Daily Devotionals

People Or Possessions: Where Do We Invest? | Acts 4.32-35

Acts 4.32-35

This passage has long poked and prodded at my steadfastly held belief that the best way to ensure my long-term security and stability is to work hard and save well. This certainly isn’t all bad, but it is good to be challenged about the way we think about our finances, our possessions, and our community.

The first thing I’d like us to look at together is how the financial generosity of the early Church began with the believers being ‘of one heart and soul’ and with the apostles sharing their testimony of the resurrection of Jesus. The early Church were a diverse group of Jews, Gentiles, men, women, old and young. They were different from each other but united through a life-changing encounter with Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus, followed by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost had bound this community together, had given them one heart, one soul. Their unity and the grace bestowed upon them by God found it’s expression in a natural overflow of generosity. The reality of the cross and the empty grave did not lie dormant, a comforting doctrine for difficult times, but moved the community to live in a new way, as if part of a new kingdom. They did not claim private ownership of their possessions but prioritised people instead.

The early Christians understood that their lives were not their own, they had been bought at a price. They were no longer living for their own comfort, stability or pleasure.

We have received this same spirit as our brothers and sisters in the early Church. We testify to the same resurrection, we worship the same Jesus.

And when we understand that that our lives are no longer our own, we too are freed from the belief that we must achieve our own comfort at all costs. People become more important than possessions. When we testify to the resurrection of Jesus, we testify that we are no longer dependent on the security of wealth but on the total completeness of what Jesus has done for us.

Let’s pause here.

You may be feeling that this is a passage about impossibly generous Christians with impossibly high standards. You may be feeling that this model of giving would never work in your life, with your income, benefits, financial commitments, debt, children, the list goes on. Even now you may be figuratively closing your hands and your heart around your finances. I know that’s often my response. Whether that reaction is because we don’t have enough and are anxious about God’s provision, or because we have more than we need and are worried about what God might be asking us to give up, let’s engage with this question of resurrection led generosity.

 In 2 Corinthians 9:7, Paul says that ‘each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’ Giving is an act of freedom, not a subscription charge, not a penalty.

How much more does a gift mean when it’s spontaneous and thoughtful? I’m sure we’ve all experienced the ‘dutiful gift’ at Christmas. The Secret Santa or distant relative that wraps up a token present that has absolutely nothing to do with us or our interests. Giving under obligation does not bring joy to either the giver or the receiver.

But manufacturing a cheerful heart is not something we can do by ourselves. As we’ve seen, the early Christians’ hearts were changed by their experience of the resurrection of Jesus. Their perspective on their community was shifted by the knowledge that each and every one of them was infinitely valuable to God, valuable enough to die for. The community loved one another and put this love into tangible action.

If you are struggling to be generous, if you are fearful or uncertain, can I suggest inviting God to fill your heart with the sure knowledge of Jesus’ blood poured out for you, his defeat of death, and his ongoing intercession for you? Because as we allow these truths to permeate our hearts, we will begin to see the world through a different lens. Ask God to soften your heart so that you might be able to open your hands and offer up your gifts freely and cheerfully.

In this passage we can see the early Christians selling their land and their houses and using the proceeds to give to those in need. This will not be feasible for many of us, but the principle is applicable across the ages. The early Christians did not cling to the gifts of wealth God had given them, but offered them up to bless others. What could that look like in our lives, in our community? Could our homes be opened up? How could our finances be redirected to invest in more outward looking projects?

Imagine with me what life would look like if people were considered as precious as possessions.  If hearts and hands worked for the building up of the community, and not the self. If we had such a grasp of the magnitude of the resurrection that the attraction of wealth faded away entirely.

How beautiful a picture and how powerful a witness this would be for the watching world.

Let’s pray.

Father God, we know we need your spirit to work in our hearts if we are ever to be truly generous. We thank you that you promised to send us your spirit and that you have faithfully kept that promise across the generations. We pray that as we consider how to steward our worldly wealth, you would remind us that true treasure is found in you. Help us, Father, to give with open hands and open hearts, led by a revelation of your grace.

The Believers Pray for Boldness | Acts 4: 23 – 31

Acts 4: 23 – 31

What do you do when you’re worried by something? When something has shaken your confidence? Perhaps you’re a ‘get straight back on the horse’ kind of a person, or maybe you prefer to build back up to something more slowly? Do you stop and reflect on whatever has shaken you? Do you talk it over with others? As Christians we probably know our first response should be to take it to the Lord in prayer. But if you’re like me, I often forget to do that until after I have come up with some apparently clever solution to fix them problem. But here in today’s passage we have a powerful example from the fledgling church of what to do with worry and set-backs – take it to the Lord in prayer.

In the preceding section of Acts chapter four, we see the empowered and confident Peter and John continuing the healing and preaching ministries done in the name of Jesus. The chief priests and leaders are annoyed, and follow the same violent and wicked path they took against Christ by threatening the disciples. Their famously defiant reply is ‘Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ In this we see something of the transformation that has taken place in Peter and John, who ran and hid themselves at Jesus’ death only a few weeks earlier. The work of the Spirit has given them great boldness. But I don’t think that boldness is untempered by a little worry at the threats. The section we’re looking at today is, in my bible translation at least, sub-titled ‘the believers pray for boldness’. Those without at least a little worry might not be moved to ask for boldness.

So, what do they do with their worry – that is, how do they pray? And what might we learn for how we might bring our worries and set-backs to the Lord in prayer?

They begin by reminding themselves and proclaiming something of who God is. “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them”. The one to whom they, and we, pray is ruler and creator of the whole world; both that which we see upon the earth, and that which is unseen in heaven. He is Lord of all, including the situation we are in. How remarkable! Our prayers fall upon the ear of one who truly has the power and authority to aid us.

In our prayers, do we believe this? Do we pray to God knowing him as Lord of all, or do we view him as merely Lord of us? May knowing his power and authority give us confidence and hope.

They also proclaim that God is a God of promises which do come to pass. In recalling the words of David in Psalm two and connecting this to their own situation they remind themselves that the God who was acting in the heroes of faith in the past, is the same God in their present, and is in control now as then.

Do we believe this for ourselves? Do we see God as active in the world? I know I can be tempted to reduce him to some kind of spiritual guide active only in me. But we must remind ourselves that he is also Lord over the world and our situations, and is active now just as he has been throughout the stories of Scripture.

Having recalled to whom they pray, the believers now turn to ask for help. They pray for three things: to speak the gospel with boldness, to see God heal, and other signs and wonders to be done through the name of Jesus. In essence this is a continuation of the ministry of Jesus, and shows us that although he is no longer present in body, Christ’s redemptive mission continues through his church.

Their prayer is met with the awesome power of the Holy Spirit filling them and the place they are gathered, enabling the believers to continue speaking the word of God with boldness. It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time they are filled with the Spirit, reminding us that this is something we must continually ask God for too – to empower us with his strength by the Holy Spirit day by day.

The believers’ prayer here sees them acknowledging that they are only a part of God’s eternal plans, but that they do have a part to play. They also see that they must trust in him to equip them, and equip them he does.

From this passage there are many questions we could ask ourselves in whatever worrying or challenging situations we might find ourselves in:

How much do we merely ask God to be helping us in our plans, rather than looking to see ourselves in his plan?

Do we believe God will equip us for what we need? It is all too easy to forget his faithfulness in the past. May we recall his steadfastness, and remember our need of returning to him for strength, for joy, for peace, for whatever we need in our present situation.

Perhaps we won’t face threats of violence from rulers for speaking truth, proclaiming the gospel’s hope, and seeking healing and restoration for the powerless and oppressed. Although perhaps that might seem uncomfortably familiar. However closely we feel our struggles and worries mirror those of these first believers, may our response be the same – taking our worries and needs to the ruling and creator God, who speaks and works now as he has in the past, and who equips us by the Holy Spirit to continue preaching the gospel and enacting the restorative ministry of Christ.

Let’s pray together:

Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, thank you that you have been working for good and against evil throughout history, and that you continue to do so today. In the face of whatever trials confront us, may we and the whole of your global church, be filled with your Holy Spirit to speak gospel truth and see you heal and restore. Through the name of your holy servant Jesus, we pray,

Who Do You Think You Are? | Acts 4.1-12

Acts 4.1-12

This part of the story we began yesterday could easily be entitled ‘Who do you think you are?’ – Not like the TV show which explores people’s family tree – but an outraged challenge. ‘Who do YOU think you ARE?’. What right do YOU have to do what you are doing? It’s the outrage of the powerful social and religious elites, as two fishermen from the hick-backwater of Galilee stand up in the busy temple; the hub of Jewish identity and preach a profound and compelling sermon. It’s the question of one power system confronting another… and trying to shut it down.

Yesterday, we heard the wonderful story of a life-long disabled man who lived the pitiful existence of a beggar, seated ironically by the gate named ‘beautiful’ on the way into the temple. Peter and John perform a miracle so astounding that the whole town is stirred up – seeing him now walking and leaping and praising God. Their astonishment prompts Peter to give his second sermon since Pentecost, explaining Jesus, his mission, death and resurrection and calling them to repent, to turn around and put their faith in the Messiah who transforms lives like this!

But, just as they did when Jesus healed a man born blind, those with power don’t celebrate the marvellous event. They challenge the right of Peter and John to preach, particularly on THEIR turf, the temple.

– The captain of the temple is much annoyed that normal order is disrupted.

– The priests are much annoyed that the disciples are preaching – that is THEIR JOB!

– The Sadducees are much annoyed that they are preaching resurrection – which is theological nonsense!

All in all, they are… well… much annoyed!

But the people, the people are responding to the evidence of their eyes and the teaching of Peter. Teaching of hope, forgiveness, freedom, life, joy. Teaching about Jesus. 5000 of them respond! And those with power arrest Peter and John gathering the next day at the home of the elite; the high priest’s family.

Can you imagine? Two fishermen, with bumpkin accents, hands rough and scarred by a life of manual labour, in working men’s clothes dragged into the middle of an elegant courtyard, surrounded by the sneering power players with their elite education and important friends in their fine, clean clothes. “By what power or by what name did you do this thing?” In other words – how did men like YOU do this? What authority do YOU have? Who do YOU think you are?

I wonder how you would have responded?

Many of us get anxious about public speaking. Many of us don’t like being put on the spot. Many of us are reluctant to talk about our faith, especially if people are being hostile.

But what happens here is what Jesus promised in Luke 12. He told the disciples “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” And the Holy Spirit did! Peter is fearless. “What you see has been done in the name of Jesus of Nazareth – whom YOU crucified whom GOD raised from the dead. There is salvation in no one else.”

Peter directly contrasts the two power systems:

  1. Human power, which killed Jesus and did nothing to help this lame beggar for his whole life.
  1. And God’s power which brings resurrection, firstly to Jesus dead body and now to this man’s future.

Peter and John have chosen a side and they have been given power, wisdom and great boldness by God’s Spirit. Where human power tries to silence and cause people to cower. God’s power gives them voice and dignity.

I wonder how we, you, answer the question – ‘By what power, in whose name – do you live the way you do? Do you act and speak the way you do?’ I wonder if we ever do anything that makes people notice the difference in our lifestyle or values or perspectives? Perhaps the challenge for some of us if anyone EVER asks us about our motivations and actions – or do they just look like everyone else around us?

But here is the promise we have – because of Jesus, because of his Spirit poured out on his church. We are powerful people, in many different ways because of that Spirit in us. People with the power to pray, to heal, to love and offer hope, to give and to forgive, to challenge injustice, to live differently, to be unafraid – be it of mockery, persecution or even of death.

And we do it in the name of Jesus – God with us, God to the rescue, Saviour of all humanity who has welcomed us into the family of God.

Who do we think we are? His greatly beloved, who he will return for one day.

We are the Church of Christ, in a world that needs dignity, hope, truth. That needs those who will speak resurrection and freedom not death and oppression. And Peter and John are undoubtedly in the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on, no matter who we are, where we are, to be bold in the power of God’s Spirit.

Let’s Pray.

Father God, in the name of the resurrected Jesus please fill us again with your Spirit. Make us bold to pray, to act, to speak for those who need help and hope. Make us wise to challenge oppression and systems that wish to control and destroy the precious people you love so much. Give us grace to use whatever tools and gifts you have given us to be a blessing, that others might see our good works, ask us about our faith and praise you because we have served them well in their need. Make us light in the dark, and fearless to shine confident you will give us the words we need when we need them. In the mighty name of Jesus,

Business as Unusual | Acts 3.1-10

Acts 3.1-10

It has previously been commented that, instead of ‘The Acts of the Apostles’, a more fitting name for this book would be ‘The Acts of Jesus and the Spirit’. The very first verse of the whole book tells us that the prequel, Luke’s gospel, was about what Jesus began to do and teach. 

This book then, the sequel, is about what Jesus continued to do, through his Spirit given to his followers. In Acts 3, this is exactly what we find.

Peter and John were going to the temple to pray. They take the usual route, pass the usual landmarks and see the usual people, there’s the lame man at the gate, as usual. This is the everyday fabric of life, long since faded by routine, rolling on as usual. 

But today, something makes Peter and John stop. Rather than glancing over the lame man, as is the habit of many and perhaps as they themselves had done before, today they direct their gaze at him. The lame man fixes his attention on them in return and he does what he usually does, asks for alms, expecting to receive what is usually given. 

But what he receives this time is not usual. It’s not even possible. 

As Peter’s hand grasped this man’s own and he felt himself being pulled upwards, perhaps he braced himself for the familiar pain and the lurch of despair as he prepared for his crippled legs to crumple and he inevitably collapsed onto the hard ground, as he had done countless times since the very beginning of his very broken life. But today, there is no pain. And far from collapsing back down he finds himself leaping upwards and now standing, for the first time in his life supported unassisted on his own once useless legs. 

This was not usual. This was not possible. And yet here the lame man stands, amazed, in the presence and power of the Spirit, who dwells in Peter and John.  

In his sermon at Pentecost, back in chapter 2, Peter had said Jesus of Nazareth was raised up by God and exalted to his right hand. Now, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, this lame man had been taken by the right hand and raised up. His brokenness has been undone by faith in the name of the one who was broken for him.

We see here that as Jesus promised, because he has ascended he has given the Spirit, who is now at work through his followers. The Spirit works through the disciples to do the same kinds of things Jesus did during his ministry. In fact, Jesus’ Spirit-filled followers would do greater things, as he said in John 14:12. As Don Carson puts it, 

“Our faith in Jesus thrusts us into a struggle in which the decisive battle has already been won, in which the promised eschatological blessing has already dawned even if it’s not yet consummated. Indeed, our own feeble efforts participate in the triumph of Christ and the work of his bequeathed Spirit to call forth an innumerable host of new followers of the Savior and Master we’re privileged to serve.” 

Don Carson

For Spirit filled followers of Jesus, it is business as unusual. We participate in the triumph of his resurrection, participating through the Spirit in the Kingdom coming. 

As Jesus had demonstrated his care for the broken, overlooked and desperate during his ministry, so his followers come to share that same concern by the transformation the Spirit works in them. This lame man was defined by his brokenness, overlooked and desperate. Peter chose not to overlook him, instead he looked intently at him (as would Paul of another lame man in Acts 14). This man’s brokenness, so ingrained, so familiar, so all-encompassing as to define him, was not beyond the redemptive power of Jesus. He was the lame man who begged at the temple gate. But transformed by faith in Jesus’ name, he was no longer defined by his brokenness but by his restoration. He became the once-lame man who now leaps in praise of his Saviour. Restoration in Jesus redefined him. 

As Jesus had received a mixed response, so his followers still do. In Luke 5 Jesus healed a paralysed man. Amazement seized those who saw and they were filled with awe. The religious leaders, however, were provoked to anger. Here in Acts 3, those who saw this lame man healed were also filled with wonder and amazement, yet by the start of chapter 4 the religious leaders have again been provoked to anger. We should not be surprised to face opposition when we do things in his name. 

And as Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom of God and attested to its truth with signs and wonders, so through the Spirit, that power is given to us as well. That’s what we see happening all over the place at the start of Acts. And there is still power in Jesus’ name to heal today. Sometimes we receive healing now like this man, sometimes we must wait until all things are made new, knowing that God’s grace is sufficient for us, like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12. New creation is dawning, it’s first rays piercing our broken world; one day we will see the risen sun fully and all will be made new. 

For now, it’s business as unusual.

Let’s pray.

Father, thank you that you have given us your Spirit to transform us into your likeness. Thank you that in your name there is power to heal, to restore and redeem. Please helps us to be those who bring healing and restoration in your name to the world around us by the power of your Spirit working through us.

Christ-fuelled Fellowship | Acts 2.42-47

Acts 2.42-47

I don’t know how you feel after hearing those striking words describing the life of the early church, but my reaction is ‘wow – I want some of that’. The early church was devoted to God, they were devoted to each other and the result was beautiful, and it attracted others in.

When we look back even just a chapter ago, Jesus’ followers were huddled together in an upper room. Jesus had just ascended to heaven and they were, understandably, terrified that the Roman authorities would be after them next. Jesus had told them to wait for the Holy Spirit and so they waited, and boy did the Spirit turn up!

And so in today’s passage we see the amazing difference the Holy Spirit makes to the church, in fact, the Spirit makes all the difference. Now, the early church is, well it’s a church. We see the church functioning as Christ’s body, we see their devotion to the Father and the powerful equipping of the Holy Spirit.

But reading between the lines as well, I get such a sense of the joy, fulfilment and satisfaction which comes with a life lived like this.  This way of life is how the church is meant to function, it’s how we were designed to live and so it’s good for us both individually and corporately when we do.  

Ok, let’s dive in! Let’s look first at the ways that the early church was devoted to God. So we read that they were dedicated to the Apostles’ teaching, they prayed and spent much time together in the temple. It’s easy to imagine the early church bustling about here and there, a hive of activity. But first they stopped, first they took time to learn and digest the apostles’ teaching. They spent time with God in the temple, they broke bread together and they had prayerful, worshipful hearts. They devoted themselves to God. And God also empowered them, He filled them with the Holy Spirit and performed signs and wonders through the Apostles.

Secondly, the early church was devoted to each other. What we read in these verses is a picture of radical generosity. They were together, they had all things in common, they shared meals together, and they sold their possessions and gave money to all who had need. They were functioning as a family. What was your reaction when you heard that read? I know that a small sceptical voice in my head said ‘surely that’s too good to be true.’ But it is true. This is the picture of God’s people fuelled by the Holy Spirit and overflowing with love which comes only from God. This love is practical, selfless and dedicated.

But we can only love each other in this way when we have first received this love from God. So often we try to skip a step. We try to love selflessly on our own. Sure, we might be able to do it for a little while, putting on pretences, forcing a smile, screwing up our fists, but eventually we’ll run out of our own supplies. We first need to devote ourselves to God, receive his love, and then we’ll be able to devote ourselves to others.

If you stopped reading before the last sentence of this passage, you could be forgiven for thinking that this church community sounds pretty insular. But the thing is that when the church functions like this, it is contagious! People get curious, they’re attracted to this strangely beautiful community, they’re welcomed into the fellowship. And, in today’s passage, the result was that each day many were saved.  

It is missional to live in this way. The church, when it is first devoted to God and secondly devoted to each other, is attractive.  We have to assume the believers in the early church were still sharing the good news with those they met, but that sharing bubbled out of an overflow of God’s love, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

How could our life together, as God’s people, even better reflect this picture of unity in the early church? Maybe a specific thing has already caught your attention – maybe it’s the radical generosity, the shared fellowship, the signs and wonders, or simply how attractive it was.

But before we get whisked away in wanting more of that visible, measurable fruit, let’s take a step back, and first keep devoting ourselves to God and receive again His abundant love for us through the Holy Spirit. Because then, and only then, we will be empowered and emboldened to live generously, love selflessly and share this gloriously good news we’ve received with those around us.

Let’s pray:

Father God, thank you for your abundant, everlasting love for us. Fill us afresh with the knowledge of this love and pour out your Holy Spirit upon us, that we might love others out of the same love which we first receive from you. In Jesus’ name,

When the Spirit Comes… | Acts 2.14-28

Acts 2.14-28

People say all sorts of things to a preacher as they leave church on a Sunday, most of which is unmemorable or at least (I’m sorry) I can’t remember it days let alone weeks later. One Pentecost Sunday after I preached on Acts 2 a person commented that I had had the ‘boring bit’ in the middle of the chapter between the pyrotechnics of the Spirit coming and the emergence of the radical new community in response to Peter’s preaching at the end of the chapter. I think they were excusing me politely. Just this week I was asked to do the Bible reading for the regional Thy Kingdom Come Pentecost Sunday event and not untypically the preacher, asked to speak for an unfeasibly short time on such a great text chose, only the beginning and the end of Acts chapter 2 as the bible reading.

But we’re going to focus on Peter’s sermon. The first Christian sermon is not everything that Peter said on the day of Pentecost as 2.40 indicates.

But Peter starts his proclamation by refuting the allegation that just because they are not paying attention to people around, because they are being very loud in public and because they are speaking incoherently to most people’s ears the early Christians are in fact partying and drunk. When we lived on the Bailey in Durham our family got used to looking out of the kitchen window in the mornings seeing bedraggled survivors of some College ball or other, shuffling home through the cobbled streets the next morning. The exuberance of the night before was universally overcome by the need to find a pillow. All this commotion, Peter says, is God’s Spirit, not the other kind at nine o’clock in the morning.

Peter then describes the phenomena of the mighty wind, tongues of fire and God being praised loudly in unlearnt languages in terms of Joel’s prophecy of the day of God’s coming. The Spirit of prophecy will be poured out indiscriminately and God’s coming will be accompanied by heavenly portents with echoes of God’s appearance to Israel at Mt Sinai.

I don’t usually remember my dreams, which is a good thing because when I do they are usually nonsense. I have only once had a spiritual, or prophetic, dream. When I woke up I not only remembered it, but it seemed to make good sense. I wasn’t feeling especially spiritual awaking to this dream at 6.30 in the morning, but there was just a confident sense that this was different and that it was God. I’d never talked about a prophetic dream in church before because I’d never had one before (nor have I since) but this was so striking that it was easy to share and as it was Sunday I summarised the dream for the hundred or so people I was preaching to. 99 of them looked back blankly – but one caught my eye as they immediately filled up with tears. Later the same guy sobbed his way through the personal prayer ministry he was offered at the end of the service. But for myself, I mainly went away with the nagging feeling that I should embrace middle age. It was time to grow up – it’s old men that dream dreams.

It’s a pattern all the way through Acts – the Spirit makes believers bold to speak: in praise, in prayer, in tongues, in prophecy, and most of all, in proclamation of the gospel. It is the prophetic Spirit that comes upon them on the day of Pentecost.

The Spirit’s coming is also part of preparing his people for the final coming of God. God appearing on Sinai rumbles across the pages of Acts. Honestly, on any given day my answer to the question: are you looking forward to seeing Jesus? swings wildly. I know that the right answer is ‘yes’ and some days I embrace with wholehearted and expectant joy the wonder and blessing it will be to see the Lord face to face. Other times, I’m too busy with other things, or hiding the messiness of my life from other people, to want Jesus to turn up and undo my petty evasions.

When the Spirit comes, he reminds us that Jesus absence is only temporary. And he also reminds us that when Jesus comes, he comes with a mixture of blessing and examination. Whether at school or University, or in some other context, we all know the dynamics of exams: we are tested so that we can enjoy some future benefit. And so that is what the coming of Jesus’ Spirit coming is like: a huge blessing, but one that also shines the searchlight of God’s truth on all the highlights and shadows of our lives. That’s why when Peter is asked to outline a response to the sermon at the end, his first word is: repent, and he follows this with be baptised for the forgiveness of your sins. When the Holy Spirit comes, he puts us in touch with Jesus and comes as the Spirit of holiness into our lives.

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, 2000 years later you are still pouring out your Spirit from your heavenly throne on your people. So, stir up your Spirit in us that we may be bold to speak for you and humbly prepared for the searching joy of your final coming.

Speaking in Languages We Understand | Acts 2.1-13

Acts 2.1-13

Have you ever been in a situation where everyone else was speaking in a language you didn’t understand? I remember once walking in Rome at nightfall, free from daytime tourists, and hearing only Italian all around me – it was slightly disorientating! Now imagine that situation, but compounded by multiple languages. (Perhaps the closest equivalent today would be a multicultural city such as London.) That was the scene in Jerusalem during Pentecost, aka the Feast of Weeks, a Jewish holiday held seven weeks after Passover, with Jews from around the world gathering to celebrate.

In the midst of this bumbling chaos suddenly comes piercing through a recognisable sound. In fact, it’s someone speaking… English [or insert your native language here]! Like an ultra-sensitive radar picking up on a clear signal, the myriad of pilgrims hear and comprehend someone testifying about ‘God’s deeds of power’ (v.11) in their own languages. If you’d been there, you’d probably have been “amazed” and “astonished” and “perplexed” too! (vv.7,12)

This particular Pentecost was thoroughly abnormal. This wasn’t what usually happened. And it’s clear from the start of the passage, as we are made privy to the apostles’ thoughts and experience, that they too were aware this was no ordinary moment either. They knew that according to Jesus they were waiting to ‘be baptized with the Holy Spirit’ (1.5), to ‘receive power when the Holy Spirit [comes] upon [them]’ (1.8). I suspect they weren’t expecting to experience the magnitude of Holy Spirit’s power in the form of wind and fire! Imagine if they’d just had the experience without the knowledge, or vice versa – how incomplete that would have been. It was the combination of both that was life-changing.

Notice that when Holy Spirit fills them, the physical manifestations come ‘from heaven (v.2), i.e. beyond us and from God. But it’s not kept a secret, nor is it only for their own benefit. Instead, the ability to speak in a multitude of languages is for the Jews ‘from every nation under heaven’ (v.5). This wasn’t purely for the sake of showing off; this was God reaching from heaven, to them under heaven, communicating in ways they understood. In the same way, God still reaches from heaven, to us under heaven, communicating in ways we understand.

A quick word on the contentious issues in this passage: Some make a distinction between “glossolalia” (angelic languages) and “xenolalia” (natural languages), and argue for either/or. Others debate whether or not this was a “miracle of speaking” (the apostles miraculously speaking in other languages) or a “miracle of hearing” (the Jews miraculously hearing what was said in other languages). At the end of the day, however, I think what’s most important is the fact that this was a miracle, this was God’s empowering and equipping of the apostles by His Spirit, and this was God reaching down and communicating to people from all nations!

Let me end by sharing a testimony from when I was on a week-long mission trip in London a few years ago.

On the first day, my team was tasked to write a prophetic song of blessing to sing over the tower blocks in the neighbourhood. We visited three tower blocks over the week, and at each one, we went up to the top storey (10th), knocked on the doors of the four flats and sang our song, hoping that people would listen to and be blessed by it. Then we’d go down a storey (9th) and sing it again. Then the 8th, 7th, and so on. Not everyone opened their doors, but a few did. And in each tower block, there was at least one person visibly moved to tears whom we also got to pray for. One of these was a man from Morocco, and we got to share with him that this was Holy Spirit touching his life.

Fast forward to the fun day we hosted at the end of the week when this same Moroccan man showed up and shared what had actually happened: ‘I heard the knock on my door but I had no intention of opening it. But then I heard the song… and it was in my own language! I thought to myself, “Who’s singing that?! I know of no one around here who comes from my country.” When I saw you guys, I knew then that this was a miracle!’

Keep in mind, we were singing in English! Yes, it was a miracle of hearing, but most significantly, it shows that our God is still a loving God who intimately sees, knows about and pursues each individual, communicating directly to our hearts in ways we understand.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to us on earth 2,000 years ago at that history-defining, life-changing Pentecost. May we know and experience your Spirit with us to a greater degree. Thank you for empowering and equipping us to testify about Jesus to those around us from every nation. You are a God who continues to love, pursue and communicate with us. Just like you spoke through the apostles then, would you also speak through us today. Fill us with your Spirit anew. In Jesus’ name we pray,

Exalted to the Right Hand of the Father | Acts 1.1-11

Acts 1.1-11

Here in these first verses of Luke we see Jesus ascending to rule from heaven. As he goes, he sends his disciples to witness in the world, promises to send them his Spirit, and we are assured that he will return again.

At the start of our passage, Luke recaps what has come before in the gospel of Luke. We remember Jesus’ miracles, his teaching, his perfect life. Luke reminds us of Jesus’ suffering in our place, bearing our sin and freeing us. We remember that Jesus was raised to life and showed himself to his disciples. Luke particularly emphasises the confidence they had that Jesus was really alive: as he gave ‘many convincing proofs’ that he was really alive.

Luke records for us one of many instructions Jesus gave in these 40 days after the resurrection. ‘Stay in Jerusalem and wait for the promised Holy Spirit.’

Luke also records a question that seems rather out of place to us: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel”? Will Israel be free of Roman rule to live in the promised land? 

Jesus’ answer is, basically, no. This is not the time. This is not the time for the evil powers of the world to be broken and humbled. This is not the time for God’s people to be vindicated in the sight of the world. That day will come.

And Jesus’ focus is wider than Israel – Jesus’ work is not just the restoration of Israel, but the welcoming in of people from every people and language into the people of God as they believe the message of the apostles.

So Jesus says, wait for the Spirit, then go and tell the world about me. Be my witnesses. Testify to what you have seen and heard.

And then, before their eyes, Jesus is lifted up into the sky until he is out of sight. As Peter will say in chapter 2, he is ‘exalted to the right hand of the Father.’ He is taken into heaven to rule as king. But suddenly, the disciples’ gawking at the clouds is interrupted by two men. They tell them that Jesus will return in the same way that he has left. The ascension is temporary – one day, he will come on the clouds of heaven to judge the world, establish his kingdom and save his people.

So what good news that even the resurrection is not the end of the story. Having dealt with sin and overcome death, Jesus ascends to heaven. There he will be the head of a global church that is filled with the Spirit to witness to him. From there he will return in power and glory to put all things right.

May we hold on to this certain hope, resisting the lie that human effort will fix the world or that this life of pain and suffering is all that there is. We all know the struggle of waiting for a painful situation to be over, especially when the timing of that end is uncertain. But how much easier to endure when we know that this is not forever.

Jesus ascends to heaven and gives the Spirit, that means he is not restricted to one place on earth, as he was during his ministry. Now he is the head of a global church, made of people from every nation and language who have believed the message of his witnesses. How easy it is for us to look down at our feet and just focus on the next step rather than look around to see the landscape of all that God is doing in the world.

As we read on in Acts, we find that Jesus is intimately involved in the life of his church. So that when he confronts Paul on the road to Damascus he can say ‘why are you persecuting me’. In ascending to heaven, Jesus is not retreating from us or our pain. By the Holy Spirit Jesus is so close to his church that as we are persecuted, so is he. 

Now that Jesus is ascended to rule in heaven, the apostles are messengers from the King. The people of the world are not free to worship their own gods and live their own way. There is a king who is the rightful ruler over every person, and he is calling us all to trust and obey him.

Jesus has ascended to heaven to rule. Now he fills his people with his Spirit, sends us out to witness to him and prepares to return in glory and power.

May we be thankful for the gift of the Spirit.

May we be empowered to share the message about Jesus from here to the ends of the earth. 

May we be full of hope for the day that Jesus returns.

Let’s pray.

Father, thank you that we have such a wonderful saviour. We are so glad that Jesus died for us and rose to life and is now ruling in power from heaven. Help us to be thankful for the Spirit he gives to us. Empower us by that Spirit to tell people from every language and nation about our king. Fill us with hope for his return in power and glory to put all things right.

Doubts and Belief | Luke 24. 36-53

Luke 24. 36-53

We have a phrase in the UK: “I’ll believe it when I see it”, or we describe something that is extreme as it having to be seen to be believed. Our culture has bound together the idea that things that are so incomprehensible or unbelievable must be seen by us as an individual to prove that they are true. That’s part of the reason why having a faith is so counter-cultural – how can we believe something that we cannot see, in the flesh, that we cannot touch and hold, that is not backed up by rigorous testing? Instead we are, as the writer of Hebrews put it: “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”.

The disciples certainly found themselves faced with the incomprehensible and unbelievable in today’s passage – the risen Jesus. What I find encouraging about this passage is that the disciples needed to see Jesus to believe that he had really risen from the dead and the text does not shy away from this or from their doubts. 

The disciples are already gathered together and are talking about Simon and Cleopas having seen the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they are probably confused, excited and fearful all at the same time. Then, out of nowhere, Jesus suddenly appears and says “peace be with you” – no knock at the door, no advance notice of his arrival.

Jesus knows exactly what their first thoughts are: that they are startled and terrified, that they are doubtful that it is really Him, that they must instead be seeing a ghost. We could see Jesus’ question to the disciples as frustrated: “why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”, after all Jesus did explain to them multiple times that the Son of Man would be raised on the third day, and here He is, as planned. Instead though, I see this question as bringing their emotions and feelings to the surface – He knows they are frightened (presumably some of them may have even outwardly shown it when he appeared in the room!) but He also knows their inmost being, that doubts are arising in their hearts, that the only reasonable explanation they have is that Jesus must be a ghost, so they doubt the story of Simon and Cleopas and they doubt what is before their eyes.

Where Jesus had previously vanished at the point of recognition in His appearance on the road to Emmaus, this time He stays put to allay their fears, disprove their doubts and give them instructions on what to do next. Jesus allows them to touch him, to physically feel that he is not a ghost, He shows them His hands and feet, where the wounds from the crucifixion would be obvious and apparent. 

Verse 41 then says “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering”, the disciples still can’t get their heads around what they are seeing and what this means. If Jesus is really here and is not a ghost then what has happened? The wounds on his hands and feet show that He was crucified but, if he was, how is he now physically here? So many questions! Jesus knows that they are both excited at the prospect of this being true at the same time as not being sure if it is true, He eats a piece of fish to cement his physical existence and then opens their minds to understand the scriptures, to understand the words He spoke to them so many times when He was with them but they did not and could not fully understand at the time. He tells them that they are the witnesses that the scriptures are true, they have seen the suffering of the Messiah first hand and they have seen Him risen from the dead in person – they have witnessed the incomprehensible and unbelievable. 

This passage reminds me that it’s OK for us to have doubts, Jesus can cope with this and He can handle our honest thoughts. In fact, He is incredibly gracious with our doubts and disbelief. It also reminds me that we are not black and white as Christians – in general we are not either living totally in faith with no doubts, or totally in unbelief with no faith, instead the journey of faith is a complex grey where we are spurred on by our faith and wrestle with our doubts often side-by-side. We, like the disciples, can be in joy as well as still wondering and disbelieving. And it is encouraging that God chose to build His Church through people like these and chose to dwell within them by sending His Holy Spirit which we’ll come to in the devotionals over the next few days.

Let’s pray.

God, thank you for this passage where the unbelievable and miraculous was witnessed by the disciples. That you that this is what our hope is built on, that Jesus was raised from the dead and that repentance and the forgiveness of sins is available to us in His name. Thank you that the disciples were obedient in their witness and that we have their testimony to spur us on in our faith. Help us Lord where we have doubts or disbelief in our hearts, instead of trying to hide these from you or believing that we don’t have enough faith, help us to bring these doubts to you, to be honest in our thinking and reasoning. Alongside this, we pray for an increase in faith and an increase in our ability to trust in what we do not see.