Onwards! – Acts 8. RBT Notes, 9th March

The true church is never a dull place! As Luke’s account of the growth of the church gathers pace, this chapter shows us a whole range of experiences which we encounter as the Gospel is confronting people. It’s rarely comfortable, but the signs of Gospel life are abundant.
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Persecution and Upheaval
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Satan rages against the true church. One good man (Stephen) is put to death, and many more will follow. Saul is the instigator of house searches and arrests (v.3), but the Gospel must run, even to the ends of the earth. Be encouraged – persecution, devastating though it often is, is sometimes God’s most effective mission strategy. His people must go, and they must tell.
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Spiritual Breakthrough
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Samaria had many centuries of thinly-veiled paganism gripping the lives of its people. What a perfect place for Philip to take the Gospel to, then. And no wonder Satan comes roaring and shrieking out of his subjects as the power of Jesus comes to them (v.7). What dark places are you being called to today? What Gospel power might God want to unleash there?
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False Conversion
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News of incredible things gets back to the apostles in Jerusalem. God has been powerfully at work there, and people been confronted by power in Jesus’s name; but have they really embraced Jesus as Saviour? This appears to be the apostles’ question. Look at vv.15-16: a person without the Spirit of Jesus is no convert to Jesus. These people clearly hadn’t received the full Gospel, as repenting of our sins doesn’t bring salvation, but we need faith in Jesus, too. So the apostles minister to them, they believe the Gospel, and receive the Holy Spirit (v.17).
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Empire-Building
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Where God is at work, so often people want to lay claim to God’s power, but without yielding to it themselves. Simon here clearly hasn’t left his pagan worldview – paganism is people like us who want to use God / our gods to get what we want – and tries to buy the Holy Spirit’s power (vv.18-19). This is not misguided zeal, but a hellish desire to build his own empire through his money and God’s Spirit. Not so different, perhaps, from some so-called ministries today, and their outcome will be no different from Simon’s (vv.20-24).
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Encounters with Jesus
After a proud pagan, we meet a man whose heart God has been evidently working in. Wealth and status don’t satisfy him, he is looking for life in the Scriptures. When this official meets Philip (who is led by the Spirit to this encounter, vv.26, 29), Philip has the joy of leading this man through the Scriptures and to the very Saviour they speak of (vv.30-35). Can you think of a more glorious Saviour, who prepares, seeks out, and then saves the most unlikely people; or a calling more glorious, than that of leading His chosen ones to eternal life through repentance and faith?
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A Prayer to Pray
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Lord God, give me a deepening passion for Your church. Help me not to shrink back from her problems and mistakes, but give me an appetite to see her strengthened and growing, whatever the cost. Amen.
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Speaking for the Gospel – Acts 7. RBT Notes, 8th March

Wouldn’t you just rather keep your head down? You’re a busy person, and you’ve got a fruitful ministry at church: why not just keep pressing on, and sharing the Gospel with those who want to hear it? Isn’t the lions’ den a place for, well, lions?

God raises up men and women who refuse to take the easy path. Take Stephen, a man full of His Spirit. Hauled up before the authorities, he doesn’t give the easy answers so that he can get back to church and a quiet life; instead, he gives the truth of the Gospel, and in doing so he lays down his life.

What he tells the court is a brilliant and convicting exposé of the hearts of Old Testament Israel through the ages. We don’t expect this sort of defence, but its point is to show, as Stephen says at its climax (vv.51-53), that those who claim to be God’s people have always resisted God’s Spirit and His appointed leaders, just as they are now resisting the reign of His Christ. Here are the key notes:

Abraham: a wanderer, who was told that his descendants would be ill-treated.

Joseph: abused by his own brothers, and buried in Egypt along with them.

Moses: who cheated death as a baby, and later escaped arrest in Egypt. Commissioned by God to return and lead out his countrymen, he himself was rejected by them in the desert.

And then God Himself: despite all He did for His people, He was rejected. And so He “turned away” from them. (v.42). Even when God in His mercy caused His people to flourish again under Solomon’s reign, and the Temple was built, God would not be contained in that House.
What an indictment. Stephen is showing that, despite all of God’s faithfulness, God’s people have always been prone to the exact opposite. Now as he says, not content with killing God’s prophets, they are guilty of the blood of God’s Son (vv.51-53). They have no reason to be proud, but every reason to be broken-hearted before God.

But they’re not. What follows is blind fury (vv.54-8.1). Maybe Stephen always knew it was coming. Certainly, he’s steadfast in his faith in his Glorious Master. Let the world kill him, it can never kill God’s truth.

We need grace for our feeble hearts. We need the power to stand firm, and to speak up. Who knows what Saul is living in our streets, or sitting at a desk in our workplace? Who knows how God can use your courageous discipleship – however costly to you – as a saving witness to life in Christ?

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord Jesus, I so often want You, without Your way. I want a crown of self-fulfilment in this life far more than I want the crowning of Your words in heaven, “well done, good and faithful servant”. Lord Jesus, receive my cowardly spirit, and give me the bold fullness of your Spirit. Amen.

 

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Faithful, and Fearless – Acts 4. RBT Notes, 4th March

The life of the authentic church is marked by four things: preaching, persecution, prayer and practical generosity. Our chapter today is a snapshot of  life in the Spirit, with lessons for all believers.

FearlessJesus is a controversy. If we think otherwise, we’re either not thinking about the real Jesus, or we’re not living the real Christian life; or probably both. The Book of Acts plunges us back into the controversy which is Jesus, and urges us to live for Him with a wise boldness.

Peter and John must have known that healing and preaching in Jesus’ name would mean persecution for them for the sake of Jesus’ name. So when the crowds came running, they must have known that trouble was racing to meet them, too. And it did. They were put in jail for their troubles – though five thousand men know the loosening of the chains of sin (vv.1-4).

The religious leaders know exactly what the Apostles were doing, so more fool them when they have to listen to Peter’s Spirit-filled proclamation of Jesus (vv.5-7). He tells them what they must have been dreading to hear, that the power of Jesus Christ healed this man, and that He, though rejected by them, is God’s only appointed Saviour (vv.8-12).

Just think about the courage of Peter and John. In a city which idolised religious learning, these “unschooled, ordinary men” (v.13) spoke up, and spoke into the faces of men who had crucified their Lord, and who hated their message. The facts, though, silenced them (v.14). And no threats or commands can silence the church and her message: “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (v.20).

After the Gospel is preached, the believers now pray: they are joyfully convinced that their Jesus is Lord, and realistic that the world will rage against Him – and none of that without the Sovereign will of God (vv.24-28). Now they pray for God’s power, for their ministry to be emboldened, and for grace to save lost people in Jesus’ Name (vv.29-30). And where prayers like that are prayed, God will be at work (v.31).

God will be at work within the true church, too. As the Gospel brings more converts, so the Gospel unlocks believing hearts in acts of incredible generosity (vv.32-37). As Christians, we want to lay our lives before the cross, to share all that we are and all that we have in true service of the Gospel. He only is worthy of all.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Search me, O God, and know my heart. Give me that thrilled, captivated joy in knowing that Jesus is Lord. Give me boldness, boldness to speak, to pray, to risk and to sacrifice. Shake what I hold dear, that I may hold Jesus most dearly of all. Amen.

The Reckoning – Revelation 17. RBT Notes, 22nd February

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Now we meet the prostitute. This is a familiar Old Testament motif, used to show the faithlessness of God’s Bride, His covenant people. John isn’t referring to the true Church, but to those who profess to belong to God but who are faithless to Him. The same chapter spells out that the prostitute is a city. She is figuratively called Babylon (v.5), but her identity is not a secret – John identifies her as “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (v.18). She is Jerusalem. She has forfeited her Husband, the Lord God, and united herself to raw, godless power – Rome. She has become a willing captive of the Beast, and has draped herself with the finery Rome offers (vv.3-4). She has stopped loving God, and now serves Satan, as she persecutes the church.
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People don’t want to see this meaning in these verses today, any more than John did, so the angel spells out that it really is these two cities who are working together to destroy the church (vv.6-14). But as John is shown, the Beast will turn on the harlot (v.16). And he did. Rome’s patience with Jerusalem ran out, as Jesus foretold, and in AD70 she was destroyed by the Romans.
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False religion and secular power always has and always will persecute God’s servants. The worst thing we can do with persecution is to be surprised about it. The next worse thing we can do is to despair in face of it. God’s judgement is coming on all persecutors, whether it comes quickly, slowly, or at the end of the age. We trust Him, and we remember to pray for our enemies.
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A Prayer to Pray
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Lord God, who will not fear You, and bring Your glory? Teach my heart to trust in Your justice when I see evil around me. Keep me from both despair and fear, and fix me upon Your promises in Christ. Amen.

All God’s Enemies – Revelation 13. RBT Notes, 17th February

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Ah, the thirteenth chapter of Revelation. Hunting-ground for conspiracy-theorists, doomsday prophets, anti-capitalists/communists/European Unionists/Catholics, and on and on. And on. With so much mishandling of this chapter, it’s no wonder that the rest of us want to shrink back from the details, and just try to content ourselves with general meanings.

That would be fine, if John wanted us to do that. But in v.18 he tells us he has a different intention. He tells us the “number” of the Beast. This number is the total of the numerical value of the letters which spell a person’s name. In this case, 666 is the value of the letters of the name Nero Caesar, the then-current Emperor. Coincidence, wild guess, or John’s exact purpose?

Rome is the ultimate beast. She comes from over the seas, and is represented with the symbols of her provinces and rulers (v.1). She has her power from Satan (v.2). And, because all people want power – if only the power to be able to enjoy a quiet life – they prostrate themselves to her demands (vv.3-.4). Change the name of the empire – your favourite sports or technology brand, a sports team, a bank, or an ideology, and this chapter reminds us that, wherever there is power, there are slavish followers (vv.4,8). We are all worshippers. Only the Last Day will truly show if we worship the beast, or the One who has power over the beast.

Tyrants come and go. And come again. We’ll leave the details (they all have their explanations), but we take hold of the lessons: “anyone who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and imposters will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3.12-13). There is no life in running scared, or bowing down to the beast of power and popularity. Life is found as we follow the Lamb. The price for loyalty may be the loss of freedom, or even life, but the rewards are multiplied through eternity.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I am a coward. I’ll fight for my rights, but You call me to lay them down, and to fight the good fight of faith. Rescue me from myself, and my fears, and fill me with courage to follow the Lord Jesus. Amen.

Dragon Slayer – Revelation 12. RBT Notes, 16th February

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Where there’s authority, there’s almost always opposition. Where Jesus rules, there is resistance. John’s vision in ch.12 reminds us of this. The woman in v.1 is the mother of the promised rescuer. Her son is that rescuer, the One who will inherit all authority, as Psalm 2 teaches (v.5, cf Ps.2.7-9). Satan, though, rages against the Christ and His Church. Here he is dressed as the beast of Rome – the symbols of the seven heads and horns and ten crowns would be instantly recognisable to John’s first readers. John’s message to them is a warning: the Devil stalks in the power of Rome, and will not tolerate the Christ and His followers who challenge his power.

How bad will that hatred get? Bad enough for some believers to die for their love for Jesus (v.11). Notice that, even though they appear to have lost, the martyrs have actually “overcome” the evil one. They had a love which is deeper than love for their own lives. Now they live forever with their Lord in heaven.

For now, the fight goes on. Vv.7-9 take us back to the battle of Satan and his angels before creation. The condemnation he received then is one he refuses to accept. He fights on, using whatever powers and empires he can as he opposes God and His Christ (vv.12). God will protect His own, though. The God who bore His own on eagle’s wings through the desert long ago is still caring for His own (v.14). The Devil will fight against the church right until Christ comes to save and judge (v.17), but God will protect His own. And, as the Scrupture days, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet”‭‭ (Ro.16.20).

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord Jesus, thankyou that I am so safe in Your hands. Please make me aware of the Devil’s schemes, and teach me to wear my spiritual armour against his attacks. May I see the victory of Your grace day by day as I fight at Your side. Amen.