the person who “hates” their life will gain eternal life. That is, the person who is willing to give up everything to follow Jesus will find true life in Christ. The one who serves Jesus will follow him. Hate is simply a biblical term that means we make the choice to avoid one path in favor of another.

When living in West Michigan, my family enjoyed summers on the beaches of Lake Michigan. My girls loved being there on hot summer days. The beaches are actual sand, not with any gravel or dirt. I would tell my girls to follow me and walk in my footprints. I told them that not only because it would be easier for them to walk, but so they would not stray from me.

Lent is a season designed for us to remember Jesus, to remember we belong to God, and to repent of anything that keeps us away from the Lord.  This brings us to the third way we need to die….

3. We are to die to the world.

Now is the time for judgment on the world. The prince of this world is driven out. The death of Jesus means we can now die to the world. “World” is not the people of this world, in the sense of John 3:16 that God loves the world. This is “world” as the unjust systems that operate within it. Christ achieved victory over this world. He died so that we no longer need to be locked into the oppressive ways of bondage and evil.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.

1 John 2:15-17, NLT

Jesus lived in a vastly different manner than people expected. He was quite counter-cultural. Christ rarely submitted to the usual way of doing things. Jesus did not operate like a worldly king. He did not teach like a worldly instructor. He died not only to redeem individuals but also to redeem entire systems and transform them into instruments of godliness. 

God cares about systemic evil, about ways of operating which keep people in bondage. Jesus cares about politics, economics, and social structures. He cares about governments and municipalities. The Lord cares about school systems and family systems and, yes, even church systems. Jesus died so that we can die to the world’s broken systems. God desires all our institutional ways of operation come under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

It will not do to only focus on private spirituality because Jesus wants to redeem the entire planet, systems included. Jesus is the Judge, and he is currently about the business by means of the Holy Spirit of making all things new. Eventually, the new creation will completely take over when Jesus returns. Now, in the present time, we have this crazy mixture of good and evil everywhere we go. Christians are to follow Jesus personally and privately, as well as corporately and publicly.

For example, the “factory system” is an actual phrase. The factory system is designed to mass produce products with the greatest efficiency possible. And it works. However, in the process, people become extensions of the machines they operate. With efficiency and production as the highest priorities, people can be replaced like cogs in the machine. 

Walk into many American factories and you will see sagging morale and deep animosities between workers and management because the system itself is inherently flawed. Simply implementing some safety protocols and giving a few raises are merely zombie tactics. The system still needs redemption.

When we take seriously the call to follow Christ, we see that the world and its systems are fundamentally broken and in need of redemption. Jesus has deposed the ruler of this world, Satan, through crucifixion and resurrection. We need to die to this world and to systemic evil.

Conclusion

We all become frustrated and discouraged at times, either with ourselves and/or with the world’s evil that exists around us, making our lives hard and even unbearable. Jesus knows how you feel. His soul was troubled with all the sin of the world. And he faced agony beyond anything we will ever know by allowing himself to die. The kind of death Jesus died was awful. It was that way because that is how horrible sin and sinful systems are.

Today Jesus is calling us to die – die to our plans of how we think things should go; die to ourselves by following in his footsteps; and die to participating in the sinful structures and systems of this evil world. We are to live differently. We are to live new lives – which means not simply tweaking some things but completely re-orienting our lives to serve the Lord.

Jesus is drawing us to himself. He is making himself known. Let us not treat Jesus as a novelty, but as the rightful Ruler of the universe by dying to our plans, ourselves, and the world.

Psalm 51:1-12 – Facing Our Darkness

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Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit. (NRSV)

David experienced a lot of hard things. Through it all, he held fast to walking with God. Eventually, David became king. He used his power and authority to do exactly what God likes – showing grace and kindness to those in need. Except in the case of Bathsheba, another man’s wife. He made one unwise decision, which led to a bad decision, and then to another and another – until the prophet Nathan came and called David on the carpet.

Whereas King David began his reign using his royal position to show kindness, he ended up acting like any other worldly king by giving orders and using his authority to get what he wanted. Just as David sent others to do his personal bidding, God finally sent Nathan for a divine intervention.

If we confess our sins, God will forgive us. We can trust God to do this. He always does what is right. He will make us clean from all the wrong things we have done.

1 John 1:9, ERV

Nathan wisely helped David see his sin for what it really was. Irresponsibility, adultery, and murder are serious matters. The mental and spiritual gymnastics people make to justify their poor decisions always ends up devaluing what is right and making sin less heinous than it really is.

Good news can only be properly understood considering the bad news.

Without seeing our true predicament of being held in the vice grip of sin and unable to move, we will go on wondering why nothing ever goes like we want. A person who is lost, and doesn’t know it, is in the worst of situations. Calamity is just around the corner.

Like a restaurant owner who fails to see the health violations all around him, the business is about to be shut down with him scratching his head or blaming others for his misfortune. Only when the owner comes to recognize and agree with established health standards will there be a turn around and a renewed existence for the establishment.

We must agree and comply with God about how bad things really are without sugar coating any of it.

Only then can best practices be put into place which help everyone to be safe, healthy, and happy. To King David’s credit, he saw his terrible decisions and actions for what they were and faced them squarely with a repentant heart and a renovated life.

Thus, we have today’s psalm, crafted by David as a response to his own egregious wandering from how God wanted him to reign as king. David’s sin was mercifully outdone by God’s grace. The main event to the psalm is not David’s wrongs but God’s forgiveness. Prayer is the mechanism which accesses divine pardon to even the most awful of transgressions.

The appropriate posture of the devout Christian is to pray.

Specifically, to confess our great and many sins, shortcomings, and moral failures. This might sound negative and a major downer. Yet, to not look evil square in the face and call it out for what it is, is at best denial, and at worst, allows a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul. 

I believe one of the best ways to confront the darkness within is by using the ancient prayer book, the Old Testament Psalms. Sometimes when we pray apart from considering the psalms, our prayers go along the lines of something like, “Change my situation so I can praise you, God.” Rather, the psalms guide us toward a shift in direction by praying:

“Change me, God, because I am the problem.”

I encourage you to pray Psalm 51 out loud, slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it. Pray it over more than once, and perhaps several times punctuated throughout the day today. In doing so, you will be joining the faithful across the world who today offer God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.

What places in your life allow you the freedom to confess your sins?  What places seem to keep you from confession? How might a regular practice of repentance help you beyond this season of Lent?

May almighty God, who has promised forgiveness of sins to all who turn in faith, pardon you and set you free from all your sins, strengthen you for right living, and keep you in eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Greatest Ever

John 3:16 by Holly Rhodes

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16, NIV)

John 3:16 is a Bible verse so familiar as to be cliché. But when Jesus originally said these words, they were both tremendously freeing and incredibly scandalous. When something is familiar, we tend not to explore it any further. We need a closer look at the message of John 3:16 so we can not only see why some people embrace its light, but why others remain in darkness.

Perhaps another examination the gospel will dispel dullness and impel us toward praise, as well as to share its life-giving message not because we must, but because we want to. John 3:16 contains nine of the greatest spiritual realities we could ever experience.

1.“God” is the greatest subject ever.

The Bible contains lots of messages, promises, and commands. However, those are not the primary purpose for having the Holy Scriptures. The Bible has been given to us as a revelation of God to us so that we might know God. Every time the Scriptures are used, read, quoted, prayed, taught, learned, and heard – we know God a bit better. Anything short of knowing God falls short of the Bible’s intended purpose.

I constantly encourage a regular daily regimen of Bible-reading because it is the primary means of knowing God. Yes, we get to know God in creation and through experience, yet one of the best ways of experiencing God is through taking time for reading, meditating, memorizing, and praying of the Scriptures. Some of my most encouraging times are when I hear what people are learning about the Lord in God’s Word. With the Holy Spirit being our teacher, we discover more and more that God is the greatest subject we could ever learn about, talk about, and give our lives to.

2. “So” is the greatest extent ever.

There is a great wideness to God. God is a huge Being! Nothing is outside of God’s reach. So, when God decides to do something, nothing can stop it. We might be limited in our strength and abilities to accomplish things. But God’s extent is limitless. Knowing God means becoming familiar with an all-knowing and all-powerful Being. Prayer, then, becomes a response to God. God speaks to us through the Word, and we speak back with prayer so that the Word and prayer go like a hand in a glove. Our extent is temporary and small. Yet God takes our human prayers and uses them to accomplish divine purposes on this earth.

3. “Loved” is the greatest demonstration ever.

There is no greater demonstration of love than our triune God loving us with a sacrificial self-emptying love that saw our great need for deliverance and went to the greatest lengths possible to accomplish it. Our own love for God, each other, and the world is a direct result of God’s love for us.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters…. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 3:16; 4:9-11, NIV)

Where there is a lack of love there is an absence of God. Every human on planet earth needs the love of God in Christ. Without it we are lost. You are loved with sacrificial love. The greatest thing that can be said of you is that you are “loved.” Whatever has happened, is happening, and will happen that breaks you down, belittles you, hurts you, or causes you to feel like the north end of a southbound cow, is not what defines you. All may be going to hell around you, but nothing will change the unalterable reality that in Christ you are “loved!”

4. “The world” is the greatest object ever.

Up to this point you might not have sensed anything scandalous about this message of God’s grace and love. But this was the game-changing term for the original hearers of Christ’s words: God so loved the world. Many of Christ’s listeners could easily understand God loved the nation of Israel. But to say that God loved the world was going too far. It meant God loved Gentiles, specifically, Romans who occupied their land and oppressed them.

To capture the punch of this, it would be like Jesus showing up in our world today and saying that God so loved whomever we despise or hate. We often tend to assume that God hates who we hate. Right? Wrong. Yes, God hates evil and is opposed to all that destroys. Yet, God loves people for whom is placed the divine image within. For God to love the world is an incredible because there are so many unlovely people in the world.

Since God loves the world and demonstrated it in through Jesus, Christ’s Church is to reflect and embody this same love for the world. This has enormous implications for followers of Jesus. The Church is must embrace the same pejorative title as given its leader, Jesus: “Friend of Sinners.”  People come to know Jesus through the love given us in Christ. Since this is our title, Christian ministry then becomes not about my personal preferences but about what will most effectively love the world to Jesus.

5. “That he gave his one and only Son” is the greatest gift ever.

 

John 3:16 by an 11 year old

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17, NIV)

We do not get God’s leftovers or second-hand items. God gave the dearest, best, and most beloved gift he could ever give: his Son. Therefore, the greatest and dearest gift we can give to another person is Jesus. Sharing such a gift Jesus must come freely from the depths of divine love. Apart from love we are only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If it takes cajoling and exhortation for us to give the gift of the gospel, then the problem lies in our hearts. It takes coming back to God’s Word and knowing the love of God in Christ through the Scriptures.

6. “That whoever” is the greatest opportunity ever.

If the greatest gift a person can receive is Jesus, then the best opportunity one could take advantage of is Jesus. We are all at differing places in our relationship with Jesus. Yet no matter the person, the opportunity for grace and love is more than anything you could hope or ask for. 

We are fortunate to have such a grace to know Jesus as Lord, Savior, teacher, healer, and friend. Those familiar with the name of Jesus all their lives but it has not gone much further than that, then the next point is vitally important….

7. “Believes in him” is the greatest commitment ever.

Jesus wants more than our acknowledgment of him; he wants us. Whenever I go home, my dog, Max Power, gets extremely excited. Honestly, I don’t really get excited about him. My typical response to him is, “Yes, Max, I acknowledge your existence.” I say it in hopes he will just kind of leave me alone and let me go about my business. But Max wants more. He wants my affection, my love, and my commitment. He wants a pet, a walk, food, and water.

God does not want to be treated like an annoying puppy. God wants our commitment. The Lord desires more than the tepid response, “I acknowledge your existence.”  The most common response I get from people when sharing the gift of Jesus is “Yes, I believe in Jesus.”  It is their way of saying they acknowledge his existence but are not much interested in giving their lives to him because they want to go about their business without God pestering them about anything. But God does demand something from us – our very souls. If we gain a view of God as gracious and loving, then we willingly desire an intimate commitment.

8. “Shall not perish” is the greatest rescue ever.

People perish not because God is unloving but because their theology is twisted – not to mention that we like our sin, and we don’t want to accommodate a holy God. The Titanic lost hundreds of people not for a lack of lifeboats. In fact, most of the lifeboats went into the water about three-fourths capacity. Many people simply did not believe they were perishing. They trusted in the ship’s reputation as being “unsinkable.” Jesus is our lifeboat.

9. “But have eternal life” is the greatest promise ever.

The promise begins now, not someday. Everlasting life means experiencing a life-saving and life-giving relationship with Jesus today.

Conclusion

If you ever had the feeling there is something more to life than what you are experiencing; if you ever wished you could start over; if you ever felt you cannot do this on your own; then, I have the greatest news ever. God has made a way to handle all your guilt, shame, and darkness. God loves you deeply in the person of Jesus Christ. There is new life in Jesus.