When we left things last week, Peter just had a remarkable change of heart! He witnessed the Holy Spirit come down into the lives of Gentile believers just as mightily as it had on the disciples and those with them. God told Peter: there is no distinction before my eyes! Do not call common or unclean what I call clean! It was a directive to open the doors of the church to those outside the Jewish culture. A truly radical idea.
Peter’s heart and vision were changed and now he had to go report what happened to the church leaders in Jerusalem. But not everyone shared his excitement.
Faith or Works?
Repeatedly in the New Testament we see this struggle between Jews who believed and yet clung to the outward signs of faith, and the reality that faith in God through Jesus is largely a matter of the heart.
In the Jewish culture you were circumcised because of your faith. You made atonement for your sins by sacrificing a dove, lamb, etc. at the temple. You went through a physical cleansing when you defiled yourself through any number of actions. Physical action validated your faith.
Some of this was handed down by God through the laws and commandments he gave Moses. Other items were added by the religious leaders of the day. For some, the action had become more important than the heart. When Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees whitewashed tombs in Matthew 23, this was attitude he was referring to. It’s going through the actions of faith. It’s looking pious and showing up to be seen. Inside hearts are cold, thoughts are far from God, and one is full of greed and self-indulgence.
It is having actions of faith without the heart.
The discussion in Acts 11 centers around whether someone had to become Jewish to become a Christian. Some believed that a person needed to be adopted into God’s chosen people to then believe in Jesus. Others felt that the road to Christ was through belief alone and that faith was open to everyone regardless of religion, nationality, or race.
Peter gives his testimony of what happened in Acts 10. It is interesting that Luke did not just say, “Peter told them what happened to Joppa.” Instead he gives you Peter’s testimony. We will see this deliberate recounting many times in Acts. Peter ends his testimony by saying: And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?
Don’t overlook the significance of that verse. Peter was with Jesus. He walked with him for three years. He saw every miracle, heard every sermon, witnessed every encounter. He knew Jesus intimately. He had been affirmed by Jesus. He had been rebuked by Him. He got out of the boat for him and, often, let his excitement get in the way. This statement shows remarkable growth from the Peter we read about in the gospels. This is a man with his vision and heart where they need to be.
At that time, someone who wanted to join the Jewish faith was baptized. They left their old life in the water and came back up a member of the faith. But until Jesus it had been a symbolic rebirth. The water itself held no power. The action and intention behind it gave it meaning and life.
Gift of the Holy Spirit
To be baptized with the Holy Spirit is to have something added to your life. Before we believe, we might know about God, might think Jesus is pretty cool. We might try to be a good person, or love those around us. But we were still missing something. By faith – by surrender and saying, “not my will but Yours, Lord over my life!” we receive something new. We receive the Holy Spirit.
That gift does not come because we do something physical (like the act of circumcision) but because we believe. It is a gift freely given to all who surrender to God.
After hearing Peter’s words the council glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” through faith alone.
Paul’s Second Journey
The next few chapters deal with Paul’s second journey. He and Barnabas went to eight locations to encourage believers, tell people about Jesus, and confront false teaching in the church.
There are several instances of retaliation and persecution against members of the church:
- Herod murdered James and arrested Peter
- Paul and Barnabas were driven out of Antioch
- Paul and Barnabas fled Iconium after learning people planned to stone them
- Some from Antioch and Iconium followed Paul and Barnabas to Lystra and stoned Paul
Why would Paul and Barnabas keep going in the face of all this resistance? Why would Paul agree to keep going after almost being stoned to death? People would understand if he wanted to return to Jerusalem and live a normal life, sending money to the churches in the areas they went to. Maybe they could back to where it was safer and preach there.
The simple reality is that the message was too important to let the enemy’s schemes derail them.
That simple sentence humbles me. I defeat myself with ideas of pushback. There are so many things I do not do because I fear what people will say or think or how they will respond. I am petrified of being known as the crazy Jesus lady. It leads me to pull back from people. I don’t speak when I should. I don’t engage because I am not “prepared.”
I don’t want to live small and self-defeated. And yet I do.
I want to believe I would have taken in someone like Cornelius or Saul. And when people asked why, I want to believe I would have a confident answer: God told me to!
Yet, fear keeps me from sending text messages. I alter stories to “tone down the Jesus parts.” I shrink back when I should lean in. I might have been able to endure having to flee because people did not get it. That is on them and I will brush my sandals off at the city line.
But to watch a friend die. To only be saved from jail because the Lord intervened, literally! To be attacked by an angry mob who only left because they thought they’d killed me. To do that…
Bravery in Faith
This idea of bravery in faith keeps coming up. To be a risk taker for the Lord. To risk love, compassion, truth, life with the knowledge that if God is with me – man cannot stop me. That is a whole other level of faith.
It is easy idolize Paul. We wonder how he had such a rich faith. We read his words and wonder how he knew the Lord that well. We hold up his courage and commitment, which have an almost impossible quality to them.
In the Gospels we read how Jesus spent time with the Lord. He would find a quiet place, retreat by himself, and get with his Father. It was a regular practice. Things only worked because He got with God in quiet, intentional time.
We know Paul knew the word. From childhood he was memorizing parts of scripture. It was engrained into him. He sat at the feet of one of the best spiritual leaders of the time. He knew the Word. He knew the law. He lived and worshipped both.
We are not told that Paul spent time in prayer with God. But it is impossible he did not. To have that kind of intimacy with God requires spending time in His presence.
It is one thing to know about God: facts, be able to quote scripture, to show up on Sundays.
It is quite another to know the living God. To find the secret place where you abide. To come to the place of surrender and quiet so that your heart – the place the Holy Spirit lives and can overtake if you let him – connects back to the Lord and intimacy happens.
Jesus did not know the Lord intimately because he was God’s Son. Jesus knew the Lord intimately because He made it a priority to meet with God.
I am a head person, 100%. I am a 5 on the enneagram. I struggle to get what I know into my heart. I can worship in surrender. I am deeply moved by my faith and what God does. But do I know the Lord – do I know His heart, his character? Do I know him like I know my husband – what makes him laugh, brings him joy, makes him ache.
And do I know it from facts or because I have lived it with him?
I will get into this more on Thursday, but I think the biggest difference between Mother Theresa (for example) and most of us is our ability to get close to the heart of the Father and live out of that.
Paul was able to do that. It was why he could press in after people wanted to kill him. He would ultimately be sent to jail for years on false accusations. Those years are also when he wrote some of his most encouraging and real letters.
Lord, where is fear holding me back? Where am I living small? Not in my strength, but surrender Lord. Not my efforts but through knowing You. Take away the lies of not enough, disqualification, of rejection. This is not an action that starts with me, but comes by getting small and being with You. Help me make time to be with You.
Where are you living small? Where is fear holding you back? What do you sense God is asking you to do that you are not? What lies are you holding onto? What do you need to bring before the Lord and let Him cover you in His grace? Where are you striving an instead need to let God take the lead (even if that mans stepping back or stopping)?
Keep Up with the Reading:
- March 11 – 17: Acts 15 – 19
- March 18 – 24: Acts 20 – 23 (March 24 no reading)
- March 25 – 31: Acts 24 – 28