Acts of the Apostles : Acts 1:-11 : They Believed...

The first account I [a]composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had [b]by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To [c]these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. [d]Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for [e]what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized [f]with the Holy Spirit [g]not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And as they were gazing intently into [h]the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. 11 They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into [i]the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”

***

It's an interesting thought to think, but imagine opening up your Bible and, after reading the Gospels, you turn the final page of the Gospel of John to see the Book of Romans. How did this book come to be? And how did these Romans come to know the Saviour? The last we read in the Gospels is that Jesus was raised again to life and appeared to many. His message was clear to them:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:18-20).

Did they go? Was the message of Jesus received? Did many come to know the Saviour through their obedience? I hope to answer these questions in full by the end of devotioning through The Book of Acts. Yet the very fact that you and I are Christians today has something to do with the obedience of these first Apostles. If the Book of Acts was not present or the Acts of the Apostles were not acted out, the Church (if we could even call it that) would be a very different thing. But thanks be to God! The Church does exist and the Holy Spirit was received and many, many people came to know the truth of Jesus' resurrection; still to this day. It's a sobering thought that many still have not heard yet my hope, through looking through these chapters of Acts, is that my readers would be convinced that through these acts of the apostles, there can be many more to come to know our Saviour here and now. 

What strikes me the most through reading through these first few verses of The Book of Acts is the tension. These men and women have gathered together to witness Jesus' final ascension. They have heard words similiar to what we have already looked at in Matthew 28 from Jesus, but what do they do? They continue to gaze into the clouds. And we can't fault them for it. 

The truth is, I would hazard a guess that if we were there, we would most likely do the same. The truth is, Jesus was not clear when He would return, so why not wait with hopeful expectation that He meant right then and there? But He clearly didn't mean He would return then. One of Jesus' disciples put it this way:

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

This has been the tension of Jesus followers ever since. The LORD's patience. Why wait all this time? Why not come now - right now?! The answer is simple - the LORD does not want any to perish. I am often caught up, gazing into the sky, hoping that this would be the day of His return. But by the end of the day, when the sun is setting, I grieve that today wasn't the day. But there is another perspective. Just as these 'men in white' appeared and, for all intents, knocked them out of their gaze, we need to do the same. The truth is, rather than waiting, with ineffectiveness, we should wait with much effectiveness because we do not know the hour of Christ's returning. But I know you know and I know that there is still much to be done. 
 
These Apostles believed the message of Jesus and the entire world was changed because of their hope in the Risen Saviour. 

What does your and my world look like today? Are people being changed because of our hope in Jesus or are we being caught up into the sky, gazing, waiting for His return? 

Will we be found busy doing the work of the LORD when He returns?

Acts of the Apostles : Introduction

The Descent of the Spirit by Gustave Dore
I have to confess upfront that the Acts of the Apostles, as a book, has always intrigued me. The style of writing is quite similar to each of the Gospel writings (Luke, the same author of the Gospel, had written Acts as well; see Acts 1:1ff) with one very noticeable difference - Jesus is not present.

Jesus, at the very beginning of the Book of Acts, has given them very specific instructions to wait for the Holy Spirit and then ascends back into heaven. As the disciples gazed into the sky, they reflected on Jesus' words and rejoiced on his promise - yet it is almost comical. It almost appears that the disciples thought the Spirit's descending on them would have been instantaneous and so they were perfectly content to gaze into the sky and wait for this mysterious Spirit's descending. But they were knocked out of their gaze by two men in white who basically said, 'Jesus will return...so what are you doing still standing here? So, as they say, the rest is history - thus the Book of Acts.

Perhaps the disciples (now apostles) do not have any idea who (or what) this Holy Spirit is, but it is clear that they need to wait - but when they do, the ministry of building the church and spreading the Gospel begins - but to a surprising group of people. As we read through this book, it occurred to me that we begin to uncover a greater and more appropriate definition for what it means to wait. We often think that waiting is inactivity - and it can be sometimes - but it is clear that the Apostles are being asked to actively-wait. And I believe we are being asked to do the same.

As a basic outline of the Book of Acts, it begins by following the Apostle Peter (previously known as Simon). But after twelve chapters, Luke (the author of the book) shifts his focus to Paul (previously known as Saul) and for the remaining chapters, we follow his missionary journeys.

There is no doubt in my mind that the common theme of peoples' lives being transformed is going to be a major theme in this book. From the transformations of the Apostle Peter's journey (from fisherman to shepherd - see John 21) and the Apostle Paul's journey (originally a persecutor of the Church - see Acts 9:1ff), we see an outflow of incredible miracles and many lives changed due to the obedience of the disciples to take seriously the command of Jesus to 'Go...' (see Matt. 28:18-20).

So follow along with me, will you, as we discover together how lives can be transformed when we wait for the Holy Spirit.

Nehemiah 13:23-31 : Promises Broken (Part Five)

In those days I also saw that the Jews had [q]married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but [r]the language of his own people. 25 So I contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. 26 Did not Solomon king of Israel sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless the foreign women caused even him to sin. 27 [s]Do we then hear about you that you have committed all this great evil by acting unfaithfully against our God by [t]marrying foreign women?” 28 Even one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite, so I drove him away from me. 29 Remember them, O my God, [u]because they have defiled the priesthood and the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites.
30 Thus I purified them from everything foreign and appointed duties for the priests and the Levites, each in his task, 31 and I arranged for the supply of wood at appointed times and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good.

***
And so we come to the last section of this wonderful book. We have walked through many different roads with Nehemiah - but his purpose has remained the same. This man desired to honour the LORD and cultivate in others that same desire. This final section graphically illustrates how serious Nehemiah was about reminding the people of their duty of faithful service to the LORD.

We find in 10:30 that the people promised that they would not give their daughters as wives to the 'people of the land' nor take their daughters for their sons, but this is exactly what they did. 
They did not keep covenant with the LORD. So Nehemiah stepped in. Again. Yet this time, this most definitely is the most strongest example of how serious he actually was. As we reflect on the leadership style of Ezra, he pulled out his own hair in effort to convict the people (Ezra 9:3) but in contrast, Nehemiah attacks the root of the problem - literally - by pulling out the roots of the peoples' hair.

What are we to do with this? Too strong a confrontation? Not exactly the type of thing you would hear take place in a church study with pastor and church member in conversation. What is very, very clear here is that Nehemiah is not messing around when it comes to the Law of the LORD. He sees disobedience and clearly communicates, by his actions, what is required to follow the LORD's instructions.Over and over again, this one-directional focus of Nehemiah rises to the surface in all that he does; his motivation is to honor the LORD and guide others to do the same.

Note, too, this text has two 'quick prayers', not unlike what we have seen previous to this section throughout the entire book. It is clear this man desires to walk with the LORD on a daily, moment by moment basis. By these final few sentences, we see very clearly what Nehemiah strove to do from the very beginning:

Thus I purified them from everything foreign and appointed duties for the priests and the Levites, each in his task, and I arranged for the supply of wood at appointed times and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good (vss. 30, 31).

Nehemiah is an example of a leader who takes the time to address the large and the small (i.e. purification of a people to arranging wood collection) all for one reason. He desires to be remembered by the LORD. In all that he does, he desires to honour Him.

What remains for us is one simple question: What are we willing to do for the LORD today? The efforts of Nehemiah clearly were difficult, taxing, and incredibly draining, but each and every one of these things were done in order for the line of the Israelites to remain intact. If these efforts were not meticulously set out to be accomplished, who knows where we would be? But thank the LORD that we have people like Nehemiah who were willing to sacrifice much for the sake of the LORD's fame.

May we be willing to do the same, for the same reason, for the same cause, for the same LORD.

Nehemiah 13:15-22 : Promises Broken (Part Four)

In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought them into Jerusalem on the sabbath day. So I admonished them on the day they sold food. 16 Also men of Tyre were living [k]there who imported fish and all kinds of merchandise, and sold them to the sons of Judah on the sabbath, even in Jerusalem. 17 Then I [l]reprimanded the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing you are doing, [m]by profaning the sabbath day? 18 Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath.” 19 It came about that just as it grew dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut [n]and that they should not open them until after the sabbath. Then I stationed some of my servants at the gates so that no load would enter on the sabbath day. 20 Once or twice the traders and merchants of every kind of merchandise spent the night outside Jerusalem. 21 Then I [o]warned them and said to them, “Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will [p]use force against you.” From that time on they did not come on the sabbath. 22 And I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come as gatekeepers to sanctify the sabbath day. For this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness.

***

In this last section of Nehemiah, we're focusing our attention on the remaining 'broken promises' we find in the last chapter. Here we see promise number four broken - profaning the Sabbath.

We can look back when the covenant was signed that the Israelites had promised not to do business on the Sabbath (see 10:31), yet here we clearly see a broken promise, in more than one place. They were working on wine presses, putting sacks on donkeys, and they were accepting all kinds of imports. It is clear that these actions all were against the promise they had made. And so, being the leader that he is, Nehemiah not only reminds them of their covenant, but makes sure that the promise they had made would be kept. Yet I'd like to point something out to us...

Note what Nehemiah says: What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the sabbath day? Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble (17, 18). We aren't comfortable with this line of thinking...because of what we do, God brings on trouble. It messes with our philosophy of a God who only gives good and is consistently gracious to us. I sincerely hope you see that God's reaction to His children's waywardness is just as gracious as He always is (see Hebrews 12). 

The fact of the matter is, God does not mess with sin - He actually abhors it. So when it exists in His children, He brings on us trouble. To harm us? No. To teach us a lesson; to remind us of our covenant we made, not with His people, but with Himself.

In the promises we have made, are we as ready to be reprimanded and disciplined? Nehemiah is a no-nonsense leader. He acts as one who will not sway in reminding His people of their promises. As we have already looked at, he seeks to please the LORD in his actions, and expects the same of others.

If you and I have promises that we have broken, we need to do our very best to purify ourselves. I believe this concept of purifying ourselves is not 'Old Testament theology', meaning something that has been abolished by the New Covenant, but a command that we would do very well to act on today. 

Nehemiah 13:10-14 : The Final Five - Promises Broken (Part Three)

I also [f]discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been given them, so that the Levites and the singers who performed the service had [g]gone away, each to his own field. 11 So I [h]reprimanded the officials and said, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” Then I gathered them together and restored them to their posts. 12 All Judah then brought the tithe of the grain, wine and oil into the storehouses. 13 In charge of the storehouses I appointed Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and in addition to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for they were considered reliable, and it was [i]their task to distribute to their [j]kinsmen. 14 Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services.

*** 

And the story continues...and Nehemiah needs to clean house. Again.

In covenanting with the LORD, the Jews made a promise not to forsake the house of our God (see 10:39). It is clear that they had and Nehemiah not only reminded them of their promises, but replaced those in responsibility over these specific tasks. Please note what the qualification of these men were: they were considered reliable (vs. 13).

Wiersbe makes a comment on the state of these people with these words: 'If all we do is receive, then we become reservoirs, and the water can become stale and polluted. But if we both receive and give, we become like channels, and in blessing others, we bless ourselves.' The truth is, these people forgot how to give. As Wiersbe's word-picture clearly communicates - reservoirs become stale if there is no movement. But if we were to both give and receive, it is an on-going blessing for all. Picture a body of water that has both an inlet and an outlet. Or take a container that has both a place for water to flow into, but also a place for that same water to flow out. Both of these analogies clearly communicate what these people had forgotten. We don't give because we receive, to give is to receive.

It may seem like a simple lesson, but you and I know all too well that this does not naturally happen. In fact, what naturally happens is what we see in this passage of Scripture. But note we do not just forsake those around us, but we forsake the House of God. Far too often, the very people that the LORD has called us to are forsaken - and it most definitely is not because the LORD has called us to reject them.

It has been said that there are two kinds of people, the givers and the takers. The takers eat well—but the givers sleep well. May we give today as obedience to the LORD.

Nehemiah 13:4-9 : The Final Five - Promises Broken (Part Two)

Now prior to this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, being [a]related to Tobiah, had prepared a large [b]room for him, where formerly they put the grain offerings, the frankincense, the utensils and the tithes of grain, wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, the singers and the gatekeepers, and the [c]contributions for the priests. But during all this time I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had gone to the king. After some time, however, I asked leave from the king, and I came to Jerusalem and [d]learned about the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, by preparing a [e]room for him in the courts of the house of God. It was very displeasing to me, so I threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. Then I gave an order and they cleansed the rooms; and I returned there the utensils of the house of God with the grain offerings and the frankincense.

***

Here we have the second problem that Nehemiah needed to deal with. He had been away from these people as his obligation was to his king (see vs. 6) but he had returned, and what he found wasn't exactly encouraging.

Wiersbe explains to us, 'Tobiah the Ammonite (4:3) had been given a room in the temple by Eliashib the high priest (13:28). Eliashib is the first one named in the list of workers (3:1), and yet he had become a traitor. Why? Because one of his relatives was married to Sanballat’s daughter (13:28), and Sanballat and Tobiah were friends. They were all a part of the secret faction in Jerusalem that was fraternizing with the enemy (6:17–19).'

It is so easy to believe that there will always be support, encouragement and wise counsel to those that you leave in leadership, but the fact remains, unless the LORD is in every aspect of these peoples' lives (including their acquaintances), the work that was begun will slowly deteriorate. This passage reminds me very much of the scene we see in John's Gospel of Jesus clearing the Temple (see John 2:13ff). Sometimes there needs to be drastic work done to clear that which was originally meant exclusively for the LORD's use. 

Eliashib clearly did not keep his promise in doing his job and the results, though to our minds, was insignificant, to Nehemiah's, this was catastrophic. This room was clearly meant for grain offerings, the frankincense, the utensils and the tithes of grain, wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, the singers and the gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests, but Eliashib thought better of it and chose a different purpose; abusing both his power and his responsibility to these things that were under his control. So Nehemiah reacts and 'cleans house'. Drastic? Out of character? Sinful anger? I don't think so.

This is a very good lesson for leaders here. Nehemiah, risking the response of those around him, chose to stick to what the original plan of the LORD was, even regarding where things were stored. Too petty? Extreme? I don't think so. This, my friends, is what you call an argument of principle - and Nehemiah was not going to bend on what was clearly a principle directed by the LORD.

The issue that remains for us is how do we handle when seemingly 'unimportant' things come up. Do we risk the split of a church over the seemingly harmful choices of others or do we stand on God's truth and remain faithful to Him? 

The choice is ours. I believe Nehemiah made the right choice.

Nehemiah 13:1-3 : The Final Five - Promises Broken (Part One)

On that day they read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and there was found
written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the sons of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. So when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel.

***

We now come to the final chapter of Nehemiah. Some would say that it doesn't end well...but that's not my conclusion. I choose to see this as a realistic conclusion. I have said from the outset of this study that Nehemiah is filled with leadership lessons and in this final chapter, we come face to face with one of the realities of leadership - people are frail. 

Nehemiah's role, in the beginning, was to assist in re-building the Jerusalem wall. As we continued to walk through this book together, we began to discover that his role was far, far more than just managing a wall re-building. Once the wall was built, it was clear that there needed to be some re-building done in peoples' hearts. May I say that that job never finishes. This might sound discouraging to leaders, or those who desire this position, but I simply reflect on my own heart and know that I am prone to wander. We all need help, straightening out our paths, in order to follow the LORD better. 

The Final Five - Broken Promises refers to the four problems that Nehemiah was faced with. We will look at each one individually and finish this amazing book on this note. Chapter 13 reminds us that people are frail and need guidance. Nehemiah was willing to be that guidance and was also ready to remind the people of the promises that they made. A sign of a great leader is to hold people accountable for what they set out to do. In this final chapter, we see a straightening out, again, and a re-building for the cause of the LORD's fame.

Wiersbe entitles this section 'The mixed multitude'. He writes, 'According to Nehemiah 10:28–29, the Jews had willingly separated themselves from the people of the land and united with their Jewish brothers and sisters to obey the law and walk in the way of the Lord. But apparently their separation was incomplete, or some of the people formed new alliances, for they discovered that there were Ammonites and Moabites in their congregation, and this was contrary to the law of Moses (Deut. 23:3–4)'.

It may be difficult for us today to see the need for this 'separation'. But truth be told, it was a command by the Law of Moses, and to disobey this Law was to disobey the LORD. Put into our 21st century mindset, it is allowing the world and it's ways to effect the ways of the church body. I realise this is a very sensitive topic in our world of building churches today, but I do believe we need to draw a line. From the order of worship services to the counsel we provide, we need to be immersed in the Word of God and not slide on direct commands of the LORD. The hard part of all of this is, is that many in our world today are living outside the boundaries of what is clearly commanded to do or not to do - and this 'wishy-washy' lifestyle is coming into our churches. The answer is staying on our commitments we have made. Wiersbe explains, ' If we understand the times, we can relate to people more easily and apply the Word with greater skill, but we must not imitate the world in order to try to witness to the world.' The key is seek to understand, not to imitate - this is a very fine line sometimes, but we do know what the line is, if we are walking in the Spirit. He will reveal to us where we can 'bend' and where we need to stand on the commitment the LORD has called us to - namely, the Word of God. Please note the key is understanding. And how do we do that? By walking along-side people outside the Church.

I once read somewhere that the doors of the Church are open, not for people to come in, but for those within the Church to go out. As you can see, this is a big difference. It is on us to go, as we have been commanded to (see Matt. 28:16-20) we must keep the Truth in our hearts and be ready to speak truth in Love (see 1 Cor. 13), but we must go as it has been commanded of us to go - anything else is disobedience.