Faith Comes First

It was prayer time, and Peter and John were doing what they usually did.

It was prayer time, and the lame man was doing what he usually did.

They were going to pray. He was going to beg. No one expected anything out of the ordinary. Isn’t that how it often feels when God begins to work?

Acts 3:1-10.

When the lame man saw Peter and John passing through the Beautiful Gate, he asked them for money, just like he did everyone else. I imagine there was a blank look in his eyes, like the injured mother with a baby I once passed on a street in South Africa, her sore leg blocking the sidewalk so I couldn’t help but stop. The lame man looked at them but didn’t see them as people. They didn’t look at him. That’s how we interact with beggars, isn’t it? Within a second, the lame man had already shifted his absent gaze on to the next group of people, asking out of habit far more than expectation.

But then Peter and John stopped. They looked the man directly in the eye, and they asked him to return their gaze. Now this was unexpected.

Did Peter know what he was
going to say before he stopped?

Did Peter know what he has going to say when he stopped there at the gate? Did he actually see the lame man afar off and begin praying/thinking about what to do? I think the Holy Spirit must have compelled him to stop and speak because his words are so bold.

Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.  –Peter in Acts 3:6

Stand up and walk.

Here’s the thing: Peter hadn’t healed anyone since Jesus sent the twelve out into the towns of Israel (Matthew 10), and we don’t have any documentation of what actually happened during that time. Sure, he’d been with Jesus when Jesus healed, starting with his own mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31). Sure, he’d walked on water when Jesus told him to step out of the boat (Matthew 14:22-33). But Peter himself hadn’t healed since long before Jesus left. There was significant risk in speaking aloud.

Was Peter’s voice shaky?

Was he even a little doubtful?

Did he hesitate before that last word…before he said, “walk”?

His confidence in Jesus’ power and the Holy Spirit’s work was growing exponentially. Still, I wonder if he took a deep breath before speaking. I would have.

If Peter hadn’t spoken, the miracle wouldn’t have happened. Peter had faith first. He believed God would work through him before he knew it as fact.

But that’s not all. Take a look at the next verse.

Taking him by the right hand, [Peter] helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong.  –Acts 3:7

Note the order of events. The lame man took Peter’s hand, then he started standing up, then his feet and ankles were strengthened. Do you see it?

He made the effort to stand
after a lifetime of not standing.

The man had to believe first. He had to grasp Peter’s hand and make the effort to stand…after a lifetime of not standing. He could have been skeptical. He could have demanded evidence of the miracle before he acted on it. He could have sat there, saying, “I don’t feel any different.”

But he didn’t. He had faith first. He believed Jesus, through Peter, was healing him before he felt the muscles growing in his legs.

Clearly, Peter had taken on the authority the gospels show so often in Jesus…that attitude which drew everyone around to believe Him even before they saw miracles. Okay, not everyone, but remember the lepers who left Jesus to report to the temple, then on the way were healed (Luke 17:11-19)?

Maybe even Peter was surprised by the authority in his voice and the immediacy of the miracle.

Faith comes first.

Faith is believing what we do not see, and the reward for this kind of faith is to see what we believe. –Saint Augustine (quoted in Streams in the Desert July 24)

When the writer of Hebrews contemplated examples of faith through the ages, he (or she!) said,

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.  –Hebrews 11:1

Confidence…assurance…unbounded by sight.

Because we fundamentally trust
God, we can act on unproven faith.

This verse applies to the big things, like our assurance of a Heaven we haven’t seen, but it also applies to the small things, like speaking a truth you can’t yet touch, like sharing your story with that wayward teenager. Honestly, sometimes the big, far away things are easier. Yet, because we fundamentally trust God, we can act on unproven faith…faith that will be proven in the next ten seconds or ten minutes, not just faith that’s proven at our deaths.*

I’m not talking about some kind of name-it-claim-it gospel here. I’m talking about heeding the Holy Spirit even when you have no logical basis for it, about trusting that God will act in a situation to which He has specifically drawn you. It doesn’t matter which side of the situation you are on.

Peter opened his mouth and commanded a healing into existence.

The lame man began trying to stand before he could see or feel any difference in his legs.

There aren’t a whole lot of miracles anymore. I wonder if part of the reason is because we don’t let faith come first.

Prayer time on a random day of the week, and three guys were just doing what they usually did. Until God did something extraordinary in and through them. My #faithinGod is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you been there? Have you had no certainty of an outcome, but God provided or created one? Want to share that story with us in the comments? Want to say something else? I always like to hear from my readers, and I respond to every comment!

*You’ll see this same idea in Jesus and Martha’s conversation near Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:23-26). Jesus is the resurrection for that moment, not just for the end times. More about this in Dwell: Mary, Martha & Lazarus.

Related: Faith is in the Gap*

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The Ten Days Between: Betrayal and Belonging

The remaining eleven must have felt betrayed. Judas had walked alongside the disciples, slept on the ground near them, shared big bowls of soup with them, and so much more. Then he turned his back on them—not just on Jesus and the other eleven, but on the 120 who had followed Jesus for most of the last three years. He betrayed them all.

How long had Judas deceived them? How long had he plotted, snuck off, smiled through his hate? (That scene where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet comes to mind.) Not only was Jesus gone, but this band of brothers had a missing link…a powder keg in their midst that had exploded, almost destroying them all.

He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.  –Acts 1:17

Acts 1:12-22.

Long-time readers know I like those moments between the big moments, those times when it feels like nothing is happening, when waiting is the work. This is one of those moments. Jesus has gone to Heaven (Acts 1:9), Pentecost is still a few days away (Acts 2:1-4), and the apostles are waiting in Jerusalem, as Jesus instructed (Acts 1:4-5).

Peter is not good at waiting. Remember those days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension? Peter decided to go fishing (John 21). I think he went because he was restless, needing to do something besides wait.

Ten days is a long time for someone
like Peter to sit around and wait.

There were ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost. That’s a long time for someone like Peter to wait. Maybe he spends his days searching the scriptures. Maybe he drums his fingers on the windowsill and sighs a lot. Maybe he feels an obligation, being (probably) the oldest, to lead the group forward.

At some point in the ten days, all 120 are together in the upper room where they are staying. He has a couple of verses from Psalms on his mind—verses that point him toward an action, a decision. They need to choose a replacement for Judas, putting his betrayal to bed (so to speak). But let’s step back for a second.

Regarding Judas, there was a distinct sense of betrayal among the disciples, and in some ways, I’m sure they mourned Judas’ desertion and death. But there was also a new sense of belonging to a particular place in history. For over 400 years prior to Jesus’ birth, God had been silent toward his people. No prophets and no prophecy. No miracles. No amazing victories in battle. The Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings (what we call the Old Testament) must have felt ancient…like we might feel in a long-deserted antebellum mansion.

The Apostles have a distinct place
where they belong in God’s history.

Then Peter begins to see connections. Believing Jesus is the Messiah, he reads these ancient texts differently. He discovers verses—instructions, really—that pertain to him, to this moment, to the lives they will live moving forward. Peter, John, and the rest of the apostles have a distinct place in history! Their lives connect to prophecies made hundreds of years earlier. They belong.

A couple of observations here. (We won’t even talk about choosing Matthias today.)

It’s natural to focus on the present and what’s happening around us, but God has a bigger plan. We are not part of prophecy in the specific ways the disciples were, but we’re still part of the plan. When things get heavy around us, when we are betrayed, when we don’t know where to step next, God is already implementing His plan. Out waiting is part of what’s necessary for the plan to fall into place.

We cannot expect to endure the difficulties and betrayals of life without a strong foundation in God’s Word.

Peter knew a lot of Scripture already. From these first few chapters in Acts, it’s clear Peter’s knowledge of the scriptures combined with the Holy Spirit’s presence to produce understanding in Peter’s mind…and out of his mouth. His go-to phrases seem to be, “It is written” (e.g. Acts 1:20) and “[So-and-so prophet] said” (e.g. Acts 2:16, 3:22). We cannot expect to endure the difficulties and betrayals of life without a strong foundation in God’s Word. We must pack our brains full of individual verses and longer passages so the Holy Spirit can use them at the right times. The more specifically He can select a verse to bring to our minds, the more succinctly we will be directed and the more clearly we will speak truth.

I am so convicted about this. I lean heavily on the verses I learned as a child, which is well and good, but I should be continuing to learn new passages and review the older ones even though it’s harder to commit things to memory here in middle age.

Oh yeah, Peter was middle-aged too. Just one more way we’re alike even while he challenges me from two thousand years away.

What were the disciples feeling while they waited on the Holy Spirit (Acts 1)? Clearly, betrayal from Judas but also a sense of belonging to God’s history. More evidence that my #waiting is #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Has God spoken to you through his Word in a time of waiting? Do you see something else in this passage? How do you continue to memorize Scripture? My readers and I would love to hear your responses to any of these questions. Drop a note in the comments below!

When Your Ministry Falls Out the Window

Paul only had a week in Troas—not long to share everything God had placed on his heart, to encourage all the leaders, and to meet new people with whom he could share the Gospel. The week passed quickly. On Paul’s last night in the city, the church planned a special service where Paul would speak, and they would all share communion.

Paul didn’t just share a thoughtful devotion.

Acts 20:6-12.

Now I’m from the south, and I’ve heard some long-winded preachers. Very rarely do they truly have that much to say. Did I say “rarely”? In fact, only once, in my experience. Most of the time, they have a good message but lack a good editor.

Everything Paul said was
important and relevant,
but that didn’t matter.

I’m not saying Paul falls into that category. I’m sure everything he said was important and relevant. But still, as someone said, “The mind can only absorb what the behind can endure.”

Enter Eutychus.

Paul “kept on talking until midnight” (v.7). The room was packed, and the many lamps (v.8) probably also contributed to a stuffy heat. Eutychus found a good vantage point where he could catch the occasional breeze from outside. Never mind that they were three stories up.

Eutychus got drowsy.

Paul “talked on and on.” Luke’s words (v.9), not mine!

It was hot.

The hour was late.

You know what happened. Eutychus fell asleep, then he fell out the window. The impact killed him.

My mind wandered while our pastor was talking last Sunday. His sermons are less than forty minutes. It’s morning, and the air is well-conditioned. Still, I find it hard to focus. The theater-style seating is padded, and the lights are dim. A guy one row in front of me was almost snoring, head resting in his left hand!

Sometimes, it’s hard to pay attention, even when you know the message is good and relevant. Sometimes, we’re going to fall asleep in the middle of it all. Sometimes, each of us is Eutychus.

But that’s not my point, just a place where we may need to forgive ourselves.

When Paul saw what had happened to Eutychus, there’s no indication that he was insulted. (I would have been.) Paul went down to the young man’s body and wrapped himself around the him. We don’t know the details of what happened next, but God used Paul to bring Eutychus back to life (v.10).

Here’s the part that both amuses and challenges me.

Some people took Eutychus home (v.12), but Paul went back upstairs. The group observed communion, then Paul continued talking until daylight!

He preached all night, breaking only for a resurrection and a snack. Then he left for Assos.

Paul dealt with the issue
then returned to his task.

When something negative happens in our ministries, we tend to think it’s a sign that we’re doing something wrong, like maybe we need to quit. It’s difficult for us to take the event “in stride” and continue the ministry God has given us. Paul, however, dealt with the issue, then returned to his task. He needed to share as much as possible before he left town, and he didn’t let a small thing—like a guy falling out the window (!!)—stop him.

I wish we knew more about Eutychus. Did he become a strong believer, maybe even a church leader? Did he ever sit in a window again?

Paul moved on, first to Assos, then to Ephesus. We can move on, too.

Paul didn’t let a big thing like a guy falling out the window stop him from the ministry God had given him in that town. My #ministrycrisis is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you had a difficult issue arise in your ministry? How did you deal with it? Were you able to continue after it was resolved? I’d love to hear how God worked in you through such an event. Leave me a note in the comments below. You can also let me know what you think of this story or what stands out to you in Acts 20.

Generosity Yields Heaps of Blessings

I don’t like other people to fill my plate. They tend to give me heaping helpings of every food, then I can’t eat it all, then I feel bad for wasting food. I know they are being generous, and maybe it’s my latent control freak rearing its head…

Anyway, we have a bonus post on generosity this month. Pile heaping portions of these biblical examples onto your figurative plate and dig in! I promise I’ve kept the calories in check, but not the alliteration.

People of Judah: Heaps of Tithed Goods

2 Chronicles 31:2-10.

Hezekiah was one of the last kings of Judah. “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done” (2 Chronicles 29:2). He repaired the temple, restored the prescribed sacrifices, re-ordained the priests, and reinstituted the Passover. (Told you there was alliteration.) He also called the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding area to support the priests and Levites with their tithes. The people responded generously. They brought a tenth of everything they owned, and it took four months—four months!—to collect it all. So much came in that they had to pile everything into heaps in and around the temple (2 Chronicles 31:6). When Hezekiah saw all those heaps, he praised God and asked the priests what was going on. Azariah replied,

Since the people began to bring their contributions to the temple of the Lord, we have had enough to eat and plenty to spare, because the Lord has blessed his people, and this great amount is left over.  –2 Chronicles 31:10

Enough and plenty to spare

The Lord has blessed his people

Imagine the heaps: bread, casks of olive oil, jugs of wine, other crops such as squash and beans, plus the corrals of various animals. Imagine the priests weaving their way between the piles as they go out into the city, the cook coming out for another cask of oil. Seems funny to me.

God used the generosity of
his people to take care of
His ordained.

But more importantly, we see that God used the generosity of His people to take care of His ordained. Those who serve in our churches and other ministries can depend on God’s plan. Those who aren’t “on staff” can respond to the Spirit’s prompting to bless the pastors and ministers.

I wonder what my pastor would say if he found a heap of vegetables outside the church’s front door this Sunday.

Cornelius: Heaps of Unclean Animals on a Sheet

Acts 10:1-48.

In the book of Acts, God has a pattern of connecting God-fearing non-Jews with apostles and disciples (e.g. Philip and the Ethiopian in Acts 8:26-40). One such man was Cornelius, a Centurion in the Italian Regiment of the Roman army—a clear-cut Gentile. He lived in Caesarea, where everyone knew he was faithful to the God of the Jews and generous with all those in need (Acts 10:2). God responded to Cornelius’ generosity by setting up a meeting between him and Peter. Remember Peter’s vision of the unclean animals on a sheet (Acts 10:9-23)? That was this situation. In the end, everyone in Cornelius’ household believed in Jesus, received the Holy Spirit, and was baptized!

God blessed Cornelius in
response to his generosity.

Cornelius wasn’t expecting anything from God. He wasn’t giving in order to get to Heaven. He just did what he knew was right. He discovered God’s heart almost by accident, unlike the Pharisees, who tried so hard and yet missed the point (see Luke 11:41).

God responded to Cornelius’ generosity and blessed him with eternal life.

Publius and the Maltese: Heaps of Hospitality

Acts 27:1-28:10.

God blessed those who were
generous to His followers.

Toward the end of Acts, we find Paul on a ship headed for Rome. The ship was caught in a big storm, Paul had an I-told-you-so moment (Acts 27:21), and the ship wrecked on Malta. Not only were the people “unusually” kind (Acts 28:2), but also Publius, the chief official on Malta, showed “generous hospitality” (Acts 28:7) to Paul and the other shipwreck victims. Publius’ father was sick, so Paul prayed for him and laid hands on him. God responded by healing Publius’ father and, later, all the sick people on the island.

Publius wasn’t looking for a healing when he took Paul and the others into his home, but God responded to his generosity by using Paul to heal. God blessed those who were generous toward His followers.

Wealthy Landowner: Heaps of Indignation

Matthew 20:1-16.

Jesus famously told a story about a wealthy landowner who recruited workers throughout the day. When it came time to distribute the day’s wages, he gave the late-arrivals the same amount as those who had worked all day. The all-day workers were incensed! They grumbled and said, “These who were hired last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (Matthew 20:12).

I, in my right-wrong, merit-based, justice-driven worldview, tend to agree with those workers. The all-day workers had done more work, so they deserved more pay. Perhaps the late-arrivals were even lazy or shiftless.But they had contracted with the landowner to work all day for one denarius, and he gave them one denarius—the same money Roman soldiers made in a day (NIV Study Bible notes). As unfair as it may feel, he didn’t cheat the all-day guys.

Generosity must be based
on what is needed, not
what is deserved.

We must turn our perspective upside down to understand what’s going on here. The landowner gave the workers what they needed, not what they deserved. Those who worked for only one hour needed to feed their families just as much as those who worked all day. This landowner met the needs of his community rather than judging who deserved to be paid and who didn’t.* Maybe that’s why God gave him wealth in the first place.

“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”  –Matthew 20:15

Here I find one of the biggest challenges to my efforts at generosity. I want to give only to those I judge deserving, those who work hard, or those I somehow deem trustworthy. In this parable, Jesus shows our generosity isn’t about what others deserve. It’s about what the other person needs, and I don’t decide what others need. I must simply respond to the Holy Spirit as He prompts me to give.

To bring it all together, when I respond with generosity as He prompts, I can trust He will bless me with what I need. Heaps of generosity lead to heaps of blessing.

4 biblical examples of generosity and blessing: it all piled up in heaps. Because my #generosity is #NotAboutMe, from @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Going back to our image of a heaping plate, I would love to know which point you need to “chew on” for awhile. Or maybe it’s time for the next course, if you have any room left. Can you think of another biblical example of generosity? (Not Zacchaeus—I did that one last month.) Encourage us all by responding in the comments below!

*I am indebted to Amy Jill-Levine, in Short Stories by Jesus, for opening my eyes to the landowner’s point-of-view.

Juxtaposition

A wealthy, powerful Roman military man in a large city (Capernaum) and a poor, helpless Jewish widow outside a small town (Nain). What could these two have in common? Luke 7

An influential synagogue leader with everything to lose and a broken woman who had already lost everything. How could they share a story? Luke 8

A ritually pure home where Pharisees gathered and the home of a wealthy but despised tax collector where prostitutes and other sinners found a seat. How could the same man be comfortable in both? Luke 5 Continue reading

Paul’s Inauspicious Beginning

We all know the dramatic story of Saul’s conversation on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and how he went from persecuting Christians to being principal among them and, most would say, the first cross-cultural missionary. No doubt, his calling was clear and certain.

Paul didn’t tell any
of the leading Christians
for a long time.

But here’s something really interesting. Paul talks about it in Galatians 1. He describes his conversion and what a complete change it made in him. Immediately, he began sharing with anyone who would listen in the Damascus synagogues, causing a major uproar! But even though his conversion was so phenomenal and he knew he was called to reach the Gentiles, he didn’t tell any of the leading Christians for a long time. In fact, after a few days in Damascus, he went away from the seat of Christianity (Acts 9:19-22, Galatians 1:11-17). Doesn’t that seem backward to you? Shouldn’t he go tell the leadership team in Jerusalem? Shouldn’t he start right away? But look at the next few verses:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. … Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. -Galatians 1:18-19, 21-22

I bet you’ve never heard a sermon preached from these verses. I haven’t. But there’s some real wisdom here for those of us called to something public. I’m talking to you, writers and speakers!

Three Years

Three years he remained anonymous. God called him to share Christ with the Gentiles—a totally new thing—but Paul waited three years. Jesus Himself (!!) appeared to Saul/Paul after His ascension, and yet Paul didn’t write a book, hire an agent, or start a speaking tour. He didn’t even start building a platform. (My writer friends will understand that one.) He went off by himself. So maybe he needed a little space to digest what happened on the way to Damascus and to reflect on this radical new perspective. Or maybe he realized the wounds he had previously inflicted on Christians were just too fresh. We don’t actually know why Paul went away or what he did for those three years, but I think he sought solitude because there was so much he had to unlearn from his days as a Pharisee. He knew he wasn’t spiritually mature enough to lead anything.

Get Acquainted

Finally, Paul thought himself ready to begin his ministry. So he printed some business cards, then he scheduled a social media blast and recruited a street team. He worked his connections to get a speaking engagement in a mid-size auditorium. Wait, what? He didn’t do any of that. He quietly entered Jerusalem and tried to connect with a disciple or two, but they were still afraid, even after three years! Finally, Barnabas convinced Peter to meet Paul, and Paul stayed with him for a couple of weeks. Peter was an experienced preacher and minister, a man who knew Jesus personally and who understood what “go ye therefore” (Matthew 28:19 KJV) really meant. In other words, Paul found a mentor.

Saw None of the Others

During those fifteen days with Cephas/Peter, Paul shared his faith all over Jerusalem, but he never met any of the other original disciples (Acts 9:28, Galatians 1:19). He wasn’t interested in networking with people who would further his career. In fact, I bet the only reason he saw James was because James just dropped by Peter’s house one day while Paul was there.

Personally Unknown

After those fifteen precious days with Peter, Paul went home to Tarsus. (Galatians says the more general Syria and Cilicia, but Acts 9:30 specifies Tarsus.) Jesus knew a prophet is never honored in his own country (John 4:44); it’s almost a proverb. On top of that, Paul didn’t know any of the believers in that region (Galatians 1:22). It wasn’t a logical destination for him. And yet, God began to give him an audience there—in an unlikely place at an unlikely time.

To summarize (in present tense), Jesus gives Paul an assignment. Three years later, he gets a couple of introductions, frightens a bunch of believers, then goes where no one knows him. He is not famous or popular. Not an auspicious beginning to such a profound calling.

I wonder if Paul expected more. I wonder if he was frustrated with the length of time in Arabia and the lack of recognition in Judea. I would have been. Would you?

Sometimes we have to
“grow into” our calling.
(click to tweet)

What’s my point? Calling and the ministry it produces may not be consecutive. Sometimes we have to “grow into” our calling.

More than ten years ago, I first understood God calling me to speak and write, but at the same time, He showed me I had too much pride and too little wisdom. I doubled Paul’s three-year absence, leaving more than six years before I even began blogging. The lesson we have from Paul, which is the lesson I’m still trying to learn, is to be patient. That means…

  • Not to force the ministry, like Paul waited those three years.
  • To keep working even while we’re learning, like Paul shared in Jerusalem.
  • To find a mentor, like Paul found Peter.
  • To know some people aren’t going to “get it,” like believers were frightened by Paul.
  • To take the less-prestigious, less-popular roles and wait on God, like Paul went to Tarsus.

Personally, that means I’m trying to be satisfied with my platform, with the reach of my Twitter feed, with the many (that is, all) influential people who still don’t know me. I’ll take the opportunity in front of me even when it doesn’t seem promising. And I’ll try not to scare too many people in the process.

Paul didn’t become the best-known Christian EVER over night. Likewise, our calling takes time. (click to tweet)

How’s your calling coming along? Are you frustrated by a lack of progress? How does Paul’s example help you be patient? Write me a note in the comments so I know I’m not alone on this!

Intersection: Philip (part 3)

Philip left his exceptional work in Samaria, where lots of people were coming to faith, to walk down a road where one person would hear about Jesus.  But he didn’t know that beforehand. He simply knew he was supposed to go, so he went (Acts 8:26).

When I sat down to write about Philip a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t imagine it would blossom into three blog posts. (You can find the first two *here* and *here*.) But that’s what happens when we open the Word of God and allow the Holy Spirit to have His way in our study. I have read, studied, and taught this particular text more times than I can count; that’s why I thought it would be an easy post to write. As I started typing, however, He opened my eyes to fresh thoughts…and more thoughts…and more. I pray that you are even more blessed than I, as we jump back into Acts 8. Continue reading