Monthly Archives: May 2013

Faith And Unbelief

FAITH AND UNBELIEF

“Still shaking his head, he went to Mary’s house, the Mary who was John Mark’s mother. The house was packed with praying friends. When he knocked on the door to the courtyard, a young woman named Rhoda came to see who it was. But when she recognised his voice — Peter’s voice — she was so excited and eager to tell everyone Peter was there that she forgot to open the door and left him standing in the street.” Acts 12:12-14 (The Message).

Peter was free but vulnerable. How long would it take for the Roman guards to rouse from their stupor and realise that Peter had disappeared? He had to get off the street and quickly. A lone man wandering around in the dark would be suspect, to be sure. Of course, there were no electric street lights and many dark corners, but daylight would soon reveal the fugitive when the soldiers were sent out to comb the neighbourhood, and they would be ruthless in their search.

Peter made a beeline for Mary’s house knowing he would be safe there for a short while. Although he did not know it then, many of his friends were assembled there, praying up a storm for his release. His urgent knocking was answered by a young servant girl who was obviously very much part of the praying.

Luke adds a human touch and a little humour to his story. Rhoda recognised Peter’s voice and was so ecstatic about the miraculous answer to their prayers that she left him outside and rushed into the prayer meeting with the news that Peter was free. Unlike the “holy books” of other religions, little incidents like these link us to the sheer humanness of the story. This is God’s story, but it is about people just like us.

“But they wouldn’t believe her, dismissing her, dismissing her report.’You’re crazy,’ they said. She stuck by her story, insisting. They still wouldn’t believe her and said, ‘It must be his angel.’ All this time poor Peter was standing out in the street knocking away.” Acts 12:15-16 (The Message).

It seems strange that the believers were praying for Peter’s release but, when it happened, they could not take it in. One wonders what they were expecting to happen. Perhaps they had some prescribed notion of how it would happen instead of letting God do it His way.

Aren’t we just like that? Instead of letting God be God, we tell Him what to do and how to do it and then we put our faith in our expectation instead of in God to do what He wants to do His way. So much of our disappointment with God is tied to our expectations of what He will do and the way He will do it instead of putting our trust in Him and His wisdom and love. How often I hear this statement: “I’m trusting God for….” instead of “I’m trusting God,” period.

Somehow we have the capacity to turn faith into unbelief when we limit God to our way of thinking and our way of doing things. What if, instead, our heartfelt confidence in the will of God frees Him to act when, how and where He chooses so that our insignificant concerns become a part of the bigger picture of His kingdom?

“Finally they opened up and saw him — and went wild! Peter put up his hands and calmed them down. He described how the Master had gotten him out of jail, then said, ‘Tell James and the brothers what happened.’ He left them and went to another place.” Acts 12:16-17 (The Message).

Having told his story and concluded their mission to pray him out of jail, Peter left Jerusalem, putting distance between himself and the murderous intentions of Herod. From here on, Luke turned his attention to Paul and his commission to take the gospel to the whole Roman Empire. Peter appears briefly in Acts 15, but for the rest, Paul and his companions are the focus of the missionary enterprise.

If we take a step back for a moment and take in the ebb and flow of the infant church, it’s a story of vulnerable human beings caught up in the cosmic war between God and His arch-enemy, the devil, with human beings the prize. There is suffering and victory, death and life, pain and joy, but all the while the church inches her way across the empire, person by person, city by city, through the courageous witness of men and women who were not afraid to pay the price for their faith in a living Saviour.

While The Church Prayed

WHILE THE CHURCH PRAYED

“Then the time came for Herod to bring him out for the kill. That night, even though shackled to two soldiers, one on either side, Peter slept like a baby. And there were guards at the door keeping their eyes on the place. Herod was taking no chances!

“Suddenly there was an angel at his side and light flooding the room. The angel shook Peter and got him up: ‘Hurry!’ The handcuffs fell off his wrists. The angel said, ‘Get dressed. Put on your shoes.’ Peter did it. Then, ‘Grab your coat and let’s get out of here.’ Peter followed him but didn’t really believe it was an angel — he thought he was dreaming.” Acts 12:6- 9 The Message).

While the church prayed, God was up to something! There were a few unusual things about this scenario. Firstly, Peter was on the eve of possible execution yet he was asleep and the guards were awake. Shouldn’t he have been awake, given the circumstances, tossing and turning with anxiety about his fate on the morrow? What does that say about Peter’s state of mind?

Was he, like Paul in similar circumstances later on, at perfect peace knowing that God was in charge? Whether he lived or died was not the issue. To live was Christ and to die was gain. That tells us a whole lot about Christ’s victory on the cross. “Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Hebrews 2:14-15 (NIV).

While Peter slept, the church prayed. The guards were watching; the church was praying; and God was working! He dispatched an angel and set the ball rolling for an amazing rescue. The prison cell was ablaze with light, yet the guards saw nothing. The angel woke Peter and spoke to him; his shackles clanked to the ground — yet the guards heard nothing. Were they blind and deaf?

Peter responded like a sleepwalker — no questions, no protests. Like a robot he got up, put on his clothes and shoes at the angel’s command and followed him out of the prison cell while the soldiers kept on guarding him! He thought he was dreaming — wouldn’t you?

Even though he had slept like a baby, what was going on in his subconscious mind that would trigger dreams? In the natural, he would probably have been morbidly dwelling on the outcome of tomorrow. Nightmares, not dreams, should have plagued his sleep. But he didn’t. Instead, he thought he was having a pleasant dream about being rescued.

“Past the first guard and then the second, they came to the iron gate that led into the city. It swung open before them on its own and they were out on the street, free as a breeze. At the first intersection the angel left him, going his own way. That’s when Peter realised it was no dream. ‘I can’t believe it — this really happened! The Master sent His angel and rescued me from Herod’s little production and the spectacle the Jewish mob was looking forward to.'” Acts 12:10-11 (The Message).

While the guards continued to watch, Peter and the angel slipped quietly out of the prison, locked doors and gates opening and closing for them, and neither guards nor prisoners stirred. Only when the cold night air touched his face did Peter realise that this was no dream. He really was free! God had miraculously thwarted Herod’s little macabre entertainment and left a whole group of soldiers with egg on their faces.

It is God’s way to partner with His people in getting His will done on earth. John Wesley said, “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” The church in Jerusalem did not need to be made aware of Peter’s situation. They prayed and God acted. And that’s how God still administers His will on earth today.

Herod On The Warpath

HEROD ON THE WARPATH

“That’s when King Herod got it into his head to go after some of the church members. He murdered James, John’s brother. When he was how much it raised his popularity with the Jews, he arrested Peter — all this during Passover Week, mind you — and had him thrown in jail, putting four squads of four soldiers each to guard him. He was planning a public lynching after Passover.

“All the time that Peter was under heavy guard in the jailhouse, the church was praying for him most strenuously.” Acts 12:1-5 (The Message),

Opposition to the church was turning ugly. Up to this point it was a religious struggle but for some reason King Herod chose to get involved. The evidence points to a man who would do anything to gain popularity, even stooping to murder to “suck up” to the Jews. This was the same Herod who tried to get some entertainment out of Jesus when He was on trial for His life.

Having disposed of James to the delight of the anti-Christian Jews, he turned on Peter, planning a public display of his sadistic power after the Passover. Was he suspecting a rescue attempt by the believers? He set a guard out of all proportion to the possibility of one man making a bid to escape!

But there was another power at work which Herod had not taken into account — the church at prayer. While Peter was asleep under guard in the prison, the church was awake and storming the gates of heaven.

One wonders why James had perished but Peter was given time. Is there a powerful lesson in this story for us? Perhaps James’ death caught the church off guard. It was a surprise attack and the church did not have time to mobilise prayer to save him. Peter’s imprisonment, however, bought them time to respond by entreating the intervention of God for him.

Herod might have had a measure of authority on earth but the church at prayer was a power to be reckoned with. Way back in Acts 4, when persecution first broke out against the apostles, Peter and John, the church was learning how to handle the conflict between the kingdom of God and the dominion of darkness.

They engaged the enemy, not flesh and blood but spiritual forces, with the spiritual weapons at their disposal. In Acts 4 we have a record of their prayer — an affirmation that they understood who was in charge, “your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed”, and who was under attack, and an entreaty that He be vindicated through them. If that was the flavour of their prayer then, it would have been the same now.

This was not so much Peter’s life in danger as Jesus being challenged by an inconsequential little human who thought he was in charge. This was the same spirit that energised David to go after Goliath. He saw the heathen giant’s challenge not as merely against the Israelites but against the God whom the Israelites represented. Because the Israelite army did not see it that way, none of them had the courage to take the Philistine champion on. David was not concerned about his own tender age or inexperience. He knew he was covered by the power of a covenant-keeping God!

The Apostle Paul’s experience was a face-to-face encounter with Jesus to answer for his own actions against Him. “‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?'” Acts 9:4b (NIV), but he was persecuting the church, not Jesus, so he thought. Likewise, Herod had unwittingly taken Jesus on by attacking church leaders and history would prove that he would come off second best.

The church understood that Jesus identified with His Body so closely that any attack on them was an attack on Him. Prayer that engages God with the right motive, to promote and uphold His honour, is the most powerful force in the world. God will do whatever it takes to intervene for His own sake because His mercy is His glory on display.

The Church At Work

THE CHURCH AT WORK

“It was about this time that some prophets came to Antioch from Jerusalem. One of them named Agabus stood up one day and, prompted by the Spirit, warned that a severe famine was about to devastate the country. (The famine eventually came during the rule of Claudius). So the disciples decided that each of them would send whatever they could to their fellow Christians in Judea to help out. They sent Barnabas and Saul to deliver the collection to the leaders in Jerusalem.” Acts 11:27-30 (The Message).

This was the church at work, doing life together across racial, cultural, social and even geographical divides. The church in the Roman Empire was a culture within a culture, living as a family unit in a hostile, anti-God environment, caring for and supporting one another and sharing their resources so that everyone had enough.

The prophetic ministry was part of this family life, not a kind of Christian “fortune-telling” to satisfy curiosity about the future but to prepare for disaster in advance in the same way as God prepared Egypt through Pharaoh’s dreams and Joseph’s interpretation.

Generosity was taught to the Israelites in the constitution of the Old Covenant. God taught them how to take care of one another so that there would be equality and a minimum of poverty among the people. They were to leave the corners of their fields for the poor to glean. They were to set up freed slaves with enough to save them from sliding back into poverty and inevitable slavery again.

Their system of tithes and offerings took care of all those for whom they were responsible – their high priest, their priests, their families and the poor, the widow, the orphan and the alien. They did not leave the care of the needy to the government. Their government operated through their religious system under God.

In the early church resources were used serve, not to hoard. What they had they did not regard as exclusively theirs. It was on loan from God to be used for the common good. Human nature is still today what it was then — enslaved by greed. There was one clear test of a new heart — how did they treat their possessions?

The Apostle Paul accurately diagnosed the root of all evil in the world as not money but as the love of money. Jesus made it clear that it is impossible for anyone to serve two masters, God and Mammon. Mammon is not money per se; it is the demonic stronghold that money sets up in the heart of a greedy person. When the love of money grips a person’s heart, believer or not, he cannot be a lover of God

Since Jesus spoke more about money than anything else, it must be true that our attitude to, and the way we handle our money is the measure of our commitment to Him. The money and possessions God entrusts to us are a part of our equipment with which we show the love of God to fellow believers and to the unbelieving world.

Love is a very practical thing. John put it this way: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” 1 John 3:17 (NIV).

The generosity of the believers in the early church was spontaneous. They did not have to be cajoled, bullied or begged to share their resources with brothers and sisters in Judea. It was their first response to the approaching famine.

The eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” is as much about withholding from those who need your help as it is about taking what does not belong to you. God indicted His own people through the prophet Malachi. “‘Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse — the whole nation of you — because you are robbing me.'” Malachi 3:8, 9 (NIV)

How many robbers are sitting in our churches, believing they are disciples of Jesus but under a curse and excluded from the kingdom because they are takers and not givers. .

Saul’s Side-kick

SAUL’S SIDE-KICK

“Then Barnabas went on to Tarsus to look for Saul. He found him and brought him back to Antioch. They were there a whole year, meeting with the church and teaching a lot of people. It was in Antioch that the disciples were for the first time called Christians.” Acts 11:25-26 (The Message).

Luke shines the light on the two main characters of his story, Peter and Saul. Up to this point, Peter was in the limelight, with Saul making brief appearances as a kind of introduction. Peter’s function and influence was in and around Jerusalem and in widening circles around Israel. He was the natural leader of the new movement, together with James and John until James’ untimely death at the hands of Herod.

Saul appeared briefly in Jerusalem before and after his conversion but he was essentially an out-of-Jerusalem Jew. His hometown was Tarsus in Asia Minor to which he was smartly returned when his fiery preaching stirred up trouble in Judea. He disappeared off the scene for a while until Barnabas, realising his worth as a teacher, fetched him from Tarsus and brought him to Antioch to ground the new non-Jewish believes in the Scriptures.

What a Bible School that must have been! As a rabbi, Saul was well-versed in the Scriptures and, with the Holy Spirit as his teacher, he was able to anchor the new converts in the accurate understanding of the Messianic prophecies and of Jesus as their fulfilment.

Saul himself was being enlightened as he taught, honing his understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus as the Messiah, qualifying him to be a skilful exponent of the good news. All these factors were preparing him for what lay ahead, pioneer missionary, author of many of the writings which would later be gathered together into the sacred volume of the Book, and martyr for Jesus.

Although Barnabas was initially the leader, his major role was to be Saul’s side-kick in the missionary enterprise. Without the support of Barnabas, Saul might never have been recognised as the significant and prominent figure he was to become in the history of the early church.

God has room for every kind of person and every gift in the growth of His kingdom on earth. No one is greater than anyone else regardless of whether he is in the limelight or not. We all fit together in an amazing mosaic of divine purpose. Our reward lies, not in the visibility of what we are doing, but in the effectiveness of our obedience to our calling. Had Barnabas not been who he was and done what he did, Saul might never have been in the right place at the right time to become who he was to the church.

Like Jonathan in the Old Testament, who was willing to play second fiddle to David, knowing that David would take his place as king of Israel, God needs people who are not bent on making a name for themselves but are there to stand by and support another chosen by God for leadership. These are the truly great people of the kingdom without whom God’s purposes will not be fulfilled. What an important role they play!

It takes wisdom and humility to promote and support someone else. Your name may never appear in the history books but it will be written on the palm of God’s hand.

“Therefore my dear brothers, stand firm. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15; 58 (NIV).