Week 19: Matthew 17-23

 

Ch7, v5: …And a voice from the cloud said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” Jesus is transfigured and the glory of God shone through him. With him are Moses, representing the Law, through the commandments and Elijah, representing the Prophets. This is to show that Jesus fulfilled both the Law and the prophecies. It is no wonder that the disciples were afraid, but do they now realise who Jesus is? Not only does He heal the sick, even raise the dead to life, cast out demons, calm the storm, feed the thousands and teach with such knowledge and authority; He is once again endorsed by the voice of God. It is interesting that Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone of what they have seen – not until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead (v9). This is the first of a few times he tells them of his death in the next few chapters. V22 – 23 “The Son of Man will be betrayed… They will kill him and on the third day he will be raised to life.” Then again Ch:  20 v18 “… They will condemn him to death…. On the third day he will be raised to life.” And once more in v26 “…To give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus was letting his disciples know his purpose here on earth, even though it would not be until after it was accomplished that they would be able to fully understand. Jesus also knows that we cannot always understand what He tells us. We need the Holy Spirit to reveal these things to us.

There is so much in these chapters, but I have to admit that I had not before read about the Temple Tax paid with the four-drachma coin from the mouth of the first fish that Peter was told to catch. Of all the ways He could find 4 drachmas to pay the tax! It did make me smile J. In fact, Jesus’ key point was that He should not be required to pay taxes in His own house – the temple – however this is part of a bigger theme across the coming chapters where Jesus takes on the temple authorities.

I have only just this Sunday heard preaching on Jesus at the Temple, where He over-turned the tables of the money changers and the benches of the merchants selling goods, Ch21 v12-17. Jesus finds the religious authorities are so corrupt and have completely lost sight that this is God’s house and a place where God is at the centre and everyone should be welcome. Jesus quotes from the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, reminding them that the Temple should be a ‘house of prayer’ and that it is now being used as a ‘den of robbers’.

The chief priests, elders, Sadducees and Pharisees are all very uncomfortable with the authority that Jesus demonstrates and He is confronting them head on. They really do want to get rid of Him now! He tells them through parables that it is not enough to obey the law, even the rich young man in Ch 19 learns how hard it is to be worthy of the kingdom of heaven.  Our hope lies in Jesus’ statement about who can be saved v26 “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.

The elders and chief priests are thinking up as many tests and questions to try and catch Jesus out. Each time, His answers amaze and confound them by their truth and virtue. The question by the Sadducees Ch22 v23-33 about marriage after the resurrection shows that Jesus knows that the order of things will be very different from life that we know now. Marriage will not feature as we will be like angels. Who else could answer with such knowledge?

Ch21 v28 and v33 Jesus tells the Parable of the Two Disobedient Sons and the Parable of the Tenants and the Pharisees and chief priests realised that the parables are about them. God had sent His prophets and messengers to the people, who had rejected and killed them. He then sent His son who would also be killed.  He quotes Psalm 118 referring to the cornerstone or capstone being rejected. The very foundation of the church is Jesus Christ. Those who believe and trust in Jesus are blessed and those who stumble over that rock chosen by God, are condemned. (Isaiah 28:14-16 God told the rulers of Jerusalem that their security was false and he would lay a precious cornerstone, which really was secure). Jesus is the cornerstone; Jesus is God’s promise.

Ch22 v 41-45 Whose Son is the Christ? They must have been delighted when they came up with this question – How would Jesus answer this one! Jesus is born into the line of David and it is known that the Messiah or Christ, would be of David’s ancestry – ‘a son’ of David. Jesus quotes David from Psalm 110, which has a strange line “The Lord said to my Lord”. Jesus explains that David was speaking with knowledge from the Spirit of God and calls Christ ‘Lord’. It doesn’t matter how many times you go over this one it is not quite possible to ‘square the circle’, as the questioners found out! The fact was that Jesus became human and was God-made-man. He is therefore both son of David and Christ (The Messiah): God incarnate and son of man (human).

Clearly in Ch23 Jesus is not pulling any punches with the Pharisees and teachers of the Law when he calls them hypocrites many times over. He is telling us that God is not interested in how well we can interpret the rules, or how well we enforce them onto others. God is only interested in what is in our hearts; our humility, our willingness to serve and to concentrate on the ‘more important matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness’ (v24).

At the start of these chapters God is telling us to listen to Jesus. Jesus tells us to that He is our true foundation, sent to fulfil God’s promise for us. With God all things are possible! Jesus tells us how important each one of us is to God and that we are all invited to be part of His Kingdom. We don’t have to rely on our own abilities to get to heaven, we just have to ask in prayer, follow Jesus and trust in God’s promise.

Week 17: Matthew 3-9

Howdy Theology-Networkers!

Sorry it’s been so long, but the TN ‘Big Read’ blog is officially back in action! So if you’ve been keeping up to date with the readings then you’ll know that this week we’ve been reading Matthew chapters 3-9.

The book of Matthew, being one of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life is concerned with Jesus’ life (well, duh). And chapter 3 begins with John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus by baptising him and so marking the beginning (or nearly) of his ministry. Matt 3 v 16-17 tell of “the spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him” and a voice from the heavens saying “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” These words echo the prophesy of Isaiah in Isaiah 42 v 1-4, which begins “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him”.

Before embarking on his ministry, Jesus enters the desert where, for 40 days, he is without food and is tempted by the devil. It is in reverence to this period of fasting that we get our notion of ‘lent’ from, although dwelling on the suffering Jesus must have gone through really puts my annual 40-day-chocolate-fast into perspective!

As Jesus calls his first disciples, in the latter half of chapter 5, it is worthy of note the manner in which they joined him. Both Simon and Andrew (verse 20) and James and John (verse 22) leave their fishing nets and follow Jesus ‘immediately’. Immediacy is a big ask, but as Christians nothing short of immediacy will do. Has Jesus called you to follow Him? How did you respond to the call? Did you drop your nets or are you still fishing?

Chapter 5 contains Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and begin with the beatitudes. These series of teachings capture the essence of Jesus’ message. What I find so amazing about the beatitudes (read them, reread them and then read them again: Matt 5 v 3-12) is that they are encompassing to all of humanity. Not just the religious and the righteous and the well-borne and the wealthy but to the oppressed, to the meek, to the humble. Anyone, irrespective of birth or upbringing can be included in Jesus’ list of blessed people. The requirements are not money or scriptural knowledge but rather a “hunger and thirst for righteousness” a purity of heart, a longing for peace, a poverty of spirit. What does Jesus mean by the “poor in Spirit”? (vs. 3). Those who lack spiritual discipline? Well, yes and no. The important thing here, I think, is the element of humility. Those who are poor in spirit are those who acknowledge their unworthiness and complete dependence on God. In contrast, many of the Pharisees of Jesus’ time may well have thought themselves rich in spirit and thereby denied themselves the blessing that comes with humility.

The rest of chapter 5 up till chapter 9 contains so much to discuss! And there is only so much space on one little blog! But please feel free to comment with any thoughts/ questions that you may have had following this weeks reading. Since I have written half a thousand words already and am only up to chapter 5 now, I will just throw out a few cherry-picked thoughts that I had from the remainder of this weeks chapters:

  • Matt 5 v 46: Jesus is commanding us to love our enemies, and reminds us that “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others?” – This verse hit me quite hard, since I know that I can succumb to clique-y behaviour at times. Only greeting and hanging out with the people that I know well and get on with. What about those who maybe aren’t so easy to get on with? What efforts am I making to love them? Very little, all too often…
  • Matt 6 v 2: “[W]hen you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” – in short, don’t give for self-gratification. Also, note that Jesus says “when” you give to the poor, not “if”.
  • Matt 6 v 33: “[S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” – there you have it, straight from Jesus’ mouth. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. What an awesome reminder that everything, as in everything else, is forever secondary. Heed the call of Jesus for a Godly, righteousness-centred life! Amen!

Week 10: 1 Corinthians 12-16 & 2 Corinthians 1-2

Personally, I found this week’s reading quite challenging. There’s so much going on in the last few chapters of 1 Corinthians – and some pretty big topics too – that I wasn’t really sure where to start. Whilst chapters 12-14 focus on the gifts of the Spirit and the Church as being a united body, the remaining chapters of 1 Corinthians talk about the importance of the resurrection of the dead and the excitement that we should have for our resurrected bodies.

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The Sting of death is sin, and the power of the sin is law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:54-57

Now one of the major themes in these passages is that of Spiritual gifts, which can sometimes be quite a controversial topic to discuss. What I shall say on the matter is that their primary purposes are for the building up of the Church (14v12). As like a body that has different functions, so do we as part of the body of Christ; we all have different spiritual gifts, and again, just like the body; “its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.” (12v25-26)

Another major theme was that of the resurrection of the dead. Paul reminds us that it was not just Jesus’ death on the cross that brought us salvation, but also his resurrection from death. It was necessary for Christ to defeat death so that we, too, can share in Jesus’ victory and be a part of His Kingdom. “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (15v50).  Because of Jesus’ resurrection, our bodies will be raised imperishable, in glory and in power (15v42-44). How incredible is that?! I’m already pretty excited for spiritual bodies sounding like that – are you? Paul believes we should be.

Finally, a brief look at the first 2 chapters of 2 Corinthians. As I read those chapters I couldn’t help but think back to Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians on the Church as one body, many parts (1 Corinthians 12). So to finish I’ll leave you to reflect on the similarity between 1 Corinthians 12v26 and 2 Corinthians 1v6-7 and ask whether, especially during this festive season, we really are there for our brothers and sisters in Christ whether in suffering or comfort…

So, in ahead for next week’s celebration as we remember the birth of the man who submitted to His Father’s will, died for our sins on a cross only to rise again, have a wonderful Christmas!

Week 9: 1 Corinthians 5 – 11

Woah, Paul is kicking off…

Ch 5 is pretty scary stuff. I doubt that any church today would “hand this man over to satan” (v5). I guess the believers were so used to the prospect of grace that they were proud of some pretty messed up stuff going on. We are so quick today to say we shouldn’t judge, but Paul is adamant that when it comes to believers the church has a responsibility to check their behaviour. But he makes it quite clear that we have no right to judge unbelievers – that’s God’s job alone (v13).
Ch 6 doesn’t really excite me. Except one verse which I love – (v7) “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already” God’s grace through us should be so radical that we would much rather just pay the cost ourselves; Paul seems so surprised that anyone who understands the gospel would not be self-sacrificing. Massive challenge to me with the way I treat my Christian housemates!

Ch 7 I could totally rant on about; let’s just say Paul wishes people would be single because it allows them time and simplicity to share the gospel more effectively. Marriage and singleness are both good. But I do wonder if the church is swinging towards treating marriage as better than singleness…

Ch 8. Love the putting the weak first. I wonder how far we can apply that today. Food sacrificed to idols isn’t really an issue in the west, but how about Christians who abstain from alcohol? Or converts to Christianity who wouldn’t put their bible on the floor as a sign of respect. Should we be changing our behaviour so as to not cause them to stumble? Paul takes it further in Ch 9. Pretty much the same principle of self-sacrifice. Really like (v 24-27) the metaphor of physical training. Again really challenging – are we really that set on Jesus and setting aside sin that we beat our bodies and make them our slaves?

Ch 10. This is a really interesting parallel with Israel’s history which deserves loads of time. But again I just love the grace of God in Jesus. The quotation marks in (v23) are probably statements made by the Corinthians in one of their letters to Paul which he is responding to directly. The Corinthians are pushing the limits of grace here in their attempt to be self-seeking. Bonhoeffer would probably accuse them of ‘cheap grace’ (grace that does not create any lasting change in us). Paul really wants to promote good moral behaviour here – I would find it so easy to slip into legalism and tell them to just ‘man up’ or ‘get on it’. But Paul affirms them, they have TOTALLY understood the extent of God’s grace – “everything IS permissible”, there are no rules. But he adds a big ‘but’. They should use it to seek the good of others.

Ch 11. Oh dear. Why did I volunteer to write this?!? I’m not gonna offer my opinion, precisely because I don’t know! But I do think that this passage is one of the most difficult to interpret for those who think it is biblical for a woman to have authority over a man. Context is vital certainly, many argue that Paul was only opposed to the behaviour of women in certain places , but verse 16 might be a challenge to this contextual argument.

Tough stuff to end on! All very challenging!

Week 8. Acts 26-28 & 1 Corinthians 1-4

Howdy Y’all!

This week’s reading entailed the rest of the book of Acts, from chapter 26 to its concluding chapter 28, and then the first four chapters from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. Well, let’s begin at the (relative) beginning shall we? Yes, let’s.

Acts 26 is an incredible chapter which documents Paul’s apologia to King Agrippa. An apologia is a speech of defence, which is where we get the word‘apologetics.’ Though it is also the root of the word ‘apology’, this doesn’t mean that Paul is apologising for the gospel. Rather, he is recounting and defending his first-hand account of the transforming powers of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ. Paul explains to Agrippa how he was once a fervent persecutor of Christians and Christianity but, through his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, has now become a witness to and a servant of God. The response of Festus, who was a high ranking officer present, is probably not exactly what Paul was hoping to hear: “You are out of your mind, Paul!”, “Your great learning is driving you insane.” (Acts 26:24).

Chapter 27 and the first part of chapter 28 chronicle Paul’s eventful trip to Italy. Paul and some other prisoners are put in the custody of a centurion named Julius. En route to Italy, Paul forewarns of a storm coming (verse 10) but Julius ignores him. The storm comes (verses 14-16) and they are shipwrecked (verse 41). Chapter 28 begins with Paul et al ashore on Malta (where their ship ran aground), and tells of miraculous healings done by Paul there (verses 8-9). The rest of the chapter recounts Paul’s arrival and early ministry in Rome, which he is able to do with relative liberty for a short period of time at least (verses 30-31).

1 Corinthians is the name given to the first letter written by Paul, in response, to the church in Corinth. He begins by encouraging them heartily: “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge.”(1 Corinthians 1:4-5). What fantastic words to hear! And a great way to start a letter, I reckon. Do you think others feel this way about you? Do you feel this way about others? And if so, do you tell them? I know I don’t!

In the rest of chapter 1, Paul deals with the supposed divisions that had emerged in the  church using some cutting rhetorical questions: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (Verse 13). And to end any confusion, he spells out what his role is: “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (Verse 17). I think this is a hugely powerful verse, though slightly odd at first reading. If Paul is not to preach with wisdom, does that mean that he is supposed to preach foolishly? I don’t think so. Note the ‘human’ in the phrase ‘human wisdom’. I don’t think Paul is telling us to speak foolishly, but rather to not infuse the gospel with our own ‘human wisdom’. The words “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” are a stark warning of what can happen if we attempt to intellectualise the gospel without taking its spiritual power into consideration.

No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” (Acts 2:7). In verse 6 through to 16 (chapter 2), Paul explains what is meant by wisdom from the spirit. I think a nice way of approaching it is in the words of verse 13: “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words”. Once again, Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the spiritual nature of gospel, and the futility of trying to interpret it in any other way. We can take heed from his words. Is reading the gospel a spiritual act for you? Or an academic one?

In chapter 3 Paul continues to address the issue of divisions within the church, this time reminding the Corinthians that it is “only God, who makes things grow.” (verse 7). This simplifies our job, as servants of Christ. We can plant seed, and we can water it, but growth is in the dominion of God alone.

Paul continues to humble the Corinthians in chapter 4: “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (verse 7). I find this verse very challenging personally. As a part of an affluent middle-class UK church community, I have so, so much. And yet, as Paul says, what do I have that I haven’t received? Nothing, is the honest reply. What makes me different from anyone else? Nothing, is the honest reply.

What an amazing verse that cuts through our socio-economic hierarchy like a knife through butter! What do you think?

Week 7: Acts 19-25

So this week we see the continuing journey of Paul and his companions, including that of the author (note the use of ‘we’). Throughout this we really get the sense that the author of Luke-Acts not only tries to carry out Luke 1:1-4, but was also an eye-witness and evangelist himself!

They really do a lot of awesome stuff in the 7 chapters that we read; however, as I don’t want to go on and on, I’ll only mention a couple of the things that God revealed to me through His Word.

Personally I found chapter 19 quite challenging, whereby Paul talks about the baptism of John and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. How do we know which baptism we have received? To be honest I hadn’t really thought about there being 2 baptisms. I mean, I knew that before Jesus, John baptised people with water (as we saw in Luke 3:1-19), but for some reason I always thought that after Jesus there was only 1 baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Well, this passage (Acts 19) appears to suggest otherwise. It wasn’t until I went back through some old sermon notes I had made, from about a year ago, that deals with this question. Whilst it’s not an absolute answer, I merely put it forward as a possible explanation. The key is verse 2.

…and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

They hadn’t actually recognised the implications of John the Baptist’s teachings and the anticipation of the Holy Spirit to come. They hadn’t even heard of the Holy Spirit! So to some extent, it was not that there were 2 different types of baptisms rolling around, it was more that they were still stuck in the [old] way; one with repentance and forgiveness, but without the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit. But how does this relate to today? Because we have the Bible and the accounts within we can already begin with the knowledge of the Holy Spirit, and it is through the knowledge of the existence of the HS that we can make use of Him. So I guess that today the question of ‘which baptism have I received’ is not exactly relevant because we know of the Holy Spirit? [Please do comment if you have any further insights into this question.]

Another concept that struck me throughout this weeks’ reading was the significance of touch. In many of the miracles and actions carried out by Paul and the disciples, the placing of hands on another or just a passing touch via hankerchief is a key part. Now I’m not saying that if you don’t place hands during prayer or during the act of miracles that prayers won’t be answered or that miracles won’t happen, it’s purely an observation. If prayers were answered and people were healed by the touch of Jesus (as many stories in the Gospels attest to) then why wouldn’t our touch, through the power of the Holy Spirit, do the same? And I guess it makes sense, touch is personal; it’s caring, it’s a form of communication, it’s about a relationship. Just like everyone in the world has a relationship with God (whether a positive or negative one), we too have a relationship with them; we should be loving, forgiving, caring towards them just as Jesus was. So whilst talking is one form of communication, perhaps touch is another. I think, the point I’m trying to make is that we often underestimate the power of touch, and I felt convicted whilst reading the passages from Acts that it’s important to remember it’s significance and power.

I know I haven’t really spoken lots about the rest of Acts 19-25, but if you had any convictions or reflections from God whilst reading this week, do please comment below and share with us. We’d love to hear from you!

Week 6: Acts 12-18

Prison break?

This passage is pretty epic and I think is one of the things Paul is pretty well known for!
I think it is important to reflect on what is going on when Peter and Paul are in and out of prison. It is really easy to begin to pity Christians who are persecuted, to worry about our own safety or be thankful that we are not suffering in that way. I am not saying at all that these feelings are wrong, we should of course have compassion for our brothers and sisters and pray for them fervently like they did for Peter and their prayers were answered as he was delivered to them by an Angel of the Lord. But we need to remember why they are being persecuted in the first place. Because the Holy Spirit is moving and offending in that place. They stand out because of their faith. They knew what they were signing up for when they gave their lives to Jesus and are not apologizing for it!
I find this so challenging; to remember that our lives are not for our benefit but for His, that when we give our lives to Jesus we do it in heart and soul and strength. So we actually offer our physical bodies too. Our bodies that bruise and bleed, that decay and break, that die. With the promise that Jesus is Lord, He is sovereign, not us. I often hope that in a situation when I am asked to retract my faith or be killed that I would stand firm in Jesus’ name and not compromise even for one second. I am thankful that living in the UK I have the freedom to worship without that consideration, but do I live like I would be willing to go to jail, to be beaten to endure huge physical pain for Jesus?, remembering that before he rose from the grave, triumphing over death He had to endure it first.
I love that God rescues Paul and Peter in such flippin spectacular ways! for those of you a little skeptical maybe, I would REALLY recommend reading the Heavenly Man by brother Yun. He is a Chinese pastor who is beaten to the point of death on many occasion and with broken legs walks out of the highest security prison in Beijing (spoiler alert!) This stuff really does happen still today, that book was only written in the last 15 or so years! he is still alive and Living for Jesus today! Soo many came to faith through him and he never lost sight of Jesus, even when the end was in sight. And what is so beautiful about what happened in Acts and in China was that God revealed Himself so reverently and faithfully. That at a time when it is so dark and easy to give up on God, He burst through the darkness and saved them. Exactly what happened on the cross.

Last point!! notice that it was when Paul and Silas cast out a demon in Jesus’ name that they were thrown in prison!

What is the cost? Wanna see the Kingdom come? Stand up for Justice, command miracles in His name, Tell the world about Jesus, NEVER COMPROMISE. Like Paul and Brother Yun, you may get thrown in prison, get into arguments, loose friends, get beaten up, bullied and tormented. But in the Bible whenever there is persecution the Church grows! The Kingdom comes through individuals completely sold out for God.
To quote Nike…. Just do it!

Week 5: Acts 5-11

Well this week’s reading starts off by chronicling the slightly disturbing fate of two of the earliest Christians, Ananias and Sapphira who, in keeping with the rest of the believers at the time, sold off their property and put the money into a communal kitty, to be used by one and all when needed. However, Ananias and Sapphira withheld from the other believers, as well as God, that they had siphoned off a little of the money for themselves. A little stash for a rainy day. Well, if you’ve read Acts 5 you’ll know how the story ends for Ananias and Sapphira. They drop down dead. This seems a little tough and I have to say, it makes for some quite uncomfortable reading. I think that it does remind us though, that we are in a spiritual battle. Ananias is in the heart of the counter-cultural Christian revolution, part of a radical group of God-fearing advocates for Jesus, committed to a new way of life. And his act of shows, in the words of author John Stott, “not simply a lack of honesty in bringing only a part of the sale price but also a lack of integrity–bringing only a part while pretending to bring the whole”. Just like Judas Iscariot, Ananias and Sapphira undermine and in some way betray the Gospel, not from the outside, but from within. And just like Judas Iscariot, these two come to an untimely end. 
The rest of Acts 5 tells of the simultaneous persecution and growth of the early church (Acts 5:14 –“ Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” Acts 5:18 – “They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail.” ) I think it is worth remembering that this period of huge growth coincided with a time of heavy persecution. Think now of the rapidly growing and yet persecuted church in China. It seems that persecution and growth are inevitable partners. Something which causes a whole host of difficult questions to spring to mind for me personally – namely, is my church being persecuted? Am I being persecuted? If not, why not? Aren’t we offending satan?!
Acts 6 tells of the choosing and sending out of 7 disciples, among them Stephen, who is seized and brought before the Sanhedrin (a Jewish assembly) and accused of speaking against the law of Moses. Acts 7 is devoted to Stephen’s speech at the Sanhedrin, where he recounts the history of the Israelites, from Abraham to Jesus, before he is eventually stoned to death. His last words are captured in Acts 7:59-60 – “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’. Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’.” 
Saul is first mentioned in the beginning of Acts 8, as a witness to, and approver of Stephens execution. We next hear of him in chapter 9, but in chapter 8 an important conversion happens: that of the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip encounters the eunuch reading from the scriptures but failing to understand its significance. Verse 35 says “Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” . Obviously he did a pretty good job, because verse 36 continues: “…the eunuch said ‘Look, here is water, why shouldn’t I be baptised?’”. This is a powerful story of a joyous conversion, and in the words of Jack Rogers, it reminds us that “the first Gentile convert to Christianity is from a sexual minority and a different race, ethnicity and nationality together” – a reminder that the kingdom of heaven operates an open invitation policy! 
Chapter 9 tells of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul was heavily involved in the business of persecuting Christians, and had gained some notoriety for doing so (Acts 9:13), and yet God has great plans for Saul (Acts 9:15-16). Saul’s conversion is a really big deal, and worth dwelling upon properly (though I won’t right now), as it is such a powerful reminder of the awesomeness and sovereignty of God. Time and time again, he uses the flawed, the broken, the sinners to further his kingdom. And if you don’t think that you are flawed, broken or a sinner, then you are flawed, broken and a sinner (trust me). 
Chapter 10 is concerned with another convert: Cornelius. Cornelius invites Peter to his house, which Peter obliges to, saying “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” (verse 28). Another great example of the inclusiveness of the gospel. Chapter 11 ends on that recurring theme of encouragement in the midst of persecution. And I will leave you with the encouraging words of Acts 11:23 – “When he [Barnabas] arrived and saw the evidence of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”

Week 4: Luke 22-24, Acts 1-4

So this week we read the last few passages from Luke; passages where we essentially get the foundation of our Christian faith – that is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and then we moved onto the next book of the NT; Acts.

Personally, I found it just a real encouragement to read the description of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Whilst it can be really easy to just read such passages and feel like you have already read/heard it before, I think it’s really important to be able to meditate and reflect upon it. After all, it was through Jesus defeating death on that cross that He was able to pay for our sins. So I shan’t really say much more, rather I implore you to read it and re-read it for yourselves, really let what being pinned up onto a cross, naked, for all to see, means. But then also be glad that death couldn’t keep its hold on the Son of God, the Great I AM (Luke 22:70) so that now you too can have that if only you call and trust in His name. How awesome is that?!!!!

Moving onto the second part of this weeks reading (Acts 1-4) here is one reason as to why we decided to slightly change the order that we’re going to read the NT. Luke and Acts were written by the same author and basically Acts follows ever so well on from Luke so we thought it would be a great idea to read it as if the two were one book. Acts looks at what life was like for the disciples immediately after Jesus returns to Heaven (Acts 1:9) and follows their adventures (as well as a character we will soon meet called Saul/Paul) and the adventure of the Early Church.

It’s not surprising that the disciples were a bit clueless after Jesus left, despite his command to be witnesses to all nations, and to wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Or at least this is the impression that I get at the very beginning of Acts and in fact it isn’t until they are filled with the Holy Spirit that we see things starting to kick off. You see we need the Holy Spirit to do God’s work, because it is not by our own strength but His. We see this very clearly throughout the first four chapters of Acts, in of which we see the application of Luke 21:13-15

“This will result in you being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.”

It is not ‘for you will speak words and wisdom…’ but ‘I will give you words and wisdom’. How much of a relief is that?! I often get really worried about what I’m going to say, especially if I’m ever asked on the spot but as seen when Peter addresses the crowd in Acts 2; God gives us the words that He wants us to say. However the Holy Spirit does not only equip us to be bold and proclaim the Gospel but He also works in people’s hearts to change and mold us to be more like Jesus. In Acts 4 we see the Church becoming one in heart and mind, sharing and looking after one another. We should be more like this, and it is not ourselves who change us but God.

Finally I want to briefly talk about the response of Peter and John to their persecution, particularly their prayer request. Not only do they immediately pray after their release to God, but notice what they don’t pray for – they don’t pray with fear or ask for an easy simple life away from persecution, but rather ask that God actually considers the threat of persecution, that they may actually endure more! This really made me think about how we react when we hear about current news of persecution. Whilst I absolutely believe that we should be compassionate in their times of trouble and provide support and encouragement, we should also be aware that the reason for their persecution is because of the Good News. This is a response to the Gospel, one that we should be prepared for, ready to “speak God’s Word with great boldness.” (Acts 4:29) I’m not saying that this is an easy thing to do, rather it takes great courage, but you should find your courage in the strength and armor of God, knowing that we have naught to fear when we call on Jesus’ Name.

So I’ll leave it here, with one final last thought: I really do hope that from this weeks’ reading you have found great encouragement and faith in what Jesus has done for you, leading you to respond in a similar way to the disciples after Jesus had left them; a desire to tell others about the wonderful things Jesus has done for them.

Week 3: Luke 15-21

“For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.”

So this weeks reading was pretty epic! parables, challenges and Jesus owning people left right and centre!

To be honest when I read through this the first time, I was really stuck as to where to start. There is so much to look at in this passage, so please feel free to add things that stuck out to you in the comments.
The overriding theme I got from this passage is what I quoted above from ch 19. Jesus came to seek us because we are lost and He loves us. It really is that simple! He begins to make His point with the three lost parables (sheep, coins and son) -note use of holy number 3! Stories that I heard so many times growing up in Sunday school and taking part in dramas back in my girls brigade days… But for some reason I don’t think I ever really realized the extent to which His desire is too seek us! He wants us! We are precious to Him, and as it makes explicit in the lost son; it doesn’t matter what we have done!
Often preachers or youth workers will challenge us to think about which brother we are in the story, my reflection on this is only that some people have crazier testimonies than others of how they went away from God or endured great poverty or reckless lifestyles and rebellion; and there are always those of us who sit back and think, ah I wish I had experienced God like that or my testimony is pretty boring. BE ENCOURAGED! The only testimony we need is that we were lost (what ever that looked like) and we are found and that looks a lot like grace!
Jesus welcomes all of us into His family and invites us to be real, to be childlike to come as we are. This can be a challenge to many though as well as a graceful blessing. As the rich young ruler discovered, the price for giving your life for the kingdom actually costs your life! Your wealth, possessions, pride, everything. Why? Well Jesus did say that you are to be like little children, whom enter the world owning nothing and knowing little but their parents love for them. That is all they need; love and compassion from their Father/Mother and the rest is disposable. Only then can you truly run into your fathers arms without looking back (Luke 17:32).
I still don’t pretend for one second that this is an easy calling and this passage challenges us in how we live lives abandoned for Jesus. It challenges our integrity from how mercifully we treat co-workers to our attitude towards taxes and honesty with our tithing. Quite a wake up call! But I guess living for the Lord we shouldn’t expect anything less. IF we are willing to give up everything and be willing to loose EVERYTHING, whats a dash of generosity here and there? Letting it slip now and again if people owe us money, or even be joyful paying fines or taxes even when we think they are steep! And I must say at this point that I don’t believe for one second that we are to be door mats! That is not what Jesus is saying. I think He is challenging us to be merciful and just in the same way He is to us every single day. And as we see with Lazarus, there will definitely be rewards at the end for being faithful through trials (Luke 16 vs 19-31).

Among all this though is the duty to stand by one another as we live this life, to rebuke each other, to forgive one another and to practice mercy with one another. This way we will be accountable and in community. What I find poignant about Jesus’ return to Jerusalem on a colt, is that He weeps over Jerusalem, for He knows what is to come. He knows the trials and like in the passage headed ‘signs of the end of age'; He knows what it will take. He warns us so that we may be ready to run fully towards Him facing whatever comes our way, as a community found by Him and marked by His grace. And when stuff starts to go down, we are called to simply “…Stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near…”

The Lord seeks us, and finds us; but being found is just the beginning…