Colossians 2

oday’s reading is Colossians 2.

The church at Colossae that received this letter was not started by Paul. Colossians 1:7 plainly states that the people who received this letter from Paul had received the gospel from “... Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf.” As we read yesterday in chapter 1, Paul was thankful and encouraged by the faith of these Colossians. Now, here in chapter 2, he assured them that he was “contending for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally.” Though they were not churches he had founded, Paul was concerned for their spiritual growth and health (vv. 2-4). Then, in verse 5, he wrote, “I... delight to see how disciplined you are....” That phrase, “how disciplined you are” is kind of unexpected. The rest of the verse, “and how firm your faith in Christ is,” is exactly like something we’d expect Paul to write. But what did he mean by, “how disciplined you are”?

Let’s start with the word “disciplined.” Discipline means training. When you discipline your children, you are not (or shouldn’t be) punishing them for being bad; you should be teaching them that doing wrong is harmful and doing right is better. So, when Paul said, “I... delight to see how disciplined you are” he is referring to the training they had received from Epaphras (again, 1:7). Epaphras not only told them that Christ died for their sins, he taught them what it meant to live in obedience to Christ and he expected them to show obedience to Christ in their daily decisions and lives. This was and is Christ’s goal for every Christian. He commanded his apostles to “Go make disciples” (Matt 28:19) and to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:20). Epaphras not only obeyed the “make disciples” part, he obeyed the “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” part of Matthew 28:19-20. Paul was happy to hear how these believers were growing in that way spiritually.

Still, threats to their faith were lurking around. False ideas about spirituality were gaining a hearing among the believers in Colossae. That’s why in verse 2 he said that he wanted everyone to “know the mystery of God, namely, Christ.” It’s also why he said, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” Everything they and we need spiritually is in Christ. There is no need to look to Judaism or to pagan religions. God has given us everything we need in the church. What we need to put these growth resources to work in our lives is discipline. Discipline is a form of self-control that enables a person to make progress in the Christian life. Discipline is what calls us to form daily spiritual habits--Bible reading and prayer at the least--that will nourish our faith and stimulate our growth. The fact that you’re reading this devotional probably indicates that you’ve developed the discipline of reading the scripture daily. That’s great! But, also, each believer should discipline him or herself to pray everyday, asking God to keep purifying them even more.

Grace and discipline are not enemies; instead, discipline is an expression of grace and an application of the grace we received in salvation. Without grace, we could never discipline ourselves just to become more godly but, since “all the treasure of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ” (v. 3) we can use God’s grace to teach us to be more holy and Christlike. So think about an area of your life where you need to become more holy and Chrislike. What kinds of self-discipline should you use by grace to become a godly man or woman?

Colossians 1

Today, read Colossians 1

Sorry to do this but it's been a long, exhausting day. Here's a re-run (an encore episode!) from last year's devotional series, 66in16. The original article is here

Whenever I read Paul’s descriptions of his prayers, I am struck by how different they are than the way I often pray and the way that I’ve heard most other Christians pray. Frankly, most of our prayer requests and prayers for each other are about physical illnesses and injuries or other basic life problems. While there is nothing wrong at all with praying for these things—and we should pray for them—think about them in contrast to how Paul prayed for the Colossians here in Colossians 1. First of all, he and his associates “have not stopped praying for you” (v. 9a) which is something I can’t always honestly say. Second, notice what we asking God for: “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (vv. 9b-12). In other words, his prayers were for their spiritual growth in specific areas. He wanted them to know God and be stronger in their Christian lives. Do we honestly ever pray that way for other believers?

Ephesians 6

Today’s reading is Ephesians 6.

This chapter began by continuing to specify what it meant to “walk in the way of love “ (5:2a) for children (vv. 1-3), fathers (v. 4), slaves (vv. 5-8), and masters (v. 9). The rest of the chapter encouraged believers to prepare for spiritual battle (vv. 10-20) and gave Paul’s final greetings. I want to focus on part of Paul’s instructions to slaves. In verse 6b, Paul encouraged slaves to work “as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” Then he repeated the point in verse 7 when he wrote, “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people....” These were helpful instructions to people stuck in a bad situation. Neither Paul nor the church at Ephesus had the political power to end slavery and Christ’s mission was not to reform this world’s kingdoms but to save people for his coming kingdom.+ Slavery was a fact of life in a world dominated by the Roman empire but Christians who were slaves could act differently because of their faith in Christ. Although they were in an unjust situation that they could not change, they could change their hearts toward the situation. Instead of cursing their masters, producing as little as possible, and stealing if they could get away with it, Paul urged them to think and work differently because of their faith in Christ.

Instead of doing the work slaves do reluctantly, fearful of being beaten but with little positive motivation, Paul encouraged slaves to “serve wholehearted.” That is, “Act like you want to be there doing this work.” What would motivate someone to do that? Not their human masters who may have treated them like they were animals. Instead, they should act “as if you were serving the Lord, not people....” That attitude makes work, even if it is dull or difficult, an act of worship. The master may not notice or care but God does! Verse 8 says, “because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”

Do you believe that God sees every act that you do for his glory? If you are taking care of an ill relative, mopping the floors of your employer after the work day is over, showing kindness to someone in the office who isn’t kind on their own, God sees it. Or if you’re faithfully entering data into a computer, steel into a machine, or baby food into your infant’s mouth, it matters--not because it will change the world in some way but because it is done as an act of worship from your faith in God.

If you’re facing a tough day at work today, let these words encourage you and guide you.

+Though Paul recommended freedom for slaves in 1 Cor 7:21b, Philemon 10, 15-16.

Ephesians 5

Today, read Ephesians 5.

I mentioned yesterday that God’s love is a key theme in Ephesians and that, in Christ, we live worthy of the calling by acting in love towards one another. The opening verses of today’s chapter said it directly, “ Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us....” The rest of this chapter and much of the next one specify what it means to “walk in the way of love.” There are all kinds of highly applicable commands in this passage but let’s focus on this one: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” A recent article in the Guardian, a newspaper from the United Kingdom reported dramatic increases in swear words that were used in books. Ordinarily I would link to the article, but it uses the swear words, so I’ll just link to Albert Mohler’s podcast The Briefing where I heard about this study.

Anyway, the Guardian article said that researches searched almost 1 million books written in American English and published between 1950 and 2008. During that time period, one swearword had increased in usage 678 times between 1950 and the mid-200s. Another word was used 168 times more over that time period. This is no surprise to any of us who have been alive for the last half or more of the past six decades. Our society has grown more and more comfortable using words that speak crudely of sex or of bodily functions. Many of these words are used to express a person’s anger. It seems to me that our society has more anger to express than ever before, too, which correlates with the increase in cursing.

One of the ways God calls us to “live a life of love” is to remove obscene, crude talk from our conversation. Paul said in verse 4 that these words are “out of place.” What makes them out of place? The fact that we belong to God, for one, who calls us to be holy like he is (see 3b). Furthermore, knowing Christ changes our outlook on the world and gives us the tools to be angry without sinning. But the most immediate antidote for cursing is given to us in verse 4 as well when Paul says, “...but rather thanksgiving.” You can’t be angry and thankful at the same time; one way to deal with anger biblically, then, is to pivot your thinking from the things that make you mad and want to curse to something you can give thanks for in that situation. Turn your curses, then, into opportunities to bless the Lord for the good things He has done in your life. This will help you to live a life of love, just as Christ himself did.

Ephesians 4

Today’s reading is Ephesians 4.

God’s love is a key theme in this book of Ephesians:

  • God predestined us in love (1:3b-4a).
  • God made us alive in Christ because of his great love for us (2:4-5).
  • God wants us to be rooted and established in his love (3:17)
  • God wants us to know his love, even though it surpasses knowledge (3:19).

Here in Ephesians 4, these truths about God’s love were applied. In verse 1 Paul urged believers “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” That “calling” is the calling to know and love God, to receive the gift of salvation by grace in Christ as we see in Ephesians 1:18b-19: “the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”

Having described that calling in Ephesians 1-3, Paul now urged the believers in 4:1 to “live a life worthy of the calling....” How do you do that? The rest of chapter 4 lays it out:

  • “be humble and gentle” (v. 2a).
  • “be patient, bearing with one another in love” (v. 2b).
  • “keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (v. 3)
  • Grow in spiritual maturity through the gift of the church and its leaders (vv. 7-16).
  • Put off the old self (vv. 17-22) and put on the new self (vv. 23-32).

I noted at the beginning of today’s devotional that “God’s love is a key theme” in Ephesians and I reviewed the key passages that mention God’s love. Look now in today’s chapter at all the ways “love” is intertwined with living “a life worthy of the calling” :

  • v. 2: “bearing with one another in love
  • v. 14: “speaking the truth ”in love”
  • v. 16: “the whole body...”builds itself up in love

A big part of “living up to the calling” is living a life of love. Just as God loved us and called us to faith, now we live out that faith by loving one another in the church. We bear with each other, speak the truth, and build each other in the body up “in love.”

In our church, who do you find it hard to put up with (v. 2)? (Don’t leave the name in the comments, please!) Living according to God’s loving call in your life means putting up with that person.

In our church, who do you need to speak truth to “in love” (v. 14)? Taking on that difficult conversation in a loving way, speaking the truth for that person’s good rather than avoiding the real issues is how you live according to the loving call God extended to us.

In our church, who do you need to “build up in love”? Who is hurting? Who is missing our worship gatherings? Who needs to learn some life or ministry skills that you could teach them? Building them up in love is how we live according to God’s gracious, loving call in our lives. Just as God loved us when we were unlovely, we should bear with the unlovely “in love.” Just as God spoke truth to us through the gospel, we should speak the truth “in love” to others around us. Just as God is building godliness in us (v. 24b), we should build up each other in godliness because we love God and his people.

These are some of the loving ways we can live a life worthy of who God--in love--has called us to be in Christ.

Ephesians 3

Today’s reading is Ephesians 3.

This chapter begins strangely. Paul started one sentence, “For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” in verse 1, then began a different thought in verse 2. The thought that Paul broke off in verse 1 is resumed in verse 14. You can see that in the similar language: “For this reason, I Paul...” (v. 1) and “For this reason I kneel before the Father....” (v. 14). In between these two verses Paul set forth his unique qualifications (v. 4: “my insight”) to describe God’s revealed plan in Christ. That plan is “that the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body...” (v. 6). God revealed this plan to Paul (vv. 2-6) and commissioned him particularly to announce and explain the aspect of this plan that involved us Gentiles (vv. 7-11).

Having laid all that ground work, Paul taught that our salvation by Christ allow us to “approach God with freedom and confidence.” After a brief word instructing the Ephesians not to worry about Paul’s imprisonment (v. 13), Paul described for the Ephesians how he prayed for them in verses 14-19. His prayer was that they would be strengthened spiritually by God’s power (v. 16). Specifically, he wanted them to know Christ by faith (v. 17) and go much deeper in love. Notice how love is mentioned in verse 17, verses 18, and verse 19. Christ’s love is what establishes us (v. 17b). Christ’s love for us is immense (“how wide and longs and high and deep”) so we need God’s help to grasp it. It is so great that it “surpasses knowledge” yet God wants us “to know this love” (v. 19a). The result of knowing and growing in Christ’s love is that we will “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

  • If we know how much God loves us, we will believe that sin will damage us.
  • If we know how much God loves us, we will believe that obedience, not sin, will bring joy to our lives.
  • If we know how much God loves us, we will believe that he allows bad stuff into our lives for our good not to cause us pain.
  • If we know how much God loves us, we will not fear what people think of us.
  • If we know how much God loves us, we will want to share his love with other people, even those we think are unlovely.

I’m sure that list could go on and on. God wants you to be holy, he wants you to believe his word, he wants you to live a generous, giving life, he wants you to spread the gospel and live for eternity. But the key that unlocks all these (and other) great Christian truths is the knowledge that God loves you. So, ask him to teach you how much he loves you and pray for others that they might know and grow in the knowledge of Christ’s love for them.

Ephesians 2

Today you should read Ephesians 2.

But enough about you, let’s talk about ME! This is one of my favorite chapters in all of holy scripture. That’s because it lays out so clearly and logically what God has done for us in Christ.

First, Paul described our need: we were “dead in [y]our transgressions and sins.” We were under God’s wrath by nature (v. 3b) and because we deserved his wrath for our sinful actions and lives (vv. 2-3a).

Second, he pointed us to God’s amazing nature. Despite our sin god had “great love for us” and “is rich in mercy” (both in verse 4) despite the justice we deserve for our sin. So, since we were “dead” in sins (v. 1) God “made us alive with Christ” (v. 5a) and “raised us up with Christ” (v. 6a). This refers to the spiritual life God gave to us through the gospel message. More about all this in a second....

Third, God united us with his chosen people Israel (vv. 11-22). We used to be excluded from the spiritual status the Jews (v. 12) had but now, “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Christ accomplished this reconciliation for us, using one means of salvation--the cross--for both Jews and Gentiles (v. 16b) to make us into one body (v. 16a). As a result, we are God’s children just as much as any Jewish believer is (v. 19) and Christ is building us together into a holy temple (vv. 20-22).

Getting back to verses 4-9, we learn that God has done incredible things for us in Christ. First, all that he has done for us is by grace (vv. 5, 8a). God’s grace is his favor that we don’t deserve and could never earn. Sinners though we were (and are) and unable to make our own favor with God, God just gave it to us! He gifted us new life in Christ including the faith to trust him for it (v. 8a). He also will give us an eternity where he lavish us with more gifts of grace than we can possibly imagine (v. 7). But there is a purpose to all of this: Not only does God give us this redemption for his own glory; he does it to make something great out of us. Verse 10 calls us “God’s handiwork.” He wants to make works of holy art out of our sinful lives. How does he do this? By “good works” (v. 9). As we become more holy, we live more righteous lives and do unselfish things to serve the Lord, his gospel, and his people. All of this displays the greatness of God because, on our own, we are incapable of becoming masterworks of holiness. This is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “...let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

Let’s shine God’s light through our good works today--by his grace, of course.

Ephesians 1

Today, read Ephesians 1.

When we left Paul yesterday in Acts 28, he was living in his own rented home and waiting for two years for his trial in Rome. During this house arrest, Paul wrote his “prison epistles”--Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon so this seems like an appropriate point for us to read them.

As we were reading the book of Acts, we saw that Paul spent two years in Ephesus (Acts 19:10) on his third missionary journey. At the end of that journey as Paul traveled to Jerusalem, Paul called for the elders from the Ephesian church to meet with him when he stopped in nearby in Miletus (Acts 20:17-38). I’m bringing all this up to remind you that Paul had a very personal interest and relationship with this particular church. This is why he wrote one of his prison letters to them while in Rome awaiting trial.

The mood of this chapter, Ephesians 1, is ebullient; it overflows with praise for God’s love and blessings (vv. 3-14) and thanks for the faith of the Ephesians (vv. 15-23). Although there are many truths in this chapter on which we could meditate, let’s focus on verse 13b-14, “When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

God has promised us so much in Christ but how do we know that those promises apply to us? According to verse 13b, it is because the Holy Spirit seals us. This is a way of describing God's ownership. The Spirit tells us that we belong to Christ. As we see the fruit of the Spirit growing and developing in our lives, it reassures us that we belong to Christ.

The Holy Spirit is more than our seal, though, according to this verse. He is also, "a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance...." This means that the joy he brings us in Christ, the love that we have for other believers and that they have for us, and all the other benefits the Spirit gives us are reminders, tastes of what eternity will be like. Think of the greatest worship service you've ever experienced, the kind where each song drew your heart closer to God and the message filled you with awe and love for God. I'm talking about the kind of service that made you feel sad when it ended but also made you feel excited to read the word and serve God while singing his praises. This is what eternity with Jesus will be like and the Spirit's blessing in this way is a deposit, reassuring you that you will be there to experience that eternity and giving you a preview of what it will be like.

If the Spirit is the deposit, the down payment of these good things, then when do we get the whole package of good things? According to verse 14 it will be at "the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory." "The redemption of those who are God's possession" is the return of Christ. At that time, Christ will select everyone who has the Spirit--the seal of his ownership--and he will finish his work of redemption by glorifying our bodies and sanctifying our hearts and minds fully. Then he will welcome us into the eternal worship service that never ends.

This is why you have the Holy Spirit--to remind you of all that is coming for us in Christ in eternity. So be encouraged no matter what happens today and walk in the Spirit obediently as a child of God.

Acts 28

Today, read Acts 28.

This is the end of the New Testament’s record of Paul’s ministry. Although it is the end of the record, it seems clear that it was not the end of Paul’s ministry. According to tradition, Paul won his trial in Rome (the first time) and was released. He continued traveling for the gospel until he was later captured again and executed.

We read yesterday of his shipwreck; in the early verses of this chapter, we see how God used that to demonstrate His power to the pagan people of Malta (vv. 1-10). Eventually Paul did reach Rome where he received the welcome he had hoped from the Roman believers (vv. 14-15). He was also able to live privately under house arrest (v. 16) instead of in an actual prison. This gave him the opportunities he wanted to share the gospel, starting as he always did, with the Jewish people (vv. 17-23). Notice the results of teaching the gospel in verse 24: “Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.” This is what will happen whenever any of us shares the gospel. Not everyone will respond to the gospel in faith. That’s one reason why we are hesitant to tell others about Christ--because we know many will reject it.

Here’s the thing about witnessing for Christ: many will reject the gospel message but some will believe. This was Paul’s confidence expressed in verse 28: “God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” Don’t let rejection by some in the past to the truth of Christ shut you down from telling others about Jesus. Rejection of the gospel is part of sharing the gospel but if you faithfully deliver it to others, some of them “will listen!” (v. 28b).

Acts 27

Almost done with Acts; read Acts 27 today and we’ll finish the book tomorrow.

What is there to say about this chapter of scripture?

  • It faithfully described what happened to Paul as he voyaged to Rome to stand trial.
  • It described how God communicated with Paul and through Paul to save the lives of everyone onboard the ship that was wrecked.
  • It described how Paul publicly and unashamedly gave thanks to God for the food that he and his fellow travelers ate (v. 35: “he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all”).

In terms of spiritual growth, however there is very little to be had from reading this chapter, at least on the surface.

But think a bit deeper about this. God is sovereign over all things. He called Paul to salvation and commissioned him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul faithfully did that, experiencing persecutions and hardships along the way as well as problems within the churches he started. Out of compassion for his Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ who were suffering hunger and need in Jerusalem, he led the Gentile churches to collect an offering. As he attempted to deliver that offering, he was told by prophesy again and again that he would face legal problems in Jerusalem, but he went anyway compelled by the Holy Spirit.

Once he got to Jerusalem, the prophesies were fulfilled and he was arrested. To save his life from an ambush, he was taken to Caesarea. While in Caesarea, he was not given the trial he deserved so he used his rights as a Roman citizen to get a free trip to Rome so he could stand trial there.

Now, here in Acts 27, as if being a prisoner and facing legal risk were not bad enough, Paul could not even get safe transportation to Rome. Instead, God allowed him to be transported by a ship that crashed and was destroyed by the sea (v. 40c).

How would you feel about your life and ministry if all of this happened to you? Would you feel that God was mistreating you? Would you worry that his favor was not on your work even though you were doing it in response to his commands and for his glory?

Problems and hardships are part of life. They are the result of a sin-cursed world, not a personal vendetta against you from the Almighty. God uses these trials to test and grow our faith in him, not to hurt us or push us away. Paul was realistic about the dangers around him (v. 31, 34a) but he believed God’s promises to him (vv. 23-25) and counted on those rather than the circumstances around him. Whatever you are facing in your life, it probably isn’t as terrifying or as potentially tragic as the shipwreck Paul endured but even if it is, God allowed it into your life, has a purpose for it, and will get you through it if you trust him.

Acts 26

Today we’re reading Acts 26.

Our reading from chapter 25 ended yesterday just as Paul, in prison in Caesarea, was about to speak to Festus, a Roman governor, and Agrippa, a Jewish governor / client king over the same area as Festus). Here in Acts 26 we read what Paul said to these men and their responses. Paul followed the same pattern that we’ve seen before in this speech. He simply recounted his personal testimony of salvation in Christ (vv. 1-21), then tied his experience to Old Testament prophesies (vv. 22-23) and applied all this truth to his listeners (vv. 25-29). After Paul’s speech, Festus and Agrippa agreed that Paul was being held and charged unjustly (v. 31) and could have been released (v. 32).

Verse 18 of our text today contains one of the most concise descriptions of the Christian gospel and of our mission once we become Christians: “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” Let’s unpack this powerful verse; remember that Jesus is the one speaking these words (v. 15).

  1. Paul was sent “to open their eyes.” This refers, of course, to spiritual vision. It is a way of describing one who understands the truthfulness of the gospel. This is a reference to the doctrine we call “regeneration” -- giving spiritual life to the spiritually dead. It is the only way anyone ever becomes a Christian. Unbelievers may understand the facts of the gospel but until God “opens their eyes” they will not and cannot believe it. Becoming a Christian is--first and foremost--a spiritual act that God unilaterally does for a sinner he has chosen.

  2. After a person has his or her eyes open they turn “from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.” This “turning” is the doctrine of repentance. Repentance isn’t about being sorry for sin (although some sorrow usually accompanies repentance). Repentance is about a change of mind. Once God opens a person’s eyes, that person chooses to think differently about everything spiritual--God, himself, his sin, etc. At that moment, the unbeliever is extracted “from the power of Satan” by God himself. This makes a person want to follow God and to begin following him instead of living obediently to Satan’s wicked ways.

  3. The result (“so that”) of the spiritual transformation described in verse 18a is “that they may receive forgiveness of sins.” This is the point at which the blood of Christ--his sacrifice as our substitute--is applied to the believer by God. God credits the person who believes the gospel message with the perfect obedience of Christ and he treats us as if we were actually perfectly obedient.

  4. In addition to receiving “the forgiveness of sins” Jesus gave the person described in this verse, “a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” The word “sanctified” means “set apart.” Once we receive all of this spiritual work and transformation, we then have “a place.” This refers to our new state of belonging to God and waiting for his kingdom to arrive.

  5. And how does a person become “sanctified?” Verse 18 says, “by faith in me.” Faith in God’s word about salvation “sets us apart” for Christ. Now we now belong to him and to his mission.

This is how a person becomes a Christian. It seems unlikely, but it is possible that someone reading this devotional today isn’t even a Christian . Do you believe that Jesus died for you? Have you received his free gift of eternal life? That’s a vital question, one every person needs to believe.

Acts 25

Today’s reading is Acts 25.

When we left Paul yesterday, he was languishing in prison in Caesarea for two years (24:27). Caesarea is a nice place, right on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea but, if you’re in prison, that doesn’t matter. If I had to be in prison somewhere, I ‘d rather be locked up in Miami or Hawaii than in Alaska or Minneapolis, but I’m sure prisoners in Hawaii don’t feel like they’re in paradise, even though they technically are.

Anyway, Paul was in prison there in Caesarea for two years. He was left there by Felix, a Roman government official over Judea. Felix detained Paul for two years without a trial because he was looking for a bribe from Paul (24:26) and, since he didn’t get his bribe, decided to do a favor to Paul’s Jewish opponents (24:26-27). Leaving Paul in prison without a trial was unjust but Felix was a sinful man, so I doubt he felt any guilt in his conscience about it.

The Jewish leaders asked Felix’s successor, Festus (I always think of Uncle Fester when I read his name), to send Paul back to Jerusalem from Caesarea for trial (vv. 1-3a) because they planned to kill Paul en route (v. 3b). Paul argued against a transfer back to Jerusalem and, to ensure his safety, appealed to Caesar (vv. 4ish-11). This was Paul’s right as a Roman citizen (remember Acts 22:27). King Agrippa--Herod Agrippa--was a Jewish client king over the same area as Festus, and Agrippa came with is wife to Caesarea to congratulate Fester (er... Festus) on his sweet new job (v. 13). What do a Roman governor and a Jewish “king” have to talk about? Not much besides work, so that’s what Festus and Agrippa talked about--including Paul’s case (vv. 14-21). Agrippa was intrigued so Festus set up a meet-n-greet between Agrippa and Paul (v. 22). The end of our passage today (vv. 23-27) set the table for Paul’s speech to Agrippa which we’ll read tomorrow in Acts 24.

As I mentioned in my devotional on Tuesday from Acts 23, Paul used his valuable Roman citizenship to avoid a beating by a Roman solider and to protect his life from the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Here in Acts 25, Paul used his citizenship again. This time, he used it to get a free trip to Rome where he wanted to go next anyway (Rom 15:23-33). This was a wise move; Paul creatively used what he had at his disposal to move toward the goal he wanted to reach for the glory of God. But notice this one thing: in Acts 22:28 Paul said, “I was born a citizen” of Rome. This was highly unusual for a Jewish man or anyone else who lived in a territory Rome had conquered. For Paul to be born a Roman citizen, his father must have forked over a lot of money (see 22:27) or he did some heroic act for the Roman empire that got him honored with citizenship. Either way, Paul’s Roman citizenship came to him as a gift. He did nothing to earn it; it was conferred on him at birth. The fact that Paul was able to use it for the Lord’s work shows us the importance of God’s providence. The word “providence” speaks of God’s working his will in this world without using miracles. Often God’s providence is only visible to us when we look back at events in the past. When things are happening to us in the present, we don’t necessarily see God working out his will but, if we look back at our lives, we can often see how seemingly “random” things were actually given or arranged by God to accomplish his will in us. Maybe Paul’s dad was proud to be a Roman citizen or maybe he was embarrassed about it and lost some credibility with his Pharisaic friends. Maybe as Paul was growing up he thought his Roman citizenship had very little use to him but now he could see why God gave it to Paul. I’m certain he was grateful to have that benefit when Acts 25 was happening.

Think back over your life as a Christian for a little bit. Have there been any “chance” events in your life that protected you from harm or helped you serve God or walk with Him? Think back over what God has done in you and for you. Do you see anything that happened before you were born that made you the man or woman you are now? Make a list, then thank God for his providence and how it has worked out in your life. Then determine, as Paul did, to use whatever advantages you have--be they small or insignificant or great and valuable--to the glory of God by the expansion of the gospel.

Acts 24

Today’s reading is Acts 24.

So, Paul was taken from Jerusalem to Caesarea to protect his life from a plot by his Jewish opponents at the end of yesterday’s reading in Acts 23. Five days (v. 1) after Paul arrived in Caesarea, his Jewish opponents showed up there to charge him with stirring up conflict among the Jews (vv. 2-9). Paul answered the charges against him by appealing to what actually happened and the lack of proof his opponents had for their charges (vv. 10-13). Paul skillfully wove the gospel into his defense starting in verse 14. Felix, the governor who was handling this case, punted the case to a later date (vv. 22-23).

But a few days later, Felix and his wife Drusilla set up a private meeting with Paul (vv. 24-26). This meeting allowed Paul to specifically bring the gospel to this couple. An interesting aspect of this is that Felix was a Gentile, a Roman governor, but his wife Drusilla was Jewish (v. 24b). So Paul had a mixed audience religiously when he spoke to this couple. How did he handle this opportunity? According to verse 25, “Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come....” Let’s break that down:

  • “righteousness” refers to what is right, how someone measures up to a standard. In this case, the standard is God’s perfect holiness as revealed in his Law.
  • “self-control” has to do with a person’s ability to say no to his sinful impulses and choose to do what is right instead.
  • “judgment to come” of course, refers to the fact that every person will stand before God to give an account of his or her life.

In other words, Paul spoke to Felix and Drusilla about right and wrong, about their inability to control themselves enough to do what is right, and about the fact that God would judge them individually for doing what was wrong. What was the reaction? “Felix was afraid and said, ‘That’s enough for now! You may leave...” (v. 25b). In other words, Paul’s conversation with them caused Felix to feel the conviction of sin and his need for a savior.

Unfortunately, he did not repent at Paul’s teaching and find forgiveness in Christ. But once again Paul’s approach when talking to him is instructive for us when we speak about Christ to unbelievers. Almost any point of sin is an adequate starting point for the gospel. When you are talking with an unbeliever, if they complain about an injustice in the news or about crime or about the lack of self-control they see in others or in young people, that is an opportunity to talk about Christ. Why do people dislike it when others can’t exercise self-control? Because an uncontrolled population is dangerous and difficult to live in. But what standard do unbelievers use to complain about the sins, injustices, and failures of self-control in others? They appeal to God’s standards, even though they may not know it or even may deny it. The Bible says that the law is written on the heart of every human. That means that we have an intuitive sense of right and wrong. Use that! Show them how they too fall short of the standards they apply to others and admit to them that you, too, fall short but that Jesus didn’t. This will give you the opportunity to share what Christ has done for us to deliver us from the coming judgment of God at the end of the age.

Acts 23

Today read Acts 23.

Let’s tie some threads together as we jump into Acts 23:

  • Paul was in Jerusalem. He went there to deliver the offering collected by the Gentile churches for the Jewish believers struggling in poverty.
  • Before he went there, he was told repeatedly that he would face persecution, be bound and handed over to human authorities.
  • Also before he went there, he sent a letter to the Romans expressing his desire to come to see them after his visit to Jerusalem.

At the end of Acts 22, which we read yesterday, Paul gave his personal testimony before the crowd that had rioted due to his presence in the temple. The crowd settled down and listened until Paul spoke of his commission to take the gospel to the Gentiles. At that point, the crowd called for his execution (22:22). The Roman soldiers who had arrested him (21:31-32) prepared to interrogate him which would have begun by whipping him (22:24). Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen (vv. 25b-29). At that point, the Roman commander arranged for Paul to meet with the Jewish religious ruling council called the Sanhedrin (22:30). That’s where we found Paul today in Acts 23.

As Paul addressed the Sanhedrin, his speech did not begin well (vv. 1-5) so he used his knowledge about the doctrinal conflicts between the Pharisees and Sadducees to create a division with the Sanhedrin (vv. 6-9). The Roman authorities took Paul back into protective custody (v. 10) where the Lord revealed to him that he would be going to Rome to testify for Christ (v. 11). Although it is not spelled out directly, I think this is where we learn why Paul went to Jerusalem despite the many prophesies he received about his imprisonment there. Paul had told the Romans that his desire was to come to them (Rom 15:23-33). At the end of that section in Romans, Paul asked for the believers in Rome to pray for him. Note the specifics of his request: “Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea... so that I may come to you with joy, by God’s will, and in your company be refreshed” (vv. 31-32). In Acts 22, Paul asserted his rights as a Roman citizen to protect his health and his life and, as we’ll see, he later used them to appeal to Caesar. Appealing to Caesar required a trip to Rome, so Paul used the prophesied persecution plus his rights as a Roman citizen to gain free passage to Rome where he could (eventually) meet the church there and prepare for his next missionary journey.

Luke recorded all of this so that we would see how the gospel eventually infiltrated the entire Roman world. But we can learn a lesson by example from Paul’s craftiness in this passage. He was willing to use whatever resources available to him--doctrinal division in the Sanhedrin, his Roman citizenship, whatever--to reach the goals he had set for the spread of the gospel and the glory of God. There was nothing dishonest or unethical in what Paul did; he used wisdom to make the most of the situation in front of him. His purpose was to glorify God but he did not wait around passively for God to work. Instead, he asked for believers to pray for his safety, then did what he could to wisely move toward the godly goal he had set.

Do we do this? Do we use the excuse of “waiting on God” to do nothing or do we use whatever is at our disposal to attempt things for God while asking for his blessing and protection? What kind of godly goals have you set for this year? How are you using the tools at your disposal to move toward those goals?

Acts 22

Today we’re scheduled to read Acts 22.

On Friday we read about Paul’s return to Jerusalem, his attempt to mollify the Jewish people by submitting to a Jewish purification rite, and his arrest which had been foretold repeatedly by the Holy Spirit. At the end of Acts 21, Paul asked his arrestors for a chance to speak to the crowd that had rioted. Today’s chapter, Acts 22, recorded that speech.

Given this opportunity to speak to such a large number of his fellow Jews, what did Paul say? He gave his personal testimony. He began with his background as a carefully observant Jew from the Pharisaic tradition (vv. 1-3). He moved to his persecution of Christians for their divergent beliefs (vv. 4-5). He described his conversion experience on the road to Damascus (vv. 6-13) and his commission to reach the Gentiles with the good news about Jesus (vv. 14-21).

People can reject arguments and counter them with other arguments but it is extremely difficult to argue with someone’s personal experience. The personal experience of another person is also very persuasive, one of the most persuasive forms of communication. Paul’s testimony here did not get him released, but it did give him an opportunity to witness for Christ. A straight up sermon about Jesus would have been interrupted a lot sooner, probably, than Paul’s testimony was here so this was a wise way to use the opportunity.

Do you realize how powerful your personal testimony can be when you speak to others about Christ? You don’t have to have a dramatic Damascus road-type conversion story. In fact, if you were saved as a child, your testimony might focus more on what being a Christian has meant to your life than about how much you changed from when you were an 8 year old contract killer or whatever. Let Paul’s example here encourage you to think about your testimony and write it out even to help you be prepared to share Christ when the door to speak for Jesus opens.