Acts 14 reminds us why Paul would in later days write to Timothy that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’ (2 Tim 3:12) In Iconium, Paul encountered Jews who refused to believe the gospel and who then stirred up Gentiles, poisoning minds with their slander and opposition. (Acts 14:2) Later, the plots against the missionaries became so severe (plots to mistreat and stone them) that they were forced to flee (Acts 14:5), and life didn’t get much easier when they arrived at Lystra, with Paul actually being stoned there (Acts 14:19). We might wonder at both the strength of opposition and at the strength and courage of Paul to endure such persecution and even to rejoice in it, because, as Tom Wright says, ‘the journey of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth is unstoppable, but uncomfortable.’ (‘Acts For Everyone Pt 2’, P 31)
Opposition came because the message Paul proclaimed challenged the worldviews held by both Jews and Gentiles alike. Some were excited by the message and responded favourably; some were incensed by the message and could not cope with the ramifications this meant to their dearly held beliefs. We need to understand that the gospel message will always elicit these responses: indifference surely means we have not communicated the message effectively enough!
Paul’s response to opposition echoes Jesus’s words that we are blessed when we are persecuted. (Matt 5:10,12) He did not minimise the pressure such opposition created (see 2 Cor 1:8-10) and certainly did not forget the problems (see 2 Cor 11:23-29), but his perspective looked beyond temporary pain to eternal glory: ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed,’ he wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor 4:8-9), going on to say, ‘our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’ (2 Cor 4:17) The only truly Christian response to suffering and persecution is to see our lives as part of the bigger picture God is creating for His glory and to understand that God is always working for the good of those who love Him. (Rom 8:18-28)
The ‘March of Progress’ is the name given to an illustration (also called ‘The Road to Homo Sapiens’) which presents 25 million years of human evolution. It was created for the Early Man volume of the Life Nature Library, published in 1965, and is supposed to show us how mankind evolved from apes and the relentless progress of which man is capable.
The Bible does not subscribe to this view, telling us that man was created perfect and without sin by Almighty God, and that disobedience to God’s command led to his fall and banishment from the Garden of Eden, with the result of separation from God and the arrival of death in the world. (Gen 1-3, Rom 5) God’s plan of salvation, culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was made to reverse this dilemma and restore mankind to eternal life and relationship with God.
The context within which Paul preached to Jews focussed on Old Testament Scriptures: its history, prophecies, and law. But with the pagans in Lystra (Acts 14:8-20), he focussed not on a Scripture they did not know, but on the natural world around them, which they did know and could see. He begged them to turn from the vanity of idolatrous worship to the living and true God. He spoke of the living God as the Creator of heaven, earth and sea, and of everything in them. (Acts 14:15) He reminded them that God does not leave himself with testimony, a point developed later in Romans 1:20. God’s provision of rain from heaven and crops on earth in their seasons meant they already knew something of God’s generous nature, and this became the starting point for Paul’s exploration of the gospel with people who had no prior knowledge of God.
John Stott reminds us, ‘We need to learn from Paul’s flexibility, starting where people are, to find a point of contact with them. With secularised people today this might be what constitutes authentic humanness, the universal quest for freedom, or the longing for personal significance. Wherever we begin, however, we shall end with Jesus Christ, who is himself the good news, and who alone can fulfil all human aspirations.’ (John Stott, ‘Acts’, P 232) The march for progress – to which many people still aspire nowadays – can only truly be fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and any gospel presentation must focus on Christ crucified, a message that will offend and shock today as it did in Paul’s time.
Waiting is a topic which has long fascinated me, probably because I am so bad at it. A few years ago I wrote that ‘waiting isn’t a waste of time’, but so often, it feels like it. I first encountered Ps 130 over thirty years ago, but I have found I am drawn back to it time and time again as it links hope and waiting so strongly.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
3 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.
7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins. (Ps 130)
Today, I read a blog which talked about waiting (based on the account of the healing of the man by the pool who had waited helplessly for 38 years – see John 5.) The writer (Sam Miller) admitted ‘”here is no comprehensive or fully satisfying answer to” the questions we have about waiting, but added,“we can take some heart from the Biblical examples around waiting. Sometimes the waiting is longer, because the preparation for what is to come needs to go deeper. As Guinness famously advertised, ‘Good things come to those who wait.’”
He went on to say, “In this current moment of inhibited activity, there is maybe an invitation and an opportunity to wait. This waiting may involve purification and separation from things that inhibit God giving us what we are asking for and we may find ourselves provoked to greater desperation. These are both signs of preparation.In his journal writings, David, a colourful character of the Old Testament, expresses his frustration with the waiting. ‘How long?’ (Psalm 13) he moans on one occasion. David’s story and experience are very different to our friend in John 5 and yet, he finds himself in the same place of longing, waiting has stripped back and refined his desires: ‘One thing have I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after’ (Psalm 27). That one thing is to encounter God. Despite having tasted most of the good things that the world had to offer him, David finds himself hungry for more of what can only be encountered and experienced in God. Therefore, he sets himself to wait.”
Paul says, “But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Rom 8:24-25) This is a life lesson for us. Waiting for the Lord is part of our Christian journey, and will always be part of that journey, until we are with the Lord face to face. Waiting is never easy; Michael Card says, “it’s the most painful lesson a believing heart has to learn” (‘Maranatha’). Sometimes the painful lessons have to be faced. Sometimes all we can do is wait. But that’s not inaction. That’s not doing nothing. As Eugene Peterson says, “waiting in prayer is a disciplined refusal to act before God acts.” As we wait patiently, we are stripped from our need for action and learn to hope in God.
In Genesis 32:24-25 we read about Jacob and the angel of God wrestling: ‘So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.’ (Gen 32:24-25) After this incident, Jacob was known as ‘Israel’, meaning ‘he struggles with God’. There’s a sense in which prayer is often hard work; it’s like wrestling. Maybe you feel that that’s what you’re doing as you pray, that there is a struggle, a battle, that you’re not necessarily winning. I certainly feel like that right now.
Paul says to the Colossians, ‘Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.’ (Col 4:12) We are indeed in a spiritual battle and it’s not always easy, but we do need to be praying for each other that we may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. Grown up. Confident in God, not in ourselves. The Message version says that Epaphras was ‘tireless’ in prayer. We too need to persevere in prayer – for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, for each other, for our colleagues, for our neighbours, for our government, for our world. We need to wrestle. We mustn’t be complacent or give up now.
But we also need to rest. Prayer is not all about us. It’s not about how strong we are or how faithful we are or how good we are. It’s simply about that connection to God: bringing our petitions and our prayers to Him with thanksgiving and leaving them then with Him in simple trust. I often get so very frustrated as I pray, ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt 6:10) because I don’t always know what God’s will is in specific situations and I don’t always recognise His answers to that prayer. And so I feel that I’m not very good at prayer and I want to give up. But whilst I believe we need to persevere and wrestle, I also believe there’s a part of prayer that is simply about coming to God and resting in His presence. Not asking. Not demanding. Just being there, with Him. I believe this connection to God, which looks so unimpressive perhaps to us is just as important as any of our eloquent prayers or fancy words.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)
As we pray now, let’s be aware of these different aspects of prayer. Sometimes we need to wrestle, like Jacob: ‘I will not let You go unless You bless me!’ (Gen 32:26) But sometimes we just need to rest: ‘Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.’ (Ps 37:7) Sometimes we just have to be still and know that He is God. (Ps 46:10) Sometimes, doing nothing except sitting in God’s presence is just the prayer we need. (‘Rest‘, Aaron Shust)
Stephen spoke tonight on the subject of wisdom. Ps 111:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. For most of us, we associate wisdom with age, experience and understanding, but there is a huge difference between natural wisdom (often based on philosophical, cultural, scientific and architectural achievements) and spiritual wisdom. God’s wisdom can be hidden from the naturally wise and learned and revealed to little children (Luke 10:21); Paul makes it clear that man’s way of doing things is vastly different to God’s, most clearly seen at the cross (1 Cor 1:17-25, 1 Cor 2:6-7).
Man’s wisdom should not be our ultimate destination in the wisdom stakes. We should aspire to God’s wisdom, not earthly wisdom. God’s wisdom will always be for His glory and splendour and those who follow His precepts will have good understanding. Man’s own resourcefulness and self-sufficiency will ultimately lead to failure, but if we apply God’s plans and purposes to our lives, we will grow in spiritual wisdom and understanding.
Garry continued his series on the Sabbath this morning. Last time, he looked at the fact that the Sabbath was a time to change focus, recalibrate and renew our perspective. Today, he commented on the similarity between the Hebrew word for Sabbath ( שַׁבָּת ) and the word for ‘captivate’ or ‘take as bride’ (שׁבה).
The idea of marriage as a metaphor for our relationship with God runs through the Bible (see Is 61:10, Is 62:4-5). Here, we see the idea of adorning ourselves and the notion of delight; God really does delight in us the way that a bridegroom delights in his bride. Marriage is viewed throughout the Bible as a serious covenant (see Ex 20:14, Jer 2:1-2) and adultery therefore is serious – not only in the human realm but is used to describe the breakdown of Israel’s relationship with God (Ezek 16:8, Hosea 1:2, Jer 3:6-8). Jesus used the idea of marriage and preparation for a Jewish wedding to describe how we must be prepared for His return (Matt 25:1-13). In Jewish culture, the bridegroom’s job was to prepare the marriage home and Jesus refers to this in John 14:1-2.
Paul reminds us that human marriage is meant to reflect the close relationship of Christ and the church (Eph 5:25-33) and talks of the church as the bride of Christ. (2 Cor 11:1-2) The image of the church as the bride of Christ is continued in Rev 21:1-2, 9-10 and from this we can see the intimacy and delight of our relationship with God.
We might ask what is the connection, however, between marriage and Sabbath. Married couples share their everyday lives, but there are times when they need to be alone together without distractions. There is a need in marriage for relaxation, for deep conversations, for the pleasure of each other’s company – for more than the merely functional and mundane! All this is reflected in what God wants the Sabbath to be for us – a time when we enjoy being together in unhurried fashion, when there is joy and rest in each other’s company, when we can simply enjoy being with Him. This is at the very heart of our relationship with God.