Today’s thoughts were prompted by Nicky Gumbel’s commentary in the BIble In One Year daily reading scheme.
At the moment, most of us are feeling more anxiety than usual, partly because our routines and lifestyles have had to change so rapidly. We tend to feel anxious when we feel out of control or that the future feels so uncertain. Ps 68:19-20 reminds us that the Lord ‘daily bears our burdens. Our God is a God who saves; from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.’ We must not carry yesterday’s burden over into today or add tomorrow’s burden before we are required to bear it. God urges us to come to Him with all our burdens and we can safely leave our cares and anxiety with Him, knowing He cares for us. (Matt 11:28-30; 1 Pet 5:7)
We have to face the fact (as Peter did when he denied Jesus three times) that at times we fail the Lord. Failure is a heavy burden to bear, but failure was not the end of the story for Peter and doesn’t have to be the end of the story for us. Although Peter failed him, Jesus took the burden of his failure, forgave him, reinstated him and used him as powerfully as anyone in human history. We can be set free from the burden of failure.
Injustice is hard to bear, and no one knows that better than Jesus, who had to endure an unjust trial and unjust sentencing. Peter tells us He could do this because ‘He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.’ (1 Pet 2:23) We too can bring the burden of injustice we may be facing to the One who judges justly and can leave the matter with Him.
On the cross Jesus, the innocent, died so that we, the sinful, could go free. He bore the burden of our sin so that we no longer have to live under the weight of the burden of sin. We have been set free! (Romans 6)
True guilt (over sin) is removed when we confess our sin to God and accept His cleansing. (1 Jn 1:9) But often we are burdened by false guilt, feeling guilty about things that are not actually our fault. God reminds us that when our hearts condemn us, He is greater than our hearts and knows everything. (1 John 3:19-20) Freedom from guilt (real or imagined) is one of the great blessings God offers us.
One of the tremendous truths of the gospel is that we are brought into a relationship with God only through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Paul says to the Ephesians, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.’ (Eph 2:8-9) Jesus is the very heart of the good news, and we need nothing else to be saved.
So often, however, we struggle with this great truth, and the early church was no different. Jews found it incredibly difficult to accept that salvation was available to Gentiles as well as to them and that the Gentiles no longer had to adopt Jewish practices such as circumcision or obey Jewish laws in order to be saved. Jewish groups frequently caused Paul great problems on his missionary journeys, and at the start of Acts 15, we see that this had coalesced into a firm view: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:2) This question went to the heart of the gospel and brought them into sharp dispute with Paul and Barnabas, who were appointed to go to Jerusalem to discuss this matter with the apostles and elders there. (Acts 15:2-4)
It’s thought that Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians at around the same time as this, and in that letter, he talks a lot about the problems caused by this ‘circumcision group,’ declaring that they were effectively preaching another gospel, ‘which is really no gospel at all.’ (Gal 1:7) He was adamant that neither circumcision nor anything else connected to Jewish law was needed for salvation: ‘We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.’ (Gal 2:15-16) This conclusion took time to work out (as we will see in our future studies of Acts 15), but it remains at the heart of the gospel, and one of the things of which we frequently need reminding.
It can be difficult and painful to let go of years of tradition and teaching – or at least to see things in a new light; none knew that better than Paul himself, who had persecuted the church because of his zeal for Judaism. But every time we are tempted to add ‘and’ to Jesus (e.g. Jesus and tradition, Jesus and circumcision, Jesus and good works), we need to stop and remember that He is the sole source of our salvation. We need nothing else.
One of the most amazing mysteries of life is that God chooses to work through us, through ordinary people who regularly sin and fall. There is a balance here, that it is God working, but we are involved in partnership as well! (Phil 2:12-13, Gal 2:20) We can only stand amazed at God’s grace in allowing us to be called His co-workers (1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 6:1).
On their return to Syrian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas ‘gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them.’ (Acts 14:27; see also Acts 15:4) We have seen glimpses of this in Luke’s accounts of Paul’s preaching and prayers for healing, and it must have been fascinating to be in that meeting, hearing all about God’s work. We do well to take the time to listen to accounts of all that God is doing in the world (it’s always good to hear testimonies from Fredrick and Reeba in India, for example, but it’s good to keep our ears attuned to the wonderful stories from our communities and from around the world) and to marvel at how Christ is in us, working through us and doing great things.
When we finally get to meet together in person again, let’s be willing to share what God has been doing and saying while we have been apart. So often, we don’t notice this because we take for granted what God does or we think it’s not big enough to share… but our testimonies can encourage others as we realise God is always with us and always working for our good.
Paul and Barnabas’s report to the church in Antioch on their return from their first missionary journey included the news that God ‘had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.’ (Acts 14:27) This news was one which caused many to rejoice and which ultimately causes all of us who are not Jewish to rejoice even now! The good news of the gospel is that God’s grace is available to us all and therefore His righteousness can be ours by faith: ‘But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.’ (Rom 3:21-25)
The door of faith is the only way we enter God’s kingdom. We can’t enter by our own righteousness or good works (Isaiah tells us our righteous acts are as filthy rags, Is 64:6); we can’t earn God’s favour or deserve His grace. We can only put on His righteousness instead of our own as we trust in all Jesus has done for us. Justification comes freely by God’s grace through the redemption provided by Jesus: ‘Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.’ (Rom 3:24, The Message)
Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Light of the World’ pictures Jesus carrying a light, knocking on a door (based on Revelation 3:20 where Jesus is depicted as standing at the door and knocking.) It’s often been said that there is no handle on the outside of the door; the handle is on the inside, that only we can open that door to let Jesus in to our lives. That’s true, but it’s also true that God is the God who opens doors (and closes them – see Rev 3:7). He was the one who opened the door of faith to the Gentiles; what we now have to do is walk through that door into the fulness of life which God freely offers us.
Acts 14:21-28 shows us the end of the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas as the two men returned to Antioch in Syria via the churches they had founded on their journeying. At Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, we are told they spent time ‘strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.’ (Acts 14:22) This remains one of the core tasks of churches, for it is easy for us all to stumble and fall. Both words can be found in other places in Acts (e.g. Acts 9:31, Acts 15:32), showing us the importance of strengthening and encouraging.
To strengthen means to establish alongside, to make something stronger or firmer; to encourage literally means to give courage to someone, to support them. Encouragement is listed as a gift from God (Rom 12:8) and Barnabas (the ‘son of encouragement’) was clearly gifted in this area. God Himself encourages us and gives us hope (Rom 15:5, 2 Thess 2:16), but this encouragement does not exclude warning (Paul and Barnabas reminded the believers that they would have hardships to face in their Christian journey. (Acts 14:22)) We don’t know exactly how Paul and Barnabas strengthened and encouraged the believers to remain true to the faith, but from Paul’s letters, we get clues: how he focussed attention on God and on His redemptive work in Jesus Christ, how he placed our individual stories within the bigger picture of God’s story and thus gave meaning and purpose to our lives and how he made connections constantly between present hardships and eternal glory.
Part of the work of the Holy Spirit is to strengthen and encourage us, but we too can help others by our words and actions. Paul says to the Thessalonians, ‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.’ (1 Thess 5:11) and he urges the Corinthians to seek the spiritual gifts which ‘build up the church.’ (1 Cor 14:12) As we work to strengthen and encourage each other, we can then remain true to the faith and stand firm, no matter what. The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.’ (Heb 10:24-25) May this be our goal as we interact with each other.
In the UK there used to be a TV quiz show called ‘Catchphrase’, which itself had the catchphrase ‘Say what you see’. The idea of the game was to show animations which represented a well-known saying or phrase and the participant had to guess what the saying or phrase was.
As we think about the Day of Pentecost, we see that the Holy Spirit came so that we could be witnesses to Jesus (Acts 1:8), so that we can ‘say what we have seen.’ Ali Herbert writes, ‘For the disciples it was simply a matter of saying what they had seen. What they had seen of Jesus’ life, heard from his teaching, experienced of his miracles – but more than that, what they experienced of his presence with them and his love. Peter paints a beautiful picture of the Trinity nature of God: Jesus raised from death, the giving nature of the Father and the Spirit poured out so that everyone can see with their own eyes. God is three persons to express relationship and community – a community that each of us are invited into.’
We can often get a bit ‘hung-up’ on what the arrival of the Holy Spirit and the baptism of the Holy Spirit mean, especially when we read about the sound of a rushing wind, tongues of fire seeming to rest on people’s heads and speaking in other languages. (Acts 2:1-4) But fundamentally, the Holy Spirit comes to give us the boldness to speak about Jesus: how we met Him, how we first encountered Him and what He has done in our lives, how He continues to speak to us and lead us. These stories are where our evangelism comes from, because we too are witnesses of Jesus Christ. Our personal stories are what people need to hear as we share the wonderful things God has done for us!