Daily Devotionals

Teaching an Old Magician New Tricks | Acts 8.14-25

Acts 8.14-25

Yesterday we heard about Philip’s journey into Samaria where he preached, healed many and cast out unclean spirits. Even Simon, the Great Magician, was amazed by what Philip was doing.

In verse 14, the news of this remarkably successful mission trip reaches the apostles in Jerusalem. Peter and John decide to come and see what’s been going on. When they arrive, they see that the Samaritans have not yet received the Holy Spirit, so they lay their hands on them and pray for them. 

But why hadn’t the Samaritan believers already received the Holy Spirit? They had believed and been baptised – why the delay? Were stocks running low? Was next day delivery not available? 

In order to understand, we need to get a bigger picture of the culture of the day. You see, Samaritans were racially mixed, partly Jewish and partly Gentile in ancestry, so there was much animosity, even hatred, between them and the Jews. Remember the parable of the good Samaritan? Well, the punchline is in the title, the good Samaritan. Such a person didn’t exist in the eyes of the Jews of the day. And when Jesus meets the woman at the well in John 4 she says: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” John explains, ‘(Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans).’

Under the force of this prevailing prejudice, the start-up Samaritan church was at risk either of being treated as second class members of the new covenant or of establishing itself in isolation and separation from the primarily Jewish church back in Jerusalem. So it seems that God, in his sovereign wisdom, temporarily withheld the giving of the Spirit until Peter and John could come to Samaria. In their full apostolic authority and with positions of leadership in the Jerusalem church, they prayed for the Samaritans and witnessed them receiving the Holy Spirit. There was no doubt and no room for argument: the Samaritan believers were full members of the new covenant in Christ, full recipients of the same salvation and the same Spirit. There is no prejudice in the eyes of God – the gospel is not stopped by racial, cultural or social boundaries. Let there be none in our eyes either.

Yesterday we were also introduced to Simon. He seemed to have started out well, he was baptised and stuck with Philip as he continued preaching and performing signs and wonders. But it seems that where this gospel seed was planted, weeds grew up to smother it. 

Having seen Peter and John’s ministry to the Samaritans, Simon wants in, but now he wants in for the wrong reasons and in completely the wrong way. 

He offers money to the apostles in exchange for the Holy Spirit’s power. He wants to buy the gift of God, a business investment for his own personal gain. Whereas once Simon had been known in Samaria as ‘the power of God that is called Great’, now he seeks the true God’s power, but still with his own greatness in mind.   

With his heart set on his own greatness, Simon can have no part or share in the Spirit.

‘Magician tries to buy the Spirit to spice up his career.’ Not my problem, we think. I’d be surprised if it was. But ‘heart set on my own greatness’, that is often my problem. Simon is looking to use the gifts of God for his own gain and renown. Do we do the same? Do we turn roles within church or gifts with which we serve into tools by which we can gain respect, admiration and approval. Do we long for spiritual experiences, not to build up the body of Christ but to be outstanding and impressive amongst others? Do we try and buy God’s favour and blessing with our behaviour so that he’ll give us what we want? I know I do all of these sometimes.

At Peter’s rebuke, Simon appears to repent – “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.” We don’t hear anything more of Simon in the NT, so we don’t know the rest of his story. This may have been as short-lived as his initial profession of faith, or it may have been deep and genuine repentance.

If it was genuine, we can be sure that the Lord heard and graciously responded. We can be sure he will do so for us too. Isaiah 55 invites all to come and taste the generous provision of God, ‘without money and without price.’ The gospel freely offered, not for sale. Perhaps Simon now understood this, and perhaps he found the joy of forgiveness in the verses which follow:

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Isaiah 55.6-7

Let’s pray:

Father, thank you that your gospel stretches across borders and boundaries. Thank you that it has crossed the boundary of our hard hearts and thank you for the gift of the Spirit, who transforms them to become more like yours. Please help us not to treat your gifts as opportunities for our selfish gain, please forgive us when we do. Thank you for your compassion and the abundance of your grace for those who turn and trust in you. In Jesus’ precious name,

What Does Great Look Like? | Acts 8.9-13

Acts 8.9-13

I wonder how often you compare yourself to someone else? 

Not often? Sometimes? Daily? Perhaps many times a day?

We all know that comparisons are a bad idea – and yet somehow we all do it. Perhaps it’s a way of working out our identity? 

  • If I’m like them then… dot-dot-dot
  • If I’m better at this than they are then… 
  • I’m rubbish at this in comparison to them so…

Well, today’s verses are the first half of a story all about comparisons, that of Simon the magician and the Disciples – in this case Philip who had been appointed a deacon in chapter 6. 

After the murder of Stephen and outbreak of violent persecution against the early church many fled Saul and his thugs, or ‘were scattered’ – and Philip goes to a city in Samaria. Not to hide and keep his head down, but to tell them about Jesus. If you remember from the woman at the well in John 4 there were Samaritans who had already come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, but here Philip is telling these non-Jewish people the gospel, and accompanying it by healings, deliverances and others signs and wonders. 

Simon the Samaritan magician was a big cheese in that city and because of his powers people listened to what he had to say. He had advertised himself as ‘someone great’ and for a long time had amazed and impressed the people. Luke doesn’t tell us how Simon got these powers, or what he used them for – that apparently doesn’t matter. What matters is that he was the ‘big dog’ spiritually in those parts. 

That is until Philip showed up. And he is offering something far more profound. Yes there were signs and wonders, hope for the disabled, the sick, the oppressed – but he was also proclaiming the good news of God’s upside down kingdom; where the poor and weak are honoured, where the lost and alone are welcomed home, where the leaders serve and the least given value and dignity. And all in the name of Jesus. 

Philip’s power is from the Holy Spirit and he is using it to bless others, to transform their lives, to offer not just tricks and magic, which gain him a reputation and status, but to offer eternal hope and reconciliation with God. 

And the people want that. They know good news when they hear it, and the signs and wonders they see give his words authority. Even Simon wants that hope, that reconciliation with God. He knows when he’s outmatched, in both power and wisdom! 

Of course we hear more about his discipleship journey and misunderstanding of how that power works in the coming verses, but for now it’s good to recognise that Simon had the humility to know that the power he had was nothing compared to the power of God’s Spirit demonstrated by Philip. 

Simon compared his own life, his own reputation and wisdom with what he saw and knew that he was lacking something. 

Many people read this story – especially the coming verses – as Simon being on a power grab, trying to pay the Apostles for the Spirit and their authority, and getting a firm rebuke from Peter. But I think that might be doing him a disservice. Here is a man who doesn’t try to shut Philip down, who doesn’t criticise or undermine his message. Here is a man who is drawn to the kingdom, drawn to Jesus, who understood something of spiritual power and knew it when he saw it. 

Here is a man who stays with Philip, who wants to learn who even gets baptised. 

It makes me reflect on who there is around us, even those with power and status, who might be looking for something more. Who might be drawn to the Kingdom – and the King. Who we might offer to pray for, to demonstrate the power and love of God to? It is good and right that we reach out to help the poor and vulnerable, we know that – many of us try to do it. But perhaps there are others around us. 

  • Our senior colleagues or boss? 
  • Wealthy family members who seem to need nothing? 
  • Community leaders, police officers, politicians, those carrying weight and looked to for wisdom and answers. 

We can feel that we are less than them in the comparison game – but perhaps like Simon, they are looking for more. Looking for a kingdom of hope – and a King to follow. Perhaps they’ve realised that their wisdom isn’t enough for the responsibilities they face, for the pressures others put on them? Perhaps your being up front and brave about your faith in Jesus, offering to pray with them – or for them, might be just what they are in need of? 

Words and wonders, the testimony of his own life – even in the face of persecution made Philip’s message incredibly powerful, so much so that many believed – even the most unlikely. Human nature hasn’t changed, nor has the gospel. Let’s take encouragement and follow Philip’s example, you just never know who might meet Jesus as we do! 

Let us pray: 

Lord Jesus we thank you that you reached down to the poor and vulnerable but also those who, though rich and powerful, were lost and lonely. We ask that you would give us eyes to see all those around us that are in need of you and that you would give us the wisdom to speak the courage to pray and the power of your Spirit to show them what a life transformed could look like. That the weight doesn’t have to be on their shoulders because you are willing to take it. Show us how to love those who need it. We ask it in your name, Amen. 

I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again | Acts 8.1-3

Acts 8.1-3

It’s hard to see what God is doing sometimes isn’t it? Particularly when we are surrounded with disappointments and setbacks, it is easy for us to focus our attention on these and forget to think about where God is and what He’s up to.

This was the early church. Having already experienced persecution in the shape of arrests (Acts 4:1-3) and beatings (Acts 5:40), Stephen’s Martyrdom in Acts 7 now marks a new level of persecution in chapter 8.

For the followers of Jesus, a price is put on their heads as they are forced and hunted into the surrounding countryside, dragged out of their homes and taken to prison. The Greek conveys a brutal, sadistic cruelty here. At the forefront of this persecution is a young man called Saul. A man dedicated to eradicating the false teaching that he believes the Apostles are teaching. “Jesus is the Messiah” they preach. “He rose from the dead. Come, follow Him!”

But to Saul this is nonsense. He stood at the front of the company that stoned Stephen and now here he is again, attempting to destroy the church. But will he succeed? Or will God once again have the final say?

We see throughout the Book of Acts that setbacks are not final for the people of God. God has already and will continue to use setbacks to advance His Kingdom. The apostles hold a special responsibility to the flock in Jerusalem and as a result remain there under intense persecution. Many other followers of Christ are scattered into Judea & Samaria. In the scattering, the commission by Jesus in Acts 1:8 is being fulfilled. Don’t just stay in Jerusalem, go into Judea and Samaria too (and eventually all nations). This is evidence that God is still in control and the movement of the Gospel cannot be thwarted. The commission is fulfilled as a result of persecution. 

It is often so difficult to see the silver lining. But God knows exactly what He is doing. The scattering of the early church resulted in the scattering of the Gospel seeds. The devil’s plan of smothering the Gospel had the opposite intended effect. An intention to smother only led to more spreading.

In China, 1949, the communists defeated the National party of China to obtain power. China Inland Mission (CIM) had many missionaries in China at this point. 637 of them were sent out of China. A distaster, right? To us, most certainly. But the events that unfolded after this were nothing short of wonderful. Within four years 286 of them had been redeployed in South-East Asia and Japan. In China, even under intense persecution, the Chinese church of Christ continued to multiply. It is estimated that the Church in China has grown today by 45%.

Folks, we know and serve a God that is sovereign in power, rich in wisdom & abundantly just. Trust Him. He knows, He sees & He will do what is right.

Let’s pray.

Father, help us to trust you even when everything around us seems to be breaking. You are in control. We believe that and we hold to that truth today. In Jesus’ name.

Walking in His Footsteps | Acts 6.8-15, 7.54-60

Acts 6.8-15, 7.54-60

The early chapters of Acts are filled to bursting with the extraordinary and compelling experiences of the early church. As previous devotionals have explored, there are sermons, healings, miracles, arrests, judgement, even some church admin. And in amongst that little lot, thousands upon thousands of people coming to put their faith in Jesus. As we hit chapters 6 and 7, the action slows slightly and we take a longer look at one particular person – Stephen.

As you’ll have heard yesterday, Stephen was one of the seven men chosen to oversee the daily distribution of food. This was in order that the twelve disciples might be able to devote their time to teaching the word of God rather than waiting on tables. The other six men – Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus – don’t appear again in scripture. We don’t hear of their behaviour, their accomplishments or their walks with God. Stephen, on the other hand, has two chapters devoted to his story. And what a story it is!

We’re told that Stephen was a godly man. He was full of faith, grace and power and he did great signs and wonders amongst the people. He clearly spoke openly of Jesus because his words led to him being dragged before the council, being falsely testified against and, ultimately, being stoned to death. Perhaps not quite what was in the ‘waiting on tables’ job description.

What struck me in reading this passage was how incredibly familiar it all felt. An innocent man speaking boldly of God’s salvation plan yet being unfairly treated by people who should have known better, false witnesses stirred up, a brutal execution and such grace and forgiveness in the face of it all. How neatly Stephen’s footsteps sit in the path walked by Jesus. He refuses to compromise – giving a stonking sermon that tracks the history of the Jewish people before giving a scathing rebuke to his stiff-necked hearers – and he remains calm in the face of certain death. He sees into heaven, with his Lord and Saviour returning his gaze, and then gives his spirit to Jesus, dying with forgiveness on his lips. 

I wonder if when Stephen accepted the role assigned to him by the disciples, he saw it playing out like this? Would he have imagined that his faithful obedience in word and deed would lead to his becoming the first Christian martyr, that this would have led to the scattering of the apostles and therefore the wider spread of the Gospel. Could he have imagined that the young man who was watching the stoning, , at that time called Saul, would be fired up to persecute the church more violently and that this would lead to an encounter with Jesus, a dramatic conversion and a life lived in service of the Gospel as the apostle Paul? Would he have believed that 2000 years later, we would be reading of his sacrifice?

It’s so easy, isn’t it, to think that our lives are insignificant. Whether we work for a church or a secular organisation or in another sphere altogether – in the home, as a student, the list is endless – we can fall into the trap of thinking that our actions are too small to be important. The decisions I make, the way I choose to live, the actions I take, the conversations I have: do any of these really matter? Today’s passage gives us a resounding yes. Regardless of where and how we are called to serve God, like Stephen, we can be sure that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Mercifully, it’s unlikely that our stories will have the same conclusion as Stephen’s, but we are called to emulate him as he emulates Christ – speaking boldly of the Gospel, loving those who persecute us and choosing, determining, to lift our eyes to the one who loves us, confident that when our final day comes, he will be ready to receive our spirit. 

So, this week, when it feels like we’re a negligible dot on the surface of the big wide world, let’s strive to remember that God chooses to use dots like us. Let’s trust that we play a crucial part in God’s work and that He will empower us to walk faithfully in the footsteps of our Lord and Saviour.

Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, thank you that however insignificant we may feel, we hold great significance in your eyes. Thank you for loving us and for involving us in your story. May we serve you faithfully and passionately in the power of your Spirit and give us the strength and grace to live and speak as Jesus would. In His holy name,

To Serve or Not to Serve… That is the Question | Acts 6.1-7

Acts 6.1-7

What’s your role in your church or in your community? What gift(s) has the Holy Spirit given you to serve the Kingdom? When you think about “doing something for the Lord”, what’s your go-to? What excites you, what gets you passionate?

For me it’s leading sung worship, strumming my guitar and belting out songs of praise at the top of my lungs. I love inviting others to join me, pointing them to Jesus, encouraging them in deeper adoration of the Lord. It’s more joy than chore, and it’s such a privilege to serve God and my brothers and sisters in this way. But if you asked me to, say, stack chairs on a Sunday… I mean, I’ll do it, sure… but I’d need to muster more energy and choose to do it joyfully.

Or maybe you’re an evangelist! You feel the buzz of adrenaline (and Holy Spirit) when you share with your family or friends or even strangers on the street about Jesus and how He’s changed your life, and how He can change theirs too. But then you don’t necessarily feel that same excitement when asked to do a grocery shop for some vulnerable neighbours.

In our passage today, we find the early Church dealing with a dilemma: the Greek Jews find that ‘their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food’ (v.1) especially compared to the Hebrew Jews. Now up to this point the twelve apostles have not ceased ‘to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah’ (5.42). Because their time was taken up with prayer and ‘serving the word’ (v.4), they insist the need to continue dedicating their time to do that. They say in verse 2: ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.’

I don’t know about you, but when I read that, I can’t help but hear it in a condescending tone. Maybe that’s because I’ve witnessed this very unfortunate attitude from Christians who think certain things are beneath them. Now, I don’t think the apostles meant it in that way at all. As their immediate (re)action shows, the distribution of food was not a minor, trivial or less important matter. In fact, it was so important they needed to select seven new leaders to ensure this injustice would be righted! It was not an either/or matter, but a both/and, i.e. we need to serve the word and take care of widows.

I’m struck by the three characteristics of the appointed seven: good standing, full of the Spirit, full of wisdom. They didn’t just choose some random person to settle some “throwaway” job. They needed to be respected by their community, they needed Holy Spirit just as much as the apostles, and they needed divine wisdom to do right by God and their brothers and sisters. Another way to describe ‘to wait on tables’ (v.2) is ‘to keep accounts’ – that just proves the wonderful, important gift of administration! No task is too lowly; every task is just as important when in service of God.

Isaiah 1.16-17 says: ‘Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’ God throughout the Bible has always been a God of justice. Many of His appointed prophets condemned Israel for their neglect of the marginalised, vulnerable and defenceless – particularly orphans and widows. The early Church recognised they weren’t reflecting God’s heart and living it out, and sought to correct that.

How has God called you to serve? What are some things that are part of God’s heart that perhaps you’ve neglected, whether intentionally or unintentionally?

Let’s pray.

Lord, thank You that You have given each one of us gifts of Your Spirit to serve Your Church and Kingdom in our world. Help us to play our part wherever we’ve been placed and whatever we’ve been tasked to do. Forgive us when we neglect tasks or people because of our unawareness, ignorance or even indifference. Thank You for making us one body of Christ with many members, all of us important. Teach us to be more selfless and less selfish. Help us reflect Your heart for the marginalised and oppressed more and more in our lives. In Jesus’ name,

A Sympathetic Outsider | Acts 5.33-42

Acts 5.33-42

Winston Churchill was, by his own admission, not a Christian man. At Harrow School he attended three services every Sunday, besides morning and evening prayers throughout the week. He later remarked: ‘All this was very good. I accumulated in those years so fine a surplus in the Bank of Observance that I have been drawing confidently upon it ever since.’ After several brushes with death he had a strong belief in Providence but not in Christ, despite being sympathetic to the church. He was amused to have appointed more bishops than any believers that he knew and once famously remarked ‘I could hardly be called a pillar of the Church, I am more in the nature of a buttress, for I support it from the outside.’

That the cause of the gospel has benefitted down the centuries from those have treated believers and the church sympathetically from the outside is obvious. It is a gift of God’s providence and a matter of thanksgiving. This should not surprise us as readers of the Hebrew scriptures. If God can use even the Babylonians as His servant to warn and judge his people how much appropriate that a ruler like Cyrus, who returns the exiles to their land, be praised as God’s servant.

The sympathetic treatment of the early believers by outsiders, even when they do not embrace their message, is a major theme of Acts. In the second century Christian apologetics became a major theological enterprise. It was aimed not just at converting people to Christ if they will allow their hearts to be opened to the gospel. Apologetics also intended to protect the church’s freedom to proclaim the gospel by getting those in authority to acknowledge the healthiness of her faith even if they do not themselves adopt it. For the early Christians this was not about gaining political power or influence, it was the honest articulation of their faith to those who were afraid of what did not understand. It was a matter of survival and of winning a social space to live and speak for Christ in a hostile world.

This principle goes back to Acts and the incident that we heard today. What is surprising here is not the sympathy with which Christians are treated – throughout Acts a long list of Roman provincial governors and their underlings treat the early believers with remarkable sympathy. What is surprising is that the sympathiser is an influential Jew – the respected Pharisaic teacher called Gamaliel. Peter has defied the Jewish authorities by continuing to preach Jesus despite being bound over not to do so – a nice and important counterpoint to what Paul teaches about accepting civic authority in Romans 13. For Peter it’s not an even ethical dilemma – forced to choose between obedience to human authority and God, there is no choice at all, a point made in both chapter 4 and chapter 5 of Acts.

Gamaliel does not defend the apostles on the basis of some general principle of live and let live. The principle that success of a religious movement can be used to judge it truthfulness is so obviously nonsense that that’s not it either. Gamaliel simply gave some examples of recent movements that seemed popular at the time but eventually dispersed. The criterion by which to judge a movement is not success or popularity but it’s divine inspiration. If you oppose it and it is God’s work you will be working against God. The apostles are still flogged and told not to preach but their lives are saved and the gospel continues to be preached in the Temple and from house to house.

Perhaps like so many Jews, Gamaliel understood instinctively the value of a sympathetic outsider to God’s people.

One of the most moving days of my life was visiting the Holacaust memorial centre Yad Vashem outside Jerusalem. Its title means ‘a hand and name’ and is a quote from Isaiah 56.5 where the Lord promises to the childless in Israel ‘a monument and name better than sons and daughters’. It was powerful, shocking and tear-jerking in to see over six million names constantly scrolling down a huge wall and it punched home the vast horror of the Nazis attempt at industrialised extermination of a whole race. But I wept most and I still weep now thinking about it when I came upon The Garden of the Righteous amongst the Nations – the memorial inscribing and honouring the names of those gentiles who risked their own safety and wellbeing to protect Jews. Some did this out of simple common humanity, others from deep Christian conviction. There was the name of industrialist Oskar Schindler – of Ark or List fame hardly a righteous man in the conventional sense. There too was Corrie Ten Boom who lost her beloved sister Betsie in Ravensbrück concentration camp after they hid Jews in their Haarlem house for two years before they were betrayed and sent to a concentration camp. The Jews hidden behind a false wall in Corrie’s bedroom escaped detection. Inscribed there too was Dutch Calvinist family related to a Dutch family in my home church growing up.

Initially I did the traditional British thing and controlled my tears. Then I did the emergency British thing and found a private corner in the garden and wept buckets for half an hour. I gave thanks quietly for the sheer compassion, conviction and courage that so many of Jesus’ followers showed in standing with his fellow Jews when the reputation of the church in this respect is so often traduced. They repaid at great personal cost part of what Gamaliel had given them in his day: doing what he could for the other when it was right in God’s eyes not because it was expedient.

Let’s pray.

Lord, as we consider our daily walk make us wise to see what we should do day by day to adorn the gospel and glorify the Lord Jesus in the eyes of those around. And help us also to see what we might do to aid those who need us to stand with them and so shine the light of Jesus into the darkness of our world. Amen.

Life After Lockdown | Acts 5.17-32

Acts 5.17-32

Sometimes it is not the end of lockdown that is the important thing: it is what we do next that matters most.

Take Nelson Mandela as a case in point. When he was released from a Cape Town prison in 1990, having served 27 years for his attempts to overthrow South Africa’s white-only government, there were triumphal celebrations worldwide. His release would have felt no less momentous had he then immediately retired to a quiet, affluent suburb to live out his remaining days in peaceful luxury. However, his story is so much more incredible because, instead, he went on to become his country’s first black President, a position from which he started to legally dismantle the legacy of apartheid. 

In today’s story, it is the followers of another revolutionary that are incarcerated. Their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, has already been executed and laid in a sealed, guarded tomb. His followers, however, are claiming that he has been raised from the dead, broken out of his burial chamber, and appeared to them on multiple occasions. 

The religious authorities are further troubled when these followers, a group that includes Peter and John, continue to perform signs and wonders in Jesus’ name, healing the sick and casting out unclean spirits. In a bid to silence the disciples, the Saduccees lock them away and command them not to speak about Jesus. Mysteriously released, the disciples boldly chose to continue preaching, and a growing number of converts are amazed at what they say and do. 

This is where we join the story today. In the verses we have just read, the jealous Sadduccees once again throw the disciples in jail, still hoping that human constraints will be enough to control the spread of their message. This time God sends an angel to release them. The message is clear: his power cannot be stopped by shackles and chains. 

The angel does not simply expect them to go home, keep quiet and avoid further trouble. He charges them with a task: ‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’ Their miraculous physical release is itself proof of God’s redeeming power, but it happens in order that they can go straight back to the busy temple courts and continue preaching about the spiritual freedom that this same God offers to those who give their lives to him. They are freed from prison, but they are freed for a task too. 

We are people who have heard their message of Life and experienced Jesus’ healing power. Yet despite God’s incredible work of salvation in our lives, we do not always embrace our emancipation. Instead, unsure how to live a life of liberty, we quickly return to the yoke of slavery to sin (Hebrews 12:1). We forget that we have been saved from sin and darkness for a purpose. The apostle Paul, who himself was freed from prison by a ground-breaking miracle, summarises this truth in Galatians 5:1, saying: ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’ 

What does it mean to live in this freedom? It means that although our salvation is glorious, it is not the end of the story. We are released in order that we might live with a new task in mind. 

I, for one, do not want my redeemed life to be like the lacklustre second season of the TV show Prison Break. After a tension-filled first season in which Michael Scofield and his cronies succeed in breaking out of Fox River State Penitentiary (sorry for the spoiler!), the second season has nowhere left to go. The ‘Fox River Eight’ know what they want to be freed from but they have nothing to be freed for. Having escaped lockdown, they find there is nothing compelling to live for: no vision, no task, no convincing motivation. 

I would rather live a ‘Nelson narrative’, where my triumphal release is not the final episode but the season opener. Instead of sculking at the prison door asking for re-entry to a world I understand, I want to throw off everything that hinders me, and the sin that so easily entangles me, and run with perseverance the race marked out for me (Hebrews 12:1). 

This is not easy: we know that for many real life prisoners, the hardest day of their incarceration is the one on which they are released. Thankfully, we do not have to face the challenge alone. We have a helper – the same Spirit that the disciples speak about. As Peter proclaims, God sends his Spirit to live in all those who obey him. It is where the Spirit of the Lord is that there is freedom (2 Corinthians 3:17). He is our divine rehabilitation officer, showing us how to embrace our liberty responsibly, joyfully and with purpose. Like the angel he sent in today’s passage, he gives us our task: to return to the world, determined to speak about our Saviour and demonstrate his love and power. 

We are free indeed! (John 8:36) May we leave our lockdown celebrating our release, embracing our newfound purpose and clinging tightly to the Saviour who sets us free.

Let’s pray.

Father of freedom, thank you for liberating us through the death of your son Jesus. Help us to live lives worthy of his sacrifice. Make us bold and reckless in our pursuit of the freedom he won for us. Send your Spirit to guide us so that we might live not as slaves to sin but as servants to your gospel. 

Signs of the Holy One | Acts 5.12-16

Acts 5.12-16

What is the coolest or most supernatural thing you’ve ever experienced of God? Today’s passage is a bit of a crazy one. It tells of the incredible force that the newborn church had through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Can you imagine being a citizen of Jerusalem during this time? Not too many months ago, a man named Jesus, a rabbi, and some even called him Lord, had been crucified outside the city – some had claimed he had miraculously risen from the dead, but mostly things were fairly quiet. Until one day, probably a few weeks ago now, there was an awful lot of noise coming from the place where this rabbi’s disciples used to gather. They spoke many languages, there was rumbling and tongues of fire. And they preached with boldness. Since then, this movement has been close to unstoppable. 3000 people joined them on the first day and the numbers keep increasing. 

You’ve seen them in the temple, everyday they meet in a section called Solomon’s Portico. They’re a radical community – living a very different life and sharing all their possessions together. Now people are starting to flock to them from Jerusalem and beyond to receive healing and freedom from unclean spirits. It’s starting to sound like Jesus all over again – the sick being healed, those with unclean spirits being set free. People are even hoping that if Peter’s shadow falls on their sick they might be healed – showing how much faith they have in that this really is a genuine work of God. 

This is a powerful movement. There’s something more to it than just a few cool tricks. There’s like this strong force moving through the whole community. A holiness, something inexplicable. Attractive yet terrifying. This community demands a lot. You know you can’t just skirt on the edges – you need to be either in or out. What’s it going to be?

This is how I imagine a lot of people in Jerusalem felt at this time. There is this weird tension in the text between people not daring to join them, whilst at the same time they are being held in high esteem and people are becoming Christians everyday. Seemingly contradictory. But I think it might be referring to this inner tension in people – knowing that they’re experiencing a move of God and that joining this movement will involve substantial faith- and life changes. It’s a choice between being 100% in or out. 

The text says that signs and wonders were done among the apostles. Signs are something John uses a lot in his gospel. Everytime Jesus does a miracle, John calls it a sign, and for a long time I thought that it was just a synonym for miracle. Just a cool thing Jesus does. But it’s not. A sign points to something – like a road sign pointing out the right way ahead. In the gospel of John the signs point to Jesus being the Son of God, and here, the signs point to the Spirit being at work among the apostles. The signs validated Jesus’ message, and continue to validate what the church is teaching – God is still at work.

Coming back to my original question. What’s the coolest or most supernatural thing I’ve ever experienced? I could give you an answer, but I think it might be the wrong question to ask. Even though I have seen and experienced a number of healings that I can’t explain in any other way than God doing something before my very eyes, what strikes me everytime is not how cool it is. My instinctive feeling is not to brag about my experience as if I’ve just seen a performance of a favourite artist. No, the overwhelming feeling is always a new appreciation of just how good God is, how great his love is for us. How I am in the presence of a holy God who loves his children.

The Holy Spirit isn’t just a cool add-on to perform tricks. No, the Spirit of God will point us, like a road sign, to the God who loves us, who died for us, and who is still working among us to spread his kingdom across this earth. His Spirit will transform our whole lives.

Let’s pray,

Lord, thank you for sending your Spirit to be among us and bring us into fellowship with yourself. Help us to live in holy reverence of your power at work among us and allow our whole lives to be transformed by your Spirit. In Jesus’ name.

Ananias and Sapphira | Acts 4.36-5.11

Acts 4.36-5.11

Let me be honest, right at the start. I find this one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament, if not the whole Bible itself.

That perhaps says more about me than it does about God. But we come to God, through Jesus, as we are – so let’s pray, as we are, as we come to this passage.

God, there are times where Your Word comforts and delights us – and times where it challenges us; where we must wrestle with it, and with ourselves. Please give us Your wisdom and insight as we consider the painful story of Ananias and Sapphira, and what it means for us as Christians today.

What is perhaps so challenging about this passage, is that it takes place in the New Testament, early on in church history. That God does, at times, intervene directly and bring judgement upon an individual, is clear in the Old Testament, when specific commands and laws are violated. But in the New Testament, how does this fit into a doctrine of grace ultimately won for us by Jesus on the cross? What law have Ananias and Sapphira broken that could result in such devastating consequences?

At first glance, it might seem to be about the money. We’re given the example of Barnabas, who sells a field and gives the proceedings to the apostles. Ananias and Sapphira do the same – but keep back part of the profit, whilst pretending that they have donated the entire amount. And here is the real crux of the matter. They are not condemned for not offering all of the money – indeed, Peter makes it clear that the money was theirs, and it was up to them what they did with it. The sin is that they have lied to God.

Let us hold onto that thought, and ask another question – a difficult one. Why, having sinned in this way, do Ananias and Sapphira die? 

I can only offer reflections. Ananias’ response could have stemmed from fear – or it could have been God’s direct judgement. The same holds true for Sapphira, although Peter clearly has a premonition that she will die. But taking the passage as a whole, the sense seems to be that this is in some way a punishment, a consequence, for a serious sin.

That is a hard message to hear.

So what do we do with this, as Christians, who follow a God that we believe to be love, but also holy?

Again, I can only offer reflections.

I think it’s important to state that, when it comes to the New Testament, this is very much the exception, rather than the rule. Later in this series, we will hear the story of Simon the Sorcerer, who offers the apostles money if they will teach him how to bestow the Holy Spirit upon people – earning himself a thunderous rebuke from Peter. But Simon repents, and keeps his life. That is the message of the gospel, and it is to that that the New Testament constantly encourages us, as Christians, to hold. And it’s also important to note that the text makes no comment on what God’s judgement will or will not be on Ananias and Sapphira after death. All we know is their earthly fate, not their eternal one.

Why did God choose to exercise judgement on Ananias and Sapphira, and withhold it so often elsewhere? That is a question beyond my answering. There are valid theological reasons: not least, the need for the early church to understand and display God’s holiness and the seriousness of sin – here, specifically, lying to God – from the very outset. This passage prompts me to examine whether I grapple enough with either of those concepts – painful though they might be. And it reminds me that it is God’s right to dispense justice, as well as mercy.

There is perhaps one final lesson to take into our own relationship with God. The story of Ananias and Sapphira starkly reminds me that there are parts of the Bible – parts of God’s character – that, as a human being, I find hard, even painful, to comprehend. At times, God seems to act in ways that either my mortal mind, or my mortal heart, cannot grasp. What do I do, when this happens? Who do I turn to? Who do I trust?

And yet, as a human being, it is not a case of ‘whether’ my understanding is flawed, but ‘how’ it is flawed, when it comes to all aspects of God’s character. Strangely, this brings me some comfort. God is not something that we can ‘get our heads around’. But He does tell us – and no more so than through Jesus – that He loves us, that He died for us, and that He invites us to come to Him – not merely in spite of our fears and questions – but with them, bringing them to Him, and trusting that, in the end, He is God, and He does understand. 

Let’s pray.

God, where do we, as humans, even begin? Thank You for Your love, and Your promise of grace in Jesus. As we come to you, we acknowledge that, while we are here on this earth, our view of You, of ourselves, and of reality is something that ‘we know in part.’ We long for the day where we ‘shall know fully, even as we are fully known.’ In this time of waiting, help us to see more of Your perspective. Help us to know more fully those aspects of Your character that You want to reveal to us. Help us to walk with You, even when we wrestle with difficult questions. Thank you that we can be honest with You.