The Ephesian believers wept as Paul departed because they knew they would not see him alive again. But Paul encouraged them and reminded them that it is all worth it when you live for what is right. Paul’s words to them also give us inspiration: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” It is so good to reflect on the life and words of Jesus; He gives proper perspective in the face of trials. I’m glad that Luke, who had been traveling with Paul and penned Acts, took the time to jot down this quote of Jesus. It gives us another thing to ponder about Jesus along with all that had already been written about Him by Luke and the other three Gospel writers. All the books in the world could not contain the full life of Jesus. Paul made other encouraging visits along the way, and then he pressed on to Jerusalem. Do we believe it is more blessed to give than to receive? Our actions will testify to our beliefs. When we bless those who cannot pay us back, we are choosing to live out the teachings of Jesus during our lifetime. There are so many ways to help the weak. How does Jesus want to use us today?
Back in 490 B.C., Greece came under serious attack by the Persian Empire and a great runner named Phidippides saved the day in the thriving influential city of Athens. Long story made short, the outcome also gave birth to the first marathon. About 550 years later, Paul was about to set sail from that part of the world, carrying a financial gift for the needy in Jerusalem. When he learned that the Jewish religious leaders in Syria were plotting to take his life he took the long way around. Instead of sailing the direct route he was able to reconnect with believers at various places along the coast of the Aegean Sea. As Paul trekked great distances, he strengthened and challenged new Christians with his teachings. Knowing the danger ahead of him, Paul shared with his Ephesian friends who met him along the way: “But none of these things move me; neither do I esteem my life dear to myself, if only I may finish my course with joy and the ministry which I have obtained from [which was entrusted to me by] the Lord Jesus, faithfully to attest to the good news (Gospel) of God’s grace (His unmerited favor, spiritual blessing, and mercy).”
Phidippides ran his course and Athens was saved. I wonder if Paul thought about him as he pressed on with his course. Scottish athlete and devoted missionary to China Eric Liddell once said, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast! And when I run I feel His pleasure.” God did not make me fast, but I sure do feel His pleasure when I run. I had been running for over twenty-five years when I ran my first and (to date) only marathon in northern Thailand. The center of Chiang Mai’s ancient walled city was lit with lanterns and the minty smell of muscle cream filled the cool air. The stillness was broken by a sound like distant thunder: running shoes hitting the road. It was the start of my forty-two-kilometer course and excitement surged through all that was me. My feet went forward as the sun rose and God brought people to my mind to pray for as I ran. Family and friends cheered me on and I thought about how God’s Word says we are to encourage one another to run the good race. I felt God’s pleasure in a breeze and smiled, remembering Eric Liddell and how he faithfully lived his life. When the run became hard, Isaiah came alongside me, helping me keep pace. Sophie carried my iPod shuffle when that burden became too great for me to bear. Knowing the end was near, Russell joined us on the brick road calling out cadence to finish strong. Hannah’s finish-line hug began the celebration; I had completed the race!
God, we all have different races to run and I pray that each of us would be strengthened by You to finish our course with joy. This takes intentional focus on You no matter what challenges lie ahead of us. May our story be faithful to Your Story as we live out the life You have blessed us with. Amen.
Evangelistic tour number three is about to begin for Paul, but he is not the only one going forth to share the good news. In Ephesus, after getting some training from Paul’s colleagues, Priscilla and Aquila, a Jew named Apollos chose to take the message of hope to the Achaia province. Before he left, his Ephesian friends gave their blessing and wrote a letter of recommendation for him, urging the disciples there to welcome him with open arms. The welcome paid off: Apollos turned out to be a great help to those who had become believers through God’s immense generosity. He was particularly effective in public debate with the Jews as he brought out proof after convincing proof from the Scriptures that Jesus was in fact God’s Messiah.
A letter of recommendation may help open the door, but it takes faithful work to keep us employed! Just where is it in your life that God wants you to work for Him? No one can do everything, but every one of us can do something. May the many examples throughout the Book of Acts inspire us to get involved and do what we can to enlarge the Kingdom of God. Sometimes this takes some training – actually, it almost always takes some kind of new training. So embrace the opportunities that come your way to grow and to give of yourself. Has God been generous to you? Apollos turned out to be a great help. We each can be a great help too.
For many new Christians (most of whom at this time had Jewish backgrounds), it was no small thing to see non-Jewish people being brought into God’s Kingdom through faith in Jesus. Gentiles were thought of as “other”, and some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem wanted the new Gentile converts to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses. They considered those steps necessary to be brought into the family of God. This caused quite a stir. After a meeting and a discussion, the resolution included the truth that people are saved by the grace of Jesus regardless of heritage or culture. Two prophets, Judas and Silas, hand-carried a letter with this news to the Gentiles in Antioch and they encouraged and strengthened the recently converted believers. After spending some time there, they were sent off by the believers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them. When life is muddled at best or hostile at worst, there are few things more meaningful than the blessing of peace. May we seek to choose peace based on truth and in doing so be a blessing to others even when at first the issues may seem irreconcilable.
I’m thankful that biblical teaching was not only taught at the church we loved in Timberlake, North Carolina but something that was also practiced. Sweeping issues under the rug at home or at church is not a healthy way to go forward if our desire is real Christian maturity. But this growth is seldom without pain. Is it worth it to live having peace with God and peace with others? Peace allows the dirt under the rug to be cared for and the door to hope to open. Something that Russell and I enjoy doing, even up to this day, is returning to our own Antioch – the church family that faithfully sent us out with blessings in 1996, and supported our family as we served God in Asia. Returning is always a double blessing; we get to hear what God is doing in and through the church and also get to update our brothers and sisters with the things that God is doing in our part of His world. Each homecoming is full of joy because we treasure the same God who wants His children to live out the blessing of peace.
Paul, with Barnabas as his companion, set sail on the first of several missionary journeys. After sailing on from Crete, they were at a synagogue in Pisidia when Paul was asked to give a word of encouragement and he stood up to preach his first recorded sermon. I love how God’s Story includes lots of “firsts.” Paul began with the deliverance of their forefathers from Egypt, and continued through the history of the Jewish nation, right up to David, and then from David to Jesus, his descendant. I picture Paul pausing at this point and turning to the area where the God-fearing Greeks where gathered. In a loud voice for all to hear, Paul went on to say that God’s promise to Abraham was to bless all nations, and that this promise is fulfilled through Jesus. Since He raised Him from the dead, never to return to decay, He has spoken in this way, I will grant you the faithful covenant blessings made to David.
Paul concluded his message of hope: it is through Jesus that the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed. God’s Holy One will not see decay. People knew of King David. His life story was passed down from generation to generation and his psalms of praise to God were still being sung from the synagogue’s hymnals. Yet David died and his body did decay. It was Jesus whom God raised from the dead, never to experience decay. Jesus is our sure blessing. When our future seems uncertain, hold on to the facts, and it is a fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. That changes everything!
Remain true to the Lord. This was part of the encouragement, advice, and news that Barnabas brought from Jerusalem to the church that gathered at Antioch. The early disciples were living very full lives, sharing with others the way to have full life in Jesus. They preached and taught; they healed those in need, and miracles gave credibility to their words. As the disciples followed the teachings of Jesus, more people began to follow Jesus’ disciples. Unfortunately, this all made for some jealous religious leaders. A couple of the disciples were even imprisoned but were miraculously released by an angel. Stephen became the first Christian martyr and as persecution continued, the church scattered and yet continued to grow.
Saul was amazingly converted to Paul and joined Jesus’ team to spread the good news that there was purpose to life. Up to this point in God’s Story, the message was mainly told to the Jews. God’s plan was for all nations to be blessed, and how surprised the church in Jerusalem was to hear that Greeks too were being brought into God’s Kingdom. When the church at Jerusalem heard what had happened, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw this evidence of God’s blessing, he was filled with joy, and he encouraged the believers to stay true to the Lord. When we think about those who have faithfully shared the love of God with us, I hope it fills us with joy. It is great news to know that God’s love is for everyone; there are no exceptions. No one is too good and no one is too bad. Who will experience more of God’s love through us today? May we be encouragers like Barnabas was back in the days of the early church.
For believers it was an exciting time to live! The Christian community was unified, and people shared the things they owned and made the good news known to others. Real needs were really being met. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. Our God is great in power and generous with grace and He gives us hope and a way to authentically live life with His hope.
I love looking back to Deuteronomy 15 when God’s people were first entering the land He promised to them. We read how God so consistently desires that the poor be cared for. God’s great blessings often flow when people are living in awareness, really searching out the great God of that blessing. Today, how can we connect to God, know His blessing, and bless others who are in need of blessing? A thankful heart is a great place to start. It is best for us not to hoard God’s blessings but to allow them to flow through us. This takes practice. May we fold our hands in gratitude and open them up for godly giving and service.
Peter continued to talk to the crowd and he reminded the Jewish community of the story of Moses and the prophets and how they, the Jews, were connected to the past and how they would be blessed if they would turn from the wicked way they were living. “You are the children of those prophets, and you are included in the covenant God promised to your ancestors. For God said to Abraham, ‘Through your descendants all the families on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up his servant, Jesus, he sent him first to you people of Israel, to bless you by turning each of you back from your sinful ways.” This message that was offered up in hope earned Peter and his friend John a night in prison because the religious leaders did not want people to hear more about Jesus and His resurrection.
Who would not want to hear the good news of such a good blessing? Who would not want to be shown the way to life, especially if they were walking close to the edge of death’s cliff? God, I’m so thankful that You place people in my life to tell me and show me how to turn from my sinful ways. May this good news continue to change lives, generation after generation. At one point, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. But Jesus provided a way for reconciliation, and with a clear identity, Peter courageously invited others into the covenant that You offered way back in the lifetime of Abraham. God, may we live bravely for You. Amen.
The Story does not end here! Soon after Jesus returned to His Father, His apprentices began the good work of spreading the good news about Him. Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles as a historical record of how the Holy Spirit worked within the new and growing church. Peter preached on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem and many people called on the name of the Lord to save them. Believers were baptized and the community was filled with great joy and deep caring. A crowd formed when Peter healed a crippled beggar and then Peter explained that this miraculous power came from God alone. He took the opportunity to tell the gathering Jews about Jesus and their need for Him. “Now it’s time to change your ways! Turn to face God so he can wipe away your sins, pour out showers of blessing to refresh you, and send you the Messiah he prepared for you, namely, Jesus.”
Oh, that we too would fully trust Jesus, and in doing so receive a fresh shower of blessings in our lives. Thai New Year festivities take place in mid-April each year and last about a week. The highlight for most people is a mobile, full-scale, water soaking party. Our first water splashing celebration was a lot of fun with our new Thai neighbors. It was a hot day, so riding around Chiang Mai’s ancient moat in the back of a pick-up truck, splashing water and being splashed, felt good. Then it started to rain. Smiling, I told my neighbor Khun Ploi that God was water splashing with us too. Then with my limited Thai, I continued to build on what I had been sharing with her about Jesus being the way to God. I’m so thankful for God who cares for us and He indeed provides blessings that shower down in a multitude of ways. May the Thai people embrace Jesus and experience the refreshment that comes from all sin being wiped away.