Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Gospel Goes To Africa

THE GOSPEL GOES TO AFRICA

“Later God’s angel spoke to Philip, ‘At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.’ He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.” Acts 8:26-28 (The Message)

Another strategic setup for the spread of the gospel!

A black man from Africa, a man of considerable importance in his country, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Why would he do that? Obviously he was not in favour of the animistic religion of his own people. He took the long and dangerous journey from Ethiopia, through the mountains and across the desert to worship the one true God of the Jews.

Not only that but he possessed a copy of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he was reading it as he travelled. One wonders where he got hold of a treasure like that. He could not buy one from the local bookshop! All this adds up to a man who was seeking God, and God knew about it.

Philip was God’s man; not Peter or John – they were still too clogged up with prejudice. They were willing to accept that God had given salvation and the Holy Spirit to the Samaritans but, after all, they did have some Jewish blood in them. But a black man from Africa! It would take too much time to convince them. By the time they got going he would be well on his way home.

Philip’s response was immediate. His obedience perfectly matched the timing of the traveller. No questions asked. No details required. Philip was learning a valuable lesson about walking in the Spirit. God did not need to give him a Google map for his journey. Just take the next step and you’ll know what to do.

He did what he was told; he went to the desolate road to Gaza and the only traveller he encountered was a man who was seeking God. Philip didn’t barge in. He was in the right place at the right time to do anything God wanted of him but he waited for the next instruction.

“The Spirit told Philip, ‘Climb into the chariot.’ Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?”” Acts 8:29-30 (The Message).

Philip had to think quickly. How could he get an invitation to join the man in the chariot? This guy would not be in the habit of picking up hitchhikers. With the wisdom of God, Philip asked the one question that would give him a place in the chariot, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ That made an immediate connection with the eunuch. “He answered, ‘How can I without some help?’ and invited Philip into the chariot with him.” Acts 8:31 (The Message).

This was a God-ordained and a God-orchestrated moment not only for this man but for his people and his continent and Philip was ready for it because of his simple obedience.

How do we know the potential in our obedience to the Lord in just being in the right place at the right time, or picking up the telephone at the right moment? God does not have to offer explanations or go into detail to connect us with people to whom He wants to make Himself known. He hears the cry of a seeking heart and manoeuvres someone into position to answer that call.

All He needs from us is a listening ear and a willing heart. He does the rest.

The Gospel Goes Non-Jewish

THE GOSPEL GOES NON-JEWISH

“And with that the apostles were on their way, continuing to witness and spread the Message of God’s salvation, preaching in every Samaritan town they passed through on their return to Jerusalem.” Acts 8:25 (The Message).

At last the apostles were getting it! Jesus’ instruction to take the message beyond the confines of Jewish geography and religion did not seem to have penetrated until the persecution unleashed by Saul forced the believers outside of Jerusalem. Even then, the apostles remained in the city while the rest of the church fled.

Philip was one of the men chosen to serve the widows, along with Stephen and five others. He certainly had no intention of suffering the same fate as Stephen so he took his family and settled in Samaria beyond the clutches of the fanatical Pharisees in Judea.

Unlike the apostles, he had no scruples about spreading the message wherever he went. When he began to preach Jesus to the Samaritan people, something amazing happened. They believed and shared in the life-changing miracle their faith in the Messiah brought.

Peter and John were commissioned to check on what was happening in Samaria. They were still hesitant about stepping outside their Jewish boundaries but what was happening in Samaria through Philip was enough to convince them that the Holy Spirit was doing the same thing in non-Jewish people as He was doing among the Jews.

They left the city where Philip was ministering, convinced that the message of Jesus was not only for the Jews. They set off home armed with a new freedom to spread the message wherever they went, including to the half-breed Jews they had previously despised.

Like any other ordinary believer, their progress in understanding the message and the heart of God was a step-by-step journey, loosing them from their old yoke of superiority and prejudice and teaching them to walk in the yoke of their Master where the artificial divisions caused by race, colour, culture and language were superseded by the new culture of the kingdom of God.

This is part of the miracle of the Message. Jesus has broken down the dividing walls of prejudice and hatred and created a family of people from every race and language who are bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit and who are free to love one another above their differences.

It must have been quite a struggle for these men to let go of their idea that they were superior to non-Jews, a centuries-old conviction that had bred a deadly arrogance in them. The Holy Spirit had to root it out of them thought by thought, experience by experience until they could relate freely to all people with a good conscience.

The story of Acts is not only the story of the growth of the church. It is also the story of the growth of the men who were entrusted with leading the church — tracing their story and learning with them how to walk in the Spirit and to follow the Master.

It is a miracle in itself that Jesus was willing to entrust His church to fallible men and to trust them to lead His people with understanding and integrity, knowing what they were like when He was with them. As long as they acknowledged that He, not they, was the head of the church, the church was in safe hands. When church leaders began to usurp His leadership, the church began to slide the wrong way.

My cry to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is this: “Let’s get reconnected to our Head.” His call is simple. “Follow me! Learn, imitate and obey me.”

To Hell With Your Money

TO HELL WITH YOUR MONEY!

“Peter said, ‘To hell with your money! And you along with it. Why, that’s unthinkable — trying to buy God’s gift! You’ll never be a part of what God is doing by striking bargains and offering bribes. Change your ways, and now! Ask the Master to forgive you for trying to use God to make money. I can see this is an old habit with you. You reek with money-lust.’

“‘Oh!’ said Simon, ‘Pray for me. Pray to the Master that nothing like that will ever happen to me.'” Acts 8:24 (The Message).

How difficult it was for this man who was so used to letting money talk for him, to change gears. In his world, money opened every door and bought him the power to con more money out of gullible people. They were easy pickings where the realm of the supernatural fascinated them but which they did not understand.

In God’s realm, His provision is freely given because the price was paid by His own Son. He sent His Spirit, not as a power superior to the devil to be used for people’s selfish ends, but as the presence of God Himself with and in His people. Through His people He would put His glory on display by transforming them into the image of His Son and by pouring out His abundant grace through them to meet people’s needs.

Simon failed to understand this new Way. He tried to add the “Jesus” Way to the way he was already following, not knowing that they led in opposite directions. He was on the path of greed and self-indulgence, manipulating people’s gullibility to gain popularity so that he could plunder their pockets.

The way of Jesus is the way of loving self-sacrifice, using money and resources to meet the needs of others in order to make their lives better. This demands a change of heart is so radical that only the Holy Spirit can make it happen. Peter urged Simon to change his mind so that the Holy Spirit could change his heart.

Simon tried to buy this power to use the Holy Spirit for his own ends. Imagine how powerful and wealthy he could become if he want around dispensing the Holy Spirit for a “fee”! That idea came from the pit of hell and Simon woke up from his dream with a jolt when Peter exposed his heart.

It was to Simon’s credit that he acknowledged his error and begged Peter to pray for him. There is no record of Simon after this. Perhaps God’s grace rescued him from a life of self-destruction.

What is the lesson for us in this incident? There is a trend in the church today that is a dangerous deviation from the truth. Greed and self-indulgence are marketed under the guise of the “Prosperity Gospel.” The name-it-and-claim-it movement has been sugar-coated with teachings about faith – believing God “for” whatever our hearts fancy.
This is the very temptation Jesus repudiated. “Use God’s word to get what you want,” said the devil. Satan tried to lure Jesus into manipulating God into doing what He wanted by holding him to His word. “Jump,” said the devil, “God said He’d send His angels to catch you. You’ll impress the people and they will believe you,” he hissed. “No way!” said Jesus. “Daddy didn’t tell me to do that!”

Part of this “con”spiracy is to dangle the carrot in front of the unsuspecting donkey. By “sowing seed” into this ministry, you are guaranteed a “harvest” for yourself. So the ministry grows fat and so do you. If you sow your car, house, jewellery or whatever, God is obliged to give you something better.

Is this really what the Bible teaches?

Not at all. The Bible teaches us that we have an obligation to care for our pastors, our “storehouse” – the local church, our families and the orphan, the widow, the alien and the poor. When we do that, God reciprocates by taking care of our needs. The seed we sow produces a harvest which is both bread for us and seed to sow again. The outcome is that God gets the glory for being who He is, the abundantly generous God who always keeps His promises.

Meeting the needs of others is part of our duty to God. He is not obliged to reward us but He does because He chooses to do so.

Job is another case in point. God had to strip him down to the skin before he finally understood that God owed him nothing. Job was whining about God being unfair because he, Job, had been such a good man. God confronted him in a violent way, not a gentle chat, to show him that, although he thought he knew God, he knew nothing.

God is obliged to no-one. What He does and what He gives is purely because of who He is. His favour and generosity flow out of Himself, not as a reward for who we are or what we deserve.

“It is impossible,” said Jesus, “to serve two masters.” The moment we allow greed to control us, we have changed allegiance and slipped back into the dominion of darkness where we are driven towards self-destruction.

Simon the Sorcerer

SIMON THE SORCERER

“Previous to Philip’s arrival, a certain Simon had practised magic in the city, posing as a famous man and dazzling all the Samaritans with his wizardry. He had them all, from little children to old men, eating out of his hand. They all thought he had supernatural powers and called him “The Great Wizard.” He had been around a long time and everyone was more or less in awe of him.

“But when Philip came to town announcing the news of God’s kingdom and proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ they forgot Simon and were baptized, becoming believers right and left! Even Simon himself believed and was baptized. From that moment he was like Philip’s shadow, so fascinated with all the God-signs and miracles that he wouldn’t leave Philip’s side.” Acts 8:9-13 (The Message).

What was it about Philip and his message that caught Simon’s attention? He was a con man and was used to getting people’s attention and keeping them mesmerized by his trickery. His ego fed off the power and popularity he enjoyed, knowing full well that he was a fraud but basking in the control and wealth he gained through his lies.

When Philip interrupted his run of success, he probably thought he was just another con man like himself with superior skills that he needed to learn. So, having lost the popularity and interest of the people, he joined the new following in the hopes of learning the secret of Philip’s power. He shadowed Philip to find out how he did it. His real motive for becoming a believer did not surface until Peter and John arrived to find out what was going on.

“When the apostles in Jerusalem received the report that Samaria had accepted God’s message, they sent Peter and John down to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Up to this point they had only been baptized in the name of the Master Jesus; the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet fallen on them. Then the apostles laid their hands on them and they did receive the Holy Spirit.” Acts 8:14-17 (The Message).

The scene was set for Simon to reveal his true colours. He was jubilant. He had seen for himself the secret of the power that Philip had and he had seen how he could be a part of the elite group who could dispense that power to whoever wanted it. This was better than he had ever dreamed possible!

“When Simon saw that the apostles by merely laying on hands, conferred the Spirit, he pulled out his money, excited, and said, ‘Sell me your secret! Show me how you did that! How much do you want? Name your price!'” Acts 8:18-19 (The Message).

Simon’s reaction revealed that his greedy heart had never been changed. He was still being motivated by the lust for power and money. He was willing to use his money for the opportunity to buy more power so that he could earn more money! That’s it! Bottom line!

How often Jesus used people’s attitude to money and possessions as the acid test of their inner life! The rich man who came to Him to find out what he had to do to earn eternal life was disillusioned when he was told that it was his money that stood between him and Jesus, and he walked away. Zaccheus, on the other hand, experienced true salvation which he evidenced by his attitude to his money and possessions. “‘Look Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor…'” Luke 19:8b (NIV).

We either hold and use our money as a servant or we are held and used by it as slaves. Simon’s heart was exposed. His god was Mammon, and not even “belief” and “baptism” had changed him. Who or what reigns in your heart?

Enter Saul

ENTER SAUL

“And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail. Forced to leave home, the believers all became missionaries. Wherever they were scattered, they preached the Message about Jesus. Going down to a Samaritan city, Philip proclaimed the Message of the Messiah. When the people heard what he had to say and saw the miracles, the clear signs of God’s action, they hung on his every word. Many who could neither stand nor walk were healed that day. The evil spirits protested loudly as they were sent on their way. And what joy in the city!” Acts 8:3-8 (The Message).

Enter Saul, a young man made of the stuff God needed but, unfortunately, fighting for the wrong side at this point. But, from God’s perspective, he was already a marked man.
God let him run with his hate campaign a little longer while He set the stage for Saul’s transfer from darkness to light.

From his perspective, Saul was fighting for God. On hindsight, he described himself as a Pharisee of the Pharisees, with an unquenchable zeal for God. He was willing to go as far as murder to protect what he considered to be the truth about God. He was the one-man audience that was applauding the crazy mob that killed Stephen. But God was right there, biding His time for the moment of His personal encounter with Saul.

In the meantime, the battle continued to rage between light and darkness. The more the agents of the dark realm of religious fanaticism struck at the children of light, the more the message spread and the church grew. Persecution had not driven the church underground — it had spread the fire beyond the confines of Jerusalem into the neighbouring half-breed nation of Samaritans.

The Jews despised the Samaritans because they were the result of intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles. When Assyria conquered Samaria in 722 BC, they carried off some of the people into captivity and repopulated the area with people displaced from other conquered nations.

But the old hatred was swallowed up by a new love. Such was the transformation of these Jewish believers that they willingly shared the Message of Jesus with the very people they had previously hated and avoided so that a whole Samaritan city was affected.

Philip, another of the men chosen to distribute food parcels to the suffering widows in Jerusalem, surfaced as a powerful witness to this new Way. Like Stephen, he was at the centre of the action, with miracles of healing and deliverance going on apace. He had to flee from Jerusalem with the other believers to escape Saul’s murderous assault on the church but, instead of disappearing, he was at the headwaters of a flood of missionary activity.

The phenomenal spread of “The Way”, as it was called, must have driven Saul into a frenzy. Far from curbing the growth of the church, he contributed to its spread. These people could not be silenced or stopped. Like a cancer, they infiltrated every corner of society and brought an unstoppable joy to the city!

What is it that has dampened the activity of God so effectively that we see little of the early power and growth of the church today? As I have moved slowly through Acts, one thing is becoming clearer. Every problem that surfaced in the church threatened their unity and every solution restored unity.

What if church leaders today recognised their responsibility to foster and protect unity? What if humility and submission became the priority of every leader and every member in the local church? What if pastors and preachers became more serious about their function than their title? What if they focussed less on being “bosses “and more on being servant-leaders?

What if “Christians” became true followers of Jesus? Would we see the power of God at work again now as it was then?